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A clear picture revisited

The Nikon CoolScan IV ED film scanner.

As a working photographer in the midst of the transition from film to digital, I’m increasingly in need of a good film scanner. Last month I took a look at the SmartDisk SmartScan 3600, a features-laden scanner at a very attractive price. This month I’ll examine a competitor, the Nikon CoolScan IV ED, to see if it offers more for its substantially higher price than a prestigious name.

The CoolScan IV ED is the 35mm baby in Nikon’s film scanner family of three. At a street price as low as $545, it provides 2,900dpi, a very good dynamic range of 3.6, and a USB interface. Double that price and you can step up to the Super CoolScan 4000 ED, with FireWire, 4,000dpi, a dynamic range of 4.2, and optional batch slide feeding and roll-film handling–via adapters not available for the IV. Double the price again–as well as the size of the box–and you can get the Super CoolScan 8000 ED, which has the same performance specs as the 4000 but can also handle medium-format film. I decided to try out the IV because I think its resolution, dynamic range and USB speed are sufficient for most advanced amateur and low-volume pro photographers–at a reasonably affordable price.

The CoolScan IV ED shares several features with its big brothers. On the hardware side, it has the same sharp Scanner-Nikkor lens as the 4000 (the “ED” in the name denotes extra-low dispersion glass) and an LED light source that Nikon claims is bright, uniform, and more stable over time than the more common fluorescent lamps. All film handling is done via modules that plug into the scanning cavity. Out of the box, both the IV and the 4000 include three modules: There’s a single-slide adapter for mounted slides; a filmstrip adapter holds cut film from one to six frames in length and fits into the slide adapter; and a motorized filmstrip adapter that can automatically scan strips from two to six frames long. Optional accessories (which also work in the 4000) include an APS film adapter that can scan a full APS roll from its cassette and a medical slide holder for microscope slides.

Unfortunately, the software bundle includes only the ancient Adobe Photoshop 5 LE rather than the much better Photoshop Elements offered by some competitors. However, Nikon compensates for this with its powerful and versatile Nikon Scan 3 driver software, which is supplied both as a plug-in usable with Photoshop or another plug-in compatible image-editing program and as a standalone application. A major benefit of the latter is its ability to operate in the background if you have sufficient RAM, whereas the plug-in (like all I’ve used–usually the only driver with a scanner) locks you out of Photoshop until you quit the driver. Built into Nikon Scan 3 is Digital ICE3, a suite of three image-enhancement utilities from Applied Science Fiction: Digital GEM (grain reduction), Digital ROC (restoration of faded colors), and Digital ICE. I found the most useful of these to be the last, a hardware/software feature that effectively eliminates surface blemishes such as scratches and dust. But there’s no free lunch, and each of these utilities exacts a penalty in the form of much longer scan times and a slight softening of the image. Digital ICE also doesn’t work on B&W negatives, but given the flaws that seem to plague my negative film in particular, this feature sold me on the scanner all by itself.

The performance of the CoolScan IV ED leaves little to be desired. It produces sharp images with no detectable contrast buildup, thanks to the 3.6 dynamic range. A pleasant surprise was the scanner’s speed; it’s substantially faster than the SmartScan for all the preliminaries, such as driver loading, auto-focus/auto-exposure adjustments, thumbnail generation and preview scans. More remarkably, its two-minute-per-frame scan speed at maximum resolution is about the same as the SmartScan’s at the same resolution, even though it lacks the latter’s FireWire interface.

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