Slide Scanners Show Off

The process of capturing images is, in large part, a matter of throwing visual information away. You start with the scene you see with your eyes, which contains all the light, shade, and color of the real world. Next you reduce it to what film can see?details fall from the highlights, and shadows thicken. If you then make prints, you throw away still more because a negative contains much more subtlety of tone and color than you can reproduce in any single print.

What happens when you make digital edits on a 24-bit image? You throw away more information. This may sound scary, but it's a normal and necessary part of image reproduction. The trick is to throw away only what you don't need and to not throw anything away until you must. Consequently, when they need the best, most graphics and prepress pros scan film rather than prints because film contains much more visual information.

Although flatbed scanners have become much more capable at scanning slides and color negative film (see ""Scan In"," October 1998), you'll generally get better results from a dedicated film scanner. Why? Film scanners capture a wider range of light and shadow, or dynamic range , than flatbed scanners do. If you're scanning 35mm film, you also benefit from the much higher resolutions available with film scanners, since your original piece of film is so small.

We looked at seven film scanners, ranging in price from less than $1,000 to around $17,000. (See the table, ""7 Slide Scanners Compared"," for details on each model.) Four are strictly 35mm scanners, three handle medium-format film as well as 35mm, and two of the latter handle formats as large as 4 by 5 inches. Each of these scanners hooks up to a Mac with a SCSI connector, so if you have a new blue Power Mac G3 you'll need to get a SCSI card (see " Generation Gap," August 1999). To test the scanners, we scanned the same difficult image with each and asked a panel of experts to evaluate the results. We also gave each scanner's software a workout to see which package is truly worth your time.


A scanner's most basic abilities are determined by its hardware. The two most important numbers to check out on a spec sheet are dynamic range (often represented by a Dmax value) and resolution, in that order.

Dynamic Range

The scanners in our roundup claim dynamic ranges from 3.0 to 4.1. This means that each unit can capture a wide enough range of light and shadow to do color negatives justice.

The scanners we looked at from Imacon, the $11,995 FlexTight Photo and the $16,995 FlexTight Precision II, boast a massive dynamic range of 4.1, the highest we've seen in a desktop scanner. This means they're capable of handling virtually any quality of film you can throw at them. Most of the others?Minolta's $1,095 Dimage Scan Speed, Nikon's $1,899 Super Coolscan 2000, and Polaroid's $9,995 SprintScan 45 Pro and $2,495 SprintScan 4000?cluster in the 3.4-to-3.6 range. The exception is Nikon's $999 Coolscan III. Its dynamic range of 3.0, although satisfactory for many purposes, is inadequate for scanning higher-contrast slides. In theory, there should be a significant difference between a dynamic range of 3.4 and 3.6, but in practice we found that the scanners in the 3.4-to-3.6 range offered similar performance.

Resolution

When scanning 35mm film, these scanners offer resolutions from 2,700 to 5,760 dpi. (To put this in perspective, most midrange flatbed scanners scan at around 1,000 or 2,000 dpi.) Even the lowest resolution in this group is enough to reproduce a 35mm original at tabloid size with magazine quality.

At the high end of the scale, the Imacon FlexTight Precision II offers an impressive optical resolution of 5,760 dpi for 35mm film. It drops to 1,800 dpi for 4-by-5 film, but this is still quite high quality. Polaroid's new SprintScan 4000 scans at 4,000 dpi. The Imacon FlexTight Photo scans both 35mm and medium-format film at 3,200 dpi.

The Polaroid SprintScan 45 Pro has an optical resolution of 2,000 by 4,000 dpi. The other scanners' resolutions are represented by only one number because as the scanning head in those units moves along the image, it captures the same number of pixels in a row as it does rows of pixels. The SprintScan 45 Pro is different. Its resolution is represented by two numbers because it interpolates (adds some pixels digitally instead of capturing them). We found that it produced rather soft scans from 35mm as a result. The Minolta Dimage Scan Speed has a rather strange resolution of 2,829 dpi. In practice, we found that this resolution offered little or no advantage over the 2,700 dpi of the Nikon Coolscan III and Super Coolscan 2000 scanners.

Extra Innovations

Three of the scanners offer a few extra hardware innovations. Both the Imacon units feature very clever magnetic film holders that bend around a drum in the scanner so that the film plane is always exactly at the point of focus. The holders won't damage your film and are very easy to load and unload. In addition, the Imacon scanners have a feature called Adaptive Light, which slows the scan so that more light gets pumped through the film for very dense originals. Each also has a built-in light box.

Nikon's Coolscan III and Super Coolscan 2000 feature a surface-defect-removal technology called Digital ICE, which effectively removes dust and all but the deepest scratches from scans. This isn't just a clever software routine?Digital ICE scans the film with invisible wavelengths that actually allow it to see through surface defects to the underlying image, using special hardware in the scanner to do so.


The best way to judge a scanner is by the image it produces, so we tested this group with an image designed to be a scanner operator's worst nightmare. Our image contained strong saturated colors and delicate pastels. There were also flesh tones, food, metal, and complex near neutrals.

We produced scans with each scanner's intelligent-agent software. In addition, we created scans by hand to approximate the experience a fairly seasoned user might have. We then gave the scans to a jury of color experts who evaluated color fidelity, shadow detail, neutral reproduction, and sharpness. For details about the quality of these scans, check out the sidebar, "See for Yourself."

Hassle-Free Quality

In particular, we obtained good?if not outstanding?results with Nikon's Super Coolscan 2000 and with Imacon's FlexTight Photo and FlexTight Precision II. We also achieved these results without much hassle. These three scanners all had robust support for Apple's color-management software, ColorSync, and this added up to significant time savings. By using the color profiles that came with the scanners, we were able to get consistent color. We configured each of these scanners to scan into Adobe RGB (Photoshop 5.0's preferred color space) and then converted the scan to our proofer profile in Photoshop, with no manual color adjustments.

Color Confusion

This was not the case with the other scanners in our group. Like most Mac users who would be in the market for a scanner such as the ones we tested, we used Photoshop 5.0.2 (800/833-6687, http://www.adobe.com ) as our main imaging application, and we quickly found that the majority of scanner drivers aren't yet up to speed on Photoshop's new color architecture. (For a full discussion of this problem, see " Avoid Photoshop's Color Calamities," Create , elsewhere in this issue.) As a result, we were forced to use a tedious, but fairly effective, method to get accurate color. For details, look at "Workaround 2" in the aforementioned article.

Using this strategy, we were able to obtain good results from the Nikon Coolscan III and the Polaroid SprintScan 45 Pro and borderline results from Polaroid's new SprintScan 4000. Only one scanner, the Minolta Dimage Scan Speed, failed to produce a scan that the jury rated acceptable for color fidelity and reproduction of neutrals.

First Impressions

In the end, none of our scanners received a perfect score from the jury, but it's important to bear in mind that these were all first scans. Clients bring different biases to the table and rarely sign off on the first scan they see. We're confident that a second round of scanning that took the jurors' preferences into account could have produced excellent results from any of our top three scanners.


Although hardware determines a scanner's basic capabilities, the scanner itself is only as useful as the software that drives it. If the scanner software doesn't allow you to preview the image accurately and correct it using the 10-, 12-, or 14-bit-per-channel data it captures internally, you're wasting the benefit of the extra bits.

All You Could Want

The only truly full-featured scanning software in the bunch is Imacon's ColorFlex 1.8, which drives both the FlexTight Photo and the FlexTight Precision II. ColorFlex functions as a stand-alone application but offers the option of automatically opening the scanned images in any image editor you choose, so it combines the flexibility of scanning directly to disk with the convenience of a Photoshop plug-in.

The software also allows you to specify ColorSync profiles for input, output, and display. And it's the only scanning package of the bunch to let you embed the output profile in the image, which makes the scanner much easier to use in a workflow that includes color management. It offers decent-size monitor previews and a full complement of tools to get the best scan possible. It also lets you scan in raw 48-bit RGB if you prefer to make all your corrections in Photoshop.

Adequate Offerings

The Nikon Scan 2.0 software is more of a mixed bag. It doesn't embed ColorSync profiles, but it does at least allow you to specify output and display profiles?Photoshop will report that the image has no profile, but you can simply open the image with no conversion, thereby saving time. Unfortunately, the mechanism for doing this is quite confusing and seems to work only with the Super Coolscan 2000, not with the Coolscan III.

Nikon Scan also doesn't provide any way to use a custom profile for the scanner, which is limiting both because individual scanners vary and because a single profile won't necessarily handle all film stocks equally. You have to use the profile supplied by Nikon, but it works fairly well.

On the other hand, the Super Coolscan 2000 lets you scan raw high-bit data (the Coolscan III's hardware is limited to only 10-bit data) and also lets you average multiple scans to cut down shadow noise. This latter feature greatly improves the effective dynamic range but results in very slow scans, particularly since the software averages not only the final scan but also the prescan.

Poorer Options

The other software packages fare much worse. Minolta's scanning software, Dimage Scan Speed 1.0, is very basic indeed and even lacks some Mac keyboard shortcuts. We can really recommend the Dimage Scan Speed only for Web work, where color fidelity is generally a happy accident if it happens at all.

Polaroid's new PolaColor Insight feels like a work in progress. It is certainly simpler and tidier than Polaroid's previous scanner software, but it also lacks some of the earlier software's features.

PolaColor Insight ships with several generic display profiles as well as input profiles for different film stocks. These are, in fact, ColorSync profiles, but instead of actually using ColorSync in the standard way, the software installs these profiles in its own special folder where they're visible only to the scanner software. This means, for example, that if you have a custom profile for your monitor, you can use it only by copying it to this special folder. Moreover, PolaColor Insight has no facility for scanning to a Photoshop working space or for scanning to CMYK. It's annoying to find that the software uses ColorSync profiles while simultaneously sabotaging any attempt to employ a ColorSync workflow.

More troubling is the fact that we got very different results using the automatic settings on the two Polaroid scanners. Using PolaColor Insight's autopilot settings worked pretty well on the SprintScan 45 Pro (which also comes with the more consumer-focused PhotoPerfect Master software, from Binuscan) and quite poorly on the new SprintScan 4000?so poorly, in fact, that although the SprintScan 4000's hardware is quite impressive, we cannot recommend the model until Polaroid improves its software. Reportedly, Polaroid plans to address these shortcomings, but at press time no release date for the next version of the software was available.


Film Stars

Minolta Dimage Scan Speed
Imacon FlexTight Photo
Nikon Super Coolscan 2000
Minolta Dimage Scan Speed
Polaroid SprintScan 4000

All things considered, the Nikon Super Coolscan 2000 will give you the best scans for your money. Its implementation of ColorSync is rather strange but works well once you've figured it out. In addition, the Digital ICE technology will save you hours of work getting rid of dust spots and scratches.

Depending on your needs and the size of your wallet, however, two other scanners are well worth considering. If you want to make a serious investment in a scanner that will likely represent the state of the art for several years to come, the Imacon FlexTight Precision II is a beautiful?albeit expensive?piece of work. It offers the highest resolution and dynamic range we've seen in a desktop scanner, and it has full-featured software. If you don't need the larger film capability or more than 3,200-dpi resolution on 35mm film, the FlexTight Photo delivers 90 percent of the performance at about two-thirds the price.

The current generation of film-scanning hardware is the best yet, with relatively inexpensive devices producing results that are more than adequate for most image-reproduction processes and certainly good enough for all but the finest-quality offset printing. It's somewhat disappointing to see that the scanner software is lagging behind the hardware, but we're confident that it will catch up eventually.

EDITORS' CHOICE

4.0 mice
Nikon Super Coolscan 2000 Although we have some reservations about Nikon's software, this is a fine scanner for the price. Company: Nikon (800/526-4566, http://www.nikonusa.com ).
List price: $1,899.

Reviews you can trust Macworld rates only final shipping products, not prototypes. What we review is what you can actually buy.

September 1999 page: 90

The ultimate test of any scanner is the image it produces. Unfortunately, this is a difficult thing to judge, because everyone sees images a little differently, particularly when that image is as complex as the one we used for our testing.

Simply scanning with default settings rarely produces satisfactory results. You have to make compromises (and manual adjustments), so the biases and skills of the scanner operator always become part of the equation. This is typical of how things work in the real world?images often go through at least two rounds of scanning and proofing before sign-off. Some scanners do a lot better job with less work, however, and in our roundup they were the scanners that fully support ColorSync.

To get an idea of the scanners' capabilities, we asked a panel of experts to evaluate several scans from each one, including the images you see here. No scanner could reasonably be expected to reproduce this photo perfectly, but the Minolta Dimage Scan Speed missed on several counts, with oversaturated colors; blocked-up shadows; and a strong red color cast that is visible in the woman's face, the orange, the yellow peppers, and the shadows on the table.

Polaroid's SprintScan 4000 had a greenish cast, as you can see in the flesh tones. The SprintScan 45 Pro had a magenta cast that was particularly evident in the blue tablecloth, which it turned purplish. The SprintScan 45 Pro also lacked sharpness. Both of the Polaroid scanners rendered the red of the table as more of an orange-red. Nikon's Coolscan III oversaturated the image somewhat, as you can see in the tablecloth, the orange, and the peppers, but its main limitation was that it simply lacked the dynamic range to get all the detail in the shadows.

Our most expensive scanners, the Imacon FlexTight Photo and FlexTight Precision II, both did very well, with very good skin tones and no trace of oversaturation. The vendor-supplied profile tended to block up the shadows slightly, however, as you can see from the dark shadows beneath the peppers. Both scanners have the dynamic range and software features that would allow you to correct this easily.

The Nikon Super Coolscan 2000 displayed some oversaturation but rendered all the hues in the image accurately, with good shadow detail. After another round of scanning and proofing, either of the two Imacon scanners?with their greater dynamic range and full-featured software?would likely produce significantly better results than the Nikon could ever achieve. But given the difference in price, we pick the Nikon as the best all-around value for the money and the best buy for all but the dedicated pro.

Picture Perfect: Scanners

For the high resolution version of the image use the links below the thumbnails.

Drum scan (reference) (hi-res)

Imacon FlexTight Photo (hi-res)

Imacon FlexTight Precision ll (hi-res)

Minolta Dimage Scan Speed (hi-res)

Nikon Coolscan lll (hi-res)

Nikon Super Coolscan 2000 (hi-res)

Polaroid Sprintscan 45 Pro (hi-res)

Polaroid Sprintscan 4000 (hi-res)

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