View Full Version : Film Scanners: High-quality Images And Frustrating Waits

26th September 2002, 02:15 AM
By Paul Thurrott, News Editor, thurrott@connectedhomemag.com


Earlier this summer, I contacted several film-scanner makers to see whether I could evaluate their products and determine whether the technology is a viable solution for consumers who have mountains of legacy (i.e., film-based) photographs. After 2 months of silence, only one manufacturer contacted me, so my impressions are based on my experience with only one such product. Regardless, I think film-scanner technology is worth watching.

Film scanners are essentially miniature versions of the machines professional photo shops use to scan photo negatives and slides to create digital images that online (and brick-and-mortar) photo stores can print. The advantage of film scanners is that the resulting images are of tremendously high quality. For example, the 2 mega-pixel digital camera I own produces images at 1792 x 1200, which is perfect for 8" x 10" enlargements, but no larger. And although I can scan 4" x 6" or 5" x 7" prints on a flatbed scanner, the resulting images are limited by the low resolution of the source prints. For the best quality, you should start with a negative (or slide).

I tested SmartDisk's SmartScan 3600, which features 3600dpi resolution, the equivalent of 17.2 million pixels, high enough quality for the biggest enlargements you'll ever want. The SmartScan is available for various Windows versions (including Windows XP, which I tested it on), Mac OS 9x, and Mac OS 8x (but not Mac OS X). The product retails for about $500, which is comparable to other consumer-and hobbyist-oriented film scanners. Whether this cost is prohibitively expensive will depend on your needs: Certainly, having a lifetime's worth of negatives converted to digital format would be far more expensive.

Sadly, the SmartScan doesn't integrate with XP's excellent Windows Imaging subsystem and instead requires that you install Adobe Photoshop Elements or Adobe Photoshop. I own PhotoShop Elements 2.0, so I used that version rather than install the bundled copy of PhotoShop Elements 1.0. However, I did install the two Photoshop plugins that SmartDisk supplies; they add scanning support for the film scanner and various color and contrast enhancement capabilities. I'd prefer that SmartScan had native OS support so that I could use XP's excellent "Camera and Scanner Installation Wizard" or another tool instead of Photoshop. That said, the Photoshop plugins worked fine, and I used the scanner to obtain images from negatives I've collected.

Incidentally, my personal photography history began in 1985, when I received a Minolta X-570 SLR camera for my birthday. For the first several years after getting the camera, I diligently saved all my negatives in static- and dust-free negative sleeve pages, which I collected in three-ring binders. To test the scanner, I dug out some of these often-embarrassing and ancient negatives, as well as some newer negatives from 3 to 5 years ago that I stored in a more conventional way (i.e., I left them in the cardboard sleeves you typically get from the photo store and tossed them in a box).

The results were somewhat surprising. I obtained massive 5174 x 3445 pixel images by using the default plug-in settings. But these images, stored in Photoshop's native PSD format, are about 50MB each and take a whopping amount of hard disk space. Converting them to compressed JPEG format saves space, however: Ignoring Photoshop's warnings about performance concerns, I converted the images to 4.4MB files by using the default JPEG "Save to Web" settings. The conversion makes a big difference, especially if your goal is to archive images to recordable CD-ROM or DVD.

One problem I had with my old, supposedly protected negatives was particularly vexing: Each of the images I scanned had numerous visible scratches. When I scanned some newer negatives (the ones that were relatively unprotected in cardboard sleeves), they had the same kind of scratches, making me wonder whether such scratches are an inherent problem with negatives. Also, regardless of the negative, I had to manually enhance each resulting image's color and contrast after the fact (which is admittedly easy in Photoshop Elements), but I wish a more automated approach existed. Indeed, the process of initializing the scanner--select File, Import, then select Cyberview 35 v 1.73 from within Photoshop--is so nonintuitive that it's almost nonsensical, especially in a product aimed at consumers and computer hobbyists. We're not all graphics professionals. I can already tell that I'll forget this procedure 3 months from now unless I use the scanner regularly.

As far as the hardware goes, the SmartDisk device is a large bricklike device with both FireWire and USB connections. I tested the FireWire version for speed but was still disappointed with the amount of time it takes to scan a strip of negatives. In fact, the lack of speed is the biggest problem with this technology, according to the folks I recently spoke with at a local camera store, so it's not a problem unique to the SmartScan device. You can elect to scan single images or an entire strip, and SmartDisk includes a couple of plastic frames so that you can cut out individual images, when needed, and place them in the front-mounted slot typically used for slides. (I didn't test the unit's ability to scan slides because I don't have any readily available

I had hoped that the current generation of film scanners would eliminate one of my long-lasting digital-media-related dilemmas--I have thousands of photographs that I want to convert to digital images. The problem is that professional conversion is too expensive, and now I've found that converting the photographs manually with a film scanner is so slow it's almost impossible. (OK, maybe I'm exaggerating, but I told my wife recently that if I started scanning my photos today--beginning with photos from 1985 and working forward--I'd complete the conversion just in time for my retirement.)

But this technology is far from useless. The quality and size of the resulting images is tremendous, even though you need to manually correct color and contrast and edit out some scratches. So I've revised my thinking about this technology and will probably spend some time working through my negatives and picking only the pictures I simply have to have in digital format. If film scanning is like other computer-related technologies, it will only get better with time. But what we have today isn't bad, depending on your requirements.

SmartDisk's SmartScan 3600