Film Scanners: The Final Frontier

This will be my final article on film scanners. At least until my current one breaks and I have to find a replacement. Much has happened since I last wrote about my struggles with film scanners. Back in March, I received my repaired Pacific Image PF120 Pro scanner back from a 7 week trip to the Scanace factory in Taiwan after my unit had developed severe banding.

After receiving my unit back repaired, I was happy to report the scanner was free of banding. Victory lattés all round. Unfortunately, my banding-free scanning was not to persist, with banding becoming once again within a few weeks of receiving the unit back. 

It would be an understatement to say I was disappointed.

I contacted Scanace and they sent me a very long and complex 20 page Word document detailing how to take the unit apart and check the thingo that attached to the whatsit. Needless to say I’m not a technician and said as much in my reply.

After a bit of backwards and forwards with the local distributor APS and Scanace in Taiwan, APS (who were super helpful during the whole thing) elected to replace the unit with a new one. All done.

Or was it?

I had a bit to weigh up. To me, it was clear Scanace were in the habit of allowing products to leave their factory in less than satisfactory condition. I was getting perilously close to the end of the 12 month manufacturer’s warranty (Australian Consumer Law aside) and was on my third unit. What would happen if the unit failed again? What out-of-warranty support would I receive? What sort of longevity could I expect from the scanner? Given all these unknowns, I decided to sell the replacement unit. I opened it and powered it up, scanned a few frames and ensured this one wasn’t banding out of the box — it was not — and sold it. But what next? I still needed a film scanner.

For years, I had poo-pooed those who used flatbed units to scan their film, but I was coming to the realisation that, image quality aside, these units were reliable and used by many film shooters I knew. And their images and prints came out alright. Sure, these flatbeds couldn’t resolve the level of detail my Nikon Coolscan or Plustek OpticFilm 120 could, but at least they worked reliably. A choice between a really good faulty scanner and a functional mediocre one is no choice at all. A friend was selling his Epson V700, so I decided to give it a shot and after three months of using it for 35mm and 120, I’m quite impressed.

For the first time since my Nikon Coolscan 5000ED, I can properly batch scan. The V700 is relatively quick and the bundled EPSON Scan software is a breeze. No more obscurantist and unintuitive software, just crop and click.

But what of detail? In short, it doesn’t come anywhere close to any of the other dedicated film scanners I have used. But does it matter? These days I’m primarily sharing my photography online, whether on Facebook, this website or Instagram. I’m less concerned with pixel peeping — sorry, grain peeping — at 100% at 4800dpi than I am the overall quality of the image when viewed on a screen. You can see below that close up, the dedicated film scanner (in this case my failed OpticFilm 120) resolves the grain exceedingly well; the V700 does not. But then again, it doesn’t band like a mofo and the colours, especially with negative film, come pretty right out of the box. Yes, I still get plenty of stuff printed and yes, the V700 scans are more than adequate. Flatbed scanners are a compromise when it comes to fine detail, but at least they work and if I really want to get a high quality print, I’ll either visit a darkroom or pay for a drum scan.

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m a big fan of the V700. It’s does a good scan and it’s versatile to boot — my latest family photo book is all the better for its high quality document scans. Perhaps another company will come along with a reasonably priced dedicated film scanner that actually works, but I’m not holding my breath. The V700 does everything I need it to and after years of film scanning frustration, it’s all I need.

Don’t let any of this dissuade you from taking the Plustek or Scanace/Pacific Image route. Quite a few people have contacted me regarding the scanners asking for advice since I started writing about my experiences with them. My advice would still be to give them a try. They’re great scanners when they work. Just buy it from a store you have a good relationship with and one that has a generous returns and refund policy.

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