Lets start at the beginning, its a very good place to start (sorry).
The reality is that most film photographers today are neither 100% analog nor are they 100% digital but use some crazy mix of hybrid techniques to get their results. Sure there are those for whom the darkroom is the only place to print and there are those that will never in their entire lives set foot in one, but most of us are somewhere between those two extremes. Most of us who shoot with film, will therefore at some point in time also scan our prints and/or the negatives.
So to the start and buying a scanner...
We'll often see "hardware debates" when asked "What scanner should I buy?" Typical of the replies are "Pakon is all you will ever need" or "I use an Epson and so should you." Only rarely do those who respond to these "What should I buy..." questions by seeking out more information. Its getting better over time, but we could all still do better.
The reality that any good mid range desktop scanner will scan a regular A4 or letter size print at decent enough resolution to produce a good likeness for inkjet printing. Its not that these scanners are incredibly good (they actually are pretty good), its that most consumer grade inkjet printers are really not. This subject however is one for another day.
So lets concentrate on scanning the negative.
I am going to assume you don't have the $10,000 or more (much more) to purchase a top of the line drum scanner and the consumables for mounting a negative on the unit. Most of us simply don't. If you happen to be waving an American Express card with unlimited credit and want a drum scanner, contact me, as I know of a way to get you one and my commission isn't too much.
A scanner buyers first question should always be: "What film format(s) am I going to scan?" Are you only ever going to scan negatives from 135 film, or are you thinking you might want to also scan 120, 4x5" or even bigger negatives? If you do some research, you'll find that Epson scanners such as the older V700 and V800 are more than capable of scanning 8x10" negatives and slides. Epson's web site shows that on the specification pages for some of the scanners they sell right now as well as on some of the older and discontinued models. Note that lower end and mid range scanners tend to not have large enough light sources built into the lid to scan more than 120 or 135 format film. The same is true for Canon by the way, I'm just using Epson as an example here, as I just know them more than any other range in full.
If you do happen to be curious about the monsters of the scanning world, check out this article: http://luminous-landscape.com/drum-scans/ to find out more.
Flatbed scanners that are the top of most makers ranges even being top of the range, are usually not going to be able to deliver the same quality levels as a properly installed and well maintained drum scanner will, but are however going to deliver results that will satisfy all but perhaps the most discerning and high end photographers. For a little under $1000 you can therefore get great quality scans, on a scanner that will handle all the most commonly found film formats.
I have mentioned a few models of scanner from Epson, but these are not the only ones. Pakon (Kodak owned them and they were used in many film based mini-labs) scanners are perhaps the most respected alternatives for 135 format film. Check out http://www.filmwasters.com/forum/index.php?topic=6842.0 for more information about these devices. Canon has also had a mention (I have a Canon 9000f at home), and there are a couple of other makers who I will let you research yourself. These are all lower in price than the thousand dollar "top end" scanners or perhaps a tight budget is also driving your purchase decision?
If money is really tight, spend the miserly $160 to $300 or so for a mid range scanner and all will usually handle 135 and 120 film formats. Now this is important; unless you love to "pixel peep" you are going to get some outstanding results for the price, however - be careful if you do try and push the size of the printed results to larger than about 16x20". I have got perfectly acceptable 36" square prints (from 6x6 120 film negatives) out of my Canon 9000f but it was only on perfectly exposed, really fine grain, in date black and white film stock. If it was anything more challenging, then it might not have got to that size.
They all come with bundled software that will do more or less a decent job. I'll certainly agree that the as-supplied software will usually do the less decent job. In fact my 36" square prints I mentioned above was not made with the Canon software that came with the scanner. If you want to get better results than the as-supplied by the manufacturer software will deliver, then you really will need to buy some extra software.
I personally use VueScan from Hamrich Software: http://www.hamrick.com/ which works on Windows, Mac and Linux machines and supports a huge number of now discontinued scanners. Using VueScan I can also overcome the built in limitations of file size and so on that the manufacturers own software has. For $90 or thereabouts depending on any specials on offer, its more complex than the out of the box software but delivers better results. There are several compromises here, in that VueScan is much more complex to set up and that by pushing the boundaries of the hardware right up to and even beyond its usual limits you'll find the rough edges in the hardware shows through if you know where to look! I tend not to print color images at 36" square for example and stop at 24" as the issues with the hardware are really only visible with color above that size.
You may find other third party software is better for you - Silverfast is perhaps the other leader in the field, but I'll leave any choice of software up to you. I have not covered the details or complexity nor have I provided any tutorials in this installment, as they will come latter in the series when I talk about workflow.
Here comes some good news. You don't have to spend full retail price on your scanner. I only paid $120 for my Canon 9000f in a "Black Friday" sale at B&H photo (and got free shipping), it was a steal. VueScan is currently (as of the date this was written) available with $10 off retail price too. Buy online and don't rush the purchase. I don't get any referral fees or payment for any recommendation by the way.
I have tried to steer clear of the jargon in this article and that will change as I go forward from here. Some of what I have planned will demand you use a few brain cells - sorry, but that's the way it is. There is no doubt that pretty decent results can be had for less than $300 of hardware and software. Approach $1000 and you have turned the curve in the price/performance equation.
Above here its all about the law of diminishing returns. You'll need to buy something like a Nikon Coolscan 5000 ED (eBay has them for $1700) or new (whatever that means for an item no longer made) at $4600 from Amazon before the images are in my opinion, noticeably better still.
In summary, its usually a case of the more you pay the better you get with scanners. to end this, I'm going to place scanners into four distinct price bands and I am going to be brave and classify them in a grade out of 10:
1. Under $100 and what you are going to get is great for Facebook or social media, but really not too much else. These days, they are usually part of a multi function printer. Sure, you'll be able to scan and print those files at letter or A4 size but be very careful indeed as the results from them are usually going to disappoint when placed next to some of the better results out there. These items usually deliver results that I personally consider a 6 or maybe at best, a 7 out of 10.
2. Between $100 and about $300, the results are indeed much better; not usually top draw results but usually surprisingly decent. Again, care is needed or the results can disappoint. When you have an optimized workflow, these items usually deliver results that I personally consider about a 7 to 8 out of 10.
3. Go to about $1000 and you are pushing the bottom end of great results. These items usually deliver results that I personally consider an 8 or 9 out of 10.
4. Above $1000 is the thin air of the very top end. Of course, you'll get the very best results ranked at 9 or more out of 10, but ask yourself just how much credit do you have on that American Express or Discover card?
In the end, you'll pay your money and make your choice. More money means better quality, but also more complexity and that you'll need to know more about the processes involved or you'll not get any benefit. I'll start to bust a myth or so in the next installment.
Have fun buying.