Sunday, July 3, 2016

Film Scanning Part Two - Epson V700

Last post we looked at the different options for film scanning and I suggested that the flatbed film scanner was the most versatile option. Not only will they scan documents, but also 35mm, mounted slides, 120mm roll film and even large format negatives up to A4 size!

Like anything worth doing properly, scanning film requires a little patience, a little practice and a lot of time. You can't really just push and button and expect perfect scans first time. Yet having said that, it's also not the black art that some make it out to be. A little trial and error and you'll be making beautiful scans every time.

I use an Epson V700 photo scanner, so that's what I will cover with the settings required for a decent scan. You may use something else - and you may also use different software. But generally the settings will be similar, and the process almost the same no matter what combination you happen to be using. And one final caveat: these are my observations and settings. You may agree, or disagree, with some or all of them. But hopefully they will be at least a start from which you can do your own experimentation. What I can guarantee is that the settings as outlined below give me exceptional scans to work from. Nuff said.

First it should go without saying that the cleaner your workspace the better. Dust is the enemy of negative scanning, so do all you can to avoid it. For me, this generally means wiping down the scanning glass before each use, and blowing any dust from the negative once placed into the film carrier with a blower brush. Some people use compressed air, but I find this to be overkill. Especially if you use software at the scanning stage to get rid of dust spots (which I do).

The initial scanning menu for the Epson V700
In terms of scanning software, I've tried them all. Vuescan is a popular choice with plenty of options, as is Silverfast - both stand-alone products you can purchase for film scanning. Occasionally these will also come bundled with your scanner - although usually in basic, paired-down versions. Having tried them all, I can honestly say that Epson's proprietary software - Epson Scan - is the equal of any of them. Some may disagree - but I keep coming back to Epson Scan for the best results with the least amount of fuss. I presume that Canon's scanning software is also just as good, but I can not vouch for that from experience. Needless to say, I don't think you need to go and spend another $100+ when I'm sure the manufacturer's software is more than up to the task.

So to get to the nuts and bolts with Epson Scan, you need to choose 'Professional Mode'. This will bring up the options box (shown above) so you can tweak your scan. Choose your document type (in most cases it will be 'Film with Film Holder') and then Film Type (color negative, color positive or Black and White). Then, under Image Type, choose 48 bit color if it's a color image, to get the most information you can in the digital file.

Next is Resolution. This is somewhat controversial, as many would argue that the large resolutions that are claimed by these scanners are in reality only software trickery (called interpolation), and that a dpi of around 1200 is really all you need. This may be true. But after my own testing and scanning of hundreds of negatives, in both 35mm and 120 medium format, I have settled on a maximum of 4800 dpi for my scans to get the most detail. The Espon V700 will scan much higher than this, but after 4800 dpi I have found diminishing returns for the file size. At 4800dpi, a scan from a 35mm negative can result in a 100+MB Tiff file, so you really only want to do this level of scanning to the images you really want to archive and print from. Proofs of other images can (and should) be scanned at a smaller resolution (around 300 to 600 dpi).

And lastly, I check the Unsharp Mask, Grain Reduction and Digital ICE boxes. The Unsharp Mask is a matter of personal preference. I know that most would rather sharpen their images for final output in Photoshop - and I'm one of them! I also think that applying Unsharp Mask at the initial scanning stage doesn't hurt either. And the same applies to Grain Reduction and Digital ICE. Some say that Digital ICE can 'muddy' the image, but I haven't found this to be the case. Epson describes Digital ICE technology as;  "a hardware-based dust removal method that is more accurate than the Dust Removal feature. Digital ICE Technology can remove dust or scratch marks without affecting the image composition. However, it takes longer to scan using Digital ICE Technology and also uses more of your system resources."  I concur with this description. At 4800dpi, a 35mm negatives takes around 5 minutes to scan with Digital ICE turned on (although it will initially tell you it will take 10 minutes). I have a fairly powerful computer with 16Gig of Ram, so your times may vary accordingly.

Now all that's left to do is hit the 'Preview' button and the scanner should hum into life and do a quick 'preview' scan. Once the preview appears - probably in the default 'Thumbnail' mode, I change this to 'Normal' so I can make my own selection (thumbnail mode often crops the image in very strange places - especially medium format).

Zoom in on your initial Previewed selection.
Once I've made my selection of the neg I want to scan, I will hit the 'Full' button to do a quick scan of just that negative. This will now appear on its own in the  Preview box. Don't panic! It will probably look horrible?! Very Cyan or Green looking. This has to do with the dyes used within the film emulsion itself. One click of the 'Auto Color' button (the first button in the 'Adjustments' section)and we will fix this. The above scan has had the Auto color adjustment applied and is looking much better. But we can get it looking even better still.

Resulting Histogram after Auto Color applied
If you look at the resulting Histogram after Auto Color has been applied (by clicking on the second button in the 'Adjustments' bar), you'll notice that the highlights and the shadows don't line-up. To get a digital file that includes the full range of information the scanner is capable of producing, we need to help it to 'see' this information by moving the highlight and shadow sliders.

Also notice from the histogram that there is a couple of 'spikes' in the information on the right (highlight) end. Those white spikes are the white areas top and bottom of the preview scan as seen in the image above. They are nothing to be alarmed about, and can largely be ignored. It does, however, mean that you won't want to pull the highlight slider all the way to the right, as this will sque the result.

You will want to move the bottom 'Output' sliders most of the way left and right (the greyscale bar below the input numbers), as this will 'normalise' your highlight and shadow values. You can then tweak the sliders on the histogram itself, and you should see the image visibly changing as you do so.

What you are looking for is not necessarily a perfect final image. In fact, what you are really after is something akin to a digital RAW file - with reasonably flat tones, with subtle contrast. In other words - a file that you can work with in Photoshop that has a full range of highlight and shadow values, and a complete tonal range that will allow you to play around with contrast and brightness.

Resulting image after histogram and output adjustments applied
Something that looks like the image on the right. You can see that the output sliders have been moved almost to the end - for almost (but not quite) maximum shadow and highlight values. And then I have moved the histogram sliders so that it 'looks' right, with detail in both the blacks and the whites. 

It's not 'popping' yet, but it will do once we take this initial scan and apply the rest of the magic in a more powerful editing software like Photoshop.

The final result after pressing 'scan'.
Once you are happy with the preview, the press 'Scan' and wait the 5 to 10 minutes that it takes to scan your large Tiff file (presuming you have TIFF selected as the option for your image). Even if I don't need a large file for my intended output (like the web), I still save a large (uncompressed) Tiff file, and I make my smaller copies from the 'master' tiff file. That way, if I do need a bigger version in the future, I don't have to go back and re-scan the negative again.

As I said earlier, you really only want to go through this process for your 'keeper' images. Making 100+MB Tiff scans of all your images would be fairly soul destroying - not to mention incredibly time consuming!

Final image with 's' curve applied in Photoshop.
So there you have it. My recipe for making decent scans from my negatives on a flatbed scanner like the Espon V700.

If nothing else, look at this as a starting point for your own experimentation when scanning. You may decide 4800dpi is overkill for what you need. Fair enough. Or that Digital Ice isn't really worth using. Up to you. But at least, by going through my process, it may clarify 'some' of the decisions around film scanning on a flatbed, and hopefully help those who are just getting started to make some seriously good scans right off the bat? Happy scanning.