Everything Old is New Again

Film is what occurs on your teeth when you don't brush.
    Vincent Versace.

I shot my last roll of film in the spring of 2007. I never counted, but prior to that, when photographing on film, I amassed what I'd guess totals 30,000 slides (a conservative guess, I'm sure). If two percent of those are keepers, I'd be surprised. That's just a few hundred slides, but I've only been photographing seriously since the late 1990s; the good stuff has happened since then. I briefly touched on some of this in my November, 2009 article, The Numbers Game.

I've not used negative film, only “chromes”, transparency (slide) films of several sorts. Early on I scanned those into digital form using an interesting gadget made by Hewlett-Packard. In 2005 I bought a Nikon Coolscan V-ED, a fine 4000 ppi (pixels per inch) scanner for 35mm slides and negatives with much higher resolution than the HP. I've used Macintosh computers since early 2008, and sadly for Mac users, Nikon abandoned that platform, ending software development and any updates soon after, and not much later ceased production of these scanners. Windows users are a bit more fortunate in that the old driver from Nikon can be made to work, even on the current Windows 10, with a hack to an .ini file. To work around that I've maintained an ancient, isolated Windows XP (32-bit) computer, from Dell, with which I do nothing but run the Nikon scanner, and, less often, a Microtek 600 ppi legal-size (216 x 356 mm) flatbed scanner from the Jurassic era. The old Dell is tucked away in my somewhat dark and cramped server room, making it uncomfortable and inconvenient to use. So I rarely do.

When I need to make a film scan, I squeeze in front of a tiny desk holding the Dell and Nikon, make the scan(s), and then save the file(s) to my server. The Microtek scanner is quite large, doesn't fit on the desk, and is seldom used, so it's stored on a closet shelf. When I need to scan a print or other reflective media, I haul the beast into the server room, set up a small table to hold it, crawl behind the desk to connect the scanner to the PC's SCSI card, and then make the scan(s). When finished I put it all away again. You can see why I don't do a lot of this. I try to limit my exposure to Windows XP, so once the scan files are saved I come back out into better lighting, a fast computer, and calibrated monitors, grab the file(s) from the server, and finish the job in comfort.

“Obsolete Power Corrupts Obsoletely”  (Ted Nelson)

In addition to sales of prints and repro rights to my own photos, I offer a number of photographic services to a range of clients, most of them local here in western Montana. When a client needs scans of prints or other reflective media, or film, whether for enlarging/reprinting, restoration, archiving, or other purposes, the workflow is as described above. Demand has been increasing for restorations and other work that requires scanning printed materials. I'd also like to make new scans of my own slides originally scanned on the HP scanner, and perhaps sift through more of my older work to extract a few keepers I know are buried in there somewhere. Except for the excellent Nikon V-ED, the antiquated equipment and its less-than-charming work area have not had a positive impact on my motivation. I make the scans I must, but no more.

Given the increase in jobs requiring a flatbed scanner, I did some research, and then bought an Epson Perfection V850 Pro scanner. The V850 became available in early 2015. It's a letter-size, 6400ppi flatbed that comes with an assortment of slide and negative holders for film scanning. I found a number of reviews, some in-depth, one in particular with extensive, over-the-top, obsessive detail. My kind of review. You'll find it on the Luminous Landscape site (a subscription may be required to view the page and download the 90-page PDF; I had variable results depending on the browser and settings I used). If you're at all interested in a flatbed scanner for film work, and relish plowing through almost mind-numbing comparisons with other scanners you'll never own, I can recommend Mr. Segal's review, but you'll find a number of others that are quite informative.

The V850 set up quickly on my Mac Pro, as did the included SilverFast SE+ software from LaserSoft. I used the included, somewhat clunky i1Scan software and IT8 calibration targets to create custom profiles for both transparency and reflective materials. Finally, I could scan directly to the Mac, in good lighting, at a comfortable desk, etc. Of course, this still left the Nikon in the dark, but perhaps the V850's film scanning capabilities would eliminate the need for the Nikon. Note that the V850 also includes Windows versions of all of the software.

Color Managed Scanning

Based on more research I decided to upgrade the SilverFast software to the "full" version, called SilverFast Ai Studio. This adds some useful features (there's a comparison chart on the SilverFast site), including the ability to profile the scanner with a couple of clicks, the caveat being one must use an IT8 slide purchased from LaserSoft. So at the same time I purchased the software upgrade, I also ordered that IT8, along with a resolution target slide, commonly known as USAF 1951.

The IT8 35mm slide from LaserSoft

The IT8 and resolution 35mm target slides from LaserSoft.

Software delivery is immediate, of course, but the target slides got hung up in North Dakota, the U.S. Postal Service reneging on their “neither rain nor snow…” promise. I swapped a few emails with LaserSoft's US support desk, and while KL there did indeed chase down my package, nothing could be done to move it more quickly through the nasty winter storm affecting that area. The slides did eventually appear in my mailbox.

I used the IT8 slide to profile the scanner, a process that does indeed take very little effort and completes in seconds. Using the resolution slide, which came with instructions for use (PDF), I ran some tests to compare the Nikon V-ED (on the Win XP computer) with the V850 on the Mac. The result surprised only in that the Nikon is so much better than the Epson. I expected top-notch results from the Nikon, and got just that, but the Epson seemed a bit weak to me. Turning once again to the Web, more research showed I'd got typical results from the Epson. Bottom line: I'll continue to use the Nikon for 35mm film.

Out of the Closet

This presented a minor dilemma: continue using the Nikon in the dungeon with the old XP computer, or purchase a license from SilverFast to use their software, and move the scanner to the Mac? As luck would have it, a holiday sale on the SilverFast site dropped the price of the Nikon license, although the deal also included a free IT8 slide, which I'd just paid for and received. Continuing my good luck, the Web site didn't properly apply the offered discount, so I backed out of the transaction and called. I got through right away, no waiting, and found myself talking to KL, the same person who'd helped with the delivery problem. After a fun conversation she offered a deal too good to pass, so I now have the Nikon license and that machine sitting on my desk and connected to the Mac. I will never again be sitting in the tombs scanning slides, and I've no use whatever for the old Dell; off with it to the recycle center.

To get comfortable with the new software I decided to pull from my files the handful of keeper slides made during trips to Grand Teton National Park (GRTE) in the spring and fall of 2006. Those have been posted to our GRTE scenic gallery, along with two more GRTE scenic slides I “discovered” while looking through the slide files.

The Teton Range at Oxbox Bend, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, U.S.

A 'newly discovered' slide from GRTE in May, 2006.

New Old Pictures

SilverFast Ai Studio is very capable, works as advertised, allows me to use either scanner as needed, and offers some controls and features that greatly enhance the scanning hardware (e.g.: multi-pass scanning with the Nikon to improve dynamic range, a feature not available in Nikon's software for the V-ED). The SilverFast site has extensive documentation of their product suite. This is provided as a mix of PDF documents and mp4 movie files. The software has a few oddities, certainly some bugs which, fortunately, haven't been serious, and provides a great many editing tools I don't use because I prefer to make such adjustments after the scan in Photoshop. I've more testing and learning to do; I may eventually find some of those tools useful and incorporate them into my workflow.

Of course, scanning slides is still scanning slides, and I've had to haul out tools that have been stashed in a closet for years: the light box, the 5x loupe, the Rocket blower and dusting brush, and of course, slides. There's no escaping the fact that scanning slides is just no fun at all.

I don't expect ever to shoot another slide. But I have a lot of those to work on, and I've no doubt a few new old pictures, and new prints, will result from this investment of both dollars and time. And I now have good tools to make some happy clients, including the V850 for reflective media scans, and for any larger format films clients may deliver.

December 2016

22 February, 2018: We've published a follow-up to this article, New Old Pictures, Redux.

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