Monday, May 16, 2011

Scanning 120/'medium-format' negatives

Image by Ty Ueda
Unless you are printing your medium-format film yourself (and bravo if you are!), you will probably want to get your negatives scanned.  You can do this in two ways: by purchasing a scanner and scanning them yourself, or by having the negatives scanned professionally.  

Though reasonably priced negative scanners for 35mm film intended for home use have improved significantly over the last few years, unfortunately, that is not true of equipment made to scan medium-format/120 film.  If you want to have the negatives scanned simply so that they can be viewed online—for instance, so that you can share them on your facebook page or in your favorite flickr group—you may be satisfied with the quality of a flatbed scanner that has a ‘transparency adapter’ intended for home use. 

If you’re in the market for a flatbed scanner with a transparency adapter, read product reviews and ask your friends about their experiences.  Manufacturers change the instrumentation and specifications frequently, and it is difficult to keep up.  The  “off-the-shelf” office supply flatbed scanner from which I saw the best 120 scans was a HP Scanjet G4050, which had adapters for several different sizes of film.  It was current about three years ago and retailed at only a bit over $200.00 (US).  It was not fast, and it took some getting used to, but the output was excellent for screen use and making small prints.  I never tried large enlargements, but the scans would be adequate for at least an 8 x 10.

For a high-quality ‘dedicated’ film scanner, the Nikon Coolscan series is probably the best known and most highly recommended by users. We had a Minolta Pro Scan a few years ago that was quite nice, but it has been discontinued. 

Professional scanning
Since the quality of reasonably priced home scanners for medium-format film remains marginal, if you want to have digital images that will translate into high-quality larger prints or publishing your work, you will want to look into professional negative scanning.

Technology exists for high-quality, high-resolution scans of 120 negatives—but it is pricy. (Professional scanners can cost more than $30,000).  So if you want to be able to store your images digitally, or send/print high-quality images, your best bet is to ask a a friend or professional who actually ‘does it’. 

Not all professional scanning is created equal.  There are several factors, here:
1.     The scanner that the photo lab is using (We use a Fuji Frontier for our 120 scanning).
2.     The quality at which they scan your images (high resolution/low resolution/print resolution). There are a dizzying array of terms, here, and specifications are many and complex.
3.     The operator has to know how to scan!  We had a Leaf Scanner we purchased for over $18,000 several years ago.  We could not make consistent quality scans until we had practice a lot and studied the complete manual.  Scanning is not ‘plug and play’ technology. Moral of the story: once you find a photofinisher with a professional-quality scanner, try a few tests before you order a bunch.

Most labs charge different prices depending on the resolution of the scan (the price schedules will hopefully differentiate between ‘basic’ and ‘enhanced’ scans). Generally, high-quality scans involve more data and thus take more time and skill to complete.

If you are interested in scanning negatives to produce images, you need to take account of the specifications of the printer with which you'll print.  If your printer is only 72 dots-per-inch, then there's no reason to pay for scans at 300 dots-per-inch; the extra data will not improve the image and may even make it worse.

In our lab, our printing equipment prints ‘native’ in 300 dpi. We have these approximate guidelines for our customers:

If your scan is…                        You can confidently print up to…
1200 pixels by 1800 pixels                 4” x 6”
1500 pixels by 2100 pixels                 5’’ x 7’’
2400 pixels by 3000 pixels                 8” x 10”

Even with these numbers in mind, I am still sometimes surprised by small files.  They can astound and confound me if I look at the output quality and information they contain.  It does not always make sense.  Still, as a guide, the above is what we use on a daily basis for consistently good results with our equipment.  Remember, if you are just using it for screen resolution and email, you do not need to invest big dollars in scanning!


  1. I worked with lots of scanner such as document scanner and duplex scanners, I am definetly going to try the Scanning 120/'medium-format' negatives!

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