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The SmartScan 3600 film scanner.

The protracted transition from film to digital photography has left many photographers with a need to turn their film images into digital files. Many flatbed scanners have film holders/illuminators, but most do a mediocre job with film, and manufacturers have filled this void with film scanners ranging from under $200 to $3,000. I took a look at a couple of 35mm models in the sub-$1,000 range: a 2900 dpi Nikon CoolScan IV ED and a 3600 dpi SmartScan 3600 from SmartDisk, (also available as the PrimeFilm 3600PRO, from Pacific Image Electronics). This month is the SmartScan 3600’s turn; later I’ll examine the CoolScan IV.

On paper, the SmartScan 3600 has a lot going for it. At a street price as low as $383 as I write, it has the highest resolution in this class and claims a dynamic range of 3.6–very good. In addition to accepting mounted slides (including a couple of plastic mounts for handling single frames of film), it features automatic loading and scanning of film strips from three frames to an entire roll of 35mm (APS is not supported), and has both FireWire and USB 1.0 interfaces. Besides its CyberView 35 scanner driver/plug-in, which provides many capture and imaging options, the SmartScan bundles a full version of the excellent Adobe Photoshop Elements image-editing program. It also includes trial versions of a couple of slick photo-enhancement plug-ins from Applied Science Fiction. All the software is both PC and Mac compatible (including Mac OS X, but CyberView has to run in Classic mode; I did all my testing while booted in Mac OS 9.2.2). The scanner comes with a very thin hardware manual, covering little more than basic installation; more thorough PDF manuals are on CD for all the software.

If you have a lot of film to scan, be prepared to devote a lot of time and disk space. Even with the FireWire interface, a 3,600dpi scan of a single image takes 2 1/2 minutes on my Mac G4/500MP–double that for the USB interface–and creates a 50MB file (unless compressed). Lower resolutions are proportionately quicker and smaller, and at 1,200dpi and below, USB seems as fast as FireWire. While slides must be scanned singly, the filmstrip feeder lets you do unattended previews and scans, at least up to the length of the strip.

Unfortunately, you must preview an entire strip of film (at up to a minute or so per frame) if you want to scan a frame other than the one on either end. Another irritant is that (at least on my Mac) I have to close the CyberView window before I can do anything with the image(s) imported into Photoshop, and reloading it is a 20-second proposition.

Scan quality is good and the SmartScan’s autofocus worked well, though I found the images a bit soft. This can be improved with one of three sharpening levels in CyberView or with some Unsharp Masking in Photoshop–the latter provides much more control. I don’t have a densitometer to measure dynamic range, but I couldn’t detect any loss in highlight and shadow detail from the several slides I scanned, and the claimed range of 3.6 seems reasonable. Unfortunately, the scanner showed up very fine scratches on my black-and-white film. This, plus the inevitable dust spots, made me wish for another of ASF’s nifty tools: Digital ICE, which effectively eradicates flaws on the surfaces of a slide or negative. Unfortunately, this has to be implemented in scanner hardware, not just a plug-in, and the SmartScan doesn’t have it. In any case, it doesn’t work with standard black-and-white negatives, so I think the only solution for my problem negatives may be further work in Photoshop.

But that’s a subject for next time.

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