Fabulous Film Fridays, October 21 – All Scans Are Not Created Equal

I took Tachihara Tim out for a spin this fall on a film outing with Darwin and Hiroaki Kobayashi.  It was pretty sunny except for some shady parts along an east-facing cliff.  The sun was low on the horizon creating some wonderful, golden light.  I used Velvia slide film and made several exposures.  We sent the film to Vancouver for processing, and then we took the slides to ABL Imaging Group in Calgary for scanning.  In the end, I chose only two files to be scanned in because the cost of each scan was $30.  As a comparison, we also photographed the slides on a light table with Darwin’s Canon  EOS-1ds Mark III 21 megapixel camera to see what kind of quality we could achieve by ‘scanning’ in the images ourselves.  Here are the photographs of the slides taken with the EOS-1ds Mark III. (The files were flat so a few adjustments have been applied to bring the photograph closer to the original contrast of the slide film).

And here are the scans from ABL.  I haven’t done any processing on these files, just resized them for the blog and sharpened them the same way and amount as the two photographs above.

I don’t think your first thought when you get a product or service from someone should be, “WTF?”  You’ll have to take my word that the photographs from Darwin’s camera are closer to the actual film images captured (albeit with less luminousity and resolution).  ABL’s rendition are over-the-top in colour and over-sharpened.  Here is a 100% crop comparison of the first set of images.  ABL’s is first (this has not been sharpened; this is the level of detail on the scan given to me) and our ‘scan’ second.

While they may look more punchy on the web, they are nothing close to what I captured.  And ABL had the original slides to compare them to!  The amount of sharpening it looks like has been applied by ABL means when I resize and resharpen, the image gets crunchy and crystalline, fast.  While the crop of our ‘scan’ may look super soft, at least I can sharpen this image after resizing without losing quality.  I don’t get it.  If I’m paying $30 (each) for a faithful scan of my film, then that is what I would like back.  Otherwise, what ‘expertise’ am I paying for?  The real crapper is that hardly anyone is doing these kinds of scans anymore in Calgary so I’m kind of stuck.  Oh well, at least a photograph of a slide can return a result just as good if not better — for cheaper!

So my question for you is…where do YOU scan your large format slide film so that the digital result is as close as possible ensuring you can make an amazing print?


~ by Samantha on October 21, 2011.

35 Responses to “Fabulous Film Fridays, October 21 – All Scans Are Not Created Equal”

  1. Adorama is currently offering a Flashpoint Photo Scanner for 3×5 and 4×6 inch negatives for $60 US. Output is 300 dpi and JPEG only.
    The Epson Perfection Photo flatbed scanners are supposedly to do a decent job and have much higher resolution. I have the 4180 model and some old 4×5 B&W negs from a Speed Graphic. Will test when I get a moment

  2. Hey Sam: If you want good scanning done, you have to learn how to do it yourself, or pay more for outsourced drum scans from a trusted source. If you pay only $30 per sheet, you can expect some ‘auto’ settings and undesirable results. When it comes to film scanning, the results are entirely at the mercy of the operator, and not all scanner operators are created equally.

    FWIW, Velvia looks good on a lightbox, but is not the greatest film for scanning, especially when you’ve got high contrast light and/or blocked shadows.

    I get great results using skill, an Epson V700, and the BetterScanning Variable Height Mounting Station: http://michaelegordon.wordpress.com/2009/12/28/product-review-betterscanning-com-variable-height-mounting-station/

    Good luck!

    • Thanks, Michael! Probably naive of me to think that a company that offers a service would be good at doing such service…this is photography, after all! Good to know about Velvia and scanning.

  3. I’ve actually tried the “photograph scan” myself and I didn’t mind the results. I didn’t have a light table so I jury rigged a yogurt container to act as a diffuser and lit up the slide with my SB600. Ideally I should have used a better surface for my diffuser but that aside it worked pretty well. Good enough to print? Heck if I know but I found that the “photograph scan” had colors and contrast that looked very much like the actual slide.


    I might have to try this again though with some other images (My macro was semi-busted at the time so I didn’t want to take too many shots with it).

  4. Danny Burk at http://www.dannyburk.com does great scan. They certainly don’t look like the ones you had done.

  5. Sam, I do all my own scanning for my art prints using a Microtek M1 scanner and previously the 1800f. The scans are good to about a 32 inch print on the long side. Other than doing them yourself, you’ll need to find someone who can do ‘good’ drum scans, which can be iffy and costly finding the right operator, they are not all the same. I think I would complain to ABL for a redo, those scans were way off.

    • I know I should take the scans back and try again. It comes down to time I guess. We live outside the city so it is a bit of a hassle to do a back-and-forth over some not even very good compositions. If I ever want to make a print, I will either invest in learning how to do it myself or in finding a good company. I’m a lazy whiner because I like things to ‘work out of the box’!

  6. Hey Sam,
    Sorry I don’t have any advice on where to get scans done, but I just wanted to say that I have also had poor experiences with ABL printing my images. One image took 3 proofs (and trips to view the proofs) to get it almost right… not very professional! Not to mention them converting my image from adobe rgb to srgb (therefore loosing data) and then converting the same file back to adobe rgb because I complained about the over the top colour… I would say they have someone with very little experience working with the digital media there.

    • Agreed! They have the slide to ‘match’ and I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to see that their results are way off. Maybe they don’t know how to operate the scanner, as has been suggested, and are just on default settings.

  7. Waw. Well now you know, not to go back to that place again.
    Then again $30 a slide is not too bad. I would say that’s cheap.

    But why would you give up ‘resolution’ by shooting the slides with the 1DmkIII? On a 4×5 slide you have about 500Mp worth of data…
    I know this was only for illustration purposes.

    • I think it comes down to the conversions that are happening here. We’re photographing film, not making the original exposure. Supposedly, a drum scan is supposed to be a better bet in doing this conversion in terms of tonal range and resolution.

  8. Maybe it would help to give them some idea what you want? Most people probably want that punchy look. If you want just a straight scan without all the processing, maybe you have to request it?

    This is how it is at my local camera shop. By default, they do some tweaks, and most of their customers appreciate that. However, if I want them to take a light-handed approach, I just ask, and they oblige.

    • I think it comes down to the company and the level of work that they are doing. Wal-Mart adds punch to an image; a high-end photo lab should not. Perhaps I should have initiated a discussion before the scan that I wanted the scan to look like the slide they were delivered. To be frank, it never occurred to me that I would have to say such an obvious thing!

  9. Sam:

    Do you happen to have photos of the same scene taken with a DSLR instead of a film camera? If it seems better to use a DSLR to photograph a slide rather than have it professionally scanned, why not eliminate the middle step and just use a DSLR to take the shot in the first place? I have a Nikon Coolscan 5000ED which I have used to scan old 35 mm negatives. It does a pretty decent job, but is quite slow. For any new photos I would never consider going back to film then scanning.


    • Hi Brian,

      Well, I guess if I only shot digital, then I couldn’t have a series called ‘Fabulous Film Fridays’ 🙂 It was just a film outing so no digital captures.

      Seriously though, I love the look and resolution and colour of film. The issue is not whether digital is better than film but in the conversion process. To share my images online, I have to convert the film to digital and this is hard to do well in this day and age, I guess. If your preferred medium is not supported widely in your industry, then you may need more creative work-arounds but hopefully you still find ways to shoot that medium.

  10. Hey Sam. I’m not a film expert by any means, and definitely would dig into detail with the originals before giving a real opinion. But there are 3 things going on that look really apparent from what you post, re: detail, contrast and color.

    Detail: For me, the drum scan wins. It may appear over-sharp looking at a 100% crop on the monitor, especially compared to a 1Ds Mk III shot of the same slide on a light table. But the latter is never how I’d approach this with a 4×5 slide. 4×5 is capable of such detail that a 35mm digital camera shot of it IMO is not possibly going to do it justice. Perhaps medium format digital would (want to test it with a 645D? 🙂 ), but not 35mm format. The drum scan to me actually looks reasonable for detail. If there was any post-scan sharpening done (probable), it could be dialed back slightly which is a taste matter. But I think for my purposes it wouldn’t be over the top. This should print at reasonable sizes and look good, especially on inkjet where IMO the digital master at 100% on screen should look slightly oversharp to compensate for the minor softening that’s part & parcel of inkjet printing.

    Contrast: For me, I like neither 100% crop as-is. 🙂 The drum scan definitely appears overly contrasty to me, and I think this plays into the detail seeming a bit more crunchy. If the contrast was not quite so heavy, the detail may appear more reasonable. Meanwhile the 35mm shot is too low in contrast, IMO. Yes you can kick it up, but if the baseline contrast is already well-rendered in the 4×5 slide then I’d look for the digital transfer process to bring it across with as little manual, post-scan fudging as possible. Though if there’s any error, it should be on the side of going minimal rather than going overboard, because it’s harder to back off.

    Color: Color definitely appears too saturated in the drum scan, especially if the digital shot’s color is more true to the original slide. I wonder if the combination of color & contrast being over done indicates either the scanner operator indeed was using some punched-up processing defaults, or if there’s something else going on here such as a color management fumble — perhaps a mismatched ICC profile assignment. The difference between the “faithful” rendering of contrast & color vs. the drum scanned version seems similar to what happens when sRGB images are mistakenly assigned the Adobe RGB profile, for example. I find a tremendous number of people really have very little understanding of color managed workflow, they just go by eye & “wing it”; and on top of that they may prefer a juicier look rather than a faithful/neutral look, as somebody in the earlier comments speculated.

    In all, I’d have to echo that I think $30/scan sounds like a fairly budget price, though I don’t know if that involved a wet mount scan or what resolution was produced at that price. If ABL can’t improve with discussion, then to get really good results may mean either spending more at a better shop (likely out east or Vancouver), or doing it yourself. Getting into your own drum scanning would be a heavy step (cost & effort), but the Epson Perfection flatbed scanners might be an okay interim step for more casual use. I wouldn’t be a fan of using a 35mm to photograph slides or negs on a light table, I just don’t think that can do justice to the 4×5 originals. Although if all that’s needed is a web-sized file or a casual result then it’s certainly a quick & dirty way to do a digital transfer…

  11. Like Royce, I wouldn’t want to criticize the scan without seeing the actual file. At this size and rendition the scan actually looks better than the camera capture detail-wise, but does appear far too saturated and contrasty. I’m also curious about the color profile and gamma settings used for the scan.
    In the end, as Michael and others mentioned, the quality of a scan is as much about the skill of the operator as it is about the equipment used. If the lab can’t match the look of the film (assuming they were asked to) I would not consider it a pro lab.

    I had scans done by Danny Burk and by West Coast Imaging in the past (both superb). My expectation is that a good scan will look like a good RAW file: low contrast, excellent detail, and a good starting point for processing rather than attempting to look like someone’s idea of the final outcome.


  12. WTF? Sam, film is dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Get out there with a digital camera and forget the hassle and expense of all of this nonsense! I can see nostalgia calling you to go out with an 8×10 film camera, or even a 4×5 or 2 1/4, but to go out with 35mm slides? I think you are just looking for attention 😉

    I used to own a Nikon CoolScan 5000LS and it rocked – I sold it when ScanCafe started to produce results (get the high-res scan) comparable to mine


    • Hi Chris,

      I don’t photograph with film out of nostalgia; I photograph with film because I find it a beautiful medium to use as an artist. Some things are worth the effort. Film is not dead, just difficult to transfer to digital media. BTW, I think you have misread my post. I am shooting 4×5 slide film, not 35mm slides.

    • Film isn’t quite dead – a Mamiya 7 still has enough power to outresolve a Phase One IQ180. I really hope you don’t believe me 😉

    • Chris, I agree with Sam and others, film returns a different result than digital and some people prefer that result. It is an artistic choice of tools; simple as that. So for a lot of people film is far from dead.

      The difficulty is in trying to get the film image (in this case a 4×5 slide) to look the same as it does on the light table so that is can be shared online.

      If you knew Sam like I do, the last thing she is trying to do is get attention (she is the opposite of that). All she wanted was a scan that was faithful to what the slide. If that could not be done by ABL for $30, then simply tell her.

  13. Hi Sam – It isn’t uncommon and with drum scanners the operator is probably the most important bit. If you want to send me four 4×5’s I’d be happy to scan them all at 4000dpi 16 bit for you so you have a reference.. I’m in the UK and will be happy to cover the return postage.. http://www.cheapdrumscanning.com

  14. Hi, Sam.

    While I was experimenting “lens Boy” effect. (supposed to be lens baby), and I was moaning to try to reach my 4×5, and cursing my short height, you were capturing such a beautiful light. I can recall the atmosphere of the evening from your images. … totally.

    Just recently, I had an occasion to think about approaching to subjects, especially compositions, and that reminded me of your primitive but effective FINDER for your Tim. Nowadays, in digital age, we’ve got so used to click a shutter button before thinking about composition, or anything. I looked like really focus on my shooting but I was, of course, observing how both of you were approaching to subjects. I like your way CRAFTING images for the scene you found. Tim must be happy being with you!

  15. About scanning.

    Unfortunately, no other places have drum-scanner in Calgary. I checked custom color and even they do not have one. Actually, high quality flat scanner is okay for scanning large format film (No way 35mm), furthermore, liquid scanning achieve decent resolution. However, Dmax of flat scanner is much narrower so tonal range sometimes suffer.
    However, in your case, my questions are what kind of software they are using, if the color profile is made for the scanner, if white balance was adjusted for the film (if possible), and if some filters were turned on (color and fading restorations, sharpening). I my opinion, only I need is level or histogram which covers properly from shadow to highlight. So scanned images should be flat but contain rich information. I prefer adjusting other things with photoshop.

  16. Hi Sam – I shoot 6×7 cm format slide film and always send the film to West Coast Imaging in California to be scanned. It is expensive, a 4200 dpi scan at 16 bits costs $80 and you will pay more for 4×5 at 4200 dpi. (You may not want a 4×5 scanned at 4200 dpi but that is another thing!), The quality of their work is as far as I know, unsurpassed in North America. They use the best drum scanner equipment available and their technicians know what they are doing and work carefully and attentively. This is a lab that many of the bet-known nature photographers use, as you will see from the references on their web site.

    • Well I don’t want to try to be pushy with my service but I think it’s a shame that there aren’t more enthusiast drum scanning services around. I do 2000dpi 16 bit 4×5 drum scans for $30 and 4000dpi scans for $40 (which you don’t need unless you are shooting very sharp lenses with great technique at around f/16). I charge enough to pay me for the time taken to mount, unmount, check the file and burn them to disk. I don’t have a Tango or ICG but unless you have a really difficult transparency (i.e. v v dark) then you won’t see any difference. There are quite a few enthusiasts out there with drum scanners who could operate a similar service and having drum scans available at a reasonable cost allows most photographers to get them as a reasonable part of putting on an exhibition or possibly publishing a book. To be honest, drum scanners aren’t very expensive at all and are a lot easier to use than is commonly made out but I shouldn’t be saying this as I want the price of top end equipment to stay low! 🙂 Feel free to delete the link to the information website I put up if you wish, it wasn’t meant as advertising.

  17. Thanks for your comments, everyone. Royce, bring that bad beast of yours over sometime and we’ll give it a shot! I don’t agree with you about the contrast detail I’m afraid. The ABL scan is pretty much unworkable at the levels they have set as default–any photoshoping I start to do and the file looks like garbage.

    Hiro, thanks for your comments! I may be bringing some black and white film to develop in your sink in future!

  18. Sam, you’re on! I even have a useful lens to try it with… 🙂

    I think I could have been more clear in saying “resolution” instead of “detail”. Agree with you that contrast is over the top on the scan, and trying to process from there as a starting point would be rough. While resolution & contrast can play off of each other, I don’t think res is a problem with the scan, and in fact it looks better to me than the Mk III version. So to be more clear 😉 what I think I’m seeing in the 100% crops is a higher res / high contrast image (drum scan) vs. a lower res / low contrast image (Mk III).

    What I think you want is a mix of the two. Hiro & Guy nailed it — a good drum scan should provide exceptional resolution but neutral / faithful contrast & color, leaving you to develop the latter yourself analogous to developing a RAW file. That’s not what we’re seeing in the drum scan shown here. It already looks developed a la getting a JPEG out of the camera.

    Hopefully this is just a misunderstanding by ABL on the intent; perhaps they’re used to getting scan requests from people who want a “JPEG” instead of a “RAW”? Probably worth talking to them… even if only to register feedback that what you’re seeing doesn’t meet your expectations of a pro service. I’m ornery that way. 🙂 I like to reward good service providers but give a piece of my mind to those who waste my time & money without delivering the goods… who knows, they might even improve!

    • In the bad old days of early digital (say the period of 1997 to 2000), I used to get medium format film scans done from ABL (both neg and slide film) and they were fantastic! I never once had to tell them to ‘match the colours of the film’; that was the assumed standard. This was why I recommended that Sam try ABL in the first place…. well I was just floored by how poorly the match was in terms of colour and contrast (what has happened to that company since then?).

      The Mark III files were simply a test to see if we could return a result closer to what the film looked like (we did albeit with less resolution). I can’t believe that we would would actually have to tell a scanner to make the scan look like the film looks – duh? That’s like telling a butcher to make our cow taste like beef and not lamb!

  19. In addition to Royce comment, actually the original film is the best control group. I mean comparing sharpness on the film checked with a good loupe and digitized image is the definitive way to assess resolution.
    But bottom line is the scanned images do not convey atmosphere of the evening in South Alberta. They look like jungle in the Philippines. I used Velvia and the same company for film development so I can imagine Sam’s original film look like. Well, thinking of Vistek quiting E6 processing, situation is getting harder for film shooter.

  20. Side comment: Even if it’s somewhat technical in nature, I think it’s brilliant that a blog post on 4×5 film is generating a lot of commentary. Keep on working the analog magic! If I was braver, or less lazy, I would do it myself… 🙂

  21. Hmm. Being an occasional film shooter+scanner, I normally use a flatbed scanner, the Canon Canoscan 9000F, with its decent photo scanning driver (enables things like saturation, hue, contrast, curve adjustments etc. to visually match the scan to what I see on the neg). I can make prints from those scanned files that closely match what I could get from traditional color film prints, so I’m satisfied.

    Drum scanners might potentially achieve even better quality (don’t know, don’t have one), but a flatbed sure beats photographing each neg one by one with a camera. But with film being an occasional enjoyment instead of the mainstay of my work, the solution works well enough.

    My experience is limited to scanning 35mm negatives, not 4×5 slides. So– grain of salt 😉

  22. […] their 4×5 view cameras while I used Linny, my Linhof 6×12 panorama camera. Sam posted her results last week and you can see Hiro’s results at this link. Below are my three favorite shots from the […]

  23. It’s unfortunate that it’s that hard to get a good scan especially considering they want $30 for it. I guess now that film is “dead” ;-), they don’t scan that many images on a daily/weekly basis, and probably have a person who is inexperienced doing the scans.

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