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Let's start with a 35mm image I made in Iceland. Taken with a Fuji Klasse W compact camera on Fuji Provia 100F. The lens is a stunningly sharp 28mm fixed focal length.
I was able to scan this at 4K resolution with 3 different scanners:
1) Heidelberg Primscan D7100 (drum)
2) Epson Perfection V850 Pro (flatbed)
3) Nikon Super Coolscan 5000 ED (35mm dedicated film scanner)
All scans were unsharpened with no adjustments for a linear scan. Basic colour correction was done to match them closer to each other. I must say the Nikon performed quite admirably next to the drum scanner despite its limitations that we'll discuss below.
Take a look!
If you happen to be lucky enough to own a Nikon 5000 ED, never sell it! It scans 35mm film very well and it only takes up a slender portion of your desk. Good condition examples still go for high prices. A quick look on eBay averages them around $2500 - $3000 CAD. One seller listed a fully kitted out model that includes all the film carriages including the SA-30 roll film adapter for over $7000! I don't shoot as much 35mm as I used to but the Nikon certainly opens up the possibilities of what 35mm is capable of. I'm almost happy to relegate all my 35mm work to the Nikon thanks to it's simplicity of operation, ability to ingest a whole roll at once with the SA-30, and great scans. But the drum scanner has a few tricks up its sleeve that still go unchallenged. The Nikon can scan up to 4K resolution compared to 11K on the drum. The drum scans the entire film area including rebate (you can achieve the same thing with the Epson via a little extra work). Nikon's max scan area still crops into the top and bottom of the frame. If you like to compose to the millimetre in-camera than this will annoy you. Edge to edge sharpness goes to the drum scanner since the film is precision mounted to a perfectly cylindric drum and scans one pixel at a time. The Nikon loses sharpness towards the edges since the film doesn't always sit flat. This is generally worse with mounted slides. In fact, Epson scans are flatter, since I mount to ANR glass. But you'd never know it because the scanner just can't resolve the same level of clarity. As far as I can tell it's equally unsharp throughout the entire frame!
This was a pretty easy image to scan. Depending on the shot, Nikon still has some trouble with aliasing artifacts at 4K with pixels visibly breaking down, especially around hard edges of tonal transition. You'll notice that dust is the biggest problem with Nikon. Another big problem is "pepper-grain" seen throughout the image, but most visible in highlight areas. This is a common issue with Fuji films but can be seen in some other film brands as well. For some photographers, reviving Hi-res dry mounted CCD film scanners from Nikon, Microtek, Minolta, Canon and Hasselblad (Imacon), are a more affordable option than a drum scanner. The pepper-grain comes from their ability to see fine microscopic bubbles suspended in the emulsion. Most prominent on Fuji films. The scanners' light path is scattered at this bubble and becomes the black speck that you see. For a good explanation of this anomaly visit: https://luminous-landscape.com/fuji-pepper-grain-the-mystery-resolved/
As a result, Nikon always needs Infrared Clean to be set to ON otherwise the pepper-grain is impossible to remove manually. It does the best job I've witnessed out of any Digital Ice or equivalent feature. I set mine to Low because it "cleans up" very well. But any automated cleaning feature can rob the original scan of better sharpness and introduce other unwanted artifacts. Epson is the worst in this category and I never use it. The drum scan needs no such thing and is a perfect pixel representation. Because the film is mounted in fluid all scratches and most dust disappear, showing off the true grain of the film and saving hours of tedious dust spotting. Have a look at the comparison below. Also take note of the big scratch on the horse's mane from the previous picture above. Most Infrared Clean tools would have trouble with this. Yet it's non-existent on the drum scan.
As you can see, it's easy to get carried away with the many variables involved that go into making a quality scan. I haven't even begun to talk about colour depth, colour profiling or dynamic range. These compressed JPEG samples give you a good idea of what to expect. But once you're pixel peeping the comparative RAW scans will you see the difference. It has been noted to me that drum scans appear three dimensional with truer colours and a film "look". The Nikon and Epson can have a perceived digital look, where some images reproduce worse than others depending on the content.
Next up is a medium format slide I took in Croatia, affectionately titled "Kids on the Hull".
Taken with a Fuji GF670 rangefinder camera and fixed 80mm lens on Fuji Provia 100F.
Below you'll see the native flat scans as they come out
of each scanner. Notice how much more work the Epson file needs to get closer to the original slide. The drum scan comes out looking so close that you almost don't have to do anything. Less layers and manipulation in post mean much cleaner files that don't start to look "processed".
The drum scanner also records deeper colour information per channel. So an equivalent sized file to the Epson takes up a little more space on your hard drive.
Worth it? I think so!
Below are the "finished" files. First the drum scan followed by the Epson scan. By "finished" I mean that no file is ever truly done. Often times I'll revisit older scans that I thought had a good balance of colour only to undo everything and start over again. Colour, perception, and taste is such a debatable topic that volumes of books and papers have been written about the subject.
I like colour elements from both scans and I can revise all day, but the drum scan got me much closer to the original slide, showing off the deep blue-green hues of the water. Provia 100F has a tendency to get a little green as evident on the childrens' skin tone but I decided to keep it there for this example. Compared to the Epson scan I needed much less post work. I haven't even touched the saturation slider! Epson can only take so much saturation before the image begins to fall apart and sadly it needed more than I wanted to add. Perhaps another calibration check is required to see how I can improve the base scan, as I do every so often. However, it is the drum scanner that got me the closest that I've ever been, so there definitely is something to be said about the inner workings of each scanner. Which was the point of this exercise.
I zoomed in 100% for the detail comparison below. Even at a modest 2K scan size you can already see evidence of the drum scanner's ability to resolve fine details. Check the rust and peeling paint on the boat hull and the water drops on the furthest girl's face. Overall the image feels less mottled with crisp, defined colour separations from the drum scan.
It only gets better with higher resolution scans.
This is a 4x5 I took way back in 2006. This beautiful slide finally gets to see justice from a good drum scan. These low quality JPEGs already make me cringe compared to the original RAW file, but let's walk through this shot to see a good sampling of other equally important attributes a drum scanner can bring to the table, aside from resolution.
Taken on Fuji Velvia 50 which has one of the heaviest Dmax levels of any film. Most scanners have trouble with this kind of density. My first scans with the lowly Epson 4870 of yesteryear really had trouble with the dark foreground as it was virtually black and void of details.
A properly calibrated and tuned workflow, combined with a dash of experience and time, the Epson V850 performed a lot better, but still came short of the drum scan. Again, please refer to these JPEGs as a general guide since they are more compressed than the original files and harder to tell here.
What you do see right away is better highlight, midrange and shadow detail from the drum scan, lending a more "open" feeling. This leaves more room to play with less pixel destruction along the way.
With a good drum scan, if it's on the film, it's on the scan. You'll just have to get your first scan to find out!
This is the most challenging transparency I have in my collection and the drum scanner was able to pull all the information out of it. The Epson still needed a lot more work in Photoshop to get next to the drum scan. The image is natively saddled with more contrast since it doesn't have the same level of dynamic range. As a result, subtle tonal transitions like the sky and water are more harsh. The drum scan has a very smooth gradient in these areas. A flatter file is much easier to work with and you can snap in the contrast to taste. It's harder to go the other way around if your base file has too much contrast to begin with. You also tend to burn out highlights a lot faster. When I make an incremental adjustment of even one point I notice that the drum scan needs far more movement than the Epson before I see a change. Which tells me there is more of a foundation to work with.
Check out these side by side comparisons of various parts of the image. The white background is certainly blotting out the difference in the darkest examples. Cup your hands to shield one eye from the white of the monitor and you should see more of a difference. The trees in the first image should pop out at you. I have a similar experience when viewing this image on the light table. The illumination blocked out the darkest details. It wasn't until seeing the drum scan did I realize there was more information in the cliffside and dark rocks of the foreground.
Consider for a moment the Epson scans you've seen throughout this page. They don't look as bad as you probably expected from all the other comparisons you've seen floating around the internet. I've went to great lengths over the years to calibrate the Epson and use a solid mounting technique to squeeze the most I could out of this scanner. If I were to sample the images I'd get out of the box then you'd see a more typical, softer result. The fact is, not a lot of people know how to scan properly. A lot has to be said for the operator behind the machine. Instead of bashing the scanner and claiming to the world that it's no good, ask yourself if you've taken the appropriate steps to maximize its potential. As we moved up to larger formats you've seen that the Epson can hold its own. It is also the scanner that most serious photographers will have on their desk as it is a currently supported product that is very versatile. It can scan any size up to 8x10. I'll be the first to acknowledge that you don't need a drum scan for everything. But knowing it is available to get the full grain level detail out of any original, with some added dynamic range, is a nice thing to have access to.
Here's another example of better shadow detail possible from a drum scan. This is Hilton Falls in autumn. Taken with a Rolleiflex TLR on Kodak E100VS.
If you'll excuse the shitty JPEG uploads you'll see that the drum scan reveals much more detail on the right side of the escarpment. Cup and shield your eye from the white of the monitor to reveal extra shadow details. I included the film rebate so you can see that it is still true black. The rebate blends in with the shadows of the Epson scan, but you can see escarpment detail right to the rebate edge with the drum scan. The drum scan feels more natural and open, with good tonal gradation and detail in the darker parts of the image. The Epson scan blocks up quickly, resulting in heavier contrast for an unnatural appearance. All this looks better on the native RAW file, virtually matching the detail present in the original transparency.
Further below is another example of the fine details the drum scan picks up versus the Epson scan.
How about negatives? Drum scanners excel at scanning negatives. All that latitude is completely within range of most scanners' abilities. The secret is to scan them as a positive, umm negative... and not let the scanner software decide on the inversion process. I manually invert them later in Photoshop to retain all that juicy dynamic range that you have come to love about shooting negs. If I let the scanner decide on the inversion you would not be getting the best performance out of these films. And why pay for a high-end scan only to get a low-end result!
This was taken on the very versatile Kodak Portra 400 with my Fuji GF670 rangefinder at my brother's engagement party.
Only problem is... what was I thinking when I cropped out their feet?!