ESR Portraits : Analog Photography

Why Flatbed Scanners Fail

In 2018 I began developing my own film and learning how to digitize it. Getting a reasonable scan is critical, because there is no point in shooting film if you cannot get a beautiful scan out of it. My initial attempt was with a CanoScan 9000F, which I quickly returned after finding that it could not resolve detail beyond 1600 ppi. After this I began using a Fujifilm XA-3, a 24MP digital camera with the 15-50mm kit lens.

Digitizing film with a digital camera is tedious work, which involves careful placement and focus for each frame, multiple exposures, adjustment with luminosity masks, and manual dust removal. Over the past year I have become better at it, but my best time is still 15 minutes per frame. After cropping and scaling, the end result is a an image that has about 8.3MP of usable detail at 3360x2460. From my experience with a professional drum scans I know that the 645 format is easily capable of producing a clean 82MP image.

Now, in January of 2019 I decided it was time to see if I could save time and get better results with a more capable consumer-grade scanner, so I purchased the Epson Perfection V800 that weighs in at $720. Here are the results.

A Warbler / Provia 100F (Mamiya 645 Super, with 300mm lens at f/5.6)


The V800 comes with a film holder with adjustable feet that give you five levels of adjustment. After scanning a frame 5 times, I found the optimal setting to be position 2. To my surprise, even after finding the optimal film height, this popular scanner is slightly less sharp than my inexpensive digital camera

Fujifilm XA-3 with 16mm macro adapter

Epson Perfection V800 at 4800ppi

Dynamic Range

Because film is a material, it requires a massive dynamic range to capture. The trick to using a digital camera is to bracket and combine these images later. This takes time, and modern scanning software can do this for you. Unfortunately I found that multiple exposures resulted in less resolution. With careful use the digital camera is able to capture three images with no skew between exposures.

All CCD and CMOS sensors induce a color shift as brightness increases, but I found that Fuji's APS-C sensor is not only able to resolve finder detail, but is able to maintain subtle color changes in bright areas:

Fujifilm XA-3 with 16mm macro adapter

Epson Perfection V800 at 4800ppi

A native scan on the Epson was far worse: the above image was created by to underexposing the scan and use curves to bring the mid-tones back. Even still the highlights are a mess.


Comparing color may seem unfair, because this is representative of the skill of the person editing the photos. I used a different process:

for the images digitized with a camera I set the white-balance of the camera to match my light-table, then used layers and perhaps one luminosity mask to combine the three exposures. From the scanner I only had curves to work with.

Fujifilm XA-3

Epson Perfection V800

While it is still farm from accurate, the digital camera gave me a reasonable impression of the film: saturated greens, shadows with cool tones, neutral highlights, and golden browns.

White Balance, Tint, and Exposure

The ability to bracket images is critical because it allows you recover highlight and shadow detail and restore the color shift a digital sensor induces. The simple process is to simply stack the three exposures using opacity. For more control, selectively apply an exposure using a luminosity mask. Either way each layer contributes to better dynamic range.

Using this method should require no color adjustment because the color was handled in camera. I take a test exposure and review using the HDMI port on my XA-3. Modern digital cameras allow you to control all three axis in the white-balance menu. The Blue-Yellow balance is set by selecting the color temperature of the light source you are using (in °K). Green-Magenta (sometimes called "tint") and Red-Cyan axis are selected on a 2D grid:


Finally, some observations:

Scanning is difficult, and in my view the best reason not to use film. As hard as it is, his process becomes part of your signature, and perhaps that is worth the time.

Ironically as a film user I discovered that the best colors are achieved by getting the exposure right in camera, and that camera is digital.

Last updated on May 06, 2019