When I was fifteen I wanted a Nikon FM. A couple of months ago, some forty years later, I finally bought one – actually an FM2n, but close enough. As well as shooting with film I also wanted to take control of the rest of the process: developing, scanning, printing. I decided to start with scanning and recently acquired a Plustek OpticFilm 8200i SE film scanner. This is my review.
Choosing a Film Scanner
First question: flatbed or film? The former can scan prints or film, the latter film only. I was looking for a device to scan film, not prints so I ruled out flatbed scanners since they have no advantage over dedicated film scanners but do have a number of disadvantages.
Second question: 35mm or 120? Some scanners are designed for 35mm film only while others can also scan 120 film (or other formats). Since all my old negatives are 35mm and as I’m currently only shooting that format, I decided I could work with a 35mm only model. I don’t see myself moving to medium format in the foreseeable future but obviously, if that was an ambition it would make sense to consider a multi-format model.
Third question: automatic or manual feed? Some scanners allow for automatic feeding of images from a filmstrip or automatic advance of a film holder. Others require each individual frame to be placed manually. Since I don’t have a large archive of images to scan I went with manual feed.
Fourth question: which scanner? The options are quite limited – a quick search on B&H throws up only 32 film scanning devices in total. Once the first three questions are answered the options are reduced further. I chose this model from Plustek over a couple of others from the same company (one of which is identical in hardware but with different software) and a couple from Pacific Image which (under the brand name Reflecta) are well reviewed by filmscanner.info, but from user reviews do seem to have some quality control issues.
In the Box
It’s a black box with three buttons and slots for the supplied negative and positive film holders. That’s it. Apart from the on/off button there is a button marked ‘QuickScan’ which starts Plustek’s own basic software package, and a button marked ‘IntelliScan’ which starts the SilverFast SE Plus software from LaserSoft Imaging that comes with this particular model.
Also in the box is the software supplied on an ancient technology known as a ‘DVD’. Since I don’t have a DVD reader I did have to track down the relevant software online and load it from there. Plustek’s customer service were very helpful here replying to my email explaining where to find the software, and providing a link to SilverFast within the day. With SilverFast I did have to get a new serial number but the process was quick and simple.
Software: Siverfast SE Plus
Plustek provides its own QuickScan software which provides some basic scanning options, but I have no idea how good it is because I’ve never used it. There’s no reason to, since the scanner comes with SilverFast SE Plus. Silverfast is to scanning what Photoshop is to photo editing. Like Photoshop, it’s not the most intuitive software so there is a bit of a learning curve. But it doesn’t take that long to get the hang of it since LaserSoft provides online video tutorials for almost every feature. SE Plus is one of three versions of the software, more advanced than SilverFast SE, less so than SilverFast AI Studio. There are a lot of options even with this version of SilverFast as you can see below from the multiple menu items.
LaserSoft recommend starting with the ‘Workflow Pilot’ which provides a guided pathway through the many options. If you want more control over the decision making turning this feature off gives you access to all available tools. SilverFast offers the option of saving your scan as a DNG file by selecting ‘48 Bit HDR RAW’ output for colour film. (HDR in this case just refers to the name LaserSoft gives to its own photo editing programme, nothing more). Choosing this disables most of the adjustment options and produces a ‘digital negative’ like the one below. This can then be inverted and adjusted in Lightroom using the Tone Curve or in Photoshop using Levels.
Using this method does produce significant colour casts once the image is inverted and it does require some work in your photo editor to correct these. This is complicated by the changes to the effect of many of Lightroom’s adjustment tools and sliders that result from inverting the image. However, you do get the hang of it with a little practice. Life is simpler if you are scanning black and white film. Here, the appropriate output option is ‘16 Bit HDR RAW’, and the end result requires only a straightforward inversion: no colour, no problem.
Alternatively, you can let the software do more of the work and output an inverted, colour corrected 24 Bit TIF or JPG. Choosing this option allows you to select from the full range of available tools, the effects of which can be seen on the prescan displayed in the preview window. For the sake of brevity I’ll mention just a few of these tools.
SilverFast SE Plus Tools
Multiple Exposure – ME
This tool scans the frame twice, once for shadows, once for highlights, and combines the two to create an image with better dynamic range. The effect is subtle at best, though it is possible it may be more effective when applied to positives rather than negatives. I leave this turned on.
Dust and Scratch Removal – ISRD / SRDX
There are two dust and scratch removal options – one hardware based using an infrared scan and one software based. These are labelled iSRD and SRDx respectively. SRDx is best avoided since it softens the image. There is an option to create a mask and restrict the effect to a specific area, which can work if the selected area has limited detail to start with.
When iSRD works, it works well. But I have found that in some situations it is limited in its effectiveness, particularly on long, straight scratches. It’s not a complete solution but even where it’s not fully effective it does have some value. In those cases you should expect to have to do further remedial work on damaged or dirty frames in your photo editor of choice. As far as I know the AI Studio version of SilverFast has a greater range of options for fine tuning iSRD so may be more effective. This is another function that I leave on since it does no harm and does some good. It’s important to note that iSRD does not work with black and white film. Using it will make a terrible mess of your monochrome scans.
Film Profiles – Negafix
NegaFix allows you to select from a series of predefined film profiles created by LavaSoft. This covers films from the main manufacturers – Kodak, Ilford and Fuji plus a few others, including some I’ve never heard of. If your film of choice isn’t included you use the default settings. If you go for the AI Studio version you can fine tune the built in profiles or create your own.
Most of the other features of SilverFast I leave turned off since they are largely image adjustment tools – colour correction, contrast adjustment, sharpening and the like – that replicate what can be done better in Lightroom, Photoshop or other photo editors. It makes no sense to me to apply these adjustments before scanning since they are then part of the final scan and can’t be subsequently undone. I personally use SilverFast to produce a minimally adjusted file which I can then edit in Lightroom.
Though the scanner is rated at a nominal 7200dpi resolution the maximum actual resolution is somewhere around 3200 -3500dpi. This gap between nominal and actual resolution is true of all scanners, though some come closer to the nominal figure than others. For me 3200-3500dpi is acceptable since it allows me to comfortably print at 12” x 8” which is as large as I ever go. Outputting a 48 Bit HDR RAW at 3600ppi resolution and 300ppi photo quality produces a DNG file that is 108MB. Outputting a 24Bit TIF at the same settings results in a file of 53.2MB. The resulting files are around 17MP.
So how do the scanned images look? Are they better than what I get from the lab at the time of developing? For me, how they look initially is less important than how I can make them look. Doing my own scanning allows me to create DNG files that I can edit to my satisfaction, fine tuning each image to my taste. That flexibility allows me to get better scans than those I get from the lab.
I’ll keep it brief. I’m happy with the Plustek scanner and the SilverFast software. I believe that it gives me more flexibility and more scope in digitising my negatives and I’m pleased with results I’m getting already. I expect that with practice and greater familiarity with the software I’ll get still better outcomes.
You can find a fuller version of this review with multiple samples at Emulsive.