The Future of Scanning

What’s happening?

Only a few years back, most companies stopped making film scanners. The game was up; scanning equipment no longer pulled a profit. The future was in digital capture and the world marched on without looking back. It left educational institutions in a pickle. They were already reeling from high silver costs and a change in photo curriculum. Suddenly companies stopped updating software for Intel chips and repair service on older scanners dropped like a stone. It put pressure on the education world to go all digital and those ripples were felt everywhere. For us high-end scanning labs that were outside of the educational “prosumer” world, we fared ok although young clients were coming to us with 8 megapixel files instead of 40 megapixel (equivalent) 6×7 film. We already went through this in the early 2000s when companies stopped making drum scanners. Over the years, most of us learned enough about our various drum scanning machines to fix the beasts ourselves. Third party service vendors, mostly past employees of the very corporations that build the crazy things in the first place, took care of the rest. But recently the support has slipped and it gets harder every month to maintain high-end equipment. Today, prosumer scanners are taking the same track but at a more accelerated pace; everyone feels the heat including professional photographers who prefer 35mm film.

A little history.

In the mid 90s to early 2000s a boom in the drum scanning business helped propel the magazine and advertising world into the digital age. Companies like Esko-ScanView and Howtek began building machines small enough to sit on a desk. These futuristic contraptions could scan every piece of silver grain from Kodak Tech-Pan 25 and TMX100 film at a resolving power as small as 3 microns. They sold for sixty thousand dollars and up and only large service bureaus could handle that overhead. Small independent printmakers couldn’t. Mostly, we weren’t in the digital game yet so we didn’t care or notice.

But in short order the competition got stiff for the drum scanner manufacturers. Then the economy turned bad, and digital capture in the advertising world went through the roof with new medium format backs hitting 16 megapixels. In just a few years the drum scanning business silently imploded leaving only a few survivors and no capacity for new scanner sales. The used market boomed with the advent of eBay and drum scanners could be bought for one tenth their original cost.

I got into the game in late 2005 when I realized that all the artists I printed for needed high quality scans. They couldn’t afford a drum scanner on their own and didn’t want to spend the time operating one if they had the money; but they weren’t getting good service at their labs either. None of the large repro shops with drum scanners new how to do ultra-high resolution work for artists. They set the variables wrong and my own output quality suffered because I was printing crap files. I didn’t know a lick about drum scanning but my goals were high and I knew I could follow through. Eventually Nathan Baker (my business partner) and I settled on the Scanmate 11000 drum scanner. I learned so much about scanning in such a short amount of time. Nathan went even further and now fixes the things. At a resolution of 11,000dpi it remains one of the top scanners of all time. It uses a mechanical interpolation by multi-sampling individual over-lapping parts of the negative. It actually scans with a physical resolution of something around 5000 or 6000 dpi but with this mechanical stepping-motor interpolation, the resolution it can really pull is much higher. I describe this because the very same thing will apply in the near future of digital scanning when drum scanners become obsolete.

The machine we use at Black Point Editions was born in 1996. At 15+ years of age, it still does its job remarkably well. It pumps out nine-hundred megabyte (and up) scan files day-in and day-out. The files it produces are still too large for the most contemporary computers to edit quickly today! Talk about ahead of its time. When the Nikon 9000s and all the rest of the prosumer scanning equipment stopped being built or serviced in 2008, us printmakers new the feeling of loss felt by our fellow photographers. The scanners we depend on are important to us; and they are for individual photographers as well. We digital printmakers have lived in limbo trying to keep our scanners operational for as long as possible in a world less and less equipped to repair them. Now everyone will be in the same boat. For the individual photographers, this environment pushes them to buy dSLRs and many aren’t happy with that mainly due to a relative decrease in dynamic range in even 5D Mark 2s compared to color neg film.

But there is one world were the lack of prosumer scanners and increasing lack of drum scanners could have really hit hard: the institutional archive. What will we do with all of our millions and billions of culturally important photographs if we can’t scan the film? Much of that film was printed to dye paper that will degrade under light. Do they just languish in some dank office somewhere? We haven’t scratched the surface of our film heritage in this country. A large part of the reason for not getting our digitized house in order is that every film scanner made to date runs as slow as a toad! (That is true of scan backs fyi.) It takes too damn long to sit and wait ten minutes for a high resolution scan. The labor involved with the flimsy, bendy, all-around-lame, film holders “invented” by the various scanning manufacturers just stops massive digitization projects in their tracks. Institutions and individuals combined have slid back and bought extremely low quality “fast” ccd flatbed scanners resulting in millions of perfectly blurry thumbnails scattering the playing-field of image history. Now we run the risk of not even having the “good” hardware (clunky as it was) to get the job done.

What to do.

There is an old workflow that we are forgetting about: remember inter-negs and slide duping? That’s right, the dSLR has finally taken the stage of the prosumer (and in the last year even highend) scanning world. The “camera scanner” has arrived! Most people don’t know it yet, but the capabilities of a dSLR go (or will go) way beyond a CCD scanner and someday soon even a PMT (photo multiplier tube) drum scanner. The secret sauce is the interaction between raw cameras and raw editing software.

When Apple came out with the iPhone everyone went stupid over how good the hardware looked. But the killer feature was how well the operating system worked with that hardware. The fact that we see multiple YouTube videos of babies working iPhones and just somehow knowing what to do, is proof. Well, the scanning world might be due for a similar treatment all-be-it in a slightly more professional manner. With the soon demise of Nikon 8000 and 9000 scanners and the high sticker price of Imacon/Hasselblad CCD scanners (the static in them just sucks doesn’t it?), a good Canon 5D Mark II holds its own. Couple that with Lightroom/Bibble 5/CaptureOne and we have a temporary winning combo for 35mm scanning.

Let’s face it. Anyone who has done a color negative scan using normal scan applications has stumbled across the fact that our scan input software isolates us behind a vast mote, far away from the workflow we use to visualize and print those files. It forces us to quickly interpret the preview image in some way we think we want, scan the file, and then fix (or rescan) the image later if we don’t like it. VueScan, Silverfast and Flexcolor have attempted to fix the problem by giving us invert/edit ability in their most recent applications. But those edits are not saved to XMP and are proprietary code. Also, they don’t work with RAW files from Cameras. Well, if we scan directly into Lightroom/Bibble5/CaptureOne as RAW, we don’t have to bother with that separation. Our scanning software is our visualization software (and what a visualization software it is); we can always revert to the raw negative any time we want and rebuild from scratch. Not only that, but our development settings aren’t linked to some “negative profile” saved in a proprietary hunk of software from 2004. Those settings are embedded inside each file in readable XMP format. They are portable and reversible and can stand unique to every scan. Sounds logical right?

As a professional photographer, you most likely already have a 5D or equivalent twenty megapixel CMOS camera. That is good. You can use that. All you need is a prime 100mm macro lens; put the camera on an old-school strobe interneg base like the Bowens Illumitran, and you can do a 3500dpi scan in less than ten seconds. Not only that, but the scan is RAW meaning future raw editors will get out more detail from the scan in future releases. All the things you can do with a raw file apply with this workflow including mutli-frame real HDR scanning giving you the ability to scan massively contrasty and dense silver film.

I’ve recently built such a system for the University of Vermont Slide Library. Where MIT spent many “cutting edge” years hand-scanning every slide in their archive, we hope to digitize our 150,000 slides in under three months (pre metadata inclusion) with only $3400 in equipment. That is all made possible by the full frame pro dSLR.

That idea applies to the personal photographer as well. You can scan negatives (both color and silver) with the 5D and interpret them directly in your raw editor of choice. These applications let you invert and “develop” negatives (with a few nudges I might add). The develop settings can be saved and applied at the time of capture: meaning you can place a negative in front of the 5D and if the scene contrast, exposure, developing, and film type are all the same from one negative to another, the live-tethered image will show up in seconds ready to interpret in Photoshop without any extra work! Couple this with the fact that you are using a “non-destructive” editing system, XMP metadata support, not to mention a fantastic image database (in the case of Lightroom), and I would say this combo takes the blue ribbon. For the photographer looking to scan their backlog of 35mm film but unable to find a decent CCD scanner at budget and not wanting to waste time waiting for a CCD scanner to “rrrrrr” its way through every frame, I think this workflow will catch on. One plus for Bibble 5 and CaptureOne: you can do full Linear interpretations of the raw file with inverse curves and levels. This lets you get the right gamma characteristic of the color neg film and keeps your color luminance and saturation in check. Over-all, I would say Bibble/CaptureOne have a better color/tonal rendition. If Lightroom adds Curves, Levels, and Linear support in Version 4 (these are top feature requests btw) it may take the hat.

Bibble 5 showing an inverted quick raw interpretation of an underexposed c-neg shot 28 years ago using Linear interpretation and color gamma curves.

The Future.

The logical ones among you are probably saying, “3500dpi? Really? Professional scanning hardware pulls 8000dpi for 35mm. Why would I backtrack?” For us high-end scanning companies, a new player arrived this year that might change the game: the Hasselblad H4D-200MS. It sports a two-hundred megapixel 645 camera back. To get this resolution, it captures six photographs in sequence all at fifty megapixels. For each photograph in the sequence, minuscule piezoelectric motors shift the entire sensor a small amount. This results in a mechanical interpolation of the primary fifty megapixel image to a two-hundred megapixel whole while retaining full color, low noise, and zero moire. This method resembles the old drum scanners we use today that are interpolating the physical resolution of 5,000dpi up to 11,000dpi by just moving the drum motor slower. The result from the new Hasselblad is a pixel dimension almost that of a drum scan of an 8×10 film sheet (an 8×10 at 2000dpi is 320 megapixels but suffers from some physical defects of the scanning hardware.). The question is whether a 645 sensor could actually pack the necessary sensor element density required to capture grain detail from an 8×10 film sheet and if the software used to build the 200 megapixel image uses that resolving power in the right way. We have the glass but the jury is out on the sensor. (I would need the $47,000.00 camera system to test with.) It looks like the technology may be hitting drum-scanner quality at 4×5 film sizes. And it couldn’t be at a better time as the machines we depend on are starting to decline and degrade. If we can simply place a 4×5 sheet of film under a camera, push a button, and see that film digitized in seconds at a print quality of 50×60 inches, well good riddance to waiting. The magic will live in how we backlight the film and interpret the raw data when it arrives on screen.

While the drum scanner isn’t dead yet (they are selling for a rock bottom price between $300 and $4200 on eBay right now) we may see more and more labs going to camera scanners and not looking back. Gone are the costly consumables in fluid and clear Mylar. Gone is the static electricity and dust of the Imacon days. Gone is the clunky software used to invert (and generally mess up) color negatives. Gone are the hundreds of variables to keep track of: white balance strips, gear lubrication, PMT calibration, dark and white noise, bulb life, micro aperture/focus, crazing. Now we can find a winning combo of settings, save that, and let the digitizing begin. The future of film scanning may have just got a little brighter if not temporarily more expensive. For 35mm and 120mm film, the Hasselblad camera scanner is most likely already better than drum scanners. For 4×5 and 8×10? We’ll see.

ps: Soon I will post a second article on Raw developers and how to interpret “raw” scans be that from actual drum/ccd scanners, or from dSLR cameras.