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Is ICE worth the price?

The alphabet soup of scanning technology can help you rescue old images.

As flatbed and film scanners get cheaper and easier to use, emphasis has shifted toward ways to extract maximum image quality. Artists, designers, and photographers can use Adobe Photoshop’s many tools to clean up old or damaged images, but an even better way is to let the scanner do the work for you.

Many of the more useful scanning technologies for accomplishing these goals come from Austin-based Applied Science Fiction. The company does not sell products bearing its name, but rather licenses its hardware and software to original equipment manufacturers to build into their products. One of ASF’s most useful inventions is Digital Image Correction and Enhancement (ICE) technology for color and defect correction; scanner companies such as Acer, Minolta, and Nikon have build it into their scanners.

Using Digital ICE, you can quickly restore images that might have previously been unusable because of fading, image density, or scratches. Digital ICE technology has three separate and distinct functions.

Digital ICE automatically removes surface defects without affecting the original image. During the typical scanning process, red, green, and blue data is gathered through RGB channels, but Digital ICE adds a fourth “D” channel to collect defect information. Most dust and scratch algorithms soften the original image to hide defects, but Digital ICE uses information about the nature and location of surface and near-surface defects to accomplish this goal without turning your photographs into mush. My scans of 30-year-old slides showed the effectiveness of Digital ICE; I leave it permanently turned on even though it slightly slows the scanning process. Digital ICE can be used with both film and flatbed scanners.

Over time, the dyes in color films fade from the effects of storage conditions, including temperature, humidity, and exposure to light. Fading is not always uniform, and can affect highlights, midtones, and shadows in different ways. Digital Reconstruction of Color (ROC) is tuned to the characteristics of specific scanners and uses proprietary algorithms to identify “clues” in the original image to reconstruct colors in film or prints and automatically restore original color data. Digital ROC is available for film and flatbed scanners.

Photographic grain consists of silver halide crystals in film’s light-sensitive emulsion and is a subjective measure of visible clumping of these crystals. During scanning, Digital Grain Equalization Management (GEM) uses another set of proprietary algorithms to read film grain and extract data related to image quality, color, and sharpness in much the same way Digital ICE corrects surface defects. The resulting image is sharp and clear, without apparent graininess. Digital GEM can be configured to allow users to control the specific amount of grain left in images for aesthetic purposes. Digital GEM is only available for film scanners.

The Digital ICE3 imaging suite is the combination of all three technologies, and it eliminates scratches on scans from negatives or slides, restores accurate color, and minimizes grain during the scanning process.

Out here in the real world

While testing the Nikon Coolscan IV ED film scanner for COMPUTERUSER, I scanned some new slides with Digital ICE3 turned on. I thought the images looked pretty good, but being a skeptic, I digitized the same slides using an Epson Expression 1680 flatbed with a transparency unit. The scans made with the Epson scanners looked better due in part to its more usable dynamic range, better color correction, and LaserSoft’s Silverfast 5.5 software. Making scans of older slides on the Coolscan IV ED with Digital ICE3 showed me what it could do. Grain was minimized while dust specks were totally eliminated–saving retouching time.

Epson bundles the powerful Silverfast acquisition software with the Expression 1680 and, during my testing, LaserSoft announced a 5.5 update, which includes NegaFix capabilities for enhanced negative scanning. As I write this, the 5.5 update is not available for the Coolscan IV ED because Nikon does its negative/positive conversion within the hardware. A LaserSoft representative told me that “making a software change to that is taking a lot of work.” While I’m pondering the Epson vs. Digital ICE3 dilemma, Applied Science Fiction announced that Epson America has taken an equity position in ASF and the companies have executed a strategic alliance agreement to cooperate in the development of digital imaging technologies.

While digitizing negatives using Digital ICE3, ASF reminded me that Digital ROC and GEM are primarily designed to work on color film and suggest they “will not run on a grayscale image.” The suggested workaround is to scan the negative as a color image. Because of the grain structure, digitizing true silver-based black and white negatives with any scanner is a challenge. The bigger the grain gets, the more difficult it is to get a good scan using a typical desktop scanner.

Scanning chromogenic black-and-white film, such as Ilford XP2 Super (which uses dye instead of silver grains), is more of a slam-dunk because there’s no grain, just dye “clouds.” But I was able to make less grainy scans from Ilford’s Delta 400 silver-based black and white film with Digital GEM turned on. If you use Photoshop’s Magnifying Glass tool to enlarge the image, you’ll see odd crystalline patterns in large gray areas, but these aren’t noticeable on any 8-by-10-inch inkjet prints that I made. With portraits, I use the Classical Blur filter that’s part of Nik Multimedia’s Color Efex Pro package to smooth out this structure and make it nearly invisible on-screen.

My friend Bob Shell at Shutterbug magazine warned me that you can sometimes run into problems scanning Kodachrome slides because of the bas-relief nature of the film’s surface. He was right. With ICE3 fully active, it took nine minutes at 2,900dpi to scan a Kodachrome slide with the Nikon Coolscan IV ED and I ended up with a soft-looking digital image. Bob’s suggestion is to scan the slide twice; one with ICE3 on and again with it off and place the two scans on top of one another in Photoshop Layers and merge the best of both images together.

With Digital ICE3, you can restore images that might have previously been completely unusable because of fading, bad exposure, dust, dirt, or scratches. If you think this is marketing hype, all you have to do is make comparison scans between scanners that don’t have Digital ICE3 and those that do. Scans of my own old slides convinced me that if you plan on digitizing older film-and chances are that you’re going to do this sooner or later once you purchase a scanner–you should only consider scanners offering Digital ICE3. Some scanners that offer one or more of the ASF technologies include the Acer ScanWit 2740S; Minolta’s Dimage Scan Elite, Scan Elite II, and Dimage Scan Multi II; and Nikon’s Coolscan 4000 ED, Super CoolScan ED, Coolscan II, and Super Coolscan 2000.

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