| Whether you want top-flight photo scans to manipulate in Photoshop or simply have a pile of old Kodachromes to preserve, you'll need a dedicated film scanner or a top-of-the-line flatbed to get the job done. Since the most popular film size is a mere 35mm by 24mm, generating a scan with sufficient detail to print at 8x10 and 300dpi requires a scanner with a resolution of at least 2,700ppi (pixels per inch)--even more if you want to crop it. Further, with an original so small, it takes a higher-quality optical path to resolve those tiny details. Film negatives and slides (a.k.a. positives) have a wider dynamic range than prints, so the scanner you use needs to be a lot more sensitive. That's why these models cost between $450 and $650, much pricier than your typical $99 scanner with a transparency adapter.
We'll keep adding to the roster of five models whose specs made the grade, after we've them through their paces. All were tested using the industry-standard IT.8 target (both a reflective and a film version), a head shot with correct skin tones, and for flatbed scans, several magazine covers. We used two different systems for testing, both calibrated with the Macbeth Eye One system: an Apple iBook G5 with 2GB of RAM, and a PC with 2GB of RAM and the LaCie Electron Blue CRT monitor.
How to choose
For scanning film exclusively, a dedicated film scanner is probably your best option--if only because it takes up far less desk space. But if you plan to scan a lot of photographs as well as flat art, you're better off with a really good flatbed scanner with a built-in film attachment.
When it comes to judging specs, be sure to read the box carefully and cynically. Some manufacturers quote the interpolated resolution rather than the optical resolution. The former conjures up pixels where none exist, by mathematically approximating the pixel value based on its neighbors, while the latter figure represents the actual number of photo-sensitive sites on the sensor. Optical density can also be a tricky spec. It's a measurement of the range of tonal values a scanner can capture, on a scale of 0 to 4.0; the closer to 4.0, the more detail you'll see in the highlights and shadows. But there's no standard defining the scanner settings with which the measurements are taken, so we can take the manufacturer's quote as only a rough approximation.
When evaluating a scanner's features, consider your tasks. Need to digitize a bunch of old film that's been collecting dust in shoe boxes? Look for color correction as well as dust- and scratch-removal tools. The Digital ICE image-correction technology developed by Applied Science Fiction, which was purchased by Kodak, has been adopted by many scanner manufacturers. Most film scanners come with some form of ICE onboard, most commonly the original dust/scratch-removal version. A few have the latest and greatest version of the technology, known as ICE4 (pronounced ice-quad), which combines four separate tools for dust and scratch removal, color restoration, grain reduction, and contrast/exposure optimization.
The breadth and depth of scan controls, as well as the software bundle, can make a huge difference in your scan quality. For instance, to get the maximum tonal range, you should perform color and exposure adjustments at scan time whenever possible rather than during postprocessing--in Photoshop, for example--to minimize image degradation. Similarly, if you have a ton of photos to scan, you definitely need a driver with good batch-scanning capabilities and well-designed film holders. In addition to basic apps, most scanners come with some sort of additional software, even if it's only a modest imaging program such as Adobe Photoshop Elements.
And the winner is…
The Microtek ScanMaker i900 wins our Editors' Choice award for its excellent film-scan quality and innovative dual-scanning bed. The Nikon Coolscan V LS-50 ED follows closely on the i900's heels, with high marks for its outstanding film scans, as well as the restoration capabilities of Digital ICE4. As always, we encourage you to read the full reviews for the whole story.
Read the CNET editor's take