Review: Slide Scanner

Digitize your high-quality photo slides with the Plustek 8200i Ai

I got my first real camera, a Minolta SRT-201, as a high school student in 1977. It was a basic 35-mm single-lens reflex, and as a college student and later as a journalist, I toted it around the world—literally. In Mumbai and Delhi and Chennai, I shot street scenes and research centers for IEEE Spectrum. In Panama City, Fla., I took pictures of U.S. Navy research divers for Scientific American. On Kwajalein Atoll, I photographed U.S. Army missile-test facilities for the Los Angeles Times. And there were many more places. I broke the camera; I had it fixed; I broke it again, I had it fixed again. I loved that camera.

The upshot is that the most indelible link to some of the happiest times of my life consists of a few thousand 35-mm images, mostly color slides. At some point I inserted the slides in plastic pages and ordered them quasi-chronologically in big black three-ring binders. Then, after a midlife divorce and a move to a smallish apartment, I stacked the binders on shelves in my parents’ basement, 75 miles away from my apartment.

Periodically, I would resolve to get a slide-and-film scanner and convert the slides to digital images that I could store on my computer. But the good scanners had prices in four figures, and amid a parade of steadily improving and lower-cost models it was always hard to tell if the time had come to take the plunge and buy one. So I was delighted a few months ago when Plustek Technology, a maker of scanners and other optical gear, asked if I wanted to review its latest film scanner, the Plustek OpticFilm 8200i Ai.

There are reasons other than sentimental ones to scan your photos. Digital versions of your photos can be easily tweaked and fine-tuned with editing software such as Adobe Photoshop or Apple’s Aperture. I also like the idea that if you’re a tablet or smartphone user, digital photos let you carry around happy moments from your life. Last, and not least, with your photos in the cloud, you need never worry about losing them in a wildfire, tornado, or flood.

Film scanning is recovering from a market implosion several years ago, when Canon, Minolta, and Nikon all either got out of the business or cut back their offerings. That left fewer than a dozen companies competing in the market for 35-mm film scanners. At the low end, companies like Pana-Vue, ImageLab, and Wolverine offer bare-bones units capable of a basic film-to-digital conversion for as little as US $80. At the high end, Hasselblad offers scanners with prices ranging up to $25 000. In between are Plustek and Pacific Image, whose competition for the middle ground has produced remarkable value.

Available now in stores for about $430, the 8200 Ai can scan at 7200 dots per inch—high enough to show the grain in a photograph, no matter how fine-grain the film is. Its image-sensing component is a charge-coupled-device (CCD) combined with an LED light source. (The best scanners are generally agreed to be drum scanners, which use photomultiplier tubes rather than CCDs. But hardly anybody makes them anymore.) Like all film scanners, the 8200 Ai is equally adept at scanning negatives and slides.

It’s a neat little unit about the size of a box of facial tissues. For comparison, Nikon’s much larger Coolscan 5000 ED, which was discontinued a few years ago and tops out at 4000 dpi, still shows up on eBay with prices typically around $1800. 

But good hardware is useless without good software. It’s a big challenge for a scanner because the software has to control so many variables, including spatial and color resolution, output format, and many optimization and correction parameters. The Plustek comes bundled with software called SilverFast, which is available for Microsoft Windows and Apple’s OS X.

SilverFast has an intuitive user interface. It enabled me to control the key factors of a scan with few false starts and with minimal use of the thin and mediocre reference booklet that comes with the software. Unfortunately, however, I also encountered a significant bug. Every time I tried to make a scan with the highest—64-bit—color depth, the software crashed. This instability surprised me because the software is now on version 8. (I was running it on my powerful iMac computer.)

The Plustek scanner can perform several different kinds of scans, but they boil down to two basic types. One is an “archival” scan, which strives to capture every detail and aspect of the slide as faithfully as possible. Needless to say, this type of scan generates a huge file and takes a more than a few minutes to complete. The other type allows you to manipulate the image as it’s being scanned and stored, for example to lighten or darken it, crop it, alter the contrast, compress it, hide its scratches, or change its color balance. However, personally, I prefer to make an archival scan and then tweak it with Aperture, the photo-management software I’m most comfortable with.

Alas, the archival scans were consistently underexposed. The scanner uses a multiple-exposure scheme, in which the image is exposed and scanned twice. A bright exposure wrings detail out of the dark and shadowy parts of the image, and a dimmer exposure makes the most of the brightly lit areas. The SilverFast software then combines the two exposures into a single picture with high dynamic range, which in theory captures good detail in both bright and dark regions of the image. In practice, scan after scan was too dark.

The archival scans also take lots of time and disk space. To make an archival scan at 7200 dpi, and with 48-bit color depth, took 6 minutes and 40 seconds. The resulting TIFF image file occupied 383.1 megabytes.

Simple math quickly disabused me of the notion that I could scan every one of the thousands of slides I had in those three-ring binders. If I could devote 6 hours a week, the project would take more than a year. And at archival resolution, it would fill up my hard drive. So if you have thousands of slides and want to send all of them into the cloud for safekeeping, and you’re not retired, you may want to consider entrusting the job to a professional scanning service. They generally charge between  $0.30 and $1 per slide, depending on the resolution and how many slides you want converted.

I decided to scan my slides selectively at 48-bit color depth. I set about digitally capturing resonant or aesthetic moments of the adventures and people that shaped who I am. It has been a lot of fun reliving those times as I happen upon bright little treasures in those plastic sleeves. And should the software problems get fixed, the Plustek OpticFilm 8200i Ai would be a tremendous bargain in a shrinking market that could really use one. But as things stand, I can recommend the unit only with a couple of caveats. For those who really want to archive slides, don’t want to spend four figures, and won’t settle for less than perfection, the wait isn’t over. Your move, Plustek.

An abridged version of this article appeared in print as "Saving Photo Slides."

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