I recently found myself in the market for a film scanner. Minolta film scanners have served me well over the years. My current standard is a Dual Scan III, but it does get quite heavy use and is showing signs of age.
Those Scan Duals are good, but too many people know that. Prices have gone through the roof. A basic scanner that used to sell for £40 on Ebay, starts off at £90 and the bids then go through the roof. Film holders for the Scan Elite models are like hens teeth and those who own them know it.
While I’m an advocate of using a digital camera to photograph negatives, it can take time to set up properly. A plug-and-play film scanner can produce you a usable result in minutes.
I did look at some of the Canoscan and Coolscan options. These are fine scanners, and some models are not quite in the ridiculous price bracket of the Scan Elite. All the while, nagging in my mind was the knowledge that even the newest of the old-school AF scanners are 17 years old.
So I considered the modern alternatives.
The main brands I am familiar with are Plustek and Reflecta. I say familiar with, but really, I mean that I’ve read some reviews of. Good sources of scanner reviews are ScanDig and Imaging Resource. On ScanDig they really like the Reflecta scanners, with the AF & whole-roll handling RPS 10M being the poster-boy, but that is expensive. Plustek are (or where) far more familiar in the UK. The Opticfilm seven-thousand and eight-thousand scanners were on the shelves of bricks-and-mortar camera stores like Jacobs, Jessops and Calumet. All gone now.
The resolutions of those Plustek scanners always seemed very impressive, but they had no AF and film handling was manual. It is a pain to have to attend to a scanner in batches of 4 or 6. Advancing frames individually does not sound attractive.
I was aware that Plustek had introduced a new ‘135’ film scanner, with motorized film advance. ScanDig even had a review of it, where it seemed to do very well on getting close to its quoted resolution (a problem with many scanners). Their measurement showed resolution of 3280dpi against Plustek’s claimed 3600dpi. What surprised me was the conclusion to the Scandig 135 review, which suggested that, while it was OK for scanning for Facebook, it did not have the image quality required for anything more.
A Plustek scanner that gives fairly close to its quoted resolution without AF intrigued me. I have found that 2800dpi does me fine for most things. I’d really like AF (or at least some kind of focus) but for that it seems you have to pay upwards of £700. It is not that I can’t afford it, I’d just hate myself every time I used it.
The Opticfilm 135i
Then I heard of a revision to the 135 scanner – a Opticfilm 135i. Back 6 months ago, when I was casually looking, UK suppliers only had the 135 listed. I remembered that I’d found a stockist in the US that would do the shipping to the UK at a price that would not be too horrendous after I’d paid the import duties. At the time I had no pressing need so didn’t take it further. Times change.
An internet search to look for the US supplier I’d found previously showed that the Opticfilm 135i now seemed to be available in the UK, although I’d have to buy through my least favourite supplier (I’m a fan of the stuff that my taxes buy, so tend to be suspicious of organizations that are outrageously successful in avoiding paying their whack). The price was £299, which sounded reasonable. To cut to the chase, I decided the specifications justified the price and I put in the order.
I had looked for an independent review, but didn’t find one. Surely over all of the internet, there is someone who has reviewed this film scanner? Apparently not; hence this article. I’m not putting this review up claiming anything like the standards that ScanDig or Imaging Resource have produced in the past. If anyone is interested I’d just like to pass on what I’ve found out since opening the box.
Delivery and setup
The Opticfilm 135i turned up well within the quoted delivery time. The scanner is a bit fatter and a bit shorter than my Scan Dual III. It has all the bits in the box you would expect. A CD was included, but I downloaded the latest software from the web and did the install. It all went in fine and I did an initial scan with the Plustek software, which worked. I then tried to fire up VueScan and found that it didn’t see my new scanner.
There are only two times I’ve ever known VueScan not to pick up an attached scanner in about 10 years of use. One was the other week when the Scan Dual III threw a paddy, and the other was this install.
A quick service call to Hamrick generated a polite email. Hamrick suggested that I might not have installed the Plustek driver in the default directory (they were right, I was trying to save space on my system drive). Uninstalling and reinstalling the Plustek software in the default directory got everything working fine.
Slide and film strip holders
The Opticfilm 135i film holders are very impressive. They are very solid with crisp moldings. The slide holder locates four slides easily without any risk of getting fingers near the surface of the slide. The negative holder is even better, a really nice bit of design and construction. Negatives can be easily positioned and the hinged door is secured by magnets. I think I might be using the film holder every time I copy 35mm negatives with a camera, as it is easier to load than the Minolta equivalent. An extra ‘panoramic’ film strip holder is also available – this appears similar to the standard film strip holder, but without the bars to separate frames.
The Opticfilm 135i scanner itself has an array of buttons on the top edge that allow you to instruct the standard software to scan an entire holder of negatives or positives depending on which button you press. If you have your own favoured third party scanning software, you are likely to mainly use the power and eject buttons.
The Opticfilm 135i holders are longer than the scanner itself, so the scanner has little flap doors back and front for the holder to come out of, so bear this in mind when positioning the unit. The flaps hold themselves shut with more magnets, keeping dust out when the scanner is not in use.
Although I have a VueScan license, the supplied QuickScan Plus software is not without its merits. It certainly seems to scan very fast and with reasonable results, although it does lack options for scanning less than a whole strip of images. For those who want to do a lot of archive scanning that may not be a problem.
One thing that is apparent from the bundled software is that Plustek are aware of the laws of diminishing returns with super-high resolutions. Standard resolution is labelled as 1800dpi, with 2400 being called better and 3600 as ‘best’. 7200dpi is shown simply as ‘Max’.
The first comparisons I carried out were with my aging Scan Dual III, a scanner that only boasts 2840dpi. The Opticfilm 135i should be able to eclipse it – on paper.
All my comparisons use the same software – VueScan 9.7.52 Professional Edition from Hamrick Software.
The first comparison I did was on an old slide of the George V docks back before it was an airport. I took a standard scan using the Scan Dual and one with the Opticfilm 135i on the 3600dpi setting with the IR pass turned off (sometimes people note that scratch and dust removal can soften an image slightly). The resulting scans were perfectly acceptable, although it is notable that the different machines give vastly different colour balances.
Pixel-peeping at both images does show a difference however, with the AF of the older, lower resolution scanner giving it a definite edge. In an attempt to try to improve focus on the Opticfilm 135i, I demounted the slide and scanned it again in the negative holder, giving it the full 7200dpi resolution. There was no noticeable improvement.
Black and white negative
Most of my scanning is done on B&W film, so I was keen to see how the Opticfilm 135i coped with monochrome. My previous comparisons of the capabilities of film scanners, flatbeds and camera copies left me with the impression that a decent negative copy on a 24MP camera was just a little behind a dedicated AF film scanner for quality of output, so I thought I would include a camera copy of a black and white negative in this comparison. The camera I used was a Sony a99 with a Sony 100mm macro lens attached. I used the excellent 135i film holder to hold the negatives over reflected diffused light from a natural light source. ISO was set to 200, exposure time was 1/8 at f/5.6.
My pixel-peeping on the B&W negative showed less difference between the Scan Dual III and the Plustek Opticfilm 135i, than I’d noticed on the slide, although I think the Minolta scanner still has an edge. Note the similarity between the output from the camera and the 135i; I think I’d put them about on a par – both very usable.
I also experimented with scanning at 2400dpi with the Opticfilm 135i and found the results were also very acceptable and quite difficult to distinguish from the camera and 3600 scans.
Speed of scanning
VueScan writes files for each scanned frame in turn. I measured speed by comparing the creation date/times for scan files in comparison to the frame(s) before it.
The Opticfilm 135i has a definite speed edge over the older scanner (which also needs to fit an AF phase into each scan).
Black and white without IR pass
In my tests with VueScan, the Scan Dual III averaged about 185 seconds per B&W frame, while the Opticfilm 135i averaged 63 seconds for a 7200 dpi scan, 40 seconds for a 3600 scan and (if you are really pushed for time) as little as 28 seconds for a 2400 dpi scan. The Scan Dual III shows very little time difference between frames on VueScan, while the Hamrick software appears to do some (possibly unnecessary) motoring of the 135i slide tray back and forwards for later frames. For the 3600dpi scan on the Opticfilm 135i, the second frame only took 30 seconds, but frame 5 took 40 due to the extra tray travel.
The supplied Quickscan Plus software seems very fast, although it doesn’t allow scanning of individual frames. A set of six black and white images (without dust/scratch removal), takes just under 160 seconds. Quickscan writes all scanned frames to disk together, after batch processing them. Times measured are for scanning a whole tray of images.
Colour with IR pass
When scanning colour negatives with an IR pass, VueScan goes through 6 frames in about 9 minutes. This is an average of about 90 seconds for a 3600dpi 48bit scan. The time is much longer for the later frames. A single frame in the first few positions takes just under 65 seconds. The Quickscan Plus software does the same 6 frames in 5 minutes 45 seconds at the same settings. That is an average of under 58 seconds per frame.
In case the true plane of focus was slightly above the negative, I tried a shim to raise it. My attempts did not seem to improve things, if anything quality dropped slightly.
It might be that the point of ideal focus is actually below the tray on my copy. Without carrying out some potentially harmful modifications to what is a very fine negative holder I can’t say for certain. Manufacturing tolerances could put the ideal focus point above or below the tray on other examples of the 135i. Others might get improvements to their focus through shims.
Plustek may have designed the optics in the Opticfilm 135i to maximize depth of focus and avoid the complexity of AF. The downside of that might be a general slight softness that is not improved by shimming.
How does the Plustek Opticfilm 135i rate as a film scanner? It does well, although I will keep hold of the Scan Dual III.
I still miss autofocus on my film scanners. However, I have to conclude that Plustek have delivered me a useful bit of kit in the Opticfilm 135i. It produces scans of very acceptable quality (as good as a camera copy). It is quick and convenient to use and has the nicest negative holder I’ve yet encountered. I don’t think my 135i delivers as much resolution as ScanDig found in their 135 review. I’d estimate true resolution as something just north of 2400dpi; a resolution that is capable of a producing a 8×12 print. At 3600dpi and below the output is good and the file sizes are reasonable.
I’ve found my new go-to scanner for general use in the Opticfilm 135i – and it is even under warranty!