When I started scanning my slides and negatives in 1999, Canon, Minolta, and Nikon (along with Acer, Hewlett-Packard, Kodak, and Polaroid) offered a large selection of professional and “prosumer” desktop film scanners. I chose the Hewlett-Packard Photosmart (the original SCSI version), which could produce 2400dpi (“dots per inch” resolution) scans at 10 bits per color channel. I replaced it in 2003 with a Canon FS4000US, capable of 4000dpi scans at 14 bits per color channel. The Canon scanner stopped working in July 2012.
The companies I listed in the previous paragraph have all discontinued their film scanners. (Nikon’s Coolscan 9000ED, the last film scanner sold by a camera manufacturer, disappeared in December 2010.) Two new manufacturers, Plustek and Pacific Image Electronics, now have the “prosumer” desktop film scanner market to themselves. (Pacific Image scanners are branded as Reflecta in Europe.)
The Pacific Image PrimeFilm 7250 and the Plustek OpticFilm 7600i looked like suitable choices to replace my Canon scanner. Both have 7200dpi optical resolution, an LED light source, a 3.6 dynamic range, and infrared cleaning. (While they can produce 48-bit output, I can find no information about their actual bit depth.) I plumped for the “Ai” version of the Plustek 7600i. It seemed to have received more favorable reviews than the Pacific Image scanner, and I found it on sale at a very good price.
I no longer use film for new pictures. But I do have an ongoing project to make improved versions of the numerous pictures I scanned for this Web site between 1999 and 2003. I have a page with some examples of how my images from film scans have improved since then.
What follows is not meant as a comprehensive technical review of the scanner. (I do provide links to two Web sites that offer such reviews, if that’s what you’re looking for.) My intent is to provide information that should be helpful if you’re considering this scanner, and to mention a few things I haven’t seen other reviewers discuss.
My 7600i scanner has been replaced with the 8200i. The case is now navy blue instead of black, but the hardware inside is the same. The only difference is that the 8200i is bundled with version 8 of SilverFast. The 7600i was bundled with version 6.6. But 7600i Ai owners who registered with LaserSoft could download a free upgrade to version 8, effectively upgrading it to an 8200i (though, of course, that won’t change the color of the case). This review thus applies to both the 8200i and the 7600i.
Plustek sells two versions of the 8200i, differing only in their bundled software:
The 8200i Ai includes LaserSoft Imaging’s SilverFast Ai Studio 8, which is their full-featured “professional” scanning software. It also includes an IT8 calibration slide, which you can use to create a profile of your scanner. A profile can improve color accuracy when scanning slides (but not negatives).
The 8200i SE includes SilverFast SE Plus 8, an “entry-level” version. It lacks Ai Studio’s IT8 calibration and “expert” adjustments of scanning parameters.
Both versions also include a simplified scanning program called Plustek Quick Scan, and Presto! image management software.
(There is also the 8100, which lacks an infrared channel but is otherwise the same as the 8200i SE. Though it’s not perfect, infrared cleaning is such a time-saving convenience that I’d consider it an essential feature for a scanner. But if you exclusively scan black and white negatives, you can save a little money by doing without the infrared. Infrared cleaning doesn’t work with traditional non-chromogenic black and white film.)
The 7600i Ai cost me just about half of what my Canon FS4000US cost in 2003 (not considering inflation). Mature technology, commodity parts, and Chinese labor have surely made Plustek’s manufacturing cost much lower than what Canon’s was in 2003. But Plustek clearly cut corners to reduce the price.
Instead of a motor that moves the film holder in most scanners, the Plustek scanner relies on the user to transport the film. You insert the film holder into one of the two collinear slots on the side of the scanner, and then slide the holder until you reach the desired frame. A detent in the film holder provides a solid click to indicate that a frame is in position for scanning, and to help you count the frames. The sensor moves across the film for scanning.
Manual feed is a simple and effective approach, but it makes batch scanning impractical. With my previous scanners, I could load a strip of film (or a holder full of slides), click one button, and the scanner would sequentially scan all the frames.
Instead of the Canon scanner’s automatic focus, the Plustek has fixed-focus optics (as did my first Photosmart scanner).
The Canon negative holder seems flimsy, but it held up well for nine years. The Plustek negative holder holds six frames like the Canon; but with no rails or slots to engage a motor drive, it’s thinner, narrower, and even flimsier.
The Canon holder opens to 180 degrees; the Plustek holder only opens to 90 degrees. The hinge on the Plustek holder feels like it will easily snap off if handled with any more force than a feather’s caress.
The Plustek negative holder is missing a simple but crucial feature.
The Canon holder has four small openings, above and below the first and sixth
frames. Those openings provide access to the film’s sprocket holes, allowing
easy adjustment of the film position in the closed holder: Stick the end of a
bent paper clip in the hole, and push or pull on a sprocket hole as
appropriate to align the film frames.
Without those openings, the only way to adjust the film position in the closed Plustek holder is by grabbing the film— preferably with a gloved hand or a chamois— and pulling it into position. It’s also possible to make small adjustments by very very very gently tapping the film holder with the soft pad of your fingertip to jostle the film inside into position. But tapping with even a little too much force will jar the holder open and send the film strip fluttering to the floor.
The design of the holder also makes the initial positioning of the film strip a very finicky proposition. If the film has even the slightest curl, it’s guaranteed to slip out of the six little ridges that guide the film as you close the holder. You’ll need to hold the film in place with your fingers as you snap the holder closed. A pair of clean cotton gloves is an essential accessory for this scanner!
One of Plustek’s selling points is the close integration of their hardware with LaserSoft’s SilverFast software. But the scanners work at least as well with Ed Hamrick’s VueScan. Both programs have their devoted fans. And both are frequently criticized for their idiosyncratic user interfaces that can create a steep learning curve for new users.
I can’t provide a fair and balanced “SilverFast vs. VueScan” assessment. I’m biased. I’ve used VueScan since before it was called VueScan. (It started out as VueSmart, a replacement for the Hewlett-Packard Photosmart’s crippled native software.) After more than 15 years, I’m quite accustomed to its idiosyncrasies. As VueScan has given me excellent results with three other scanners in addition to the Plustek, I have neither the inclination nor the patience to master another sophisticated scanning program.
You’ll need to download and install a driver before you can use VueScan with Windows. The page for the Plustek 8200i on Hamrick’s Web site provides a link for downloading the driver from Plustek’s Web site.
The “Setup/Application” CD that came with my 7600i includes a driver in the software\Driver\Plustek OF7600i directory. So it seems likely that the corresponding CD for the 8200i also includes a driver. (I downloaded a newer driver from Plustek’s Web site, which was available when I got my scanner in September 2012.) If it doesn’t, you’ll need to contact Plustek’s technical support. Better yet, if you’re thinking of buying one of these scanners and using it with VueScan, check the Plustek Web site first. If you can’t find a driver, contact Plustek to make sure you have a driver (or confirmation that the CD includes a driver) before you buy the scanner.
SilverFast’s idiosyncratic user interface is a collection of 12 tools, all with quirky acronyms. Those tools are accessed either through buttons with pictographic icons, or through a panel on the left side of the screen. If you have the Ai Studio version, the panel provides optional “Expert Settings” for each tool, revealed when you click a button with a mortarboard icon. Each tool panel includes a link to a video that explains its use. You’ll need Apple’s QuickTime to view the videos.
VueScan’s idiosyncratic user interface takes the opposite approach. It groups its numerous settings and options under six tabs in an “options panel” on the left side of the screen. Those settings are made through text-based boxes, pull-downs, and sliders rather than icons. There is also a conventional menu bar above the options panel. A button toggles between showing the complete set of options and an abbreviated subset.
Hamrick provides a VueScan user guide that’s a bit terse, but it adequately explains all the features and settings. Unfortunately, the only SilverFast documentation I could find is a “Quick Guide.” It includes complete details about licensing, installation, and anti-piracy measures; but it has only summary information about the various tools. There’s no information about the “Expert Settings,” other than a general statement about how they provide “advanced functionality for fine adjustments.” Those “Expert Settings” panels presumably provide powerful control over scan processing, as you’d expect in “professional” software. But they’re useless without documentation explaining how to use them.
A complete PDF manual for SilverFast apparently does exist. A complex grid comparing the features in the different versions has links to Web pages that describe each feature. Buried on some of those pages are links to relevant chapters of that manual. The documentation download section of LaserSoft’s Web site claims to provide full access to the manual. I could download the “Quick Guide,” but I couldn’t download the manual in any browser I tried.
If you don’t want to bother with all the tools and adjustments, SilverFast provides “WorkflowPilot,” a simplified click-and-go facility for common scanning tasks. (LaserSoft is a German company. The awkward-looking names of SilverFast features like this reflect the German predilection for compounds. The available documentation, and the information on Lasersoft’s Web site, look to have been translated from the German by a “fluent but non-native” English speaker.) WorkflowPilot executes a sequence of tools appropriate for the task, with default settings. It’s apparently possible to create your own WorkflowPilots. The VueScan equivalent is a “Guide me” button that provides a simplified scanning workflow.
I found that the WorkflowPilots included with SilverFast produced scans closer to finished images than the settings I normally use with VueScan.
I prefer to set the black and white points as low as possible, to produce a “flat-looking” 48-bit scan that extracts maximum detail in both highlights and shadows. I find it much much easier to adjust the image in Photoshop than in scanning software. There’s surely a way to make those settings in SilverFast, but I don’t have the patience to discover it through trial and error.
I also turn off all sharpening in the scanning software. I’ve found that a deconvolution plug-in (Focus Magic or Topaz In Focus) applied after noise reduction (NeatImage) yields better results than the unsharp mask that SilverFast and VueScan use for capture sharpening.
I did not install Plustek Quick Scan or the Presto! software. Installing SilverFast from the CD that comes with the scanner also installs a service that continually monitors the “IntelliScan” and “Quick Scan” buttons on the front of the scanner to launch, respectively, SilverFast and Quick Scan. As I use VueScan, and I only turn on the scanner when I’m going to use it, I disabled that service. There doesn’t seem to be a way to specifically uninstall that software.
I shot a lot more negative film than slides before I converted to digital. So for me, performance with negatives is an important consideration when evaluating scanning software.
The infamous orange mask on color negatives is necessary to get accurate color in prints. (It compensates for inherent inconsistencies in color dyes.) But it complicates scanning, because the each type of film has a slightly different mask color. It’s easier to get accurate color when you have a profile for the film, produced by a special scanner that measures the mask color and other technical characteristics. VueScan and SilverFast each include a frustratingly incomplete collection of profiles.
Outdated profiles for color negative films are one of VueScan’s undeniable weaknesses. Ed Hamrick designed VueScan to use the film data for Kodak’s Photo CD scanners. That surely seemed a sensible decision in 1999, as it let him take advantage of Kodak’s sophisticated equipment and expertise for analyzing film characteristics. Unfortunately, desktop film scanners made the Photo CD irrelevant shortly after Hamrick made that decision. Kodak discontinued Photo CD scanners in 2000, and issued the final film data update in May of that year. Hamrick has not found a replacement for that data, which means VueScan has no profiles for films released since then. You must either find something that’s “close enough” through trial and error, or use the “Generic Color Negative” setting in the “Color” tab. (My VueScan review describes profile settings that I’ve found to work well with some of the missing films.)
SilverFast’s tool for scanning negatives is called NegaFix. Like VueScan’s “Color” tab, the NegaFix tool has pull-down selections for manufacturer, brand, and film speed. Since NegaFix doesn’t rely on Kodak Photo CD data, it should include profiles for current films. The manufacturer pull-down in NegaFix includes companies that VueScan does not support (Ferrania, Fotolabo, Boots, Mitsubishi, Lucky, and Tudor). But the films I used most often are missing from the Kodak and Fuji settings.
Kodak Ultra Color 100 is there, but not 400. The list of Portra films is missing 400UC (it’s the same as Ultra Color 400). The only film under the Ektar brand setting is 100; I’m not sure whether that’s the current film or the one that (briefly) replaced the original (and absent) Ektar 125 in the early 1990s. The Fuji collection is missing all the Super G films, which I used extensively in the 1990s. There is a setting called “Other,” which I assume is the SilverFast equivalent to VueScan’s “Generic Color Negative.”
VueScan provides an option that can help get accurate color from films for which there is no profile. Scan a blank piece of film, and then select an option to lock the “base color.” Subsequent scans with that “locked” option will include a correction for that film’s orange mask. You still have to experiment with different profiles, and also remember to deselect the locked base color before scanning another type of film.
The Expert Settings panel for NegaFix in SilverFast Ai Studio allows manual adjustment of mask and film curves. Presumably, you can tweak the settings while watching the preview window. That process seems much more cumbersome than VueScan’s scan and lock.
One of the Ai version’s touted features is an IT8 calibration slide. It’s a mounted slide with an image of the test target specified in ANSI Standard IT8.7/1-1993 (R2003). In combination with a reference file that translates the colors rendered by the specific film emulsion used for the slide into standard values, scanning software can use the slide to create a profile for the scanner. The software can then use that profile with its color management system to improve the accuracy of scanned images.
Both the “Professional Edition” of VueScan and the Ai Studio version of SilverFast can create a profile from the IT8 calibration slide. SilverFast has a tool to do that automatically. The Plustek calibration slide includes a bar code that SilverFast can read to identify the necessary reference file. VueScan can’t read the bar code, so you’ll need to specify the reference file manually. Fortunately, the slide has a human-readable identification number next to the bar code. The CD for installing SilverFast includes a directory (IT8 Reference Files) containing reference files for each identification number. You can also download reference files from a LaserSoft Web page.
The profile you make with the IT8 slide is useful only for scanning slides. IT8 profiling of negative film is theoretically possible, but isn’t practical. Each type of film has a different orange mask color, meaning a separate IT8 target image and profile would be required for each type of film.
The appearance of a scanned image depends more on the software that does the scanning and processing— and particularly on the person who uses that software— than on the scanner itself. As long as the scanner produces a sharp image with sufficient bit depth and dynamic range, it’s a good scanner. And the Plustek 7600i meets those criteria, despite the fixed-focus optics.
If you want a pixel-peeping technical analysis complete with magnified images, check out Mark D. Segal’s review on the Luminous Landscape Web site. (This complete review is outside the paywall the owners of Luminous Landscape put up in November 2015.) He compared the Plustek scanner with a high-quality discontinued Nikon film scanner and a high-end Epson flatbed scanner. He concluded that “[g]ranularity of fine detail, when seen in a properly sharpened 11*16.5 inch print, is close to that obtained from the Nikon scanner.”
Resolution and Sharpness: Pixel-Peeping or Real-World?
The 7600i (and 8200i) have a sensor actually capable of delivering 7200dpi. But that impressive-sounding 7200dpi specification is probably more useful for Plustek’s marketeers than for photographers. I find 3600dpi the practical limit. A 48-bit cropped scan weighs in at about 100 megabytes. At 7200dpi, with the pixel count in both dimensions doubled, that scan takes up 400 megabytes. I have, of course, tried scanning slides and negatives at both resolutions. If there’s any significant additional detail in the larger scan, I haven’t yet been able to see it.
I know that doesn’t make sense. A sharp 35mm slide or negative should resolve more than 3600dpi. It may be possible that a scan of a Velvia 50 slide or an Ektar 100 negative taken with a tripod-mounted professional-grade lens could have more detail at 7200dpi than at 3600dpi. But with the images I tried, taken on various 400-speed negative films and Fujichrome 100 slide film with decent consumer lenses, I could see no difference in detail. Grain was slightly more noticeable at 7200dpi, but I couldn’t see any difference beyond that.
It’s likely that the real limitation is in the scanner’s optical system. It can produce satisfactorily sharp scans for practical use, but it’s not sharp enough to take full advantage of the 7200dpi resolution. Patrick Wagner of the German site ScanDig evaluated the 7600i’s resolution with a USAF-1951 target slide. He found that at 7200dpi, the scanner’s effective resolution of the target was 3250dpi. At 3600dpi, the effective resolution was 2600dpi. Elsewhere on his site, Wagner notes that this is typical performance for scanners that claim 7200dpi resolution.
I’m not sure how Wagner’s results with test targets apply to normal images. For one thing, all scans require sharpening. It’s common for scanning software to do the initial “capture sharpening” as it processes the scan. SilverFast does that by default. It’s also usually necessary to sharpen the final image for printing or display. Some photographers include additional sharpening steps on the way to the final image. Wagner did not indicate how much sharpening, if any, he applied to his scans of the test target.
What I’ve seen is more consistent with what Mark Segal reported. He didn’t use resolution targets, but scanned actual slides and negatives (at arbitrary dpi settings based on intended output size rather than fixed divisions of the scanner’s native resolution). His conclusion about the scanner’s sharpness was specifically based on viewing a “properly sharpened” print. That probably reflects the scanner’s real-world performance better than measurements of a resolution target. I have similarly found that 3600dpi scans of slides and negatives are satisfactorily sharp and detailed after normal processing in Photoshop, which includes capture and output sharpening.
The ability to scan at 7200dpi— even if the true resolution is much less— is genuinely useful for scanning 110 film. Although the tiny slide or negative could benefit from any incremental increase in true resolution, the real advantage comes from the increased number of pixels. A 7200dpi full frame scan of a 110 slide is 4535x3402 pixels. The same scan from my Canon scanner at 4000dpi was 2520x1890 pixels. Beyond any real additional detail, the larger scan may allow deconvolution sharpening software (Focus Magic or Topaz InFocus) to restore more apparent detail. And the larger image can be more readily enlarged or cropped.
The Plustek scanner has more than adequate dynamic range for negatives. For slides, which have higher contrast and much darker shadows, the scanner has a multi-exposure capability that works with VueScan and SilverFast. The software makes two exposures, one underexposed for highlight detail and the other overexposed for shadow detail (plus a third for infrared cleaning), and combines them. Using two exposures maximizes the detail in highlights and shadows.
Multi-pass scanning is another option, which I often used for slides with the Canon scanner. It makes multiple scans using the same exposure. That doesn’t directly increase the dynamic range; but it cancels out noise in dense shadows. If you then use curve adjustment or the “Highlights and Shadows” tool in Photoshop to brighten the shadows, you stand a chance of seeing actual detail rather than noise from the scanner’s electronics. Multi-exposure scanning (which the Canon scanner did not support) seems to yield better results than multi-pass scanning. (Color negatives, with their lower overall density, don’t need or benefit from multiple exposures or passes.)
In a niche market with few choices, the Plustek 7600i is a decent “prosumer” scanner that provides good value for money. I don’t think it’s quite in the same league as the extinct film scanners from Canon, Minolta, and Nikon. And I would prefer the 4000dpi native resolution of my deceased Canon FS4000US. But the Plustek scanner does the job more than adequately.
If you’re already using VueScan, go for the 8200i version with the lowest price. I happened to find the 7600i Ai on sale for less than the SE version. Another consideration is that an IT8 calibration slide costs between $30 and $50. (Its reference file will calibrated for a batch of slides printed on film with the same emulsion number. A slide with an individually-measured reference file will cost a lot more.) If the price difference between the Ai and SE version is less than that, it might be worth getting the Ai version just for the IT8 slide.
If you aren’t already using VueScan, try the bundled SilverFast first. You may like it. A comparison grid on LaserSoft’s Web site shows the features of each version of SilverFast 6.6. It can help you decide whether the Ai version (which includes SilverFast Ai Studio) is worth a (possibly) higher price than the SE version (which includes SilverFast SE Plus). Looking at this “busy” comparison grid will also give you an idea of how LaserSoft designs their user interface. (I wasn’t able to find a corresponding detailed comparison grid for version 8.)
If you aren’t happy with SilverFast, you can download and try VueScan before you decide whether to buy it. You’ll need the Professional Edition ($80), which supports color management and includes unlimited upgrades. The Standard Edition ($40) doesn’t support film scanning. Hamrick frequently upgrades VueScan to add new features and support for new scanners.
VueScan supports a large number of scanners. If you have more than one scanner, you can use VueScan for all of them (I use it with a multi-function scanner/printer as well as the Plustek). If you replace a scanner you can (probably) use VueScan with the new one. The version of SilverFast included with the Plustek scanner works only with that scanner.