Scanning Your Film Negatives vs. Prints: An Interesting Comparison

by Curtis Bisel
updated: October 26, 2018
Curtis Bisel
October 26, 2018
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 we 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
Scan Negative vs Print - Airplane Magnified

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

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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