Negative Scanning Vs. Print Scanning - Which is Better?

"Should I scan the photos, or the negatives?"
For those fortunate enough to still have their original negatives, this primary and key decision needs to be addressed. There is no shortage of information on the subject, including in-depth technical analysis on the differences between negative scanning and photo print scanning.

What people need, though, is a simple guide to help them get started looking at their options in a way that will leave them personally satisfied and pleased with the results.

A Fight That Isn't Really A Fight!
A lot of articles and forum threads make the subject of print versus negative scanning sound like a winner-take-all death match between two diametrically opposed technologies.

First, let's dispel that idea. Both methods have their clear advantages and clear disadvantages. We will start by putting the flatbed on the shelf, focusing instead on specialized negative and photo print scanning equipment.

Most of the "which is better" assertions still out in forums are founded on the assumption that people are either using flatbed scanners for digitizing both prints and negatives or using a flatbed scanner for the prints and a dedicated film scanner for the negatives. Today, a flatbed scanner is rarely the best choice for digitizing large numbers of either print or negative scans.

Instead of focusing on flatbeds, this discussion is going to consider the use of dedicated film scanners, such as the Nikon CoolScan series, along with the current generation of specialized auto-feed photo print scanners, such as the Kodak Picture Saver Scanning System. This is an important distinction over typical flatbed to film scanner comparisons. Flatbeds take about the same amount of time to scan a photo print as a dedicated film scanner does to scan a negative. Modern auto-feed photo print scanners, however, scan prints 20 to 40 times faster than either a negative scanner or a traditional flatbed scanner. This significant time advantage has to be factored into your decisions when planning a large-scale photo digitization project.

5 Key Factors Helping to Make the Best Selection
Before deciding, do a quick inventory of what you have available to scan and ask yourself some important questions:

  1. In what physical condition are the original prints? This includes size and state of deterioration. Embedded dust, tears, scratches, water damage, fading, and acid or adhesive damage from old photo albums, and other factors likely will affect at least a small portion of the collection at hand. Photo scanning does not miraculously fix all of these issues without digital post processing after they are on your computer.
  2. In what physical condition are the negatives? Are the negatives available? If so, are they organized so that you know with a reasonable level of certainty what is on them? Index prints or having the negatives with the printed copies of the photos often helps in this regard. Are they scratched, fingerprinted, warped, stuck together, water damaged, mildewed, or damaged by dust? This can be a little more difficult to discern with negatives than with the physical prints, but it will have an impact on your scan quality.
  3. Do you have the scanning equipment (or a trusted local scanning service) available? If you are serious about scanning more than just a few photos for a specific project, it is worth investing in purchasing or renting specialized equipment to get high-quality results. Scanning an entire collection takes time, and having an auto-feed print and fragile document scanner like the Kodak Picture Saver Scanning System or a dedicated slide and film scanner like the Nikon CoolScan will be money well spent. If you are doing slide and film scanning with the Nikon CoolScan, you will likely want to research which models best support automatic feeder adapters for the type of media that you are scanning.
  4. How much time and money is available for the project? This is a big one. It is every bit as important as the technical details of which scanning technology captures the most leaves on background trees or the precise contrast of your cat's whiskers. All physical photographic media, whether it is print or negative, is subject to degradation over time. Faced with preserving thousands of photos, having very good digital copies of all of them is typically preferential to having exquisite copies of just a few.
  5. How much post-processing you want to do in your post-scanning digital workflow? Straight off of the scanner, print scans will look a lot like your printed copy in its existing state. Negative scans will look like a the current state of the negative, only larger. This is often inverted by the capture software settings into a "positive" image. A positive image looks more like the finished print, but not exactly. When you processed your film originals out of the camera, you or your photo lab probably made some level of adjustments when making the first set of prints. Exposure and contrast were likely adjusted from the negative during print making. Additional techniques, such as cropping, burning in, and dodging may also have been used. A negative scan will need these types of adjustments to be re-done using a program such as Adobe Lightroom to look like the print that you remembered. At a bare minimum, negative scans will need color correction applied based on the type of film that you were shooting. Excellent pre-set color profiles exist for most major film types and can be found for your capture or processing software with a little bit of Internet searching.

Remember: Digitizing your analog photo library is a very important step for you and for future generations. Taking a few moments with the questions above to assess your collection and options is time well spent.

If you are responsible for preserving your family or organization's entire photo collection, you will likely find a place for each of these technologies in your digitization plans. Certain images will be better served by negative scanning, and others will make more sense to scan using the latest in photo print imaging technology.

Now that we have a general idea of the type and condition of our originals along with an idea of what some of our scanner options are, let's take a look at some of the pros and cons of negative and photo print scanning.
Negative Scanning
  • You are closer to the source image as it appeared to the camera when the shutter was clicked.
  • Negative scanning captures light being projected through a translucent piece of film. This typically means that you will capture a higher dynamic range from dark to light portions of the photo using a negative scan than you will from a print scan.
  • Detail can be sharper than with print scan. This is particularly true if the print copy was made with the lab's enlarger improperly focused or with the negative curled. Other poor processing decisions at the time of print making may also have affected your print copy's exposure and overall image quality.
  • If you do not already have prints from the negatives, you don't need to make them to use this scanning method. This makes it ideal for photographers who currently shoot film but do not want to make prints before working with the photos on their computers.
  • Film scanners work, not just with negatives, but also with slides if you have the correct feed mechanism.
  • You are closer to the source image. When you scan a negative, the digital file that you create is more of a digital negative for doing other things with later than a digitally finished copy that is ready for display. You will almost certainly need to do some post-processing in software such as Adobe Lightroom to get something looking like a finished product.
  • You may not have realized how much your old camera's exposure settings were off until you scan your negatives. Photo labs graciously hid inaccurate camera settings from casual photographers for decades when creating prints.
  • If your negatives are not organized, it may be difficult to know what you are scanning until you are scanning it due to the small size of the original.
  • Even if your negatives are organized, mpst of us took several exposures of a shot when we were shooting film and only kept prints of one or two favorites. You will need to figure out which exposures were your favorites and which were throw-aways from series of similar shots.
  • Negative scanning is extremely slow when compared to modern print scanning, even with good equipment. Budget 1-2 minutes for each capture, not including post-processing time to get a finished looking image.
  • You will have to scan negatives at a much higher stated resolution than when you scan prints to get similar results in terms of file size and pixel count. This is because your original image being scanned is much, much smaller. If you are used to scanning on your flatbed, 1200 dpi sounds like a lot. It's not enough for negative scanning, however. When your source image is only 35mm (about 1.38 inches) wide, however, that translates to about 1,656 digital dots per line. That is less than you will get from scanning a 4x6" print at 300 dpi resolution. Think in terms of scanning around 4,000 dpi if you are scanning negatives.
Examples of those who might prefer negative scanning
  • You are currently a photographer shooting film want to get your photos into your computer for your personal digital workflow before creating print copies or publication-ready digital copies.
  • You do not have prints of your photos available, or the prints are damaged.
  • You have the time and patience to spend 1-2 minutes per scan plus post-processing for each photo to get superior results.
  • You are going to do a lot of close cropping in on very small objects in the photos.
  • There are extremely subtle details in the shadows or highlights of a photo that are very important to preserve.
  • You want to re-create images from your old, analog master copies with a new feel, not necessarily to have an exact replica of the photo prints in your album or storage box.
  • Here's a quick summary guide: When using your digital camera, if you tend to shoot RAW formats instead of the default JPEG formats, you should probably consider at least selective use of negative scanning on key images.
Photo Print Scanning
  • Your digitally scanned copies of the photos will look close to the current state of your printed photos. You will be familiar and comfortable with how they look. There will be less post-processing (such as color and exposure adjustments) to make your scans look like they do in your original albums.
  • If you are dealing with copies of photos personally developed and enlarged by the artist to have a particular look, scanning the print instead of the negative will preserve this aspect of the artist's work.
  • Professional photo print scanners like the Kodak Picture Saver Scanning System can scan prints at up to 30-60 prints per minute. Using a high, 600 dpi setting is particularly beneficial when scanning 4x6" prints or smaller originals. The current generation of Kodak photo scanners will capture 15-20 scans per minute at 600 dpi, making them 20 to 40 times as fast per photo as negative scanning. Over thousands of photos, that is the difference of finishing scanning in days instead of finishing scanning in months.
  • Unlike negative scanning, the original is large enough that you can clearly see what you are scanning and its condition before you put it in the scanner. What you see is what you get if you do it right!
  • Auto-feed print scanners also work for scanning documents, including fairly fragile ones.
  • Your originals were cropped in a bit from the negatives at the photo lab. You probably never noticed this, but it did happen for almost all prints. That is how the photo was able to bleed all the way to the edges of the paper without a border around it. The background edges of your negatives have additional trees and shrubs that you may never know about if you scan the print instead of scanning the negative.
  • While the new Kodak print scanners are fast and gentle with the photos, you need to watch your results carefully as you scan, cleaning the scanner's glass elements and rollers frequently. This will help prevent streaks from appearing, particularly in the darker areas of your photographs.
  • Print scanning works by bouncing light off of the paper backing of the photo. This light travels back through the photo's pigments and is captured by the scanner's sensor. The nature of how light reflects from a photo print tends to result in a slightly reduced dynamic range when comparing the highlights and shadows to a well captured negative scan.
  • Any mistakes made by budget photo labs improperly enlarging the original prints will be carried through into your scans. If you are not happy with your prints, scanning them will not drastically improve them without additional editing work.
Examples of those who might prefer photo print scanning
  • You have thousands of photos that you want scanned and on your computer.
  • You want to get high quality copies of the photos scanned in days instead of months.
  • You do not have the negatives or they are damaged.
  • You're more of an archivist than a professional photographer or Photoshop expert.
  • Here's a quick summary guide: If you have used your digital camera in the default JPEG file setting for years and have been happy with the results with only minor adjustments before sharing your photos with others, then photo print scanning will probably be right for you. 
Some concluding thoughts...
If you organize your photo collection scanning project by photographic quality of the original, the formats available to scan, the relative importance of fine details in shots, and how you want to use the photos once they are scanned, you will likely find a place for both print and negative scanning in your collection.

For select shots, you may find that it is worth the 20 to 40 times longer to scan the negative to get certain details out of the original. If you are a photographer currently shooting film but using a digital workflow, this may be true for all of your shots.

If you have thousands of photos stretching back over several years to digitize, you likely will find yourself quite happy with the results of a modern print scanner for most, if not all, of them.

If you are considering digitizing photo collections with the goal of preservation, the important thing is to get the project started and completed with quality results that you and future generations can enjoy. With the advent of modern auto-feed photo scanners, photo print scanning can be a satisfying tool to achieve your objective, preserving good copies of prints for generations to come.

Arnold Hutagalung
Arnold Hutagalung


1 Response

John Carston
John Carston

June 03, 2016

From what I’ve read it looks like there are times when photo scanning is more beneficial, depending on the task. I like that negative scanning gives higher dynamic range with dark to light, making it ideal for certain projects. Although I like how photo scanning turns out images closer to the original. I’ll keep this list of pro’s and con’s in mind when selecting a scanning method.—film-negative—slide-scanning.html

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