The topic of 35mm film scanners comes up occasionally around the office and in correspondence with Shorpy and Vintagraph readers. The email I receive generally comes from individuals looking for a recommendation of a scanner to archive family photos. Because everyone’s needs and budget are different it’s not easy to make a general recommendation.
When looking for 35mm film scanner reviews I assume most people want a high-quality archive of a prized image. Because of that I recommend staying away from the cheap, sub-$100 scanners you may run across. Output from these scanners will have limited dynamic range and may have trouble creating a decent 8×10 print.
Nikon Coolscan film scanners were without a doubt the best film scanners on the market for serious hobbyists. They sold for around $600 and produced professional results. Unfortunately Nikon discontinued manufacture of the Coolscan line a few years ago.
Used Coolscan scanners can still be found on eBay for a huge premium ($2000 and up) and they are arguably among the best film scanners available. If you can afford it, go ahead and get the Nikon. It’s what my business partner uses. If you plan on using the scanner for only a few months it may be worth your while to purchase a used Coolscan on eBay. You can resell it when your project is completed and you may even make some money.
If you plan to spend less than that, Plustek makes film scanners that generate great results. I’m currently using a Plustek OpticFilm 7600i and have been happy with the scans (example below). It will output files at up to 7200 dpi and is easy to use. Plustek’s various models run from $300 to $450.
No matter what you buy, you should get a scanner that can output images at 3600 dpi or better. Definitely avoid anything below 2400 dpi unless you are happy just posting your images to the web or making tiny prints. You should also avoid flatbed and all-in-one scanners that have film-scanning features. Except for the most expensive, these devices work best for quickly scanning an image to post online. Their sharpness and dynamic range will not be sufficient for serious work.
After you’ve purchased your scanner I recommend purchasing VueScan software. It supports most scanners and generally has an easier user interface and offers more features than the bundled software that will come with your scanner. It’s what I use.
For a more indepth look at various scanners on the market and their benefits be sure to read B&H Photo’s roundup from last year. I also recommend Taking Care of Your Personal Archives from The Atlantic, which discusses the handling and digitizing of prized family photos.
Florida, 1993. Scanned with Plustek OpticFilm 7600i.