Iconoclastic Scanning Service

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I've been looking for scanning services to scan about 40 years worth of slides, negatives and prints. Most reviewers cover the most common ones.

I came across one unusual service, DPS Dave, that is based in Oregon and does all their work there.

Dave makes some claims that are at odds with what most services say, but I don't have any experience with scanning analog images, so I'm not in a position to judge. I'm curious about what others think about his claims.

  1. Dave claims he gets better results from scanned prints than from scanned negatives. His explanation is that negatives (particularly "consumer grade" film) tends to fade and otherwise degrade over time, and while prints can also degrade over time, the kind of degradation that prints undergo is more possible to correct for post-scanning. Every other service I've seen says that if one has both a print and a negative of the same shot, scan the negative.
  2. After scanning to TIFF, Dave uses the JPEG-LS codec to losslessly compress the image. I can't find a lot of info about JPEG-LS, other than that it isn't a widely adopted codec. But, my understanding (perhaps wrong) is that there are other differences besides compression loss (for standard JPEG) that makes TIFF a superior format for scanning analog images. In particular, my understanding was that the dynamic range available in JPEG is less than TIFF is capable of. Then again, since we're not talking about a RAW original but a scan, I'm not sure if the dynamic range in a scan from negative or slide really is that much better than what JPEG is capable of.
I'd be curious as to what others think of Dave's claims...
 
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He might have a point about the prints. I always scan the film, but having done a lot of that, I have run into quite a few rolls of consumer grade color negative film where it’s obvious they were processed badly by the cheap bulk lab in the 1980s or whenever. You wouldn’t see any difference for the first few years, but after 15–20 years, some rolls show evidence of the different color dyes fading, possibly due to fixer chemicals that weren’t fresh. The first challenge with those is that each dye may fade at a different rate; that can be addressed in Lightroom or Photoshop especially with channels. But a second challenge can happen if dye layers also faded differently along the edges of the film, because now you have to apply different corrections spatially, using tools such as graduated filters. Yet other rolls in the same plastic sleeves in the same binder are still in great shape, probably because they were processed differently.

Also, the bulk labs that served drugstore photo counter customers commonly returned negatives in the same paper envelopes the prints came in, and I don't think those were acid free. I moved all my film into archival plastic sleeves, but if most of the negative film he gets from customers comes in the original paper envelopes, the acids in the paper could have damaged them further.

Prints can also fade, but in an album out of light they can be more stable than color negative film. They do not have all the information as the negative, but 1) the information in the print might have survived in a more consistent form than a faded negative, and 2) many customers are probably happy enough with the level of detail in a print, because they're not critiquing technical quality. A small print may show a blurry image from a snapshot camera, but what most people care about is that it’s the only image they have of their parents in their youth. They do not care that you can't make out every detail due to slow film and lack of image stabilization in film cameras.

I don’t know much about JPEG-LS. The DPSDave website also talks about proprietary methods developed in-house to produce extraordinary resolution and dynamic range. That’s quite a claim, because if anything was that good, other labs with deeper pockets would be expected to use it too. Maybe it can be explained at least in part if he picked up a drum scanner. While old, bulky, and increasingly rare, drum scanners are still superior to most scanners used today. Especially for dynamic range.
 
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@Conrad Chavez
Thanks much for your extensive (and quite clear) reply. These negative strips, are, indeed, from "consumer grade color negative film" (typically Fuji), and they were processed, for the most part, in cheap bulk labs, because at that point in my life, I didn't know any better. And, yes, the negative strips were put in the same envelopes as the prints, sometimes protected by their own paper sleeves, and other times not. I rather doubt that the paper used for the envelopes or protective sleeves would have been acid free.

Since (almost) all of these photos are family memories, and at least half were taken with cheap cameras (the camera quality increased with a combination of increases in my interest, my financial capacity, and my experience as a photographer), my goal for the scanning project is to preserve the images in digital form, since that will stop any further deterioration of the physical incarnation of the shots. But, my experience with Lightroom tells me that even if the original isn't that great, if that original has enough information, it can be substantially improved over the OOC version, and that's worthwhile. I do intend to do a certain amount of "post scan processing."

You've given me food for thought (and have complicated my decision, but in a good way!).
 
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were processed, for the most part, in cheap bulk labs, because at that point in my life, I didn't know any better.
The deteriorated negatives I worked with were also my own, because when I got those rolls developed in the 1980s and 1990s , the only affordable option was to drop off our color film at whatever store had a “develop & prints” sale going on that week, not even thinking that we might find out decades later that lab quality control can vary. We didn’t have much of an alternative for processing, because how many people were doing C-41 color processing at home? There were pro color labs, but those were not cheap.

It isn’t even a guarantee that a pro lab will be better. I have some black and white prints I had printed by a “pro” darkroom lab, but 20 years later some of the prints have bronzed. I scanned the B&W film so I can reprint them myself, and the magic of digital is probably going to help make them better and more archival than the prints from that “pro” lab.
 
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I would send a small sample to him first if you do decide to use him. And my preference would be a TIFF file if you planned on doing some post processing. I am not sure why he is not offering the TIFF file as an option if that is already in his workflow, but I would see if that is possible.

Good luck,

--Ken
 
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I would send a small sample to him first if you do decide to use him. And my preference would be a TIFF file if you planned on doing some post processing. I am not sure why he is not offering the TIFF file as an option if that is already in his workflow, but I would see if that is possible.
That's exactly what I am going to do; I'm also going to send the same sample to another scanning services, so I can compare the results. I'm intrigued by him, but he is definitely out of the mainstream in a number of ways.

I spoke with him over the phone, and he seemed hesitant to send TIFFs. I'm not sure why (since I'd be paying for whatever medium the scans would be sent to me in). I didn't press him at the time; I figured that I might as well wait until I look at the test sample and decide that he's my preferred vendor before pressing the point.
 
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I did a lot of negatives and a lot of prints and frankly "it depends". I had some prints that were much better than negatives, and the reverse.

One advantage of doing it yourself is you can do both and make that decision; it's only time. Doing both with all images for a fee becomes expensive.

Though doing 40 years worth is going to probably cost you a fortune. Sure you don't want a hobby for a few weeks of DIY? I bet for what a service will cost you can buy plenty of nice hardware to do this, unless you count your own time of course.
 
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I did a lot of negatives and a lot of prints and frankly "it depends". I had some prints that were much better than negatives, and the reverse.

One advantage of doing it yourself is you can do both and make that decision; it's only time. Doing both with all images for a fee becomes expensive.

Though doing 40 years worth is going to probably cost you a fortune. Sure you don't want a hobby for a few weeks of DIY? I bet for what a service will cost you can buy plenty of nice hardware to do this, unless you count your own time of course.
I'm retired, so it wouldn't be fair to count my time...

I've done a count, and I have about 5000 shots on negatives (95% 35mm, the rest 110), all of which I have prints for as well. In addition, I probably have about 500 prints for which no negatives exist, including some black and white prints that go back to the early 1950s. I then have about 1000 Kodachrome slides, none of which have been printed.

Is this really only "a few weeks" of work? And can I do this as well as a scanning service? The scanning services seem most commonly to use the Nikon Coolscan 9000 for film/slides, and that's an expensive piece of gear!

(Obviously, I don't know much about what DIY entails...but I'm willing to learn!)
 
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So I think "it depends" for that also.

Here's my experience.

Slides are easy. An ES-1 from NIkon and a 60mm Macro on a full frame camera, an off-camera flash or even white light, and you can copy slides as fast as you can blow the dust off and they come through very nicely. Slides were the easiest thing I did.

Negatives a more problematic. You can get something like the Nikon ES-2 which is more prepared for loose negatives; I used the ES-1 and made a carrier that would fit inside of it (after taking out the springs that held the slides). That's the option for shooting them with a camera to yield a negative image, which you have to invert. There are tools to do it (Negative Lab Pro is a good one) in the context of lightroom, or you can drop into Photoshop and do it there (tons of tutorials online for that process).

Or for negatives you can use a flatbed scanner and carrier, and something like Silverfast or Vuescan software. Most people, as far as I know, will let such software produce a positive image.

Or you can buy a specialized negative scanner; I was unable to tell how much value they add vs taking photos with a DSLR.

By the way, B&W negatives were pretty universally easy to do; no color casts involved, much less fading.

Both of these steps above produce a positive image that is somewhere between terrific and horrible; it depends a lot on how faded the negative is, and the tools you use. It's very hard to tell from looking at the negatives. I had some which were too faded to use, I had others I could work on quite a bit and make tolerable. The worst were ones that were not uniformly faded, e.g. one side of the negative was a completely different color than the other. OK, that wasn't the worst, but I threw out the ones that had spills and sticky stuff that had ruined the negative entirely. I, and my "help", were not always careful over the years.

Then there's prints -- these are really easy to scan on a flat bed scanner -- get on that has at least 300dpi, maybe a bit more, and can scan 16 bit TIFF's, and you are pretty much set.

Here's where there is a big grey area between what a service would do and what you can do. Each of the above paths yields an image that is flawed -- it may have color issues as simple as white balance, or where preferential fading has just made a mess. It may have scratches, dust, stains, it may be over/under exposed (and was it scanned the best to accommodate that; do you want to go back and try again). Unless you were really a great photographer AND archivist for all those years, you will have a lot of problem results. EVERY shot will potentially have some issue you want to fix.

A service will have a set of tools they use, they will likely adjust white balance either automatically or by eye. They may have additional services for various levels of restoration. You won't know how much effort you want to put in, frankly, until you see the result. It's hard to tell a service in advance what to do, which are worth the effort, which are not. And if you have prints, and can just decide "the print looks better" -- how do you tell a service to make that decision.

And then... there's organization. Putting in metadata, doing face tagging, captions, dates... this can be a black hole in which you can get lost for months. But this is also an interesting point in favor of doing it yourself. I continually would run across a set of images I did not recognize, and went into detective mode -- when it was it, who was it. If you are doing that as you go, context can matter -- notes on the sleeve, a date on the photo bag from the lab, which lab it was. Or maybe you were organized and all this is easy. If so please do not tell me!

I spent years doing this a few weeks at a time in spurts, but 90% of that was in restoration or organization, not actually digitizing. Once I got the ability to take photos of negatives and slides, and a good flatbed scanner (I think $200? Not too expensive) that was pretty quick. but you can spend an infinite amount of time retouching, and a lot of time finding out "who is that blond with Cousin Charlie in 1943".

I found it very convenient to be making these decisions -- including to throw out hundreds of images -- as I went. I'd start scanning in a bunch of images and realize they were snapshots of (say) zoo animals from visiting washington DC in high school. Not people, not relatives, not art -- I just though a zebra was interesting because it was probably the first time I saw one. 99% of those I just threw away. But I didn't decide that until I saw a few positives and remembered what they were. Having your brain in the loop as they get scanned can add a lot of value.

Anyway... I ramble. It's a hugely subjective decision, how much effort you are willing to put in. An aspect in favor of a service is you can just send them ALL off and other than paying the bill, they ALL come back done and you do not have it hanging over you for ages "should I go back and work on it some more". But if you are a decent photographer/post-processor already, I almost guarantee you will not be as happy with the results as if you did it yourself. IF you actually finish doing it yourself. Took me a LONG time.
 
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Is this really only "a few weeks" of work? And can I do this as well as a scanning service? The scanning services seem most commonly to use the Nikon Coolscan 9000 for film/slides, and that's an expensive piece of gear!
(Obviously, I don't know much about what DIY entails...but I'm willing to learn!)
You are asking all the right questions.

In theory, it’s only “a few weeks” of work. In practice:
  • That’s a few weeks of work with no other time priorities. It’s easier if you’re retired or the kids have grown and moved out, but otherwise all kinds of life things come up and scanning/retouching suddenly drops down on the to-do list. I bought a Nikon film scanner 20 years ago, and at this point have scanned over 100 rolls of film (at least a couple thousand frames)…but I still haven’t scanned all of my film! Because something else always comes up, like needing to finish a paying job. If your time = money then sometimes, sending it out doesn’t seem so expensive (but I’ve never done it).
  • It can take a lot less time if you, as you said, you know what DIY entails. But if you don’t yet know, and you want future-proof quality, then you need to learn best practices in everything from resolution to color to formats to correction and repair… All of that can take some time to master, you also have to factor in time needed to make mistakes, throw out the 200 images you realize you made a big mistake on and do them over. After a while, you don’t make those mistakes any more and then you can start being an efficient production line. But a good outside service has already gone through the mistakes and are ready to process your images with a tried and tested, get-it-right-the-first-time workflow with equipment that’s completely set up properly from the beginning.
  • The tools change, and get better, over time. I kinda wish I had started scanning today and not 20 years ago, because every part of the workflow can be done easier and faster now. Heck, we didn’t even have Lightroom or raw/DNG options when I started (although Bridge + Photoshop isn’t so bad). Because things change, if it ends up taking too many years to do the project (see first point above), then periodically you might stop and think about whether it's worth redoing some valuable chunks of past work to take advantage of the latest tech. Current applications make it possible to rescue some images I might have given up on 20 years ago. And now I scan at full resolution more often because mass storage is now significantly cheaper, and computers so much faster.
 
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