Should I Drum Scan My Film? Or is an Imacon or Film Scanner good enough?

I get this question all the time.  “I have film positives or negatives, and I want to get the best quality scans, but drum scanning is so expensive.  Is it worth it?”

Things to consider:

1. What does quality mean to you?  If it means sharper scans, drum scanning is thee best. Imacon scans run second, dedicated film scanners run third, and flatbed scanners are dead last. Within each category, there are different levels of involvement and cost, but that is the simple breakdown.

2.  If a large file size is what you are looking for, then you need to consider why that might be?  The only reasons to have a denser file size are a. Post processing capabilities (photoshop more before tone degradation appears) b. To make bigger prints.  Again, the ordering scale is just as above in (1.).  Drum, Imacon, Film Scanner, Flat Bed from sharpest to blurred.

3.  How large a print are you making from the scan? If you want a big 20×30 – 40×50 digital print, then you would benefit in having a drum scan as the sharper image blown up will yield little quality loss. So, even though you may get a 500mb file from a drum and 500mb file from an Imacon, if you are making a large print, the drums scan will look better due to its sharper quality.  However, if you are willing to make sharpness less of a priority, you can get away with an Imacon file (and most people do).  If you are making 20×30 or smaller, then drum scanning is really over kill, unless you are going to post process the file heavily in photoshop.  You can also sharpen the file (if you do it correctly) to get close to what you can yield off the drum scanner with an Imacon file.  Again, you can save a lot of money and do an Imacon scan, not as sharp, but great file size which you can then sharpen in photoshop to look really great.  So great, most people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

4. Do you just want to archive you negatives because you fear they may or are getting damaged?  If this is your concern, you should just get a dedicated film scanner, Nikon 4000, 5000, 8000, or 9000 will do a great job at archiving your images to print up to 16×24.  Again, not as sharp as the Imacon and surely not as sharp as a drum scan, but really a professional, and affordable solution.  You can also get these scans done at many service labs for fairly reasonable prices and fast turnaround times. (see: Rayko or Dickerman Prints).

5. What if I just want to see what is on my contact sheet, or put stuff on the web from my film shots?  A consumer level flat bed scanner will do just fine for just figuring out what you may want to scan and print later on, or simply to put on the low resolution living environment of the web (72 ppi).

BOTTOM LINE: A great digital print comes from a great digital file.  The more you can do for your image in its translation from film to digital, the better it will be.  This means knowing what you actually need.  Print Size and Sharpness vs. Cost and Post Processing abilities is all it really comes down to.

Below are examples of an Imacon scan vs. Heidelberg Drum Scan I did at Rayko.

yellow light detail zoom: (Imacon on the top, Drum on the Bottom)

full image (zoomed out): Imacon on the left, Drum on the right (has subtle tone transitions).

Rocks Detail (Imacon on the top, drum on the bottom)

Fence and Road Detail (Imacon on top, Drum on bottom)

  1. Meir Marmorstein said:

    Hi great article I have yet to scan my own images though I plan to buy some kind of scanner soon maybe just a flatbed as i dont make prints to big its mainly just to see them in a larger than negative size. I have also started shooting slide film to make scanning easier. can i scan slides without photoshop and not worry about color changes and as I plan on sending out images to be scanned to be printed 16×20 and larger, does the drum scanner transfer a higher exposure range, it looks like theres more detail do to slight underexposure or is it really that much better. Sorry if this makes no sense I could easily not be understanding all this as ive only had 5mb scans done at a local lab until now. Thanks for your time!

  2. super post, great sample scans too. and yes, wat u want from ur scanner is the most important thing. for me, film is just a hobby. so buying even a dedicated film scanner (forget buying a drum scanner) is not really worth it. i need quality just to view on a screen to see how my shots turned out without having to leave the house (and without having to spend big money) – and my V600 from epson does a pretty good job. sure, adjusting colors and stuff can take a bit of time (and practice) but then again i mainly shoot b/w. and if i really want a high res super sharp image, or a very large print, i’ll go get it done at the lab.

  3. Raphael Gregory said:

    This is a fantastic blog! I have a question. I am shooting Hassleblad 6×6, medium formal, black and white negatives. I am planning to drum scan. While the majority of my output will be 20 x 20 or less, I want to be able to print up to 40 by 40 in the event of a gallery show. My question is this – do I need to go 8000 ppi or can I go 4000 ppi, which is half the drum scan costs! THANK YOU.

    • Generally, I would save the cost and do the 4000dpi. But just to be safe, if I was you, I would scan one at 8000 and the same image at 4000 dpi. Then match size at 40×40, use photoshop, zoom in to 100% and take a look. Yes you waste by buying a double scan, but you will learn so much from it to make informed decisions in the future concerning your work, because depending on how sharpness critical your work is, could also define which route you take.


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