Scanning Your Film Negatives vs. Prints: An Interesting Comparison

by | Last updated Oct 26, 2018 | Scanning Photos | 26 comments

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

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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Aiming for the Stars to Hit a Cowpie — My Enlightening Scanning Journey

Aiming for the Stars to Hit a Cowpie — My Enlightening Scanning Journey

As a Wyoming farm gal, I was raised with the phrase “It’s better to aim for the stars and miss than to aim for a cowpie and hit.” Well, that’s great advice … unless your goal actually is to hit the cowpie.

My scanning goal really was that simple, but for some reason, aiming at the cowpie just wasn’t working. So I changed strategies and aimed for the stars. The result? Read on to find out. And hopefully, by sharing my scanning journey, it will help you on your scanning journey.

Scanning All of Our Family Photos … What's the Actual Point?

Scanning All of Our Family Photos … What's the Actual Point?

For anyone with children, or with other family members such as nieces or nephews, the answer to whether or not we should scan our old family prints, slides and negatives may seem quite obvious.

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!

If you don't have or know anyone that will truly cherish your scanned photo collection once you've passed, is there even a single reason to scan any of your old family photos?

A 70-Year-Old Silver Surfer Scans Her Entire Life!

A 70-Year-Old Silver Surfer Scans Her Entire Life!

Being a man of action as well as words, my son Mark bought me a slide scanner and taught me how to use it. I scanned in the slides of the Holy Land without much difficulty. I was delighted to be able to view them on my computer with the same ease as I could view the digital photographs that I had started taking in 1999.

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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Rao Devulapally
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Rao Devulapally

I have a large collection of photos from 80's onward and I have preserved almost all the B&W and Color negatives till date. A few years ago I bought a flat bed scanner and scanned all the photo prints (mostly postcard size) from my albums. Though they have a sentimental value, I was not very happy with the scans, compared to today's digital photos.

Though the 35mm film (max of 87MP) held most of the information than today's 2.5MP to 20MP cameras, I have used till date, I find a disappointment to compared the paper print scans to direct digital photos.

That is the reason why I bought a small film scanner (not very expensive, Jumbl 22MP All-in-1 Film & Slide Scanner w/Speed-Load Adapters for 35mm Negative & Slides, 110, 126, Super 8 Films from Amazon US). I am yet to scan some photos and compare with the print scans. If the negative scans produces better than print scans, I am going to replace all my old scans with new film scans. This is a huge project and I will be needing lot of time. Being still in a job at 62 years, I find it difficult to allocate time for these things as I have lots of other hobbies. smile

Larry Wilcox
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Larry Wilcox

What a wonderful comparison. It really makes me wish I had scanned more of my film instead of just my paper prints!

Sharon
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Sharon

Curtis, this thread is getting pretty old but I am hopeful you are still monitoring. I have beautiful photos from a 35mm of my firstborn. When my twins were born 28 years ago I discovered way too late that the first few months of their life there was I believe a problem with the internal light meter and many of my photos are very, very dark. In some cases hardly worth keeping the print. I do have the negatives! In this case, will I be able to improve the image substantially with current photo editing software? Would I be better off having a company like Brite Pix do it for me?

Kerry
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Kerry

I have a lot of black and white negatives shot without benefit of a light meter in the 1930s and 1940s. I experimented on an Epson Perfection V850 by scanning at 16 bits (mono) and using Tone Correction, and convinced myself that it is possible to bring badly exposed negatives to life. I, too, wonder whether a commercial scanning service would do that (I may not live long enough to finish my collection of negatives).

Sharon
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Sharon

Thanks for your input on my dark negatives. As it turns out my sister just purchased an Epson scanner (not sure which one) that I can experiment with and your tips will help. I also just located a great local service that will be easy to try and compare.

david Jagut
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david Jagut

once they have been scanned If you have time to familiarize yourself with a computer program it is very easy with free software such as GIMP for example to recover photos that seem very dark … in a dark picture there is often a lot of information that the program can exploit to lighten your photos, you will surely be surprised and then it will allow you to sort between those who are irrecuperable and others … while a company such as “brite pix” risk I think you do pay all the scans, even the bad ones! … you have to know that conversely a photo too clear is much harder to recover because there is more information to treat, they are burned

Peter
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Peter

If post editing is important be sure to get the scans in TIFF (not just JPG). That way much more information is kept and you're able to do much more magic with Lightroom or other software.

Lou Condon
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Lou Condon

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.

Marilyn
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Marilyn

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.

Jimmy Louise kroger
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Jimmy Louise kroger

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

oggo loggo
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oggo loggo

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).

Art Taylor
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Art Taylor

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 emulsion (dull) side was placed next to the glass on the dark gray side of the mount, then the white side of the mount was snapped into place to enclose the film. Newton rings,(concentric, rainbow colored lines), were frequently a problem. They could be avoided by using more expensive, anti-newton ring glass in the mounts. These were also offered by GEPE and probably others.

An alternative method of glass mounting involved two pieces of plain glass, 2×2 inches, sandwiching the film between them. The combination was then taped together using black or silver tape around the four edges.

I've had experience mounting slides using both of these methods. Believe me, the GEPE method was better to work with. If there ended up being some unwanted dust on the slide or the inside of the glass, an X-acto knife or similar could be used to separate the two parts of the mount, the slide could be cleaned and repositioned if needed, and the mount snapped back together. With the taped glass sandwich, the tape had to be carefully sliced on at least three sides, the dust had to be removed, then new tape had to be applied. Of course, there was always the danger of breaking one or both pieces of glass in the mounting process and Newton rings could be problematic.

In general, glass mounts held the film flatter for better focus in projection; protected it from dust, moisture, and contaminants in the air; and from finger prints. However, if the glass broke, the film could be scratched or torn. As mentioned, Newton rings could also be problematic. Any moisture trapped inside the glass mount could lead to the growth of fungus on the film with subsequent eventual destruction of the film. The glass surfaces can also introduce focus problems for scanners that do not offer manual focus since the scanner's autofocus often will focus on the surface of the glass instead of the film.

Cardboard or thin plastic mounts were less expensive to use, hence their prevalence in factory-mounted slides. They avoid any problems with Newton rings and fungus growth but offer virtually no protection from dust, moisture, airborne contaminants, or fingerprints. They also may or may not hold the film as flat as glass mounts, depending on how the film is fastened to the mount. This avoids the problem of a scanner's autofocus focusing on a glass surface but may introduce the problem of excessive film curvature, requiring more depth of field in the scanner to keep the center and edges equally sharp.

Theoretically, the best way to scan slides or negatives is to wet-mount them in the scanner, either a drum scanner (several thousand dollars new) or in the Epson V750 Photo Pro. In practice, at least according to several reviews I've seen, the realistic benefits gained from wet-mounting don't warrant the extra trouble and expense involved, when compared with the results obtained with the Epson V700 or V600 flatbed scanners. The main advantage of the V700 over the V600, is its ability to scan more than 4 2×2 slide mounts at a time and the ability to scan 4×5, 5×7, and 8×10 inch slides or negatives. Unless one has need of either of these features, the more-than-double price of the V700 over the V600 is not likely justifiable.

If you want some glass mounted slides to play around with, or if you just want some glass mounts to try mounting some of your slides in, send me an email with your snail mail address and I can send you some.

Art Taylor

Margaret Sutherland
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Margaret Sutherland

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
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Oksanna

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.

How to Speak Japanese
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How to Speak Japanese

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.