How to Scan Old Photos? Understanding Photo Scanners, Types, and Key Features for Purchasing

15 March 2023 by
Apryl Zhang

Although we have entered the digital age, old film cameras are still popular, and many people will convert the photos or negatives they shoot into digital media using a photo scanner. What is a photo scanner? What are the types and specifications? How should you choose if you want to buy one? What techniques should you pay attention to when using it? Capture.HK will tell you all about it!

What is a Photo Scanner?

A photo scanner is a device that can scan photos or negatives (film) and convert them into digital media. The resulting digital media can be transferred to and stored in various electronic devices, saving storage space and making it convenient to access and view.

Types of Photo Scanners

1. Flatbed Scanner

As the name suggests, a flatbed scanner is a scanner that can scan photos or negatives by placing them on a flat platform and converting them into digital media. The flatbed scanner available on the market can provide a resolution of up to 4,800 dpi and costs around HK$800 to HK$1,600.

flatbed scanner


  • The most economical choice
  • Can scan multiple rolls of 35mm negatives or 5 to 6 photos at once with decent quality
  • Manufacturers provide software for previewing the scanned digital media


  • Only one lightbox, so it cannot adjust brightness to highlight details in high-contrast areas
  • Light passing through the scanner's halo can cause optical aberrations such as Newton's rings

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2. Professional film scanner

A professional film scanner can directly convert film into digital media. Although it is more complex to operate, the quality of the photos will be better. This type of scanner has built-in software to drive the lens to autofocus, resulting in higher pixel digitalised photos. In addition, since it has three-colour LEDs that can be independently adjusted for brightness, users can enjoy greater freedom during the scanning process to adjust colour balance, saturation, or other details.


  • The operation is more direct than a flatbed scanner and can provide higher quality digital media.
  • Equipped with a carrier to prevent film curling.


  • Although newer models have become easier to use, they are still more difficult than flatbed scanners, and users need to spend time learning before using them.
  • They are more expensive, and professional film scanners generally only apply to 35mm film. Models used to scan 120mm medium format films will be even more expensive.

3. Drum Scanners

A drum scanner can be understood as a very sophisticated digital camera that can scan reflective or transparent materials and provide extremely high pixel resolution. Its operating principle is to capture images using simulated light to produce the most detailed digital media possible. Users only need to place the photos they want to scan into the drum scanner, and the scanner will rotate the drum and scan the image.

drum scanner


  • The scanned photos are extremely detailed.


  • The cost is extremely expensive. For example, for each 35mm film frame, the cost charged by a photo printing shop can be as high as HK$160 to HK$240.

Specifications of Photo Scanners

If you are looking to purchase a photo scanner, you should pay attention to two numbers related to the scanner - "resolution" and "dynamic range". These two numbers basically represent the quality of the scanned photo. However, it should be noted that most scanners on the market already provide a certain level of quality, and if you want higher quality, you should consider purchasing a more expensive scanner.

Pixel resolution

Pixels are the basic components of each digital photo, with each pixel representing a small grid in the photo. Simply put, the higher the pixel resolution of a digital photo, the higher the quality and clarity. Generally, as long as the scanner can provide 300dpi, it is sufficient.

Dynamic range

Dynamic range refers to the range of colours and tones that a photo scanner can capture, including the detail in highlights and shadows. One of the advantages of film photography is its wider dynamic range, which can provide more detail. Dynamic range is measured in "Dmax," with values ranging from 0 to 4. Generally, buyers should consider purchasing a scanner with a dynamic range of at least Dmax 3 in order to capture sufficient detail in their photos.

How to choose a suitable photo scanner?

Choosing the Right Type

As mentioned earlier, there are different types of photo scanners, and the first step in choosing one is to select the right type. For example, professional film scanners can provide higher quality digital media, but they may be more difficult to operate and cannot scan ordinary photos. Flatbed scanners may not have the same quality as professional film scanners, but they can handle different sizes and types of film, and even scan multiple film frames simultaneously, which is useful if scanning speed is a concern.

Additional Colour and Focus Adjustment Features

If you are not familiar with adjusting photos yourself, you may want to look for a scanner that offers automatic colour and focus adjustment functions. This will ensure good quality scans and improve your scanning efficiency. If you are interested in editing photos yourself, you may also consider purchasing photo editing software, which is easy for beginners to use.

Confirm Applicable Film Types

Generally, most photo scanners on the market can handle 135 film (35mm film) commonly used in most film cameras. If your camera uses other film sizes, you should check whether the photo scanner you plan to buy is compatible.

How to Scan Photos?

The process of scanning photos using a photo scanner is actually like using a unique digital camera, and the scanning software provided by the photo scanner will provide basic adjustment tools to make it easier to perform some photo settings. You do not need to do too much, too complicated, or too detailed settings, as this may make it more difficult to adjust the photos in editing software.

drum scanner 02

Photo Scanning Techniques

Scan Flat

The term "Scan Flat" actually has two meanings. The first meaning is to describe that the brightness and contrast of the photo is low, and when scanning the photo, you should also avoid having too strong contrast, so that the scanned photo can have more details. The other meaning is that you should ensure that the film is kept flat during scanning, to avoid any bending. Some photo scanners provide software to solve the problem of bent film, but you can also purchase some special glass to press the film flat during scanning.

Choose the Highest Pixel

When scanning photos, you should choose the highest resolution possible, and most scanners use 24 or 48-bit colour recording. The higher the bit-depth, the more subtle colour changes can be distinguished. For example, old photo scanners can only distinguish 200 colours, while newer models can distinguish up to 4,000 colours.

Use a Dust Remover

Although some photo scanners now have built-in dust removal functions, it is still recommended that you purchase a dust remover and clean the surface before scanning photos. You can also consider using compressed air to clean the dust instead of a dust remover.

Macro Scanning

Macro scanning is a method of converting photographic film into digital media using a digital camera, macro lens, lightbox, and tripod. Simply place the film on the lightbox, then use a camera already mounted on a tripod to take pictures of the film. Finally, in the photo editing software, invert the colour to obtain the photo. During shooting, it is important to ensure that the film is flat. Note that macro scanning is more suitable for black and white photos, as colour photos may have slight colour differences, but generally not a big issue.

Using a Projector

Similar to macro scanning, but instead the film is projected onto a wall using a projector, and then the image on the wall is captured with a camera. The advantage of this method is that the film can be projected to different locations, creating new images.

General Flatbed Scanning

This scanning method is simply placing the film on a regular scanner to convert it into digital media, and then inverting the colours in photo editing software. Although the effect is not perfect, it can create a nostalgic feel for the photos.

Easily digitise your photos!

By now, I believe you have a good understanding of photo or film scanning. However, if you are still hesitant, you can also try to entrust the process to professionals who will digitise your photos for you, and wait for the finished digital photos to be delivered to your doorstep.

Capture.HK provides photo and album digitisation services. Any photos ranging from 2 inches by 2 inches to 8 inches by 12 inches can be transformed into digital photos, and photos in albums do not even need to be taken out. Non-contact digitisation technology can digitise every photo in the album. You only need to make a reservation or prepay online, then visit Capture.HK's customer experience centre. Capture.HK's memory experts will inspect the quality of the photos you provided and process your order. 

After the order is completed, you will receive a notification, and you can view your memories through a USB hard drive or Google Photos cloud, and even share photos with friends and family with just a few clicks. It's easy and convenient!

Learn more about Capture HK's Photo Album and Photographs Digitisation Service right now!

*This article is brought to you by Capture HK.

Capture HK is the premier analogue media digitisation company in Hong Kong.

Capture HK's business covers photographs, photo album digitisation, videotapes digitisation, including VHS, S-VHS, VHS-C, S-VHS-C Hi-8, Video8, Digital8, DV, DVCAM, MiniDV, DVC and digital media digitisation, including Secure Digital (SD), Smart Media (SM), MultiMediaCard (MMC) Compact Flash (CF), xD-Picture Card, Memory Stick, USB Drive, CDROM, DVD.

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