Plustek OpticFilm 120 & SilverFast Ai Studio 8: A 35mm And Medium Format Scanner

Designed for professionals, enthusiasts, schools, and clubs, the OpticFilm 120 scanner from Plustek ($1999) can handle negative and positive film, including 35mm filmstrips, individual 35mm slides, and medium format film up to 6x12cm format. The scanner contains an eight-element glass lens and can deliver up to 10,600dpi optical resolution, with a claimed 4.01 dynamic range using the supplied SilverFast software’s Multi-Exposure function. The tabletop scanner is about the size of a six-slice restaurant toaster (about 8x14.5x7.5”) and is supplied with a complete set of very well-constructed film holders, an IT8 calibration target, and a full version (not a trial) of SilverFast Ai Studio 8 software. In fact, this product, I was told, was very much a joint effort between LaserSoft and Plustek, and all in all the benefits of cooperation are apparent as you work your way through the process of scanning images.


Courtesy of Plustek Inc.

Setting Up
Like any precision instrument, the OpticFilm 120 is not something you can plug in and go. That’s not to say that the scanner itself is complex, and basic operations are well described in the accompanying guide. After loading the hardware and software programs and drivers, easily done following steps on the supplied CDs, you put the film in the appropriate holder emulsion down, slip but do not force the film holder into the front opening and then get to work.

What is complex, and what took me a solid two days to explore to where I felt at all comfortable, is the software. Yes, there are some procedural elements that are a bit awkward, but when I say comfortable I mean getting a good grasp of the tools and options it affords. I recommend that you give yourself time to do the same and the reward will be a refinement of results that will surprise you, as it did me.

Here’s the workspace of SilverFast Ai Studio 8 with a scanned image ready for processing. In the top left panel you choose the medium and the format and the desired resolution, plus name the file, embed IPTC info like a copyright and where to save it once you are done. The vertical tools next to that are where you can do white and black point sets, deal with infrared cleanup, apply multi-exposure scanning, and more (see text). Atop the image are buttons that evoke interactive dialogs for selective and global color controls and curve and histogram controls for contrast. Note that if you work with negative film you also get to choose a preset film profile, which can be very helpful and save lots of work.
All Photos © George Schaub

When you first load the software a screen may pop up asking if you’d like to check for updates. Do it. The software has two options—using what is called WorkflowPilot, an automated scan with a few options such as image resolution and intended purpose and format, or scanning with “manual” settings. You can start with the first, which gives a scan that you can then hand off and play with in the software or move to another image processing program later, but for me the true benefits here are derived from taking advantage of the many image refinement and correction tools SilverFast Ai Studio 8 affords, so, for me, I turned the Pilot off.

Using The Software
Take the time to check out the video tutorials on both the SilverFast and Plustek websites. But be aware that there are some “diversions” in the workspace that you should be aware of and at least one or two “misdirections,” which we’ll cover as we work through the scan procedure. Although you can do batch scanning, I prefer to do my scans one image at a time, and that’s the procedure I’ll describe.

Here’s a detailed view of the input panel. Note that I have chosen TIFF format output and 2650dpi for this 35mm slide scan. The resolution indicator tells me I am right on the edge of what the software considers a quality scan for this format. As cropped it yields about an 8x11.5” 300dpi print, or full-page magazine format.

The first step is to set up the image parameters and ID, which you do in the upper left panel of the workspace. The first box sets the format, the second the type (negative, positive, and even Kodachrome), and the next is the bit depth. For this test I stuck with 48-24 bit, but there are numerous other options there depending on your needs, including grayscale scanning.

You then name the file, choose a file format, indicate where the image should be saved, and even add caption and copyright into the file via the IPTC button. You then choose a resolution and, if desired, use a preset for a specific image size and aspect ratio. (Note: When you choose an aspect ratio a crop is enforced, although you can move the crop frame around in the pre-scan phase.) There is a green to red “Res” bar that indicates what the software considers a “safe” resolution for the medium and format you have chosen.

Every tool you select creates a dialog box that fits into the left side panel, or can be dragged independently around the screen or even to another monitor. Here are the Histogram and Global Color Correction panels, evoked by pressing the labeled buttons on the area atop the image in the workspace. You can drag the color balance “black dot” around, or click on the color “moons” and drag them in and out from the center to affect specific colors. Different from what you might be used to, but effective when you get the hang of it.

Once that’s done it’s time to do a pre-scan on which you can apply your refinements. This is one of those “fakeouts” I referred to; don’t do a pre-scan using the Prescan button at the top of the workspace, but use the Overview button in the lower left tools panel. The scanner will then grab the holder and bring it into the cabinet and do a pre-scan on all the images in the holder. Once this is done you will get an emulated filmstrip with all the images highlighted. Turn off the highlights on all but the one image you want to process at that time. The scanner will then draw the holder in and do another pre-scan on the selected image and pop it up full screen into the workspace. Adjust the frame as needed (the red borders) and then get to work.

As you go through the options the changes are shown in the workspace in real time, with some changes taking a bit more time than others, so be patient. Going back to the Overview button after the work on one image is done and saved allows you to then choose another frame from the strip following the same selection procedure.

(Below) This slide is from about 1984 and the dyes have shifted creating a bluish cast, plus it had attracted and “ingested” small pieces of grit and dust into its emulsion. It should be cleaned, but I used it to check out two things—use of the white and black points for restoring color balance and exposure, and the effectiveness of the infrared cleanup step, iSRD. I placed the white point (using the “Pipette” tool) on a specular highlight on the boat cover and it did the job. Note the crud in the detail shot (above) (enlarged and brightened and added contrast to show how bad it was). This was cleaned up to my satisfaction for the final scan using the iSRD tool.

Image Processing
Depending on the media, there are numerous and rather impressive processing options. I encourage you to try them all and explore.

Here are some of the highlights that I found most helpful, starting with the toolbar buttons (see the accompanying full-screen capture). To activate them click on them; to turn them off, click again. More notes on tools used can be found in the image captions. When you choose one of the tool options an accompanying dialog box with sliders or other controls pops into the left panel.

This scan from a 6x7 Fujichrome Astia slide film really sold me on the scanner. I used the Multi-Exposure (ME) tool, which does one scan for the shadow areas and one for the highlights and then combines the two. This sunset scene came out with perfect color and as much shadow detail—without noise—as appeared in the transparency when viewed on a light box.

This 6x6 Ilford HP5 Plus negative was cropped in the scanning process. When you choose “negative” you get to choose from a number of film profiles, and the Ilford HP5 Plus profile did the trick. I scanned at the default 100 percent sharpening (Radius: 1), worked a bit with the tonal curve, and did a slight tweak on the shadows. The resultant 78MB file is the best I’ve gotten from this and similar negatives from any medium format scanner I’ve ever used.

I often use this 6x7 Fujichrome Velvia shot for testing scanners, and in this instance it came out as true as I could want. I wanted to add some extra richness to the blue so after saving I opened it in Photoshop CS6 and just touched it up with a bit of Blue+ saturation. The scan was as sharp as I could want using the default USM in SilverFast, and I found that when attempting to add sharpness in Photoshop it actually created an oversharpened look, so I passed.

Pipette: A white point, black point, and neutral gray selector. Click on it and position the cursor tool over the appropriate value. This is a very precise tool. I used it to set deep shadows and, for white point, generally clicked on spectral highlights, a combination that sets both exposure and a rough kind of color balance.

USM: Unsharp Masking, which is preset at 100 percent at 1 pixel radius. There can be endless debate about when to set this, when scanning or later, or to turn it off, but I left it at the preset and was very satisfied, but probably would not get too aggressive with it. When this button is activated a control panel pops up with a 1:1 viewing option, which I recommend doing to avoid oversharpening.

iSRD: This is an important tool for those resurrecting images from the attic. Of course there is some smoothing involved in dust and dirt removal, but for those dug-in dings and bits of dust this is invaluable. It works by creating an infrared layer of the crud and then tossing that layerin processing. Very sophisticated, but do note that Kodachrome and black-and-white negatives cannot benefit from this tool.

AACO: This is a sort of shadow/highlight control with sliders, but be careful with it as over-application can produce edge artifacts. I did use it to cut down on shadow noise in a dense area of a high-speed slide film, but overall am not a big fan.

GANE: A noise and grain control. If you over-res a grainy film it can look too rough, especially when working with grainy high-speed negative films. I also encourage experimentation with this tool as well as restraint.

ME: Mutli-Exposure, really two scans, one for highlights and one for shadows. This works very well for contrasty (underexposed/overdeveloped, for example) black-and-white negs and high-contrast slides with textured highlights. It takes double the scan and processing time, but is well worth the wait.

PrinTao: This mystical title refers to a setup for printing later. Not really necessary unless you want to go right from the scanning module. I usually tweak a bit in Photoshop later so I didn’t use this in my test.

A pop-up menu also appears in the left side panel (by the way, you can de-dock any panel you want into a side workspace or additional monitor) when you choose the Histogram, Gradation (curve control), Global and Selective Color Control buttons on the top row. These tools are fairly self-evident, so I won’t say much except that they can seem esoteric to those used to working in, say, Lightroom or Photoshop, but they do a fine job when you get the hang of it.

This Ektachrome medium format transparency made in 1990 had done what many Ektachromes have done over time—slid toward a magenta cast. The magenta wall and blue cast produced by exposing in the shade didn’t help matters, but a white point adjustment on one of the white license plates and a bit of Global Color Correction cleaned it up nicely.

If Scotch 1000 slide film were around today it would be a cult film for Lomo and similar camera users. Pushing it exaggerates the grainy, “artifact-filled,” in today’s terms, look. I wanted to see how the auto scan workflow would work on this one and to my surprise it worked very well, allowing me to work quickly to do a number of scans. The scan matches the slide to a “T,” and this makes it easy to do creative, not corrective, work later.

The Workflow Debate
The question about scanning software is always whether ’tis better to do the refinements in the supplied software or just set resolution and format in a scanner and pass it along. In some cases, with some software, I take that course because of the lack of sophisticated controls or options, but here I recommend that you get to know the software and use it for the lion’s share of the work. I did approach this with some skepticism, but after a week of scanning and processing, and learning about the various (and often hidden) nooks and crannies of SilverFast Ai Studio 8, I came to do much of the work on the scan process in this software and then final tweaks in Photoshop.

For quite a while I have been an advocate of chromogenic films for scanning, but when I went to gather images for this test I found that some oldies, like this 20-year-old shot from the Everglades, had lost more density than I liked. In general, however, the biggest headache in scanning is obviously overexposed slides and overdeveloped (maxed out highlights) negatives. All in all the Plustek got the best out of this density-losing film, and I am pretty sure that working with this scan on an inkjet would yield superior results over trying to wring something out of the negative in a chemical darkroom.

Conclusions And Recommendations
While spending $2000 for a scanner might be off-putting, it’s pretty much a case of getting what you pay for and paying for what you need. For those who have a library of medium format and 35mm material they wish to archive, process, and print there really isn’t a competitively priced product on the market today that delivers the goods like this hardware/software package. The scanner is solidly built and hums along quickly through tasks, and the film holders are among the sturdiest and well built I’ve seen of late. I do have to say that some of the more complex operations can be more lengthy than others, but keep an eye on the scanner process at the base of the left side panel to follow progress.

Some might be concerned that the lack of autofocus in the scanner might cause sharpness issues, but the combination of the holders and the lens in the scanner itself seem to make up for that. I did not have one scan that did not match the image sharpness of the original viewed through an 8x loupe on a light box.

While the software definitely requires patience to learn, especially if you do not have past experience with SilverFast products, being patient and playing with it, and taking advantage of the video tutorials, pays dividends. While titled a “120” scanner, I have to say that the 35mm scans I obtained were among the best I’ve gotten from any scanner in recent experience. Even mounted slides came out sharp and crisp, and the iSRD feature saved me from having to rewash the film to get the embedded crud removed.

I have often thought about doing some photography with my old medium format cameras, but being addicted to inkjet printing and not wanting to return to the chemical darkroom space I hesitated, mainly due to the lack of a quality and somewhat affordable medium format scanner. After working with the Plustek OpticFilm 120 and accompanying software, I am seriously considering taking the old Hassie and Rolleiflex out of storage.

Film Scanning
If I may digress for a moment, I’d like to address some issues about film images and their digital conversion as I think they are pertinent to procedures, and most importantly expectations about your scanning results. For those who have shot and processed digital images, you have gotten used to the true malleability of Raw format and the ability to address exposure, contrast, and color issues.

Film is quite different in this regard. First, film’s characteristics are fairly hard-boiled into the original emulsion—contrast, color cast and bias, exposure range and the like are set up when the emulsion is mixed and finally fixed during processing. There is some leeway in negative films, as density/contrast issues can, to an extent, be resolved with printing, and scanning, procedures. Slide films are less tolerant of exposure miscues, and blown highlights cannot be recovered, unless you resort to selection and fill techniques, but that requires considerable skill and even then can seem false in the final result, especially if printing large.

Another issue is the probable age of film images many of us will happily resurrect when using this device and software. Color slides of the non-Kodachrome variety may well have begun to lose both density and certain dyes; even the venerated Kodachrome slides may lose density, although colors seem more “permanent.” Depending on processing and storage procedures, black-and-white negatives may also lose density over time, and I have found that chromogenic films are quite poor in this regard. As Bob Schwalberg once told me, “Density defends density,” but I fear that all of the above will challenge your quest for high-quality conversions, so take all this into consideration when editing for scan work. Happily there are numerous fixes for these older image problems in the SilverFast software, some of which are addressed in this review, but you should realize the limitations that some images may impose.


muranod's picture

Thanks for this step-by-step and concise explanation of some of the Silverfast options!

I just received my 120 yesterday and was a little bewildered at all of the Silverfast options and dialog boxes. This will save me a lot of time fiddling and searching through documentation.