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How to Convert Negatives into Digital Images

written by: Steve Graham•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 11/5/2012

There are three good ways to convert photo negatives into digital images to put them on your computer. You can outsource the job or buy two types of scanners to convert photo negatives to digital images. Learn about these methods and tips on scanning photo negatives by reading this article.

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    Introduction

    Almost everything in your life is at your fingertips in seconds on your computer, except your old photos and negatives. Some rolls of film were never developed or have damaged prints. Whenever you need a copy, you squint at them against a light and guess who and what is in each shot.

    You need to scan photo negatives, convert them into digital images and have them on your computer and at your fingertips to print, e-mail and post online.

    There are at least three good ways to scan photo negatives. Let’s talk about them, from the most expensive to the least expensive. Not surprisingly, the list also runs from most convenient to least convenient.

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    Pay for Professional Service

    Several companies do nothing but process and scan photo negatives, photos and slides. You can mail them your photo negatives and have them do the work. They’ll send you back the photos on a CD or DVD. Popular sites include My Special Photos, FotoBridge and the ubiquitous Shutterfly.

    Pros: Pun intended, these guys hire pros. The image quality should be more than adequate for any amateur photographer.

    Myriad options are often available. For example, FotoBridge includes a copy of each image downscaled to 72 dpi and ready for posting to the Internet. The firm can also post full-size images to your account on the site. You can also order a pre-configured slideshow movie for an extra fee.

    Finally, it’s convenient. For the effort of mailing a box, you can have them scan photo negatives and have thousands of photos on your computer.

    Cons: Just like one-hour photo shops, quality at some companies may not be good enough for advanced amateurs and professionals.

    The major issue is cost. FotoBridge will print 1,000 negatives for $129.95. Not a terrible deal, but you can buy a good scanner for the same price and scan thousands of photo negatives, along with photos, documents, etc.

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    Buy a Dedicated Negative Scanner

    If you plan to scan thousands of photo negatives, your best bet is a dedicated negative and slide scanner. Many options are available, and most look like tiny PC towers that plug into a USB port.

    Most are designed for slides but come with a long tray the width of a negative. The device pulls the tray through the scanner and reproduces each image. They come with software that typically toggles easily between negative and photo settings.

    Pros: These scanners are easy to use, even for amateurs and computer novices. It’s a quick, effortless way to scan five or more negatives at once.

    Cons: As the overused saying goes, you get what you pay for. You can get them for under $100 from VuPoint or Hammacher Schlemmer, the company that makes things you don’t need but really want whenever you see them in the in-flight shopping catalog. Turns out they aren’t as good at making things you actually might use. You probably won’t be happy with the results on a $90 photo negative scanner. The Hammacher Schlemmer model scans at a maximum of 1,800 dpi.

    For the best results, you may have to pay about $500. The Nikon Coolscan is one of the best scanners if money is no object. Probably worth it if you are looking to sell prints or use large-scale reproductions.

    Another drawback is the lack of versatility. You can’t scan photos or documents with these scanners.

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    Get a Flatbed Scanner or an All-In-One Printer

    Your third option is an all-in-one printer with a flatbed scanner. The same printer can typically copy, scan and print. It may even send faxes. If you’re particularly concerned about quality or already have a good printer, you could also get a high-end standalone flatbed scanner. Either way, you’ll have a flatbed scanner that will scan photos and documents. You can even scan documents and use inexpensive software to convert the “picture" of the words into digital text. It’s my favorite feature as a former newspaper editor who didn’t want to type in snail-mailed letters. In order to scan negatives in this method, you'll also need a transparency adapter. You can view a complete tutorial on how to do this here: http://www.steves-digicams.com/knowledge-center/how-tos/photo-accessories/scanning-a-film-negative-with-standard-scanners.html

    Pros: Best bet for value and lack of clutter. Again, you have to pay for really high quality, but there is so much more competition in the printer market that you can get surprisingly high resolution from your scanner, along with all the other great features, for under $200. Basic models start at less than $100, but the top rated printers include a Lexmark for about $180 and this topshelf $400 Canon model.

    Cons: Least convenient option. Some of the scanning software only allows you to scan one frame at a time. It’s going to take some coffee and patience to scan thousands of images. The quality will also be much lower than if you went professionally.

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    Tips for Scanning Photo Negatives

    • Put blank white paper behind a negative if using a flatbed scanner. Dust, ink and other particles will stick to the top of your scanner, so you’ll get a cleaner scan with paper behind the negative.

    Scan at high resolution and large size, then downscale for your needs. This guarantees the best image, instead of pixelating a picture when you try to make it bigger.

    • Test your settings and options on the scanner and save those settings, if possible.

    • In choosing a scanner, the DPI is the most important number. You want the highest resolution you can afford. Also, don’t overlook the bundled software. You want versatile software, including the handy option to scan straight to PDF without using photo software.

    Free online photo editing software is available, but I recommend forking out for PhotoShop, the industry standard. There are myriad editing options and you can do exactly what you want.