Making fine prints in your digital darkroom
by Norman Koren

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Making fine prints in your digital darkroom
Understanding image sharpness and MTF
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A simplified zone system
Digital vs. film
updated June 2, 2005
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Table of contents

for the Making Fine
Prints series

Getting started | Light & color
Pixels, images, & files | Scanners
Specifications | How many pixels per inch?
Light source | 35mm
Medium format | Large format
The big scanner table | Links
Digital cameras | Printers | Papers and inks
Monitor calibration and gamma
Printer calibration | Scanning | Basic image editing
Black & White | Matting and framing
Tonal quality and dynamic range in digital cameras

Color Management: Introduction | Implementation
Profiles with MonacoEZcolor | Evaluating profiles

for Image editing with
Picture Window Pro
Introduction | Making masks
Contrast masking
Tinting and hand coloring B&W images
Example: Sunset, Providence, Rhode Island

A scanner is a device that converts prints or images on film— negatives or slides— to digital format, i.e., pixels (picture elements). A scanner consists of a fixture for holding the film or print, a light source, a CCD sensor, and associated electronics and software. Either the film or the sensor moves.

To make prints digitally from film originals you'll need to have them scanned. If you have a stock of existing film images I recommend that you purchase a scanner. Although shops can make scans, you can usually obtain the finest quality with your own scanner, and you may save money in the long run. You don't need a scanner for images made on a digital camera.

Your choice of format will be influenced by your existing equipment, your goals, your budget, and hardware availability. I now do most of my work with a digital SLR, but I have a large collection of 35mm negatives and slides dating back to the 1960s as well as a modest collection of medium format negatives. My main scanner for 35mm is the 4000 dpi Canon CanoScan FS4000US, but I still use the 2400 dpi 36 bit Hewlett-Packard PhotoSmart S20 for panoramic images. It makes decent 13 inch high (up to 33 inch long) prints. Dust can be a real pain with the HP, but the CanoScan's infrared channel dust removal is very effective. I use the Epson 3200 for medium format and larger.

We begin with a description of scanner specifications, then we discuss 35mm, medium format and large format scanners, culminating with a large Table of scanners. The use of scanners is described in a separate page, Scanning.

Film scanner specifications

Here are the key film scanner specificationss. We refer to them below.
How many Pixels Per Inch (PPI) do you need?
Print quality depends of the number of pixels per inch sent to the printer. The following table gives a rough guideline relating printer PPI to perceived print quality, assuming a sharp image. You can get away with lower PPI in large prints because they tend to be viewed at greater distances. These numbers are actual pixels per inch, not necessarily the dpi "resolution" of the image file, which is actually a scaling factor. Print file size and scaling are discussed in Pixels, images, and files.
Print PPI
Perceived print quality
Outstanding. As sharp as most printers can print; about as sharp as the eye can see at normal viewing distances.
Excellent. Close to 300 PPI for small prints, 8x11 (or A4) and smaller.
Outstanding quality in large prints, 11x17" (or A3) and larger, which tend to be viewed from greater distances.
OK for large prints. Adequate, but not optimum, for small prints.
Adequate, but not optimum, for large prints. Mediocre for small prints.

I typically aim for at least 300 PPI in 5x7 inch or smaller prints, 220 PPI in 8x11 (A4) prints, and 180 PPI in 11x17 (A3) or larger prints. Further discussion on print resolution can be found in the page on Printers. The following table relates 35mm scanner PPI to Print PPI (Scanner PPI/magnification) for several print sizes. (A full frame 35mm image is 24x36 mm = 0.945x1.417 in.)  

35mm film
scanner PPI
Print PPI print size in inches (magnification)
5x7 (5x) 8x11 (A4; 7x) 11x17 (A3; 11x) 13x19 (13x) 17x24 (17x)
2400 480 343 218 185 82
2900 580 414 263 223 171
4000 800 571 363 308 235
5400 1080 771 491 415 317

Bottom line: 2400 PPI is sufficient if you don't plan to print larger than 8x11 inches (A4; Letter size); it's very good for11x17 (A3). 2900 PPI has a slight edge at 11x17 (A3). 4000 PPI is excellent for 13x19 and even 17x24.

I set my Canon FS4000US to 2000 PPI if I don't plan to print larger than Letter size. This limits file size (which can be huge at 4000 PPI) and speeds up scanning. If I plan to print A3 or larger I select maximum resolution.

If you don't own a scanner you can have images scanned to a Kodak Photo CD: about 2200 pixels per inch (unimpressive) or 4400 pixels per inch (excellent) for the Pro Photo CD. Dmax is 2.8-3.0 (unimpressive)— adequate for negatives but mediocre for slides. You are limited to 24 bit color.

In the discussion that follows I omit some of the technical details of individual scanners. You can find them in the scanner table, below.

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Scanner types

35mm film scanners

Prices for decent (at least 2400 ppi) 35mm film scanners start around $300. Fewer models are available in 2005 than in 2003. I particularly liked the Hewlett-Packard Photosmart S20, discontinued in 2002, because it could scan panoramic images (24 x66mm) from my Hasselblad XPan in one pass. But dust could be a pain. Compared to the inexpensive scanners (like the excellent Minolta Scan Dual IV) the better scanners have higher resolution (4000 dpi or higher), higher Dmax, and (hopefully) infrared dust removal. Images scanned at 2400-2900 dpi and properly sharpened are about as sharp as conventional darkroom prints. 4000 ppi scanners are attractive because they can produce prints sharper than conventional darkroom prints. I've analyzed them in gory detail in  Understanding image sharpness Part 2.

In July 2001 I purchased the 4000 dpi Canon CanoScan FS4000US 35mm/APS film scanner. Scans have 42 bit precision with Dmax = 3.4 (4.2 in 42-bit mode). Its highly effective FARE infrared channel dust removal (Canon's version of ICE) has minimal effect on image sharpness. It scans more slowly than the other 4000 dpi scanners, but its superior dust removal is likely to make the total scan process faster than the Polaroid. Reviewed by Imaging-resource (6/26/2001), Steves-Digicams (6/23/2001) and Taylor Hively. Unfortunately the hardware doesn't support panoramic scans. According to a post, there were numerous manufacturing defects (excessive noise, black dots, or "sootiness") in early samples. I heard less about defects in 2002. As of 2005 the FS4000US has been discontinued. Today I'd choose one of the Nikon or Minolta scanners listed in the scanner table, below.

July 22, 2001  I've put up a review of the Canon CanoScan FS4000US 4000 dpi 35mm/APS film scanner. Summary: Great hardware: very sharp images and excellent color. Effective infrared dust removal. Software is mediocre, but adequate, especially if you scan to16-bit B&W or 48-bit color files. Early samples had frequent defects (mine is OK), a few of which may have resulted from easy-to-fix power line noise. I've heard that Canon's support is weak (I haven't needed it). All-in-all an excellent product. Supported by Hamrick VueScan.

Multipurpose flatbed scanners for 35mm, medium format, and 4x5 (inexpensive)

These scan reflected images (prints) 8.5 inches wide and come with transparency units (TPU's) of various sizes in their covers to scan film. $200 and up. They're great for historical photographs, where negatives are seldom available, but they're not as sharp as dedicated film scanners with comparable resolution, though they're improving. The reason: the lenses have to cover an 8.5 inch wide field. 35mm camera lenses only have to cover the 1.71 inch diagonal of the 24x36 mm frame. They're adequate for 35mm enlargements up to about 8x11 inches, excellent for most medium format uses (sharp enlargements up to 13x19 inches), and outstanding for 4x5 and larger (sharp at 32x40 inches BIG), where they have a real sweet spot. The transparency units have diffuse light sources that reduce the ill effects of dust and scratches compared with the collimated (directional) light sources in dedicated film scanners—a similar effect can be observed when comparing diffusion enlargers (cold light and color heads) to condenser enlargers.

Dedicated medium format film scanners (expensive)

These scanners have 4000+ dpi, superb image sharpenss, and excellent Dmax. The top contender (and most widely available) is the 4000 dpi Nikon Super Coolscan 9000 ED. Dmax = 4.8 (better than 4.2 in its predecessor, the 8000 ED). Very fast. ICE4 infrared dust removal and image enhancement. The 8000 ED was favorably reviewed by Michael Reichmann and Miles Hecker appreciates its ability to pull detail out of shadows. The pick of the litter because it has infrared dust removal and true 4000 dpi resolution for medium format.

Heavy metal

The Heidelberg Linoscan 1400, Epson Expression 1680 Professional (E1680-PRO) and Umax PowerLook 1100 flatbed scanners can handle up to 8x10 inch film: they should be sufficient for tack sharp 48x60 inch prints. You'll need plenty of memory and storage. For large format photography I recommend sites by Q.-Tuan Luong and Paul Butzi. reviews high-end scanners.

Scanner table

With digital cameras capturing most development effort, progress in scanners has slowed, but Konica-Minolta has some intriguing new models. Steve's Digicams has a list of scanner links, which may be more up-to-date than the links here.
Scanner table
listed by format— alphabetical within each format. Discontinued models in small print/gray.
Scanner Format
/ bit
IR dust
Canon Canoscan FS4000US
35mm/APS 4000 4.2*/42 600 FARE USB/SCSI. Scans more slowly than Nikon or Polaroid 4000 ppi scanners. See my review, which links to other reviews. *Dmax = 4.2 in 42-bit mode; 3.4 in 24-bit mode.
HP Photosmart S20 (Discontinued) 35mm 2400 ?/36
no USB. Can scan panoramic images. Discontinued in 2002.
Konica Minolta DiMAGE Scan Dual IV 35mm 3200 4.8/48 240 no USB 2.0. APS optional. Scan Dual III was reviewed favorably by and Steve's Digicams. Excellent buy.
Konica Minolta Scan Elite 5400 35 mm 5400 4.8/48 570 ICE "Grain dissolver" diffuses the light source. Exciting new product. Could be the top 35mm scanner as of mid-2003. The 5400 II (2005 model) doesn't seem to have the grain dissolver, which was one of the attractions of the 5400. The 5400 is still on KM's website, but it's getting hard to find.  Photo-i review
Nikon Coolscan V ED (LS-50 ED) 35mm 4000 4.2/42 570 ICE4 4000 dpi, higher speed replacement for the LS-IV ED (Oct. 2003). MSRP $600. An attractive buy
Nikon Super Coolscan 5000 ED (LS 5000 ED) 35mm 4000 4.8/48 1100 ICE4 16-bit depth replacement for the 4000 ED (Oct. 2003). USB 2.0. High speed scans. MSRP $1100.
Microtek Artixscan 4000T 35mm 4000 ?/36 460 no*  *Software dust removal is less effective than IR. Apparent successor to Polaroid Sprintscan 4000(?) SCSI-2 interface. Polaroid reviewed by Imaging-resource. See Ian Lyons' Polaroid/SilverFast tutorial.
Microtek Artixscan 4000tf 35mm
4000 4.3/42 700
USB and Firewire. Includes Silverfast Ai 6.0 software and additional packages. Relatively fast scans (2 min @ 4000 dpi).
Konica Minolta DiMAGE Scan Multi Pro 35mm, MF 4800 4.8/48 2850? ICE3 Optional 16mm and Minox holders. Dmax spec has met with some skepticism, but was pleased. Check out the Scanhancer, which diffuses with light source, resulting in reduced grain and smoother tones.
Nikon Super Coolscan 9000 ED (LS 9000 ED)
35mm, MF
up to 6x9
4000 4.8/48 2000 ICE4 Replacement for the 8000 ED (Oct. 2003). IEEE 1394. High-speed scanning. MSRP $2000. Will scan 35mm panoramic images with an adaptor.
Microtek Artixscan 120tf 35mm, MF 4000 4.2/42 1500
no* *Software dust removal. FireWire and SCSI-2. Includes Silverfast Ai 6.0 software and additional packages. Apparent successor to Polaroid Sprintscan 120(?)
Imacon Flextight 343
Virtual Drum
35mm, MF 3200 4.3/48 5000
no "Virtual" drum scanner. IEEE 1394. Scans up to 6x18 cm (very nice for medium format panoramic images). Drum scanners can be extremely sharp because their lenses cover tiny areas.
Canon CanoScan 9950F 35mm-4x5
3200 3.3?/48 360
FARE USB 2.0. Lower resolution than dedicated film scanner; excellent for medium and large formats. I trust Epson scanners more. Scans up to 8.5x11.7 inch reflected prints. UK site. | Photo-i review
Epson Perfection 3200
3200 3.4/48 380 no USB 2.0. Lower resolution than dedicated film scanner; excellent for medium and large formats. Scans up to 8.5x11.7 inch reflected prints. My review | Photo-i review.
Epson Perfection 4180
35mm, medium format Flatbed
Good budget choice for medium format film. Resolution may be better than the 3200. USB 2.0.
Epson Perfection 4990
35mm-8x10 Flatbed
Outstanding choice for medium and large format film. Resolution apparently considerably better than the 3200. USB 2.0 and Firewire. Successor to the 4870, reviewed by George Nyman. Photo-i review
Microtek ScanMaker i700
35mm-4x9 Flatbed
Scans 8.5x14" (legal-size) reflective documents. USB 2.0, Firewire. Includes Silverfast SE 6.0. Why don't they specify Dmax?
Microtek ScanMaker i900 35mm-8x10 Flatbed 3200
4.2/48 540
Scans 8.5x14" (legal-size) reflective documents. USB 2.0, Firewire.
Epson 1680 (E1680-PRO) 35mm-8x10
1600 3.6/48 1050 no Comes in several versions. Includes Silverfast Ai5 software. See post. Difficult to justify now that 4990 is available.
Heidelberg Linoscan 1400 35mm-8.5x11.7
3.4/42 1395 no SCSI. 1450 has Firewire interface.
Umax PowerLook 1100 35mm-8.5x11.7
3.4/42 870 no FireWire/IEEE-1394. Watch for new PowerLook 270 with ICE.
Imacon Flextight 848
Virtual Drum
35mm-5x7 8000 4.8/48 18,000 no The gold standard. Lower resolution for larger formats. "Virtual" drum scanner uses an actively-cooled CCD. True drum scanners use photomultiplier tubes. Fast (100 MB/min)
Imacon Flextight 646
Virtual Drum
35mm-5x7 6300 4.6/48 14,000
no Slower than the 848 (40 MB/min.). CCD not actively cooled.
Imacon Flextight Precision III 35mm-5x7 6300 4.3/42 10000
no Virtual drum. Slower than the 646 (20 MB/min.)
If you are buying a scanner, you can help support this website by purchasing it through Adorama, which offers competitive prices and excellent service. Just click on the price, above.
Flatbed scanners scan reflected documents as well as film. All others are film-only ("dedicated" film scanners). Flatbed scanners tend to be less sharp than dedicated film scanners because their lenses have to cover larger fields— typically 8.5 inches wide. But recent models have improved significantly.
MF (medium format) scanners scan up to 6x9 cm.
Most scanners with bit depth greater than 24 (8 bits per color channel) can transfer 48 bit files (16 bits per color channel) to the image editor via the TWAIN interface.
Where two dpi numbers are specified, e.g., 1200x2400, the lower number is the more significant. The higher number is merely the stepper motor pitch.
The bottom line is that scanners are excellent and prices are dropping, though change has slowed down now that manufacturers are concentrating their efforts on digital cameras. You can make satisfying 13 x19 inch prints from 35mm negatives scanned at 2400 dpi (better at 3200+ dpi), and you can make amazingly sharp prints— better than darkroom prints— with a 4000 dpi scanner.

All the scanners I've mentioned provide excellent results when used properly. It's more important to learn to use your scanner well than to purchase the latest, greatest model. (This is true of most other equipment, as well.) I discuss the use of scanners— how to get the most out of them— in Making fine prints Part 2: Scanning.

Film scanner links

Scanning film

Images and text copyright (C) 2000-2013 by Norman Koren. Norman Koren lives in Boulder, Colorado, where he worked in developing magnetic recording technology for high capacity data storage systems until 2001. Since 2003 most of his time has been devoted to the development of Imatest. He has been involved with photography since 1964.