Do you all remember the days before digital cameras? Do you all, like me, have boxes of 35mm slides and paper envelopes of negatives stashed in dark corners of the house and attic? Even more importantly, you may have some old archive photos, like your grandparents on a pre-war holiday at the seaside, or family events dating back decades, or your dad, or you, in a Lone Ranger outfit circa 1960. The bad news is that film media like this deteriorates even if it's stored carefully, and that's assuming it survives tearing, scratching, getting lost in house moves or accidentally thrown out with the rubbish. Tracing one's past is a popular activity, and old photos put flesh on the factual bones of who begat whom.
We were forced to do something by our slide projector, which had been on its last legs, finally giving up the ghost. Putting slides one by one into a hand held viewer is no way to enjoy them. Scanning and saving on to a PC seemed the easiest route, but we soon discovered that a basic office scanner does not produce decent results. Most of our slides were Kodachrome 64, a high quality, high definition medium which looked terrific projected. Scanned in they lacked depth, colour intensity and definition at the edges. Something more photo friendly was required.
Enter, to a roll of drums, the Canon 9950F. It markets itself as a professional image scanner and tackles the issue with a twin blast of image specific hardware and software. Now I'm quoting from the manual here, as what I know about optics and imaging is, ahem, scant, although I can vouch for the results. It has a very high scanning resolution to capture sharpness, colour and depth and an aspherical scanning lens which removes distortions at the edges of the photos. The inbuilt QARE (for slides and negatives) and FARE (for prints) software performs clever adjustments to revive, restore and improve the images as it scans.
So open the box and what pops out? The scanner itself is a typical flatbed shape, slightly bigger and heavier than the basic paper scanner. I'll just pause here to admire its looks. None of that putty coloured office styling. This is smart gloss black with neat silver controls; it has smooth lines combines with a sturdy solidity that smacks of efficiency. The rest of the contents are less aesthetic but just as important: USB cable, power cable, software disks and manual.
Set up is as straightforward as adding any other new hardware. Provided in the package are plastic templates which sit over the scanning screen and into which the slides or negatives are slotted. So there's one with 12 35mm x 35mm squares for mounted slides, one with 5 strips of 6 negatives and others for differing dimensions of prints which we haven't used. These keep the film securely in place. You are advised to fill in any gaps with paper, if, for example you are only scanning 4 negative strips. We have found the ends of film do the job very well as they are exactly the right size.
Now the fun begins. The range of options and settings is huge and you will need to experiment a bit to decide what gives the best results for you from your sources. The first choice is simple or advanced mode; the advanced mode is the one that opens up the fine-tuning options. You can select a different setting for each slide or photo, or apply the same settings to the whole load. Broadly these settings are:
Input source and size - what you are scanning from, such as slides or negatives, and how many. This activates the QARE or FARE software.
Scan settings - high, medium or low quality
Output settings - selection of colour, resolution and size of scanned image.
Image settings, sub-divided into -
Autotone - on or off
Unsharp mask - on or off. A bit counter-intuitive this one. It is a process not unique to Canon which involves blurring the edges to enhance sharpness. It is a Good Thing.
Remove dust and scratches - does what it says, at high medium or low setting
Fading correction - as above
Backlight correction - as above
When it has finished you will have a cascade of images on the screen. Open each one in turn to check the results are what you wanted, and if not, do more adjusting, or crop, enlarge or reduce as you wish. The beauty of this scanner is that you don't have to export the scanned images into other software like Photoshop or Irfanview to do the tweaks - it can all be done in one operation. Now give each one a filename and save it to the desired folder.
Some of the results we have had have been truly amazing. Ancient slides, more than 40 years old, have been restored to wonderful clarity and sharpness even better than the originals. Dust and scratches are completely removed. The few wedding pictures of my parents and parents-in-law, taken in the days before huge wedding albums, are now restored and safely on file. One particular slide, taken in a deep shadowed valley in southern Spain with all the attendant lighting problems, revealed, when scanned and tweaked, a group of people in the foreground we hadn't even realised were there. All photos are now neatly labelled and filed in album-folders with dates and places. (Except, alas, the odd few unidentifiables!) Viewing them, they look good on a 17" TFT screen, or you can link your PC to the TV and see them even bigger and better. And remember, back them up, or if your PC irredeemably crashes you'll have to start over again.
Are there any downsides? Well inevitably a few. Digitalising your life is still a fairly complex process, not just for photos, but also for vinyl LPs (but that's another story). I can't emphasise enough how long this scanning takes. Go back up a couple of paragraphs to the tell-tale phrase "when it has finished". It takes hours. Literally. Four hours plus at times. I have to take issue with Canon's marketing blurb of "blistering speeds". This is a job for the long winter evenings. You also have to be prepared to tie up a PC. You can, of course, do other things while it's scanning, but depending on your computing power it will slow the process down and perhaps even stop entirely so you have to start again. And this is not counting the time it will take you to get to grips with all the options, and fine-tune the scanned results at the end. Then you need plenty of storage space on your hard drive - our stored photos and slides now take up a cool 20Gb, although you could download each batch on to a rewritable DVD as you go. Finally there's the cost, in the order of £300 at the moment, and what to do with it when you've scanned in all your photos. It is, after all, a hefty price to pay for just scanning bits of paper. So it's a commitment, of cash and time.
There are a few other facilities, although it's far from being multi-functional. You can, for instance, create a PDF file or send an image by e-mail direct from the scanner. There are programmable function buttons on the front of the machine for these. And, of course, in simple mode, it does very quick document scans but as I said above, you wouldn't buy it just for documents.
This photo scanner certainly gets five stars for quality but only three for speed, and I suspect that if you want faster results of this quality you would have to pay considerably more. However, one of the drawbacks of a review such as this is that I haven't bought and compared several different makes and models. Not at that price. All I can tell you is that this one works. And you know you'll have to do something about all those slides and negs, don't you? We've got ours sorted (smug grin). Now the rest of the family want theirs done .....