Best way to get digital images from film negatives?
August 22, 2005 9:53 PM   Subscribe

What is the best way to get high resolution digital images when developing film?

We’re getting married this weekend. We have a wedding photographer who seems terrific and comes highly recommended. But she is sort of “old school” with respect to digital media – she shoots in film and doesn’t seem familiar with the whole gamut of options for digital images. We get the negatives after we get our prints. But she doesn’t have a standard option for also providing digital images, and she doesn’t seem to know all the options for how to do that. We would like to get digital images that are scanned in a high enough resolution that we could print nice 8x10 and smaller photos from them down the road (and that will better stand the test of time than our prints and negatives).

So, my question is: what is the best and most cost-effective way to get high resolution digital images from film? Specifically:

1. How much would it cost to have, say, 20 rolls of film transferred into high-res images (a) at the same time the film is developed, or (b) later after we get the negatives?

2. Is there any advantage (cost, quality, etc.) to having the digital images made at the same time the film is developed?

3. Any recommendations for services who do this kind of negative scanning if we choose to do it ourselves after we get our negatives?

4. What exactly should we ask for? I.e., what resolution images, what scan DPI (if that is even a variable), etc. I don’t know the lingo and would like to be able to convey accurately what we want.
posted by brain_drain to Media & Arts (7 answers total)
I know very few professional event photographers who are solely digital. Even with an 8mp camera, you just can't get anything close to the resolution of film; the two photographers I know who do use digital only use it as a supplement for film, and they certainly wouldn't replace film with digital for something as important as a wedding!

You can get low-resolution (i.e., 2400 pixel wide) images from 35mm for about $5 per roll from places like Costco and Fox camera; higher resolution scans are much more expensive.

However, if that's good enough for you, have it done at the time of processing; most low-end photo processing places use a digital process that develops the film, scans it and makes the prints digitally and not chemically (well, you know what I mean). It'll be cheaper and faster.

We had perhaps 150 shots taken at our wedding, only 30 or so of which we actually needed prints made of, so you could conceivably just wait for the contact sheets and then have some nice high-res scans made from the negs (although you'd probably need a $10 per frame 8000 pixel wide transparency scan to come anywhere close to matching the resolution of film!).
posted by luriete at 9:59 PM on August 22, 2005

Before you commit to getting all your negs scanned at once, analyze why you want digital files in the first place. To put the photos on the Web? To have a backup archive of these very important images? To make prints easily with your own printer at home? All of these are valid reasons to have scans, though you really only need large digital files (10MB+) if you're planning on making prints bigger than 8x10.

Though it might seem like extra work for you, be happy you're getting negatives. In terms of getting good prints for your wedding album or to give to relatives -- right now you'll get nicer professional prints directly from the negatives than from scans of the negatives. And barring a disaster like fire or flood, the negatives (and prints you make from them) will likely last longer than any digital files you create this year. (You can still make prints from 70-year-old negs -- do you think a CD-R made this year will be readable in 2075?) For that matter, archival digital prints you make this year will probably last longer than the files used to print them.

The cost of scanning negatives at the time of development will vary widely, depending on the type of film (35mm or medium-format), the size of files you request, and the type of place doing the developing and scanning. With wedding photos, you obviously don't just want to drop them off at a chain drugstore.

Is part of your deal with your photographer that she's taking care of the developing and getting you contact sheets? I'd talk to the lab that she'll be taking the film to and see if they offer scanning services with development, which is likely. Ask if the price per scan is less if it's done in conjunction with the film development, as opposed to if you took the negatives in later and had them scanned. Also, tell the lab what you're using the digital files for. They likely do standard scans (for Web photos and small prints) but also can make much bigger (and more expensive) files if you plan to make larger prints.

Unless it's significantly cheaper to have all the scans done at the time of development, it might be best (and less expensive) to wait until you get the contact sheets back and then choose only your favorite images to scan. You'll probably have hundreds of images, of which maybe 50 or 60 will be the ones you'll home in on. Be a curator. Ask relatives and friends for their opinions, too.

And once you've got the wedding-photo CDs, duplicate them! Store a few away from your house or apartment. Every five years or so, convert them to newer media. And keep the negatives safe.

posted by lisa g at 11:13 PM on August 22, 2005

Unless the lab your photographer offers what you need, maybe check out for a list of recommended labs. You should be able to find a good lab in NYC, talk to them, ask questions, make sure you're comfortable.

I would also put the negatives in Print-file sleeves and boxes. If you're shooting film, you might as well make sure it sticks around.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 11:51 PM on August 22, 2005

If you can find a place that still produces Kodak Photo CDs, the res is 3072x2048 and the discs can be read by some very surprising devices (such as game consoles) as well as normal PCs.
posted by krisjohn at 11:58 PM on August 22, 2005

Are you sure that you get the negatives? Also are you positive that she is giving you the rights to make prints? Typically most wedding photographs are copyrighted by the photographer. This means that making prints is illegal and won't be done by any lab without permission from the photographer. If you have any contract with the photographer, check the small print.

For the money it's going to cost you to go through all this scanning, you should have hired a digital photographer to begin with. Getting 20 rolls of film scanned at high res is going to be very expensive. Good quality prints will not be cheap either. Lesser quality digital prints will not last all that long. The best archival quality photos are still silver based, meaning not-digital.
posted by JJ86 at 1:40 AM on August 23, 2005

What is the best way to get high resolution digital images when developing film?

If having a digital end product is the most important result for you, then it should be produced with a digital camera in the first place. Scanning film can produce very good results, but it is an extra step (and cost) in the reproduction workflow and therefore not optimal.

If the prints are the most important product, then either film or digital should produce beautiful results in the right hands and the photographer should be hired purely for their camerawork, their portfolio and because they're someone you want to do the job for you - and leave how they produce the goods to them. It's what you're paying them for.

If you want black & white and you're going to study your big prints under a magnifying glass, film might still has a slight edge.

Scanning negs from a wedding probably isn't something you want to trust to the local minilab (apart from anything else, they often don't handle negs as carefully as they should). Better labs will generally charge similar for scanning whether it's at the time of processing, or sometime later. Assuming you store your negs carefully (a dark, cool, dry place, and in archival sleeves), they'll stay good as new for many years. Leaving the scanning till later and not having to worry about it on top of all the other wedding aggro is therefore very reasonable.

If it was me, I'd probably send the ones I'd chosen for scanning to A&I, but there's plenty of other competent places.

As a general rule, to get a good print from a digital photo file, you need to print at about 250dpi. Any more than 300dpi is more than the printer can reproduce or the human eye can resolve at sensible viewing distances. For a 10x8 print, therefore, about 3000 pixels in the long dimension of the print is enough. From 35mm film a scanned 3000x2000 (give or take a handful) pixel image is fairly standard for a good 10x8 print. It's no accident that this is just what a 6 Mp digital SLR produces. It's possible to pay more to get higher resolution scans from film, but 35mm doesn't really justify it - you end up scanning the film's grain rather than detail in the image.

Obviously, if your photographer is using a larger film format, (120, say) these numbers need to be scaled accordingly (as will be the cost of scanning).

It's also worth bearing in mind that the quality of the final print from a digital scan depends on a lot more than resolution alone. The professional labs are using scanning equipment with better dynamic range (the number of tones possible to capture between pure black and pure white), better color management (to avoid ugly color shifts), better optics (for sharper images) and finer control over scanner exposure (for contrast control). They're also operated by people who have a clue. Like anything else, you get what you pay for.

Unfortunately, however good the scan, they can't reproduce what's not there. If high quality scanning is the goal, the photographer still needs to know their stuff, nail the correct exposure and keep the focus sharp where it needs to be.
posted by normy at 1:53 AM on August 23, 2005

Most wedding photographers use MF instead of 35mm. If they shoot color, they probably get their negatives developed at a lab instead of developing them themselves. The photog should talk to their lab about getting a digital scan. Unless the lab is really old-fashioned, they should be able to handle it or subcontract with another lab that has the equipment.
posted by matildaben at 6:18 AM on August 23, 2005

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