Selecting a scanner

If you’d like to add a collection of prints, negatives, or slides to your digital photo collection, you’ll need to scan them. In recent years, the quality and affordability of consumer scanners have improved—making them well suited to this type of project.

Before purchasing a scanner, take stock of the types of media you’ll need to digitize. Do you primarily have negatives or prints? Are all of your negatives 35mm, or do you have wide-format negatives as well? These factors will have an impact on the type of scanner you use.

For this type of project, there are two main categories of scanners: flatbed and film scanners.

Flatbed scanners

If you’ll be scanning a variety of media, the best choice will be a flatbed scanner. Though they’re designed primarily for scanning prints and other hard copy, many flatbed scanners include adapters for scanning different film formats.

Although you can pick up a basic scanner for as little as $50, we don’t recommend doing so. We’ve found that many of these inexpensive scanners use inferior optics. For archival projects such as this, you’ll want to get the best information possible out of your scans. We recommend spending at least $150 for a good scanner.

Resolution and bit depth were once top considerations of people shopping for scanners. But thanks to improvements in scanning technology, these specifications aren’t as much of an issue nowadays. Unless you need museum-quality reproductions, almost all of the scanners on the market today are more than adequate for archiving 4-by-6-, 5-by-7-, and 8-by-10-inch prints. That said, there are a few features that may improve your scanning experience:

Connectivity Most scanners currently on the market connect to the Mac via USB 2.0. This should be adequate for most scanning tasks. If your Mac doesn’t support USB 2.0, consider buying an inexpensive upgrade card, as scans can take twice as long at the slower speed. A few scanners also offer a FireWire connection. If you’ll be scanning most of your material at very high resolutions, a FireWire connection will help speed up the process of transferring your scanned images to the Mac.

Film Adapters Make sure that any scanner you use includes adapters for the type of film you’ll be scanning. Although many midrange scanners offer adapters for 35mm film, some also expand those options to support mounted slides, medium-format film, and more. You should also pay attention to how many frames the adapter can hold at once. Some can batch-process multiple film strips—reducing the number of times you’ll have to reload the film adapter.

Software Almost all scanners come with their own scanning software, which often includes features such as dust and scratch removal and color correction (although we recommend performing serious image correction in a dedicated image editor). If you’ll be scanning film and prints, you may want a scanner that includes Digital ICE. Part software and part hardware, Digital ICE uses a special infrared light to detect dust and scratches on your film and then removes any trace of them during the scanning process, using the surrounding pixels to fill in the missing data. Unfortunately, Digital ICE is typically included only with higher-end (that is, expensive) scanners.

Film scanners

If you’ll be scanning only film, you’ll get the best results from a dedicated film scanner, such as the Nikon Coolscan V ED ($550). Although they tend to be more expensive than flatbed scanners and are less versatile, film scanners take up less room and generally produce better results. Many film scanners let you feed your film in directly, bypassing clumsy adapters. And if there are holders, they tend to be easier to use than the ones that come with flatbeds.

If you don’t have the funds to buy a new film scanner—especially for a onetime project like this—check out eBay for a good used scanner. Many people, once they’ve finished their own archiving projects, are willing to sell their scanners at a reasonable price.

Tip: Buy a printer, get a scanner

If you don’t already own a good ink-jet printer and are planning to buy a scanner for this project, you might want to consider getting a multifunction printer (MFP) instead. Canon, Epson, Hewlett-Packard, and many other companies sell photo-oriented MFPs that can scan, print, and serve as a photocopier. The Epson Stylus Photo RX700 ($400, pictured right), for example, can scan 35mm film and slides as well as prints, make borderless prints of your scans, and even print onto special CDs and DVDs to help you quickly identify backup discs.

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