Comparing Negative Scanners - Nikon ES-2 vs Nikon Coolscan 9000 vs Plustek 8100 vs Pakon F135
After waiting for what felt like an eternity, Nikon finally shipped out the Nikon ES-2 Film Digitizing Adapter Set. However, I felt a review would've been too premature at this time. After all, I was still waiting for the rumored update to the Nikon AF-S Micro 60mm f/2.8G ED, which was supposedly designed to fully resolve detail on the Nikon D850's 46 megapixel sensor. For me, any review of the ES-2 without the rumored lens would seem incomplete.
Still, I wanted to write something about film this week. As such, I decided to conduct a review on the Canon EF-M. It is a film camera that I've been searching for quite some time. But rather unexpectedly, the mother of all goof-ups made quick work of my bucket list intent. Because of an unfortunate fault in the camera's shutter travel, over 90% of my attempted documentations were completely ruined.
Still, when life gives you lemons...
With only ten usable frames from six rolls of film, I really didn't have much to work-on for a blog post worth viewing. However, desperate times call for desperate measure. Initially, I didn’t think I was going to do a very comprehensive review of the Nikon ES-2. But long story short, I kind of have to stretch this last ditch bunt into an inside the park home run. In other words, I have to make a mountain of this molehill.
Gear Used for the Comparison
Camera + Film
Canon EF-M + Canon EF 50mm f/1.4, Canon EF 28mm f/1.8, Kodak Portra 400
Nikon ES-2 on the Nikon D850 at ISO 64 + Nikon AF-S Micro 60mm f/2.8G
Plustek 8100 + VueScan (Mac OS 10.13)
Pakon F135 + TLXClientDemo (Windows XP)
Nikon Coolscan 9000 + Nikon Scan 4.0 (Windows XP)
I couldn't get Silverfast (the software that came with the Plustek Scanner) to work on Mac OS 10.13. I wasn’t about to purchase another license, seeing that I already had one.
I believe VueScan (the software I'm using with the Plustek Scanner) may have issues of reduced optimization, from my experience with the software in running the Nikon Coolscan 9000.
Worth noting that my experience with the Plustek 8100 is very limited. It is possible that I haven't gained the learning curve to fully demonstrate its performance fully. However, I strongly doubt that this is the case.
I don't have access to a Hasselblad/Imacon Flextight scanner, which I assume is the current gold standard of film scanners.
Scope of Comparison
Nikon ES-2 to perform negative digitizing natively in-camera for resulting JPG image files
Nikon ES-2 to perform negative digitizing non-natively in-camera for resulting NEF raw files to be converted in Adobe Lightroom.
Nikon ES-2 to perform negative digitizing non-natively in-camera for resulting NEF raw files to be converted and edited in Adobe Lightroom.
Plustek 8100 to perform negative digitizing
Plustek 8100 to perform negative digitizing and edited in Adobe Lightroom
Pakon F135 to perform negative digitizing
Nikon Coolscan 9000 to perform negative digitizing
The objective of this comparison is to demonstrate each option natively without any optimization (if unnecessary) or with optimization (if necessary) to the extent of practical use for online publishing.
Overall, it's easy to use. The process of digitizing is very straight forward and direct. There's no firmware or software to negotiate. It's just a physical process of putting all the pieces in place - which really is self-explanatory. Once you're ready, it's a matter of clicking the shutter release, and advancing the frame by hand.
Other than that, the scanning process is quick. Depending on your hand eye coordination, you should be able to finish a roll of 36 exposures in less than 5 minutes.
The scanner comes with Silverfast. However, mine would not work with my MacBook Pro. Instead, I opted for VueScan, which can be downloaded online for free. Once the software is set up, the digitizing operation is very straight forward. You click the scan button on VueScan, and advance the frame by hand on the scanner.
Other than that, scanning a roll of 36 exposure will take over an hour and a half.
The scanner only works on Windows XP. So getting it to work requires an older computer that has it installed - which can take some effort to locate. After you get the Pakon running on XP, you will need to add some patches to it, which can be downloaded online. The patches will allow you to scan positives and black and white negatives on TLXClientDemo, the software bundled with the scanner.
The entire process of setting up the Pakon and getting it to work can be very challenging. There is a learning curve to fully figure out how to use the Pakon. But when you do, scanning a roll of 36 exposures takes less than 4 minutes.
Nikon Coolscan 9000
The scanner works best on Windows XP or on a Mac installed with an operating system older than OS X Leopard (I think), since Nikon stopped supporting the accompanying Nikon Scan 4 software on subsequent OS updates. Alternatively, it also works on newer operating systems with VueScan. However, I suspect there might be reduced optimization in rendering.
Once you have your Coolscan running, the operation can be finicky - though not as much as the Pakon. That being said, it cannot digitize an entire roll of film. It can only scan two negative strips of six frames on each batch scans.
The process of digitization is performed automatically. For a roll of 36 exposures, separated into three batch scans, the entire process will take over an hour and a half.
Methodology of Scan
Natively, the Nikon D850 has a film digitizing mode on Live View. However, it can only capture the frame as a JPG. For the sake of optimization, I stopped down and shot at ISO 64.
Also worth noting, I opted to shoot in DX mode, since the negative is only marginally bigger than the DX crop size. In doing so, I don't have to waste disk space in saving the digitized white space around the negative.
Also for the sake of curiosity, I also digitized the negative as a raw NEF image file, and then converted the negative in Lightroom CC. The process can be done by reversing the Tonal Curve line. To do this, click on the little square button on the bottom right corner of the Region window. Once that is selected, the tonal curve line can be manually shifted along the Y axis.
On Capture One 11, go to Adjustments > Styles > Built-in Styles > Color Effects > Color Effect - Inverse 1 or Color Effect - Inverse 2.
In order to optimize the scan, I opted to digitize the negative as a TIFF image file, at 64 bits, 7200 dpi, and using the Kodak 800 film profile, which was the closest to the Kodak Portra 400 film I was using.
In order to optimize the scan, I opted to digitize the negative as a TIFF image file, at 16 bits, and saved at 6000 dpi (which I really doubt it can). But since I didn't get an error message, I figured why not.
Also worth noting, the scanner was able to read the DX encoding on the film. That is what the software appear to have indicated after the scan. If so, it's possible that the scanner was able to optimize the digitization for Kodak film. Of course, I really don't know if that is the case.
Nikon Coolscan 9000
In order to optimize the scan, I opted to digitize the negative as a TIFF image file. Unfortunately, I don't quite remember my setting - other than it was the optimal setting on the scanner. I will amend this part at a later date, since I am away from Hong Kong at the moment.
Quality of Scan
With the Nikon D850 paired with the Nikon AF-S Micro 60mm f/2.8G, the in-camera digitizing process appeared to be sufficiently usable for practical use. However, since the digitized capture is limited to a JPG image file, compression of visual data appeared to have reduced it's flexibility in post.
Because of that, I decided to evaluate raw image captures instead. Unfortunately, the digitized raw image, when inverted in color, is not usable for publishing. Having said that, the dynamic range is sufficient to salvage the image file for practical use - that is assuming you know how to do that.
Last, under high magnification, I can tell from experience that the digitized image from the Nikon Micro 60mm f/2.8G is not fully resolving details for optimal definition at high resolution - especially when evaluated at high magnification. A rumored update would likely be better able to resolve details closer to the maximum resolution of the D850.
I am eager to see if a rumored updated lens would be able to better resolve detail from lower ISO film, like the CMS Adox 20. Currently, it can't.
The average data size of the DX NEF file is 23mb.
In my opinion, the digitized image is not usable for publishing. However, the dynamic range is sufficient to make the image file presentable for practical use. That said, at 7200 dpi and a data size of 383mb, I don't think it's worth the trouble. In retrospect, 3200 dpi would probably more than sufficient.
Insofar as resolving detail at 7200 dpi, the Plustek did not appear to be able to exceed the performance of the Nikon ES-2. If Nikon does release a rumored update to the Micro 60mm f/2.8 lens, then the difference in improved resolution to detail will be even more apparent.
The image resolution of the Pakon is the least in this comparisons. Anecdotally, I remember it to be roughly at the 12 megapixel equivalent. However, with regards to color rendering, the Pakon appears to render it very true-to-life. The need to edit the color balance is minimal, assuming the appropriate light-corrected film is used for the light condition at the moment of documentation.
As far as dynamic range is concerned, the Pakon appears to be sufficient to recover details from highlights at the verge of being blown, and shadows at the verge of being crushed.
The only observable issue I can see with the Pakon is how the rendering might be regarded as being somewhat contrasty. Personally, I'm not adverse to it. In terms of practical use, a little more contrast never hurts, especially for online publishing.
In terms of data size, the average TIFF file is around 18mb.
Nikon Coolscan 9000
Of the four scanners, the Coolscan appears to render the best image quality. Tonally, the color appears richest while retaining color balance true-to-life. The need to edit the color balance is minimal, assuming the appropriate light-corrected film is used for the light condition at the moment of documentation.
As far as dynamic range is concerned, the Coolscan appears to be sufficient to recover details from highlights at the verge of being blown, and shadows at the verge of being crushed.
As far as contrast is concerned, the Coolscan appears to render it with more restraint. From the perspective of editing, this enables the Coolscan to digitize a rendering from a more neutral starting position. In my opinion, this makes the image file more workable in post.
In terms of data size, the average TIFF file is 71mb.
From the perspective of rendering, the Nikon Coolscan is clearly the best. But since the Coolscan requires an hour and a half to digitize a roll of film with 36 exposures, I find it much too slow for practical use. Though to be fair, the Coolscan was never designed to digitize an entire roll of film, much in the same way that no one ever printed every frame on a roll of film, when working in the darkroom. To properly use the Coolscan, one was expected to be more selective, in examining each frame of a negative with a loupe on a light table.
That being said, the Pakon is still my choice for digitizing negatives. In terms of image quality, size of image file, and speed of digitizing, it makes the most sense - especially for a streamline work flow typical of online publishing. That being said, the Coolscan is still better for printing a hardcopy. Though to be fair, printing should really be done in a darkroom.
As for the Plustek, I find it to be lacking in comparison to the Nikon Coolscan and the Pakon F135. But since both the Coolscan and Pakon are no longer being manufactured, and are only available in the secondary market, the Plustek is a more accessible and user friendly solution - as long as the resolution does not exceed 3600 dpi.
So where does this all put the Nikon ES-2, in this comparison? Personally, I find the image quality to be problematic, when digitized as an inverted NEF file. However, for conventional jpg scans, it's not the end of the world. That being said, the 46 megapixel files is somewhat of an overkill, given the mediocre color rendering. But in terms of a digital workflow, it is simple, straightforward, and quick.
Personally, if I had to choose between the ES-2 and the Plustek, I'd choose the ES-2. At least with the ES-2, I don't have to bother negotiating with either Silverfast or Vuescan. But if the practical consideration of initial investment is material, then the Plustek is a more reasonable choice.
Optimization in post have been mentioned under each caption. All images are cropped in some way through the scanning process. Also worth noting are noticeable inconsistencies in cropping. I only had a limited amount of time before my flight, so I was rushing. Basically, I was scanning on all four devices at the same time.
The title image was shot on a Leica M10. This after all was suppose to be a blog post about the Canon EF-M. I will write more about that on a later date.
Addendum (Tuesday, March 5th, 2019)
Commentor Richard Golonka has directed me to a piece of software that may very well tip the balance to the NEF ES-2 method of negative digitalization. He recommended the Lightroom Plug-in Negative Lab Pro. I’m currently using the trial version. But it does appear to be promising. I will update this blog entry later, or perhaps I will write a new post. Attached below is a sample of Negative Lab Pro at work.