Scanning 101-1: Choosing Your Scan Software
Alright, let’s get this going. The most important step in setting up your scanning workflow is your choice of scanner. However there are so many scanners out there, it would be impossible for me to guide you towards the best scanner for your needs. I use and love my Epson Perfection V500 and my Plustek OpticFilm 7200. Both are fine scanners, but technology passes and hardware improve with time. They are both a little behind the curve now days, but still produce great scans. If money is no object, just throw down on a Nikon Super CoolScan 9000 ED, otherwise you have some research to do.
Later I will write a basic guide to help you choose the scanner you need. However today I want to look at the next most important variable, scanning software, where I feel that I am able to provide some good feedback to help you made an informed choice.
As it is, when you buy a scanner, it always comes with software that allows you to start scanning. Usually the software is fairly bare bones, with limited options. Other times, especially with high end scanners, you will be provided with some robust software to get you running quick. Nikon scanners ship with Nikon Scan, which is a robust piece of software, and may be all you need. However most other scanners on the market ship with the manufacturer’s software, such as Epson Scan with the Epson scanners.
From here we will assume you chose to but a mid-level scanner, such as an Epson Perfection V500 or Epson V700. The V500 and V700 both ship with Epson Scan. The V700 also ships with a piece of software called LaserSoft Imaging’s SilverFast SE. This is a high quality piece of software, but is crippled in comparison to its sister product SilverFast AI. You may find that SilverFast SE is all you need, or maybe EpsonScan provides you with good enough images for your needs. But either way, you may find you desire more options and more horsepower.
If you find yourself in that situation, I have two options for you to look into. The first option is LaserSoft Imaging’s SilverFast AI, which is an expanded version of the SilverFast SE software often included with mid-range scanners. The other option is Hamrick’s VueScan, a veritable Swiss Army Knife of scanning technology. Let’s look a bit closer at both, of which I have used both frequently, and then I’ll give you my take on the situation.
LaserSoft Imaging’s SilverFast AI
The SilverFast line of scanning software offers tools for any scanning need, from amateur to professional needs. SilverFast AI is there middle of the road software package, with most the pro features the average photographer would need. SilverFast AI Studio and SilverFast Archive Suite are the higher end offerings, but they offer features above and beyond what is needed for my scanning workflow. So I am going to dig deeper into SilverFast AI.
SilverFast AI is specially configured for each model of scanner. This allows SilverFast to consistently provide the highest quality scans from your hardware as the software is tailor made for your scanner. The base software download costs $119 USD for the Epson V500, you can add a custom IT8 calibration target to your software, brining it to $218 and even add in printer calibration software to guarantee accurate printing for $317. Calibration is not required, but is a must for accurate scans. SilverFast comes with both a stand-alone application and a TWAIN compliant Photoshop plug-in.
After the initial purchase, SilverFast is a workhorse when it comes to scanning. It can use your scanner’s Digital ICE technology and has its own built-in scratch and dust repair capabilities as well. A big plus is SilverFast’s ability to scan “HDR” scans from film and they offer a separate piece of software specially designed to manipulate these custom scans. SilverFast is not merely a scanning app, but is expandable to a full suite of scanning tools, called SilverFast Archive Suite. The sky is the limit, but so is your wallet.
SilverFast is full of features, from their excellent NegaFix optimization, which optimizes color and contrast of film scans based on profiles for individual stocks of film. Adaptive Color Restoration helps you bring the color pop back into old shots that have faded. Selective Color Correction allows you to make up to four layers of adjustment, allowing you to selectively alter objects of the same color inside the same image. GANE is an excellent Grain and Noise Elimination tool, allowing you to make clean images from even the grainiest negative. SilverFast’s USM sharpening tool sharpens better than any other scanning application, as it can compensate for your scanner’s sensor and scan motion. MidPip allows for the easy removal of color casting at time of scan and SilverFast’s Multi-Sampling tool combines multiple scans of the same image at different exposures to aid in creating noise free scans, from the deepest shadow to the brightest highlight.
In actual use, SilverFast has a slightly odd feel. If you are used to how the image program GIMP is configured, you have a general idea. Each pane of SilverFast is in a separate, undocked window. At first this is disconcerting, but can easily be adjusted to. Once you get used to the strange layout, SilverFast’s scanning workflow is simple and easy to get used to. It is easy to get high quality, true to the film scans. Even Kodachrome, notoriously one of the hardest film stocks to scan, is handled well by SilverFast, and LaserSoft even offers a complete Kodachrome workflow for sale with Kodachrome IT8 targets.
You will not be let down if you choose to utilize SilverFast as your primary scanning application. While not overly customizable, SilverFast is solid and knows your scanner inside and out.
- Excellent scan quality
- Awesome tools to tweak your images into perfection.
- Allows a bit of layer editing, allowing you to perfect you image before you get into Photoshop.
- Excellent handling of scratches, dust and excessive grain.
- Beautiful color rendition.
- With the IT-8 target, calibration is a breeze and guarantees accurate colors.
- Fast scanning, including multi-sampling scans.
- Disconcerting workspace.
- Limited level of customization for scan settings.
- Software is tied only to one make and model of scanner. Cannot upgrade to a new scanner and still use SilverFast without new purchase.
- Relatively high cost, rapidly increasing by adding calibration targets and additional software.
Hamrick VueScan, as mentioned before, is a veritable scanning Swiss Army Knife. With a single purchase, you have one software package that can be used with almost any scanner, old or new. VueScan is a stand-alone application, with no Photoshop plug-in, but the relative ease of use more than compensates for the lack of a plug-in.
VueScan is developed and maintained by Ed Hamrick, and he built the software from the ground up, by himself in C and C++, to allow him a better interface to manipulate his scanners, getting better quality out of them by accessing them at the hardware level, by passing the normal scanner drivers. He still maintains VueScan on his own, rapidly updating the software for new scanners and fixing bugs on a regular basis. VueScan is updated frequently, with a new version out about every one or two weeks.
Unlike Silverfast, VueScan supports a multitude of scanners. As opposed to configuring special versions for each unique scanner model, Ed Hamrick has profiled many scanners and their capabilities into the VueScan software. While this does not allow the familiarity that SilveFast and its custom versions allows, VueScan is more than capable of getting a lot of your scanner. Plus, since you are able to use VueScan with any scanner, you get more from your purchase as time goes on.
VueScan comes in two flavors, standard and professional. The Standard edition has most all capabilities of the Professional version and allows for free upgrades for one year for $39.95. The Professional version is the same as the Standard, but allows you to save raw scans, define color spaces for your scanner, monitor, printer and file output and calibrate your scanner using IT8 targets, much like SilverFast. If those additions are not enough to persuade you to choose the Professional edition, then consider this. For $79.95 USD you get all those added features and unlimited upgrades past the one year mark. Pay for VueScan Professional once and you have a scanning solution well into the future.
VueScan also has a different interface than you may be used to, as it is very vanilla. However this lack of visual polish allows for an easy to maintain software package for Ed and allows for easy porting to other systems. VueScan works natively on Windows, OSX and Linux (and usually in BSD as well). While Spartan, the interface is very utilitarian, allowing an insane amount of customization to scan settings.
VueScan also has different levels of use. There is a very basic interface, allowing only the most basic of tools to be available, to keep scanning as easy and straight-forward as possible. Then as you step through, you add more features of VueScan to the interface, until you reach the Advanced set-up that allows you precise control over all scan and image processing settings.
VueScan come packed with features for you to utilize. Batch scanning works great, allowing you to define differing areas of your scan platen as separate images and scan them all at once. A life saver when you are scanning a roll and you can scan the maximum amount of negatives your scanner can hold at one time. Multi-sampling and multiple passes are additional options, for scanners that are capable, allowing for an average of scans of multiple exposures with multiple scans of the image. When compiled these multiple passes allow you an image with less noise and more dynamic range, surpassing the normal capabilities of your scanner.
VueScan also supports infrared scanning, i.e. Digital ICE, and does an exceptional job of reducing scratches and dust using it. Upon scanning a preview or even a whole resolution scan, VueScan has a strong editor, allowing for setting white and black points, adjusting color balance and contrast. VueScan has built-in profiles for a variety of common film stocks, although not as large as SilverFast’s NegaFix offers. However, VueScan has a procedure allowing you to sample a film’s base color and lock in exposure and base color for an entire roll, allowing custom profiling of film with no additional need for target.
With the pro version of VueScan you have the ability to define ColorSpaces for your scans. This comes in handy, as your scanner normally has a wider gamut than that of sRGB, so you can save your scans in Adobe RGB or ProPhoto, allowing for more color depth in Lightroom and Photoshop. If you happen to have an IT8 target or purchase one, you can custom calibrate your scanners for more consistant scanning, beginning to end. Raw film scans are also possible with VueScan (which is much like SilverFast’s HDR scans) allowing you to save the scan generated by the sensor, in full color plus infrared in a 48/64-bit file. This allows you the most perfect conversions of your scans in Photoshop.
Of importance to my workflow, VueScan allows you to directly save TIFF scans directly to DNG. Many would disagree with my use, but native DNG compatibility is a big plus in my book and integral to my workflow.
The biggest drawback of VueScan is also one of its strong suits. Frequent updates. The current version of VueScan is not playing nicely with batch scanning, with its automatic multi-frame feature not working right with my V500. This is easily remedied by downgrading to a prior version of the software, however the prior versions are not available on Hamrick.com. You will need to save copies of the installer for “known good” builds for your needs. While the occasional update will break your scanning, the quick revert to a known-good copy will fix your ailments. Plus, Ed is always working on new updates, so if he knows something is broken, it will be resolved rather rapidly in an upcoming update. In fact, the latest release alleviated psrt of the problem, however the feature is not back to 100% yet, on my V500 at least.
While not as intertwined with your scanner as SilverFast, VueScan will get more out of your scanner than the manufacturer’s software. At the cost, especially when considering the compatibility, VueScan is a must have. With this software, you will be scanning for years, even as you upgrade your hardware.
- Inexpensive, $79.99 for the Pro version with unlimited updates.
- Insanely compatible, with over 1200 scanners working and more to come.
- One purchase and you have high-quality software for all your scanners.
- Very customizable scans, with many adjustments and variables to pull the most out of your film.
- Cross-compatible. The software supports Windows, OSX and Linux. In fact, VueScan is the only real contender for high-quality scanning in Linux.
- Exposure and base-color locking ensures consistent results for scans from the same roll.
- Not as good as SilverFast in manipulating your hardware, but not far behind.
- Spartan interface takes some getting used to.
- Stand-alone only, no Photoshop plug-in.
- Not as good as NegaFix in SilverFast at correcting scans based on film profiles, but exposure and base-color lock more than compensate.
If you couldn’t tell by now, I whole heartedly recommend VueScan over SilverFast. Four big reasons weighed my choice.
- Price – For a one-time $79.99 purchase, I have updates for life and can use it on any scanner attached to my computer.
- Compatibility – I use two scanners on a regular basis and I own four. VueScan is my one-stop shop for my scanning needs, regardless of the scanner I am using at the time.
- Customization – The amount of variables VueScan allows me control of allows me to take the quality of my scans into my own hands. SilverFast does not even come close to the level of control VueScan gives me over my scanner.
- DNG out of the box – I have to convert TIFFs from SilverFast to DNG in Lightroom. This is a step I would rather not take. VueScan allows me to wrap my TIFF scan directly into a DNG wrapper, allowing for segregation from other images, protection of my original scan, and allows me to carry Lightroom edits and snapshots directly in the DNG wrapper.
Those four reasons where the reason I chose VueScan. For the rest of my scanning series and impending e-book, I will be utilizing VueScan for my tutorials and workflow. I feel if you chose to use VueScan you will not be let down and have a solid workhorse application day in day out for years to come.
That is not to say SilverFast will let you down. If you choose to go that route you will get high-quality scans easily, without having to concern yourself with the myriad of options VueScan allows you. SilverFast is solid, and comes just behind VueScan in my book. I some areas it is superior to VueScan, and I feel it generates better scans with less work. However, I feel with the tools VueScan gives me, I can consistently create better scans with that software.
In the coming days, I will post an in-depth review of both SilverFast and VueScan. They will delve deeper into the software than I did here and even do a basic workflow for each, so you can get the gist of how to use each. So if you are still up in the air hang around for that.
Hopefully this gives you some insight into third-party software for you scanner. You can still use your OEM software that came with your scanner, but you will get better results easier with either VueScan or SilverFast. Choosing your scan software is the cornerstone of your scanning workflow. You have to get the image data you need at time of scan, and these two pieces of software guarantee you will get the most out of your negative and slides.
See ya next time,
Michel W. Gray