Even if you no longer shoot film, chances are good that a grandparent or other family member has squirreled away a collection of old slides that are now stored in shoeboxes. Maybe you've been tasked with the responsibility of handling them, and preserving those old memories for posterity.
There are several options for the would-be family photo archivist. The first is simply to take your old slides and negatives to a photo lab that still makes prints from film. Prints give you a physical and immediately accessible copy of the original, although it may be a costly approach if your collection is large. Instead of having stacks of prints, you could have a local or online lab service digitally scan them for you. This is generally cheaper, and allows you the added benefit of being able to share them online or get prints of select images later. You'll still end up paying a certain amount per image scanned, which can also get pricey. But if you're the impatient type, paying someone to do the work may be your best choice.
Another option is to buy a dedicated transparency scanner device to use at home. There are several such products on the market that will scan your slides or negatives automatically and save them to JPG format for you, even directly to a memory card. This is a convenient, economical solution for someone who may have a lot of images to archive but who doesn't want to be bothered with the technical aspects of the process. The main drawback is that these sorts of devices typically don't provide a high resolution scan, and thus you may not be thrilled with the results - especially if you intend to print them later. I find the prospect of low resolution scans to be a showstopper, but this may be the perfect solution for some people.
Then there's the solution that I use: a flatbed scanner with a built-in capability of scanning slides and negatives. (Note that film and slide film capable scanners will indicate such on the box; unlike regular flatbed scanners, there's an added light source in the lids that backlights the film to be scanned.) There are several advantages of this approach: (1) a flatbed scanner is a versatile tool for different kinds of scans, including documents and photos, (2) a flatbed scanner gives you more control over the scanning process as you can preview and make any adjustments needed prior to the final scan, (3) a flatbed scanner lets you control the resolution of the scan, and (4) a flatbed scanner can be a modestly-priced option compared to sending your photos to a lab or scanning service.
That only leaves us with the question: Which scanner should I buy? The answer really depends on what formats of film you need to scan. If you intend to scan large format film (4x5" and bigger), you'll need a scanner that can handle those sizes - in which case you may want to consider an Epson V800. The Epson "V" series are considered by many people to be the cream of the crop in consumer scanners today. Naturally you'll pay a premium for the privilege of owning one. If all you need to scan are 35mm and 120 (medium format film), there are cheaper options that don't compromise on quality.
For my film photography, I use a Canon CanoScan 9000F Mark II scanner. This is a modern, relatively inexpensive scanner that doesn't require a "warm up" as do older models, since it uses LEDs for an instant-on light source. The scanner comes complete with several trays that fit onto the glass of the bed: 35mm, 35mm slides, and 120 (medium format) negatives. It also comes with the Scangear software used for previewing and running the actual scans, which generally works well for my purposes.
With any scanner I've used, I typically choose the "Advanced Mode" for scanning. While you may choose to use the "Basic Mode," you'll have far less control over the outcome of the scan.
Here are some of the main image settings I commonly adjust in Scangear (others scanner software should offer similar options - see your user manual for details):
Output Resolution - When it comes to the usefulness of your scan for printing, output resolution is at the top of the list. While the CanoScan 9000F Mark II will scan up to an impressive 9600 dpi, for almost any practical purpose 2400 dpi is adequate. At 2400 dpi, a 35mm scan will be around 3300 x 2200 - plenty large enough to print at least an 8x10" print. 120 film negatives are around 5000 x 5000 dpi, which can easily print up to poster size!
Occasionally, if there's a lot of grain, I'll raise my scans to 4800 dpi, then scale the image down to a more reasonable size to reduce the visible grain. Remember: the higher the resolution the larger the resulting file, and the longer it takes to complete the scan. A color JPG scanned at 2400 dpi will yield a file that's about 5-7 MB in size, and normally takes under 2 minutes per frame. So 2400 dpi is a good all-around compromise.
Select Source - Here you can tell your software what kind of media you intend to scan: color negative, color positive (slides), monochrome negative (black & white), or monochrome positive (black & white slides). Use these sources as creatively as you want for effect. For example, you can select color negative for black and white film for an interesting sepia effect.
Unsharp Mask - To the uninitiated, this might sound like a way to make your photos blurrier! Actually, it's a method of adding sharpness to your photo. As I like to have more control over my photos (and I generally do post-scanning edits in Photoshop), I usually leave this on "None." If you want to simplify your scanning, though, you may choose to set this option to "ON". Whichever approach you choose, sharpening the final image is almost always required at some point in the process.
Remove Dust and Scratches (FARE) - I almost always enable this feature, typically at "Low" (adjusting upward as needed). If your slides and negatives have a lot of scratches and/or dust, you'll be glad for this option. Additionally, I use canned air to spray the glass on the scanner between each change of negatives as well as the surface of my computer desk where I'm placing the negatives in the tray. It's amazing how the tiniest bit of dust gets magnified when scanning!
Fading Correction - Often helpful when working with very old color negatives and slides. The difference it makes can range from barely noticeable to astonishing. If the colors have faded or shifted over the years, this setting will make you look like a miracle worker. Try the various levels to see what looks best in your previews.
Backlight Correction - If the preview scan indicates the image is quite dark, backlight correction can sometimes go a long way toward producing a salvageable photo.
Normally when scanning I tick the checkbox at the top of the Scangear dialog box to select all of the images at once. Once I've made any additional needed adjustments, I click the big SCAN button and sit back and wait for the scanner to do its thing. With 35mm negatives, the scanner will complete a full set of 10 images in less than 15 minutes at my typical settings. What happens next depends on how you configure your settings, but mine are set to open the images using Photoshop so I can begin editing them immediately.
A final note about file formats: As you may know, JPG files are a "lossy" format, meaning the images are compressed. This means that some data inside the image is discarded. This fact is primarily of concern to digital photographers, as shooting JPG instead of "RAW" means you lose the capability to make certain adjustments to images after the camera discards the unneeded data. For this reason I normally shoot RAW in my digital camera.
The fact that JPG files lose some data used to worry me when scanning, so I'd save my photos as uncompressed TIFF images. But the fact is you are unlikely to see any detectable difference between scanned images in any format, so there's little, if any, benefit in saving your photos as TIFF files. Moreover, uncompressed images can take up massive amounts of space on your hard drive - up to 10x bigger than an identical JPG file! My recommendation is to save your scanned negatives or slides as JPG.
Finally, be sure, as with all your valued photos and documents, that you have a backup solution in place in order to further safeguard your memories and your hard work in preserving them.