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Kodak Photo CD
101 - The Basics

What is Kodak Photo CD?

Kodak Photo CD is an extremely convenient way to get images from film into your computer. You can bring exposed rolls of film to a Photo CD service provider, and they will develop and scan the film to a Photo CD. You can also get scans done from film that has already been developed.

Photo CD's are CD-Recordable media that can be read by all CD-ROM drives manufactured after 1990 or so. There are several imaging applications for the Mac and PC that know how to read Photo CD images. Check out my Photo CD software list for more information.

A Photo CD can hold up to 100 images. In reality they can hold much more, but labs usually limit you to 100. Pro Photo CDs hold no more than about 25 images due to the increased resolution.

Kodak's site had some sample images so you could check out what Photo CD can do. In their "Variety Selection" I found my favorite Photo CD sample image, "Cow and Rainbow". It's the image that sold me on Photo CD.


Photo CD images are scanned at a resolution of 2200dpi. With slight cropping inside the frame of a 35mm image, this gives an image of size 3072x2048. Inside a ".PCD" file, there are several other lower resolution versions of the same image. These can be loaded very quickly if less resolution is what you need. Both 35mm and APS films are supported by the Photo CD system.

Pro Photo CD offers twice the resolution of Photo CD (4400dpi). The largest image size in a Pro Photo CD scan is 6144x4096. Pro Photo CD can be used to scan film formats other than 35mm and APS. Pro Photo CD scans tend to be very expensive.

For APS scans to Photo CD, the resolution is still 2200 dpi, so there is a black border around the image.

How does Photo CD compare to Picture CD?

Picture CD has half the resolution (1100dpi or 1536x1024) of Photo CD. It was developed by Intel and Kodak to satisfy the needs of the general picture-taking public. I need to play around with it a little more to get a better idea what it is all about.

How much of each frame is scanned?

Photo CD scans are slightly smaller than the entire frame of a 35mm negative or transparency. Each lab handles transparency film differently. Some scan it prior to mounting, others do not. It is better to get the film scanned prior to mounting to get more image area, and to avoid paper fibers from the mount in the scan. You can usually request that the lab not mount your slides. You'll get better scans, but you'll have to deal with uncut film.

For APS films, the scans contain a black mask around the image area. This means you actually get everything that is in the APS frame. Very nice.

Will scan alignment always be perfect?

Photo CD scanning systems are designed to scan 240 frames per hour (4/minute). To keep up, the scanner operator can't slow down the line to carefully align a roll of film with tricky borders. So, if your subject has black borders and is not centered in the frame, expect to get misaligned scans. Sometimes entire frames are skipped. I've had entire rolls of film returned uncut because they couldn't figure out where each frame started or ended (after looking at the roll cross-eyed for an hour, I couldn't figure it out either).

Usually if you bring the film back after you have cut it into strips of 4 or 6 frames, they will rescan the frames properly. Rescans aren't done at the 240/hour pace and usually cost more.

Update: 7/11/00 - I just got back a bunch of scans from the Kodak Lab (Qualex/Lerner), and it looks like they upgraded their negative framing and cutting system. It now does a significantly better job of aligning tough images. Still not perfect, but of the 300 or so images I had scanned, only about 5 were misaligned. These were shots of a ballet performance with very dark borders, and small confusing details. Last year they blew 10% of the images, and returned the film uncut. Of course, I wasn't as good of a photographer last year....

What kind of film is best?

Each of the major kinds of film has its advantages and disadvantages when it comes to film scanning. This is the case whether you are using Photo CD, or your own film scanner.

Black and White Negative - This kind of film is well within the dynamic range (the range from light to dark) of a film scanner. It should scan well assuming the lab does a good job adjusting your scans. Some labs leave it up to the computer to adjust the scans by using Kodak's Scene Balancing Algorithm (SBA). I've had consistent bad luck with SBA Photo CD scans of Kodak T-MAX 400 negatives. The white point is usually set too aggressively and highlight detail is lost. This happened at two different labs (one using the Mac-based CS1200 and the other using the UNIX-based PIW). I intend to see if I can get them to check into the problem next time I have some b/w scans done. Scans on the Polaroid SprintScan 4000 I tried were excellent. The comparison images tell the whole story.

Color Negative - This is the most complex film for a scanning system to capture. The scanning software must convert the colors from negative to positive. Although this sounds simple, it isn't. Modeling the process of printing a negative film onto color paper is rather complex, and each film and paper combination behaves differently (which is why color enlargers have color correction filters). So the Photo CD system has what Kodak calls "Film Terms" (other manufacturers call them LUTs or Lookup Tables) to describe the conversion for each type of negative film. This means the scanner operator has to choose the right Film Term to match the kind of negative film that is being scanned.

The problem is that sometimes the scanner operator makes a mistake and chooses the wrong Film Term, or there is no Film Term for the specific film being scanned. Lately my lab has been selecting the default film term (Kodak Gold 200, or something similar). The result is incorrect color. I've found that the "auto-levels" feature in Photoshop will get the colors a lot closer to being correct. Then I can tweak it a little more to get it perfect.

The Film Term used is recorded in the Photo CD image and can be seen in Photoshop by using the "Image Info..." button when loading a .PCD file. Look for the two numbers in the "Product Type of Original:" field. These will match a set of numbers in my Film Terms list. See my Color Negative Page for more.

On the plus side, Color Negative film is well within the dynamic range of film scanners. On the minus side, SBA can really mess up the white and black points at times. In my experience, though, color negative film gives the most reliable results with Photo CD as long as you don't mind tweaking the color.

Color Transparency - Color is no problem with transparency (slide) film since the objective of slide film is to get the colors right in the first place. With transparency film, SBA is turned off when scanning, so you will get predictable black and white points every time. The Lost Highlights Problem is a little less severe (but still pretty bad) as a result.

The problem with slide film lies in its dynamic range. Dynamic range is the range of values from dark to light that can be recorded on a film. With slide film, the dynamic range when making a photograph is rather short, so care must be taken when selecting the exposure. Even then, some high-contrast subjects are unsuited to slide film. After slide film is developed, the dynamic range of the film is very large. So Photo CD scanners may lose detail in the shadow areas as they are too dark for the scanner to see through. A drum scanner can see right through the darkest areas of a slide, and get all the information.

My experiences with slide film and Photo CD are on my Photo CD and Transparency Film page.

How much does it cost?

Prices and scan quality vary from lab to lab. The price for a Photo CD scan can range from $.41 to $3 and up. The price for a Pro Photo CD scan at the Kodak lab is $10. There will also be a charge for the CD media. This can range from $1 (buy it yourself) to $10 at the Kodak lab (they won't take media you bought). For Pro Photo CD media, the Kodak lab charges $25(!).

Fresh, undeveloped film scans usually cost less than if you have already developed film scanned.

Is Photo CD right for me?

You'll have to determine this for yourself. Here are some things to consider that might help with your decision.

Letting someone else do your scanning will save you time, but the quality you get might not be as good as if you did the scanning yourself. On the other hand, dust can be very difficult to control, so it might be best to leave the scanning to a lab with clean conditions.

In terms of cost, a film scanner might be cheaper if you have a lot of film to scan, and you don't mind taking the time to do the scanning. The real question is how much your time is worth. For a small batch of scans (around 100), Photo CD will save you a lot of money over buying a film scanner. In my worst-case scenario, I would have had to scan 70 rolls of film to break even on a $1400 Polaroid SprintScan 4000 scanner. By my estimates that would have taken over 90 hours.

I use Kodak Photo CD scans as digital proofs, and working copies of my work. I would have my few really critical images drum scanned by a lab I trust.

Ok, I have my first Photo CD, how do I load the images?

You would think you could load Photo CD images with just about any imaging program. Well, this is unfortunately not the case. Many software packages support loading Photo CD images, but very few do it the right way. You'll have to read my list of Software that really supports Kodak Photo CD to see which packages do a good job. To understand what the problem is, read my section on the Lost Highlights Problem.

Finding the image files on the Photo CD is very easy. They are usually in the \PHOTO_CD\IMAGES directory on the Photo CD as a bunch of files ending in ".PCD". Some service providers do things differently, so you might need to search around on the CD to find the files.

If you've used Kodak Picture CD before, you may find it surprising that there is no software on a Kodak Photo CD for viewing your images. First try loading the ".PCD" images with other imaging software you might have on your computer. Don't be surprised if you can't since Kodak Photo CD isn't supported by many applications. If you can't load the image with one of your existing software packages, I suggest you try out ThumbsPlus for its 30-day trial period, then once you are familiar with it, check out my list of software to see if there is something better suited to your needs.

How about the Mac?

On the Mac, things are even more interesting. The Mac OS automatically creates a "Photos" folder that looks like it is on your Photo CD (it isn't really). This folder contains PICT format files that aren't as high quality as those you would get loading the Photo CD images directly from the PCD files.

I haven't had much success recruiting someone to run my experiments on the Mac, so unfortunately, my experience here is very limited. Perhaps someone will offer to help (hint hint)?

I really want a Photo CD player. Where do I get one?

I got mine on eBay. It cost me $30 plus shipping. I think it came out to less than $50 total. It hooks up to the TV, plays your Photo CDs, and as a bonus it also plays regular Audio CDs.

How do I make my own Photo CD?

The simple answer is, you can't. The more complicated answer is that you'd have to find some really old Kodak software and use a utility that converts its results to something more modern CD-cutting software can handle. Then you can cut your very own custom-made Photo CDs at home. Either that, or just go out and buy a Kodak CS1200 and be done with it. Check out the "Make Your Own Photo CD" page.

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