The black box at my side gives of a mechanical moan. The screen flickers and an image gradually appears. The moment preserved on silver and gelatin is now displayed on my laptop. Low contrast and fuzzy the photo doesn’t exactly look appealing. With a few preset commands contrast is increased, sharpening applied, and exposure balanced. Now a finished original – ready to be printed, backed up and shared in an instant to friends and family across the globe.
Lately I’ve been enjoying a return to film photography. The more methodical approach, excellent tools and delayed gratification have made the experience immensely rewarding. But there’s been one aspect I’ve felt lacking – scans.
There’s a lot of appeal in having a good lab scan your photos at development. Good looking, finished results of adequate quality without doing anything more than asking when dropping off the roll. There’s no denying the convenience. Frank recently wrote a good summary of the advantages here (the comment section is also full with insights and experiences).
However there’s a price to pay. Lack of control for one. Another major issue is cost.
For development and scanning of a roll I’ve paid close to €40 at Crimson – my local pro lab. I’ve been reasonably satisfied with the 8 megapixel results but at times I’ve felt that the scans have looked a bit harsh and overly processed. This, as well as the cost and two week delivery time has made me look into alternatives.
After looking into lab offerings both locally and abroad I was disheartened. None of the labs were significantly better, cheaper or faster as a whole. However I soon concluded that if I scanned myself I could get my cost down to a third and cut delivery time to days instead of weeks – a compelling proposition indeed.
Into a new rabbit hole I went – what scanners are good, how good is the image quality, what’s a reasonable cost, how long does scanning take, and so on. There’s a lot of information out there, but it’s hard to find anything comprehensive that’s not either very theoretical or utterly subjective.
Never mind that there’s no clear cut best option when it comes to scanners. The choice instead boils down to balancing a number of advantages against a number of disadvantages. Much like with cameras or phones or cars or toasters.
After looking into pretty much every option on the market as well as a bunch of discontinued ones I decided on the Plustek Opticfilm 8200i. It’s a current production dedicated 35mm film scanner.
It’s a compact unit and very reasonably priced. It scans negatives or positives at up to 7200dpi, resulting in huge 60 megapixel files.
The main disadvantage of the scanner is that each frame needs to be manually fed and scanned individually.
There are three options in the Plustek Opticfilm 8000-line. The two 8200i models, called SE and AI, differ only in software. There’s also the lower priced 8100, lacking infrared dust reduction but is otherwise identical. The preceding models in the 7000 series are based on the same hardware, but there’s again some differences in software and features.
All versions come with Silverfast – generally referred to as the Photoshop of scanning software. The cheaper 8100 and 8200i SE comes with a slightly pared down version of the software that lacks some features, but the differences seem mostly academic. All versions are plenty capable but also a bit eccentric at times. There’s a lot of detractors and much has been written about how hard it is to use. I actually found it easier than expected with most settings pretty straight forward.
Plustek vs Frontier
The first thing I did when I bought the scanner was to rescan a number of negatives that I’d previously had scanned by my lab. I wanted to see how hard it would be to get a similar result and if there were any gains or losses in image quality. I figured that the best way to find out was to compare it to a known quantity. Maybe these tests can be of use to others as well so I decided to share my findings.
In this first comparison I’ve edited the Plustek scans to look similar to the output from the Frontier. I also tried scanning at a few different resolutions to find out what the sweet-spot is. The pixel dimensions of the Frontier scan is around 8MP, the 3600dpi Plustek scan is around 20MP and the 7200dpi one is over 60MP. The full frame is displayed below.
The image was made using my Leica M4P and Summicron 50 V at f/5.6 and shot on Fuji Superia 400.
Below is a few crops from each scan. Click to view in full 1:1 resolution.
You’re welcome to draw your own conclusions from these crops, but to my eye all three scans really look quite good and I’d happily print either. Both Plustek scans show a bit more detail than the Frontier. Pushing and pulling the files there’s also more dynamic range in the Plustek ones. The 7200dpi scan is visibly massive but also a bit overkill, at least for ISO 400 film, as there’s little additional detail. I’ve done most scanning at 3600dpi after this test.
Below are a few more comparisons. All scanned at 3600dpi. Here the full image is edited to taste, but the crops left pretty much as they look straight out of each scanner. This leaves the Plustek ones looking washed out, but keep in mind that it’s easier to add contrast, saturation and sharpening than it is to remove. To my eye the edge definitely goes to the Plustek scans as there’s more detail and more dynamic range. Editing the files I can get the Plustek ones to look like the Frontier scans, but not the other way around.
Make sure to click the crops to view the comparisons at 1:1.
Scanning full rolls of B&W
Since getting the scanner I’ve gone through a good number of full rolls of black and white for my 366 project. I figured that it’d be interesting with some practical experiences and tips from scanning those as well.
Scanning a 36 exposure roll has generally taken me around two hours. While that might sound like a lot I tend to process the previous frame while the scanner is working on the next one. So I’m pretty much done with the full roll after those two hours. Overall I don’t find I spend significantly more time per roll than I do processing digital photos or editing lab scans. I also find I get a bit faster with each roll, figuring out what settings to tweak to get what outcome.
As for settings I scan everything at 3600dpi and output as an 8-bit tiff. I generally regard the scan as a piece of raw material, for later editing in Lightroom. As such I want to maximize the data captured and saved at scanning, so I set contrast to a minimum, disable sharpening and use a generic inversion profile. I initially had a few issues with clipped highlights and shadows. I found the best workaround to be to scan tricky negatives with the software set to a colour negative image instead of a monochrome one. This means three times as much information and the automated black/white-point picker also becomes a bit more forgiving. Choosing 16-bit output gives better quality by a very slight amount, but the RGB method gives me a simpler workflow and far smaller files.
I give each negative strip a few blasts with a simple bulb air blower before and after mounting them in the film holder. This cuts down on the dust to a level where I don’t generally feel it’s an issue. I’ve also begun wearing cotton gloves while handling the negatives, simplifying getting them in and out of the holder and negative sleeves a great deal.
I definitely appreciate the appeal of having a lab scan your images, the convenience and easily attained quality. But it all hinges on what lab offerings are available. To me, the trade-offs are simply not worth it. Scanning at home has given me more control and higher quality files. It’s significantly reduced both cost and time waiting for results. I couldn’t be happier with what this small black box helps me achieve.
Thanks for reading & thanks to Hamish for having me. Let me know in the comments if you have any questions.
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