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How to Select a Photo Scanner
© 2005 KenRockwell.com

Scanner Technology explained here       About these reviews

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INTRODUCTION skip straight to recommended scanners

The only way to determine the scanning ability of a scanner is to make some scans and look at the images. Honest, do all the research you want, read the rest of these pages and read all the specs and the more you learn you'll learn that these don't mean anything compared to simply looking at some scans. Specs tell you little to nothing about how well any scanner scans.

I forget that most people coming to this site are new to digital imaging.

Not to brag, but honestly I've been studying bits and pixels since 1973, and been working with them daily to earn my living at my real job since the 1980s.

I hope to help you figure out what sort of scanner suits your needs.

You can forget the technical gobbledygook like bits and pixels and DMaxs, and if you care you can read about those here.


We need to ask ourselves two important questions:

1.) What do you want to scan?

a.) Prints: This is easy: just get the cheapest flatbed scanner you can find, and if you want quality, just pick up the cheapest EPSON you can find. See about the middle of this page where I suggest the current one. Even the cheapest flatbeds offer FOUR times the resolution you need. You are lucky, I probably just saved you a few hundred dollars.

b.) 35mm Slides and/or B/W Negatives: You want a real film scanner. You can see my recommendations of specific models even starting below $300 here.

c.) Medium Format Transparencies and/or B/W Negatives: You need either a $3,000 film scanner like my Minolta Multi PRO or a good flatbed like the EPSON 4990.

d.) 4x5" Film: I'm not very excited by the 4 x 5 desktop film scanners out there today. I'd suggest a good flatbed like the EPSON 4990 or Microtek 1800f.

e.) 8 x 10" Film: You are in luck: the many Microtek flatbeds have special film drawers with glass holders that swallow up to 8 x 10!" Try the Microtek 1800f. Likewise the EPSON 4990 swallows 8 x 10 as well.

Color Negatives: You are in big trouble. You may get OK colors, but you'll probably get garbage. I don't shoot color neg and the few times I've tried scanning it I got garbage, even on my $3,000 scanner. You need to investigate special software from either Silverfast or Vuescan which has the special files required to match color from all the different kinds of color negative film. The problem is that unlike slides or B/W film, every kind of color negative film requires different scanner color settings. Therefore, maybe you'll get good color, probably not. I wish you luck. If you are happy with your prints you may save yourself a whole lot of trouble by just scanning them with a cheap flatbed like the $48 EPSON 1260! Honest, unless you get lucky, you are probably saving yourself a whole lot of hassle just scanning prints.

Most amateur photographers coming to this site only work in 35mm. If this is the case, one needs a film scanner, not a flatbed scanner with a pathetic film adapter.

I shoot film as large as 4 x 5" (9 x 12 cm) and a decent film scanner for this size film cost $5,000 to $16,000 for a home model in 1999. The professional ones cost about $75,000. Therefore I investigated cheap flatbed scanners and reported on them. You probably din't want one in 1999, and in 2006 the Epson 4990 works great.

Knowing what you want to scan we still need to know:

2.) What do you want to do with the scans?

Do you want to post them on the Internet and email to friends, or do you want to print them out on paper to replace regular photos?

Internet and email is easy. You want to keep your images and file sizes down, so you can get away with any scanner resolution. In fact, you will be turning down the resolution of any scanner you buy to keep the resolution low enough to make emailing possible, and to keep the image small enough to fit on a computer screen. Honestly if internet and email is all you need then a flatbed scanner is fine if you are happy with the colors. See more about how to set up these scans for emailing here.

Printing on paper is more difficult. If you want to print 8 x 10" or bigger you'll see the difference in getting the highest resolution you can from a dedicated film scanner. Flatbed scanners are poor for printing from 35mm film, although great for scanning one-hour lab prints.

Then which scanner is for me?

Knowing our answers to 1.) and 2.) , here goes:

A.) For a typical amateur shooting only 35mm film and wanting to make prints on the computer, please buy a real 35mm film scanner since they start below $300. Any $300 dedicated film scanner will be far better than any flatbed with an adapter, including the $1,500 professional flatbeds. See specific suggestions here.

If you also need to scan regular prints, also buy the cheapest flatbed you can get, no film adapter needed. Cheap flatbeds run about $30 on sale each week at the office supply stores, and any of them has more than enough resolution to scan prints. You only need to scan prints at 300 DPI and the crummiest flatbeds today are at least 600 DPI. Heck, for $48 you can get the superb EPSON 1260 which I suggest since off brands may waste three days of your time installing them. The EPSONs work great right out of the box.

In other words, for most amateurs your best solution is both a dedicated 35mm film scanner and a cheap flatbed, not an expensive flatbed with a bogus film adapter. Expensive flatbeds are only if you shoot larger formats as I do, and even then they are a compromise.

B.) Regardless of what you shoot, if you only want to email and post your images on the Internet, you can make do with the low resolution of a flatbed scanner and film adapter. I'd suggest the $76 EPSON 1260 Photo unless you want the fancier $550 EPSON 4990 which, for the internet, will give about the same results. Most of the killer images you see on my site come from a defective Microtek Artix 1100, and are shown at much, much lower resolution than the original scans. Of course most of those images are shot on 4x5 film. A 4x5 at 1,000 DPI is a lot better than a 35mm scanned at 4,000 DPI because there is no film grain, much less dust and no scanner focus problems with glassless holders.

C.) If you shoot larger formats, a flatbed may be a way to go for the larger film sizes. You may want to consider, instead of spending at least $4,500 for a legitimate 4x5 film scanner like the Polaroid Sprintscan 45, consider a good 35mm scanner and a flatbed like the better Microteks (with their great separate film drawers) just for the bigger formats. You may get the scans you need for half the price. The newest Microtek 1800f may actually outdo the former 4x5 dedicated scanners; I'm testing it.

DIRT AND SCRATCH REMOVAL (ICE) Technical details here

This system automatically removes dust, dirt and scratches. It works really, really well. Some hypochondriac scientists worry that it may leave some artifacts in the scan, but real photographers know that these artifacts are still much, much less visible than all the dirt and crud it removes.

I would not buy a scanner without this feature if you are scanning at high resolutions for printing. You can get away without it if you are scanning for email and the Internet

It takes about three times as long to make a scan with ICE turned on. It saves you more time than that since you no longer have to spot the scan.

I like the way ICE works on most scanners like the Minolta Multi PRO, Nikon LS-2000 and LS-4000, but on the older Nikon LS-30 it seems to dull the image. People have differing opinions on this feature.

Avoid expensive scanners like the Polaroids and Microteks without automatic film cleaning features. One friend who has one of the 4000 DPI models without ICE has to spend an hour in Photoshop cleaning up each scan before he can use it. On the other hand, the Nikon LS-2000 makes a killer clean scan right away.

ICE does not soften the image, but it may take some little one-pixel bites out of sharp lines. I usually use ICE, although if the image has no broad areas where dirt would be obvious I may turn it off to save scan time.

Canon's FARE system on the 2400 flatbed is awful. It replaces dirt with big fuzzy blobs and erases other parts of the image. I found it to be useless except in broad sky areas, where Photoshop's dust filter also works perfectly. Use FARE on a slide with any detail in it and you will see all sorts of screwy artifacts once you learn what they look like.

RESOLUTION more tech info here

Resolution simply is how much detail is extracted from an image.

Digital pictures are made up of zillions of tiny dots called "pixels." The more zillions you have, the more detail you have. How many you need depends on how big a picture you want to reproduce. Obviously you need more if you want a big, sharp photo, and much less for smaller prints or just looking at on a screen.

If you are scanning from prints then any scanner today has at least the resolution you need.

Most scanners will have to be used at less than their maximum resolution for print scanning, otherwise you will create files so big that your computer will burst.

For example, if you try to scan a small 4x6" print at 1600 DPI on a scanner like the Epson 1640SU you'll get a 185MB file that will require that you have a computer with at least 750 MB of RAM for Photoshop. If you try to scan that same print in the 42 bit mode of a scanner, it will create a 370MB file that will require 1.5 Gigs of RAM to do anything with in Photoshop.

You only need high resolution when scanning from small things, like 35mm film that needs to be enlarged.

The resolution spec alone doesn't mean much. $400 35mm scanners are 2,800 DPI and the fanciest $1,500 ones are 4000DPI. This alone isn't very important, in fact, the biggest thing you'll see based on the resolution alone is that at 4000 DPI most of what you are seeing is extra film grain that the 2,800 DPI scanner missed. Is film grain really important to you?

What is important is getting the correct pixels (colors), not how many you have. The only way to see that is to look at the scans yourself.


Internet and email:

I keep the big images on this website down to no more than 400 pixels tall or 750 pixels wide to fit on your screen. DPI means absolutely nothing on the Internet, computer screens are measured in pixels. Your screen is probably 800 pixels wide, or 1024 pixels wide if you have an expensive laptop. Personally I have a 22" monitor that is 1600 pixels wide, but that's because I do a lot of creative work on it for which I need many different programs and images up on the screen at the same time.

Prints on paper:

If you want to make prints on paper you will want the highest resolution you can get out of a scanner. Here's why.

Here are the sharpness levels that correspond to different real resolutions as printed out on paper. These have to be the real optical resolution of the image as printed on the paper, not up-converted resolution through a resize and resample command in Photoshop or scanning software:

600 - 720 DPI is contact-print photo quality. Very few people print this high.
300 - 360 DPI is the quality you see printed in a typical magazine. Try to stay at least at 300DPI because at lower resolution quality falls. Shoot for at least 300DPI in everything you print.
150 - 180 DPI is usually OK for uncritical snapshots, or big prints you don't need really sharp
72 -90 DPI is poor, it's what you get when you illegally hit "print" from my website and print the copyrighted images. Don't do this; it looks awful.

Multiply the inch dimensions of your intended print by the DPI above corresponding to the quality you want, and that's how many pixels you need on each side of your scanned image.

Divide those pixels by the size of your original in inches (1" x 1.5" for 35mm) and that's how many true scanner DPI you need.

For example, for an 8x10" print at magazine quality you need (8 x 300) x (10 x 300) or 2,400 x 3,000 pixels.

If you are starting from a 35mm slide, that means you need to scan at about 2,400 real DPI.

You'll see that scanning a 35mm slide even at 3,000 DPI only lets you print a so-so 10" x 14" print, and scanning at 1,000 DPI only allows a 3x5" print before it starts getting soft.

Make very sure you are trying to compare legitimate resolution to legitimate resolution among scanners. Always ignore the larger of two numbers, for instance, a 2400 x 1200 DPI scanner is just a 1200 DPI scanner, and just forget about any "Interpolated" resolutions. Those are meaningless. Details here.


Only by making scans with it. You can't tell from any of the specifications!

Honestly, as I explain on the technical scanner page, you only can pick a scanner based on seeing real results of scans of your own film. The parameters that manufacturers find easy to specify, like resolution or bits, have nothing to do with how your scans will look.

Honest. Trust me. I'm a photographer who does this for fun and have nothing to sell you. I used to help design film scanners for a living.

As I explain on the tech page, even the only thing that is easy to measure, resolution, is usually presented in misleading ways.

All the other more important factors are also far more difficult to measure, and therefore the manufacturers lie about them to different degrees depending on the manufacturer. Just ignore all of them and try some scans of your own.

You will either have to find a friend who owns one, or buy from an Internet dealer like Amazon who allows you to return it if you aren't happy after you've seen how it works for you.

You sometimes can make relative comparisons within the same brand based on specifications. You cannot make these comparisons across brands because each maker lies differently.

For instance, there is no published specification for scanner color accuracy, the most important issue to picture quality.

Sadly, two out of the three scanners I tried crashed my computers.

Many people have the same experiences.

Your choice may be relegated to your luck. If a scanner does not work, RETURN it while you still can and get something that does work with your computer. Only the EPSON, Canon (on Mac) and Minolta scanners worked like they were supposed to out of the box. The Microtek, Canon (on PC) and UMAX both either never worked or required days of fiddling. This is my luck; yours will be different.

WHAT ABOUT Dmax? technical details here

From my experience, one cannot make meaningful comparisons between different manufacturers' DMax claims. They all lie differently. You can read more about this here.

Grasp as we may for meaning from specifications, the only way to know how well they can be made to scan is to try for yourself with a dense example of a Velvia transparency. For instance, I tried both a $300 Epson 1640SU photo (3.0 Dmax spec) and a $1,500 Microtek Artix 1100 (3.9 Dmax spec.) The two were about the same, and in fact, the noise from the Microtek was nastier because it caused visible streaks. It turns out that the Microtek I had was defective, although if I hadn't returned it it would be the one I was stuck with. I tried the same dark night Velvia transparency on those two scanners, as well as a Nikon LS-2000 and Coolscan III LS-30 and Kodak Photo CD. They were all subtly different, but nowhere near as different as the D max specs of these scanners would lead you to believe.


Don't believe what the manufacturer says. Most scanners will take several minutes to scan anything, and as much as ten minutes or more if you pump up the resolution or other features at the same time.

Manufacturers lie about the scan times by specifying the times at a lower resolution and for a smaller image then you will be scanning, and then lie about that, too.

Ignore manufacturers' published scan times.

WHAT IS A DRUM SCANNER?? (details here)


Seeing that only two out of the five scanners I've bought actually worked properly, buy from someplace you can return the thing if it doesn't work. Talk to your friends; scanners seem to be the least likely computer item to work properly when you get it. Honest, many times they won't work with certain operating systems or other solid reasons.

The last place to buy one is a camera store. They won't let you bring it back if you just don't like it, they have nothing set up to let you try it first, and they probably expect you to pay full price. Computer stores have better return policies and discounts, especially over the Internet.

I've bought mine from Amazon because they allow 30 days return for any reason, and have much better prices than a camera store. Also check Adorama, which has a 14 day return policy and usually better prices.

See specific scanner suggestions here.

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