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Is It Better to Scan Photos or Negatives? Is there a Difference?


If you’re considering scanning your photo collection, you’ve probably wondered if it’s better to digitize the slide/negative or the photo itself. However, people commonly lose or misplace the original negatives, which basically leaves them with no choice but to scan the prints. If you’re fortunate enough to still have the original negatives, it’s recommended that you go with negative scanning. In almost all cases, you will get a higher quality scan if you can the film, negative or slide instead of the print or photo simply because the negatives contain much more information than a print provides.

A good way to think about this is to consider the negative as the ‘original’, and the printed photos as ‘copies’. Like most things, you generally want to avoid making a copy of a copy, and always strive to copy from the original or master for best archival results. The same principal lies with image scanning.

Generally, photos are printed at a quality of about 300DPI. Sometimes you’ll find higher quality prints can be upwards in the 600DPI range. Because of this, we recommend scanning your photos at 600DPI for photo archival quality. Scanning photos any higher than 600DPI won’t provide much of an improvement in quality because at 600DPI, you’re essentially capturing all of the available data from the print.

However, since slides and negatives contain much more data than prints do, you can scan negatives and slides at up to 4000DPI. As you can probably guess, scanning negatives results in a substantially larger file size, providing a much more detailed, true archival image.

Before making any decisions, there are a few points to consider:

– What kind of shape are your negatives in?
Often times people misplace or mix up their negatives, which can cause difficulties if you’re trying to sort them out. They can also be damaged from being stored or left in unsatisfactory conditions and suffer from a host of problems like mold, fading, scratching or warping.

– What kind of shape are your photos in?
Older photos are susceptible to color change, fading, bent corners and all sorts of ailments. If your photos are in rough shape, it might be better to look for the negatives instead.

– Will you be scanning yourself, or use a company?
This can be a dealbreaker for some people, simply because the cost of good negative scanner is much higher than a flatbed photo scanner. Companies, however, will typically have very high-end scanning equipment available.

– What is your budget for this project?
In most cases, scanning photos is much cheaper overall. Generally the equipment for photo scanning is cheaper, and companies charge less to scan photos than slides or negatives. If your budget is slim, you way want to scan the photos for now, until you have the funds to move to the negatives.

People with lots and lots of images to scan will often opt for the photo scanning route, and then later picking our their favorite images to also scan from their negatives.

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