Franken-Scans / by Jared Elizares


Film photographers have many hurdles to tackle in the process of obtaining great images. Buying, developing and scanning film can all be quite costly (although surveys suggest that the average film shooter spends less on associated costs than a digital shooter, whose regular upgrades are significantly more expensive).

Larger film types, which are considered professional level, often come with professional level expenses. It's trivial to take a roll of 35mm film to a 1-hour lab, and prints or scans can be attained for $15 or less - for all 36 images. Medium format (120) rolls will cost $7 to process and $1 or more per scanned frame, up to 16 on a roll of film. Large format (4x5 or 8x10 film) will cost $7 per frame to develop, plus a dollar or two per scan. You can see how costs increase exponentially with film type.

For this reason, it makes sense for film photographers to develop and scan their own films. Unfortunately, darkroom setups aren't possible in every living situation, but scanning is definitely within reach for most people. A decent medium format scanner can be obtained for $100 or less. Large format shooters, on the other hand, are severely limited in scanning options. The only readily-available consumer level models are the Epson V700/750 and V800/850 series. They go for $750+ new and as much as $550 used, which is far more than most of us pay for our cameras. Epson doesn't really have any competition in large-format flatbed scanners, so what other options do we have? The solution I devised might seem terribly tedious, but it was surprisingly simple and relatively inexpensive at the end of the day. 

By habit, I check Craigslist for photo equipment at least once per day. Depending on what I'm looking for, I use a variety of search terms and browse a few different categories. Obviously, PHOTO is where I find the majority of my supplies. However, it's worth performing searches within ELECTRONICS, COLLECTIBLES, ANTIQUES and even BARTER and GARAGE SALE. You'd be surprised at what you might find!

In my daily searches, I often come upon very old and outdated equipment, including electronics and scanners. With patience and research, it's possible to find quality film scanners on Craigslist, and often for less than $100. With the goal of scanning 4x5 film in mind I kept a sharp eye and eventually found a used Canon CanoScan 9900F for $25. I have used CanoScans before for medium format and am very pleased with the results, comparable or superior to the Epson V500 that is far more common.

Simply acquiring a piece of hardware is really only one milestone. I discovered in my research that many older scanners from Epson, Canon, HP and MicroTek do not have support drivers for modern operating systems. After all, these machines were discontinued in film's dying days, so many of them were last released in the early 2000's. The CanoScan 9900F, for example, is limited to Windows XP, and only the 32-bit version.

I briefly contemplated returning to Craigslist to secure an old PC tower, but I don't really want the clutter in my apartment. Why buy a system to scan just ONE type of film, especially when I'm only scanning a few frames per month? 

Enter virtual operating systems. My research has repeatedly led me to discussions about using modern operating systems to run classic OS' from various manufacturers as an executable application. Basically, I can install any Windows or Linux OS on my Mac and run it while I'm doing other tasks within OS X.  I immediately took to Google to look for options and found a free virtual OS application known as VirtualBox. In less than 5 minutes I had installed VirtualBox and set it up for Windows XP. Note that you have to have the OS files in some format - perhaps the original CD - otherwise VirtualBox will be nothing but a blank hard drive. Savvy computer people will be able to find downloadable versions of the OS required, which are often called "images". The image can be saved to a USB or accessed directly by VirtualBox, allowing you to "install" the operating system you need. It took me less than 15 minutes to get Windows XP running on my Mac, set it up with the scanning software for my CanoScan, and begin digitizing images. 

We live in a truly glorious time. My Macbook Pro is, as I write this, running Windows XP in the background, operating a long-discontinued film scanner, digitalizing film expired 10 years ago, with a hacked camera/lens setup (each piece of the set being as old as  my grandmother). I have the highest appreciation for the geniuses who have paved the way to make these kinds of things possible.

The point of my entry is simply this: You can salvage, repurpose or reuse just about anything you find in an antique store or on Craigslist. If you see photo-related gear, keep yourself open to the possibilities. I guarantee that there's somebody out there who's devised a way to put those pieces of equipment to good use.