How I scan negatives

I spent a stupid amount of time researching how to scan negatives. I’m still not an expert, but here’s how I do it…

First, let’s talk about the alternatives.

Camera scanning

I have a good camera, and with a cheap plastic gadget that attaches to your lens, you can take a picture of a slide or negative. This works well, and is fairly quick, but it’s not a process I enjoy. The post-processing isn’t too pad once you figure out how to use darktable, but it’s too manual for me.

Dedicated scanners

There is a host of dedicated negative scanners on Amazon, and while they generally seem to do fairly well, reviews are mixed. The biggest drawback is that these are one-trick ponies. Most of them can only scan one or two sizes of negatives. Some of them do have one nice trick though: In addition to RGB scanning, they also scan in IR. Most negatives are basically transparent in IR, but any dust or scratches shows up, and it lets the software know where to smooth things over. Some people say this is not an important feature, because a smart program can do the same thing with just the RGB data, but personally I would rather have a dumb program than a smart program…

Flatbed scanners

Any good flatbed scanner can be used to scan negatives. However, getting good results can be tricky. Ideally the negative should not actually touch the glass as that can cause something called “newton rings”. Also, you need a scanner that can produce good dynamic range and 16-bit output. Of course, even if you have a scanner that can do all of those things, most scanner software kind of sucks, so you might need to buy some software too…

Drum scanners

If you really want the best possible results, nothing beats a drum scanner. However, they cost tens of thousands of dollars, nobody makes them anymore, and they take a LOT of effort to use, because you have to wet-mount your negatives to a plastic drum to make it work. Unless you’re a serious photographer (who shoots on film), you don’t need a drum scanner. Even if you do need a drum scanner, it’s better to just pay someone else to do it…

My choice

So I first bought a camera-adapter thingy to scan negatives. However, as I said before, I wasn’t really happy with it. It’s not a problem with the result, I just don’t like the process of using it.

I also have some regular photos to scan, so I figured that I needed a good scanner. The best you can buy before things get stupid expensive is the Epson Perfection V850 Pro, so I got one of those.

Since it came with negative holders, I figured I’d try it for scanning negatives as well, and it works very well, however finding the right software was a bit of a pain. It comes with “epson scan 2” and silverfast 9. The epson software is very limited, and silverfast only runs on windows, which I don’t use that much…

After doing some research I came across VueScan, which is available for linux. After testing it out a bit I bought it, and while it’s a slow process, I really don’t mind, it may even make the process feel more worthwhile. Also, it’s not really hands-on all the time. I put three strips of negatives in the holder, then I do the “preview” which takes about a minute. Vuescan automatically detects most of the frames, so I just have to rotate them to make them show up correctly, then I hit scan. From there it takes ~20 minutes to scan 12 negative, and during that time I watch some anime.

VueScan even uses a feature I didn’t even know my scanner had: IR scanning! Just like those stand-alone units, the V850 has an IR light source that it can use to find the dust, which makes the pictures come out quite a bit better I think.

I’ve configured VueScan to save one 64-bit RGBI image (Red, Green, Blue, IR) and one JPEG image. The colors don’t always come out perfect on the JPEG, but for most pictures I don’t really care anyways, because the negatives are old and fuzzy. However, for the good pictures, I can use the RGBI image, send it through darktable and fix the colors properly without having to re-scan the negative.

One of the really cool part about scanning negatives is that with a good scanner, the results are often significantly sharper than the scanning the photos. This might seem weird since the photos are much bigger, but you have to remember that the photos were made from the negative, and usually in the cheapest way possible.

Here is one of the photos I’ve scanned, from 1998 I think:
Google Photos


  • Epson Perfection V850 Pro
  • VueScan
  • Linux
  • Scan negatives, not photos
  • Slow, but rewarding

I have an old Canoscan 8800 that I got back in early 2000’s that came with a negatives and slides holders. It has a removable white pad so it allows the backlighting through. Worked well enough for me for nostalgic photos that no one had seen. I also have VueScan so I assume that’s one I tried during that process.
One thing I can attest to is how Kodachrome Slides retained their state over 50 years. It’s impressive.

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