Scanning Your Film Negatives vs. Prints: An Interesting Comparison

Scanning Negative vs Print - both side by side
The paper print and film negative of the same photograph.

When you start scanning your photographs — if you’re lucky — you get to make this choice:

Do you want to scan your original camera negatives, or the prints made from them?

And what I mean by lucky is that many of us didn’t hold onto our negatives when we had prints made from them. We got what we wanted when took them to the Photo Bug or the Photo Hut or the drug store down the street — a stack of photos to stick in our photo albums. So, I guess a lot of us probably felt safe tossing out the film negatives.

An Interesting Discovery

I just had a couple dozen photos scanned by a scanning service called BritePix here in California and I wanted to see how they handled scanning a variety of different types of photos. I sent them all different sized prints, color and black and white, some with borders and some with rounded corners, some with scratches, and many that needed lots of color correction. In addition to the prints, I also sent some negatives and slides.

When I was going through all the images when I got them back — which was really cool by the way! This was the first time I had ever sent photos to a scanning service. When I was going through them, I noticed something really interesting.

I had sent them the print as well as the original film negative to a photo I took a long time ago when I was a boy. It’s a picture of a small airplane flying over my Grandfather’s house.

I was looking at the negative version of the photo and noticed there was more of the trees showing on both the left and right side of the image than there has always been in the print I had made. It almost seemed like an entirely different photo because the viewpoint looks like I took about 6 big steps backwards in order to get a wider shot!

Image Cropping

I always knew there was more information (image detail) stored in the negatives, but until now, I had never seen any real proof that scanning the negatives might yield a lot more of the actual image that had been cropped out when it was originally printed.

Check out the two images for yourself:

Scanning Negative vs Print - House with Plane flying overhead
Paper print version
Scanning Negative vs Print - House with Plane flying overhead
Film negative version

And here’s a “side-by-side” to make it a bit easier to compare (click to enlarge):

Scanning Negative vs Print - House with Plane flying overhead

As definitive as these comparisons seemed to me, I think the next image below really shows how startling the difference is.

I loaded up the negative image into Photoshop and then using the crop tool, I highlighted the approximate area that represents the amount of the image that was captured and printed when I had this roll developed in around 1980.

This really shows how much of the image I was missing all these years!

Scanning Negative vs Print - House with Plane flying overhead - Crop Comparison
The dark area around the edge represents all of the original negative that was cropped out to produce the paper print — stunning!

I’m not making a deal out of this to make you ponder how much shrubbery you will miss out on if you have just your prints scanned! (laughing)

I think what I am getting at here is that over your whole entire collection — possibly thousands of photographs — you just might find a lot of examples like this one but with parts of the image cropped out that you actually care about!

Consider vacation panorama shots where you carefully tried to frame a couple of landmarks in on both sides of the frame. It’s possible one or even both of them were cropped out when prints were made!

Or what about tightly shot group photos. It’s also possible some of your family members were cropped or cut out entirely to make that 3 ½ x 3 ½ print.

Image Detail

And so what about image detail. You may have heard that it’s better to scan your negatives because they hold more image detail. And this is true — especially when you factor in how far printing quality has improved over the years.

Some of the techniques used in decades past to print photos don’t make the best scans. Some of them have, for example, have lots of texture — waves or bumps. When you scan them, sometimes it seems like the more image detail you try and recover, the more detail (character) of the paper stock you get instead!

This image probably isn’t the best example to show an improvement in image detail in the film negative. But that’s okay, because it can represent the average of how your photos will be affected.

But, let’s take for instance the small area of the photo with the plane. If you compare the two versions magnified, I think you will see there is a difference between the two.

Scan Negative vs Print - Airplane Magnified
Print
Scan Negative vs Print - Airplane Magnified
Negative

The film negative version just looks — well, more like a plane! It looks in focus. The edges are much sharper giving it a bit more volume.

Also, notice you can see the “wavy” texture of the paper stock in the print version.

Here are a couple more magnified areas. With these, it’s a bit harder to see the clear difference because the negative shows off a lot of grain that may distract you. But, focus on the darker areas. These areas of contrast are where the film negatives will hold more detail that usually aren’t accurately conveyed with printing technology.

Scan Negative vs Print - Print version - foliage blown up
Print
Scan Negative vs Print - Negative version - foliage blown up
Negative
Scanning Negative vs Print - Print version - window corner blown up
Print
Scanning Negative vs Print - Negative version - window corner blown up
Negative

In some cases it will cost more money to scan your film negatives. In my case, with BritePix it was a “126 negative” that costed 75¢ vs. 65¢ (USD) for the print equivalent.

But as you can see, if you are lucky enough to still have the negatives, you might see not only more image detail, but you could also see a lot more of your photograph!

What do you think? Which are you or would you like to scan — your prints or negatives?

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19 Comments on "Scanning Your Film Negatives vs. Prints: An Interesting Comparison"

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How to Speak Japanese
Guest

Have you ever tried to get scans of color slides? And if yes, did you remove the frames from them?
Anyway this was a very interesting case study and I am now off to expore more of your site.
Thanks and have a good weekend!
Y.

How to Speak Japanese
Guest

Hi Curtis,
thanks for the reply. The issue with scanning my parents slides also lies ahead of me (problably an experience like in a time machine).
One question remains: when the scanner automatically grabs the image, how much of it is cut off? As you see from your own example in the post, automatic processing doesn’t always show the full picture.
Thanks again and have a nice week.
Y.

How to Speak Japanese
Guest

Curtis,
thanks for the extensive reply.
I also shy away from opening the old frames, especially as most of them are old Kodachrome 25 slides in paper frames.
Did you discover any difficulties (e.g. regarding sharpness) when scanning slides in an old glass frame? Although the glass is very thin, it might cause problems in focusing correctly. Found a box with a few hundred glass fframed slides recently but haven’t tried a scan yet.
Y.

Art Taylor
Guest
Hi again, Your reference to http://historicphotoarchive.com/stuff/scanning.html is very helpful. There’s a page illustrating the various labels and types of slide mounts (‘containers’) used for Kodachrome slides over the decades. Just this difference in labels can be some help in dating slides to an approximate time if there is no handwritten information on the mount and nothing visible in the image to help with dating (such as licence plates on cars, dates on signs, calendars visible in the image). Finding at least approximate dates for undated photos can be a challenge and worthy of one or more posts on its own. As you discovered with your ‘126 negative’, different film formats have different sizes and often cost more to have commercially scanned than the standard ’35 mm’ slides or negatives (actual image area of each is 24 x 36 mm), because they require the use of a more expensive, medium format scanner to allow appropriate cropping. Over the years, Kodak, and often other manufacturers, produced a variety of films, many of which could be and were put into 2 inch by 2 inch slide mounts to fit standard slide projectors. There were size 127 ‘Superslides’ (about 40 x 40 mm image area in 2×2 inch mounts). These were most commonly found in commercially available souvenir slide sets at tourist destinations and have most likely faded to some extent by now. For several decades, there was 828 slide film available, including Kodachrome, which gave an image area of about 28 x 40 mm, again mounted in 2×2 slide mounts. Kodak and others produced the 126 “Instamatic” film for both slides and negatives. It had a 28 x 28 mm image area, also in 2×2 inch slide mounts. One of the last film formats to be introduced was the “Pocket Instamatic” or 110 film, again in both slide and negative versions. Its image area was about 12 x 16 mm and the slides came in either smaller mounts which worked only in special, Pocket Instamatic slide projectors from Kodak, or optionally, there were adapter mounts available into which the standard Pocket Instamatic mount could be snapped and then shown in a standard 35 mm slide projector. For illustrated samples of the various film formats, see http://www.pearsonimaging.com/articles/about/filmformats.html. Some of the less-expensive, so-called ‘slide scanners’ on the market today are actually dedicated, special-purpose digital cameras. While they are advertised as being useful for quickly digitizing your slide/negative collections (and with some models, also your 4×6 or smaller prints), they will ‘scan’ ONLY the standard 24 x 36 mm area of 35 mm slides/negatives. They will crop off any image area larger than this (Superslides, 828, 126 slides, etc.) and they will leave black borders around smaller slides or negatives. Few, if any, allow any exposure adjustment or other corrections and, in my somewhat limited experience with two different brands, post-scan adjustments are difficult at best in Lightroom or Photoshop. They seem to work best if the original is correctly exposed, with a broad range from dark shadows to light highlights. A bright sky and a mid- to dark foreground will often yield a decent exposure on the sky and a silhouette of everything else. I’ve not noticed any decrease in scanning time using one of these units instead of the Epson 2480, which yields significantly better results. Your Epson V600 will scan any of the previously mentioned slide or negative formats, as well as many of the medium formats such as 6 x 4.5, 6 x 6, 6 x 7, 6 x 9 cm slides or negatives. You may need to manually crop some formats after doing the preview. For anyone considering purchasing a scanner for slides or negatives, this is a significant factor to consider in making a selection to buy. Since scanning the original slide or negative means you are working with the first-generation image created in the camera, it will nearly always yield more visual information than scanning a print or second-generation image. Even a custom-made print, rather than an automated machine print, will lose some quality in the transition from a light-transmitting medium (positive slide or negative) to a reflective light medium such as paper, regardless of any texture introduced by the paper’s surface. The custom-print job would cost more and may or may not include all of the original image area, depending on the print aspect ratio compared to the slide/negative aspect ratio. Unless it is printed ‘full frame’, a 35 mm slide or negative will be cropped from its 2:3 ratio to 4:5 when printed on 4×5 or 8×10 standard paper. Printed full frame on 8×10 paper, it gives an image about 6.7 x 10 inches. As you discovered, machine prints often crop some of the image area, sometimes a significant portion. They also try to give ‘correct’ exposure and color balance to every print so, for example, a dramatic, colorful sunset sky with a dark foreground, will often have washed-out sky color and ‘correctly’ exposed foreground details, probably not what the photographer wanted in the photo. Also, negative to print aspect ratios are often different and will cause cropping. For these reasons, scan your slides or negatives if at all possible. NEVER discard them, even once they’ve been scanned. If you later acquire a better scanner, and as you improve your scanning skills, you may want to go back and re-scan at least some of your originals. There were several types of glass slide mounts available over the years, although they may well be hard to find to buy now with the near-universal switch to digital imaging and the discontinuance of most slide films. GEPE for decades offered a variety of image-opening sizes in two-piece, snap together 2×2 inch slide mounts. The individual slide frame was removed from the original cardboard or thin plastic mount (original mount, usually destroyed in the process, was then discarded) and the piece of film was carefully slipped under a tab on each long side of one half of the mount. The film… Read more »
Margaret Sutherland
Guest

I am a novice at all this but I really need some good advice. My house was destroyed in a fire and I salvaged a lot of slides in boxes that were soaked by the firemen’s hoses, so I had to remove the cardboard mounts to dry out the slides and they don’t lie flat now. I don’t know if they are worth printing so wanted to scan them first but didn’t know if that was possible until I read your post about glass mounts. Do you think a novice like me could use this? What kind of scanner would you recommend? Some of the slides may be scratched from the ashes and rubble they fell into when the wall collapsed so will need some doctoring. Thanks so much for your time!

Oksanna
Guest

Do you have three slides you can sacrifice for an experiment? Some people have found washing in distilled water with a mild photo flo solution useful, others found it destroyed their negatives (or slides) by separating emulsion from film. Don’t agitate and only leave for five minutes. Place in bowl with rough (not shiny side) facing up. Use plastic tongs holding film by edge only. How you hang them to dry is also crucial. Some type of clip to hold them without inducing too much sideways or lengthwise strain would be crucial. Rather than going for old style dedicated photographic film clips, I would actually give the original slide holder – or a plastic holder if the original is paper – a try. I would try one slide washing while in its holder, and another removed from its holder, then reinserted to dry, and a third neither washed nor dried in its holder, but dried with two wide bulldog file clips, hanging from one of such clips. If no method works you have lost little.

oggo loggo
Guest

When confronted with this huge task of scanning all the family photos, I think it’s important to decide how good is good enough, and not just how good can it possibly get.

I tend to get perfectionistic and spend a lot of time making it the absolute best it can be, but in reality I now I’m mostly wasting my time, because a faster way of doing it, while of lesser quality, is good enough quality.

Once it’s good enough, there is no point in making it better. Only problem is that you have to decide when it’s good enough, and be comfortable that you won’t change your mind later.

So, the question is, is it actually of any importance to get the extra part of the image, that was previously cropped away on the prints? Unless it contains some super interesting information, that revels some secret, then I don’t think there is any point in caring about it. Your family has been looking at the print for all these years, and the print is the way they remember it, had it in their albums or on the walls/shelves. Unless there’s a photo where they have been saying “I wish we could see what was just outside the edge right here”, then it’s not important.

I started scanning everything to perfection, but had to rationalize to not end up spending years on something that was never going to matter to anyone.

I have a hard time doing it though, and do end up spending time doing it perfectly anyway. I find it hard to make the choice, especially since it’s not just for myself (although I’m probably the only one to ever even notice the difference. I get the impression you know the feeling).

Jimmy Louise kroger
Guest

Thank you so much for your delightful and informative posts re: scanning. Am going to rescan many of my photos in tiff at a higher resolution instead of the original scan in JPEG. Also have loads of 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 slides as well as 35 and have a lot of 3 d slides. Can the 3-d slides be scanned…. if so, wouldn’t they loose much of the depth of field? The Epson 750 didn’t come with a 2 1/4 slide holder, only for 25 and have been unable over the years to locate one.

At what dpi do you suggest I scan the slides? Also purchase Lightroom a few months ago after Apple decided not to support I photo and Aperture. Am in the middle of my 8th decade and the thought of learning a new program makes me wonder if I’m in my right mind!

Thanks again, for your terrific information

Marilyn
Guest

I have a Mac computer and I am preparing to scan thousands of photos and film. Since all your info is at least a year old, would you now recommend the Epson Perfection V800 or V850? Also, the apple software is no longer made…would you recommend Adobe Photoshop Elements software instead? And is the V800 that much better than the V600? Thanks for all your wonderful help as I am
not a techie and I could never have considered this project without your outstanding advice.

Lou Condon
Guest

I tried the Epson Perfection V850 and the software that was included was the worst I had ever used, Silverfish I think it was. I was not alone in my opinion about this software issue also. I then returned the scanner and purchased a 9-11 light panel. $85.00
I tried using my Nikon D810 and my Zeiss 100mm F2 macro lens and a few extension tubes to make some in camera copies of old ( 35 yrs ) that I had in my portfolio. The Zeiss is a manual focus lens so I used the focus confirm to verify focus. After shooting a few I then loaded them into Lightroom and I noticed that if I posted them on Facebook they looked ok but if I really hit the 100% enlarge in LR they were not in focus. Do you think the original wasn’t 100% tack sharp or that my Zeiss lens needs to be calibrated or Fine Tuned a bit? The only other scanners I have seen that do 35mm & 120mm film run about $1200.00 to $1500.00 They are not the flatbed scanners.

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