Bit by Bit: New Scanner Gives Life to Old Film

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I have bought a good number of scanners in my lifetime. The biggest, and most expensive was a Crosfield 646IM 30x40-inch drum scanner. This cost about $300,000 (plus the construction and accessories to make it go). Since that monster, I have bought and sold a number -- I can't remember exactly how many -- of much smaller and less expensive units.

The truth of the matter is that there's always some reason to invest in a new unit: the technology's old, or you switch a new film size that's not supported, or in my case, I rediscovered old film that I wanted to scan.

I just sold a Nikon Coolscan 2000 on eBay. The combination of "old" technology, its SCSI interface (now passé) and its speed (PDS, or Purdy Durn Slow) made it necessary to unload that one. I also listed two flatbed scanners -- both Linocolor branded, a Saphir and a Jade -- on the auction site. These have both been made obsolete by Mac OS X and Heidelberg's abandonment of its scanner line and accompanying software (the old software won't run in Classic mode). And -- this may seem odd -- I have yet another Linocolor scanner (Heidelberg branded) currently inoperative for the above-mentioned reasons, that I don't plan to sell because I am still holding out for new software that might give it new life. All of these scanners have served me (and my graphic designer wife) well over their lifetimes.

I replaced the Nikon Coolscan 2000 with a newer model (LS4000) more than a year ago; that scanner features a FireWire connection. It is the 35mm version of the Coolscan product line. I like the resolution and image-enhancement features of Digital ICE – which can take dust, fingerprints and scratches out of images as they are scanned. But then true to form, that wasn't enough.

Old Film Meets New Scanner
For many years I used a pair of Hasselblad medium-format cameras. With this camera I shot thousands of Ektachrome transparencies on 120 and 70mm Kodak film. My rule of thumb for exposure of those transparencies was to underexpose one-half stop. It was reasonably easy to "dig into the shadows" to enhance the scans from this film. The aforementioned Crosfield was a scanner capable of such enhancement. What I needed was a new scanner that could work with my medium-format, underexposed film.

To scan the film from that era, I recently got a Nikon Coolscan 9000 ED, a medium-format film scanner (see Figure 1). Costing about $2,000, it will scan 35mm film and medium-format images up to 6 x 9 cm. The Coolscan 9000 includes Digital ICE tools that remove image defects, and it adds a couple of new features that I have found to be very useful. (Digital ICE was developed by Applied Science Fiction, which was acquired by Kodak and is now called the Kodal Austin Technology Center. Kodak and Nikon make very strange bedfellows, indeed.)

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Figure 1: Nikon Coolscan 9000 ED scanner

Scanning images on this unit involves mounting the film in one of
various film holders (see Figure 2). The standard package comes with
three: a 35mm strip holder (which will accommodate 12 frames in two six-frame strips), a 35mm mounted carrier (five slides) and a medium-format carrier. The medium-format carrier, which takes one or more pieces of 120/220 size film has a tensioning device to flatten the film during the scan. I have found this tensioning device to be very effective; scans from medium-format film show no side-to-side focus error or curvature. To scan my 70mm film from the Hasselblad era I have to trim the sprocket holes off first to get it down to the size of 120 film, but those sprocket holes are expendable.

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Figure 2: The three film holders that ship with the LS9000 scanner: left, for 120/220 film up to 6x9 cm.; center, for 35mm mounted slides; right, for 35mm filmstrips.

Nikon Scan 4.0, Nikon's scanner software, will run either in stand-alone or Photoshop plug-in modes, and is identical in either case. The benefit of the plug-in mode is that images land in Photoshop when finished.

(In the interests of full disclosure, I am responsible for the text and illustrations in the software Help system of the earlier Nikon Coolscan 4000/8000 series scanners. I did not work on the latest products, though vestiges of my work are still present -- and it's handsome work!)

When scanning, the device automatically detects which film carrier is inserted, adjusting its behavior accordingly. The 35mm carriers behave flawlessly, always scanning the correct opening for the images. The medium-format carrier cannot know what size of film is present, and so needs more than a little handholding. When scanning previews, you begin by telling the software what size of film to expect, and it then scans previews guessing the distance between the frames (seldom a reliable value, as each camera behaves differently). Once the frames are previewed, it's up to the operator to identify the correct position of each frame.

This is where the Coolscan 9000's software could be improved. There is a seemingly arbitrary control called Strip Film Offset that you use to fine tune the image area of the medium-format film (see Figure 3). With it you click to move the image plus or minus (left? right?) from the previewed version. Unfortunately, it's a guessing game. You adjust in mystery units (millimeters? hectares?) plus or minus, and it takes a few tries to get it right. The control seems to be based not on a fixed point, but on a moving point, so each successive adjustment is a crapshoot, and sometimes you pass a point-of-no-return where the units of adjustment will reverse, making the position significantly further-from-correct than the previous attempt. I would prefer a preview window where I could move a rectangular selection area over a visible preview of the current film to indicate the location of each frame.

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Figure 3: The Film Strip Offset slider in Nikon Scan 4 software uses arbitrary units of measure, and is difficult to master. It usually takes me two or three tries to get the scan position correct.

ICE, ICE Baby
Once you get the position of the preview correct, cropping and scanning the images is easy. The Nikon Scan software lets you introduce sharpening, curve control, color adjustments, and other variables on the fly. You can also turn on Digital ICE here, and given the slow deterioration that affects all film, those functions are must-haves for me.

I find that ICE is almost always a benefit when scanning transparency film. Even if the film has been stored safely (?) in a glassine sleeve, it will still have minute surface defects from handling and storage, and tiny spots of dust, some of which were introduced during processing. Digital ICE really improves images, so I use it in a majority of my scans (see Figure 4). Previous versions of the Nikon scanners did not allow Digital ICE to be run on Kodachrome film, but that has been fixed on the new scanners. I tested Kodachrome, and it scanned perfectly; ICE cleaned the image nicely, and there was no focus or color quality problem introduced by the scanner.

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Figure 4: A 1960s-era Agfachrome transparency (top) shows the effects of age and bad processing (grit above and around the locomotive and in the sky). The same image processed with Digital ICE (bottom) removes most of the scratches and grit, saving hours of retouching. However, the image is suffers slightly in sharpness.

In the process Digital ICE takes a slight toll on the sharpness of the image. Though it makes the scan slower, I use the alternative Digital ICE (Fine) setting, which removes all the blemishes, and sharpens the image a bit as it scans (see Figure 5). This is a good compromise for me -- I save hours of retouching, and I get a sharp image at the same time.

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Figure 5: Applying the Digital ICE (Fine) control removes the spots and scratches, and increases the apparent sharpness also.

Making the Invisible Visible
Not many of my film transparencies suffer from fading (I'm not special, they're just not old enough), but I occasionally encounter an image on film that has faded badly. Another scanner feature called Digital ROC (Restoration of Color) can put the color back in an image that appears all but lost. This is an invaluable feature when you need it. With ROC turned on I was able to restore two images of my father's 1926 college graduation that appeared, when looking at the negative, to be nearly clear film. The film, which was slightly smaller than 6x9 cm, had not been fixed correctly, and the emulsion had faded to near invisibility (it would not print from an enlarger at all). But the scanner found an image in there and made a reasonably good scan. After a bit of Levels adjustment in Photoshop, I was able to make the image look much better (see Figure 6).

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Figure 6: Before Digital ROC (top) and after (bottom): Aunt Margaret and my father, Russell at their graduation from U.C. Berkeley, June, 1926.

Another new feature of the scanner package is Digital DEE (Dynamic Exposure Extender), which behaves surprisingly like the new Shadow/Highlights tool in Photoshop CS. Digital DEE digs deep into shadow areas, adjusting them to be more "open" without affecting the balance of the image. The results are spectacular, and when you apply this effect during a scan of the original film, you get more information from the film than a normal scan. Better than applying Shadows/Highlights in Photoshop, which can only draw from the scanned information, Digital DEE will "look" deeper into the original image shadows, potentially drawing-out more information from the obscure regions of the image.

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Figure 7: A scan from 70mm Ektachrome film, Digital DEE off. The image is a slightly underexposed transparency with a lot of information in the shadows that need some attention.

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The same scan with a very small amount of Digital DEE enabled. Notice how the dark areas of the image are enhanced while the balance of the image remains unmodified.

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Adjusting the effect of Digital DEE enhances the image dramatically. The shadows are more open, the greens more vibrant. It's a much more successful photo with this feature applied.

Say You Want Some Resolution
The Coolscan 9000 scans 35mm film at roughly 4,000 x 6000 pixels, yielding an image of just over 70 MB in 8 bits. No amount of finagling will change this, as the lens and the sensor are in a fixed relationship and there is no enlargement or reduction possible in the optical system on these scanners.

When scanning medium-format film, one benefits from the 10,000-pixel sensor, most of whose pixels can be accessed when scanning the larger film. The largest scan possible on this device is 8,964 x 13,176 pixels, which yields an RGB image of an impressive 300-plus MB file at 8 bits.

Speed is Relative; Time is Valuable
The Nikon 9000 (with all the features activated) is quite slow. This is particularly frustrating when working with medium-format film and fussing around with the Strip Film Offset's plus and minus controls to get the image centered in the preview window.

I tend to look holistically at the issue of speed. When Digital ICE saves hours (real hours) of retouching by removing dust and spots from scanned images, the speed (or lack thereof) is unimportant. Time is valuable, and I find this scanner is fast enough to allow me to make money scanning images for graphic arts reproduction. The images are so good that a few extra minutes spent making a scan are never wasted.

Medium-format's New Lease on Life
I am enjoying the rebirth of my Hasselblad-era images, thousands of film transparencies that have lived in binders for the years since I shot them. The Nikon medium-format scanner is delivering excellent images that are very effective for print, and at a resolution that makes it worthwhile to handle these images again. It's great to be able to make high-resolution scans of this material while applying Digital ICE functions -- dust and scratch removal and Restoration of Color for those images that need it.

The addition of the Digital DEE feature for shadow enhancement adds such tremendous value in scanning my slightly underexposed films that I believe the Coolscan 9000 to be the best medium-format scanner I have ever used, and it's about $298,000 less expensive than the old Crosfield.

Read more by Brian P. Lawler.

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