I am writing this in 16 minute sessions. That’s how long it takes my old, and until recently little used, Nikon Coolscan film scanner to digitize an image at its highest quality settings. There are gaps of equal or greater duration between these sessions when I’m busy preparing to scan the next image. Most of that cannot not be done in parallel because it requires use of the scanner to measure the film's warp, calculate the optimal focus setting, and/or determine if the film must be remounted. To say this is tedious is a great understatement. Sixteen minutes is too long to do nothing, not long enough to do anything significant, and the long breaks in concentration make it unwise to do anything important, so writing this serves well.
I started doing photography using film as a kid in the middle 1960s. After getting my first real job in the late 1970s, I used literally all of my combined holiday and vacation time to travel for the express purpose of capturing images. I could never do the things I wanted with only two or three weeks of vacation per year, so ten years later I became self-employed so I could spend between three and four months per year taking pictures. Before buying my first digital SLR camera in 2005 I accumulated roughly 80,000 images on film. Digital image capture was revolutionary for me and many others. Not only did it offer higher image quality, but it was dramatically easier and faster put the images to use, and storing them took almost no physical space. I was so enthused about digital image capture that I abruptly abandoned everything associated with film when my first digital camera arrived. This is evidenced by a recent find of several hundred rolls of processed film in a closet that were still sealed in their shipping boxes. It was the last film I ever exposed.
As digital technology and image quality improved I increasingly regarded my film images as inferior. I seldom thought about them, except on occasions when I’d remember a particular image and look for it. Finding a given image was not exactly easy, and then it had to be scanned, so I avoided the task. It was almost as if the several large cabinets full of film that I walked past on a daily basis did not exist. Why invest more time in these inferior images when I could make better ones now? At the same time, the memories held by the old images and the enormous investment I have in them kept made throwing them away. It was far easier to ignore this conundrum than to do anything about it.
Before April of 2020 I used all of my available time exclusively to travel and capture photographs. Careful examination, culling, sorting, scanning, printing, posting or otherwise using those photographs was always relegated to evenings and weekends at home, and only when that time was not otherwise devoted to household chores and the many other aspects of life. That resulted in my culling only the most obvious failures and storing everything else. This was not as much of a problem for digital images because they take no physical space and the work can be done far more easily on a computer. Conversely the film takes up a lot of physical space and must be viewed on a light table with 4x and 10x loupes to check sharpness. I thought that I might do all of this work after I was too decrepit to be out capturing more images.
As is often the case, life had a much different plan. I was not too decrepit to be out capturing images in May of 2020 when I began this project. In addition to separating the wheat from the chaff I needed to digitize the wheat and throw it away along with the chaff. That was necessitated by a long distance move my wife and I decided to make. Due to the expense of moving the film storage cabinets, the probability that we will not have space for them, and the fact that I have seldom used them for the past twenty years, the film would not be moving with us. The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and my retirement in the middle of the same year left me with time to do, or at least start, this job. This was definitely not how I imagined my retirement would begin. Although I knew it would be a big job, the enormity of the project was still a surprise. As I mentioned earlier, it takes about 16 minutes to scan a single image at 4000 dpi, 14 bit, with 16X oversampling to maximize quality. It's the 16X oversampling, which in essence scans each image 16 times, that makes it take so long. That also gives the scan better quality than can be obtained by nearly all other methods. But the meticulous preparation, which I will describe below, is as important and typically takes longer than the scanning. This means that at most I can’t quite get two images scanned per hour, and it is not unusual for a single image to take an hour or more. A normal full time job averages 2087 hours per year. I’ll leave the math to you.
None of the E6 process films are ever flat. The older Kodak E6 versions that were available during the time of Kodachrome are by far the worst. A casual look shows they are irregularly lumpy and bumpy, like a flatter version of a potato chip. The newer Kodak versions are a little better, and all of the Fuji versions are better than any of the Kodak versions. Sometimes the film must be remounted in a rigid plastic full frame mount to reveal 100% of the image, and/or to help flatten badly warped film, or because the film is in a glass projection mount that the scanner cannot handle. If the film still cannot be flattened to place the entire image is within the scanner’s depth of field, two or more scans focused at different distances and focus stacking are needed. If the film is underexposed, carefully adjusting the scanner’s analog gain, or even making two scans, one with a higher analog gain than the other and combining them can be required. In the worst cases over an hour can be spent to digitize a single image, and worst cases are not rare.
After being inserted into the film scanner and scanned, the film changes shape as its temperature equalizes with that of the barely warm scanner. In fact I sometimes do a “throw away scan” to speed this up. With that done, the scanner’s manual focus feature is used to sample focus in various locations and calculate the optimal focus setting. Then it’s time to click “scan” and hope the film is done changing shape. The oldest Kodak Ektachrome films are never done. By comparison the Kodachrome films are thicker, quite flat, and the most temperature stable. Those can usually be scanned almost immediately and just one scan is usually needed. To make up for that the scanner’s infrared dust and scratch removal does not work with Kodachrome films due to their three dimensional emulsion. Manually removing dust spots and scratches can sometimes take longer than the time saved by the quicker scanning of Kodachrome, but that can wait until a later time. This project gave me much greater appreciation for Kodachrome film than I previously had, and fortunately most of my film is in extremely good condition. The big takeaway from all of this is that if one wants the absolute maximum quality that can be wrung out of film, scanning becomes a fussy and mind numbing process that must be tailored to each individual piece of film. When this is done the image quality can be remarkable, but obtaining that quality is certainly a lot of work.
Given the time involved it is obvious that I can digitize only a tiny percentage of my very best film images, and determining which ones fall into that category adds even more time to this project. With some exceptions I have spent a portion of every day scanning film for more than two years, and have sometimes spent in excess of 40 hours per week doing it. I can’t go any faster, and I have done lots of work to determine that no faster method results in scan quality equal to or better than my obsolete Nikon film scanner provides. I believe that is because other scanners do not have a 16X oversampling feature. Well, there actually is one better and faster alternative, which is sending the film to a scanning service that still has a working, well maintained, and obsolete drum scanner. The problem is that a high quality drum scan costs around $35 per image. That is actually reasonable given the equipment and maintenance costs, skilled labor, and time involved, but I don’t have a couple million dollars to spend on this. Since my agonizingly slow method can come very close to the quality of a drum scan, and I'm not willing to leave any image quality unrealized, I’m stuck. The unending tedium of scanning film makes it hard to force myself to continue each day. On the other hand I feel compelled to spend the time required to optimally digitize these images. After all, I would gladly spend an entire day or more attempting to capture any one of these images now, as I often did when these pieces of film were exposed. The fact that every day rewards me with a several good photographs that I could never capture again is more than enough motivation for me to continue. This is delaying our move by many months, but I think the sacrifice is worthwhile. Beyond saving space, digitizing these images saves them from a dark and unseen existence, making them as accessible and useable as my digitally captured images.
The biggest reward that has come from this project is the realization that my old film images actually accomplished everything I hoped they would when I captured them. I'm surprised in a good way. They are at least as important to me as my most recent digital images, and in many cases I find them to have considerably more value. I spent 25 years capturing images on film and so far only 18 years using digital cameras. During those last 18 years photographic opportunities in nature declined tremendously. New technology may be capable of capturing technically better images, but technology cannot restore opportunities that are gone or moments that will never be repeated. Further, good images are not diminished by new technologies. Photographs are like stationary rocks in the flowing river of time, each preserving a moment that will never occur again. Images made using older technologies certainly have a different look than those made with the latest technology, but “different” does not mean "bad". No one seems to be throwing away Civil War photographs due to their "inferior" technology. In fact some photographers still use film and even older technologies because they want the look - grain, low dynamic range, and all. They do this in spite of the fact that using these old technologies is more difficult and has become astronomically more expensive than using the latest and far “better” digital technology. In fact, companies like DxO and others make software to give digitally captured the look of "legendary Kodak and Fuji film stocks". In the end, artistic quality has almost nothing to do with technical quality and the technical quality of some old films is not as bad as most people imagine. That is especially true in light of the latest post-processing tools and methods. Photography is ultimately about little more than achieving the images one wants to achieve. It is only necessary that the photographer enjoy them, and a bonus if anyone else does.
I believe that photographs should always be seen for the feelings and sense of the subject they invoke. Picking apart technical issues misses the point of photographs and photography entirely. Grain, low dynamic range, low light sensitivity, and the sometimes odd color balances of film emulsions are characteristics that photographers fully realize when they capture images on film. They are an intrinsic part of the image. Even if one believes an image would be “better” if captured using the latest technology, doing so is usually impossible and nearly always completely impractical. The most advanced camera cannot capture images of Glen Canyon before it was turned into a water tank, or the forests that cover much of America before climate change, beetles, and fire started turning them brown, or even Delicate Arch without a massive crowd around it on a September evening. On the other hand, the human mind is very capable of translating black and white film images into the real, or once real, subjects they depict.
The film I have been digitizing holds images of a time, when nature was more intact, wildlife was more abundant, and all of it could be better experienced. There were 108 million fewer people in America and 3.4 billion fewer on the planet when I began capturing images on film. In the meantime humanity has done an excellent job of destroying everything it touches. When I see the old images I recall the experiences surrounding their capture in minute detail, as if they happened yesterday. They allow me to be a time traveler of sorts. My digitally captured images obviously do the same things, but to a lesser degree because they are newer.
Whether captured on film or digitally, my photographs are for me the most important manifestation of my existence. They are the artifacts of my experiences, the material version of my memories, and keys that find and unlock those memories. They are the result of my greatest lifetime effort and expense. In retrospect I could not have spent the time and money in any better way. It was a great bargain relative to what it has given me.
In case you are wondering, I captured all of the images shown above on film between 1976 (last image) and 2001 (top image). There are many more, some older and some newer. I will certainly be posting these old images on this website for many years to come, along with newly captured images if I get any that seem worthwhile. I probably have another one or two months worth of digitizing work to do before I can get rid of my film scanner. At that point every photograph I have will fit on a single high capacity hard drive plus a couple of backups. The cabinets that held my film for nearly 20 years will be gone, followed by my printing, matting, framing, and art show equipment. Last but not least, I will dispose of all but a few prints in my ridiculously large inventory. Life will become much more portable and I believe much more care free.
Deterioration of the places in which I photograph and the circumstances under which photography must now be done in them has taken a big toll on my enthusiasm for taking pictures. That's especially true in familiar surroundings because I have a point of reference and know how they have changed. I occasionally wonder if I'll miss my favorite places after we move. Then I realize that I have already stopped going to many of them for the reasons I just mentioned, and what I miss no longer exists. At the moment I have more enthusiasm for bringing new life to my old film images than for capturing new ones. I still enjoy getting out with my camera occasionally, but I'm not the intensely driven photographer I once was. To make up for that I've become a putterer, reminiscer, and much more avid hiker. I am surprisingly fine with that, at least for now.
Life in the future will have a somewhat broader focus with more of it involving extended family. After getting settled, exploration of vast surroundings will occupy as much time as I've got to spend. Completely different, unfamiliar, more pristine, and very much less crowded natural environments might even rekindle some enthusiasm for capturing images. If not, I’ve already had a pretty good go at it.
On August 8, 2022 my two-plus year scanning task was finished. I took a couple days off and then cleaned up the mess. It consisted mostly of film images I had set aside to go through a second time, and countless cardboard slide mounts that were removed when I scanned the final batch of images. I threw away all of the images I had set aside for further consideration without looking at them again. I felt the fact that I had looked at them once and put them aside meant they were already out of the running, even though that was not my original intent. I'm certain that I threw away many pretty darn good images without scanning them, but the fact is that I'm sick of the job and cannot possibly scan every image I'd like to have. I know the memory of each one is somewhere in my head, but without the visual cue of an image they are foggy, difficult to find, and very seldom accessed. They are hidden by a veil of time that becomes more opaque with the passing years.
Throwing away all of the film was really difficult. Every image I saw in going through the roughly 80,000 brought back a memory, and some of the best memories were brought back by some of the worst images. There's also something special about film. Each piece of film was present when the image it holds was captured, and it held that image for decades. Perhaps more importantly each is a unique original. No copy, digital or otherwise, can quite equal it. That's why I went to such great lengths to get the best possible scan from each and every one, and why it took about 2.2 years to scan just a couple percent of them. Throwing away the film honestly felt like throwing away a big part of my life. It represented my best memories from a 25 year period that ended 18 years ago, not to mention all of the work that went into capturing the images and dealing with them since. I suspect that this is how hoarders feel, though probably more intensely. Fortunately film can be stored compactly. The cabinets I used took just 12 square feet of floor space. The film storage cabinets are still here so I just measured that. The 48" wide light table, film scanner and other accoutrements are still here too, but disposing of those will be much easier.
I'm still a little sad that the film no longer exists and that the vast majority of the images are gone with it, but there was no better alternative. Life will go on, and I think the best is yet to come.