Scanning Whole Rolls Of Film With Vuescan, The Nikon Coolscan 5000ED,

And The Hacked SA-21 Film Strip Adapter

February 2009

I had pretty much given up shooting film until about a year ago, when I got back into photography whole-hog and invested myself and my money in the Leica M-mount system. Leica, of course, does have a digital M-mount camera, the M8, and by all accounts it is a lot of fun to have one. But since its price is twice that of my car, I have been content to shoot film with an M2 and Bessa R4A, and a variety of Leica-mount lenses old and new (none, in my case, actually made by Leica).

The point of shooting, and then scanning, film in an era of high-quality digital cameras (a few of which I do have) is a subject for another essay. Suffice it to say that plenty of people see the value in doing this, and some specialized products exist in order to help them: there are a variety (not, sadly, a large variety, but a variety) of dedicated film scanners out there, and flatbed scanners that offer a film-scanning option. The latter are great if you also want to scan prints, but the best image quality seems to come from the film-only scanners.

For about six months I owned an Epson V500 flatbed scanner, and I must say that this machine has a very high performance-to-price ratio. You can get one new for around $175, and it will give you pretty good looking pictures right out of the box. The EpsonScan software is not very good, but once you’ve developed a method and a collection of settings, you’re good to go. There are two problems with it. The resolution is low, lower than the film you’re scanning, so you won’t want to print your results at anything more than maybe 11x14 for the whole frame, and much less if you crop. The other is that it’s really slow. It’s not the scanning speed itself that’s the big problem, it’s that you can only scan a couple of strips at a time, and you always have to be around to swap them in and out. The film holder is flimsy and it doesn’t flatten the film, so you need to roll your film back on itself for a few hours before you cut it, or press it between the pages of a book for a couple of days.

Personally, I’m into process. But this isn’t the kind of necessary process that gives a person satisfaction—it’s the kind that makes you wish somebody had deisgned the damned equipment better. Furthermore, I’d begun to have trouble getting any sharpness out of my photos; certain pictures would come out sharp seemingly at random, while others would look kind of mushy close-up. This wasn’t a problem for 500-pixel Flickr shots, but it really bugged me when I got prints made. So I sold some stuff, including the Epson, and got myself the Nikon Super Coolscan 5000ED.

coolscan.jpg

One miniature MRI machine, coming right up.

The 5000ED is very tiny, about the size of a dictionary or loaf of sourdough bread. When it runs, it sounds exactly like the miniature MRI machine that it looks like. It comes with two adapters, one for 35mm slides, and one for 35mm film strips of up to six frames. The latter adapter, the SA-21, is the one I’ll be talking about here.

Now, here’s the thing about the SA-21. It is not made, Nikon will tell you, for scanning entire rolls of film at once. This is the purview of the much fancier and much more expensive SA-30 Roll Film Adapter, which costs $500. But it turns out that the SA-21 and the SA-30 are basically identical, and that the SA-21 can be hacked to accept full rolls. This, friends, is a big deal. This means that, once you have your system all set, you can feed in your roll, leave the room, do other things, and come back later to a folder filled with high-resolution TIFs. There are several places online where you can learn how to take apart your SA-21, heat up your soldering iron, and connect a couple of pads on the PCB with a well-placed blob of goodness, making the transformation permanent. But you can also affect the same change by jumpering a couple of contacts on the back, using a short length of thin wire. You don’t need to take anything apart, and the wire stays on with a piece of clear tape. To wit:

jumper.jpg

Note the small jumper wire, protected by some tape. You just saved $500.

Got that? You need very thin wire for this—a paperclip is too thick. Go to Radio Shack and pick up a spool of bare “hookup wire,” the thinnest they have. You’ll only need half an inch, but what would you rather spend, three dollars or five hundred? Using the tip of some needlenose pilers, bend your bit of wire into the shape of an old-fashioned carpet staple, the kind you have probably spent an afternoon on your hands and knees removing from your hardwood floor. Now use those pliers to insert the wire into the connector as shown, and affix a bit of tape over it to keep it in place. Poke holes for the male ends of the connector to go through, then slide the adapter back in the scanner and leave it there. Now your computer will think you have the SA-30.

Okay, so how do you scan your roll of film? Well, I don’t recommend using NikonScan, the software that ships with the machine. Some people have had success with it, but I find the interface incredibly awkward, and so I ponied up forty bucks for VueScan, an independent piece of software that works with any scanner. VueScan’s GUI is a bit confusing, as well, but it isn’t due to any design problem; rather, it’s that the designer, Ed Hamrick, has made every imaginable option available on the screen all at once. Don’t be intimidated. You’ll figure it out, and once you’ve figured it out, you can make yourself some presets and load them in whenever you’re ready to scan.

Your first scans with VueScan will look pretty bad, with very little contrast. The main thing you’ll need to do is adjust the black and white points, and the low and high curves. These options are on the COLOR tab, confusingly (since you need them for black and white film). Black point is a percentage value that determines how many pixels in the image are black; white point sets the same value for white. In other contexts this is called “clipping,” so I keep them both set at .1. Low and high curve will help you define the highlights and shadows; for black and white film I keep low at .25 and high at .75. This gives me a nice medium-contrast file that I can tweak to my heart’s content in Lightroom. If all this sounds confusing, I invite you to use my presets for scanning whole rolls of black and white negative and color films, and Kodachrome 64. Download them here.

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The VueScan preview screen. I always eschew the dust removal software and heal out the dust in Photoshop.

I recommend previewing frame 2 first (set Batch Scan to LIST, type the number 2 in the Batch List box, hit PREVIEW) and adjusting the frame offset setting on the INPUT tab until the preview is perfectly centered in the frame. This way, Vuescan will have a clear jumping-off point for scanning the roll. Needless to say, the scans come out most even when you use a camera that spaces the frames evenly. If they’re irregular, you might want to peek in on your folder of scans now and then, to make sure the 5000ED hasn’t gone off the rails. Also, because you have no roll film holder, like the one that comes with the SA-30, you should have some system for catching the film as it comes out the back of the scanner. I have a soft cloth there which serves as a landing stage, from which the film tumbles over the edge of a shelf and dangles down toward the floor. Similarly, I have another cloth laid in front of the scanner, for the film to drag along as it enters. This works fine. No scratches, not too much dust. Eject the film when it’s finished. When I’ve scanned the roll, I cut it into strips and store it in sleeves just like I did when I had the V500. Except in the meantime I’ve gotten to have a life, plus the scans look much, much better.