I always knew that my Canoscan 9900F scanner is not the best on the market and being a flat-bedded scanner it is not able to compete with professional solution. Still, I thought it is decent enough and I can reach satisfactory results with a tiny bit of creativity in the scanning methods and post-processing. I was wrong!
I was continuously trying to refine my scanning process and order to get the best results I was doing many kind of dark magic including:
- Applying manual exposure control during scanning.
- Combining multiple different scans in post-processing (HDR-like approach).
- Scanning negative film as positive and revert it during processing.
- I always saved my files as TIFF or DNG for highest quality.
I tried various software and I was very confident that my workflow while not perfect exploits the most of the stored information from my films.
I was so wrong
My scanner is anything but fast and usually the post processing of the gigantic files I it produce takes a massive amount of time. I decided to give a chance to a local camera store to scan my latest roll in order to see how does it compare to my fine polished process.
Needless to say, the results were stunning. The files I got are heavily compressed (50%) and rather low resolution (6mp), but the dynamic range is mind blowing compare to my scans. Previously I thought that I tend to use completely wrong exposures (due to the unreliable vintage gear I often use) and therefore many shoots are unusable after scanning. I experienced very low detail in dark regions with “burned in” shadows and even colors could “overrun” and loose details.
As it turned out, my negatives are much better than I thought. There is nothing wrong with my exposures (most of the times), simply my scanner cannot handle “high” but even medium contrast situations.
This tunnel shoot is a really good example. In the case of my scan there is a tremendously big pitch black area of the right side of the frame. In contrast the professional scan reveals many details including a tiny locomotive which is completely lost in my version. (Click on the image for big version)
In this example the difference is even more obvious. The shadow details are much worst in the case of my scan and there are almost no detail in other dark areas like the hair.
Resolution and formats
In terms of resolution there is not much to talk about. The scans from the shop are only 6MP and my Canoscan is easily match that, there is enough resolving power when the exposure is right. I am sure that the professional scanner is capable to deliver more than this 6MP though.
The Cannoscan handles better medium format films, they seem less prone to this dynamic range issue although it is definitely there. It is likely that there is no real difference here compare to 35mm scans, only the medium format looks much better natively.
What to do now
After the first awakening shock I realized that I have to do something with the scanning process I use. It takes too much time (hours of scanning, days of processing) and it cannot delivery anything close to a very handicapped (over-compressed, low resolution) results of what my local shop can do. It is simply cannot go this way any more. I would re-scan my entire film collection by now if I had the proper equipment for it.
Let the pros do the job
I could let the shop scan my films from now one. It is not too expensive (around 5€/roll), but if you count and add the price of the film and the development it is indeed not too cheap. Also it seems they really give me only 50% compressed low resolution JPGs for this money. I think it is not right to use noise reduction tools to minimize JPG compression artifacts. So, unless some shop can give me better files, I will not go to this direction.
Buy a new scanner
This solution looks doable, but it could be expensive as I need the possibility to scan medium format films. I am very unsure about this, because I cannot try any scanners before I buy. This decision requires quite a bit of research.
The most drastic solution would be to sell all film gear and invest the money into a digital system. I already have a Canon 450D as a basis, and I could add some great lenses to the kit. But honestly this move is very unlikely because of my passion about film.
Last but not least, I could dig out my lab gear and try to focus elusively on physical prints. While this is an appealing solution, I have not enough space/time to set up a proper lab so my only option is a temporal bathroom darkroom. I am sure that I will do this on a level, but certainly it will not be the full answer to the scanner crisis.
So what am I going to do? Well, I am not sure yet. Most probably I will explore many shops and ask for better files. In the meantime I will do my research for better but still affordable scanners, if you have any suggestions, please leave a comment.
If you had the same problem or simply want to read more about the topic, I can recommend you the great article of Jason Howe who has the same scanner and problems as I have: Film Heaven or Hell……?
Update (“macro lens”)
I have tried real quick, what can I do with a “macro” lens on a digital camera and an appropriate homogenous light source. So I put a manual M42 lens with a few extension tubes to my digital Canon body and I used my enlargement machine as a film holder and light source. This is not a perfect solution as the film is kept between two glass sheets and it can cause some newtoon rings, it provides nice light. At least I am having an idea that this solution is actually not too bad.
Playing with the raw files produced by the 450D made me realise that the tone curve could be completely wrong set when I scan with my Canoscan. I could reproduce the same poor result of the Canoscan and something very close from the shop scan just by playing with the tone curve. I guess I need to give another shot to the Canoscan with some other software and with different settings. But the speed of DSLR “scanning” and the flexibility of the rawfiles force me to experiment more into this direction.
Update 2 Current solution is Silverfast (07.07.2013)
I have asked specifically the guys at my favorite camera shop and photo lab to scan my negatives without over-compressing the resulting jpg files. But they managed to give me once again 50% compressed garbage, therefore I officially gave up on them and decided to give another shoot to my old scanner. This time however, I tried out SilverFast (again) instead of the factory software I used and finally I have found the common understanding with this software. It really gave a new life to the old scanner of mine. I love the possibility to reduce noise by multiple scanning. I still think that this is not the final solution for my scanning crisis, but for the time being it is an acceptable compromise.
You can see samples with the current solution here.