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The State of Film Scanning

not dead yet

in Scanning , Saturday, November 28, 2015

Prompted by a number of queries both in comments here and more frequently by email, and also by a very well written article on the Plustek OpticFilm 120 scanner, I have decided to write up my feeling on the current state of film scanning.

Xpan norway1506 2 09

First up, an appeal: people, please manage your expectations. Seriously. Film scanning is now right on the edge of a niche within a niche market - film photography - which is either small but stable, or still dwindling, depending on who you believe, and if you consider “Lomography” to be a genuine component of this market (I don’t). Film scanning requires a combination of a complex opto-electronic-mechanical device together with high specialised and complex software. And customers - well, the few that exist - are demanding a perfect solution at an increasingly low cost. Frankly it’s astonishing that any enterprises still find a viable business model in this space. And then when you narrow it down even more to medium format film scanning, it gets crazy.

Please correct my if I’m wrong, but I believe there are three current manufacturers of MF film scanners: Plustek, Reflecta, and Hasselblad. The Reflecta scanners are badge-engineered versions of a white-label device built in Taiwan and sold under several labels, including Pacific Imaging. The Hasselblad scanners are so mind-blowingly expensive that it is hard to imagine them having any customers other than major media companies or very well-funded public institutions. Which leaves Plustek. I don’t really know a lot about Plustek the company, but my impression is of a small but enthusiastic company in a very small pool, not unlike Cosina with rangefinder cameras - oh, wait.

Fifteen years ago the story was very, very different. There were at least 5 manufacturers active in desktop MF film scanners alone (Nikon, Minolta, Polaroid, Microtek, Imacon), with new models and innovations appearing regularly. Add to this several others producing 35mm models only (including Canon and Plustek), and you had a healthy market at a range of price points. There are of course still secondhand models to be found, but the prices tend to be insane, there is mostly no servicing or repair available, and people tend to hang on to scanners that work properly. As said before, these are complex, delicate devices, subject to considerable wear, and don’t last for ever. And drivers compatible with latest operating systems are unlikely to be found. So realistically, you need to rule out the second hand market if you’re planning on staying in film scanning for the foreseeable future. Note, there is another path, which is to buy a second-hand drum scanner. These formerly insanely expensive devices, found only in Pre-Press shops, can now be acquired for something close to a pittance. But wait - they are very complex to install, maintain, and operate, requiring specialist knowledge which is hard to find even on the internet. They are very large, very heavy, and very cumbersome. And as for software - usually dongle protected through something like Apple ADB - forget about compatibility with anything released after around 2005. At the latest. Some brave souls offer bespoke scanning services using these monsters. If you want the ultimate quality, because they really are very, very good, you could go in that direction.

Note though, Tim Parkin, who runs the above linked drum-scanning service, reviewed the Plustek OpticFilm 120 (paywalled), and had this to say (I’m quoting very selectively here): “What’s quite surprising is how good the Opticfilm 120 is compared with the Howtek (4500 Drum Scanner)”, and “The Opticfilm 120 is undoubtedly a very good scanner and if the film holder and focus issues can be addressed this should give results that are dramatically better than the Epson V750 and potentially on a par with the Nikon 9000”. This, with the caveats that he modified the film holder to use two glass inserts to hold the film flat, and that he stated he would not buy an OF 120 with the existing film holders.

This is a real shame, because Plustek clearly put a huge amount of thought and resources into the film holders, which are the best I’ve ever seen, better even than Minolta’s, and provided no fewer than 7 different types with the scanner. It is quite baffling why they do not provide, or at least sell, glass film holders, as based on Tim’s tests, this would elevate the scanner from “best of a poor bunch” to “best desktop film scanner ever”. It may be possible to hack together a holder or two, buying spares and anti-Newton glass inserts, but I’m really not very good at that stuff, not to mention lazy and impatient. Oh, and ugly. Finally, another caveat on the OF 120 is that your chances of getting a glitch-free copy seem to hover around 50%. My first one had a stuck pixel or two in the Infrared channel, and went back for servicing (a total hassle in Switzerland, where Plustek has no official distribution, which is not unusual for small companies, as we’re a small country and not in the EU - but the retailer, Heiniger AG, was very helpful, and eventually I got a brand new scanner). At least we see there the benefits of a warranty and active production.

So, that’s the hardware. The Plustek OpticFilm 120 is, in my opinion (based on 20 years of film scanning), the least-worst choice for a new desktop film scanner. Note, I’ve never tried the Reflecta MF–5000, but the German film scanner info site prefers it over the OF 120. I think they got exasperated with the OF 120’s glitches. To me the Reflecta looks a little clumsy, especially the 35mm holder, and I’m not sure it can scan XPan panoramic format, a must for me. As for the Hasselblad X1/X5, even hiring one for half a day is horrendously expensive. And they don’t even have dust / scratch removal.

Now, the software. And again, we need to manage our expectations here. I’m a Silverfast (by Lasersoft) user, and have been for a very long time. I’m under no illusions that Silverfast is perfect - it is software, after all - but I do believe it delivers the best combination of scan quality and workflow efficiency. Note, you do need to consider the software/hardware combination together. It is possible that for other combinations, you’ll get different results. However, Lasersoft are closely involved with the initial and ongoing development of the OpticFilm 120, to the extent that it has a Silverfast badge on the front, and the shipping box is dominated by Silverfast PR. So, I expect that if Silverfast is going to be optimal for any scanner, it’s this one.

Silverfast was stuck on Version 6.x for many years. It had grown into a bit of a monster, with newer features seemingly bolted on at random, and it was crippled, on the Mac, by being based on PowerPC APIs. It ran under Rosetta, but when Apple dropped that as fast as they could (typical a***h*le behaviour from Cupertino), we were stuck. It took Lasersoft a long time to respond, in the light of the parallel dramatic downturn in demand for scanning solutions, but eventually they delivered the completely reengineered Version 8. Well, v8 is still idiosyncratic - it wouldn’t be Silverfast otherwise - but in my opinion, the current v8.5 is their best ever.

A lot of people complain about Silverfast. Now, I’ll admit to long-term user bias, but I’m not fan boy. I’ve been using Apple kit since 1990, and I’m certainly no Apple apologist. I also have professional UX/UI Design experience, and I’m neither known for my willingness to compromise, nor to suffer fools gladly. But given all this, and agreeing that Silverfast has a bit of a learning curve, I cannot understand why people are so critical of it. It makes a very complicated set of tasks, i.e reliably capturing an image imprinted as a positive or negative on a physical transparency, into an optimal, accurate, colour-managed digital copy quite easy. It’s colour editing tools are far superior to Photoshop, when considered specifically for film scanning, although probably the subset of users which can understand and benefit from this is also getting smaller. Yes, it requires some learning time. So does Photoshop. Yes, the documentation for v8 is crap. So is Photoshop CC’s. It’s an industry trend, you don’t get manuals any more (but with a small outlay, you can buy Mark Segal’s excellent guide). Lasersoft customer support is included in the price. It’s a bit haphazard, and trying to find the link to submit a question through the web page is a stroke-inducing experience, but if instead you use the “Request Online Support” feature in the application, you get a very quick response. The heavily moderated forum is a marketing disaster area in my opinion, and it is really frustrating to see what, frankly, seems to be team of dedicated, approachable and responsive people making such an unholy mess of promoting themselves. But, baseline, Silverfast works, and works well, and if you invest a little time into understanding it’s more advanced features, you might well be surprised at how much it can do.

It would not be fair to not mention the alternatives to Silverfast. Well, realistically, there’s only one: VueScan. Yes, Reflecta has its proprietary CyberView (not terribly good apparently), and there are long lost options like Binuscan (a seriously weird product). But now there is only VueScan. I’ve had a few public run-ins with Vuescan here, and indeed one of those articles is, to my astonishment, the most visited of all my posts. For some scanners, VueScan is the only option under modern operating systems, and it is certainly the case that you can obtain equally good results with Vuescan in your workflow as with Silverfast, but in my opinion, and experience, it’s more cumbersome, much more hit & miss, and requires a lot more post-processing. But, doubtless, if you’ve used VueScan for many years you’ll be comfortable with it, and you’ll find Silverfast weird. VueScan costs less money than Silverfast, that’s an undeniably fact. Allegedly VueScan also has good customer support. This is debatable - if VueScan’s sole owner, designer, programmer, marketer and support guy, Ed Hamrick, takes a dislike to you, you’re screwed, despite being happy to take your money. Unfortunately Ed is a little cranky. Clearly he is also to commended for his Herculean efforts, but then again, if tomorrow he decides to retire, where does that leave VueScan?

On top of all this, people who say VueScan is easier (or even easy) to use must be living on a different planet - the one the user interface was designed on. Working out how to tell it where you want to save a scan to is complicated enough, but say you want to color calibrate your scanner: in Silverfast, you do this: load the calibration slide, press IT8 calibrate. That’s it. In VueScan: in Input menu, set “Profile Scanner”. Load the calibration slide. Preview. On the internet, find your calibration slide reference data file. Download it. In Color Menu, under Scanner IT8 data, press the “@“ button (which in Vuescan apparently means “file path”), located the downloaded file. Use another “@“ button to tell it where to save the profile. Press Scan. Oh, that’s it! (probably). And all that profile stuff hides in the same menu where you can set colour balance using crude sliders. Ok, I’m not saying none of this stuff works. Clearly, it does. But people saying that VueScan is “easier to use” ? Give me a break - cheaper, yes. Wider scanner compatibility, yes. Good enough output, certainly. But easier to use - well, possibly it’s a more satisfying challenge for digital imaging geeks, but for people for whom scanning is necessary evil on the path to getting good prints, I’m very doubtful.

VueScan SF menus

The File Output menus in VueScan (left) and Silverfast (right).  I know which one I find more intuitive. Of course neither follow anything approach OS UI guidelines, for no good reason I can see.

Of course it is all highly subjective. The upside is that we have two very competent competing solutions in the market. The downside is that commercial realities impose compromises on both.

So, to the people who’ve been mailing me in the past, and those who will do so in the future, all I can tell you is make your own choices, but be grateful you still have choices to make. Buying a software license for Vuescan or Silverfast is not just giving you access to the software, but encouraging the respective makers to continue. Same for hardware - Plustek and Reflecta (and clones) still make new, up to date film scanners for 35mm and Medium Format. Buying one gets you new hardware, a warranty, and customer support. And the right to nag their marketing teams to do better. Given the state of the film photography market, I’d say things are in better shape than we might have expected a few years back.

 

The Failing Scanner Blues

down in the groove

in Scanning , Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Woke up this morning
Stumbled out of bed
Tried to make a 48 bit HDR scan
But my scanner would not be led

Tried to fire up Vuescan
Gave Dimage Scan a chance
But even good ol’ Silverfast
Couldn’t make that scanner dance

When halfway through my scan
The thread it seems to lose
Yeah, I’m stuck down here in Memphis*
With the Failing Scanner Blues

* well ok, Lugano, but that’s not very Blues.


Yep, my 13 year old Minolta Dimage Scan MultiPro has started having senior moments.  Part way through a scan, or even a preview, it just gives up and decides it’s done quite enough.  The software’s left in limbo. Vuescan looks round in confusion, Silverfast, naturally, locks up, and Dimage Scan wonders why the hell I’ve woken it up after a 5 year nap.

This isn’t good news. Received knowledge over at the MultiPro Yahoo Group is that it is probably a symptom of a failing Firewire controller, apparently a known ageing issue with these scanners.  And it probably can’t be fixed. Apparently a company in Germany called RTC Solutions can sometimes fix Konica Minolta scanners, but they’re not answering my email. Probably on holiday. Or stuck at the Gotthard Tunnel with most of Germany.

The MultiPro also has a SCSI interface, which apparently is much more robust.  I believe I last used it around 2005, which would have been when my last SCSI-equipped Mac caught fire just after I’d sold it.  One can in theory use a Firewire to SCSI converter, but these went out of production some 4 years ago, and sell on eBay for $Stupid. And of course Apple have killed off Firewire as well, so that’s not much of a long term solution.  Possibly I could find a Firewire PCIe card which might work in my Mac Pro, and which might then hook up to the scanner, but even then, since I have to use an old version of Silverfast running on a semi-retired laptop (version 8 doesn’t support the MultiPro), if all that unlikely chain worked, I’d still lose my Silverfast workflow. Vuescan would work, but well, it’s not really my first choice.

Things are looking grim on the Medium Format film-scanning front (and not much better on 35mm). There were basically 3 good MF film scanners all launched around 2000: The Polaroid 120 (and Microtek clone), the Nikon Coolscan 8000/9000 and the Minolta MultiPro.  There is some debate over which of the Coolscan 9000 and the MultiPro is better, but there’s not a lot in it. They’re both excellent.  However, the Multipro is half the size & weight of the Nikon, and scans XPan format at 4800dpi rather than 4000dpi. For general MF use, however, the Nikon offers 4000dpi over the Minolta’s 3200.  Of course all of these are out of production, and thanks to Sony’s acquisition of Konica Minolta’s photographic activities, even the statutory period for spares and servicing was ignored.

Today, there are actually two MF scanners available new. The Reflecta MF5000 (and several clones with different labels, such as Pacific Imaging), which isn’t terribly exciting, and the Plustek 120, which in theory is interesting, but has received mixed reviews, to put it politely.  In any case, even a glitch-free Plustek 120 would seem to be inferior to the Minolta MultiPro, a 15-year old design! And you can even find new copies of the Nikon Coolscan 9000, if you’ve got more money than sense.

And of course there are the outrageously expensive Hasselblad Flextight X5 & X1. Sadly I have no grandmothers left to sell. And anyway, they’re don’t even have dust removal - and, reportedly, the MultiPro delivers results almost as good.

MultiPros and Coolscans on eBay fetch prices way in excess of their original retail, and who knows how much life they have in them ? I can hardly complain about my Minolta, it has given over a decade of faithful service, which isn’t bad for an electro-optical-mechanical device.

So I’m left looking at a set of unattractive options: try to patch up the Minolta for a while yet; buy a modern but expensive, slow and less performant Plustek scanner; try to find a secondhand replacement Minolta or Nikon which doesn’t require a kidney to raise the funds.  Or rent a Hasselbad X5, 250km away in Zürich, every now and again, for CHF 300 / hour. Or give up on film.


Meanwhile, while I’ve been writing this, the MultiPro has just managed to get from one end of a scan to another without losing the plot, and delivered this:

Xpan antarctica05 10b hdr

Not (quite) dead yet ?

Really clutching at straws, I’ve ordered a new Firewire 400 cable (yes, even these are special order now, abet $0.50 from the USA). If that fixes it, I’ll be on the phone to the Vatican.

 

 

 

Vuescan is NOT struggling

The other side of the coin

in Scanning , Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Following my recent tirade against Vuescan, Ed Hamrick, the creator and publisher of the application, took the time to defend his point of view rather than just completely ignoring me. It’s only fair to reproduce his message in full:

Hi David,

So, apparently my posting on SilverFast struck a nerve? Business isn’t bean-bag - and competition can be brutal. Yes, I know it offends the sensitive :) but that’s life.

If you’re vaguely interested, VueScan isn’t struggling.  My free upgrade offer is going strongly, and I’m selling $3M per year of VueScan licenses.  It’s a good business.

And you dismiss the one-line comments people make about SilverFast.  It’s actually quite interesting.  Every one of the comments in the list of 1000 comments came from someone
who had actual experience using SilverFast and instead deciced to buy VueScan.  People really, really dislike SilverFast - it’s hard to use, the bizarre three-letter and four letter acronyms aren’t helpful, the blizzard of icons in the user interface are non-intuitive, and they’re really dumb with their pricing.

I actually read the comments, and personally pay very close attention to my user’s criticisms of VueScan.  I answer every e-mail from a customer personally.

I get approached all the time with bundling offers.  Plustek wrote to me last week to get pricing for a bundling deal.  They’ve approached me every year for 4 years They don’t like SilverFast either.  However, bundling is a stupid business strategy and I don’t do it.  I might offer free bundling to Plustek just to help drive LaserSoft out of business, but LaserSoft really isn’t much of a competitor.

And yes, most of the scanner market is well-served by MFP’s.

My web site doesn’t push VueScan Mobile at all - it’s below the fold and only comes up if you come to the page from an iPhone or iPad.

You’d be amazed how many grateful letters I get every day from people saying thanks that they don’t have to use SilverFast any more.

You ask why I have the free upgrade offer?  It’s simple, it’s a way to help drive LaserSoft out of business. That’s why I’m considering offering free bundling deals to anyone currently bundling SilverFast.

At least your review of VueScan was somewhat fair (although you made some trivially simple mistakes because you were hell-bent on finding problems).  You might also try a shorter USB cable.  Many of the cables shipped with Minolta scanners have gone bad over the years and problems with high-speed programs (like VueScan) can be solved with a new USB cable.  SilverFast 6 doesn’t have
these problems because they’re using Rosetta because they’re a PowerPC application and slow (and come on, Intel Macs were released 6 years ago).

Some guy named Erik Vlietinck at it-enquirer.com , who’s a complete witless incompetent, made a review of VueScan vs. SilverFast where he claimed that VueScan did a preview at half the speed of SilverFast.  When I posted a comment that perhaps he was using a higher resolution
preview than VueScan, and that he could solve this with the “Input | Preview resolution” option, he deleted my comment to his review and deleted my user name.  What a weasel.

Let’s see if you have the balls to post my response.  I doubt that you do :)

Regards,
Ed Hamrick

I don’t really want to get into a further argument here. I probably went over the top in my original post, but I was genuinely annoyed at what seemed to be, at least to some extent, a serious and unprovoked case of a pot calling a kettle black…  So, I’m feeling a bit guilty, but I’m used to it.

But one thing I will say: I didn’t go out of my way to try to find fault with Vuescan. If it worked better for me than Silverfast, well, I’m not going to cut my nose off to spite my face.  But it didn’t.  I’d say they’ve both reached the boundary of what can be achieved at this level.  It must add that Ed misunderstood my connection issue - it was the Canoscan that Vuescan couldn’t find, not the Minolta. True, I didn’t put any effort into debugging it, but then again, with Silverfast it just works and always has.

Finally it comes down to individual preferences, and I’m more comfortable with Silverfast. But… consider that I chose Olympus over Canikon, Mac over PC, Aperture over Lightroom ... I tend not to go with the flow. Vuescan is vastly popular and by all accounts deserves to be.  But neither Silverfast, nor the Laserscan people, are the Evil Empire.  There’s a fine line between marketing and dishonesty, and few companies can truly say they’ve never, ever crossed it.

I don’t want Lasersoft to be driven out of business. I’ve spent years using and learning how to get the most out of the software, and for me it is ultra-reliable and enjoyable to use.  So, hopefully, Ed can enjoy his well earned $3M and leave the scraps to the competition… and let naive idiots like me subsidize them.

 

Why is Vuescan struggling ?

Worth what you pay for it ?

in Unsolicited, rabid opinions , Tuesday, August 23, 2011

August 2014: Apparently this post is the most popular on my site. And by far. Which is a bit sad for both of us.  I’m tempted to take it down, but I’ll leave it for historical interest. Maybe you’ve come here to observe a bit of wild-eyed flaming of Ed Hamrick and Vuescan. Well, enjoy, but please note it is water well under the bridge, indeed we can’t even see the bridge any more. Ed & I had an email conversation and it all ended up perfectly amicable even if we agreed to disagree.  These days I sometimes use Vuescan. I took some time to understand it better, I managed to calibrate it, and when my scanner, or Silverfast, causes problems, it’s always useful to be able to fall back on Vuescan for issue solving. And if your workflow would be to take uncorrected linear gamma scans direct into Photoshop, for some reason Vuescan’s 48bit output is much more malleable than Silverfast’s 48bit “HDR”. Oh, and you might also like to see Ed’s original riposte.


Earlier today, I came across a piece of negative marketing of a type which always irritates me. This was from Ed Hamrick, of Hamrick Software, author of Vuescan, offering Silverfast users a free upgrade to Vuescan Pro if they promise never to use Silverfast again and to send him their Silverfast serial number. This is already sounding ethically dubious, and possibly worse, but then he goes on to roundly rip Silverfast to pieces, while saying what a nice guy Karl-Heinz Zahorsky, the CEO and founder of LaserSoft is. All this under the strawman banner “Why is LaserSoft struggling ?”

Now, as far as I know, LaserSoft has never engaged in such tactics. It promotes its own wares, sometimes well, sometimes less so, but it never, ever rubbishes the competition. Hamrick then follows up with a gratuitous analysis of LaserSoft’s “problems” and an “unedited list” of more than 1000 largely illiterate one-liner comments of converts to Vuescan, the majority of which seem to have very little clue of what they’re talking about - and Hamrick knows it. Frankly, these people are not Silverfast’s customer base.

Hamrick goes on to pick apart various aspects of Silverfast, and Lasersoft. Now, Lasersoft sure aren’t perfect, but if you’re going to start slinging mud, you’d better make sure of your target.  A few choice examples:

Anyone who primarly does reflective scans can buy a good printer/scanner/copier for $100, and anyone still scanning film can use the Epson V700 to do this

Sure, Ed. You’re right, and pretty much every reasonably experienced film photographer in the world is wrong. The V700 is ok. In fact, for large format it’s probably the only reasonable option. But for optimal 35mm scans ? Come on!!  And this “anyone still scanning film” ... well, yeah. Guess what. They’re using Silverfast. 

Let’s see what a in-depth review of the V700 has to say:  “Finally one can say that the Epson Perfection V700 Photo is good for digitizing normal vacation pictures and similar images even directly from the film. For applications without professional requirements the scanner is very well suitable. Professionals, whom the V700 actually addresses with the possibility to scan medium formats and large formats, won’t however be satisfied with the picture quality”.  I think I’ll skip Ed’s advice on this one.

This leads to a dilemma - the market for the scanners SilverFast supports is shrinking rapidly, and even the least expensive printer/scanner/copiers are more than good enough for 99% of reflective scanning.

Well, Hamrick may believe that “printer/scanner/copiers are more than good enough for 99% of reflective scanning”. So what ? Silverfast is designed for photographers and pre-press. Possibly there little ROI in providing a cheap enough version for casual users of all-in-one, Walmart special offer copiers. 

What can LaserSoft do, other than try to reduce costs by laying off engineers and delay new product development? It’s been 5 years since Intel Macs were introduced, and LaserSoft still hasn’t released a universal binary version of SilverFast.

Again, so what ? First, how does Hamrick know so much about LaserSoft’s business ? If they are reducing costs, they’re hardly alone.  As for the Universal Binary, up until recently it has been of no use.  LaserSoft, correctly, point out that scan times and limited by scanner performance.  So post processing may be a touch faster with a Universal Binary, but frankly I’m not convinced.  This is really typical software geekery.

The majority of LaserSoft revenues used to come from bundled software sales

I believe it still does

Epson Scan is better than SilverFast

Totally unsubstantiated wild claim. Epson Scan is better than Vuescan!!!

Canon sells many more printer/scanner/copiers than high-end flatbed scanners

Yes, Ed, you’ve made it clear that you’ve missed the point. Stop digging.

Plustek and Reflecta scanners aren’t very good

Really. Why do you support them then ? And pro photographers such as Mark Segal beg to differ. Have they turned down your bundling offer ?

VueScan is a 5 MByte download, SilverFast 8 is a 170 MByte download

Well yes… but that does include the video guides and documentation. Documentation, Ed. Heard of it ? I haven’t downloaded Silverfast 8 yet, but Silverfast 6 is around 25Mb. Bigger than Vuescan, yes, but there’s quite a lot more in it.

It goes on, and quite frankly is astonishing. Did Zahorsky run over his dog or something ?  But anyway, we finally get on to this little claim:

VueScan produces better scans

Well, now I’m listening. Especially as I’m a licensed Vuescan user. I gave up at around version 5, where the appaling UI and bizarre behaviour finally drove me away. So let’s see if Version 9 has improve things. Honestly, if it gives better results, I’m not proud.

The Test

So, I downloaded Vuescan 9, although I had a bit of trouble getting past a website which insisted on pushing “Vuescan Mobile” at me. Let the customer decide, Ed, please.

First impressions were pretty familiar. It’s still got a design only a geek could love, full of weird UI elements and oddities. But at least they line up and the labels don’t overflow any more.

First run: although it did find my networked multi-mode printer/scanner, it failed to find my USB connected Canoscan 9000F. After a relaunch, it found my Minolta film scanner as well. It never did find the Canon. Probably because it’s not a “printer/scanner/copier”.

I went to pick up my old serial code, and entered it. It didn’t work, but that was just a guess really, because I got no feedback. Ok, so I need to get an updated serial number. Fine. That worked, well enough, but the user experience has already deviated well away from smooth. I wonder if the average printer/scanner/copier user would have worked it out ?

Ok, fine. Let me at those awesome results.  I loaded up a slide.  And clicked on “Preview”.  And Vuescan, way off in a little corner, tells me it is “Calibrating”.  I wait for minute or so, then it shows Busy 0%, eventually after, 2 minutes or so it shows Busy 100%. This goes on for a while. It starts again: Busy 0 to 100% another 2-3 minutes. No attempt to tell me what is going on, and no attempt to show a standard system activity bar.  During this time the application is locked up. And then it starts again - busy 0%.  What is it doing, calibrating R, G & B channels ? No idea. Anyway, the claim of “speed” is already wearing thin. Nope, not RGB, because it’s started again. And again.

Finally, a dialog. Please insert the film holder. So I did. But the scanner does not grab it. There’s something not right here.  Everything locks up. Great. I shut down the scanner, force quit Vuescan. And try again. I’m tenacious.

It starts up again, can’t find the Minolta. Shut down. Starts up again, finds Minolta. Finally I get it do a prescan.  It contrives to make the usually quiet-ish Minolta sound like a garbage truck in a tin can factory. Very noisy AF, very noisy prescan and no faster than Silverfast.

The prescan area is too big, which reminds me I’ve always been very suspicious of Vuescan’s handling of the Minolta’s hi-res area (4800dpi for a 35mm strip, 3200 for 120 film).  Using the Scanhancer, it seems there’s no way to get a decent preview, which Silverfast has no trouble with.  Also, nothing approaching Silverfast’s tuning tools. Not even remotely. However, there is one big plus, potentially: the option to use Multi Exposure at the same time as Multi Scanning (which Lasersoft have always said is of little benefit).

Vuescan Preview

Vuescan preview

Silverfast preview

Silverfast preview


I eventually found the “advanced” settings. Not exactly intuitive, but well at least that’s consistent. And I get things set up as I want, and start a scan. Is it faster ? No, of course it isn’t: scan time is scanner limited. Output is very dark, very compressed histogram. However shadows are exceptionally clean - although later when I ran the same slide through Silverfast, it was equally good.

The UI remains exceedingly clunky and uninspiring, and if Silverfast 6 has its annoyances, VueScan just responds with a different set. Some things, for examplre setting preferences, are marginally more simple with Vuescan, but other things, for example prescan colour correction, or manual focus, are way, way worse.

Vuescan’s web site features testimonials from Smart Computing, PC World, Computer Shopper, Mac Guild, etc. Although to be fair Amateur Photographer praised it highly. But Silverfast features reviews by pro photographers such as Mark Segal (who was complimentray about the Plustec scanner which Hamrick dismisses), John Barclay, Timothy Grey, etc. No PC geeks here.

I could probably could make Vuescan work for me, especially if I invested in Sascha Steinhoff’s book.  Vuescan is not bad. For a casual user it’s a better investment than Silverfast, which in its consumer, dumbed down mode is too complex for the target market but also too light on features. VueScan is much cheaper. For advanced users it can also deliver scans just as good as Silverfast. Probably. But it will make you work much harder and it is missing all the refinements of Silverfast.  Generally I’d say there’s a pretty even split out there between Silverfast and Vuescan fans.

But it’s the negative, dishonest marketing that really leaves a bad taste. Another Hamrick quote is “they don’t ask for my advice, and free advice is worth what you pay for it”. Is a free Vuescan upgrade worth what you pay for it too ? So what is this Vuescan upgrade free ? Why such aggressive marketing ? Why is Vuescan struggling ?

I wouldn’t cut off my nose to spite my face if Vuescan really was better,  but the fact is I’ve had years of great results, friendly support and trouble free operation from Silverfast, and I’m not going to switch.  Silverfast has lots of flaws, and probably it is a touch too expensive. But frankly, looking at similar image products from, say, Adobe, or Nik, it certainly isn’t outrageously priced. And personally I don’t find that an annual price-gouging upgrade to be a benefit.