Are we losing the ability to scan film?
I like my digital prints from film much better than my darkroom prints (dye transfer notwithstanding). To those of you who still like darkroom printing of film, I think that's fine! I'm not dissing what you do, heaven knows, so please don't get defensive. Darkroom printing is great! You just happen to be a minority (much as black-and-white photography is a minority of all photography); the majority of serious photographic printers out there see hybrid as the better way to go.
This particular column is for said hybrid printers. If you're either entirely traditional or entirely digital, from camera to print, you can skip this—it's irrelevant to you.
Two weeks back, I mentioned that my Minolta DiMAGE Multi Pro AF-5000 scanner had died and was in need of electronics servicing. I put out a call to any readers who knew of someone who still serviced this scanner. I came up with no one—neither Precision Cameras nor Mack Cameras, the only two suggestions I got, work on this model, because they don't have a supply of parts for it. This is the first time in my experience that the hydra that is the TOP Readership, with its astonishing collective store of knowledge, was incapable of solving a photographic problem. It is all too possible that there really is no one repairing the scanners any longer, anywhere (if that's not true, please e-mail me: firstname.lastname@example.org).
In the meantime, I was able to circumvent the problem. My scanner had started behaving erratically and then wouldn't boot up at all. After some research I ran across a posting that pointed to a failure in the FireWire interface as the source of the problem. I switched the scanner to SCSI I/O and it booted up just fine. Well, I no longer have any SCSI-interfaced computers. More online research found me a SCSI-FireWire converter/adapter. So far, it's working fine.
But what happens when something goes wrong that I can't hack my way around? It is becoming more and more difficult to economically or conveniently get high-quality film scans.
This situation is one that I honestly did not expect anywhere near this soon. The wholesale switchover from film photography is a recent phenomenon. It's about a dozen years old for medium and large format film, and less than a decade old for 35mm film. That's not a long time, compared to how long most photographers have been photographing. The majority of important photographs in the world (either to the collective consciousness or the individual photographer) are on film, and the majority of serious photographers' stock is film photographs.
It's a legacy problem that the making of new photographs doesn't eliminate. Yet, it has already become just about impossible to do medium format film scans without throwing a great deal of money at the problem or scrounging around for old hardware.
Minolta is no more and Nikon no longer makes medium format film scanners. The other major photographic manufacturers never did. There is still a high-quality medium format film scanner made: it's from Hasselblad. The low-end model starts at $13,000. Cough. Realistically, getting really good medium format film scans means either spending substantial sums of money with one of the few labs out there that still does scanning, or finding a used medium format scanner, which are in sufficient demand that they now go for about 50% more than they did originally.
If your scanner breaks, you will likely be in trouble. If you get a new computer, you'll likely be in trouble. No companies write updated drivers for these old scanners. Why should they care? You're going to have some very interesting problems if you try to run your old scanner under Windows 7 or Mac OS 10.7 (Lion). As in, you're not going to be able to! You'll need legacy hardware and software for that.
It is not going to get better. The issue here is not whether you can access an old photograph for secondary or casual use, it's whether serious photographers, who really cared about making good photographs, will have a way to make full use of the quality of those film photographs in the digital realm?
By and large, flatbed scanners don't take up the slack. Many of them will scan film, but they do it at a much lower level of quality, unless you spend very large sums of money for professional-level units (we're talking about gear that most photographers have never even heard of, with prices that can easily start in the high four figures and go into the mid-fives).
I've been talking about medium format scanning but it's happening to 35mm, too. It just hasn't yet reached the crisis level. There are a lot fewer 35mm film scanners being made today than there were five years ago. I have a bad feeling that by the end of the decade, they are going to be as hard to find as medium format scanners are now, and they will be just as poorly supported.
Before I die (or give up photography) I may no longer have "access" to my 30-odd years of film photographs. Until recently I had not even imagined that this could become a possibility.
It is not a happy-making thought.
Ctein's regular weekly column appears on Wednesdays. To access older columns, click on the "Ctein" category in the right-hand sidebar.
Note: Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site. More...
Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.