What is the future of scanning at home going to look like? We will explore the future of home scanning thoroughly by looking at the history of film scanning, discussing how scanners work as well as some contemporary problems with designing new scanners while providing solutions for the future.
When film became obsolete
When the digital era slowly crept into reality in the 1980’s, people started seeing the value in making digital copies of film. By the 90’s, digital cameras started appearing in the market, but in this period, digital copies of film were still far better than the dinky resolution of digital cameras of the time. The best way to create high-quality digital images was to use film as an inter-medium. Then, digital consumer cameras arrived in the early 2000s and by 2005 had mostly killed off film as an inter-medium for the home market. By 2005, with the release of the Canon 5D mk I, even the most quality-centric professional 35mm film shooters were moving away from film – and fast! By 2010 it was hard to argue for the use of film, even for those shooting medium and large format film cameras in studios. Using cameras like the Hasselblad H3D with 40 or 50MP sensors while also getting instant feedback, was simply too tempting. This is where digital sales peaked and analogue cameras were destined for the rubbish bin.
For a short golden era between about 2000 and 2010, film scanners were being updated to keep up with the increasing demands for quality in digital technology. Some of the, now, iconic scanners, like the Nikon Coolscan 9000D and the Epson v700 came out in the mid 2000s. The scanners were made for the home market, who could enjoy great quality and speed, for the time, at a very affordable price – considering the state of digital technology at the time. Then something happened…
Or rather… Nothing happened!
Stagnation of scanning technology
A decade ago, despite advances in digital technology, scanners were still able to rival digital cameras in terms of quality. Scanners like the Coolscan 9000D (2003) were able to produce files equivalent to that created with the best digital equipment of the time. Imacon (later Hasselblad Imacon) Flextight scanners offered serious competition to digital workflows, being able to keep up with the best digital medium format sensors, and providing amazing quality paired with 4×5 sheet film that was so commonly used by demanding professionals. In the mid-2000s, good quality scanners were produced and regularly upgraded. However, all good things end… By the then, no one envisioned a long term future for film and the development of scanners completely stopped. This is where we find ourselves right now, with scanning technology frozen in time around 2007.
The exemplary Epson v700 flatbed scanner, released in early 2006, evidently incorporated a successful formula as Epson flatbed scanners are still the most recommended scanners on online film forums today. Later models, like the current Epson v850, were released in the years to come but offered no significant improvements to the software, digital sensor, digital processing or optical system. Therefore, the scanners remain slow, relatively low quality and with software that is slowly becoming obsolete and unusable. When we look at the most loved and revered scanners (which have suddenly skyrocketed in price) such as the Pakon F-135 and the Nikon CoolScan 9000 ED, we see they were released in the early years of 2004 and 2003 respectively. The technology these scanners were built under is very old by today’s standards – think about your phone in 2004… With imaging technology rapidly improving and components getting cheaper, it is no wonder that people are starting to question the viability of using 15-20 year old scanners today.
Obsolescence of scanners
Some will ask – Do we really need better scanners than this? Film has stayed the same.
Scanners that worked well then, are still being used to scan the same unchanged medium: film. While film is mostly the same, the technology, consumer demands and software support have all changed massively. This leads to problems such as lack of replacement parts and service, compatibility with new operating systems, user-experience and efficiency issues in the face of “everything, right now” digital-era mentality. So while the quality is the same, the prime of these machines is long passed. The hard line will be drawn at some point, as there are no spare parts available for most scanners. All home-friendly scanners manufactured (this does not include the Froniter, which is a lab scanner) in this era incorporated linear sensors. These are sensors on motorised rails that move over the film area, scanning one pixel row at a time. This means there are a number of mechanical parts requiring maintenance, and eventually wearing out and needing replacement. Perhaps worse are the electronics. Today we would perhaps make scanner with a relatively modular ‘brain’, but the scanners at the time had highly specialised components to provide the performance they needed within the constraints of 2000s digital tech. These electronic components parts will be damaged by corrosion or fail due to other reasons like heat expansion stress. The machines are facing the same problem electronic cameras are – there are no spare parts, and the ones out there are rapidly breaking down. The only way of keeping current scanners going into the future is to scavenge parts from other machines, leaving fewer and fewer functional machines available.
Scanners are also falling behind due to technological developments in computer systems, where newer machines no longer support the old scanners. Scanners designed in the 2000’s ran on operating systems of the day, if you’re old enough, you might remember Windows XP or even Windows 98! Drivers were made for those operating systems, but most were never updated for newer systems as manufacturer support for the products ended a long time ago. Issues like changing standards for USB-connections are also a great threat. This means that scanners are increasingly difficult to run on newer computer systems – forcing consumers to use ancient dedicated computers for scanning or to use third party software (like Vuescan) that supports the scanner. The drawbacks of both these options are obvious and it is clear why this is not sustainable in the long run.
Greater demand for scanners
While scanners are failing globally, the film and scanning community is growing. A significant portion of this community is particularly interested in home scanning, increasing the demand for the dwindling supply of scanners. This scarcity inevitably leads to increased prices for scanners. A few years ago you could get a high-end scanner such as the Nikon Coolscan 9000 for a few hundred Euros, while today they sell for over 3000€. At this price, high-end cameras such as a medium format Fujifilm GFX50R or the Panasonic Lumix S1R can be bought second hand, with enough money left for an excellent lens. Scanners are becoming less reliable whilst costing more, well into the high-end camera market price!
Improved digital imaging technology
At the same time, new digital imaging technology, such as high-resolution medium format CMOS sensors with incredibly good signal to noise ratios or sensors with pixel-shifting technology such as the Sony a7R IV or the Panasonic Lumix S1R capable of an image equivalent to 200MP of resolution are being released. These are relatively expensive now, but still within the price range of high-end scanners. As these cameras make their way into the used market in the next couple of years, their prices will decrease. The jump from the digital imaging of the early 2000s to these cameras, represents a massive forward leap in digital technology spear headed and funded by camera phones and high-end consumer cameras, allowing users to get results that were previously only reserved for high-end labs with drum scanners.
Challenge of new scanners in an era of analogue revival
– Okay, but couldn’t we just make new scanners?
The massive revolution in digital cameras has not been mirrored in scanners. This is because the digital photography take over meant that there was no longer a need for scanners in the consumer market, crushing the demand for high-end scanners such as the Nikon Coolscan 9000 or the Hasselblad Flextight series. The manufacturers predicted that there would be no new film to scan and no demand for such scanning devices, therefore the investment was never made while digital cameras shot off.
Currently, we are observing a recovery in the film market with a decided resurgence in the number of analogue shooters, you probably being one of them! Despite this drastic increase in film use and demand since the all-time low of the early 2010s, it is improbable that we will see new home-scanners ever or any time soon. Unfortunately, film is unlikely to reach the kind of mass market again, where the primary mode of photography is on film.
As I will discuss in an upcoming article, manufacturing even simple products for a small market proves complicated – and film scanners are by not simple products! It is possible to create a great scanner by assembling various off the shelf parts with custom mounting and software, but it would be too expensive for the home market as the volumes are so low. When you factor in the cost RnD, marketing and sales (all required to make it available to anyone but the engineer and tinkerer), and don’t have a large number of consumers to spread the cost on, we have no chance of making an affordable, high-quality film scanner. We might see scanners like this in the future, but they will be optimised for speed and will be marketed towards labs, costing tens of thousands of Euros – not exactly in budget for the average home scanner. The lack of development in scanning technology in the last two decades demonstrates that the market is not substantial enough to justify investment into major modernisation that would take it beyond existing hardware.
Why do people even bother scanning at home?
Scanning at home is not something everyone will be doing, but for many people it is tightly interwoven with their film shooting experience. Since the inception of photography as a discipline, photographers have wanted to participate in every aspect of the craft. Not just the initial steps of composing and shooting, but the full artistic process. And why shouldn’t they! Painters do not simply make a sketch only to rely on another to complete the work in accordance with their instructions. We expect authors to produce literary works and not just a vague outlines that someone else has to finish. In the same way, many photographers desire involvement and control in as much of the process as possible. We want choice in our tools, cameras, film and lenses. Many photographers choose to develop their film at home. Most digital photographers edit their images themselves, with many of them making use of high-end printing equipment to print at home. Similarly, many analogue photographers want to scan their film at home. When you have control during the scanning process, you ultimately have more control over the final result.
The other side of home scanning is a cost saving measure. We all know that film prices and camera prices have risen dramatically in the past 5 years. A roll of the cheapest colour film is no longer 2€, but closer to 10€. This means that people are shooting less or looking for ways of making their process more economical. When I started shooting film in university, I was only able to shoot hundreds of rolls per year because I shot black and white film, developed in the kitchen of my shared flat (much to the amusement of my flatmates) and scanned everything on the university library Canon flatbed scanner (it was awful). Likewise, people are taking to scanning at home because they want to shoot more film but can’t afford to do that if they outsource the scanning process.
Saying you shoot a moderate 3 rolls per month and you pay what is, at least in my part of the world (I’m aware other regions are cheaper – I suspect they will soon follow as equipment breaks down and the old shops close), a relatively standard 12€ for scanning only (developing only is about 4-6€ here) in moderate-high resolution (we don’t want potato pictures after all). With 36 rolls per year, the cost of that scanning alone is 432€. If you are a more enthusiastic shooter, taking 100 rolls per year, that number is 1200€. If you want high-resolution TIFF files, you almost double that amount.
The final reason, is simply improved quality – lab scanners are great, but they prioritised speed, not quality. Photographers have continuously strived for improved equipment and materials. With the mass production of glass plates and later photographic emulsion coated plastic in the 20th century – what we call film today – our tools got better and more precise. We produced high quality lenses, cameras and films as well as photographic enlargers and photographic paper for darkroom printing. By the 1930’s we industrialised chemistry sufficiently such that photographers like Ansel Adams could have absolute tonal control to consistently and reproducibly create the expert prints that he is renowned for. Due to lack of consistency in photographic material, Ansel’s methodologies simply would not have been possible 70 years prior. Striving for, and benefiting from, new techniques is not something new and not something to be ashamed of.
This lands us at the situation today. We have dying scanners that also aren’t that great. At the same time, we have increased demand driving the prices of old scanners up. Labs are not for everyone (and also rely heavily on legacy equipment), and the cost is prohibitive if you shoot a lot of film. This leads me to the conclusion, that at the moment, I believe that camera scanning is the only viable alternative for the future of home scanning.
Camera Scanning – The Solution!
Camera scanning, also called DSLR scanning or digital camera scanning, is a film digitisation technique where a digital camera and close-focusing lens is used to reproduce film. In addition to these two pieces of equipment, you would also need some sort of light source and a tripod or copy stand as well as film holders or another method to keep the film flat, suspended over the light. Many users have taken to this approach and have been forced to improvise and tinker, at times creating useful and interesting setups for themselves, other times only creating frustration to themselves.
The reason camera scanning stands out as the prime solution for the future, is that it does not rely on old technology while also taking advantage of the incredible advances in digital technology over the past 15 years. At the same time, we can make supporting products that makes camera scanning easier and better – these tools are within the scope of the analogue community as they are much less complex than full-fledged scanners.
Camera scanning offers countless advantages over traditional scanning such as access to new and better digital sensors, a large second hand market for excellent high-quality camera gear, flexibility to accommodate different formats and needs, use of gear you already own, all in a compact desktop solution that costs less or the same as a same-quality dedicated scanner solution.
Cost and optimal use of camera equipment
Camera scanning really shines because the equipment is used under optimal conditions, meaning that even older equipment can deliver brilliant results. This allows users to browse the now massive second hand digital camera equipment market. Professional camera bodies, such as the Sony A7R II, that make truly wonderful scanning cameras can now be acquired for less than 1000€. While not exactly cheap, the quality you get from such a camera is absolutely spectacular. Similarly, cameras such as Sony Nex-5N or the Fujifilm X-A2, in the lower end of the market, produce fantastic results on 35mm much faster than traditional scanners, at a cost less than 200€ on the used market. The used camera market is already really good and will only get better as today’s high-end cameras get cheaper in the second-hand market. For those who are fortunate enough to already own a digital camera, it is almost certainly useable.
Camera scanning setups
Camera scanning offers a comprehensive solution for all formats. With camera scanning and the right equipment, you can scan any format of film. Unlike traditional scanning setups, you are not limited to formats that are thought to be profitable at a given point in time. You can build your setup according to your own needs by getting the right camera and film holder system. Below is a breakdown of how to get an affordable scanning setup that still delivers excellent scans for people who are just starting or for those looking for more economical options:
- Sony Nex-5: 100€
- TTartisans 40mm f/2.8 Macro: 119€
- Tripod if you have one, or CS-500 copy stand: 59€
- Film holder alternatives that include a light source can be had as low as 80€, and if you supply your own light you can get away with half that.
- FilmLab negative conversion software: 5.50€/month
This totals to about 350€. If you are already fortunate to own a camera, this is of course significantly reduced. This system can of course be upgraded over time.
Those that are interested in a prime setup can invest extra money for a more professional workflow. Below is a demonstration of how to better spend 3000€ (what you would pay for a second hand high-end scanner such as the Nikon Coolscan 9000):
- Sony a7R II: 1000€ on the used market
- Sigma 70mm f/2.8 ART Macro (one of the best scanning lenses): 350€ on the used market
- Professional-grade copy stand: 250€
- A complete and solid film holder solution with a light source: 350€
- Negative Lab Pro: about 85€
This totals to just over 2000€. Compared to getting a second-hand Coolscan, you have enough money left over from the scanner to also buy a Leica film body or a whole 3-lens setup of a professional camera like the Nikon F3. This is a no-brainer for people who are looking to invest more in a scanning workflow. The benefit of course in investing in this setup would be that you can upgrade it piece by piece as time goes by. Space is often limiting which is why camera scanning is a winning solution. With a footprint of only 40x30cm (15×12”) you can achieve a high-quality setup for formats up to 5×4 large format film. This same setup can be packed into a small suitcase or put in a drawer or box for storage.
It is a very good time to start camera scanning as many different brands are producing hardware and software that will help you get the most out of your scans. Software solutions like Negative Lab Pro, FilmLab and Grain2Pixel have completely changed the scene for negative to positive conversion. It is no longer a complicated, time consuming and manual process – it is mostly automated and takes only a few minutes per roll of film! Camera scanning is more eco-friendly than dedicated scanners as the products are generally simple enough and made from materials so that the hardware will last last a lifetime. The cameras and lenses, just like the rest of the system, have the benefit of modularity. A single failure in the system will not force you to discard the whole setup and start over. The key also lies in user replaceable and repairable parts.
Where are we at then?
With no new home scanners on the horizon we are left without an alternative – it is irrefutable that camera scanning is the future of home scanning. Camera scanning is advantageous not only due to its cost-benefits but also because it employs new digital technology and has multi-format capabilities while being adaptable to different needs. It is the combination of hardware and software solutions that make camera scanning the best desktop solution for home-scanners. Overall consumers will be much more satisfied with their results, especially considering the soul crushing amount of time spent scanning individual frames on traditional scanners.
When I started designing my own camera scanning system, I was scanning using a flatbed and had almost quit film because it was such a tedious process. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out my own setup, and definitely wasted a lot of money and time trying to get it right. Today I work (more than) full time on helping people get their camera scanning setups right, and I hope that we are making a future where photographers spend more time shooting film and less time scanning it!
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