If you're like most of us, you've got your recent snapshots stored on your computer or a stack of CDs. But what about the real treasures, old family photos and slides that go back for generations? You've most likely stashed shoeboxes full of snapshots along with the negatives, disintegrating albums, and slide carousels in the attic or basement.
It's time you brought the family archives into the digital age. Why would you want to? For one thing, you can stop -- or even reverse -- the deterioration, restoring the vibrancy to your old color photos, or the crispness of black-and-whites. Digital prints made on modern inkjet printers will last longer without fading or changing colors than those made from film. It's easier to view the digital copies on a computer or TV than it is to drag out and set up a slide projector and screen. And it's cheaper to make copies for family and friends (and the safe-deposit box).
What you'll need is a scanner and computer. If you set the scanner for the best quality and store the files in the uncompressed TIFF format, both of which I recommend, you'll want a DVD burner as well. With file sizes of 50 to 100 megabytes or more for each negative or slide you scan, a DVD will hold hundreds of images, vs. a dozen or so per CD.
While you can make pretty good copies of snapshots on an inexpensive all-in-one printer, which comes with a built-in scanner, I've been looking at standalone scanners. Some are designed to handle film and slides, and to deal with the multitude of problems you are likely to encounter with old photos, such as faded prints, dust on slides, or scratches on film negatives.
The type of scanner you need to buy depends on what you want to preserve. If you have mostly old snapshots in envelopes or albums, but without negatives, your best bet is a flatbed scanner. Top-rated models include the Canon (CAJ) CanoScan 9950F, which lists for $400, and Epson's new $550 Perfection V700 Photo. (Retail prices are usually lower.)
These flatbed scanners are designed primarily for photographs and documents. But they have the high resolution you need for copying film and slides -- up to 6,400 pixels per inch in the case of the Epson -- and they have the back light and film holders you need to scan transparencies. In fact, if your slides or negatives are something other than 35mm film, such as 2.25 in. or 4x5 in., these scanners are the best for film.
If, on the other hand, you have trays full of 35mm slides, or you've saved every negative in the envelopes that your prints came in (as many people have), you'll get more satisfactory results from a dedicated film scanner. These tend to do a better job picking up details in the dark areas of a photograph. But your choices are pretty limited. The gold standard is Nikon's $600 Coolscan V ED, which can scan negatives or slides at up to 4,000 dots per inch. Unlike a flatbed scanner, it won't take up much room on your desk -- it's less than 4 in. wide and about 12 in. deep. It's also fast, scanning a negative in under 40 seconds, instead of the 4 minutes the Epson takes at its best settings.
Another choice is a film or slide scanner from Pacific Image Electronics, which specializes in them. I looked at the company's PowerSlide 3650, which will list for $899 when it comes out in May, and will probably sell at retail for $850 or less. Its big advantage is you can load up to 50 slides in the tray and it will scan them automatically at resolutions up to 3,600 pixels per inch. The comparable Nikon setup, the Super Coolscan 5000 ED with optional 50-slide feeder, will set you back about $1,500.
One reason these gizmos are so expensive is that the high-end versions come with a very powerful image enhancement package from Kodak (EK) called Digital ICE. ICE uses software to remove dust and scratches from your film and slides, but requires special hardware and a second scan over the slide or negative to do it. The extra scan uses infrared light, looking for three-dimensional defects such as fingerprints or specks of dust. The software also can soften the graininess you sometimes see in high-speed film and restore the original color when it has obviously faded or changed.
Don't be too aggressive when you clean your prints or film; a soft cloth for fingerprints and bulb-type air blower for dust are safe. Scan, and save your scans, at the highest resolution. It takes more time, but that will let you print bigger enlargements or crop and print only the part of the photo you want. Finally, when you're all done, return the original film or slides to the attic.
This is no Saturday afternoon project. Depending on how many photos you want to digitize, it will take weeks to make a dent in your treasure trove. But once you've finished, you can enjoy those old photos as you never have before.
By Larry Armstrong