Why I’m not using the online scanning services.

This post is a continuation of the series I started a few months ago recounting my adventures, frustrations and successes while digitizing my pictures at home. I mentioned that I’d investigated places online that do this a service and that I intended to try one or more. I did some more investigation, tried one of them and concluded that for my slides, I’m going to have to do it myself <sigh>. Here’s why it’s the right answer for me-but ‘your mileage may vary’ and one of the services might fit your needs just fine.

Back story

Picture of Canon scanner


In June I blogged about getting a new scanner (a Canon 9000F) and 3rd party software (VueScan) to use with it. Since then, I’ve scanned thousands of photo prints, lots of other paper items, a couple dozen negatives and over a thousand 35mm slides. lt’s been a huge amount of work, but I’ve completed the prints and I’m about 25% of the way into the slide collection.

Scanning services
The alternative to investing the time it will require to finish the slides is to invest money-pay one of the many (many!) places that will do the scanning for a fee. I don’t pretend it was exhaustive (though it was somewhat exhausting), but I investigated a bunch of the candidates. Essentially all will do film, prints and video tape. I only evaluated slide scanning. To greatly simplify, they fall into three rough groups:

1. Local companies, for example Wal-Mart, Costco, and others.
These have the sole advantage of being local–go to the shop and turn in the stuff, pay for it and go get it. They tend to be very basic in the service options offered and you’ll get a very basic all-automatic scan. Cost is variable but tends to be low. Most, if not all, ship the material out, there’s no way to know where but no good reason to care very much.

Pros: local, no shipping costs; cost.
Cons: by all accounts I found, scans are mediocre at best.

2. Internet big guys.
There are 3-5 on the net that seem to dominate in terms of volume of scanning they do. These include ScanCafe, Digmypics, and ScanDigital (in order of increasing price). All of these offer a variety of options (resolution, type of file saved, level of human involvement) and associated cost. Turnaround times vary widely from a couple of weeks to several months. All offer volume discounts (typically at 1000+). Several offer online previews of the scans and lots more. Prices start low $.22-.39 each for really basic scans, but rise to around $.75 each for scans that should equal what I normally do. Each of these places has advantages and disadvantages, all of them have lots of favorable reviews and some really bad reviews.

Pros: lots of options; scans generally rated as good to excellent; lots of satisfied customers.
Cons: turnaround; some ship your materials overseas (ScanCafe goes to India); cost can be
high; lots of ways their services can, and occasionally do, go very badly.

3. Internet little guys.
There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of shops out there of every size and type that offer these services. Each has some claim to fame: price, quality, speed… whatever they can claim to be different. Prices range from low ($.25@) to very high (well over $1@). Services range from very basic to very sophisticated. It’s hard, and probably not fair, to generalize this group because they represent such a broad spectrum.  The good news is that no matter what you want done, there’s someone out there who will do it–for a price.

Pros:  price sometimes, expert scans sometimes.
Cons: other than their ‘testimonials,’ few reviews online; price sometimes; turnaround

My experience

My scan

In doing the research I ran across one of the larger of the ‘little guys,’ Oldphoto.com in Wisconsin. Uniquely, they offer a try-before-you-buy deal: send in 10 slides (or prints or negatives) and they’ll do the scans and return a CD at no charge. The only risk is losing the 10 slides, so I sent them a selection of slides I’d already scanned, some easy ones and some hard ones, portraits and landscapes, indoor and outdoor. They were fast (10 days) and returned everything fine. The only cost to me was the cost shipping to them, they even paid the return shipping. Unfortunately, the scans were worth only slightly more than what I paid for them and would not have been worth their normal $.39@ price. Although the resolution is pretty high (3200ppi), theirs are basic, automated scans. A major issue is that they don’t use any dust/scratch processing (not an option for them at all) and that’s a killer problem on 6 of my 10 slides.

Oldphoto scan

Based on the metadata in the images, it appears they scan into Adobe PhotoShop CS2 and I’m guessing they run an automated script for sharpening and color adjustment. I suspect that script is the reason for the fact that all were over sharpened and 7/10 had increased contrast resulting badly blocked shadow details. To really appreciate the differences click on the images to enlarge them. In the example, notice how in their scan the detail in the dark blanket is missing and the lighting now has a harsh, over-exposed and contrasty look to it. Resolution is better in their scan, but there’s a lot of lint and scratch noise–possible, but time consuming to fix.

Of the 10 slides, color was significantly off for 3, 5 were okay and 2 looked nice. Overall, of the 10 scans, 7 failed to make my acceptable level and only two compared favorably with the scans from my Canon flatbed.

Lessons learned
Getting some slides done elsewhere showed me that I’m not going to be satisfied with the basic, automated scans. As in many things, good and cheap appear to mutually exclusive in this. The other thing this showed is that getting the most out of these services will still require a fair amount of time sorting through the slides to eliminate the hopeless ones and organize them before sending them. More time is then needed to organize the resulting scans so they have meaningful file names and metadata. Yes, the scanning service will save time, but not as much as I’d hoped–the time doing the actual scans is significant, but the time I spend before and after the actual scans is also large and much of that is required no matter who does the actual scanning. And getting another 4-5 thousand slides scanned is going to cost roughly $3000 to get scans I have a reasonable chance at being happy with.

For now anyway, I’ve decided I’m going to press on myself. I’ve gotten “the hang” of doing the scans so I’m getting the close to the best results the combination of user, software and equipment will allow. I’m finding that I’m a value-added step here by adding metadata and identifying a few really nice slides for special handling. Maybe l’ll change my mind later but after doing about 1500 slides, I at least know what I’m signing up for. >sigh<

Final thoughts
If you want to try one or more of the services, my advice would be to avoid the Wal-Mart type of place for this and I’d try one or more of the ‘big guys.’ None of them are without issues, but there are at least three that seem heavily used and generally well reviewed. But the Venn diagram of quick, cheap and good is a null-at best, you might get two out of three.

One place I’ll probably use one of the services is getting digital transfers of a few 8mm video tapes (late 1990’s era) I’ve got in the closet. The fees seem reasonable and I’ve no experience there, so l won’t be a “value added” step and don’t want to bother–none of the tapes are all that important to me, but it would be nice to have digital copies for the kids.


About Dick Knisely

Science-guy, engineer, father, grandfather, husband -- yeah, I'm all of those things. I author this blog to share things I care about and you might care about, too. I hope you do and that you'll join in to share things you care about.
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