Updated January 2021: New video version of this guide! Check it out above for a comprehensive guide to scanning.
One of the great pleasures of shooting instant film is having a physical picture in your hand, but if you want to share that picture on that great place we call the internet, you’re going to have to convert it into digital ones and zeros.
The easiest, and most common way to digitize a Polaroid or Fuji Instax frame is to simply place it on a table and take a picture of it with your phone.
However, it comes as no surprise that this isn’t the most high quality method. The glossy surface of the image causes reflections, the camera lens introduces distortion, and the lossy jpeg compression never looks great.
Luckily, flatbed scanners are relatively cheap and plentiful, at least compared to 35mm/medium format film scanners. I’ve used a Canoscan 9000F for nearly a decade, and it’s great. It’s been since replaced by the similar Canoscan 9000F Mk II, which is also great.
[Update August 2019: Canon has ceased selling the Canoscan 9000F Mk II, sending the prices of the few units still out there skyrocketing. I found this out the hard way when my Canoscan 9000F finally died about nearly a decade of service. While I’m frustrated that Canon no longer sells a high-end scanner, I’m perfectly happy with my replacement, the Epson V600. I’ll be posting a full review eventually, but if you’re in the market for a scanner, the Epson V600 is pretty much just as good as the Canoscan 9000F. I certainly don’t recommend paying an insane amount for the Canoscan 9000F Mk II while the V600 is out there. Hopefully Epson keeps it on the market.]
Many printers also have flatbed scanners built into them, which will work in pinch. However, if you’re serious about instant film photography, it’s definitely worth it to purchase a dedicated scanner. The image quality is far superior to what comes built into a consumer printer, and it will last you many years.
Picking Your Software
If you’re a Mac user, you’re in luck. The default Mac scanner application, modestly called ‘image capture,’ is the best scanner software I’ve been able to find. It’s what I use to scan everything, and comes free with every Mac. Right now I’m using macOS Sierra 10.12.6, but the utility has remained the same through many iterations of OSX and I don’t expect it to change anytime soon.
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to be using Mac image capture to show what settings I use. However, if you only have access to PC, many of these settings will translate.
For those who need to connect their scanner to a PC, I’ve used VueScan on my Windows machines. I found that it took more tweaking to get a decent image than what OSX’s (er… macOS) image capture gets by default, but it’s a very workable solution and does a good job. It also interfaces with just about every scanner on the planet. Unfortunately, it is not free, and you need to pay for updates.
The included scanning utility in Windows itself I do not like. I think the images are low quality and over-compressed. The last time I used it was on Windows 8.1, but I doubt it’s gotten much better on Windows 10.
Many scanners come with their own scanning software. Run the other way as fast as you can.
Using the Scanning Software
Fuji Instax film is stable, so you’ll be able to scan it months, even years after it was taken and not worry about it degrading or fading. Polaroid (formerly the Impossible Project/Polaroid Originals) film, on the other hand, can be a bit less stable (although this problem is much better than it used to be), and I always scan it within a day of shooting just to make sure I have a ‘master’ file of how it looked under optimal conditions.
Either way, I like to do my scans at the highest quality settings possible. I can always export out smaller files, but this allows me to sleep soundly with the knowledge that I have everything tucked away safely in a digital file in case the physical Instax or Polaroid gets lost or destroyed.
When working with photo capture, first click the ‘show details’ button to reveal all the various scanning options. Then hit preview, and the scanner will do a brief scan of the image if it hasn’t already.
The first options to select are Scan Mode and Kind. Flatbed and Color are the correct options for this kind of object. It’s film, but it’s not the kind of negative 35mm film that scanners are sometimes able to scan.
You can choose millions or billions of colors, which is a simpler way of saying ‘bit depth.’ Honestly, I’ve done different bit depths with both Vuescan and Image Capture, and I’m never able to tell the difference at a glance. However, billions of colors creates absolutely massive files. If you have an older or weaker computer, or are limited on hard drive space, definitely choose millions. If you have unlimited space and power, you can choose billions, and know you’re getting every drip of image data you can possibly wring out of the scanner. Higher bit depth makes a difference if you’re really planning on changing and pushing things in Photoshop, and I sometimes scan at billions because I’m paranoid about losing any image quality if I don’t have to.
If you’re scanning black and white images, definitely use millions of colors. You don’t need tons of information on color when there is no color to worry about.
Resolution, or DPI, is one of the more important settings. Essentially, it is the resolution of the scan. Cheap scanners only go up to 300 or 600 DPI or so, which is fine for preview images and scanning documents. For my photography, I always scan at 2400 DPI, which creates huge files (especially with billions of colors selected). Generally, I would consider 1200 DPI more than good enough for a detailed scan, with 2400 DPI my personal preference because I don’t want to leave any analog detail on the table. Needless to say, the higher the DPI, the bigger the file sizes are, so keep that in consideration. You can fill up even a hard drive real fast with these kinds of files.
Finally, I capture everything in the TIFF format for maximum image quality. I like to capture with TIFF, then export out final JPEGs from Lightroom to share with the world. It helps to reduce the pixel dimensions when sharing, as the scans will often be absolutely massive. You won’t need that much detail when uploading to Instagram.
Using a Flatbed Scanner with Instant Film
Scanning a Polaroid or Fuji Instax photo is as easy as placing it face down on the glass and scanning.
However, there is one problem with this approach if you’re looking for the best quality possible. Contact between the glass and plastic coating of a Polaroid causes what’s called ‘Newton Rings’. They’re easier shown than described:
These rings of weird coloration can royally screw up an image, and can be difficult to remove in Photoshop.
The Impossible Project used to make a scan adapter that solved this problem by keeping the image from actually touching the glass of the scanner. These scan adapters were, and are, the easiest solution to the problem. Unfortunately, despite my pleas, the Impossible Project (now Polaroid Originals) has ceased making them due to low demand.
You can also kludge together your own scan adapter. The key is getting the image as close as possible to the glass of the scanner without actually touching it. I will have an entire post dedicated to creating one your own scan adapter soon. I’m currently working on figuring out the best approach, as my Impossible adapter is quickly wearing out from use.
Restoring the Color of the Image
No matter how good the scanning software and the scanner itself is, the process of scanning will always degrade your image slightly. The resulting image straight from the scanner will be a bit duller than the original Polaroid, with muted colors, lower contrast, and a loss of detail in the whites and blacks.
Part of this is because the image you see on the screen is from a backlit monitor, while the Polaroid is a physical object that relies on light in the room. It also has to do just with the process of capturing light and converting it to ones and zeroes.
Luckily, we can fix it!
I use Lightroom for organizing my photo library, and I also use it for most of the basic corrections. Typically the first thing I do is restore the blacks of the image, and increase the contrast.
It’s helpful to have the original Polaroid or Fuji Instax image in your hand under good light while you edit your image. I typically color correct this way, adjusting temperature, tint, and exposure curves on the screen until it looks similar to the one I’m holding in my hand.
You don’t have to stop there though! Especially if you crop out the surrounding frame, feel free to go nuts and let your imagination run wild with digitally manipulating your scan. Often blown out or underexposed Polaroids can make for great images with a little digital coaxing.
To Include or Not to Include the Frame
Speaking of frames, back when I started sharing my Polaroid photographs online, I couldn’t decide whether or not to include the surrounding frame of the Polaroid. The iconic frame is what makes a Polaroid truly a Polaroid, and it also proved that an image was from a real piece of film rather than the result of some lazy digital filter.
The question you want to ask yourself is if you want to draw attention to the fact that it’s a piece of instant film, or if you want the focus to be more on the image itself.
Personally, I decided to crop out the frame, and do so to this day. My rationale is that I don’t think it’s important for the viewer to know how a photo was captured. The medium is simply a tool to create the photograph, and whether it works or not should not have anything to do with the process that created it. If somebody can create the same image I used Polaroid to make using only digital tools, more power to them.
However, I’ve seen many artists use the Polaroid frame and shape to beautiful advantage, integrating it in environments and letting the image interact with its own frame.
It’s up to you! Both ways are perfectly valid.
Congratulations, you have a scan! Now that it’s safely digitized, you can share it on Instagram, Flickr, or even print it out at larger sizes.
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