Best film scanner: Canon 5D Mark II vs Drum scanner vs Epson V700

If you shoot film and you don’t are much into chemicals, or don’t have a basement in which to keep a gigantic 5×7″ enlarger, you’ll soon end up with the need of a way to import those beautiful pictures you’ve taken on the computer. What? Why I didn’t say straight on “you will need a scanner”? After all it’s not 1987 anymore, and scanners are common like toaster ovens.

Well, I didn’t say “a scanner” because this it’s not the only way you can digitalize those pictures. Indeed, turned out, even though it’s the first, and often, only way most people will think of, it is the most inefficient and time consuming. And it can loose a lot, i mean A LOT, of the quality of the original slide or negative.

But now there is a much better alternative…

Let’s cut to the chase: I’m proposing here to use a digital camera of high pixel count – full format / dx format doesn’t really matter – mated with a good macro lens to scan the film using multiple shots, like in a panorama. “A good macro lens” that it’s like saying “a macro lens” because, with the possible exception of some russian misassembled lemon, they all range from really good to exceptionally good. And if you have a bellows you can use, instead, an enlarger lens (an Apo-Ronar, for example, will put you back of only 60 / 70 euros).

But what about the quality you say? That it’s what this post is for!

First a brief overview of the contenders:

– Flatbed scanner: Epson V700

The film-holder height has been calibrated. I did not use fluid mounting, but I taped the films to the film-holder and / or used a glass to keep the films flat; so fluid mounting should only make a difference in terms of absence of dust, appearance of the grain clumps and, possibly, slight better tonality

– Drum scanner: Dainippon Screen DT-S 1045Ai

The films has been professionally scanned by an external service

– Camera + lenses: Canon Eos 5D Mark II + Contax Zeiss 60mm f/2,8 Makro Planar (for medium and large format); Canon Eos 5D Mark II + Nikon Nikkor 35mm f/2 O non-Ai version inverted (for 35mm films)

Given that the Canon 5D Mark II it’s the challenger we will compare it separately against each of the opponents.

So let’s check first how this setup fares compared to the Epson V700, an excellent flatbed per se (still a flatbed though).

Those are all 100% crops. First the “usual difference” between the output of the two systems: those crops belongs to a 4,5x6cm negative shot with an ultra-sharp Fuji GS 645, on a sturdy tripod and with a soft release. The Epson crop has been sharpened, the Canon one NOT (no kidding).

Epson 700v crop

Canon 5d marl II and Contax 60/2,8 Makro Planar

Yes, the Epson (or any other flatbed scanner, for that matter) here looks like an old man who is in desperate need of new glasses…

And now the best possible case (I saw the Epson behave so well only in rare occasions, like once or twice in a blue moon). Those crops have been shot on an Hasselblad 500c/m with mirror up, the standard 80mm f/2,8 Planar, tripod etc.

Epson 700V crop 02Canon 5d marl II and Contax 60/2,8 Makro Planar crop 02

Yep, you just witnessed the death of flatbed scanners as film-scanners. So buy the cheapest all-in-one or LIDE model you can get, just for bills and invoices, and be done.

But surely a drum scanner, a thing that costs more than many cars, whose scansions cost you 60 / 200 euros a pop, will put the Canon setup to shame. Let’s see. Those were shot on a Linhof Technika 13x18cm with a Symmar-S 240mm f/5,6. The drum image has been sharpened by the photo service, the Canon one is unsharpened:

Drum scanner Dainippon pre sharpened

Canon 5d marl II and Contax 60/2,8 Makro Planar crop 03

No, I’ve not made a mistake. Actually, I made one when I loaded the files in Photoshop. I gave both the same name – putting them in different folders – to make a sort of “blind test”. Well, I saw immediately that there was no contest, even though I made all the tests anyway. Boy oh boy I was up for a surprise…

This surprise came when I was saving the files: I used “Save as…” because I wanted to change back their names to something meaningful, and then I discovered that the file I was absolutely sure was of the Dainippon drum scanner, because obviously superior, was in fact the one shot with the Canon! I even double checked the exif, because I cannot believe my eyes.

The amazing thing is that I did NOT used the lens at 1:1 or, like I do on 35mm film, at 2:1 or 3:1 magnification. So, in exceptional cases of extremely sharp negatives – say ultra sharp lenses and microfilm like films – I would be able to pull out even higher resolution!

And, just to clear any doubt you may have, here the two crops above after a good dose of sharpening:

Drum scanner Dainippon with more sharpeningCanon 5d marl II and Contax 60/2,8 Makro Planar sharpened

To put things in perspective: those crops are from a 660Mb greyscale file; seeing it like this on a monitor it’s like peeping at a print of 5,20 x 3,70 meters. At 240dpi I could still print it as large as 2,30 x 1,65 meters!

Like I said going up with the reproduction ratio you can extract even more detail. See for yourself. All the following 100% unsharpened crops came from a 6x6cm negative shot like the ones before with an Hasselblad 500c/m with mirror up, the standard 80mm f/2,8 Planar, tripod. The last crop has been resized at the 50% (at 3:1 there is more grain than detail, so keeping a gigantic file is pointless). And please ignore the tonality; this is a shot from a color negative, and I’m struggling a bit to find a suitable curve:

complete image

Epson 700VCanon + Contax Makro PlanarCanon + Nikkor 35 inverted

I showed here only few examples, but I tested this thoroughly with many images, colors and black and white, slides and negatives, and I consistently found the same results.

Even the tonalities of the films were much better preserved with the Canon than with the scanners. And, as an added bonus, including the picture borders or importing into the computer some odd format shots – 6×17, for example – it’s a breeze.

Summing up: forget about scanners. Yes, if you have 3.000 euros laying around and you need to scan 100 shots a week by all means buy a Coolscan or an Imacon – but in this case for the sake of your own sanity go digital and lose film! Instead, if you need just to scan your best shots follow my advice and use this system.

Stay tuned: in the next post we will get in the specific of how to get the job done.

Large format crash course

Linhof Technika 13x18

1 ) Minimum requirements: a tripod (unless you are willing to use a Speed Graphic type camera in the Weegee style, handheld), a large format camera with a focus screen and a back, a bunch of film holders that fit both your camera format AND your film format (see below), a lens mounted on a shutter (again, unless you buy a Speed Graphic camera which owns an internal shutter), films in the chosen format, a loupe (the bigger the better, personally I use a 22x, even if an 8x it is ok to start with), a darkroom or a changing bag to load and unload the film holders (in a pinch you can also do it in your bed, under the blankets with the lights off and the window blinds shut, but it’s not very practical…)

2 ) If you chose 4×5″ than, possibly, make sure that your camera has a Graflock back (in 4×5″ it is the international standard back); it’s not imperative, but it will simplify your life

3 ) If you chose other formats make sure that the camera has a back compatible with modern, internationals, double-sided film holders

Linhof Technika III

4 ) There are many formats from which to chose, but the most common are (in parenthesis the european film sizes): 4×5″ (10×12, 9×12); 5×7″ (13×18), 8×10″ (20×25). For each US / European format the cameras are the same; what changes is the film holder that you have to use to load the film. So, if you want, you can use your 5×7″ camera with both 5×7″ and 13×18 films just buying the correct holders for each size of film

5 ) You could chose between studio cameras and field ones. The first have most movements and are usually cheaper (given the same features), but are bulky and uncomfortable to carry into the field; if you intend to use them close to your car this can not be an issue

6 ) When shopping for a camera watch for camera movements too: at least it should have frontal or back tilt and frontal rise; ideally even frontal and / or back swing. The “technical” cameras normally have more movements that others field cameras

Linhof Technika 13x18

7 ) The untold secret of large format reside in using the black cloth and a good ground glass, maybe fitted with a Fresnel screen (it will enhance the luminosity); this way you can focus and check the framing easily

8 ) You can mount lenses from every brand on every camera, just change the lens board

9 ) What you have to check in a lens, quality aside, is that it has enough cover for the format of your choice. The very reason to shoot in large format is to use camera movements, but you can do this only if the lenses that are you using have a larger coverage than the film format you are shooting on

10 ) For the previous reason (the coverage circle) usually it is better stay away from Tessar and Xenar schemes lenses; these, nonetheless, are often excellent lenses and quite cheap so they can be useful starting lenses in landscape photography, where the need for movements is less felt

11 ) To focus a view camera properly often you have to follow the Scheimpflug principle. Basically it says you have to make sure that subject, film and lens planes they all converge in some imaginary point in the space to achieve the best possible focus for a given aperture; and trust me, the theory may be awkward, but using it it is really simple once you understood the basics

Fujonon 150mm

12 ) The lenses are really simple: usually just the shutter times selection ring, a screwed hole for the remote shutter cable and four little levers. One of them is for opening and closing the shutter (you’ll need to close it before you’ll pull the film holder dark slide; you’ll need to open to framing and focusing). The others are for charging the shutter, select the apertures and shoot

13 ) Best way to start is to stick to one lens and one lens only. In any case you don’t need a lot of lenses, because especially with the larger formats there is a lot of space for cropping. If you really want more your best bet is to duplicate the three lens you most use in 35mm; to make the conversion multiply every 35mm focal length for 3,3 if you are using 4×5″, for 4,4 if you are using 5×7″ and for 6,5 if you are using 8×10″; likewise divide every large format focal length for the above coefficients to know what is its 35mm equivalent

Review: Pocket Light Meter for iPhone

Pocket Light Meter logo

The software house Nuwaste studios produce an app very interesting for everyone still devoted to film photography that own an IOS capable device, say an iPhone or an iPod Touch.

It’s called Pocket Light Meter and it does exactly what it sounds.

It’s a very functional light meter that you can carry in your pocket all day “embedded” in the thing that most likely you will carry anyway with you: your phone!

Just to be clear: it is not a toy.

Indeed it is precise once calibrated (but this is a process that you have to do for every light meter, even those in your cameras).

Pocket Light Meter

It gives you the possibility to take spot readings moving around the red square, to lock one or two values (for example iso and speeds), and to take a picture to store the reading in its metadata (included the GPS datas!).

In alternative you can log your readings to your Dropbox account, if you do have one (and if not, WHY???).

You can set the readings in full stops, halves or thirds; and it support even the cine shutter speeds.

Enabling the display of additional info you can read the values in EV, Lux and FootCandles.

Can you ask for more?

Yes, because by the way…it’s FREE.

And if you find distracting the ads that pop in the base of the screen you can alway buy an ad-free version for only 0,79 €.

Rating: ★★★★½

FEM: Film Equivalent Megapixels

How many megapixels does film have? And I mean: for real, not the bazillion that the “experts” ascribe to it. The complete and yet unfulfilling answer is: depends. Mostly by ISO and by the format size, both of the film and the digital sensor.

Because two, for example, 12 megapixels sensors are not equal if one of it it is full frame and the other it’s the tiny tiny sensor of a camera phone. The rule of thumb, both in the analogue and in the digital word, is “the bigger the better”.

Those you find in the table below are my own findings, after over a decade of taking pictures. They are not results extrapolated by reading someone else opinion on some forum. So you may agree or disagree, but I’ll stick with my findings…


And by the way: even if a camera like a Canon 5D Mark II or a Nikon D3x (or better yet, if money are no object, a medium format digital back) it’s equal or better than film in most situations I STILL SHOOT (also) FILM.

Keep this in mind reading the results, because shooting film is more cumbersome, costly and time consuming, but has its unique advantages: it’s fun, it’s handy when if you don’t feel comfortable using a 2.000+ € electronic equipment under pouring rain, it has its look and it still yeld wondeful results in proper hands.

And some cameras like the magnificient Fuji GS645 or the Olympus XA serie (the review is coming) still don’t have a proper successor in the digital world.

For your convenience I have listed the results in the table below where you’ll find the format, the approximate diagonal size in cm (and I remind you that an inch is equal to 2,54cm) and a FEM (Film Equivalent Megapixels value) minimum, medium of maximum.

I have had to make this distinction because, for exemple, you may shoot with a crappy lens and shaky hands, or with the camera screwed directly onto a granite boulder (this actually it’s the setup to perform the MTF tests).

Heavy rain

By the way, under “handheld” I collect all the non-optimal situations, like heavy wind, diffraction limited lenses, blurred images caused by photographer movement, blurred images caused by movements of the subjects (during long exposure time, for example), curved film, focus not spot on.

So you can interpretate the three levels as such:

MIN (handheld and / or scanning on a flatbed and / or high ISO) = calculate roughly 1,5 Megapixels for cm of format diagonal

MED (low ISO, tripod and / or scanning on Imacon and high-end scanners) = calculate roughly 1,85 Megapixels for cm of format diagonal

MAX (really low ISO, tripod, mirror lock up and  scanning on a drum scanner) = calculate roughly 2,3 Megapixels for cm of format diagonal

FormatDiagonal (in cm)MinMedMax
4×5″ / 9x12cm15,6232936
5×7″ / 13x18cm22,2334155
8×10″ / 20x25cm32485974

And please, please, please take this results with a grain of salt: obviously you can go further with any format using special equipment, like shooting on ultra-low-iso-with-almost-no-grain-film and scanning on the SuperUltraMegaDrum @ 1.000.000ppi and so on. I made this reference table with an average user in mind…

UPDATE: please check the following two posts for a better and cheaper way to scan your films

Canon 5d Mark II vs. Drum scanner vs. Epson v700

How to-scan films using a digital camera

Big prints for cheap

Speed Graphic

Graflex Speed Graphic stripped and restored

Let’s say you wanna print big, really big. Big like wall size print.

Maybe you shot landscapes, or maybe you follow the Christo’s footprints and you want to wrap the Colosseo in a picture of yours. So you start shopping for the best top grade digital cameras out there, and you buy a Canon 1Ds or a Nikon D3x.

Then you put on paper the fruit of your effort, and the print sucks. Well, not really. But it is only really really good, but not great.

Disappointing, after you have spent big bucks.

Wait. IF your bread and butter are portrait pictures or cityscapes one of the above cameras can be enough.

But if you like shoot landscapes instead they will not suffice over a 50x70cm, not really if you have a critical eye. So you start looking at the medium format digital backs, but their prices are really scaring. There is not a solution at this dilemma?

Yes, there is. Actually there are two, and both have one thing in common. The secret is to shoot big, really big. Large format is the answer.

Solution 1

The simplest solution has a strange name: drum scanner.

Drum scanners are a kind of scanners that permit to extract the maximum possible quality out of your negatives, till the grain. No details are left behind. So if you shoot on 4×5″ film and drumscan it you may be able to output prints whose measures are in meters wide.

But this solution has two faults.

First: is costly. A drumscan vary between 40€ and 80€ for EACH frame.

Second: more often than not you will be forced to delivery by postage your precious negatives to a lab around the country, unless you are not so lucky to live near a drum scanner service.

Solution 2

A good flatbed scanner, like the Epson 4990 or the V700 and V750, deliver a scan that is not comparable to one made on a drum scanner. But, for my own tests, sharpness wise it’s like step down one format. I mean that if you scan on a good and focus calibrated flatbed a 4×5″ film you end up with a result that show the sharpness of a 6x7cm film drumscanned. Sure, the drumscanned film will almost certainly have more details in the shadows and in the highlights, but as for sharpness it will be a tie.

So the strategy is: if you want the quality of a 4×5″ drumscanned, but without the costs involved, shoot on 5×7″ and scan on a flatbed.

And by the way if you are able to find a really good pre-press flatbed the results will be vastly superior respect a consumer flatbed like the Epson models, so the gap with the drum scanners will be even closer. This way I’ve discovered I can print 4×5″ film to almost 130cm wide with great quality. Now I use often a 5×7″ camera, and as soon I will can get my hands on one of this I will start using an 8×10″ for the near-car landscapes.