Scanning Medium Format with the Epson V600

Back in July I wrote about switching away from DSLR based film digitisation and my experiences with a PlusTek 8200i film scanner. The PlusTek has been great, to the point where I’ve been letting my medium format gear gather dust and a few films I shot back in the spring had been left waiting for me to muster the enthusiasm to once again try and get my DSLR setup put back together.

I came to the realisation at the end of October that I was just done with DSLR scanning full stop and that I needed a solution for medium format I would actually use. I once again found myself looking at flatbed scanners as the only affordable and available option. Would the quality be acceptable? I spent quite a long time browsing Flickr shots digitised with various Epson scanners, reading old forum threads and so on before finally deciding that for £230 the Epson V600 was worth a punt and that I could simply return it if all it produced was a blurry mess.

The scanner arrived last Friday and I eagerly set about scanning one of those films that had been waiting months for my attention. Using Epson’s scanner software it was pretty quick and efficient. Soon I had three 6×6 shots digitised. The quality was ok, at 2400dpi the scans were detailed enough but things were somewhat soft looking, even after some generous unsharp masking in Photoshop. The colours were excellent however, and even thinly exposed shadow areas came out much better than I’ve ever managed with a DSLR scan, where when you push the extremes you tend to just get noise or find unwanted reflections on the film surface.

So next I set about trying to improve the sharpness. I’ve read that flatbed scanners often have a bit of variability in terms of the height above the glass where they are in optimum focus. Given the supplied negative holders are pretty flimsy and don’t hold the film especially flat, I thought I’d try the Lomo Digitaliza, that I’d previously bought for DSLR based digitising. I loaded it up with the same strip of film and carefully positioned it under the scanner’s transparency unit. On the V600 the transparency unit forms a strip that runs down the middle of the scanner’s lid, this is where the light source is that illuminates the negative as its being scanned from below.

On hitting preview I discovered that without Epson’s own negative carrier in use, the automatic thumbnail feature stops working reliably. So I had to simply select the relevant parts of the preview that I wanted scanned, apply the basic histogram corrections and hit scan once for each frame. This isn’t hugely onerous for medium format but would be a pain for 35mm using a 3rd party film holder.

It was clear straight away that there was a jump in image quality using the Digitaliza. After putting the resulting scans through an unsharp mask in Photoshop and then applying a little further sharpening in Lightroom I was gob smacked by the results. No it wasn’t as bitingly sharp as a DSLR scan can be, but it was 95% of the way there with better colour rendition, no photo stitching and better handling of shadow detail. Further experimentation led me to find the sweet spot for scanning is 3200dpi, which I downsample to produce 6000×6000 pixel 48bit (colour) or 16 bit (black and white) images.

Pro tip: the ‘lid’ of the Digitaliza pressed against the side of the scanner’s glass acts as a perfect spacer to line up the carrier just inside the transparency unit’s area.

Given the V600 has inferior optics to the V800, I suspect with a good negative carrier and similar post processing it would likely match a DSLR scan in quality — something I wouldn’t have believed possible given both the prevalence of lousy example scans I’ve seen around the Internet and the general consensus of sites like ScanDig and various long forum threads on the subject. I suppose it’s possible I’ve just been really lucky and have a particular good V600, but like the PlusTek too I think there are just a lot of people that don’t really know what they’re doing and blame their poor results on the hardware rather than their post processing choices.

Above you can see a direct comparison between a two shot stitch taken with my X-T2 and Tamron 90mm f2.8 1:1 macro lens (left) and the V600 (right). I’ve tried to match the processing as closely as possible but there are some inevitable differences in tonality and contrast. The stitched shot from the X-T2 also has some some slight distortion introduced because the camera wasn’t held perfectly parallel to the negative for both shots, hence the slight misalignment. Here’a a detail crop to let you better see the difference (or lack there of) in terms of overall sharpness. The X-T2 digitisation is on the left again, V600 on the right.

Workflow

In terms of processing my V600 scans, this is my workflow:

  1. Scan in Epson Scan 2 into a folder that Lightroom watches for automatic import.
  2. As soon as the photo pops into Lightroom I then use the Edit in Photoshop feature.
  3. I crop any stray edges where I’ve exceeded the film frame and then resize the frame down to 6000×6000 pixels (assuming a 3200 dpi scan setting) using the Bicubic Sharper (reduction) setting.
  4. Next I apply a prerecorded action that:
    • Uses the Camera Raw filter to apply colour noise correction at level 50. This removes any digital chroma noise introduced by the scanner’s CCD sensor but doesn’t affect the grain or detail of the photo. The Epson seems to produce fairly low noise output but I’ve found this step important on the PlusTek 8200 so I keep it in.
    • Apply a moderately strong Unsharp Mask: Amount 100%, radius 3 pixels, threshold 3.
  5. I will then spot any obvious dust out using a mixture of the Healing Brush, Clone Stamp and localised use of the Dust & Scratches filter that is great at removing dust specs from expanses of relatively low detail like skies and shadows.
  6. I’ll hit save and the photo will update in Lightroom. I’ll apply a moderately strong sharpen of around 50~90 with a radius of 1.4 and detail of 25~50. Edit: I’ve also been experimenting with Photoshop’s Smart Sharpen feature, so if you don’t mind baking all the sharpening into the file, this also produces really nice results as an alternative step here.
  7. I’ll make any other colour corrections, crops, etc that I feel the image needs.

Obviously there’s a degree of subjectivity in sharpening an image, but it seems like a lot of people tend to go a bit overboard with it. Looking at some of my earlier digitisations, it’s something I’ve definitely been guilty of myself to some degree. My rule of thumb now is to use the minimum you need to make things look crisp without it becoming a distraction. If someone’s first though on seeing your photo is “wow that’s sharp!” you’ve probably applied too much.

Closing Thoughts

As it is I can heartily recommend the V600 as a very good and affordable scanner for medium format film. I will try 35mm film in it to see how it compares to the PlusTek, but I suspect that without a better negative carrier it would be unacceptably soft for me. Still it’s fantastic news that there’s such a high quality, affordable scanner for medium format film. Even factoring in the cost of the Digitaliza, we’re talking well under £300. Compared to the faff and cost of building a really good DSLR digitisation setup, the Epson V600 either on its own or paired with a dedicated 35mm scanner, stacks up very favourably. I could have saved myself a few hundred pounds if I’d known this three years ago!

Addendum

After experimenting with scanning 35mm negatives in the supplied carrier, I have to say I can’t recommend the V600 for 35mm scans, I think even with the carrier held at perfect focus height the achievable resolution would only barely be acceptable. With the supplied carrier you couldn’t do anything practical with the images as you’re at best getting ~3 megapixels that will need massive amounts of sharpening to have any definition. Get that dedicated 35mm scanner and a good quality holder for 120 film!