Diary of a camera addict

Scanner crisis

Scanner crisis

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.

Canoscan 9900F vs Nikon film scanner
Canoscan 9900F vs Nikon film scanner, Olympus OM4 Ti, Zuiko 50mm f/1.4, click for full size

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)

Nikon (left) vs Canoscan 9900F (right) Olympus OM4 Ti, Zuiko 50mm f/1.4
Nikon (left) vs Canoscan 9900F (right) Olympus OM4 Ti, Zuiko 50mm f/1.4

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.

Go digital

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.

Go Analog

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.

Opemus 5 enlarger machine
Opemus 5 enlarger machine

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.

Canon 450D, CZJ Pancolar 80mm with extension tubes and enlarging machine as light source.
Canon 450D, CZJ Pancolar 80mm with extension tubes and enlarging machine as light source.

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.

Some more photos from this roll

Martin, Graz (2013), Olympus OM4 Ti, Zuiko 50mm f/1.4, Kodak Portra 160NC (expired), Nikon film scanner
Ivan, Graz (2013), Olympus OM4 Ti, Zuiko 50mm f/1.4, Kodak Portra 160NC (expired), Nikon film scanner
Graz (2013), Olympus OM4 Ti, Zuiko 50mm f/1.4, Kodak Portra 160NC (expired), Nikon film scanner
Graz (2013), Olympus OM4 Ti, Zuiko 50mm f/1.4, Kodak Portra 160NC (expired), Nikon film scanner
Graz (2013), Olympus OM4 Ti, Zuiko 50mm f/1.4, Kodak Portra 160NC (expired), Nikon film scanner
Graz (2013), Olympus OM4 Ti, Zuiko 50mm f/1.4, Kodak Portra 160NC (expired), Nikon film scanner

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21 thoughts on “Scanner crisis”

  • I hate to break it to you… but dedicated film scanners are always better than flatbeds. I know, this might be shocking news for you. 🙂 I’m still using my Epson V330, and sometimes quite satisfied with the results (mostly with B&W films), but with reversal film or even Ektar, it’s a horrible experiment. So you might buy a Plustek (dedicated) scanner, or consider a used, old one. A flatbed is a great tool for scanning old negs (but you’ll face serious amont of work if you need a print) but they have serious issues. The V330 is known for its “vertical line” problem: http://www.martyndavis.com/?p=78, I hate it.

    Egyébként remélem minden jól megy odaát, kellemes húsvétot! 🙂

    • Right, flat bad scanners are not the best, but they should do better than mine in general. Maybe mine is just too old and run out of light…
      Amúgy minden oké, élvezzük a havazást meg a hideget. Nekedis hasonlóan kellemes húsvétot!

  • Scanning definitely is a separate art form on its own. I also only have the lowly 8800F and I can feel your pain. One day I will probably upgrade to a Epson V700. For now I’ve almost collected everything I need for 8×10 paper negatives (film holders, pinhole camera, development drum, …). Those should be easy to scan and contact printing seems like a possibility, too.

  • You can try different scanning software too. VueScan has its quirks and a steep learning curve, but I can get better results with it than any of the manufacturer’s software. And once you have the basics down you can try its color profile calibration for very good base scans which minimize post processing.

    Try different labs. I am in California and tried scans from almost ten different labs before I found one I really like. They may not be an option for you, but North Coast Photographic Services produces great scans for just under $12 US.

    And I second the comment about upgrading your scanner. I have both a Nikon LS-5000 as well as an Epson V700 and while I prefer the Nikon for E6 I think the Epson is very close for negative work.

    • Yes, VueScan is a great software indeed. I tried it once and I really liked it (I could record DNG files), but last time when I started it up it was unable to handle the hardware correctly. It drove the head into one end and tried to push it beyond it which of course caused a strange noise. It has to be said, my scanner is very old and maybe it is also one of the reasons that it has issues now. I definitely will try different shops. Thanks for the comment 🙂

    • Thanks for the idea, I am seriously started to think about the macro lens solution. I will probably use my enlarging machine as the light source as it provides nice even while light. I will post the results as soon as I have some.
      Thanks again!

    • Yeah, I have tried the macro lens option. Although I had only some extension tubes with a short teli lens, not a real macro lens. But it seems promising. I have added a test shot to the end of the post before the random images.

      • Personally I’m using a humble Sony NEX-5 with different lenses on extension tubes. So far I found the best results are with the Arsat 80mm/2.8 medium format lens which came with my Arax kit. Even the standard 50/1.4 lenses which are supposed to be very good are not that good when you use them with tubes. The weakest link in my setup is my light source for which I use a small lighttable. I don’t think it produces a very uniform light. Your enlarging machine should be much better.

        Btw, I also have an Epson V700 available to use and I find results are much better with this macro approach. Especially for black and white negative film. With coulour negative film it’s about the same.

        • I have a Carl Zeiss Jena Biometar 80mm f/2.8. I think it must be similar to your Arsat, plus I have extension tubes for it. I am going to try this setup too. So far the procedure looks promising on my side too. But I have to find a better way to hold the negatives. The glass holder of the enlarging machine creates nice colorful rings.

  • Yes, I think it’s the same optical formula. The best solution of course would be a proper macro lens. About the rings, I’ve read about wet mounting to solve this issue but it sounds a little messy to me. I think the easiest solution would be if you could find one of those plastic film holders for flatbed scanners and use that.

  • You are on the right track. Using a DSLR to “dupe” your film is the way to go (unless you went to the dark side and originate in digital form). I turned Jason Howe onto the Nikon ES-1 slide copying device. This, in conjunction with your RAW files, gives the best end result. I don’t have access to a Nikon D800, but Ming Thein does and reports that it blows away any scanner solution for speed/resolution.

  • Hi. I just found your blog by Googling for someone writing about Olympus cameras and see you’ve just followed me, thanks. That I found this post is weird as only today I was thinking about trying to scan my negs using a digital camera, having been really frustrated trying to scan myself. In fact, as I’ve commented in posts before, I find the whole scanning thing a nightmare; making wet prints was much simpler and more satisfying, but I’ve nowhere to do that now and anyway need the scans for my blogs etc. I have an Epson 4990 for MF but, as you say, scanning takes a helluva long time and I’m never satisfied with the results. I bought VueScan but have never been satisfied with what I’ve been able to do with it. I do much better with a very old Minolta Dimage II for 35mm (VueScan too). This weekend, wanting to send quickly some pix I’d taken on Olympus – grandchildren’s birthday parties – I got my local photo shop not only to process them as usual (C41) but to scan too. For the purpose the lower resolution is just fine – in fact t usually is. Maybe I’ll sell my scanners – that’ll pay for a lot of commercial scans.

    • Hi,

      Yeah, I like your blog very much, I guess I will spend quite some time reading it. Scanning is still not solved for me. I tried the macro lens + DSLR solution, but I found it difficult to keep the film in the sharp plane. Also it is harder to remove dust and worst of all I experience quite a big amount of digital noise after inverting the images. Noise is always there of course, but this one has a very 450D kind of pattern. When I figure out something, I will post here. Anyway, I wish you all the best for your scanning, cameras and photography overall. Thx for the comment. Gabor

  • Hey Gabor,

    I read this initially and intended to come back and comment but life got in the way…:-) I read your update with interest and wonder where your currently at with this??

    I collected my various scanning devices, at great expense in every sense……..I just need find the motivation to work my way through them once I have some decent film images back from developing.

    All the best, your friend. Jason.

    • Hi Jason,

      Thanks for your question and your interest. Indeed, I am working hard to find an acceptable solution for the scanning issue. I asked the shop to give me less compressed jpgs. They said OK, but I ended up with 50% compressed garbage again.
      On the other hand I tried out Silverfast with my Canoscan with great success. It really gave a new life to the old scanner. I love the possibility of multiple scans for noise reduction. The files are butter smooth compare to the ones I got out of the factory software. All in all I am satisfied with Silverfast at the moment.
      I am working on a new post about a new (30 years old) camera, and I will post some samples scanned with the new method. So stay tuned, updates are coming.

      Bests, Gabor

    • I agree with this guy, though it seems that the day to pick up a Pakon scanner cheap has come and gone sadly, but they’re still available for $700-800 on ebay. They’re minilab scanners that will do a whole roll of film in 5 minutes and the color profiles are wonderful to look at right out of the box, no adjustments needed 95% of the time. They’ll make an image 3000×2000 which admittedly doesn’t *seem* like much, but they’re razor sharp scans useful for printing to 8×10 paper (perhaps larger) and more than enough for the web. I’m not into flatbed scanners at all, I’ve never been too impressed with the quality I’ve seen and the specs on all these newly-made scanners seem to be way overblown. If time = money for you then it might be worth picking one up. I know I’m fed up with having to sit in front of the computer for hours at a time trying to get my film to look the way it should, which is why I haven’t minded paying $5 a roll for scans: my time is worth more to me!

      I once compared an Epson V600 scan I did myself to the one done by my local camera store on a Pakon and looking at full detail on the Epson (at 4800dpi), it still didn’t have as much information and wasn’t as sharp as the scan done by the camera lab, upscaled 400% to match the size of the Epson image. It’s sad, because you’d think scanning technology would just keep getting better and better over time but really the technology peaked about 10 years ago, so to get a good film scanner you’ll have to go used and probably pay through the nose. What happened? Konica/Minolta folded and got bought out by Sony, and Nikon stopped making scanners. Both Nikon and Sony are more interested in selling digital cameras than in giving people a reason to keep shooting film.

      • Hi Joe,

        I also think that minilab and in general drum scanners can do a better jobs than flatbeds. But I have received extremely compressed JPGs from local labs even though I could see the potential in the files. I keep trying, but not much success. It seems that most labs does not care or personal is not well enough educated. I just hope that this is only my bad luck.

        Now I have a V700 which is a huge step up from my old Canoscan. But the the lack of precise calibration and color profiles keep bugging me. I am looking for the best software/profile/calibration tools/settings combination at the moment. It is very experimental and time consuming indeed.

  • I used the Reflecta ProScan 7200 and never had any regret about it.
    Comparing the results of 35mm film against digital cameras (even older ones like the Nikon D700)
    I just have to admit film does not come close to the quality of digital files and after using a Nikon D800
    the difference are just “worlds” between them.

    But and I say this from a other point of view – digital never gets the charme of film – never.
    I printed some files on a Epson Stylus Pro 7900 using the biggest size (60 cm roll)
    and the pictures still are mindblowing in a special way……..

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