Best-laid scans

Introduction

Scanning for print has always been something of a dark art – until recently. Previously, colour experts used high-end drum scanners to produce top-quality images for print, drawing upon specialist skills and years of practice. But now, the mid-range professional-scanner market is different. Here, we look at the current offerings from the pro-scanner vendors. The ceiling on price is £4,000. The high-end pro-scanner market caters for those scanning thousands of images a day. These mid-range scanners are suitable for everyone, from solo designers to pre-press companies looking for batch-scanning and image-processing capabilities. Not only is this class of flatbed scanner good enough to make drum scanners obsolete, but neither do you need a degree in colour science to use them. Pro customers
As professionals, Web designers may feel they require a pro scanner, but a sub-£100 consumer scanner would suffice. This is because images used online need be no more than 72 dots per inch (dpi) – the resolution they’ll be viewed on screen. That, and the fact they have no control how images will appear on a viewer’s ill-calibrated monitor. Where pro models come into their own is on transparency scanning. For those scanning images destined for print, transparencies are preferable to reflective media (photographs). This is because transparent media offer a larger colour gamut and superior luminance. Even though some entry-level scanners boast transparency adaptors, they won’t be able to produce a high-quality scan – even if the original has been shot and lit professionally. The scanners on test here, though, all offer print-quality transparency scanning. If your tranny-scanning requirements are minimal, why not use a pre-press bureau, which offers high-end equipment and qualified operators? But for anyone else – even those needing to make a couple of scans a week – the convenience of your own professional scanner is considerable. There is also the added incentive that a little knowledge goes a long way in scanning – as long as close attention is paid to the manual. Choosing a scanner
Thankfully, professional-scanner vendors are less prone to exaggerated performance-claims than their consumer equivalents. This means that quoted resolutions will not refer to the scanner’s meaningless interpolated resolution. The most important figure by which to judge a scanner is density range. This is the range at which the scanner can identify differences in lightness or darkness. A scanner with a narrow density-range will miss detail in the highlights and shadows of an image. A good scanner, though, will see these details, and, even though you may not see them yourself in the raw scan, the image-processing software will render the detail. This is the main difference between a professional scanner and a consumer scanner: a consumer scanner might miss shadows or highlight detail. This, of course, doesn’t matter when scanning holiday snaps, when this information is likely to be missing in your amateur photos anyway. But for print, this just won’t do. Resolution This is a less important guide to a scanner’s calibre, and more a guide to how much you’ll need to enlarge the original image. For example, if the original is a 35mm transparency, you’d need to scan at 1,800dpi to enlarge this to A4 size and 3,600dpi for it to print at A3. This level of performance requires a pro scanner. Incidently, the rule of thumb with enlarging trannies to A4 or A3 size is to shoot them in medium-format film (60mm). Many of the models on test offer a resolution of 1,200dpi. For most print work this is fine, especially if images are shot in medium format. However, if occasional images need to be A4 size and above, then you have two choices; outsource these to a repro house, or buy one of the 3,000dpi models at the top end of the mid-range. In the short term, the former is cheaper, although in time the scanner will pay for itself in savings on repro bills alone. Bit depth This is another oft-quoted value, but one that’s less important than many would have us believe. Bit-depth is related to the number of colours the scanner can see. The problem with judging a scanner purely on this figure is that output is usually lower than the quoted bit-depth. Even a scanner that uses 42-bit colour will pick the most relevant colours and output at a lower bit-depth. Another fact is that Photoshop is alone among image-editing software that can even open 48-bit images. Even then, it won’t let you edit the image, but just use a few colour-correction functions. This is because its image-editing tools can’t work at such a high bit-depth. The fact is, colour gamut represents only a tiny piece of the range of information available from the scanner. Interface The traditional interface for high-end scanners was SCSI, but Apple dropped this from its computers three years ago. While installing a SCSI card is no big deal, the latest scanners are beginning to appear with FireWire interfaces. There are no real speed gains to be had with FireWire – although it is more user-friendly, offering hot-pluggability. But as any SCSI veteran will tell you, SCSI-ID clashes and termination issues plagued the interface. But now that there are so few third-party SCSI peripherals, this will be less of an issue – as the scanner is likely to be the only SCSI device connected to your computer. Scanner manufacturers are currently charging around £100 extra for FireWire, which is a little steep. However, it’s still in your best interests – as SCSI is doomed to become increasingly rare. Software
Achieving a quality scan has more to do with software than hardware. Hardware collects data, but this must be processed before it looks good. Colour is a complex subject and inevitably requires complex software. This can be a turn-off for novices unused to being faced with a bewildering range of technical options. Because of this, most scanner vendors also offer training for their software – but at a price: expect to pay at least £250 for off-site training per person and £600 for on-site group courses. The latter option may also involve paying for your instructor’s accommodation and travelling expenses. If publishers made scanning software more accessible, there’d be no call for training. After all, this isn’t a great advert for ease-of-use. The field of scanning software has now been whittled down to three main players: LinoColor, from Heidelberg; LaserSoft’s SilverFast; and ColorPro, from Binuscan. All claim theirs to be the best scanning software available – and of course, they can’t all be right. However, each does have a niche to which they are more suited than the others. LinoColor is exclusive to Heidelberg scanners. In the past, there was a lite version – LinoColor Easy – for the cheaper scanners in the range, although “Easy” was a tad misleading. LinoColor is a professional tool, giving the operator full and detailed control of image rendering. It’s also a daunting tool and requires – at the very least – a careful read of the manual, or better still, a day’s training. As with all such software, it’s easy once you know what you’re doing. There are plenty of presets, so usually it’s just a question of a tweak here and there. There are easy-to-use tools for straightening crooked images and easy-to-access colour curves. So even though it looks daunting, LinoColour makes it relatively easy to produce high-quality images without going back to school. SilverFast
This also hails from Germany, from LaserSoft. Silverfast does make some attempt to be approachable, offering features designed to walk you through the scanning process. However, SilverFast stops short of being novice-friendly – being only as simple as a group of German boffins could make it. One new feature offered by Silverfast 5.5 is the ability to handle negatives. This will be particularly valuable to photographers who use negative film as well as transparencies. If you choose a scanner that comes with Silverfast, be sure version 5.5 is included. PhotoPerfect and Color Pro Suite
While Silverfast and LinoColor both do a fine job of reproducing accurately original images and artwork, BinuScan takes an entirely different approach. Based on the assumption that not all images are perfect – over-exposure, underexposure, colour cast and artefacts spring to mind – Binuscan PhotoPerfect and Color Pro Suite seek to improve poor-quality images, rather than merely reproducing them accurately. Also, it does this automatically, with little input from the user once it’s set up. Many professional scanner-operators pooh-pooh this approach – mostly because it means the software takes control of something that usually requires an expert. Of course, if you aren’t an expert, this is just the job. Color Pro Suite is designed for busy scanning environments, using even more automation and workflow features, and is widely used by newspapers across Europe and the US. Apart from this, there’s little difference between them. It’s difficult to say which of the three scanning applications is best, as each has its strengths, and is designed essentially for slightly different classes of user. For old-hand colour-experts, LinoColor or Silverfast will feel familiar and easy to use. But beginners will almost certainly find the learning curve with Binuscan’s products far less steep. They produce great images with a minimum of fuss. If buying a scanner for over £3,000, you may find that the vendors will demo the software at your place of work. Read this article carefully, and don’t be railroaded into a decision. For those spending less, seeing the software in action will be more difficult. Your best bet is a Mac show such as MacExpo 2001 (November 22-24; www.macexpo.co.uk), or for the more adventurous, Apple Expo in Paris (September 26-30; www.apple-expo.com). It may mean a bit of travel, but will give you an opportunity to see which software you feel comfortable with. A changing market
This professional-scanner round-up has fewer players than last year, because Agfa has pulled out of the market – taking its popular DuoScan scanners with it. However, Microtek – which made these scanners for Agfa – is still going strong, and has replaced the DuoScans with its equivalent ArtixScan range. Umax and Heidelberg also offer models that are identical, with one being simply a rebadged version of the other. Umax is the manufacturer of the range, with Heidelberg simply adding its software and name. To make your choice even sparser, neither range has changed since last year. (Heidelberg’s LinoScan 2650, at £5,495, does not fit our mind-range pro criteria.) There has been such scant movement in the pro-scanner market because this market is very mature. When a high-tech product such as a scanner is first invented, there follows a period of intense innovation as manufacturers strive to outstrip their rivals. After time, the improvement-curve levels out. The scanner market is now firmly at the top of this bell-curve of innovation, with little room for improvement. Top-of-the-range scanners now have high-enough resolutions that they don’t need any more. Their density range is also high enough so that there’s little more than can be done to improve image quality. However, software remains one area in which there is room for improvement. Much of it remains too arcane for anyone other than scanning veterans to get the most out of.
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