Making Digital Backups of Your Film Photos

Posted on 16 February 2010 by Brian Auer

My Table
Creative Commons License photo credit: gullevek

Backing up your archive is a key component of digital photography — computers crash, files get deleted, viruses, fire, theft, etc. But film photographers should be just as concerned about keeping a backup in the event of losing the original.

While it’s possible to duplicate your film to create a backup, the effort and cost probably outweighs the benefits. Digital backups, however, require an upfront cost of a film scanner, but the method is relatively cheap in the long run. So the focus of this article is to look at the steps, methods, techniques, and reasons for backing up your film to the digital darkside.

The Digital Conversion

Prints can be scanned most readily by just about every scanner out there today. This method doesn’t require any backlighting or special holders to capture the image. But if you do any of your own developing, it’s quite likely that you don’t make prints from every single frame. Your scan dpi settings will be dictated by the size of your prints, but you’ll want to shoot for a final output in the range of 10+ megapixels. All other settings and methods will be the same as the film scanning technique.

Scanning straight from the film should give you a higher quality digital image (unless you’re doing your own optical enlargements — then the print scans are probably better). Film scans will also give you a more “natural” image closer to a raw digital file because you’re skipping the extra step of printing and all the processing that goes into the photo.

Scan Settings

I generally scan my film at 3200 dpi, 8-bit color depth, and TIFF format. 3200 dpi will give you a ~14MP image from a 35mm frame and a ~48MP image from a 6×6 medium format. A lower setting will make it hard to reproduce prints if your film disappears, and a higher setting will make the file size too large. 8-bit depth is the lower quality setting on most film scanners, but the differences in quality are minimal unless you’re printing very large. Plus, 16-bit scans are very heavy files. I scan TIFF format because it’s lossless and the file can act like a raw file. If space is an issue, you could scan JPEG, save at the highest quality setting, and work with it as a raw file.

Scanner Choices

There are a number of film scanners on the market today. While a dedicated film scanner may produce higher quality scans with more ease, they’re also really spendy. The flatbed film scanners are generally cheaper and more cumbersome to use, but much more affordable (plus they can scan prints). I use the CanoScan 8800F because it can handle medium format in addition to 35mm. They also make a CanoScan 5600F for 35mm only, and a CanoScan 9950F for large format. Epson also makes the Perfection V500 and Perfection v600 film scanners in the same ~$200 price range. There are a ton of other scanners out there, these are just the few I’m more familiar with. This is a huge topic in itself, so we’ll continue with it later.

Archiving Techniques

Okay, let’s assume that you’ve successfully scanned your film at an acceptable size and quality. Now it’s time to rename the files, add some metadata, and archive them.

Metadata Man
Creative Commons License photo credit: Mel McC

I label my film holders with the date of the shoot and various other information. So when I rename my film scans I use the format “AUERFILM-YYMMDD-####“, mainly because it matches my digital photo naming convention. The YYMMDD matches the date on the film holder, so I can quickly cross reference between the two. The #### is just a sequential number starting with 0000. If I were really picky, I could use the frame numbers, but then I’d have to use another number to distinguish multiple rolls from the same day. I’m not that picky.

It’s also a good idea to add some basic metadata to the files so you can find them at a later date and preserve some of the extra information. With Windows Vista, you can go straight to the file properties and put things in like date taken, camera maker, camera model, iso speed, metering mode, flash mode, and 35mm focal length. There are other items you can add such as tags, titles, subject, author, etc, but I prefer to set those things via Adobe Bridge. For XP or Mac users, I’m sure there’s a way to enter the same information, but I couldn’t tell you what it is.

At this point, you can archive the scans just like you would any other photo. Hopefully you have a good organization scheme — if you don’t, you might want to work on that.

Post Processing

Most of my film scans are for backup purposes only, so I don’t post process them unless I need to. I do pick out several of the best shots and work with them for the purpose of sharing online, printing, or even selling the digital copy as art or stock.

If you decide to work with your scans, just be sure to do it in a completely non-destructive manner. If you don’t know how to work with them as raw files in ACR or Lightroom, then make a copy to work with. I use Adobe Camera Raw to process mine, and I find that if I do a good job scanning, I really don’t need to do much to them. But when I go to make an output copy, I open it into Photoshop as a 16-bit file. Even though I started with an 8-bit file, any adjustments that I make in ACR and/or Photoshop will be done in 16-bit. Then I convert back to 8-bit and save it as a JPEG or TIFF for uploading or printing.

The exception to my 8-bit scan is when I re-scan for the purpose of printing large. Then I’ll go back and scan/process at 16-bit for a higher quality. But doing so for every image is not feasible to me.

A Backup of a Backup?

Now that your film scans are backed up as digital files, you’re going to back those up, right? I know, it sounds silly, but redundancy probably won’t kill you. In fact, more is better — external hard drives, off site drives, dvds, online archives, etc. And if you have an existing archive that gets backed up regularly, there’s no extra effort at this point.

If you don’t backup your archives on a regular basis, check out this guide to photo backups I wrote a little while back.

How Do You Backup Your Film?

If you do make backups, how do you go about it? Do you only backup on digital at low resolution? Do you backup everything, or just the good ones? Are you scanning prints or film? What equipment are you using? And is there anybody out there actually making duplicates of their film?

5 Comments For This Post

  1. Victor Bezrukov Says:

    great article !
    i’m trying to understand this part :
    ” If you don’t know how to work with them as raw files in ACR or Lightroom, then make a copy to work with”
    i make my digital copies for the backup and for the web publishing and would to understand how to open TIFF or JPG in Adobe Camera Raw ?


    Brian Auer Reply:

    Browse to the TIFF or JPG images using Adobe Bridge, select those you wish to edit using ACR, hit “Ctrl+R” (or use the appropriate menu items to “Open in Camera Raw”). The images will pull open just like a raw, and the adjustments will be saved in the metadata of the image.

    But to get an final adjusted version of the file that can be used for printing or websites, you’ll still need to export a copy from ACR or open it up to Photoshop and save from there. If you view the ACR adjusted images in anything but Bridge (or maybe Lightroom too), they’ll appear unadjusted.


  2. Yazan Says:

    I have a question about scanning the negatives with a flatbed scanner. Do you prefer scanning a strip of negatives at a time, with the same backlight setting for each, or do you focus on just one shot at a time.

    a better question would be, do you bother fixing the amount of backlight for each shot when you scan?


    Brian Auer Reply:

    I adjust the settings for each frame, mainly because the bundled software for the CanoScan allows you to do this easily. I have it automatically set the backlight/exposure and I typically fine tune the black point, white point, and midtones with the levels adjustment. This allows me to spend very little time in post processing adjusting the scans.


  3. Janne Says:

    I do the opposite of Brian. I just set the black point – and negate the orange mask and a film-type specific color adjustment if color – then scan the whole roll as-is.

    In my limited experience, scanner software is good at scanning, but not very good at postprocessing. Instead I use a RAW converter (UFRaw), which is made precisely for this kind of work, afterwards. The raw converter can also do batch processing so I’m not spending a lot of time either way.


  4. jeremy Says:

    I find that for images shot in low light, I have to scan each frame separately, as the scanner can’t always find the edges of the picture where it is totally dark.


  5. Arne Says:

    I have to urge that you and your readers scan into 16 bit tiff files regardless of colour or bw negatives. Your are going to loose too much of colour or gradient depth if you don’t – for the same reason in digital that we shoot raw and convert the raw into a dng or 16 bit tiff file. If you get frustrated with banding across gray scales – well – this is why.

    On scanning strips of film. Most scanning software (I use the Epson V750) automatically separates the frames and does a levels adjustment on a frame by frame basis.


    Brian Auer Reply:

    For printing via digital or for submitting high res images as stock, I agree — 16 bit all the way. But I can’t personally justify the extra scanning time and extra disk space for 16 bit files on every single frame, especially the duds or so-so photos that will never leave the archive. If I were scanning only the best of the best, then sure, 16 bit.

    Then again, if you’re a professional relying on film to make a living, the cost and time are certainly justified.


    Arne Reply:

    Here are my thoughts:

    Printing: I think that is the point of archiving negatives. If you loose or damage the original cellulose – you need to be able to recover from that loss – I would assume with the intent of printing?? yes No?

    Scanning Time: I used to hate scanning – it took sooooo long. I’m now running a Windows 7 machine with 4 gigs of ram and a Quad core processor – now I love scanning – I can scan a 6×12 medium format negative at 2400 dpi (read 350MB file) in less than a minute and 20 35mm frames in about the same time it takes me to change them in and out of the holders.

    Disk Space: I have two 1TB data drives. One internal and One external for backup. When a 1TB drive costs about $120 – there is no excuse.


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