Five things I learned scanning 1,751 35mm negatives

In January 2018, I bought a Plustek Opticfilm 8100 35mm scanner, with the intention of scanning and archiving my collection of 35 year collection of film negatives. Friends were cynical. I’d get bored. I’d give up after a few weeks. I should wait until I had more time (which I took as code for “wait until you’re retired”). Fourteen moths later, I’ve finished. In all, I scanned 1,751 photographs from 35mm negatives. Every single one of them was saved as a TIFF and post-processed using DxO Photolab. Nothing fancy, just colour corrections, erasing scratches etc, and then exported as JPGs. Every single JPG was then imported into ACDSee Ultimate so that I could edit EXIF data and add IPTC keywords.

It was hard work, but it was worth it. Along the way, I learned a few things about scanning, and about life.

Featured image: Clachan Parish Church, not far from Ullapool in the Scottish Highlands. Photographed in 2003 using Canon EOS 3000 with kit lens. Scanned using Plustek Opticfilm 8100 and VueScan. Post-processed with DxO Photolab.

Scanning is hard

Yup. Very hard. Results from my early scans were disappointing. Initially, I thought it was because I was working with 35 year old film. But then occasionally I would get a film that came out just perfect, so that clearly wasn’t the reason. Over time, I worked out how to optimise the scans, how to get accurate colours, how to cope with negatives that were faded or poorly exposed. This leads me to:

Software matters as much as hardware

The Plustek is an awesome scanner, and it ships with a licensed copy of Silverfast – surely one of the most powerful pieces of scanning software that you can buy. Unfortunately, I just didn’t like it. That’s not to criticise Silverfast in any way. To quote the cliché, it wasn’t Silverfast, it was me. A few months in, and I bought VueScan. This was a huge step forward for me. VueScan’s workflow made sense to me, in a way that Silverfast never had. Suddenly, I was finding it much easier to balance colours, control grain, and compensate for fading. The quality of my scans improved hugely, even though I was spending much less time at my laptop.

Profile your film

Seriously. Film profiles suck. Ben Anderson has written a great blog post about profiling film using VueScan. Go read it. Even though Ben has since abandoned this method, I found it by far the easiest way to get accurate colours when scanning a wide variety of negatives. You need to do it every time you start a new roll of film, but it takes less than a minute. Do it. Don’t hesitate.

It’s not about the best photos

You might think that you’re going to find hundreds of long forgotten gems. Chances are that you won’t.

Unless you’re a way better photographer than me – which is entirely possible – most of your photos are okay. Sure, there are some gems there, but they’re few and far between. Some rolls of film, I got nothing worth caring about. Some nice memories, that’s all. And that’s okay. Nice memories are good. But the films that had me grinning from ear to ear, loving every new frame that I saw, marvelling at my 25 year old photographic expertise, were very rare.

Much more important were the photos of friends and family. Places where I used to live. Which takes me to:

Adulting is hard

The photos I loved best? During the course of my scanning project, I lost two people who were very close to me. Two wonderful people, both the same age as me. Not young, perhaps, but too young to die.

I came across great photos of both of them. Photos that captured their characters and personality. Photos I’d forgotten about. Photos that made me stop and think about how much I’d lost. And did I tell either of them, while they were alive, how much they meant to me? Sometimes it’s hard to be a grown-up.

2 thoughts on “Five things I learned scanning 1,751 35mm negatives

  1. First off – I’m very sorry to hear about the loss of your friends, that’s always hard. I think you’re a very brave man scanning that many negatives – it’s not something I could do.

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  2. Thank you.

    The scanning? I found it very relaxing. It takes me around an hour to scan a 36 exposure film. I watch out of the window (I’m lucky to have a view of Edinburgh’s skyline from my kitchen) and I listen to music. It’s like a pause. 60 minutes to myself in a hectic world. But it’s also a daunting thought scanning that many negatives. I totally understand why my friends warned me against it.

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