Photography and Imaging

What you need to know

  • Understanding film and print processes of the images being copied will help ensure the best results.

  • You can save images in raw, lossless or lossy formats. All involve trade-offs in regard to size, quality, and usability.

  • The quality and calibration of your computer screen will affect the colours you see when processing an image. What you see may not be what others see.

  • Bearing all this in mind, plan your workflow before you start. How your images will be experienced and used should inform your process.

  • The choice of the camera or scanner hardware and the capture settings are generally the most important considerations for image capture.

  • Scanning film and reflective images can be very time-consuming. Consideration should be given to cost-effectiveness of the image-capture process and storage of formats.

Understanding film and print processes

Film and digital cameras differ significantly in the way they capture images. Print film is made of polyester coated in a light-sensitive silver-halide emulsion. The size of the silver halide salts determines the light sensitivity and resolution (or grain) of the film, with superfine film allowing more fine detail but less light sensitivity. Colour film has at least three layers of emulsion, containing red, green, and blue dyes. Exposure to light through a lens creates a negative image that is then used for printing (slide film is different in that it produces a positive image designed for direct viewing through a light projector). Different size film formats also affect the resolution of the image, with medium and large format film generally providing more detail than standard 35mm film.

A digital camera has an image sensor made up of millions of light-sensitive pixels (picture elements), with the size and quality of the sensor affecting detail, colour, and noise levels, while the number of pixels determines the native resolution. A chip within the camera processes the information captured by the sensor to create an image recorded to a storage device, such as a flash memory card. Higher-end digital cameras will allow the image to be stored unprocessed (raw) for later processing in software.

In both film and digital photography, the function and quality of the lens used generally has more impact on the clarity of the final image than the grain of the film or the number of pixels. A poor-quality lens will not allow enough detail to reach the film or sensor for it to be visible in the final image. This makes the lens optics potentially the most important consideration when selecting a camera to use for accurate digitisation or detailed digital photography.

Resolution and image density

Digital copying of analogue content almost always involves some compromise in terms of loss of information, and scanning of print film and slides is no exception. Unless badly damaged, scanning a negative can provide a far superior image to that obtainable from a print, due to the limits of picture information possible on paper. The greater density of information on film negatives and slides also means a much higher-resolution scan is required than for paper to reveal detail than for scanning a print. Knowing something about the film stock being scanned can also greatly assist determining the appropriate scanner settings to use.

Choice of image format

Image file compression is useful as a means to temporarily reduce the size of an image file for purposes of storage or transfer, and is generally lossless and reversible (that is, no information is lost from the image, and the image file can afterwards be uncompressed). A well-known example of lossless compression is the Windows Zip file compression, where a file can be restored to its identical state and size after unzipping, and no information is lost or altered. For image files, TIFF with LZW compression, PNG and JPEG2000 (not the same as JPEG) formats all use lossless compression.

In contrast to image compression, lossy reduction removes information in a file in order to make it smaller. Image formats such as GIF and JPEG were originally designed for easy viewing on computer screens and transfer over networks. Lossy reduction averages, or interpolates, the difference between two or more bits of information, and discards those bits for one of average value. The discarded bits are lost, and can never be restored to the original, even if an attempt is made to resize the file. This is compounded whenever a lossy file is edited or saved, as each time more bits are averaged and discarded.

Until quite recently, storage capacity for digital cameras and computer hard drives was a significant factor in determining the quality of image coming from a digital camera or scanner. Digital camera manufacturers almost all used lossy image reduction to create smaller JPEG image files to reduce file storage costs. Scanners, while having capacity to capture lossless TIFF images, still often have the lossy reduced JPEG image as their default setting. With storage media now incredibly cheap compared to just a few years ago, file size is much less of a consideration.

In simple terms, lossless compression is fully reversible, while lossy reduction is irreversible. Lossy reduction should be avoided where high image quality and accurate reproduction is desired, such as the creation of reference or archival images, images that may be edited, retouched or cropped, or images that will have derivative copies made of them. Raw digital camera files and raw, uncompressed or lossless compressed scanner files will always offer the best output for image quality, accuracy and editing.

Hardware and calibration

In relation to content creation and usage, arguably the biggest difference between a non-digital and a digital object is that the digital object requires a machine to view or use it (the same can be said of electronic content such as magnetic tape). As such, the hardware used to create and view digital content becomes particularly important, as it can greatly affect our perception of what we see or hear.

Colour calibration

Anyone who has seen a bank of LCD televisions in an electronics store will have experienced the variations in image between different screens, including those with the same make and model. Those same variations occur between digital cameras, scanners, and computer monitors, and will directly affect what different users see as well as what might be output to a printer. Calibration and image management techniques are used to help overcome these differences.

Understanding the basic differences between the way colour works with light and with print is essential if digital images are likely to ever be made into prints or used in a printed resource.

Cameras, scanners, and monitors all create colour with light. Red, green, and blue are the primary colours for these devices, and when overlaid produce white. With print, colour is created with pigments, the primary colours being cyan, magenta, and yellow (black is added as a separate ink to improve contrast). Overlaying these colours create darker shades. Viewing digital images on a monitor or projector transmits coloured light to your eyes, while viewing printed materials involves reflecting light off the colours. The number of colours able to be transmitted by a monitor is significantly greater than the colours possible with pigment inks, which means that a printed digital image is likely to be less dynamic, or colourful, in its colours than the same image seen on a monitor.

One means of managing these differences is to assign a ‘colour space’ to work in (such as ProPhoto, Adobe RGB or sRGB), which identifies the colour origins of the image and allows it to be translated for different environments. Calibrating and profiling different cameras, scanners and monitors to aid accurate representations of images is also a simple but important part of image workflow to ensure that what you see on your screen can be seen by others whether on screen or in print. Colour or greyscale charts or targets included with a scanned image can also assist with recreating the original colour tones of an image when being printed.

Plan your workflow

Choice of hardware (i.e. equipment)

Digital Cameras

If you have a choice of available cameras, the most important thing is to choose a camera that is fit for purpose.

Point-and-shoot or smartphone digital cameras seldom have the kind of sensor or lens quality of DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) cameras, which is most important for image detail, even if the pixel count is the same or higher. Choice of lens will affect factors like image distortion, which is particularly noticeable at image corners when taking photographs close-up or at full zoom.

Increasing pixel resolution does little to improve image information and detail beyond a certain point, which is usually limited by sensor and lens quality. It is rare that a sensor size is increased to accommodate more pixels. As a consequence, pixels are made smaller and more densely packed on the sensor, which has a detrimental effect on image quality. The sensor size of almost all point-and-shoot and smartphone cameras is tiny compared to that of a DSLR camera.

Many non-DSLR digital cameras have difficulty capturing clear images under low light or indoors, while almost all indoor images can be improved with some attention to lighting and use of a stand-alone camera flash instead of a built-in flash. Using a camera mount or tripod will improve the sharpness of images and allow longer exposures.

Only a few high-end point-and-shoot cameras currently support raw image saving, while all DSLRs do. Saving images in raw format commits you to processing each image in software, but can make it easier to preserve the original settings an image was shot under. Ensuring camera time and date settings are correct will also help with later filing, while some cameras now are GPS-enabled (that is, they record information about where the photo was taken), which is useful identifying information if your photography is location-specific.


All digital scanners are effectively digital cameras, and are subject to the same kinds of features and limitations. The sensor quality, native resolution and lens quality all determine how capable a scanner is in reproducing an image – a cheap scanner will have a lower image quality in the same way a cheap digital camera does. As most scanners are controlled by a computer, the software settings used are also a key factor. In contrast to cameras, scanner lighting is always direct and artificial, making the quality and evenness of the lighting also important to image quality.

Scanning film

An important factor in choosing a scanner is knowing the quality of the film being scanned (superfine grain film and slide film will offer more detail to be captured if shot with a good lens) and what will be done with the scanned output (e.g. small prints or viewing on screen versus high-quality prints for exhibition). Another factor is that, with the decline of film photography, many former commercial manufacturers of quality film scanners have stopped production, making quality scanners potentially hard to find.

While flat-bed scanners with film adaptors have improved greatly in the quality of their optics, sensors, and mounts, dedicated film and slide scanners will still provide a better and faster result. Film scanners tend to have a larger sensor that can capture more image detail, while their dedicated lens makes a properly focused image a more likely result. Film scanners, however, are more expensive than flat-bed scanners, so the volumes involved over time may need to be traded off against image accuracy.

Scanning reflective materials

Drum scanners are still widely considered the highest quality for scanning reflective materials such as photographs and text. However, drum scanners are becoming less favoured due to their continued high cost and relative improvements in flat-bed and dedicated book and document scanning technology.

Many reflective materials are not as demanding for scanning as film due to their lower information density, however other factors such as fragility and large size of the materials may pose practical difficulties. Guides on how to prevent damage to original materials should be consulted to ensure the hardware being used is suitable. An appropriately mounted camera may be more suitable for some tasks.

Capture settings

Digital camera settings

Megapixel ratings are the most common means of describing digital camera resolution. Megapixels are a spatial resolution – that is, they are calculated by multiplying the horizontal and vertical numbers of pixels covering a digital sensor. Film cameras, being analogue, do not have an equivalent resolution as such, but various estimates place the density of information able to be captured on 35mm film at a maximum of about 25 megapixels, and more realistically at about 10 megapixels. A good DSLR at a lower megapixel rating can beat an average film camera by having a better lens or good image processing. If your camera supports raw images, this is the best setting to capture digital photographs. If not, ensure your camera is set to the highest quality JPEG image and digital zoom is disabled.

Scanner image adjustments

Most scanner software has settings that allow the user to manually adjust exposure and black-and-white points in the scanner hardware. These are important settings to check, as detail in image highlights and shadows can be obliterated by the default settings of a scanner, resulting in a poor-quality image. Other settings such as colour correction, dust reduction, and sharpening should be used sparingly. Images taken from printed documents may need a de-screening filter in order to produce a viewable image.

Due to a legacy in the printing industry, dpi (dots per inch) is the most common term for describing scanner resolution. However, ppi (pixels per inch) is a more accurate term, given that sensors and images are made of pixels not dots. Fortunately, since most scanner software still refers to DPI, the measurement used for both dpi and ppi are the same.

There are two types of pixel resolutions used in relation to scanners – one is the resolution the scanner hardware itself is sampling at (e.g. 300ppi, 600ppi, 1200ppi, 2400ppi), and the second is the number of pixels on longest dimension of the resulting image. Most scanner software allows you to see both. Opinion is divided over which setting should take precedence, but both are relevant.

Best practice often recommends that a scanner be set at its native resolution – being its highest optical resolution – or at a setting equally divides into it to minimise interpolation. Scanners should not be set above the optical resolution even if the software allows it, as all those settings will be interpolated.

The desired size of the output image can be determined by calculating the required pixels, and the scanner set to the closest higher sampling resolution that will achieve it. For photographic images we recommend a minimum setting based on a photographic print output of 300ppi – approximately the number of pixels required to create a smooth detailed image for a person viewing at a distance of 8-10 inches or 200-250 mm (note the dpi or lpi - lines per inch - for printer output is not relevant to this calculation). This requires you to do a little maths:

300ppi x length (desired print output on longest side)

length (original image longest side excluding borders)

Note that it is important to use a ruler to measure your image size – for example, 35mm film typically creates an image 36mm x 24mm, or 1.417” x 0.945”. Using the formula above we can arrive at a setting for creating an 8”x10” print off a 35mm film (for those not familiar with inches, the conversion from metric is 1” (inch) = 25.4mm):

300ppi times 10 inches divided by 1.417 inches = 3000 divided by 1.417 = 2117ppi

In this example, a film scanner with a 4000ppi optical resolution should be set to its highest resolution of 4000ppi. A 4800ppi scanner with a slide adaptor would be set to 2400ppi.

A recommended best practice setting will use 400ppi in the formula above. This will produce the equivalent to the archival standard used by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration Technical Guidelines.

Standards for photographs and images

Digital image scanning

In order to create digital objects that are accurate copies of an original and able to be re-purposed, good practice is to create a digital master copy, akin to a negative. Lower-resolution copies for specific purposes can then be made from the master.

Scanning black-and-white images in full colour allows tinting, discolouration and any markings on the image to be more clearly visible, while improving the dynamic range of greys available for revealing detail.

Minimum (safe) Best practice
Bit depth 24-bit RGB (8-bit per channel) capture 48-bit RGB (16-bit per channel) capture
Capture format Uncompressed TIFF Uncompressed TIFF or JPEG2000
Colour space sRGB Adobe 1998 (colour)
Capture resolution 300ppi x output length original length 400ppi x output length original length

Digital photography

The output from a digital camera is dependent on its capabilities. Generally, the camera’s highest settings should be used to capture as much detail and colour information as possible. If a camera does not support raw image output, the highest-detail setting for JPEG is the safest alternative for creating an image that can be re-purposed.

Minimum (safe) Best practice
Bit depth 24-bit RGB (8-bit per channel) capture 48-bit RGB (16-bit per channel) capture
Capture format Full resolution JPEG (Fine or Superfine setting) Camera RAW or Adobe DNG
Colour space sRGB ProPhoto
Capture resolution Minimum of 6 megapixels Minimum of 10 megapixels

Considering cost-effectiveness

What value is a digital original?

When copying is at the very basis of most digital technology today, and when hundreds of identical copies can be made with little effort, and thousands of photographs taken at little cost, what value does a digital original have?

Most image workflows used by professional photographers and by archivists make an early distinction between the working image designed for editing or access and the original master image it was made from.

The master image is never edited, and serves as the film equivalent of a negative – a reference version that future copies can be made from. Indeed, raw digital image files from digital cameras are often referred to as digital negatives for this very reason, as they contain all the original information captured. Reformatting these images, unless done with care, can risk losing image detail and descriptive information that can never be recovered. Master files are also often larger and more difficult to work with than derivative files sized and formatted for editing.

As a matter of good practice, a working copy of an original file should be made as early as possible, and renamed using a different naming convention from the original. Originals should ideally be filed and backed up separately from copies. The assumption here is that identical digital photographs can never be retaken and that the effort or cost required in rescanning images or film is greater than that required to make digital copies and back-up originals.