Scan and deliver

Introduction

Because entry-level scanners now cost as little as £50, home scanning is now as commonplace as home cooking. But for graphics professionals, such bargain basement machines are of little use. Rough picture-placement is about all they’d be used for. For high-end scanning you need to pay high-end prices. However, at least the quality of the hardware is now comparable with older drum scanners, and most models gives real value for money. Here, we take a look at the current crop of top-end scanners to discover which cut the mustard for professional use. People tend to forget that scanners have been around almost as long as the personal computer, and it is very much a mature technology, which is why they’re so affordable. The technology has peaked, with an abundance of models well-equipped to handle the high-end demands of pre-press pros. The one area where there’s real room for improvement is in the scanning software that drives them. Most of the software we examined makes life difficult for the first-time user. The options are usually confusing, and even though a high degree of control or automation may be offered, scanning a picture is frequently a complicated business. A well laid-out application should be intuitive, obviating the need for a manual, so even complex scanning settings are simple to execute. You’ll probably need to read and re-read the manual, or even resort to a training course to get the best from the software. Also, scanner software can be damned ugly. I’m not suggesting they should sport the latest Aqua interface, complete with customizable skins, just that it’d be nice if they were designed by interface specialists, rather than software engineers. C’mon guys – as your hardware is so mature, how about spending a little of your R&D budget on prettying-up the software? Consumer scanners sport single-button operation and simple interfaces, so why not the pro range? It can’t be such a tough nut to crack. The hardware
There are many ways to judge a scanner – but some of the measurements bandied about by slick showroom salesmen are not all they seem. Resolution This is the obvious benchmark – but is not necessarily the key factor. Resolution is usually quoted in dpi (dots per inch) or ppi (pixels per inch). Both mean the same thing and the rule of thumb is that higher resolutions are better. The truth is, though, that you only need to scan at more than 300dpi if your output will be bigger than the original image – often the case when working from transparencies. A 35mm slide can be scanned to fill an A4 page, or even larger, with high-resolution scanners. Most of the scanners at this level are capable of at least 1,200dpi, with some capable of more than 3,000dpi. If you’re likely to blow-up a 35mm slide to A3 size on a regular basis, pay for the highest resolution available. Otherwise, you’ll be better off using more-suitable original art, such as 4x5 film – rather than stretching the limits of both the scanner and the slide film. Colour depth A better guide to a scanner’s class is its colour depth. This refers to the range of colours that the scanner is capable of recording. Early scanners sported 24-bit colour, which is millions of colours according to your monitor control panel. To be precise, it’s 16,777,216 colours – surely enough for anybody. The difference between two adjacent colours on a 24-bit colour wheel is indistinguishable to the human eye – but not to a scanner’s. Scanners can work at even higher rates, such as 36-bit and 42-bit. This may sound excessive, but the reason for this seeming over-sampling is that capturing such a colossal amount of colour data allows the scanner/software to choose the optimum colour-range for display. Even if the image shows up as a 24-bit file, a 42-bit scanner will pick the colours from a palette of over four trillion colours. Adobe Photoshop allows you to load a 42-bit image (16 bits per channel), but drawing and filter functions are disabled, and only functions such as colour balance and levels adjustment are available. With access to such a massive colour gamut, is there much to choose between 42-bit scanners? Yes – because, although these scanners can see four trillion colours, they can’t output this number. Dynamic range A better guide to output is the dynamic range, which measures scanners’ ability to measure brightness, and is quoted as a number between 0.0D and 4.0D. Zero is pure white and four is black. The higher the number, the more detail you will be able to pick up in the highlights and shadows of an image. To test this ability, a special test strip is used, which shows a graduated tone from white to black. When the scan is produced, you can measure how far up the black scale the scanner can see before all appears 100 per cent black. The point at which everything appears black – which always comes before 100 per cent black is reached – shows the limit of the dynamic range, or maximum black. The same ability is measured at the white end of the test strip. The difference between the two is the dynamic range. Typical dynamic-range figures go from 3.2D to 3.7D in the scanners tested. As the maximum theoretically possible, dynamic range is 4.0D. Scanners that get as close as 3.7D are impressive. Although I haven’t had the opportunity to run any of these models in a head-to-head high-end drum scanners, it’s likely many of them would fare well. The Software
With all their technical sophistication, scanners also need some serious software to translate this into quality images. The aforementioned shortcomings of scanning software affect the usability of these scanners, but won’t make a difference to the end result – if you are willing to invest some time mastering the settings. There’s no point spending £4,000 on a scanner that you can’t use properly. Even the best scanner will output crummy results if you don’t get to grips with the software. Each scanner range has software included. Agfa uses its own FotoLook software and Heidelberg has its LinoColor package. Other vendors bundle third-party solutions with their scanners: Microtek uses LaserSoft’s Silverfast software and Umax bundles Binuscan PhotoPerfect. The Epson Expression Pro simply includes its own plug-in for Photoshop. LinoColor Elite LinoColor Elite ships with all the high-end Heidelberg scanners. It has all the key features you’d expect from high-end software: it does colour correction, has colour-managed workflows, but Heidelberg seems most proud of its ease of use. Having seen LinoColor through its many versions, I must agree that it’s more straightforward than before. However, for a novice, the options can still be daunting. At least this is easily remedied, although consulting the manual is compulsory – you aren’t going to be able to guess your way through it. The results achieved after a little tweaking of the settings were consistently good. Batch-scanning is easy. Once you have the images captured, minor adjustments, such as straightening an image and cropping, are simple. Previous versions were pitched at intrepid colour experts only – but now, anybody willing to spend a couple of hours with a manual can be a colour expert too. Binuscan PhotoPerfect All the Umax scanners tested came with MagicScan software, which is Umax-branded. This is simple to use and effective. The best part of the software bundle, though, is Binuscan PhotoPerfect. This is a cut-down version of the full Binuscan product, but is still extremely good at colour correction. Many colour professionals tell me Binuscan is no good because it messes with the colour without user input. Well, yes, it does, but its artificial intelligence makes some sound judgements about how an image should look and makes corrections accordingly. This may upset these proud colour boffins – but as the software makes far better decisions than the average user, why not let it? If you would rather use the manual controls then you can. If you’re working from flawed original images, for example, all the other scanning apps tested will reproduce the imperfections in all their grimy detail. Binuscan, however, will brighten, sharpen and tweak images so that even over-exposures will look great. The interface may not be pretty, but who looks at the mantlepiece... quite. Agfa FotoLook 3.5 FotoLook is probably the best of the own-brand scanning packages. It’s simple to use – at least by the standards of the software tested: you only need the manual for occasional references. Once you get to grips with the settings, it’s possible to set-up FotoLook for less experienced users to use. The batch-scanning mode is extremely useful, but a tad more automation would help. This is one application that boasts the ease-of-use that scanner users deserve. The entry-level Agfa scanners have excellent software with beautifully designed interfaces, so, if the guys that worked on that could endeavour to pretty-up the FotoLook interface, Agfa would be on to a winner. SilverFast Microtek bundles SilverFast scanning software with its scanners. SilverFast is relatively easy to use in the context of high-end scanning software – and also offers automation. Each setting associated with a scan can either be set automatically, manually or preset to do the same every time. This means that, if scanning a batch of transparencies, SilverFast will chug through them almost without outside help. If you’re confident enough to look under the bonnet, SilverFast is packed with high-end options that will tweak every aspect of a scan. Epson TWAIN Pro The Epson plug-in is, predictably, the simplest software of the bunch. It has an uncomplicated interface, mostly because it lacks high-end features. But as the scanner is a fraction of the price of the others, this should come as no great surprise. The real surprise is the quality of the scans. Even the basic colour-correction makes scans look really good. It doesn’t quite compete with the big boys, but isn’t too far behind.
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