Film To Digital Transfer… And Beyond


 For any photographer with vast archives of film-based images, the challenge is still out to bring them into the digital domain with spending a fortune or wasting huge amounts of time. Trevern Dawes

Photography may be well and truly entrenched in the digital camera era, but many photographers still have the bulk of their work in film form. Whether a professional or an amateur, dealing with those collections is a critical matter.

As much as I care to admit it, I m becoming one of the older generation of photographers, and that means that I certainly have a very large collection of film-based images. That collection is important, so I ve taken all the necessary steps to transfer the best across to digital form, it has made life easier, and it keeps publishers happy too, because they really don t want to be bothered with film scanning if you can provide a digital form. It also affords those irreplaceable film images another form of protection.


The process of transferring images from film to digital form affords the opportunity to rigorously edit everything. You can decide what must be scanned (Category A), what shall be discarded (Category B) and what can be set aside as undecided (Category C). Or you can take the recommended  time management  approach of looking at category C and directing everything to A or B.

After spending so much time and effort to accumulate a vast collection of pictures, there will always be reluctance and resistance to cast things out. Sometimes it needs to be done slowly —so it doesn t hurt so much. Why not treat it as a downsizing-of-house exercise where you know the next storage space will be significantly reduced.

Many of our images are retained because of sentimental value. Perhaps images are retained because they served a useful purpose —in my case, thousands of pictures for stock photo libraries —but that collection is now out of date and has no further commercial value. By all means retain a few  specials , but the bulk is no longer worth it. Why hold pictures that only clog up your system and occupy storage space? One way of film editing is to declare that if it s not worth scanning, then it s not worth keeping.

Before discarding images, it is important to consider if they might be of documentary value, in which case they could be passed on to organisations or individuals who would welcome them.

Of course, personal shots of family, friends, or special occasions deserve to be treated carefully and should be preserved. A selection of these might end up in albums or photo books, but they re more likely to flow with the electronic age and become part of a DVD (or Blu-ray) for replay on screens large and small.

Transfer Methods

There are different ways of transferring film-based images to digital form. The aspects to consider are cost, scanning resolution, scanning times and image file sizes. A dedicated film scanner is the ultimate, but beware of the $50  el cheapos . Expect to pay about $1000 for a quality 35mm unit, and many thousands for a high-end model capable of handling large format film. It remains a constant source of surprise that there isn t a greater choice of mid-range film scanners; the sector is very sparsely populated indeed.

Consequently, the most accessible option is using a flatbed scanner with a film adapter, and these have vastly improved in recent times. They are adequate for 35mm and excellent for medium-format film. The capacity to scan hard-copy prints as well makes these scanners ideal for family history photo collections.

Using a digital camera with a macro lens over a light box is yet another approach. This is a good way of handling large collections of transparencies and negatives (these must be inverted in Photoshop) quickly and efficiently. Cameras with high resolution capacity will deliver better quality than a flatbed scanner and can match some dedicated film scanners.

Data Storage

Finding the appropriate method is one aspect; copying every piece of film is another. You may set aside an hour a day or prefer to allocate a whole day every now and then. You may also consider hiring someone else to do the job.

Today external or portable hard drives are the best options for digital image storage of large collections, while small picture collections can reside on USB drives. For example a 16 GB USB unit costs about $24 and will house about 1600 images of 10 MB each. These are safe and secure storage systems, small enough to carry on a key ring (though at the same time, small enough to misplace or lose).

The flash memory cards used in digital cameras could be another alternative, especially as they are exceptionally stable over time. As all these miniature units increase in storage capacity and decrease in price, it becomes all the more likely they ll become prime methods of image storage.

The hard-disk drive represents the best option for permanence, quick retrieval and the capacity to hold just about everything in one small, relatively compact unit. Of course having all your photo  eggs  in the one basket has its disadvantage if the unit is lost or damaged, but it is a better proposition than having boxes of CDs and DVDs that are heavy, bulky and not likely to outlast a well-stored hard drive. Of course, these hard drives should be backed up —ideally several times —and the duplicates stored in a separate, safe location.

As hard-disk drives have moving parts, there is the risk of failure. That can be covered by multiple backups, but an alternative is the solid-state drive (SSD) which has the inherent reliability of a flash memory card. However, SSDs remain quite expensive for the moment, and aren t available with the extra-large storage capacities of HDDs.

Keeping Up With Technology

Transferring images from film to digital form means finding a final means of storage. As technology advances this will force us to continually move our archives. This could be expensive and it could certainly be time-consuming.

When I elected to scan my collection of 6 x 7cm and 6 x 4.5cm format transparencies and negatives, the most practical and affordable means of storage was the CD. DVDs had yet to arrive, while external hard drives were expensive and did not have the large capacities available today. A 6 x 7cm transparency scanned at 4000 ppi occupies about 260 MB, and this meant just two images per CD! The entire 6 x 7 cm collection on nearly 1250 CDs ended up in four very heavy custom-made timber boxes.

The current styles of external hard drives now have the capacity to store all my film records in one unit for less than $100, so I knew it was time to move everything across from the CDs.

At an average of three minutes to copy each image from CD to HDD, it proved to be a long and tedious process. A period of three minutes wasn t even long enough to allow other tasks to be accomplished. (At least the backing-up from one hard drive to another allows time to wander off.)

You may find it interesting that from my entire collection there were 12 CDs that could not be read at all, while about 20 CDs required a decent clean-up to avoid waiting 40 minutes for the transfer.

It was a laborious task, yet something that needed to be undertaken. The images are now on a safer and easier-to-retrieve system, and everything is compact. Those heavy CD boxes are earmarked for demolition!

Who knows, though —in another few years it might all need to be moved across to the latest and greatest in storage systems. But the longer I delayed the job, the more likely I d encounter deterioration problems with the CDs and the inconvenience of having to scan and clean up some transparencies again. The advice here is definitely don t wait too long to transfer your files to a newer medium if there s a danger the one you re currently using will become obsolete. This is less likely to be a problem with HDDs; the emphasis has instead switched to the methods of connection. USB —in its various forms —appears well entrenched, so there are less likely to be problems in the long term with the way digital storage devices communicate with each other. Wireless data transfer systems may eventually render cables obsolete too. Not forgetting, of course, the option of off-site storage, real or cloud.


The transfer of film records to digital form ought to be undertaken with a photo data storage system. Check out the different programs and ascertain what works best for you. Determine how easy it is to input data and how many fields you ll need (subject location, sub-location, date, people, subject type, etc.). Also check if captions can be added and searched, and searched via key words. Remember that once you have made a start on data input, you don t want to be changing programs and probably having to start all over again. Remember also that garbage-in equals garbage-out, and that the database must be backed up and preferably stored at another site.

The photo database exists to serve you. Look after it and will save you countless hours.


Nobody likes to dwell on morbid matters longer than necessary, yet we all need to realise we have a  use-by  date. As photographers, are we therefore obliged to consider what happens to all of our work down the track? Perhaps bring it down to the basics, ensure it is well catalogued, create print portfolios, personal books or audiovisuals, store everything in a neat and compact way and generally make it easy for others to access and use.

Look at the situation from the point of view of others. For example, how would you like to inherit Uncle Pete s entire collection of photography stuffed away in shoeboxes or stacks of slide boxes without any specific instructions?

Our photography is a two-phase situation. We look forward to what we ll do today and tomorrow, but must devote time to what we did in the past, to ensure the best is preserved as well as possible. Good photo housekeeping helps to make life easier for us now —and will do so for others in the future.

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