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Photokina report: Part 4  
Friday, September 29, 2000 | by
Film is still the medium onto which innumerable newspaper and wire service photo assignments are recorded. Because of that, a good quality analog-to-digital converter is required to move film into a computer for editing, transmission and storage. For most photojournalists, that converter is a 35mm film scanner, and these days it's probably from either Nikon or Polaroid. At Photokina 2000, both companies had their 35mm film scanners on display, plus, in Polaroid's case, an advance look was offered at a new multi-format film scanner that delivers high resolution scans and connects via FireWire, making it the first FireWire film scanner on the market.

The most impressive scanner on show at Photokina 2000, however, wasn't particularly new, flashy or even popular among news photographers. The scanner I'm referring to is the Minolta Dimage Scan Elite, and for a reason I'll delve into below, I believe it absolutely should be considered for purchase against comparable Nikon, Polaroid and Canon film scanners.

This report is going to be much shorter than originally planned, thanks to the assistance of the cleaning staff at my Photokina hotel. On the day before my departure from Germany, all my scanner notes, product literature and a CD of sample scans were removed from my room, along with a train ticket, expense receipts, business cards, and other personal papers. As a result I can't really write what I wanted to write. Still, I will plunge ahead with some observations about the Minolta Dimage Scan Elite and provide an overview of the upcoming Polaroid Sprintscan 120.

Part 4 of the Photokina report is broken down as follows:

Film grain and the Minolta Dimage Scan Elite

Shortly after my son Fergus was born last year, I borrowed a Nikon LS-2000 to scan some of the colour and b & w negatives of his first few weeks of life. What a disappointment. Regardless of how I set up the scanning software (disabling sharpening, for instance), the scans from the low-ISO film all had the same unwelcome property: they were unacceptably grainy. While I had suspected this to be true of the original Nikon Coolscan scanner I used previously at the Calgary Herald, I'd not previously had an opportunity to compare an Epson print from a film scan with a traditional print, as I was able to do this time around with certain available light photos of my son.

The difference was extreme: 4 x6 and 8 x 10 prints from my local photofinisher were sharp, with good contrast, tone and minimal apparent grain. The same frames scanned on the LS-2000 and printed on an Epson Stylus Photo EX printer were equally sharp, and had pleasant colour, tone and contrast, but a pronounced graininess dominated background areas in particular. I tried the usual tricks, including liberal use of Photoshop's Despeckle filter, but I wasn't able to match the traditional prints' high sharpness/low graininess combo. As a result, I trundled off to the photofinisher for more reprints and enlargements, abandoning my plan to make Epson prints for family and friends.

Several months later I fired up Canon's Canoscan FS2710 and found it to be no less of a grain enhancer than the LS-2000. While the overall image quality from both the Canon and Nikon scanners was fine, I wouldn't want to use either on a daily basis to scan important photos because of how they seem to exaggerate film grain.

An article in the British photo magazine Photon several years back first twigged me to the grain problem of certain film scanners. In the magazine's comparison of several desktop units, it was easy to see that Minolta's now-discontinued Quickscan 35 Plus offered comparable smoothness to the drum scanner the author used as a reference, and that the other brands tested didn't measure up in this regard. In a chance conversation several weeks ago, a drum scanner expert made exactly the same observation about desktop film scanners and grain, and suggested the Scan Elite from Minolta was worth checking out, primarily because its scans did not exhibit this characteristic.


Minolta Dimage Scan Elite

With that in mind, I persuaded Minolta's booth staff at Photokina to fire up the Dimage Scan Elite for me. The results were as I'd hoped: two scans, one from ISO 100 colour neg, and the other from ISO 400 b & w, showed great sharpness and minimal grain enhancement, regardless of the scanner software's settings. The scans themselves are long gone, unfortunately, thanks to the room cleaning problem I mentioned above. As such, I can't complete the test I began by making Epson prints from the scans. That's unfortunate, since I was eager to confirm if I'd finally found a desktop film scanner I might consider purchasing.

The relative prominence of grain in a scan should not be the sole determinant in selecting a scanner of course. The point of this tale is really to encourage those of you about to purchase a 35mm film scanner to include the Minolta Dimage Scan Elite on your short list of scanners to buy. The smoothness of its scans may surprise you.

Polaroid SprintScan 120

Photojournalist Heimo Aga alerted me to the Polaroid SprintScan 120's unveiling at Photokina 2000, and I'm glad he did. Capable of scanning from 35mm through to 6 x 9 cm formats, with connections for both SCSI-2 and FireWire, it could be a good choice for photo departments needing both 35mm and medium format scanning capabilities, along with what Polaroid claims is the highest resolution in a medium format scanner at 4000 dpi.


Polaroid Sprintscan 120

If the scan quality is good (I wasn't able to view scans from this unit at Photokina), the SprintScan 120 could give Imacon's line of medium format desktop drum scanners a run for their money, since the Sprintscan is expected to be less expensive. If you've ever used an Imacon scanner, however, you know that it produces dynamite scans, so the Polaroid scanner will have to work hard to match Imacon's quality.


Rear view of SprintScan 120 showing twin SCSI-2 and
FireWire ports, as well as a SCSI ID toggle (lower right)

Sprintscan 120 specifications:

Compatible film types
Scans single frames or in strips from colour,
black and white, positive or negative
Compatible film formats
35mm
6 x 4.5cm
6 x 6cm
6 x 7cm
6 x 9cm
Sensor technology
Single pass RGB, 10k element CCD
Optical resolution (up to the 6 x 9cm format)
4000 x 4000 dpi
Data conversion
14 bit per channel analog to digital
Density range
0 - 3.6 optical density (up to 3.9 with multi-scanning)
Scan time
Less than 100 seconds for a 6 x 6cm frame @ 4000 dpi
(the beta unit at Photokina was slower than this)
CCD calibration
Automatic uniformity
Focusing
Automatic
Light source
Cold cathode
Interface
SCSI-2, FireWire
Operating voltage
120 - 240 VAC, 50 - 60HZ
Dimensions
27.2 x 14 x 48.8cm
Weight
6.4kg
Included software
PolaColor Insight Pro and optional third party professional software (Silverfast was discussed at the Polaroid booth as the third party software that may be bundled with this scanner)

Polaroid staff would offer only ballpark street price estimates of between 8000 DM and 10,000 DM (US$3600 to US$4500) for the SprintScan 120. The scanner is expected to ship late this year or early next.

Kodak RFS 3600

Of all the scanners on display at Photokina 2000, Kodak's RFS 3600 is the one that looks most like it should be nestled next to an iMac. It would be a good fit too, since the RFS 3600 includes a USB port for connection to the SCSI-deprived consumer Mac.


Kodak RFS 3600

The scanner's software looks good, and I like the fact that film strips do not need to be loaded into a carrier before insertion into the scanner. This enables it to easily scan either short strips or entire rolls of film in a go. The remainder of my notes on this scanner are long gone; please see Kodak's web site for more information.

Note: All photos (except for press handouts) shot with a Nikon Coolpix 990 set to Auto colour, manual exposure, and lit by an SB-28DX flash diffused by a Westcott Micro Apollo mini-softbox.

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