Q&A: What’s the Best DPI or Resolution to Scan Your Film Negatives?

by | Last updated Apr 21, 2017 | Scanning Photos | 24 comments

“Hi there. Since you have and use an Epson Perfection V600 I wanted to ask you what is the optimal scan settings for scanning film negatives?

Right now I use 12800 dpi, but I have a feeling it's overkill and all my indoor night time pictures have a lot of grain. I certainly appreciate whatever advice you have to offer.”

Walter Ho

Best DPI to Scan Film Negatives graphicWalter, thanks for writing me. Let me see if I can help you out with this one.

First off, you're right — I am currently scanning all of my photos with the Epson Perfection V600 Photo Scanner. I have been listing all of my favorite hardware, software and products on my Photo Scanning Resources page. I started this page to let you all know about all of my favorite “scanning things” I have discovered and use.

I would say your gut feeling is right on — 12800 dpi is going to be overkill for negatives (film and slides). Hopefully you haven't scanned too many of them already in case you now want to do them over.

12800 dpi is the “maximum interpolated resolution” that our Epson V600 scanners will scan. But, this is interpolated, which is a fancy way of saying “digital.” The scanner actually only scans up to 9600 dpi (the optical resolution). But using some technical “magic”, the software takes the 9600 dpi image and creates a higher resolution scan out of it.

Epson v600 Scanner dpi ratings on outside of box

Epson V600 specifications on the outside of the box.

If you've used some of the point and shoot digital cameras that have come out in the last 10 years, you know many of them have an “optical” zoom rating. Once you have zoomed in all the way, the actual glass lens no longer comes out any further. But, many still zoom in even tighter and that's because it's digitally pushing into the pixels to make the image “look” closer.

That's basically what the scanner is doing as well when it's using this digital (Interpolated) resolution. All it's really doing is blowing up the pixels and cropping the image around it. The image quality doesn't get better — really only worse.

So, my suggestion to anyone is never to go beyond the optical resolution of your scanner. So at the highest, with the Epson V600 don't scan your prints, slides or negatives above 9600 dpi.

But, even that is overkill and you will see not only a massively huge file size, but also too much grain when scanning film. Computers these days are fast enough to handle the file size, but the additional grain isn't so good.

What's Is the Best DPI to Scan your Film Negatives and Slides?

I like to keep it simple and break people down into 2 categories. Those with basic goals, and those with advanced goals.

If you are scanning your negatives to just have some nice pictures, but you don't really care about getting them perfect, or your computer is fairly old and you don't want large file sizes for example, then 2000 dpi is just fine. This will make average people happy.

If however, you really want to do it the right way — you really want to archive the best quality of the image that you possibly can so you can pass them down to your family someday, then I would recommend going with a dpi between 3000 dpi – 4000 dpi.

If you try 4000 dpi and you feel there is too much grain, work your way down to 3000 dpi. But, I wouldn't go any lower than 3000 if you really want to archive a high quality film scan.

And if even 4000 dpi seems to low for you, and you really want to try going a little higher — if it will make you sleep at night going a bit more — maybe try up to 5000 dpi and see if it introduces much more grain in your images.

Now Walter, I suggested dpi's exceeding 4000 dpi going up to 5000 dpi for you because you seem to be fairly aggressive in the amount of DPI you are willing to work with. (Just know that those dpi's will produce considerably large file sizes)

However, I feel most people with “advanced goals” should stick between the 3000 dpi – 4000 dpi range with their film negatives and slides.

Personally, I have chosen to scan my slides at 3200 dpi, a “preset number” that is easy to select in my scanning software. And with this setting, my slides end up being around 70-80 MB's (megabytes) a piece.

 

Scanning Negative vs Print - both side by side

Scanning Your Film Negatives vs. Prints: An Interesting Comparison

It's not specifically about negatives — it's really mainly on prints — but I wrote a long post on my site about the best DPI to scan paper photographs that you might like to read if you want more information. Right in the middle of the article is the section on Optical DPI vs Digital with our scanner that you might find interesting. Here's the link:

And, coincidentally, I recently wrote “Scanning Your Film Negatives vs. Prints: An Interesting Comparison” about a photo I had scanned at a scanning service recently. I had the print and the negative of the same photo scanned at the same time and I found some really interesting differences.

Thanks again for writing me. Please let me know how this works out for you. Seriously.

Thanks Walter! Cheers!
Curtis Bisel

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But, when I received this email from Jennie, asking me why she should go through all the trouble of taking on such a big scanning and organizing project when she doesn’t have younger family to pass it on to, I was struck with the thought that many of you might be asking yourselves the same question. Maybe even for some of you who actually do have family to pass your scanned collections on to!

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The remainder of the slides came first. Then I started work on the prints in the photograph albums that I had lovingly curated over the decades. The physical albums had started to deteriorate to the extent that some of them were falling apart. Scanning the prints was an ideal way to remedy this. I also scanned in all the prints that had not made the cut for the photograph albums but I had kept nevertheless. I also spent several months scanning in approximately 4,000 negatives. All in all I must have scanned nearly ten thousand photographs in one form or another.

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Donald
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Donald

If I have a beautiful Kodachrome 35 mm slide. I want to scan it and print it for a gallery show for sale. Besides the DPI discussion, how big of print can I make that will have some definition, contrast and sharpness?

Wolstan Dixie
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Wolstan Dixie

I believe colour slides have a much lower definition than silver negatives – see a discussion lower down on ‘dye clouds’. As said there, there is no point in scanning at a higher resolution than the patches of dye. I suggest you project the slide as normal on to a matt white wall and make it as big as you can with an acceptable resolution from the distance you assume people will be standing, and then measure the width of the projected image. Then assume this is an image at 300 dpi, calculate how many dots that makes the width, and then divide that number of pixels by the actual width of the slide in inches to give the desired scanning DPI.

A further point – I have had colour slides re-photographed, and they loose dynamic range badly. Detail in the shadows and highlights is lost. Apparently colour slides have a much higher dynamic range than prints from negatives. This may apply to scanning as well.

Pops
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Pops

I always scan negatives and slides at 16 bits per channel (48 bits). Then it’s much easier to adjust exposure in Lightroom without doing bad things (saturating high or low). You could get the same effect by using a DSLR, but you would have to shoot RAW in order to preserve dynamic range.

Wolstan Dixie
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Wolstan Dixie

I am pondering what DPI to scan my 35mm colour slides at, and then what JPEG compression to use. All here is very interesting, but I wondered what the original camera optical system was capable of. The Wikipedia article on ‘Depth of Focus’ has an interesting section on the ‘Circle of (acceptable) Confusion’ of a lens. For 35mm cameras this is apparently taken to be 1/30 mm, ie 762 DPI. So a 35mm camera lens is apparently designed to produce a 762 DPI image.

What then is the point in scanning such a negative at more than 762 DPI?

mamamiaohmy
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mamamiaohmy

yes, please. I am also trying to understand… the point of 3000-4000 dpi when others say 2000 is sufficient. and it seems others say things like Apple say the eye can only see up to somewhere in the 300’s.

Hans
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Hans

As far as I understood, scanning at 300 DPI will scan 300 dots per inch and since a 35mm film is 1.4 inch wide, this will produce an image of 420 pixels wide: 300 x 1.4. Not very sharp. So scanning at 762 DPI will produce an image of 1066 pixels wide, still not very sharp. Scanning at the DPI recommended by this article will produce an image of 4480 pixels wide. Now that is a quality I can work with.

My Canon 5D mark ii produces images of 5616 x 3744 pixels, so 4000 DPI would be required to produce a scanned image that approaches this quality. And therefore 4000 DPI is my personal minimum required DPI setting for any scanned image (although I sometimes scan at less DPI to speed up the process: I can always rescan the best ones at a higher DPI setting later).

I really doubt that 762 DPI can be the designed or intended resolution of 35mm. Because any original 35mm slide can “blown up” to wall size proportions, and I believe that is not possible at 762 DPI (not without seeing all the dots in the picture).

Ben
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Ben

Not sure if this thread is dead or not!

But anyways, I was wondering if my Brother MFC J460DW which has a scanning resolution of up to 19200 x 19200 dpi, this being interpolated. (I have utterly no clue what this really means.) I assume the best way is to try right? And 2400 x 1200 dpi being optical. Thanks guys!

ian
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ian

optical is the max. interpolated is digital zoom. this is explained in this article if you care to read it all the way through.

Jon
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Jon

Why do a lot of shops near me scan negatives at 300dpi if you’re saying to do 2000+dpi? Do you mean to be using the terms PPI instead of DPI?

Roy
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Roy

Curtis,
I very rarely leave comments on websites but I stumbled upon your site this evening and felt compelled to let you know how much I appreciate you having taken the time to write your blogs. I am expecting my V600 to arrive tomorrow and in preparation, I have read your excellent blogs on optimum settings for prints, negatives and your comparison between the two types of media. Thank you.
Roy

Jen Baker
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Jen Baker

Hello there. Great article!
I was hoping you might be able to provide me with a bit of guidance in a project I’ve undertaken. A friend of mine has a large collection of old slides that he would like converted to electronic format for the purposes of showing the pictures and images projected on large screens while teaching class.
First, I was wondering if saving the files as uncompressed Tiff images is the way to go.
Second, I was wondering if scanning at 48-bit color is actually achieving anything, or if 24-bit would provide just as good of a result.
Third, what should I put as the Target Size? Up til now, I have had that setting on the default setting of “Original”. Is this correct? Or, will I need to bump it up to something much larger in order to allow these images to be viewed at optimal quality while being projected on large screens.

Thank you kindly in advance for your feedback and guidance!!!
Jen Baker

Oh, PS – I too am using an Epson Perfection V600 scanner. smile

Jen Baker
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Jen Baker

2 months and no reply sad

Geoffrey Brown
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Geoffrey Brown

Hi Jen. My feedback would be that unless you are really concerned about retaining all the scanned detail in an image I would just use JPEG. TIFF provides lossless compression so after decompressing you are back to an exact copy of the original. This is not the case with JPEG. Realistically unless you do lots of changes to the image and then save and reopen the saved image you are not going to have a problem with JPEGs. Most of the time the only change you will be making will be one off from my experience which may be some cropping, rotation and maybe brightness and contrast changes all done at once then you are done and save it. JPEG will save lots of hard drive space compared to TIFF. It will also save a lot of waiting for the computer unless you are rediting the same image say more than 5 times.

This reediting also answers your question about 24 vs 48 bit. As this doubles the storage for each “channel” – there are 3 – you are going to end up with some really large file sizes. Roughly 6x larger than 24 bit for 48 bit. Unless you have a SSD (solid state drive) in your machine I would stick to 24 bit. Once again 48 bit will only help where the image is being edited say over 100 times. It essentially helps stops multiple rounding errors affecting the image from post processing work.

For target size I always use the actual image size. All picture viewing software allows you to determine the “display size” usually as a percentage (ie. 400%) or by dimensions. To my knowledge by using the actual size of the slide etc you are beg true to the image size. My negatives from the 35mm camera are therefore stored as 24mm x 36mm approx.

Geoffrey Brown
Te Puke, NZ

Michael LaBash
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Michael LaBash

Hi, I love your site. Thank you!

I am in the process of scanning binders filled with old B&W xeroxed copies fliers from an artist’s archives to preserve them and also to publish many of them.

Do you have any recommendations for DPI and bit depth for this project?

I also have the V600. I have been scanning them as 8-bit Grayscale at 600 dpi jpgs…..

Thanks!
Michael LaBash

Geoffrey Brown
Guest
Geoffrey Brown

I have an Epson V500 scanner which has an optical resolution around 6800ppi. Before doing some scanning scanned some negatives of different ISOs at 4800ppi and looked to see how big the colour clouds were in comparison to the pixels. The colour clouds are developed from the exposed silver halide in the film and then the silver is removed using a bleaching process just leaving the colour clouds. Anyway this results in the colour clouds being about 10x larger than the silver particles that absorbed the light. In other words colour negative film will always need to be scanned at lower resolution than B+W film that directly uses the silver particles to form the image. Anyway after spending about 3 days looking at the scans these are my conclusions….

ISO FILM TYPE SCAN RESOLUTION I USE
———————————————————————————
1000 Kodak Gold mostly 1200ppi
400 Kodak Gold mostly 1200ppi
200 Kodak Gold mostly 1200ppi
100 Kodak Gold mostly 2400
100/125 Kodak Ektar/Royal Gold 4800
50 Any film type (eg. Agfa) 4800
25 Kodak Ektar 25 6400

It seems hard to get such a table from anyone based on what the “negative is capable of” but these are my conclusions based on visual observations. I believe the 1000 ppi is still too high but I have little of this so could not be bothered spending lots of time on it but I suspect 800ppi may be enough.

Past these ppi values all I believe you are doing is getting more pixels of the same dye cloud in the film with no useful added image value.

I believe we can also categorize most positive prints at around 300dpi. Given a 35mm negative is about 1.5″ x 1.0″ this means that ISO 200 to 1000 have a maximum useful print size of 4x this so 6″ x 4″. Only when lower ISOs are used is it realistically possible to get a bigger print without grain becoming a major factor.

For the contrast and speed Ektar 100/125 offers this is my favourite film which I have ordered more of.

Geoffrey Brown, Te Puke, NZ

Geoffrey Brown
Guest
Geoffrey Brown

I believe it is possible that Kodak Ektar 25 may be able to be scanned beyond 6800ppi but my scanner wont go higher and as previous posts have said it is pointless going beyond the optical resolution of the scanner or the stepper motor capability that moves the sensor. For the V500 I believe the optical resolution is 4800ppi and the stepper motor can move at 6800ppi so my ultimate limit is 4800ppi x 6800ppi.

In the comment above I should have said “I believe the 1000 ISO film…is still too high…”. This would mean that 1000ISO film is really incapable of producing nice 6″ x 4″ prints which would also be my opinion based on past use.

Geoffrey, Te Puke, NZ

Jason Painter
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Jason Painter

My question relates more to the file format. What do you recommend? I have advanced goals and am reluctant to use JPEG due to compression. I am assuming that RAW would be the best. What about TIFF? Let’s assume that I’m not too concerned about file size but more about quality. I use iPhoto, so the file format needs to be compatible and I also want to output to an iPad.

The only negatives I ever scanned, I did using the Mac PICT format, and while iPhoto has no problem with them, they won’t sync to my iOS devices.