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Film Scanning

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Hamrick VueScan

Ed Hamrick’s VueScan is high-powered scanning software for a over 1,600 film and flatbed scanners from Minolta, Nikon, Canon, Hewlett-Packard, and others. Using the characteristics of over 200 kinds of film, it can automatically determine the optimal color balance for rapid “batch” scanning of an entire roll of film. Or you can crop and fine-tune the color balance, density, and histogram of individual images with advanced previewing and adjustment options. VueScan is particularly good at getting the best color out of negatives, overcoming a common weakness in scanner manufacturers’ software. I used VueScan to scan all the pictures on this Web site that I shot on film.

There are two “editions” of VueScan. The Standard edition costs $40 and includes free upgrades for one year. But it does not allow film scanning. (Hamrick imposed this unfortunate restriction on new purchases beginning in August 2014.) To scan film, you’ll need the Professional edition. It costs $80, adds support for advanced color management and calibration (ICC profiles, multiple color spaces, and IT8 color calibration), and includes unlimited upgrades. Both editions are actually the same software. The registration number you buy determines whether film scanning and color management are enabled (for the Professional edition), and whether a new upgrade is allowed (for the Standard edition).

For all its strengths, VueScan has one persistent weakness. Its many settings for color negative film characteristics do not include any films released after mid-2000. There are no settings for any current versions of Kodak Portra, Max, or Gold films; or for relatively recent recent films from Kodak (High Definition 200 and 400, Ultra Color 100UC and 400UC), Fuji (NPH, four-layer Superia X-Tra and Press), or Agfa (Vista and Optima).

Hamrick designed VueScan to use profiles created from film data that Kodak provided for Photo CD work stations. At the time (1999) it probably made sense to rely on Kodak’s professional-caliber analysis of film characteristics. It was reasonable to assume that Kodak would keep the work stations updated as new films came out. Unfortunately, Hamrick couldn’t foresee that, along with digital mini-labs, the very desktop scanners his software was enhancing would soon make the expensive proprietary Photo CD irrelevant. Kodak released the final film data update in May 2000, just before they discontinued the work stations. As Hamrick apparently never of found a replacement for Photo CD film data, VueScan includes no profiles for films released since then.

Hamrick therefore suggests either using the “Generic Color Negative” setting, or else experimenting with the provided profiles to find one that works better. You can also make your own profile for a currently-available film using an IT8 color target card. A reader who wrote to me about an earlier version of this review said he’s had excellent results with profiles he created for various negative films. It’s a simple matter of photographing an IT8 target card in midday sun, and then scanning the negative according to Hamrick’s instructions (that page also includes a link to a vendor of IT8 targets). After saving the profile, you need merely select it as the Film ICC Profile in the “Color” tab before scanning negatives on that film.

I haven’t tried this procedure myself. It wouldn’t be possible anyway; I stopped shooting film in 2005, and the negatives in my collection are all on discontinued films. But I have profiled my scanner for slide film using the IT8 target slide that came with my Plustek 7600Ai scanner. Profiling does yield better “raw” scans from slides. And because the IT8 slide includes a reference file that translates the colors rendered on the slide into standard values, the profile works for all types of slide film (with the possible exception of Kodachrome).

A more practical alternative is to scan a blank piece of film, to calibrate VueScan with the mask color for that type (and roll) of film. Hamrick provides complete instructions. It’s a fairly easy process, and practical even for long-discontinued films— if you have at least one set of negatives that contain the unexposed beginning or end of the roll, which labs almost always include with negatives. The calibration does make getting accurate color easier. Just remember to unlock the film base setting before you scan another kind of film.

I have successfully used the “Royal Gold 400 Gen. 2” setting for Kodak’s Ultra Color 400UC and High Definition 400 films; the “Supra 400” setting is an alternative, with a slightly different color balance. I have found that the “Reala 100 (Japan)” setting works well for Fuji Superia 800; I have read that it works for the other four-layer Superia films. The older, three-layer version of “Superia 400” is actually re-labeled Super G Plus, for which VueScan does include a profile (“Superia 400 Gen 2”).

VueScan is now at version 9, which includes support for optical character recognition and the option of creating PDF and DNG output files. It also includes support for a growing list of digital camera RAW files using dcraw, an open-source raw conversion utility. Selecting a disk file rather than a scanner lets you process and correct a RAW file as if it came from a scanner, and then save the result as a TIFF or JPEG file. I have only tried it with my Digital Rebel XT to confirm that it works, since Hamrick says it’s necessary to create a set of camera profiles with an IT8 target for accurate color. I don’t have an IT8 target, and Hamrick provides no guidance on how to create camera profiles.

VueScan is available for Windows, Linux, and Macintosh OS X, in 32-bit and 64-bit versions. The 64-bit version is noticeably faster at processing finished scans and zooming the built-in image viewer, computationally-intensive functions had been frustratingly slow in earlier versions. But of course the speed of scanning is limited by the speed of the scanner.

A final caveat: Hamrick is continually updating VueScan to add various new capabilities and scanners. So be careful about downloading the latest version because it may sometimes break a function or feature, especially if you have an older scanner for which support is no longer a priority for Hamrick. (He can’t possibly have the time or resources to do comprehensive regression testing on all the supported scanners with each new version.) For example, infrared cleaning on the Canon FS4000US is notoriously susceptible to breakage or performance degradation. So if you have a version that works well, hold onto the installation file! You may need to revert to it after discovering problems with a new version.

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Canon FS4000US Scanner

Note (August 2008): Canon discontinued this scanner in 2004. If you enter “FS4000US” in that site’s search box, you can still find support information for it. Introduced early in 2001, the FS4000US is a bit dated. But it’s still a fine scanner that may be worth buying used if the price is low enough. I’ve kept a trimmed version of the review here because it may still have relevance— and because I still use the scanner.

While I had previously predicted that Canon would produce a slightly updated version of the FS4000, perhaps with a USB 2.0 or FireWire interface, Canon seems to have abandoned the market with the discontinuation of their only dedicated film scanner. They are now touting multi-purpose devices that can scan prints and documents along with various sizes of transparencies and negatives. Historically, these multi-purpose scanners have done an inferior job with film, but perhaps Canon has improved the film performance of their latest models.

Note (October 2011): If you want to use an FS4000 scanner with 64-bit Windows 7, you’ll be stuck with its USB 1.1 interface. A SCSI card that worked with an earlier version of Windows almost certainly won’t work with 64-bit Windows 7 (or Vista). Neither Microsoft nor the card’s manufacturer will have the necessary 64-bit driver for it— or for anything you’d find on eBay.

The few SCSI adapter cards I’ve found that do provide 64-bit drivers are intended for high-performance corporate servers and their specialized legacy hard drives, the last surviving members of the all-but-extinct SCSI species. Their premium price is commensurate with that niche market, as they provide throughput capacity well beyond what any scanner needs. And don’t forget the new cable you’ll need to connect the scanner to the card’s 68-pin external connector, if it even has an external connector. If you have money to burn, go ahead and buy one. But I don’t think it’s a sensible investment just for an old scanner that is probably approaching the end of its life expectancy.

For a while, the American subsidiary of the Japanese peripheral manufacturer Ratoc offered a $99 PCI Ultra SCSI adapter that claimed to provide a 64-bit driver. But their Web site now shows that product as discontinued. (Ratoc has also discontinued their SCSI-to-USB 2.0 adapter, which didn’t work with the FS4000 anyway.)

The good news is that you might be pleasantly surprised at the FS4000’s performance with USB 1.1 on a modern computer. When I first tried it on my new Windows 7 machine, I found it was noticeably slower than with SCSI on my old computer. But it’s nothing like the glacial torpor I experienced when I wrote the original review in 2004. Maybe current chipsets and drivers work better than what I had then? Regardless, I think I can live with USB 1.1 for the rest of the scanner’s life.

The last version of FilmGet, the official Canon software for the FS4000, is version 1.0.4, released in October 2007. It is 32-bit software that is not compatible with 64-bit Vista or Windows 7. VueScan is the only viable option for using this scanner with 64-bit Windows (or with Macintosh OS X or Linux).

Note (November 2012): After nine years, my FS4000 broke down in July 2012. It wasn’t the mechanical failure that I had expressed concern about in my review, but an electronic failure. The scanner appeared to be working, but brightly-colored “snow” appeared on VueScan’s preview screen instead of the image. Canon no longer offers repair service for this “legacy” scanner. I replaced it with a Plustek 7600i Ai.

From January 1999 through September 2003, I scanned hundreds of pictures for this Web site with the original SCSI version of the Hewlett-Packard PhotoSmart scanner. With 2400 dots per inch (dpi) resolution, it could produce beautiful results when used with Ed Hamrick’s VueScan software. After the PhotoSmart started to make ominous noises, I decided to replace it with a Canon FS4000 (officially FS4000US). It has 4000 dpi resolution with 42 bits per pixel, along with infrared cleaning. Those features provide substantial improvement in both image quality and convenience. The FS4000 has been extensively reviewed elsewhere. So I’ll mainly focus on my own observations and opinions about it.

With its extremely sharp optics, at 4000 dpi the FS4000 effectively captures all the detail in a 35mm slide or negative. Before any pedants e-mail me to dispute this statement, I’ll concede that a $14,000, 8000 dpi drum scanner can extract the extra bit of detail in a negative shot on (extinct) Ektar 25 film using a professional-grade prime lens at its optimum aperture, with the camera mounted on a heavy tripod. But for real-world negatives and slides, more resolution will only provide a clearer view of the film grain.

The 4000 dpi scans from the Canon are noticeably sharper than the 2400 dpi scans from the old HP scanner. They very clearly show more detail when magnified. But the difference isn’t day-and-night dramatic, and probably isn’t even visible in a 20x30cm print. So I can’t imagine that any theoretical extra detail at 8000 dpi (or even 5400 dpi) would be noticeable. That $14,000 drum scanner will make better scans (particularly from slides), but not because of the higher resolution.

From a full 35mm frame, 4000 dpi produces a 21.4 megapixel digital image. Scans saved as uncompressed TIFF files are 64 or 128 megabytes, depending on how many bits per pixel you’re using. The practical benefit of such high resolution is that it permits significant extensive cropping while retaining enough pixels for printing. Along those lines, it also permits decent scans of my collection of 110-format Kodachrome slides. Those yield 4.8 megapixels, enough for very pleasing 20x25cm prints.

What I appreciate even more than the higher resolution is the infrared cleaning. No matter how carefully you clean film, a scan always has numerous “hickeys” (a term borrowed from the printing industry, where it refers to particles of dust or dried ink that make visible spots). These small dust particles and scratches require many tedious hours of meticulous “spotting” with a clone tool to clean up. Hickeys are opaque to infrared light, so an additional scan with infrared lets appropriate software clean the image automatically. This cleaning process isn’t perfect, but it usually reduces a very tedious chore to a few manageable clicks. I really enjoy spending the time tuning the cropping, density, and color of my pictures instead of squinting at hickeys.

The scanner is compact, cleverly designed, and easy to use. There’s only one button on the front of the scanner, the power switch; software controls everything else. Load the slide holder with up to four mounted slides, or the negative holder with a strip of up to six negatives, insert it into the front of the scanner, and you’re good to go. The FS4000 also includes an adapter for scanning APS film.

The FS4000 needs two essential accessories. The first is a SCSI card and cable. The scanner has USB 1.1 and SCSI II interfaces; you select one or the other with a little switch on the bottom of the scanner. The FS4000 is no speed demon with SCSI, but with USB it becomes a constipated snail. On my computer, a 4000 dpi, 42-bit scan with infrared cleaning using VueScan takes four minutes. With USB, the same scan takes over ten minutes! Unless you have infinite patience, SCSI is absolutely necessary. An inexpensive card rated at 10 megabytes per second will work well.

The other essential accessory is Ed Hamrick’s VueScan software. Scanner manufacturers seem much better at designing and building hardware than at supporting it with software. Canon proves this point with FilmGet, the scanner’s “native” software. FilmGet can’t run by itself; it’s a TWAIN driver that only works within a compatible photo-editing program. If you don’t have one, Canon includes the paleolithic crippled “Limited Edition” of Adobe Photoshop 5.0.

FilmGet does an adequate job of acquiring images, but it has significant problems. It insists on spending several minutes “calibrating” the scanner when it first starts up. Then it spends too much time moving the film holder back and forth before it starts each scan, making a slow process even slower. Any color, density, or histogram adjustments you make within FilmGet use 24 bits per pixel, even with a 42-bit scan. That can cause problems with color and density in the final image.

FilmGet’s worst failing is that it automatically sharpens all scans. You can’t control the amount of sharpening, and you can’t turn it off. The sharpening exaggerates noise and film grain, which can be very difficult to get rid of. It’s best to apply sharpening only after adjusting everything else, and to use unsharp masking (or better yet, the FocalBlade plug-in) for precise control rather than the uniform sharpening FilmGet imposes.

VueScan has none of these problems. It’s a stand-alone program that outputs TIFF files, so your photo editor need not uselessly tie up memory while scanning. It manages to produce superb scans without the interminable calibration routine, and it also immediately locates the appropriate frame or slide when you click “Scan.” It makes any adjustments using all the bits the scanner outputs. VueScan doesn’t sharpen any image unless you specifically select one of three levels of sharpening. It also allows rapid batch scanning of an entire strip of film and multiple-pass scanning to extract additional shadow detail from slides, features Canon omitted from FilmGet. VueScan’s infrared cleaning often works with Kodachrome slides, which Canon’s software does not (I have found that VueScan’s cleaning seems to work better with pre-1974 Kodachrome-X than with the current Kodachrome 64).

Other quibbles: I have some concern over the durability and build quality of the scanner. It’s a bit plasticky and lightweight. The negative holder feels flimsy and is difficult to open, so I often worry about accidentally breaking it. Also, making a scan involves pushing the film holder into the scanner until the gears engage. This requires precision along with some amount of force, which also raises concern about breaking something. I don’t know whether durability really is a problem. I can only note that reviewers of the old PhotoSmart consistently remarked about its cheap “disposable” feel and build, but mine lasted nearly five years.

If you’re a the demanding professional who scans hundreds of frames a day, for whom time is money, the Canon FS4000US is not for you. If you’re a serious amateur photographer who wants high-quality, high-resolution scans and the convenience of infrared cleaning at a reasonable price, I doubt you can do any better.

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