Photography equipment can become an expensive manifestation of the childrens nursery rhyme "The woman who swallowed a fly" whereby she proceeds to eat larger and larger creatures to try and alleviate her problem. The promise of better quality through purchasing new gear often follows a similar pattern and can not always lead to worthwhile improvements (the nursery rhyme, in case you are not familiar, ends with the death of the protagonist). Scanning film is at best an expensive and/or arduous task; something perfectly in keeping with the perseverance to keep using a medium long discarded by the masses.
For me home scanning with my Epson v500 photo flatbed has been a good cost saver and in a previous post I shared that I thought for medium format performance was surprisingly good when comparing with a lab scan. However for 35mm film I always felt somewhat underwhelmed by the results. The resolution is a big thing - I use 2400 DPI on the v500 and I feel going any higher is a waste of filesize for no actual resolution gain, but I has also wondered about colour rendition and things like shadow detail. So like the woman who swallowed the fly, I headed to my favourite online auction site to see if I could pick up a Nikon Coolscan for a reasonable price.
There were a few on eBay, a variety of LS-5000, LS-4000 and a couple of LS-9000s (the first two are 35mm only whereas the latter is medium format as well - with around 2-3x price tag to match) and I decided to opt for the 4000 purely based on a listing that seemed to be the most plausible that the item had been taken well care of and fully working. The 4000 can scan at 4000 dpi or around 1.6x what the v500 was capable of so I was hoping this would be a significant upgrade. The description sounded like it was written by another enthusiast who has been actively using the scanner and it came with all of the manuals plus the MA21 and SA21 for mounted slides and to take film strips respectively. Unfortunately the FH-3 was not included and so I had to source this independently for a pricey £85 extra - this is a film holder for single frames that inserts into the MA21 and allows film strips that will not load into the SA21 to be scanned (e.g. a 1 or 2 frame strip or one with significant curvature). So overall cost was £685 which works out to be around the same cost of scanning 34 rolls of film at the 12x8 print size from my lab (uncompressed image size of 24mb which I think is similar to what 4000dpi produces). These economics should work out well as long as the item arrived working and stays working for a couple of years. But thats the risk with buying a piece of electronic equipment from 2001 and there are a couple more things to bear in mind: the official Nikon Scan software will not work on the current windows or mac operating systems and the device uses Firewire 400 connections. Fortunately these have relatively easy solutions in that you can daisy chain a Firewire 400->800 adapter to a FW800->Thunderbolt 2 Adapter which I use for my circa 2015 Macbook Pro (I think you can even add a Thunderbolt 2 -> USB-C Thunderbolt 3 adapter for the latest macs). For software you can use Vuescan or Silverfast, the former being around 6x cheaper and includes all scanners it supports (Silverfast is tied to a specific scanner model). I naturally opted for the former based on cost.
I get to the image comparison part an I'm ironically feeling like I'm naval gazing too much. Each of these images viewed at small sizes look good in my opinion. The lab scan has some great detail, but also lots of sharpening, and the small resolution is somewhat frustrating for me. I guess I went for their cheapest option at the time because I had sent 10+ rolls in one go but now wish I'd got this particular shot at a much higher res. Personally I like the punchy colours of the lab scan best although I was surprised for someone to comment on reddit that the colours in the Epson scan was their favourite. The Nikon is relatively similar colour-wise to the Epson scan althouh interestingly the ICE dust scanning on the Epson has been really aggressive - it clearly thought some of the boats were dust particles, as it did also with the yellow circle in the bottom left. Perhaps there could be a software element to this too as the Epson was scanned with Epson Scan and the Nikon with Vuescan. I find the Nikon to be a bit sharper and distinguish quite a bit more of the detail in the buildings in the middle to back left of the image than the Epson. Its this incremental improvement that makes the upgrade worth it to me.
Overall it does seem that upgrading from a flatbed to a dedicated 35mm scanner was worth it. Sure its alot of money but the economics will work out pretty quick as long as the scanner doesn't break, which is a risk I think is worth taking. Vuescan as a tool seems a bit more complex than Epson Scan as I find the histogram adjustments less user friendly but I think its a tool I'll get better at using. From researching online a quote stood out where someone commented that Vuescan was more a tool to extract information than an image, meaning that Vuescan would help get out the maximum information from the image to process effectively in Lightroom/Photoshop. My 35mm negatives will be scanned with the LS-4000 going forward so stay tuned to my blog to see more examples!