Drum Scanning Photographic Film

- gear & tech

To use my drum scanning service, (35mm, medium format, large format) and museum-quality printing service, please contact me.

During the “pre-digital” years, like many photographers, I’ve shot a large number of negatives and slides. For a long time, all that film lay dormant, stored in sleeves, until I got a Minolta Scan Dual IV many years ago. It was my first dedicated film scanner, bought so I could start scanning my archives. Slow as it was, the Minolta was eventually replaced with the Epson Perfection v700 Photo flatbed scanner. It allowed for greater productivity, as a relatively large number of 35mm pictures could be batch scanned. However, even with the addition of a special adjustable film holder and the rather expensive and very clunky, buggy and counter-intuitive Silverfast AI scanning software, I never managed to get this thing to scan as sharp as I wanted it to. Or should I say, “as sharp as it is supposed to”. I eventually found out that the lens in a V700 doesn’t adjust its focus. Instead, it relies on its hyperfocal distance to focus, roughly, where the film holder sits. This scanner only uses two preset focusing distances as it has two lenses inside. One for the film holders (35mm and medium format) and one for the flatbed glass (for scanning paper, prints, etc). The hyperfocal distance of each lens is very shallow and varies from scanner to scanner! The flimsy film holders that ship with the V700 come with little detachable pegs which can be repositioned to vary the height of the holder. Highly empirical precision technology. Such are the tolerances in a consumer-grade scanner. Roughly focusing where it should, isn’t good enough though. With film scanning, all it takes for a scan to be out of focus, is a tiny amount of front or back focusing on the scanning lens. You see where I’m going with this: it’s not really possible to get very sharp scans from an Epson V700. The adjustable height film holder I mentioned earlier helps, but it’s very tedious to adjust and, because the V700 lens does not move, variations in temperature and humidity will turn your painstaking film holder adjustment into a dance of frustration. Not only that. It was very apparent that despite what the marketing blurb says, this scanner is not capable of capturing the extended dynamic range that is contained in a negative. It is particularly weak at extracting shadow and highlight details. So, the v700 was sold, as was the Minolta…

Most of the cheaper films scanners are good enough for a lot of people, but one thing is clear: film has the advantage over digital when it comes to dynamic range. Very good shadow to highlight range, with soft roll off into highlights, whereas digital does clip into the highlights in a rather abrupt fashion. Consumer scanners such as the Epson Perfection V700 or V750 are not able to properly capture the extended dynamic range of film: shadows tend to go black very quickly, grain isn’t resolved properly, and highlights can become clipped. In other words, your scanner is the Achille’s heel of a hybrid film-digital workflow. Without a good dedicated film scanner, you might as well shoot digital and develop a workflow which addresses the issues that come with this.

With a dynamic range generally accepted to be about 11-12 f-stops for negatives, turning film into computer data is never a fast process. With, it’s a particular workflow, a good scanner, better software and skill, it’s possible to extract maximum dynamic range and visual detail out of your film. My subsequent experience with the Nikon Super Coolscan 9000ED – Nikon’s top of the line film scanner – was generally positive. This scanner is quite a bit more expensive than an Epson V700 or V750, but does a  great job and delivers vastly superior images when compared to the Epson scanners. However using the 9000ED to batch scan a large number of medium format images at the highest resolution (4000 dpi maximum on the 9000ED) remains a very tedious job, simply because this scanner is designed to only accept a small number of images in its film holder. Two frames in the bundled holder and only one frame at a time with the superior rotating glass holder. which increases film flatness and producing a sharper scan. If you are considering buying a Nikon 9000ED, do yourself a huge favor and buy the rotating glass holder. It will make a dramatic impact on the quality of your scans. The film holders that ship with the scanner aren’t able to keep the film very flat and will ultimately produce scans that are out of focus. The Nikon Super Coolscan 9000ED is a very good film scanner and to this day, there is nothing comparable in quality at its price (around $2000-2500 USD). Unfortunately, it looks like Nikon as discontinued the 9000ED and its price has since soared.

All of the film scanners mentioned so far rely on a CCD to turn film into digital files. By nature, they are devices that turn light into an electrical signal. This weak signal is amplified before it becomes data. The quality of this electrical signal and the amplification method are the determining factor for image quality. In other words, not all CCD-based film scanners are created equal. In general, you get what you pay for. The impressive Imacon Flextight scanners (now rebranded as Hasselblad X1 and X5) and the equally impressive but discontinued Creo EverSmart Supreme flatbed scanner, continue to reign the world of dedicated CCD-based scanners. They are expensive beasts but very powerful scanners. Some people claim that advanced CCD scanners such as the Imacons, Hasselblad, Eversmart rival the quality offered by drum scanners. This is disputable. Wait… a what scanner?

Drum scanners fulfill the same role as any other film scanning device, while relying on an entirely different technology: photomultipliers, or PMTs. In essence, PMTs are extremely sensitive particle detectors tuned to respond to uv, infrared and visible light (photons). The principles at the heart of a drum scanner were derived from research in the field of nuclear physics, in which scientists observe and measure the results and effects of particle collisions. In the case of drum scanners, several photomultipliers are combined to offer the very best scanning device for photographic film. PMTs act as photon collectors and bypass the methodology used in CCD scanners which is to amplify an electrical current. Drum scanners do not suffer from the CCD side-effects that we know: noise & limited dynamic range, specially in shadow areas of your film. The ability for drum scanners to vary their built-in aperture to match the grain size of the film you’re scanning; their ability to scan all film formats including very large exotic sizes and their ability to offer superior batch scanning capability (you can fit a LOT of images on a single drum. Some drum scanners are sold with multiple drums) make them the very best scanner there exists for quality-conscious photographers who want to capture all the range that is encapsulated in their film, at very high resolution.

I started drum scanning the more meaningful images in the mass of film I shot over the past decade or so. Because mounting the film on scanning drums require the use of a special mounting fluid, mounting tape, reprographic wipes, mounting station and mylar sheets, the process takes a bit more time than scanning with CCD-based scanners. But the results are really really really much much much better. Increased dynamic range, ultimate sharpness, virtually no scratches (masked by liquid mounting), reduced dust visibility… You can see a video clip showing the mounting of film onto a scanning drum here. Wet mounting is best because it increases dmin, negates scratches and dust and increases the scanner’s ability to pick up very fine visual details which other scanners will miss or render with moderate accuracy. If you are reading this an consider using kami as a mounting fluid, be very careful! Many very experienced scanner operators and photographers have reported crazing, plastic melting and other disturbing and irreversible ($$$) effects caused by this product.

Below are a few images of film trips mounted on a drum and also a sample image taken at Oriental Parade in Wellington, New Zealand. The image was shot on Kodak Ektar 100 with a Mamiya 7II, 50mm lens, 1/250sec at f/8 and scanned on a Screen SG-8060P Mark II scanner at 6000 samples per inch, in 16 bit. A that resolution, this 6×7 frame produces a 323 megapixels file. Yes, you read that right. It’s more than enough resolution for wide format prints on a wide format printer like the Canon imagePROGRAF 8300.

Close up of film strips mounted on a drum scanner

Close up of a drum scanner head which contains several photomultipliers Strips of photographic film mounted on a scanning drum

Oriental Parade, Wellington, New Zealand. This is a 6x7 photograph shot on Ektar 100 with a Mamiya 7II and a 50mm lens. The negative was scanned at 6000 samples per inch on a Screen SG8060-P Mark II drum scanner.

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