How to Choose a Photo Scanner

Photo scanners can be very simple or ultra-complicated — you choose

Flatbed scanner, elevated view
Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images

You’d think that as long as digital cameras and, more importantly, photo scanners, have been around, nearly all the photos in the world should already be digitized. Alas, apparently, we’re still not even close, or maybe new hard copy prints get generated every day — perhaps both. In any case, the point is that, just as the need for photo printers continues, so does the need for photo scanners. However, not all photo scanners are the same, and it really depends on what you plan to scan, the required scan quality, and how often you plan to scan photographs, to determine how sophisticated a machine you need.

About Photo Scanners

The best photo scanners are, of course, drum scanners, but only specialized imaging service bureaus can afford those. The next best are high-resolution flatbed scanners, such as Epson’s Perfection V850 Pro Photo Scanner. Not only does it scan at ultra-high resolutions, but it also comes with a set of adapters for scanning transparencies, slides, film, and negatives, as well as fairly decent photo enhancing and correction software.

If you want to use your scans of photos, transparencies, slides, and such in print layouts or other applications that require ultra-high resolutions, you’ll need to scan them at high-enough resolutions, or dots per inch (dpi), that they can be enlarged without decreasing image quality. Good photo scanners, such as the Epson model listed above, for instance, can scan as high as 6,400dpi and beyond.

For example, to convert a slide to an 8x10-inch image, you need to scan at about 2,000dpi or higher.

And the pixels per inch (PPI) for an image with the physical dimensions of 8x10 inches is 1,800x3,000, at 600dpi.

Shopping Around

So you’ve already looked around and you found a flatbed scanner like the one described in the previous section — for only $100. It scans at 9,600dpi, has a 48-bit color bit depth, and it comes with all the image-editing and other software required to touch-up and save the images you scan, as well as optical character recognition software (OCR), and document cataloging software.

A great deal, right? Well, yes, if all you’re doing is scanning images for Facebook and other social media sites, this setup is fine. But keep in mind that much of the resolution and color reproduction achieved in the less-expensive model are the results of interpolation and other software routines, or a lot of smoke and mirrors, whereas the high resolutions and color depths captured by the $1,000-scanner (or higher) are actually picked up and digitized by the lenses inside the scanner. In other words, you get a detailed dot-per-dot reproduction, rather than an image where the scanner (and accompanying interface software) compensate for a lack of high-quality, high-res sensors.

Taking the Plunge

So which photo scanner will work for you? Truthfully, if the majority of your images will as mentioned, show up on the web, or perhaps saved in your digital catalog either on your computing device or your favorite cloud site, the $100 scanner will probably work just fine for you. Only professionals who intend to print or use some other high-resolution version of the images somewhere else, require the treatment performed by a high-end photo scanner. And yes, sometimes, depending on your application, that scanner atop of your multifunction printer will do just fine — sometimes.