May 2019

In search of better 35mm negative scans with the Nikon LS-4000

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.

Top: Lab Scan Fujifilm SP-2000 (1840x1232px). Middle: Nikon LS-4000 (559x3667px). Bottom: Epson v500 (4437x2805px).

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!

Tri-X and a Nikon F

Tri-X is a classic B&W film stock yet its not one that I have used extensively. My go to for some time now has been TMax 400 and before that I used Ilford stocks relatively frequently which are a little cheaper here in the UK. The history of Tri-X goes all the way back to 1940 and was a staple of photojournalists meaning many of the iconic images post world war II were captured on this emulsion. Well, not quite this one though, as 400TX was a major revamp notably cutting the silver content significantly. Leafing through my copy of a Life magazine photo book its easy to see how the grain and textures captured on this film can empower the photographer to capture that fleeting moment on a medium that still conveys strong emotion today.

This was my last roll of a brick I picked up last time I visited the US and it seemed fitting to load it into the iconic Nikon F of mine, which looks even better with the plain prism finder I had ordered in from Japan. Whilst I rotated through a few lenses my new 45mm f2.8 GN lens looks especially stylish on the front; its low profile could almost have one mistake it for a lens cap. In fact I'm almost certain the top image was capture with this lens coupled with a Nikon orange filter on the front. This is my favourite tree and one I photograph every time I visit my parents at the farm I grew up on in Shropshire. This was an angle I tried before but the crops nor the light had ever really combined to make a remarkable image. But this frame I really like. Gradient in tone on the textured soil of recently planted maize seems to be opposite to the clouds, the orange filter bringing out the stormy mood of the day and the grain exacerbating this. To me the scene evokes a feeling of foreboding.

Another classic is the Nikon 105mm f2.5, a lens that regretfully I have not used as much as I would have liked, and famously captured the Afghan Girl by Steve McCurry. I took the opportunity to capture this shot of my grandfather with this lens and I must say I am very pleased by the combination of this lens and the film stock. To think of the change my grandfather has seen in the world is remarkable, particularly as a farmer in this part of the world.

Overall I am very fond of these images. The contrast, grain and textures rendered are very nice and 400TX seems to give the images more grit than TMax 400. Its possible that I'll favour 400TX for my 35mm cameras and keep the TMax 400 for the medium format landscape work I enjoy. Below is a shot of a yard with the 45mm, a macro test shot with the 55mm f3.5 Ai plus a hoya green filter and another with the 45mm of one of a pub scene in Dartmouth Park in London.

The dependable zoom: Nikon 70-300mm f4-5.6 AFS

In my last post for this short series on my telephoto lenses, the Nikon 70-300mm is a lens that generally has a pretty secure place in my camera bag when I'm traveling somewhere with wildlife due to its weight and versatility. This was a straightforward upgrade from the Sigma 70-300mm, I wanted to gain better autofocus and image quality. Whilst the minimum focusing distance of the Sigma was nice, the slightly wider f5.6 aperture on this model was very welcome. This lens has its shortcomings and there have been time when I have expected more of the performance of this lens than it has provided (although part of that is probably unrealistic expectations as 300mm+ lenses require solid technique for best results), in terms of size and weight its very effective, and I use it much more than my 80-200mm f2.8 D lens mainly due to the weight. Reviews of this lens are easily available online, so I wont repeat the spec list. Instead I'll just share a few of my favourite images captured with this versatile, reasonably priced and relatively lightweight lens.

Kea in Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand
Elephant in Kaudulla National Park, Sri Lanka
Humpback Whale Breaching in Maui
Howler Monkey at Carocol
Bighorn Sheep at Glacier National Park
Harpy Eagle in Belize Zoo
Jaguar in Belize Zoo
Heron in flight near Moosehead Lake in Maine

The big one: Nikon 600mm f5.6 Ai-S ED

It seems somewhat of a natural progression to end up trying out a 600mm lens, or at least that's what I'm telling myself. I find photographing wildlife and birds fun for many reasons: the curiosity to see different creatures in their natural environment, the peace and solitude in the time it takes to get a shot and last but by no means least the technical challenge of capturing the image. Its this last part this post will mainly focus on, with a bit more detail on the photographic side in a forthcoming entry.

As mentioned on my previous few posts realised a 300mm wasn't going to cut it. Upgrading to an 300mm f4 prime to achieve 420mm f5.6 had left me feeling a tad disappointed in Yellowstone. I wasn't too interested in a Sigma or Tamron zoom lens like the 200-600mm, but then Nikon released their 200-500mm f5.6. This gave me pause for thought and had got some pretty good reviews. I may try this out still in the future but for now I decided to try something a little different.

To many it may seem nuts to buy one of these manual focus exotic super telephoto primes. The depth of field for these lenses are razor thin at most working distances and optically they were designed for the film era. Still they are what the pros used two decades ago so image and build quality are excellent so I was pretty intrigued when a very good condition copy of this lens turned up on eBay, particularly after being impressed with using my 300mm F4 Ai-S ED lens to capture the fox in my garden.

Sure manual focus isn't for most people in this day and age but this is Nikon's lightest 600mm prime lens, its pro build and image quality (the latter somewhere circa 1976-1986 as mine is the earlier copy), and of course the price is a very important factor. This lens is around 4x cheaper than a 15 year old AF 600m f4 and over 10x less than a new contemporary f4 (a new f5.6 AF-S lens is rumored and I'm intrigued to see where the price of that will land). Sure I was prepared to miss shots that otherwise AF would have helped me catch, but I am also confident I can become experienced enough with this lens to get me good enough results (for me that is, as I am no Nat Geo staffer).

Achieving Critical Focus

Critical focus is the point the lens actually is focused on and when zooming in on a 1:1 pixel crop its like night and day comparing to another image that appears acceptably sharp (to me) on an uncropped reasonably sized print. Achieving critical focus is challenging with this lens due to the very narrow depth of field and using this lens on a full frame DSLR can easily result in shots that you thought would be in focus actually not being. Naturally good eyesight is required but I am also exploring a couple of options to assist me: the Nikon DG-2 2x viewfinder magnifier which doubles the magnification of the central portion of the viewfinder and also the DK21M which fixes to the non-pro Nikon bodies to provide 1.2x magnification. However without these tools I obtained pretty good success rates of acceptable focus after getting used to the manual focus action. Below are the uncropped images both shot on a monopod at 1/2500s f11 iso 1600. Of the series of 6 images I took of this bird the first (shown on the left) and the last (not shown here) is out of focus. The bird caught me off guard flying away so the latter can be excused and checking the timestamp the second image was 8 seconds after the first. So focusing is not fast (and I'm sure I wasn't rushing here as I knew the bird would stick around for a bit,) but for subjects that are relatively slow moving or stationary this is perfectly fine in my opinion. For pros I guess it wouldn't be.

Swans and Geese provided some slow moving subjects to practice on. Focus accuracy was also relatively good, although I was punished for lapses in concentration: when a goose went to flap its wings dry I was not paying attention and did not react quite quickly enough to obtain the critical focus. I'm sure I would have got the shot with auto-focus and I did not observe the bird do this again whilst I was there. So if you really need to get the shot under any circumstances then this lens probably isn't going to work for you.

Birds that have a favourite perch are also easier to focus on. This lens has a focus minimum lock ring that you can set at the focus point of your bird's favourite perch. Then you can focus out from infinity back to this pre-set stopping point very quickly.

Birds in Flight

Buzzards are often about on my parents property and photographing them has been a challenge so far. Despite often perching on the hedge by the drive they are very skittish and will typically fly away before you even realise they are there. Their pace means they accelerate far and high away, but at least when they are circling for prey they have a predictable path. As you can see from this image and 100% crop (D610 at 1/3200 f8 800 iso) its been possible for me to focus in on this soaring bird. The limitation on a better image here is not the lens but my planning and positioning to photograph this bird closer.

The buzzard is somewhat easier as it was further away as often with a lens like this is the narrow field of view to locate and track a fast moving subject. Sand Martins provided a good challenging subject to test out how I'd fare as they were so fast and small. Filling the frame was naturally a challenge and obviously there were many missed shots, but I started to get the hang quickly of tracking the semi-regular flight patterns and I was surprised to actually be able to capture some decent shots that were in focus enough to enable me to crop the image in post processing slightly as you can see below.

Support

This is a lens that you will need support for, in good light a monopod will do but as the light fades a very sturdy tripod is required. As mentioned previously this is Nikon's lightest 600mm which is pretty useful for carrying the lens around but for shooting you will need that support to keep steady and enable you to focus well. Its a great joke I think when Ken Rockwell says he hand held at 1/30s with good results. It say this is very unlikely. Buying this lens did entice me to upgrade my tripod legs to a Gitzo Systematic which I'd been putting off for a while which provides great stabiklity and a price tag to match. The tripod foot on this lens though is a weak spot my opinion coupled with a swiss arca plate. I used a Jobu JR3 Gimball head too which seemed to work ok.

Atmospheric Conditions

So you've focused well, got the steady support, what else could go wrong? Well the hot air between you and a distant subject can become very apparent and there isn't much one can do about it except get closer. Here is an example caused by a rare English sunny day.

Final Thoughts

This is quite an exotic lens, particularly today as you eschew so much technology developed since the 80s in helping you get better photos easier. Nevertheless I still find it to be of remarkable value and the challenge to use was not as great as I feared. On the contrary I think this challenge made me enjoy the process of creating these images more than if the focus were automated. Sure some shots were missed which could be a deal breaker for some but my success rate was high enough for me to keep this lens and look forward to another opportunity to capture some wildlife with it. I'll finish this post with a 1:1 crop of a sparrow puffing out its feathers.

The cheap telephoto that started it all for me: Sigma 70-300mm DG f4-5.6

Inexpensive telephoto zooms are a good way to dip your toe into wildlife photography but chances are you'll notice their shortcomings very quickly and the yearning for better tools will likely start to be persistent if you continue to have opportunities to photograph wildlife. The advantages of these lens are clear: they are inexpensive, but also lightweight and their quality can be quite acceptable, particularly if you are using a sub 20 megapixel DSLR. You may have noticed that I'm on a bit of a roll for telephoto posts, and this for me is going back to the very beginning of my ambitions to photograph nature. The adage of buy cheap, buy twice has been true for me in this regard: I started with the very inexpensive Sigma 70-300mm DG Macro and it lasted two trips before I outgrew it. The below shots I captured with this lens are some of my favourites and the 6mp sensor of the Nikon D40 I paired it with was pretty forgiving of the optical limitations.

HummingbirdPeru, 2010
FlamingosBolivia, 2010
VicuñaBolivia, 2010

Focus with this lens is slow and clunky. IQ is good enough for what is today a primitive 6mp sensor but I'm sure pales on a modern DSLR. The limitations of the D40 and Sigma 70-300mm lens were clear to me such as in the photo below (shot at ISO 1600 and at 300mm f5.6). It was after this trip in Peru that I realised I enjoyed photography enough to invest in some better gear although its nice to look back on these images and remember this lens was not rubbish. It did the job at the time and got me some images I cherish. The quest for a better telephoto and more opportunities to photograph wildlife began.

Cock of the rockPeru, 2010