Hands-On Review with the Pacific Image PF120 Pro

Update — October 2016:
I have since parted ways with my PF120 Pro. It developed a severe banding problem, was sent off to Taiwan for repairs, and received back around 2 months later. This repaired unit also developed banding. I then received a brand-new replacement unit from the distributor and promptly sold it. I am now scanning with an Epson V700. Find out more about that experience here.

Scanning is the bane of any film photographer’s existence in the 21st century. More than once I have almost given up on shooting film due to unsatisfactory scanning results. Quality scanning is expensive, time-consuming and a general pain.

Given photographic film is now at the end of its mass-market life, there is a complete dearth of quality, affordable film scanners. Well regarded units, such as the venerable Nikon Coolscan and Minolta DiMage series are long-since discontinued, difficult to service and hideously expensive second hand; affordable flatbed scanners, such as the Epson V800/850 series are available new, but do not scan film with the same clarity and ease of a dedicated film scanner.

I was lucky enough to grab a refurbished Nikon Coolscan 5000ED before they skyrocketed in price, but since adding a Hasselblad to my kit, I’ve been on the hunt for a quality scanner for both 35mm and 120 to replace my ageing Coolscan. 

Last year I tried the Plustek Opticfilm 120, a scanner that, at least on paper, seemed to meet my requirements. Unfortunately, the scanner was defective and it seems many other Plustek customers have been suffering similar problems. With Plustek not willing to admit to what amount to serious quality control issues, I couldn’t place my faith in a replacement unit so back to the drawing board I went. 

Enter Reflecta 

I have been keeping my eye on the Reflecta MF5000 for a while. Aside from the Plustek Opticfilm 120, the Reflecta is one of the only dedicated multi-format film scanners launched in years. The sole website dedicated to reviewing film scanners, ScanDig, gave the Reflecta good marks, alas the Reflecta is only available in the EU. 

Soon after, Pacific Image released the Primefilm 120 (PF120), a scanner that looked very similar to the Reflecta. There is clearly a shared manufacturer between the two scanners, plus another similar scanner, the Braun FS120. All three share an almost identical outer casing and probably internal componentry. All claim to deliver 3,200dpi resolution and operate with similar bundled software. It’s hard to tell who the OEM is, but the PF120 is made in Taiwan and Pacific Image is based in Taipei…

The Pacific Image PF120 Pro 

The PF120 is a fairly large unit. It’s not as big as the Plustek, but occupies a sizeable footprint on any modern desk. It will visually ruin your Jony Ive-inspired minimalist bespoke Broadsheet/Kinfolk low contrast rustic workspace, so get used to it. Nobody works that way, except for in architecture and interior design magazines, so don’t pretend to. 

Installation and setup is straight forward, with a software disk included (better dust off that optical drive). My plan was to bypass the included CyberView X software and use Hamrick’s VueScan, however the CyberView drivers are still required for the scanner to operate with VueScan.

Included Accessories

Included in the box is a 35mm strip holder, 35mm mounted slide holder and a 120 holder. Since I’d be scanning 120 to begin with, the 120 holder was of most interest to me. Disappointingly, the 120 holder is flimsy and fiddly plastic, particularly compared to Plustek’s robust film holders. It looks like Pacific Image put as much thought and effort into its design as Nokia did for the N-Gage. 

But what will be a deal breaker for many though is the length of the 120 film holder. The included holder is only long enough to accommodate two 6x6 frames. This is a bad; it is an almost unforgivable design oversight, as most 120 film sleeves accommodate strips of three 6x6 frames. 

So, scanning your archives of three frame strips requires you unsleeve your film, cut one frame off and scan that one separately. This is a fiddly and time consuming process that is potentially damaging to your film. 

But wait, there’s [not] more. The most maddening part of this whole 120 holder thing is that some PF120s include a new and improved holder for three frame strips in the box! When I questioned Pacific Image on this, they said they would happily supply me with a three-strip holder for free. Yippee. The only catch, I would pay for the freight from Taiwan to Australia: AUD$100 (apparently after a 60% discount from TNT). 

After I’d finished laughing/crying, I told my new friends at Pacific Image that I could probably book a Jetstar fare to Taiwan for not much more and respectfully declined their ‘free’ holder. Luckily, it’s available at B&H for a whole lot less [edit - Jetstar doesn’t fly to Taipei, but I reckon $1000 would easily get me a return fare with another carrier, plus I’ve always wanted to visit Taiwan]. I am yet to purchase a three frame holder, but it will make my life much easier. 

Thankfully the 35mm holders are sensibly designed and accommodate up to six frames at a time. The 35mm strip holder is very solid plastic is actually much better than the Nikon Coolscan equivalent. Happy days.

Software(s)

Every scanner has a learning curve. Whether it’s due to software or hardware, getting good results from a scanner takes time and patience. On this count, the PF120 is no different. Luckily we’re not into film photography because of its instantaneous turnaround. 

I began my PF120 adventure using the bundled CyberView software. Like most scanning software, CyberView’s interface is about as aesthetically pleasing as an AU Falcon Forte. Functionally-speaking it’s worse, with important controls hidden. Want to change critical settings like output format or save location? Oh they’re off over there somewhere, hiding in a sub-menu’s sub-tab like a UI Christopher Skase.

That said, the results from CyberView X are perfectly serviceable. While you can get quite a bit more out of the scanner with the right software, CyberView is easy to use. If you like pressing one button and achieving satisfactory results with the bare minimum of effort, then CyberView is the scanning software for you.

With 3rd Party Software

Most users of this scanner will be looking for a more controlled scanning experience. By and large, Hamrick’s VueScan provides one. Even though VueScan is a complex and unwieldy beast, most of the controls and settings are named appropriately and located in semi-logical places.

If you’re a cashed-up masochist, the scanner is also compatible with Lasersoft’s obscurantist Silverfast suite. For some reason, Lasersoft believes the best way to distribute software in this day and age of universal OS $1.99 apps is to charge over AUD$650 for a single licence valid for one scanner. Yep, a single scanner. 

Bought Silverfast for another scanner? Too bad, so sad. It won’t work on your new scanner; you must buy another licence. Thankfully the folks (volk?) at Lasersoft are generous enough to offer you “crossgrade” pricing, so if you already own Silverfast for a Nikon Coolscan 9000ED, you only have to pay a very reasonable AUD$455 for the privilege of using their antediluvian suite. Bargain!

That said, after battling Silverfast’s horrible interface (as your can see, it gives Sonique a run for its money in the aesthetic value stakes…I mean, an aeroplane icon to indicate something called “WorkflowPilot”? WTaF?), it does deliver the goods. Its out-of-the-box colour negative scans - the most difficult type of film to get accurate colours from - are excellent.

But it’s expensive and not intuitive at all to use, as you can see above. Simple commands like turning on dust removal, require you to push the button that indicates it, revealing the associated menu on the left instead of the normal UI thing which is to have an on/off switch and be done with it. The top menu bar is also a mess, with the “Auto CCR” and “Scan” buttons featuring a little arrow on their bottom right corners that would normally indicate a drop down menu, alas there are no drop down menus, only the pain of pressing the wrong button and getting stuck with a four minute preview scan.

Below are samples from each piece of software with default settings and no adjustments, except for resizing. The photograph was taken on a Hasselblad 503CX on Portra 400. As you can see, each scan has its own quirks: Silverfast (demo watermarking aside) is a perfectly pleasant image, while VueScan’s is very blue (something that always seems to afflict VueScan scans, but can be easily rectified). CyberView’s is also perfectly good for an out-of-the-box scan.

Silverfast (demo version)

VueScan

CyberView X

My Workflow 

I use VueScan to capture a 16-bit linear raw TIFF file and convert it to a positive image using the brilliant Photoshop plug-in ColorPerfect. VueScan might not deliver the best out-of-the-box scans, but when paired with ColorPerfect, it produces an excellent final image. It offers far more control than CyberView and is much, much cheaper than Silverfast. I’ll write another post focusing on my workflow later.

Image Quality

In short, the Pacific Image PF120 Pro delivers excellent results. I’m not going to spend my review scanning the ubiquitous USAF test chart, blathering on about maximum resolution and giving you many numbers that neither of us will understand, rather I’m going to present to you some scans, some comparisons plus an impression of the overall experience using the scanner.

The unit claims to achieve 3200 dpi resolution, but most scanners do not achieve their claimed numbers in real-world scanning. That said, dedicated film scanners usually come a heck of a lot closer to their claimed resolution than flatbed scanners. The Epson V700, for instance, claims a resolution of 6400 dpi but in reality achieves only 40% of that. I have no way of testing Pacific Image’s claim of 3200 dpi, but I can say that both the Reflecta MF5000 and Braun FS-120 achieved only slightly less than the claimed resolution.

120 Medium Format

The results with 120 film were of most interest to me, given my purchase of a Hasselblad 503CX. Overall, I am pleased with the amount of detail the PF120 Pro is able to extract from 120 films: colour negative, black & white and colour slide. Scanning at full resolution, the PF120 outputs a file approximately 7000x7000px, or about 48 megapixels.

Up close, they show tremendous detail, far ahead of what could be achieved with a flatbed scanner (such as an Epson V700). Where close up details turn to mush even with the best flatbed scanners, the PF120 easily resolves fine details such as film grain. The results could only be bettered by spending substantially more money on a Flextight or similar scanner.

Here’s a quick comparison between a V700 scan and a PF120 scan, note the impressive detail resolved by the dedicated film scanner. 

The key difference here is the ability of the PF120’s film holders to keep the film flat. Epson V700 users can buy all manner of optional extra film holders and utilise a variety of mounting techniques and achieve good results, but the fuss of all this extra effort makes a dedicated film scanner a worthwhile investment. 

35mm 

The results with 35mm were also pleasing. They show a good deal of sharpness and detail, outputting a file approximately 4500x3000px, about 13.7 megapixel. This is not as large as files output from a Nikon Coolscan 5000ED, but is adequate for most purposes. 

About the only way you could improve on these scans is by investing much more money in a Flextight or taking your chances with a second-hand Coolscan. The 35mm strip holder does an excellent job of keeping film flat, meaning excellent edge-to-edge sharpness and less fiddling when placing the film in the holder. 

Placing shorter strips (of three or less frames) is a bit frustrating, but it’s nothing cotton gloves and emulsion cleaner can’t fix. Scanning speed is pleasingly prompt. A full resolution scan with infrared cleaning took around 1:41 in VueScan. 

Issues 

This scanner is good, but it is not without its issues. A handful of times since owning it, the scanner (or something to do with the scanner) has locked up VueScan, forcing me to restart both the software and scanner. The PF120 has then proceeded not to work until booting up CyberView and re-calibrating it with that software. 

Another serious issue that terrified me, at least initially, was the appearance of banding on my scans [this has since become a permanent issue that requires a lengthy repair back in Taiwan – disappointing, but that’s life]. If you’ve read my Plustek Opticfilm 120 review, you’d know this was the seriously bad issue that afflicted that product, forcing me to return it and never speak of Plustek again.

I tried various scanning methods within VueScan to see if it affected the banding to no avail. Then I tried scanning the same frame using the bundled CyberView software. After re-calibrating the scanner with that software (that seems to be a required step when opening the software) and performing a scan, the banding seemed to disappear. I then tried the same frame with VueScan to find the banding no longer visible. Phew! In short, it seems that if you have a scanning issue using VueScan, try reconfiguring the scanner using CyberView, then go back to your software suite of choice. 

(Interim) Conclusion

Here’s the bit you’ve skipped to if you’re in a rush, time poor or just plain lazy. In short, the Pacific Image PF120 Pro scanner is a good piece of hardware that delivers excellent results. The film scanner market isn’t exactly flush with options, so it is good to see a unit produce decent results at a reasonable price. 

When compared to the other brand-new available option, the more expensive Plustek Opticfilm 120, the Pacific Image PF120 performs admirably. The Plustek Opticfilm 120 is better on paper in almost all respects, but it is not $1000 better. Nor is Plustek’s quality control up to standard. Until this is rectified (or officially acknowledged) it’s hard to recommend the Plustek. 

The PF120 doesn’t meet the very high standard of the Nikon Coolscan 5000ED, but it comes surprisingly close. Nikon Coolscans (both the 5000ED and medium format-capable 9000ED) have a well-deserved reputation for image quality, but given the age of even the newest units available on eBay (probably 5-6 years) and the lack of ongoing software and hardware support for the units from Nikon, buying a second hand Coolscan can be an expensive crap shoot. I know I’d rather sink less money into a slightly less capable scanner, one with ongoing manufacturer’s support and spend the rest on film, film and more film.

I’m satisfied with my PF120. Sure the medium format film holders are shit, the bundled software is mediocre and the instruction manual is only slightly more substantial than a sheet of duplexed A4 paper, but it works. Once you find your workflow, the scanner is capable of excellent results.

The Good

  • Reasonably priced, especially compared to the competition
  • Capable of excellent results (with the right software and a bit of patience)
  • Solid construction
  • Good 35mm film holders 

The Bad 

  • Embarrassingly bad 120 film holders 
  • Included software is unintuitive and ugly 
  • Requires extra software (at a cost) for better results
  • BANDING!!! ARGGHGHGHGHGHGHGHHHH (since rectified, although it did take a few weeks)
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