May 29, 2006

Dearth of speed and information on 35mm scanning

A few years ago I decided to organize the thousands of photos my wife and I have taken over the years with our 35mm cameras. Much of our life story is captured in these photos, but we've invested almost nothing in storing and protecting these memories. They're haphazardly stored in boxes, with little organization. I spent a college semester in a darkroom studying photography, and feel a bit ashamed when I realize that most of my negatives aren't in archival holders, and that my photos aren't organized or shareable in any fashion.

My goals for the organization project were simple. I want to:

1 - Scan "important" 35mm negatives for integration into my digital photo library
2 - Archive my 35mm negatives in protective page sleeves for organization and safety
3 - Put "important" pictures into photo books for easily enjoyment by family and friends
4 - Store all the remaining photos in an organized structure

I bought a Nikon Coolscan IV ED on eBay to scan my 35mm negatives in 2004. I read online that dedicated film scanners were the best way to capture high quality scans of 35mm negatives, and this was the highest quality, lowest cost solution I could find at the time.

I started digitizing photos in late 2005. The Coolscan seems to be a great scanner, but I'm finding the digitization process to be quite slow. I can't tell if the problem is equipment or process related, but I believe it is a combination of both. One of the main limitations of the Coolscan is that it can only process one negative strip at a time. The first rolls of film I've digitized have been cut into 6 strips of 4 slides, slowly my processing time significantly. If the negatives had been cut as 4 strips of 6 photos (which seems to be the limit of the Coolscan), I could move more quickly.

The second technology limitation could be in Nikon Scan and USB 1.1. I'm scanning these photos at the maximum resolution of the Coolscan, so each scan takes almost 90 seconds from start to image ready in Photoshop. This is after I've reviewed a thumbnail of the strip, which itself takes about 60 seconds to acquire from the Coolscan. The scanner itself seems to only be scanning about 40% of the ninety seconds, so the remaining time is consumed by image processing and transfer. I'm using Digital ICE on the photos, so I'm sure part of the remaining time is consumed here. The remaining time is consumed by Nikon Scan and transferring 30MB of data to Photoshop via USB 1.1. I'm running on a Intel based MacBook Pro, so I'm wondering if Nikon Scan is slowed by running in Rosetta. And I'm definitely wondering how much time I losing transferring these huge images over USB 1.1 instead of USB 2 or Firewire.

Process adds time to the archival process. If I'm lucky, the roll is bundled with its negatives and prints. Often they aren't, and I have to search through the entire box the roll came in to see if I can find the missing pieces. Once I have the negatives and the prints, I then have to decide which prints to pull for digitization and photo books. This is the fun part, but takes time. After I've got the pool of "keepers", I find which negative strips the photos are on, and start the scanning process. I add each strip to a 35mm negative archive page after digitizing any needed photos.

All and all, this process takes about 1 hr per roll. I'm left with 4 to 10 30MB unoptimized Photoshop files, my negatives in archived pages, 4 to 10 photos for a future photo book, and a stack of photos to be put back in the box for storage purposes.

1 hour per roll becomes limiting when I have to process over 250 rolls of film. I've processed four rolls of film over the last two weeks, and realize I have to find ways to speed this process. Part of the slow processing time can be attributed to me learning my tools and limitations of my current environment, but I can't imagine I'll improve my speed within current limitations to under 30 minutes per roll.

I was at BestBuy yesterday (a new one opened near my house so I was trolling for deals), and I noticed there was a slew of flatbed scanners offering advanced negative scanning capabilities. I noticed that the high end unit offered the ability to scan 2 strips of negatives at a time! This spurred some internet research on my part. I studied the Epson Perfection 4490 Photo and Canon Canoscan 9950F. The 9950F is amazing because it can scan a whole roll of negatives at one time, using the entire scanning surface and 35mm negative carrier.

While researching this problem, I was blown away with the dearth of information on the Internet on scanning 35mm negatives. I ran into the standard product reviews of the scanners, but no articles written by photographers or hobbyists trying to accomplish the same task as mine. No one has written comparisons of film scanners versus newer flatbed scanners. There are no articles on the digitization process and optimizations people have learned through many hours of trial and error. I've come to rely on the Internet for information like this, but for this task I find no information. What are the best settings to use with the Coolscan to get high quality photos quickly? What are the limitations of scanning 30 negatives at once on the 9950F? Which has higher image quality. Is the image quality on both high enough so that it doesn't matter? Does USB 2 or Firewire make a difference, or is transfer time not a gating path to speedy digitization?

I'll start adding this information to my blog as I learn it, but I'm wondering if this information already exists on the net and Google doesn't see it, or that it just doesn't exist anywhere? I can't imagine I'm the only photographer in the world with an archive of 35mm negatives that I'd like to integrate with my now all digital photography tools...

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