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I've been wondering this for awhile now. Is it better to scan a 35mm negative, or a larger print from the negative? Which will provide a better scan? Does this change when moving to a larger film, like 120 or 4x5?

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6 Answers 6

up vote 17 down vote accepted

Its better to scan the original slide/negative as its better to reproduce from as close to the source as possible meaning quality of reproduction goes down in this order:

  1. The source (whatever it was you actually were shooting)
  2. The slide/negative or digital camera file
  3. A print of the photograph.

It essentially comes down to every stage of recording introduces a level of interpretation by the medium, as you move away from the original source you're now reproducing all the interpretations those other mediums introduced.

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2  
There is an exception to this rule, of course, and that's when the print differs significantly from the negative (because of processing and manipulation) and is a well-known or "accidentally unique" image. In that case, oversampling and cleanup of the print scan, as tediuos and time-consuming as it is, can be easier than trying to recreate the original manipulations, no matter how good your processing notes are. It's still worth using a better scanner than the one built into your printer, though, like outsourcing to a Heidelberg drum scanner. –  user2719 Feb 13 '12 at 2:53

As said here, the original source will always contain a better quality.

But you also have to consider that, the negative is smaller and you need better equipment in order to capture that, with better resolution and better optics.

Your scanner may be able to capture more than 2000dpi image, which will give you a lot of pixels even on a inch big negative. But a image scanned in 2000dpi will have higher noise than from a image scanned at 600dpi from a larger picture.

So what I'm saying is if you don't have a scanner good enough to take advantage of the raw negative, you may find that is more practical scanning a print. Sometimes the printed picture will be good enough.

Definitely not an exact science.

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That depends on the print.

Is the print just a simple print, or has processing been applied, e.g. filters to enhance contrast, burning, dodging, etc. Then I would suggest that you scan the print, if this is the version you like and want.

Otherwise, I would scan the negative.

E.g. Had I an Ansel Adams negative, and the corresponding print, I would certainly choose to scan the print.

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Assuming that there are no technical issues with the scanners I would go with the negative. Any print will have some level of interpretation in it in terms of how colors map from negative -> print. So in effect you can do negative -> scan or negative -> print -> scan the first seems better to me.

Of course if you don't have a negative scanner using a print scanner may be "Good enough"

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It's always better to scan the original material: the negative contains much more information than the print does. Can you capture that information? A film scanner can. My experience (5+ years ago) is that a flatbed with transparency adapter does not do anywhere near as good a job capturing detail in the negative as a film scanner can. A flatbed captures only marginally more detail from the negative than it would from a print, in fact.

But, probably the most important thing is to understand how to get a good scan. Whether you scan a negative or print, just using the automatic options will not get you the best scan you can get, and therefore is throwing away detail.

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In theory you can get more out of a negative than a print. However, in practice you are more likely to have access to a flat bed scanner that can give a wonderful scan from the print. A good film scanner is much more expensive and slower.

Considerations are similar for larger format film. But the costs go up even more, since the consumer-level film scanners tend to handle consumer formats. A medium format or larger film scanner start getting very expensive.

So this is a case where theory says one thing, but your budget might say something else.

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5  
+1 for "theory says one thing, but your budget might say something else" –  Nir Feb 13 '12 at 10:39
    
In theory? Seems like a foregone conclusion :) –  Shizam Feb 15 '12 at 16:25

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