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Reviewing the results of a ScanCafe order

I recently received the results of a ScanCafe. Bottom line? Good quality and, at $0.24 per slide and $0.27 per print, the price is hard to beat.

I've been on a bit of a de-cluttering jag over the past year or so. Too much paper, too much "stuff" around the house. So I've been slowly dumping the junk and selling or donating the rest.

ScanCafe Bangalore office ScanCafe

This includes photographs. I had stacks of snapshots of family, friends, places, and so forth sitting around in various drawers and boxes. I had made a half-hearted effort to digitize some of the old slides previously, but scanning is really tedious work. Scanning the hundreds of photos involved here was just more than I realistically felt like tackling.

Over the past couple of years, I'd had some slide scans done locally by a small photo store and a large one. I wasn't impressed in either case. I paid about $1 per scan and the results were pretty mediocre. I don't doubt that I could have eventually tracked down someone in the Boston area who could do a better job for a reasonable cost, but we're still talking pretty big bucks for a mass scan-athon.

That's when, after reading some reviews and surfing some forums on photo sites, I decided over Christmas to box the whole lot up and send them to ScanCafe.

I recently received the results. Bottom line? Good quality and, at $0.24 per slide and $0.27 per print, the price is hard to beat.

I'll dig into my experience in a bit more detail, but let's get one thing out of the way first. The reason the prices can be so good is that the Burlingame, CA-based company does the scans at its facility in Bangalore, India. The way it works is that you ship your box of photos to Burlingame (you print out a UPS label when you place your order online), where they are batched up in a palletized air freight container and shipped to India.

Unsurprisingly, the "ship to India" part causes some intake of breath in a lot of people. However, having gone through the process and thought about it some, I think the incremental risk is pretty small. If you have a handful of photos that you would be especially heartbroken to lose, it's perfectly understandable that you might not want to trust them to a shipping company at all to send them out and get them returned. But once stuff is being shipped around anyway, the international air transport step wouldn't seem to make a big difference. In fact, given that ScanCafe is understandably sensitive to this issue, they seem to have put particular thought into both the whole logistics process and its transparency to customers.

(For what it's worth, for many years I've had slide film processed by Kodak using prepaid mailers. I had one batch of several rolls lost; I'm pretty sure it was the local Postal Service's fault on the return leg. And a couple of years ago, Kodak made such a hash of closing down its Fair Lawn processing facility that I had film missing for months. In other words, staying domestic is no guarantee.)

With that out of the way, how about the rest of the experience?

Quality. I ordered basic 3000 dpi JPEG scans of my slides and 600 dpi scans of my prints. For $0.09 more you can get higher-resolution TIFF scans. I didn't bother given that these are really "memory shots" and I'm not planning on making big prints. The overall quality was quite good. Many of the photos were old. Slides dating back to about 1960 were faded and dirty in many cases. I found the corrected color balance to be spot-on, and the general cleanup to be well done--especially for the price.

A minor caveat is that the JPEG files are relatively highly processed. This means that they look pretty good "out of the box" with relatively high saturation and dark blacks and bright whites. That's great if you want to look at and share the photos more or less as-is. It's not so ideal if you want to process them further yourself. (For $0.14 per slide you can get a TIFF scan with no processing plus a fully-processed JPEG.)

Turnaround time. This was not a particularly speedy process. In fact, it took close to three months door-to-door. As I noted earlier, there's a nice portal that lets you see where your order is, so I wasn't concerned or anything; I just wanted my scans. However, the company has recently significantly expanded their scanning facility (now 20,000 square feet) with the goal of getting turnaround down--although the nature of their operation means that's it's never going to be an especially fast option.

Customer service. I had one slight billing problem (my 8"x10" prints were charged at the rate for larger pieces of paper). I received a prompt reply to my e-mail to customer service, and the matter was resolved within a day.

Pricing. This is one of the real strengths of the service so long as you're sticking to "standard" media. This includes 35mm color negatives, 35mm color slides, and paper photos up to 8"x10". They'll do other types of scans (such as newspaper clippings and black & white negatives), but those are $0.99 each. I note that they've actually increased the price for newspaper clipping/letter/paper artwork from $0.37; they've obviously decided to focus on a specific set of high-volume media types. You get to review the scans before they're shipped back to you. You can delete up to 50 percent and not pay for them. In practice, this is probably most useful if you're having negative strips done, given that you can't specify that only specific frames be scanned. (Standard color negative scans cost $.19 per frame.)

Overall, I give ScanCafe high marks. I combined the photos on the DVD I received with other scans and digital images and was able to give my brother a nice selection of family photos. Who knows when I would have gotten to it were I doing the scans on my own?