Nikon Super CoolScan 8000 ED Film & Slide Scanner
4000 dpi, great electronics (14 bit A/D!), and a sharp lens make for exceptional 35mm or medium-format scanning ability!
(Review first posted 9/6/2001)
||True professional-quality scans|
||4000-dpi resolution across full medium-format film frame.|
||42-bit color depth, plus 16x for 48-bit equivalent|
||High-speed FireWire (IEEE 1394) interface (card included for both Mac and PC)|
||"Digital ICE" dust & scratch removal|
New Digital "ROC" and "GEM" correct for faded negatives and film grain automatically.
Nikon was arguably the first company to really figure out the bizarre color qualities of color negative film, as seen in their first film scanner, released something on the order of a decade ago. (This point might be subject to some argument, but the original Nikon film scanner was the first that we personally saw that could consistently create good-looking scans from a variety of color negative film emulsions.) From that early position, they continued to innovate, and have consistently maintained a commanding position in the high end pro/prosumer scanning market. Back in mid-1999, their Super Coolscan 2000 was one of the first slide/film scanners that we reviewed at the Imaging Resource. At the time, the LS2000 (the actual model number) represented the state of the art in desktop film scanning, and large numbers were sold to photo enthusiasts and pro photographers alike. Now, Nikon's raised the bar again, with a complete series of new scanners, ranging from a more purely consumer model (the Coolscan IV ED), through the new Super Coolscan 4000 ED, to the high-end, medium format Super Coolscan 8000 ED that's the subject of this review.
In reviewing the Coolscan IV ED and Super Coolscan 4000 ED previously, we were impressed with the obvious improvements Nikon's made in raw image noise levels. This, combined with a 14-bit A/D, the 4000 dpi uninterpolated resolution, new ED (Extra-low Dispersion) optics, and the by-now standard Super Coolscan options such as Digital ICE, analog gain control, and multi-sample scanning makes for an exceptional scanning tool for 35mm and medium-format film.
The new 8000 ED incorporates a number of enhancements over the previous generation, and further blurs the line between what's attainable with affordable desktop scanners versus the $100,000+ "drum" scanners used by professional graphics houses. Here's a list of some of the key features of the 8000 ED:
- True, uninterpolated 4000-dpi scanning resolution
- Supports film sizes from 35mm through professional 6 x 9 cm medium-format.
- "One-line" scanning mode for higher quality scans
- IEEE 1394 ("FireWire") interface, with card included for Mac or Windows
- New Scanner Nikkor ED high-resolution lens, using extra-low dispersion glass
- 14-bit digitization for dynamic range of 4.2, one of the widest tonal ranges available
- Optional full 48-bit (16 bits/channel) TIFF file output preserves maximum image data
- Multi-sample scanning for even lower noise on critical (dense) images
- Digital ICE scratch/dust removal technology
- Digital ROC for color restoration of old, faded negatives
- Digital GEM for grain reduction without loss of image detail
- Sophisticated color management system supports ICC profiles
The 8000 ED is slightly larger than the previous LS-4000 ED model, accommodating a much larger strip film adapter. While its proportions are wider, the 8000 ED still isn't too unwieldy, with its 9.64 x 19.9 x 7.87 inches (245 x 485 x 200 millimeters) dimensions. (A bit larger on all sides than a typical shoe box.) At 19.8 pounds (9 kg) it's hefty but not too hard to move around.
The 8000 ED is a "FireWire" (IEEE 1394) connected device, a virtual necessity due to the enormous amounts of data it's capable of generating. A single version is sold for both Mac and PC platforms, including an IEEE 1394 interface card with both Mac and PC driver software in the box with the unit. The maximum resolution of the 8000 ED is 4000 dpi, resulting in a maximum image size of 3,654 x 5,646 pixels when scanning 35mm film. The total scanning area is an enormous 10,000 x 13,860 pixels. (Depending on the film format being scanned, this total possible area will be cropped somewhat. The maximum "real" scanning area is 8,964 x 11,016 pixels on 6x7 film, up to 10,000 x 13,176 pixels on 6x9.) This represents an enormous amount of data - A maximum resolution scan in 14-bit mode can result in a file size as large as 790 megabytes. (!)
The 8000 ED comes equipped out of the box for scanning both 35mm slides and film strips and medium-format film strips. Several adapters are available as accessories and accommodate a range of film sizes and types, including 120/220 film (sizes 6x4.5 to 6x9), medical slides (from electron microscopes), and 16mm filmstrips. All adapters can be "hot swapped," in that they can be changed without powering-down the scanner or requiring any special operations in the software. In practice, we found this a very useful feature, as we could switch between slides and negatives rapidly, without interrupting our workflow.
"Bit depth" is an important characteristic of digital scanners, affecting both color accuracy and tonal density range. At 14 bits per channel, the 8000 ED is at the top of the field, but stretches even this specification with an option to average multiple measurements of each pixel, up to 16x. We'll discuss this capability in greater detail later, but suffice to say that it provides a "noise level" in images of dense slides or negatives equivalent to a 16-bit-per-channel device! Nikon rates the maximum optical density capability of the 8000 ED as 4.2, a figure we have no reason to quibble with. (Dave, not mentioned in manual.) This is at least in part because we have no adequate way to measure this parameter! The 8000 ED's performance does appear to easily exceed that of scanners we've used in the past which were rated at a Dmax of 3.6, though.
The scanner uses four color LEDs to illuminate the film, a design unique to Nikon, as far as we know. (The four LEDS are red, green, blue, and an infrared LED used to create the defect channel used with the Digital ICE automated defect-removal option.) LEDs have very well-controlled light characteristics, and aren't subject to the fading of conventional color filter materials, thus insuring long term stability in the scanner's color characteristics. The LED light source is also somewhat collimated (the light waves travel in relatively straight lines), which produces very sharp scans, but also has a tendency to emphasize scratches, dust, and film defects. (We did notice less of this tendency in the Super Coolscan 8000 ED than in Nikon's smaller models, however.) The unique "Digital ICE" technology (see below) gives the 8000 ED some unusual technology for dealing with dust and scratches, though.
Documentation for the 8000 ED is quite extensive. A very complete manual is included on the packaged CD, in Adobe Acrobat(tm) format, but the 8000 ED also includes a roughly 100-page printed version as well. The printed manual is complete enough and well enough written that we really found little need to venture into the electronic version.
(Some of)The Details
The new Nikon Super Coolscan 8000 ED scanner is by any measure one of the most sophisticated products we've reviewed to date. (Along with its little brother, the Super Coolscan 4000 ED.) We'll cover them in more detail below, but thought it worth calling attention to a few of the 8000 ED's key features at the top of the review. Overall, the Super Coolscan 8000 ED extends the advanced technology of the 4000 ED into a full-resolution device for medium format work. By just about every measure (resolution, image sharpness, dynamic range, features, or accessories), the 8000 ED raises the bar for desktop scanners, and makes one of the strongest arguments yet for pros to bring their medium-format and 35mm scanning in-house. Here are a few of the key points:
4000 dpi Resolution
Prior to this year (2001), the highest resolution we'd encountered in a film scanner was on the order of 2800 dpi. Since the film grain was fairly evident at that resolution, our feeling was that there was little purpose in going to even higher resolutions, since it seemed all this would do is further emphasize the film grain. We have to say though, that the 8000 ED (and the LS-4000 before it) disabused us of that notion. To be sure, film grain is more evident at a full 4000 dpi, but in examining the resulting image files, it's clear that there's also noticeably more image detail present as well. Combine this with the "Digital GEM" grain-management technology embodied in the 8000 ED, and its 4000 dpi rating constitutes a genuine increase in usable resolution. The high resolution is further helped by the 8000 ED's optics, using Nikon's special extra-low dispersion (ED) optical glass, which reduces chromatic aberration and improves image sharpness.
14-bit A/D Conversion
One of the key features of the Super Coolscan 8000 ED is its 14-bit A/D (analog to digital) conversion system. A/D converters are the chips that convert analog signals (lightness/darkness levels in the case of a scanner) into digital numbers the computer can understand. The number of bits of A/D resolution translate directly into the range of numbers that can be represented. Most "high end" desktop scanners today use 12-bit A/D devices, which divide the incoming signal into 4,096 possible digital values. This is good, but slide film can far exceed the "dynamic range" (range of light to dark values) that can be captured by a 12-bit A/D system.
The 8000 ED is the third desktop scanner we've seen that uses a 14-bit A/D (the Nikon Super Coolscan 4000ED was the first, the Canon FS 4000U was the second), which divides the input signal into 16,384 possible values. This improvement of a factor of four in digitizing accuracy (along with numerous other improvements in the signal-processing chain) translates into a much greater dynamic range for the scanner, and significantly reduced image noise in shadow areas. Along with its little brother the Super Coolscan 4000 ED, the 8000 ED is one of the lowest-noise scanners we've tested to date. (September, 2001)
The impact of the 8000 ED's improved electronics became apparent when we fed it our "Train" slide, an extraordinarily difficult slide to process. It's a shot of a black locomotive, with deep shadows and bright highlights under a near-noonday sun. The range of dark-to-light in it is about as extreme as slide film is capable of producing, and the slide constitutes a fiendishly difficult test of scanners' dynamic range capabilities. To be sure, we still needed to tweak the scanner settings a fair bit to achieve the ultimate in detail from this slide, but we immediately observed that even the default settings, with the scanner in 8-bit A/D mode produced better results than we've managed to obtain in the past with lesser scanners, even with extensive adjustment. When we brought the full panoply of controls and adjustments the 8000 ED offers to bear, we were literally amazed by the level of shadow detail we were able to extract from this slide, and the low noise levels we were able to achieve. No question about it, the 8000 ED equaled or bettered the performance of the Super Coolscan 4000 ED, and together they blew away every other scanner we've tested on this exceptionally difficult test.
Nikon's "Digital ICE" (for Image Correction Enhancement, licensed from aptly-named Applied Science Fiction) defect-removal solution is truly one of the most amazing innovations in scanner technology we've seen. Under optimal circumstances, it can completely remove scratches, dust, and fingerprints from a slide or negative, while leaving the underlying image untouched! Unfortunately, the light source in the Super Coolscan 8000 ED apparently makes Digital ICE much less effective on this unit than other Coolscan models.
Initially, Nikon and Applied Science Fiction were deliberately a little vague about how ICE works, but the technology is now well-known. It works by shining an infrared light through the film's emulsion, using the resulting scan information to create a "defect channel" showing where the dust and scratches are. The infrared light passes right through the layers of most color print or slide film, but is blocked by dust or scratches. (Note that this technique doesn't work with Kodachrome or black & white film, as those emulsions are either entirely or largely opaque to infrared light. The scanner will scan these emulsions just fine, but the Digital ICE function won't work.) The scanner and its associated firmware/software then interpolates the surrounding image information to "fill in the gaps" shown by the defect channel.
We noted in much of our scanning that the Super Coolscan 8000 ED had a very different light source than the smaller Coolscans we've tested in the past. (This makes sense, given the much larger area that needs to be covered in the 8000, to accommodate medium-format film.) We observed that the Super Coolscan 8000 ED was much less sensitive to surface defects on the film, as it almost completely ignored the microscopic chemical specks or emulsion defects on our high-res House target. Overall, it appeared that the 8000's light source was much more diffuse than that in the smaller Coolscans. This is very good news for routine dust and dirt, but we wondered what it would do to the 8000's Digital ICE capabilities. - We've observed in the past that scanners with highly collimated light sources tend to be the most effective with Digital ICE or other IR-based defect removal techniques, while those with more diffuse light sources do less well.
As it turned out, the Super Coolscan 8000 ED fit this pattern very well: Digital ICE seems quite a bit less effective on it than on the Super Coolscan 4000 ED or the Coolscan IV ED. On the other hand, the difference in the 8000's unadjusted response to dust and scratches is dramatically less pronounced in the first place. - At first, we bemoaned what we perceived as the reduced effectiveness of Digital ICE in the 8000 ED. When we compared it to the same feature in the Coolscan IV ED though, we stopped complaining. The Super Coolscan 8000 ED appears to deliver cleaner scans under any circumstance, and while the magnitude of the improvement due to Digital ICE is smaller, the ultimate result looks better to our eyes.
As always, a picture is worth (more than) a thousand words, so here are some crops from scans taken by the Super Coolscan 8000 ED and the Coolscan IV ED:
Overall, it would be hard to overemphasize the impact the Digital ICE technology could have in a production scanning environment: The tendency is to focus on severe damage of the sort we've shown here, but in practice, you're much more likely to encounter random dust specks that require tedious "spotting" to clean up. After working with it, we're convinced that Digital ICE can completely eliminate the need for this operation, at the savings of countless hours in production shops. We have to say that this is one of the most truly useful innovations we've seen to date in scanner technology, capable of saving literally hours of retouching for each damaged image it recovers!
Looking beyond the technical legerdemain of Digital ICE, the real magic of the Super Coolscan 8000 ED in this area may lie in its light source. The scanner seems perfectly capable of delivering tack-sharp scans, yet somehow manages to entirely avoid seeing specks of dust that would show up like boulders on the smaller Coolscan models. The impact of this is that many pieces of film that would demand Digital ICE (and the scan-time hit it brings) on the smaller Coolscans can be scanned "straight" on the 8000 ED, with similar results. Very impressive.
Digital ROC & GEM
In addition to the "Digital ICE" feature, the 8000 ED also features "Digital ROC" and "Digital GEM," both of which debuted on the LS-4000. ROC stands for "Recovery of Color," and it does an incredible job of extracting the original color information from badly faded color negative film. We didn't have suitable film to test this with ourselves, but we've seen any number of samples from both Nikon and other reviewers that demonstrate its capabilities.
GEM stands for "Grain Equalization and Management," and is a technology to remove the effects of film grain, without affecting image sharpness. We were a little suspicious of the claim that image detail wasn't affected, as it sounded a little too much like magic. As you can see from the samples above though (click on the image for a full-sized view), it really does seem to do a pretty good job. The test image here is the familiar "Q60" test slide from Kodak, which is imaged on Ektachrome slide film. This is a fairly fine-grained emulsion, and the image itself has to be at least one generation down from whatever the original image was. Thus, the sharpness of the subject could be questioned, relative to the size of the grain artifacts. (It would be interesting to test GEM on some higher-speed film, where the grain structures would be larger relative to the detail in the image.) Still, even allowing for the limitations of the test, the results are quite impressive.
Analog Gain Control
Underexposed slides or dense negatives are a challenge for any film scanner: With so little light coming through the film, the electronics have a hard time measuring it, and "noise" from the sensor often swamps the signal coming from the image. Approaches for dealing with this range from using analog-to-digital converters (the "measuring" component) with greater bit depth, to designing lower-noise electronics. Both of these approaches add substantial cost though, and the Coolscan IV is already an excellent performer in these areas.
Instead, Nikon took several different approaches to improving performance for high-density subjects. One of the most basic enhancements was to recognize that simply increasing the brightness of the light source would increase the amount of light making it through to the sensor. This is accomplished via the somewhat mis-labeled "analog gain control" function, which increases or decreases the brightness of the LEDs providing the illumination. (This is another welcome carryover from the earlier LS-2000 and the Super Coolscan 4000 ED design.) While this increases overall brightness and depth into the shadows (on slides, that is: in the highlights on negatives), the less-dense areas of the film can suffer from a light overload. Thus, this control's usefulness will depend somewhat on the particular image being scanned. It will be most useful on film or slides that are dark overall.
Scanning our "Train" image on the Coolscan IV, we actually found little need for the Analog Gain adjustment. While the shadow detail would have benefitted from it, we found we couldn't boost the controls much at all without losing highlight detail. It's possible that the default gain setting on the Coolscan IV is more sensitive than that on the original LS-2000. Whatever the case, the controls are there, and would surely be useful on film that was more uniformly dense. (For instance, slide film that was underexposed overall, or color negative film that was severely overexposed.)
This is another "trick" feature that's very handy (albeit time-consuming) to use for difficult, dense slides and negatives. When the amount of light transmitted through the film gets very low, electronic noise in the sensor and amplifier electronics becomes a significant factor. Fortunately, this noise is random, varying from one measurement to the next. Because the noise is random from one measurement to another, its effect tends to average-out over large numbers of measurements. As did the Super Coolscan 4000 ED and LS-2000 before it, the 8000 ED takes advantage of this by providing the option to average multiple measurements, taking either 1, 2, 4, 8, or 16 samples per pixel.
In practice, we felt there was little difference between the 1x and 4x settings, but the 16x seemed to noticeably (but not dramatically) improve noise in the shadows. Of course, there's a price to pay, in that the scans take a LOT longer, since the 8000 ED is essentially scanning the entire image 16 times. (A full-resolution 14-bit scan of our Train slide took only 52 seconds in 1x mode, but 7 minutes, 30 seconds in 16x mode.) Also, it appears that this function applies to the preview mode as well, drastically slowing preview scans. Thus, we recommend turning it off during previews and back on again for the main scan. Despite the inconvenience this introduces to the workflow, and the longer time it takes to perform a scan with the function enabled, the results can be well worth it for very dark slides. We venture to say that the 8000 ED is capable of extracting useful scans from slides that other scanners would be completely incapable of handling.
Full 14-bit per channel output
Adobe Photoshop(tm) versions 4.0 and higher and Corel PhotoPaint(tm) version 8.0 and higher can both handle images with up to 16 bits of data in the red, green, and blue color channels. In support of this, the 8000 ED can export TIFF files containing the full 14 bits of data per channel captured by the scanner. (Note though, that this doubles your file size, as the TIFF standard only supports either eight or 16 bits/channel.) This option is particularly valuable if you need to make substantial adjustments to tone or color after the scan is captured. By giving the application more data to work with, fairly radical tonal shifts can be made, without the severe "posterizing" of the image that can occur with 8-bit data.
"Bit Depth" is often the subject of specmanship amongst scanner makers. With high-bit A/D converters getting cheaper and cheaper, it's no longer prohibitive to put a 12, 14, or even 16-bit A/D in a higher-end scanner. Beyond the scanner's bit depth though, is the issue of system noise. Having more bits does you no good, if you're just digitizing noise from the sensor and electronics. Multi-sampling can help somewhat, but it'll only take you so far. This is why we feel that the 8000 ED's apparently inherently low noise is so significant. Some of this is due to the 14-bit A/D, but in our estimation, more of the impact is from a system design that results in lower noise overall.
Enabling the "Super Fine" scanning mode forces the 8000 ED to use only a single row of CCD sensors, avoiding the streaking problem. (Note that this is only an issue with scans involving extreme tonal adjustments.)
We confess we didn't see a great deal of benefit from this feature, but the Super Coolscan 8000 ED has a special "super fine" scan mode that uses only one of the three rows of pixels on its CCD line sensor. This supposedly reduces streaking in the image when extreme tonal adjustments are made to the image, apparently by eliminating the slight row-to-row differences between the CCD elements. We played with it only a little, but didn't see a great impact from it.
Most low-end scanners give you no choice about the "color space" the scan is performed in, simply making some broad assumption about the sort of monitor you're using, and how it is set up. By contrast, Nikon Scan and the 8000 ED provide a choice of a wide range of color spaces, and screen gamma settings of 1.8 and 2.2 (the default gammas for Windows and Macintosh monitors, respectively). With the color management option enabled, Nikon Scan also supports the full ICC-standard workflow. The software chooses an input profile based on the scanner model it detects, uses the one of the offered color spaces as the "edit" profile, and allows you to specify a monitor profile for accurate screen display. (You'd develop your own monitor profile using any of a number of available profiling applications.) The chart below (courtesy Nikon USA Inc) shows the colorimetric parameters for the standard edit color spaces offered.
For professional applications, ICC profiles and a robust color-management system are essential for repeatable color and an efficient workflow. Since we don't have any methodology for evaluating color-management systems, we didn't experiment with Nikon Scan's color management options. (Nikon also points out in their manual that the color management system both slows the scanning process and dramatically increases memory requirements.) When we tested the original LS-2000, we simply left the Nikon CMS turned off. With the 8000 ED, we left it on, and used the Apple RGB color space setting, with our (uncalibrated) monitor set to a gamma of 1.8 and white point of 6500 K. We're not really equipped to delve deeply into CMS systems here, but did note that the scans we obtained with the Apple RGB setting were much more color-accurate and didn't lose detail in highly-saturated colors the way scans in the sRGB system did. For critical professional work, the 8000 ED's full support of the ICC workflow is an important feature.
The Super Coolscan 8000 ED comes with three film holders, one for mounted 35mm slides, one for loose strips of 35mm film, and a third 120/220 strip film adapter that accommodates negative sizes from 6x4.5 to 6x9 cm. The various film adapters plug into a long cavity in the front of the unit. As mentioned earlier, the various media adapters can be plugged and unplugged with impunity at any time the 8000 ED isn't actually scanning. The scanner and driver software automatically recognize which adapter is currently in use.
The FH-835S 35mm strip film adapter can handle two strips of 35mm film from two to six frames long, side-by-side. The entire unit is made of plastic, and is fairly simple to open. It also seems fairly rugged, given the substantial mass of plastic accommodated by the large throat of the Super Coolscan 8000 ED.
The FH-835S handles curved film reasonably well, thanks to its clamshell top that holds the film in place, but we did find it a little frustrating keeping the film aligned as we closed the clamshell. Having two strips side by side was also a bit more challenging that dealing with them one at a time. Two masking sheets can be inserted into the adapter, either to block out unneeded frames, or fill up space if only one strip of film is in place. (This reduces flare within the scanner, from too much light bouncing around through empty film slots.) As it happened though, the masking strip was the cause of some serious hair-pulling with our 35mm resolution target. This is a strip of Kodak Tech Pan negative film, which has a rather thin base. The masking strips on the other hand are pretty thick pieces of plastic. - They seem a little thicker than typical color negative film, and were quite a bit heavier than the Tech Pan base. This held the halves of the clamshell apart slightly, meaning that the Tech Pan film strip was free to bow and warp slightly across the width/length of the frame. The result was that the scanner *would* not focus properly across the entire frame. Once we figured out what was going on (we're embarrassed to admit that it took a good half-dozen scans and at least an hour of time), we pulled the masking strip out, and got a reasonably good scan. The moral of this is that you'll perhaps want to make your own masking strips from some exposed (or unexposed, as the case may be) film of various film types, so the clamshell can firmly grasp the film you're scanning.
The FH-835M 35mm mounted-slide adapter holds as many as five mounted slides at a time, with sets of clips to hold each slide in place. Like the FH-835S strip film adapter, the FH-835M fits snugly into the opening in the front of the scanner and offers very straightforward operation. The fairly long plastic fingers on the slide adapter help it to accommodate thicker slide mounts easily, a nice feature if you're likely to encounter a wide range of mounts. A U-shaped barrier at the bottom of each slot constrains the slide's position, providing a solid reference surface to align the slides against. We liked the design quite a bit in that it provided a good position reference, but also allowed us to rotate the slides by a degree or so in either direction, to accommodate slides in which the film was rotated relative to the mount. Being able to make small alignment adjustments like this can save a lot of time on the computer, rotating the images in software.
The third adapter that accompanies the scanner is the FH-869S 120/220 strip film adapter, which holds as many as four 6x4.5 frames, three 6x6 frames, or two 6x7, 6x8, or 6x9 frames. Lining the top of the adapter on both edges are two flip-up plastic holders or clamps that keep the film in position. To insert film, you simply flip the holders upwards, and then close them again once the film is in position.
We particularly liked a feature of the 120/220 holder that let us put the film under slight tension in the mount. The inner edges of the recess that holds the film have high-friction soft plastic linings. The clamp on one side of the film is movable (by a couple of millimeters), with a "latch" that holds it in whatever position you like. (The photo inset right shows a closeup of the latch mechanism.) The trick is to close the side clamps with the movable one positioned toward the inner extreme of its range of motion. Then, pull on it gently to place the film under tension, and slide its locking lever over to hold that position. Putting the film under slight tension does a great deal to flatten it in the holder, making accurate focus across the entire frame much easier to achieve. A very nice design touch, in our estimation, addressing an issue with scanning larger pieces of film.
Five other adapters are available for the 8000 ED, none of which were packaged with our evaluation unit. Available separately are the FH-869G glass covered holder for 120/220 film, FH-869GR glass covered rotating holder for 120/220 film, FH-869M holder for 120/220 slide mounts, FH-816 holder for 16mm filmstrips, and FH-8GI medical slide holder (for slides from electron microscopes).
Bug: Image Misalignment, prescan/scan
We're not sure if this properly falls under "film handling", but it seemed like a good place to mention it. We encountered an annoying bug in the operation of Nikon Scan 3 with the Super Coolscan 8000 ED, when setting the cropping from the image preview window. The problem was that the cropping wasn't accurate! If we set the cropping carefully to just the area we wanted, we'd often end up with a portion of the image that was displaced a bit from what we'd specified. This wasn't a show-stopper, as cropping in scan preview windows is rarely accurate to the pixel level (meaning you're most likely always going to have to trim the images in an imaging program later), but we'd never before encountered this sort of significant, consistent error. To make sure we got the part of the image we were actually looking for, we had to routinely crop about 10-20% larger than we wanted, at least in the highest-resolution scan modes. (For what it's worth, we believe we saw this more often with the 6x7 film adapter than the 35mm, but didn't spend a lot of time trying to narrow down just when/how it happened vs not.) As we said, not an insuperable obstacle, but definitely something Nikon should fix in subsequent software releases. (And clearly something that should have been caught in software testing before release.)
System Interface and Included Software
As we mentioned earlier, the 8000 ED is an IEEE-1394 ("FireWire") based scanner. For those unfamiliar with the interface, it's a very high-speed serial connection originally developed by Apple Computer a number of years back. It's becoming increasingly popular now as a way of connecting high-speed peripherals to computers. (Digital camcorders and digital video editing seem to be driving much of the popularity of the interface.) The FireWire interface is very fast, although we never clocked the 8000 ED at as high a scan speed as Nikon claimed in its literature. (It's possible that their numbers were gathered for operation with the color management system turned off. All our scanning was done with the CMS enabled.) It's important to note too though, that the various advanced features such as Digital ICE and (especially) multi-sample scanning can greatly increase scan times.
On Mac systems with built-in FireWire connectors (in the current Mac lineup, all but the lowest-end iMacs have FireWire connections), connecting the scanner is as simple as plugging the FireWire cable into the computer's port. Windows users and owners of older Macs face the more daunting challenge of adding an IEEE-1394 adapter board to their system. Speaking from prior experience, if your system is relatively "clean" (not very many added pieces of hardware), and you only have a single hard drive interface device or card in your system, the 1394 card addition can be trivial. On the other hand, if your PC is stuffed to the seams with extra cards and interfaces, you may have problems getting a 1394 card to work at all. If you're not comfortable messing about with the innards of your computer, we recommend finding a knowledgeable service organization to do the installation for you. Another important note: The 8000 ED uses a 6-pin 1394 cable, while some computers (Sony VAIO laptops are mentioned in the manual) have a 4-pin connection. If your computer is one of those, you'll need a 6-pin/4-pin adapter.
Included software consists of the Nikon Scan 3 software drivers (along with Photoshop and TWAIN drivers). We'll talk more about the Nikon Scan software below, but one fact deserves mention at the outset: First, the software is very memory intensive. Thankfully, memory has gotten dirt cheap lately, so you can afford to buy plenty. When we last checked, 256 megabyte DIMMs could be had for well under $100. Buy one. We also had severe trouble with the Photoshop plug-in on our G4 Mac: It simply would not run, regardless of how we pared down the system folder, or how much memory we allocated to Photoshop. We had no trouble with the Nikon Scan 3.1 application, but it would have been more convenient to be able to scan directly into Photoshop. Hopefully this will be fixed with a software patch in the near future.
Operation and User Interface
Like the Super Coolscan 4000 ED before it, the Super Coolscan 8000 ED has one of the richest user interfaces we've seen in a desktop scanner. The extent of control it provides over the scanning process is unmatched, but this flexibility comes at some cost in terms of the learning curve associated with it. (And in terms of the number of words and pictures we'll need here to describe it all to you.) Stay with us, we'll try to fit it all in! (We'll resort to a more terse presentation of some of the features, based on heavy use of screen shots. Hopefully, this will make the information easier to scan through, while keeping the word-count to a reasonable level!)
All scanner operations are controlled from the main window of the Nikon Scan application. The system of "drawers" used to organize scanning controls in Nikon Scan 2 has been replaced with the much more convenient and intuitive tool palette shown below. We'll step through the various operations in roughly the order one would encounter them during normal scanning.
Normal Operating Sequence
As we step through the myriad functions of the various control panels and interface screens, it would be easy to get lost in a maze of features, and end up with little actual idea of how the scanner and software actually work. To counter this, we present here a very basic outline of the sequence of operations, with links to the appropriate parts of the more-detailed operating description. Our hope is that this will concisely convey a sense of how the scanner works, while still allowing for the excruciating detail we're known for. Herewith the sequence:
- Launch application or acquire module
- Insert film strip
- Pop open thumbnail drawer, if film strip (Main control panel)
- Select thumbnail (Main control panel)
- Preview scan (Main control panel)
- Set cropping and resolution (Scan size palette)
- Tonal adjustment (Curves and levels palette)
- Color correction (Color balance palette)
- Scan it! (Main control panel)
Main Control Panel Overview
Given the unusual number of parameters and controls that Nikon Scan incorporates, the user interface was a significant challenge for the program's designers. How to effectively display the huge number of controls without using-up all the available "real estate" on the computer screen? In the prior version of Nikon Scan, Nikon used "drawers" that slid out to reveal groups of controls. We weren't keen on this interface initially, but warmed up to it a fair bit. In Nikon Scan 3.1, Nikon's gone to a separate tool palette window, that displays a list of available control groupings, each of which expands into an inline window when you click on its heading.
Other than the missing "drawers" interface, the new main control panel looks much like the old one. It isn't the primary information display you'll use during scanning, but does display some status information, such as scan type (negative/positive), color space (Grayscale, Calibrated RGB, CMYK). Basic information on scanner settings is provided, including the current crop size in pixels, final file size, and settings for certain key features. A color readout appears in the pane under the settings information when your cursor is over the image. The detailed crop size and color information readouts that appeared here in Nikon Scan 2 have now been moved to a tool palette window.
When you're scanning from a film strip, a popout "drawer" appears just off the upper righthand corner of the tool display in this view, that lets you select the frame of interest, and which shows thumbnails of all the frames in the strip which you've preview-scanned.
Across the top of the panel, a double row of buttons provides the following functions: Eject media, autofocus (two options), zoom out, zoom in, and auto-contrast adjust. The autofocus process may be conducted at a user-selected point in the image, by holding down the option key on the keyboard (the ALT key on PCs?) when clicking on the button, and then clicking on the desired point within the preview window.
The main control panel contains six named buttons. Here are their functions:
- Prefs - Brings up the Preferences window (more on this later).
- Help - Calls up the help system.
- Tools - Displays the Tool Palette window.
- Preview - Normally (if option is set in preferences) prescans image, adjusts exposure, and displays in preview window for cropping or manual tonal/color adjustment.
- Scan - Performs full-resolution scan, incorporating any manual exposure, color, or tonal adjustments.
Variable Preview Size!
This was a feature we liked a great deal on the earlier Nikon Scan 2 -- the ability to resize the preview area to take in as much screen real estate as you have available. In professional applications, proper setting of highlight and shadow points based on pixel-value readouts can be critical. The small, fixed-size preview images employed by many low-end scanners can make it difficult or impossible to select the exact area you want to take a brightness/color reading from. In Nikon Scan, you can take advantage of professional-sized monitors, by expanding the preview window to the edges of the screen. Note though, that doing so greatly increases preview scan times, because the software automatically scans at a resolution appropriate to the size of the preview window you're using.
Accessed via the "Pref" button on the main control panel, the Preferences window (shown below) allows you to control many of the most basic scanning characteristics. Most of the settings here fall into the "set it and forget it" category, as you won't need to change them frequently. When the Pref button is clicked, the window below appears. Five different tabs select different scan parameters to adjust. The five tabs and their associated controls are described below. This window defaults to the "gamma" adjustment screen shown when opened.
- Gamma - For adjusting the output "gamma" values used in displaying preview images and in making the final scan. (To drastically oversimplify, gamma is a measure of how "light" or "dark" midtone brightness is relative to the ends of the tonal scale. This is a fairly important adjustment, particularly for a device that may be used on either Macintosh or Windows platforms, which have significantly different default gamma settings.)
- Color Management - As mentioned earlier, the Coolscan IV supports a very sophisticated "color management" system, allowing it to be calibrated to different display or output devices. The Color Management preferences allow you to choose ICC-standard color profiles for the preview, main scan, and CMYK output respectively. NOTE that messing around with the color management settings can significantly alter up your images! Unless you know what you're doing, leave these settings at the factory defaults. (On the other hand, if you *do* know what you're doing, the provided CMS seems to be very capable.) ANOTHER NOTE: The color management system is very powerful, but is also a huge consumer of system resources. If you find scans running excessively slow, or the scanning software requiring massive amounts of memory, try turning the color management system off entirely.
- Scratch Disks (Mac)/File Locations (Windows) - Due to its high resolution and great bit depth, scans made with the Coolscan IV can be huge, often larger than your system memory would support directly. To accommodate such large amounts of data, Nikon Scan uses hard drive space for "scratch memory," to hold pieces of the image data on a temporary basis. This panel lets you specify which of your hard drives you want the application to use for this purpose. (Note that, while Nikon Scan uses virtual memory to swap data out to a scratch disk, you'll see significantly higher performance if you can just give it all the RAM it needs. - With RAM now selling at well under $100 for a 256 MB DIMM, we strongly recommend giving Nikon Scan a couple of hundred megabytes of its own.)
- Single Scan - You can set Nikon Scan to automatically perform certain tasks such as autofocus and exposure before making a preview, or automatically preview images whenever film is inserted into the scanner. In standalone mode (e.g., not the Photoshop plug-in), you can also have it perform a variety of options after the scan, such as saving the scanned images directly to disk. The Single Scan window governs these settings when you scan images one at a time. Pre-scan options include autofocus, autoexposure for positive film, and autoexposure for negative film. Post-scan options include automatic file saving, or ejection of the film.
- Batch Scan - Sets the same pre- and post-scanning options as the Single Scan window, but for those times when you're scanning multiple images on a filmstrip. Additional batch-only options cover logging of the scanning progress to a file, error handling, and how to handle file saving between separate scans.
- File Saving - The file saving setup window lets you select the default file format and compression setting (if applicable), and the creator code (on Macs) for the saved files. In operation, a file naming settings window appears when you initiate a batch scan, letting you set file name prefixes, suffixes, the number of digits used to distinguish between the files, and the starting number to use in the file naming.
- Automatic Actions - This window controls whether or not the scanner will automatically do a preview scan whenever film is inserted into either a single or multiple-image adaptor, and how many thumbnails to create on multi-image strips of film. It also determines whether an autofocus operation should be performed whenever the focus point is changed.
- Advanced Color - Useful for prepress scanning (where color balance may shift as a function of output density), this window lets you set custom white, gray, and black points in RGB, CMYK, or grayscale color spaces.
- Preview Settings - This is where you can either gain or lose large amounts of time in your use of the Coolscan IV! Nikon Scan 3 lets you decide whether you want various operations to be performed on the preview scans as well as on the final ones. Options here include autoexposure, autofocus, Digital ICE, and whether or not to cache the preview image when used with the MA-20 slide mount adapter. The manual says that autoexposure and autofocus are only performed on one preview per frame, but our eval unit insisted on doing it *every time* we did a fresh preview scan on a piece of film. Turning off the autoexposure/autofocus options shortened our preview scan times from nearly a minute to only 20 seconds. (!)
- Grid Settings - You can optionally display an alignment/cropping grid over the preview image, to assist in setting cropping boundaries. This window lets you control the dimensions, spacing, and marking of that grid.
Pop-out "Tool Palette" menus
Finally, we get back to the actual scanning controls! As mentioned earlier, there are no fewer than 10 sub-windows on the "Tool Palette" window, each offering a range of controls. They're generally arranged in the order in which you would encounter them during the normal scanning process. Here's what they all are:
The first Tools palette controls the general setup of the scan. Buttons here let you change the image's orientation, move the preview window around (if it's too big to fit into the available screen area), select a cropping tool, zoom in on an already-scanned image (standalone mode only), set the focus point for autofocus operations, rotate the image in 90 degree increments, either right or left, and flip the image, either horizontally or vertically. (In Nikon Scan 2, many of these functions appeared in the main scan window.)
This is more info that used to appear in the main scanning window. The X and Y coordinates are the current cursor location in pixels. The two sets of red, green, and blue (RGB) values are the raw scan data, and the values after any curves, color, or other adjustments are applied. The four numbers on the right are the coordinates of the left top corner of the current cropping window, and its width and height, both in pixels.
This menu controls the scan size and resolution. At first contact, this window was a little confusing, but we pretty quickly got the hang of it. With the "Keep this Crop" button checked, the W/H readout will be in pixels, at maximum scanner resolution. Once you've selected the area you want, you can set its size by simply typing in the desired final width or height into the appropriate box under "Keep this Output Size," and the Scale slider will respond as needed. If you're scanning to a fixed output size in pixels, you can check the "Keep this Output Size" box, and the final dimensions of the file will remain fixed, with the crop area in the main scan window sizing up or down proportionately as you drag its borders. What we found very confusing was the "Pixels per Inch" indicator in the bottom of the window. It only applies to the resolution that's recorded in the *output* file, not in the resolution that the scan is actually done at. The output resolution becomes significant when the image is pasted into a document that associates an output resolution with it, but for most purely photographic purposes, you'll be able to ignore it.
This window is the one we found ourselves using most often for adjusting the tonal balance of our scans. It displays the tonal content of the image in a histogram window, with the graph indicating how many pixels in the image have each brightness value. This is an interface familiar to us from Photoshop, and is our preferred method of making tonal adjustments in images. (The one feature we found lacking is one available only in the Macintosh versions of Photoshop--the ability to see what parts of the image are "blowing out" to pure white or "plugging" to solid black in response to the settings of the white/black point sliders.) This control in Nikon Scan is interesting though, in that it combines histogram controls with a tone curve, either of which may be manipulated from the same control panel.
You can choose to adjust the tonal balance in the image either automatically or manually. The "auto" button seems to do a pretty fair job of setting highlight, shadow, and gamma values, but we usually found ourselves manipulating the controls manually, to achieve best results. As in Photoshop, the black point slider sets a minimum brightness value for the image. Any pixel values below this level will be set to zero. Likewise, the white point slider sets the maximum brightness value. Any pixel values above this level will be set to 255. Values in between the extremes are stretched to cover the range specified. The "gamma" slider in the middle controls how the midtone values are mapped from input to output, by setting the brightness value the program will map to a 50 percent gray. Thus, sliding the gamma control to the right will darken the image, while sliding it to the left will brighten it.
For tricky images, you can add control points to the "gamma" curve simply by clicking anywhere in the histogram/gamma grid. A point will be added wherever you click, and the curve adjusted to pass through the new point. This provides very fine control over input/output tonal mapping, which experienced users can take advantage of to make optimal use of the available tonal range.
You can also operate on each of the color channels separately with the curves-levels controls, simply by clicking on the channel menu button (the one that says "RGB," at the top of the window), and pulling down to select the specific color channel you're interested in. This feature can be very useful for working with images that have color casts or unusual lighting.
Finally, Nikon Scan provides eye dropper controls for setting white, gray, and black points directly from the preview image. This is probably the fastest method, and simultaneously removes most color casts from your images. All in all, a very handy interface!
As a simpler alternative to the curves-levels window, the "Color Balance" option provides fairly rudimentary controls to adjust the brightness, contrast, and color balance of the image as a whole. (In grayscale scanning mode, only the brightness and contrast sliders will appear.) These controls work exactly as you would expect, but in our experience are of limited value for obtaining professional results. Nonetheless, they can be a quick way to make overall image adjustments, and may be the fastest way to process large numbers of noncritical scans.
This is a new addition to Nikon Scan, and more or less duplicates the operation of the unsharp masking control in Photoshop. We've seldom (never?) seen this capability in other scanner software outside of Nikon, and it's a welcome addition. It makes it feasible to scan for publication (printed output) as a one-step process, without having to pass through Photoshop or another application as part of your workflow. Not shown here is the pulldown menu on the right (it pops up out of the second button down from the top right corner) that lets you choose what color channels you want to apply the unsharp masking to. The one limitation is that it only supports the primary colors in its channel selections (red, green, blue, cyan, magenta, yellow, or all), not the derived luminance channel that can be so handy in critical sharpening operations. (Don't through away your copy of Photoshop just yet.)
All of the preceding discussion is based upon the RGB or CMYK color space options. In Hue/Saturation/Level color space, the curves-levels controls work quite differently.
Quite frankly, we didn't experiment much with the HSL controls in Nikon Scan, but they appear to offer very powerful tools for selectively correcting colors in an image. In particular, the Hue channel control lets you shift a specific color to a different one, without affecting other colors in the image. For instance, you could change a red flower to a yellow one, without affecting blue or purple flowers. However, any other red objects in the input image would also be shifted to yellow as well.
This HSL control is unique among the scanners we have tested, and appears to be an exceptionally powerful tool, albeit one that could require a bit of learning to use to its full effectiveness. We regret not being able to cover it in greater detail here, but frankly it's beyond the scope of even one of our reviews! (If a reader wanted to write a detailed explanation of how he/she uses this function though, we'd be happy to post it separately, on a linked page.)
Digital ICE Cubed
This is control central for Digital ICE, ROC, and GEM, described earlier. Digital ICE (the dust/scratch remover) has two settings, normal and fine. Fine is for use with very small defects, but affects image sharpness more. ROC (Recovery of Color) and GEM (Grain Equalization and Management) each have a range of settings, from zero to 10 for ROC, zero to four for GEM, both in arbitrary units. We found little need to mess with the ICE setting, but did observe that the range of adjustment in GEM was useful. (We didn't have any suitably faded negatives to experiment with ROC on.)
As described earlier, the analog gain settings actually control the brightness of the LEDs that illuminate the film. This is a pretty powerful control for pulling detail out of extreme shadows, and appears to offer a much greater range than the same control on the original LS2000 scanner. On the Super Coolscan 8000, we made good use of the analog gain controls on our "Train" slides, although the new train slide wouldn't tolerate much of a boost, as the highlights on it are so close to transparent.
We also found the analog gain control very useful with our Tech Pan-based 35mm resolution target. Exposed and developed for maximum resolution, this is a very "thin" emulsion, to the point that we found the default scanner settings just poured way too much light through it. We boosted the analog gain setting almost to its maximum (in the case of negative scanning, this actually cuts the brightness of the LEDs), and managed to obtain a very good scan.
This is the menu that controls scanning depth, multi-sample scanning, one-line scanning, and manual focus adjustments. Here's what the different controls do:
- Pixel data size - Choices are 8- or 14-bit, referring to the bit depth of the R,G, and B color channels. 14-bit images are converted to 16-bit depth when opened by compatible applications, or to eight bits if the CMYK color space is being used. Images in HSL color space are always processed at a bit depth of 16 bits per pixel, but converted to eight bits when passed to the host application, if the 8-bit option is selected.
- Manual focus adjustment - We found the 8000 ED's automatic focus to be pretty effective, especially when using the option that allows you to select a specific (preferably high-detail) portion of the image to focus on. To focus manually, you adjust the slider on this menu, then observe the results in the preview window. Often, for really critical focusing, you need to take multiple scans and then look back to see which was the sharpest. The numeric indication of focus position helps make small adjustments accurately.
- Multi-sample scanning - Also described earlier, this option allows you to select 1, 2, 4, 8, or 16 samples per pixel. Greatly lengthens scan time at the higher settings, but noticeably reduces noise in deep shadows.
- Super Fine Scan Mode - Scans film one line at a time, as opposed to the standard trilinear scanning process. Scanning with one line typically results in better quality images, but scan time is three times longer.
- Auto focus Option - Tells the scanner to perform an autofocus with each new piece of film inserted.
- Calibrate - Recalibrates the scanner, particularly useful when the same film has been left in the scanner for an extended period of time.
The extraordinary power of the 8000 ED leads to a fairly complicated set of controls (as seen above), but Nikon's new scanning software does a good job of segregating functions into logical groups, making it easy to keep track of where you are and what you're adjusting. Tweaking the scanning controls manually to get the "perfect" scan proved slightly time-consuming (depending on how fanatical we got about getting things exactly right, it could be very time-consuming!), but the results were well worth it, especially on "problem" slides. For more ordinary tasks, the automatic adjustment button on the "curves" control panel made one-click adjustments that were surprisingly accurate. In many cases, many minutes of fine-tuning and manual tweaking produced results only marginally better than the one-click curves adjustment. If you can stay within the range of control afforded by the automated options in Nikon Scan 3, the 8000 ED is a very efficient scanner to work with. If you find that you need to delve into the "deeper" parts of the software's capabilities though, things can slow considerably.
We found that it was essential to turn off many of the pre-preview options in the scanning software, in order to get good throughput. You can have the scanner autofocus, perform auto exposure, and apply Digital ICE and multi-sample scanning to the preview images it shows you prior to the main scan itself. These options will give you a much more accurate preview, and can be essential when working with difficult pieces of film. They come at a very high cost though, stretching preview scan times to more than a minute in many cases. (And much more than a minute if you enable the multi-sample option.)
As tedious as we found some of the scanner's more esoteric options though, it's hard to overstate the value of the Digital ICE defect-removal feature in a production environment. It'll literally save you hours of retouching time that would otherwise be spent removing dust specs and minor scratches from your scans. Depending on the labor rate you choose to value such time at, Digital ICE could literally pay for the entire scanner investment in one large job.
In general, the scan times we measured were quite a bit longer than Nikon's stated specs for the unit. This may have been due to a difference in computer platform. We used the scanner connected to a PowerMac G4/500MHz, using the internal FireWire ports under Mac OS 9.1, while Nikon's numbers were derived from a 850 MHz Pentium III machine using the provided FireWire card. (For the record, we had the Mac's virtual memory turned on for these measurements, but repeated a couple with virtual memory off and it made no difference.) Here's a chart, showing both Nikon's timings and ours, for a variety of scan conditions:
|Preview (no AF/AE, Nikon clr mgmt)||
|Preview (AF/AE, Nikon clr mgmt)||
|Preview w/Digital ICE (no AF/AE)||
|Preview, w/ Digital ICE, ROC, GEM||
|Full-Res scan, no ICE, ROC, GEM||
|Full-Res scan, no ICE, ROC, GEM,
but with AF/AE
|Full-Res scan, w/Digital ICE, AF/AE||
|Full-Res scan, w/Digital ICE, AF/AE||
|1536x1048 "Train" scan, 8bit,
w/AE, no AF
|1536x1048 "Train" scan, 14bit,
w/AE, no AF
|1536x1048 "Train" scan, 8bit,
w/AE, no AF, 16x multi-sampling
|1536x1048 "Train" scan, 8bit,
w/AE, no AF, 16x multi-sampling
(6 x 7 film)
|Preview (no AF/AE, Nikon clr mgmt)||24 s|
|Preview (AF/AE, Nikon clr mgmt)||41 s|
|Preview w/Digital ICE (no AF/AE)||1m 42s|
|Full-Res scan, no ICE, ROC, or GEM||150 s||6m 17s|
|Full-Res scan, no ICE, ROC, or GEM, Super Fine Scan mode||7m 26s|
|Full-Res scan, w/Digital ICE||17m 55s|
As with the other Nikon scanners we've tested, routine scans happen fairly quickly on the 8000 ED, while tweaking takes a good bit of time. The automatic functions (auto exposure, one-click curves adjustment, and most notably Digital ICE) save huge amounts of time. (Although Digital ICE can consume quite a lot of scanner time, especially on 6x7 frames!) Previews take a while regardless, especially if you choose to apply autofocus and autoexposure to the preview scans.
While Nikon doesn't report many scanning times for the Super Coolscan 8000 ED (as compared to the 4000 ED and Coolscan IV), we're concerned that the times we measured were so much longer than those claimed by Nikon (377 seconds vs 150 seconds for a full-frame 6x7 scan). Of course, we were working with a 500 MHz G4 PowerMac in a 400 MB memory partition, using the internal FireWire connection, while Nikon's times were collected on an 850 MHz Pentium III system, running Windows, and using Nikon's provided FireWire card. It's entirely possible therefore, that Windows users would see the much faster scan times Nikon reports. Given that our G4 was running very recent system software (OS 9.1), and is a reasonably fast machine, we expect that other Mac users could expect the kinds of times we found. On a positive note though, we were quite able to work on other tasks on the computer while the scanner was working in the background: Other than times we were collecting the performance figures listed above (when we didn't want to do anything that might impede the scan), we managed to get quite a lot of other work done while the scanner was cranking away.
For a full analysis of the results we obtained with the Nikon Super Coolscan 8000 ED, check our sample pictures page for it. - You'll find a full analysis of each of our standard test scans there, as well as the sample images themselves. For now, a brief summary of what we found:
Like the 35mm-only 4000 ED model that we tested before it, the Super Coolscan 8000 ED delivers an exceptional level of image quality and detail, tying with the 4000 ED for top honors among the scanners we've tested to date. (Early September, 2001.) Taking advantage of all its advanced capabilities can be an exercise in patience, as you really need to repeat preview scans to see the results of changes you've made in scanner settings, particularly if critical highlight values are involved. While working on our difficult "Train" standard test images, we discovered that the highlight values in the image saturated at RGB values less than 255. Thus, the only way to tell if we'd blown out highlights was to very carefully scrutinize the curves-panel histogram display. Given the amount of time that preview scans take, this significantly impacted scanning throughput. - Other notes from prior Nikon scanners do apply though: Plan to routinely leave the autofocus/autoexposure controls disabled for preview scans, as this saves considerable time.
Fortunately, apart from really difficult, ultra-dense slides and negatives, the automatic exposure/contrast setting in Nikon Scan 3 works quite well, meaning that you can dispense with much of the fiddling about with exposure that would otherwise be required. - And if you do need to tweak tonal and color values somewhat, Nikon Scan 3 provides a very powerful interface. It can be challenging to become comfortable with, but once mastered it provides an exceptional toolset.
Probably the biggest time savings comes from the Digital ICE (and to a lesser extent GEM and ROC) built into the 8000 ED's firmware. Digital ICE does a superb job of removing routine dust and minor scratches, potentially saving hours of retouch and spotting time.
The times savings from Digital ICE are great, but we did find that the Super Coolscan 8000 ED scanned much more slowly on our PowerMac G4 than Nikon's few published benchmarks would indicate. It wasn't drastically slower than other scanners we've tested on our Mac, it's just that the figures we came up with are so radically different than Nikon's that we wonder if anything is amiss. (It could be that Nikon's numbers were derived from a Windows-based Pentium system, rather than a PowerMac.) Still, even though the 8000 ED doesn't seem dramatically slower than other scanners we've tested, the time involved in film scanning is often the first rude awakening new users report to us. (So ratchet up your patience level before you jump into scanning, and don't plan on a lot of double-espressos if you want to keep your sanity.)
We had a couple of significant complaints about Nikon Scan's operation with the Super Coolscan 8000 ED though. The first we mentioned just above: On slides with very wide tonal range, it was impossible to tell when we'd saturated (blown out) the highlights, working only by the RGB data readout driven by the cursor. This was because the maximum "white" value the scanner produced was something less than 255, 255, 255. Instead, we were reduced to squinting at the Curves control histogram display, to see if we were developing a spike at the extreme righthand side.
The second complaint (mentioned earlier in the review, repeated here for clarity) was that we found the cropping control in the preview window to be consistently inaccurate, meaning that we had to under-crop all our images a fair bit, in order to be certain of getting the area we wanted in our final scan. This is clearly a bug that should be fixed by Nikon. It wasn't an insuperable obstacle, since we routinely do fine cropping in Photoshop anyway, but was definitely an annoyance.
Thanks to its 14 bit A/D and unusually "quiet" electronics, the Super Coolscan 8000 ED did an excellent job with very dense film, such as our notorious "Train" image. In fact, Nikon's new signal-processing circuitry is so noise-free that we found only marginal benefits from scanning dense film at 14 bits of image depth, and saw only slight improvement in noise levels when we used the multi-sample scanning feature. We did notice some banding on very dense film, when extreme tonal corrections had been applied. (We do mean *extreme* too, we're talking a boost of the gamma of 3.0, in addition to significant stretching of the tonal range.) Nikon provides a special "one line" scanning mode to deal wit this though, that forces the scanner to use only a single row of CCD elements to scan the entire image. This completely eliminated the problem, but at some cost in scan times.
The Super Coolscan 8000 ED seems to have very sharp optics, doing a good job of keeping the entire 6x7 film frame in focus, with only very slight softening in the corners. This was the first 4000 dpi scanner we've tested that was capable of handling medium-format film, and we were very impressed with the level of detail the 8000 ED extracted from a Fuji Velvia transparency of our digicam resolution target. - The combination of medium format film and 4000 dpi scanning went so far beyond what we're accustomed to seeing from 35mm negs that we'd be seriously considering a medium-format camera setup, if we weren't saving our pennies for a Nikon D1X digital SLR.
Overall, we liked the Super Coolscan 8000 ED quite a bit, as we did its less-expensive siblings, the 4000 ED and Coolscan IV ED. We don't object to the somewhat intimidating Nikon Scan user interface as much on the 8000 ED as we did on the prosumer IV ED, feeling that pros likely to buy this sort of device will want all the control they can get, and that Nikon Scan 3 certainly delivers it.
Overall, the Super Coolscan 8000 ED looks like an excellent tool for professional photographers or design houses who work with a range of film formats. We're not sure we can suggest the 8000 ED as a replacement for "drum" scanning, but there's no question that the images produced by the Super Coolscan are publication quality. (We're having some scans of our "New Train" slide done on a professional prepress scanner as we write this, so we'll see just how close the 8000 ED and its desktop ilk come to that quality level...)
There's a lot more to say about the details of the test scans we captured, and we say it all on the sample pictures page. Check it out! An impressive scanner, and a relative bargain at roughly $3,000 retail. (A new price benchmark for a medium-format scanner with these capabilities!)
The Bottom Line
As a tool for extracting the maximum amount of information from a piece of film, the 8000 ED literally has no equal in the desktop scanner world. (At least, among the scanners we've tested to date.) Applying its full power involves a substantial learning curve, and can require some patience, but the results easily exceed anything we've yet seen from any desktop scanner apart from its little brother, the 35mm-only Super Coolscan 4000 ED. If you need to scan both 35mm and medium format film, the Super Coolscan 8000 ED looks like a good bet.