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Minolta Dimage Scan Elite II Film & Slide Scanner
2820 dpi, 16 bit A/D, and excellent optics. High performance at a bargain price

(Review first posted 04/2/2002)


 
*
Very good dynamic range, thanks to 16-bit A/D
*
Scans 35mm and APS formats
(APS with optional adapter)
*
2820 dpi maximum resolution
*
8- or 16-bit scanning modes
*
Digital ICE, ROC, and GEM adjustments
*
Multi-sample scanning up to 16x

Don't forget to visit our Sample Pictures page for the DSEII!

Overview
Minolta is a company with long experience in the world of film, and extensive digital expertise previously applied in the areas of office electronics and imaging (copiers & printers). They made somewhat of a slow start in digital photography, although their scanner line has shown good performance and value for the dollar. The last year has seen Minolta achieve leadership status in digital cameras though, with the introduction of their high-end, five-megapixel Dimage 7 prosumer model, the high end of a line that also includes the three-megapixel Dimage 5 and Dimage S304 models. Now, they're updated their scanner lineup, first with the Dimage Scan Multi Pro (read my review here), and now with the Dimage Scan Elite II.

The Minolta Dimage Elite II film scanner competes in the midrange of the 35mm scanner market in terms of price, but has some impressive specifications, including 16 bit A/D conversion, and advanced features like Digital ICE, ROC, and GEM, and multi-sample scanning for noise reduction. With a current (April, 2002) street price of just under $700, the Dimage Scan Elite II offers unprecedented scanning capability and performance at a very attractive price.


High Points

  • Supports both 35mm and APS film formats. (APS adapter is an optional accessory)
  • 8- or 16-bit digitization.
  • 2,820 dpi maximum resolution.
  • One-pass scanning with trilinear RGB CCD sensor.
  • User interface accommodates both beginners and experienced users.
  • Three-wavelength, cold cathode fluorescent light source.
  • Digital ICE, ROC, and GEM technology.
  • Up to 16x multi-sample scanning.


The Basics

An upgrade to their Dimage Scan Elite (which I reviewed previously), the Dimage Scan Elite II replaces the earlier model's SCSI host connection with dual USB/FireWire (IEEE 1394) interfaces and upgrades the A/D converter to 16 bits. It also offers expanded color management options, and adds Digital ROC and GEM processing to the Digital ICE seen in the original Elite. The Elite II has a short/wide profile more reminiscent of the Dimage Scan Multi Pro than the taller design of the original Elite. Dimensions are 5.7 x 3.9 x 12.8 inches (145 x 100 x 325 millimeters), and the unit weighs in at 3.3 pounds (1.5 kilograms). The standard unit ships equipped to scan 35mm film, and an optional adapter allows scanning of APS film.

The software CD shipped with the unit supports both Mac and Windows platforms, with standalone scanning applications for both, as well as a Photoshop acquire plug-in for the Mac, and TWAIN drivers for the PC. Mac OS versions 8.6 through 9.1 are supported, OS X doesn't appear to be supported as of this writing in mid-March, 2002. On the PC platform, most recent Windows versions are supported, including 98, 98SE, 2000 Professional, Me, and XP.

Scanning resolution can be as high as 2,820 dpi, with an RGB trilinear CCD element that slides across the film in one pass. This produces maximum image sizes of 2,688 x 4,032 pixels for 35mm, or 1,920 x 3,328 pixels for APS.

Another important scanning parameter is "bit depth," a measure of both color accuracy and the maximum density range the scanner can recognize. The Dimage Scan Elite II is built around a 16 bit A/D, an exceptional spec in and of itself. (Although you'll see that its performance is about equivalent to 14-bit scanners I've tested in the past.)

(Some of)The Details
The Dimage Scan Elite II is a very capable scanner (much like the previous Dimage Scan Multi Pro, though without the medium format film capability), but at the same time scores big in the ease-of-use department. Since the scanner can handle both 35mm and APS film formats, it should appeal to a wide range of experience levels and anyone interesting in digitally archiving film. I'll cover its features in detail further on, but thought it worth calling attention to a few of the Dimage Scan Elite II's key features at the top of the review. Overall, there's no question that it sets a high standard for scanners in this market segment. Here are a few of the key points:

2,820 dpi Resolution
The Dimage Scan Elite II has a very high scanning resolution, meaning you can see a lot of detail in its scans. Though several higher-end scanners (including Minolta's own Dimage Scan Multi Pro) offer scanning resolutions as high as 4,800 dpi, the Dimage Scan Elite II's 2,820-dpi resolution is excellent for 35mm film, offering the ability to create very high quality digital prints.


Digital ICE
The "Digital ICE" (for Image Correction Enhancement, licensed from aptly-named Applied Science Fiction) defect-removal solution is one of my favorite scanning innovations. Under optimal circumstances, it can completely remove scratches, dust, and fingerprints from a slide or negative, while leaving the underlying image virtually untouched. The piece of film the scans below were taken from fell onto a cement floor and was literally walked upon. Even with this extreme level of damage, the results were quite noteworthy.

 

Digital ICE: Minolta Dimage Scan Elite II
At maximum scanner resolution, the defects cover significant areas of subject detail, making correction much more difficult.
At this resolution level, Digital ICE can correct most, but not all of the defects. What's left would be much easier to deal with manually, in a program such as Photoshop(tm) or PhotoPaint(tm), though. On the Dimage Scan Elite II, Digital ICE is a little less effective than I've seen on other scanners, although the improvement is still dramatic, and will save you enormous amounts of retouching time nonetheless. (As noted in the text below, this is an unusually severe example of film damage though: The DSEII's Digital ICE works much better on simple dust.)

 

Digital ICE works by observing how infrared light is transmitted 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 effect CAN work with special process black & white film, such as film processed in a C-41 process.) The scanner and its associated firmware/software then interpolates the surrounding image information to "fill in the gaps" shown by the defect channel.

Digital ICE shows different results on different scanners, depending on the particulars of each units optics and illumination system. On the Dimage Scan Elite II, Digital ICE seems less effective than on some other scanners. It appears to work well enough for random dust specks, but less so in situations where the film is actually damaged. (Scratched emulsion.) Somewhat mitigating this is the fact that the scanner's diffuse, cold-cathode-based illumination system tends to reduce the impact of light scratches somewhat in the first place.

I've found Digital ICE to be remarkably useful in routine scanning. While the tendency is to focus on extreme cases like the piece of film I showed above, its real usefulness comes in removing the little bits of dust and lint that are almost impossible to entirely eliminate short of a clean-room environment. With any volume of scanning work to do, you'll save literally hours of time in after-the-fact spotting and retouching. Very handy!

Digital ROC & GEM
In addition to the "Digital ICE" feature, the Dimage Scan Elite II also features "Digital ROC" and "Digital GEM." ROC stands for "Recovery of Color," and it does an surprisingly job of extracting the original color information from badly faded color negative film. I don't have any really suitable film to test this with myself, but I've seen any number of samples from the same technology on other scanners 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. While the Digital ICE and ROC features don't provide any adjustments in the scanner software, other than the ability to activate and deactivate them, Digital GEM lets you control the intensity of the effect according to the amount of grain in the image. Once you set the amount of GEM to apply, the scanner scans a small crop of the image and displays it in a second preview window, allowing you to verify the results. Though the process can be time-consuming, GEM can do a surprisingly effective job of cleaning up overly-grainy film. (Overall, GEM is much more useful than it was when I first encountered it on a scanner over two y ears ago: With multi-gigahertz processors readily available, the amount of processing it requires is much more easily accommodated than it once was.)

16 Bit/16x Multi-Sample Scanning
As I mentioned earlier, the Dimage Scan Elite II has a 16-bit A/D converter (digitizer). Theoretically, more bits of A/D translate into better dynamic range, although in practice dynamic range is often more limited by the analog circuitry and other parts of the signal processing chain. Still, all other factors being equal, I'd pick a 16 bit scanner over a 12 bit one any day of the week. When you have a high-resolution A/D though, one thing you can do to overcome image noise arising from the analog circuitry is to sample each pixel of the image multiple times and average the result. If you do things right, the noise level decreases in proportion to the square root of the number of samples you're averaging across. (That is, the noise should drop in half when you average 4 samples together, or by three quarters when you average 16 samples.) In real life, this approach works with varying degrees of success. The Dimage Scan Elite II has this multi-sample averaging capability, and it works fairly well. You only really need it for extremely dense pieces of film (a good thing too, because it drastically slows the scanning process), but it does indeed make a difference for those "impossible" slides.


Scanner Optics & Light Path
Film scanners tend to take one of two approaches in their optical design, providing either fixed- or adjustable-focus internal lenses. The Dimage Scan Elite II, goes the adjustable-focus route, offering both automatic and manual focusing options. In its default operating mode, the scanner autofocuses before each scan, increasing the scan time, but insuring that the resulting images are sharp. (You can turn this function off in the Preferences menu.) In my tests, I found that the manual focusing option (with its excellent and fast focus-feedback indicator) could routinely produce slightly sharper focus than the automatic system.

Normally, the scanner's autofocus system looks at the center of the frame to perform its focus adjustments. On the Dimage Scan Elite II, you can specify an exact point on the film you want it to adjust for, or the part of the film you want to base the manual adjustment on. These are very useful features, in that I've sometimes seen scanner autofocus systems outfoxed by low-contrast, or poorly-focused originals. In the case of severely curled film, you may opt for sharp focus in one part of the frame, at the cost of poorer focus elsewhere. The Dimage Scan Elite II accommodates such situations with the aforementioned option of specifying the point of focus.

Optimum focus can be quite time-consuming to determine on a film scanner, particularly if you have to perform a full scan in between adjustments to evaluate the results of your tweaking. The Dimage Scan Elite II uses a "live feedback" system that I found to work quite well, at least when given a nice contrasty chunk of image to work with. When using manual focus, a black and white "thermometer bar" graphic appears in the focus window. The black bar shows a measure of how good the focus currently is, while the white bar shows the highest level that's been reached since you opened the window. This makes it very easy to adjust the focus back and forth until you find the optimum point. (With no tedious rescanning in between, a really excellent feature.) With other Minolta scanners using this interface, I've sometimes seen the focus indicator jump around quite a bit from click to click on the adjustment slider, but focus on the Elite II appeared to be pretty well-behaved. This focus-feedback system is a nice implementation I wish more scanner manufacturers would adopt!

In common with other Minolta scanners I've tested, the Dimage Scan Elite II uses a special fluorescent light source, producing strong spectral peaks in the red, green, and blue portions of the spectrum. I've found that this diffuse illumination source produces somewhat "softer" scans than some other scanners. The resulting scans have less of a razors-edge on fine detail, but were also much more forgiving of film defects and film grain. A good analogy (for those old darkroom aficionados out there) would be the difference between condenser and diffusion enlargers. Condenser optics tend to produce more contrasty images, but at the cost of greatly enhanced film grain, while diffusion enlargers create a softer look. Interestingly though, I didn't feel that the Dimage Scan Elite II shared the slight softness of the earlier Minolta scanners I've tested, as detail and film grain seemed quite sharply resolved across the scanning area. (Look at my test scans for yourself, and compare them to the results I obtained from other scanners you might be considering buying. This is a somewhat subjective evaluation. To my eye though, it seemed that the Dimage Scan Elite II produced noticeably sharper results than its predecessor.)


Film Handling
The Dimage Scan Elite II uses slide- and filmstrip-holders made from structural plastic to position the film inside the scanner. You first place the media to be scanned into a holder, then insert the holder into the scanner. When you insert a holder into the scanner, it slides easily until it reaches a click-detent. Once it's been inserted to the detent, the transport mechanism pulls it into the scanner body, and moves it back and forth into position so that the CCD can scan each frame. During scanning, the film moves slowly past the trilinear CCD. (As opposed to the CCD moving while the film remains stationary.)

The filmstrip holder can accommodate strips of 35mm film up to six frames in length, and the slide holder up to four slides. An optional APS adapter is sold separately.

 


 

I found both holders (slide and 35mm film) to be very effective and easy to use, with a variety of small design tweaks that made them easier to work with.

The 35mm film strip adapter is made up of two pieces, a bottom film tray and a top pressure plate. You simply lift up the top pressure plate, position the film in the bottom tray (lining up frames with their indicated slots), and replace the top plate. The top pressure plate hooks into the bottom tray, then closes back down and latches, clamping the film flat.

This arrangement did a pretty good job of handling curled or damaged film, but film curled along its length was tricky to deal with because it would curl up quite high above the "tray" provided for it to lie in, while I was attempting to lower and fasten the lid. (The Dimage Scan Multi Pro's 35mm film holder had little lips to catch one edge of the film, which largely eliminated this problem. - The Dimage Scan Elite II's holder would have benefitted from the same design.) Two raised bumps just past the edge of the first frame slot stop the film from sliding, and make it easier to line up each frame with its slot.

Also constructed of heavy plastic, the slide holder features is a single-unit design, similar to the holder used on the original Dimage Scan Elite. One edge of the holder has four open slots, where you can slip in individual slides. Two sets of pressure bars on either side of each slot hold the slide in place, automatically adjusting for a variety of slide mount thicknesses. The only problem came in trying to remove the slides, as it was a little difficult to slide them out without accidentally touching the image frame. Still, I like the single-unit holder (as opposed to a clamshell design), as it greatly simplifies the slide-loading process.

 


System Interface and Included Software
The Dimage Scan Elite II uses either an IEEE-1394 FireWire or USB connection to the host computer, providing the high speed data transfer necessary to handle the large amounts of data the scanner can generate. Once connected to the computer, the Dimage Scan Elite II is controlled through an excellent software interface that I'll describe in greater detail below. As noted earlier, the scanner-control software takes the form of standalone applications on both the Mac and PC, as well as a Photoshop plug-in on the Mac, and a TWAIN component on the PC. A particular strength of the Dimage software is the extent to which it provides powerful controls for experienced users, while at the same time offering a simple interface for novices.


Performance
The Dimage Scan Elite II felt pretty responsive in use, with reasonable scan times. I mostly worked with it on a PC, connected to the system via the USB cable, but also did some timing tests on a PowerMac G4, via a FireWire connection, and a fast Windows XP machine, also with a FireWire card installedß.

One thing that speeds up the Dimage Scan Elite II's operation is that tonal and color adjustments are faithfully reflected onscreen in the prescan image, greatly reducing the number of prescans you need to do before undertaking the full-res scan itself. This speeds workflow quite a bit. The scanner is also fairly intelligent about when it needs to do perform an autofocus operation. It autofocuses for the first prescan of any frame, but after that will generally not refocus for subsequent prescans of the same frame. (For instance, if you're wanting to double-check a particularly severe tonal or color correction.) As for the scans themselves, the Dimage Scan Elite II is pretty quick, and doesn't seem to spend quite as much time getting itself sorted out before each scan as many other devices I've tested.

So how does it do? Here's a table with timings from some of the scans I did.

 

Scan Operation/Condition (35mm film)
 
Win 98
(USB)
Win XP
(FIreWire)
Mac G4
(FireWire)
Index scan, 6 frames 45s 42s 1m 38s
First Prescan (does autofocus) 47s 28s 38s
Subsequent Prescans (no autofocus) 11s 7s 7s
ICE prescan time 25s 12s 28s
1,410 dpi scan (2,016 x 1,344) no AF
(Top time is for slide, bottom for color negative)
55s
2m 24s
1m 9s
2m 39s
36s
2m 43s
1,410 dpi scan (2,016 x 1,344) w/AF
(Top time is for slide, bottom for color negative)
2m 40s
3m 48s
1m 30s
3m 46s
1m 6s
3m 47s
2,820 dpi scan (4,032 x 2,680) no AF
(Top time is for slide, bottom for color negative)
58s
2m 43s
34s
2m 37s
37s
2m 26s
2,820 dpi scan (4,032 x 2,680) w/AF (Slide film) 2m 9s 1m 40s 1m 10s
2,820 dpi scan (4,032 x 2,680) w/ICE
(Top time is for slide, bottom for color negative)
3m 23s
5m 13s
2m 10s
4m 59s
1m 48s
5m 7s
2,820 dpi scan, 16-bit, 16x multi-sampling (Slide film) 32m 40s (!) 21m 19s (!) 23m 6s (!)

 

From the numbers above, it's clear that the FireWire interface is noticeably faster than the USB connection, although not by as much as I'd expect. It also has by far the greatest effect on high resolution scans.

The very odd thing I discovered about the Dimage Scan Elite's performance was that it was much faster scanning slide film (color positives) than color negatives. Slide film scans were anywhere from two to five times faster than scans of color negatives. Scanning times for negatives aren't bad, the times for scanning slides are quite fast, although the scanner's autofocus system can increase overall scan times markedly. (I usually let the scanner do its AF as part of the preview scan of a frame, turning it off for the main scan itself.)

The times recorded above were measured with a mixture of the Adobe Photoshop plug-in driver and Minolta's standalone scanning utility. I found no difference in scan times between the two, contrary to my experience with the Dimage Scan Multi Pro. (Where the Photoshop plug-in was much faster when doing high resolution scans.)


User Interface
This is now the fourth or fifth Minolta scanner I've reviewed, and I've liked Minolta's software from the start. The latest version is very similar to the last one, with the same streamlined user interface. While I'd like a little more control in some areas, the software overall strikes an excellent balance between power and ease of use, and is one of my favorite scanning packages.

The Dimage Scan Elite II software interface runs standalone or as a plug-in to Adobe Photoshop (the scanner comes with a copy of Photoshop LE). In either case, launching the software displays the main screen, where all scanning actions take place.

 

 

The main screen is divided into sections. Along the top of the screen are several control buttons and pulldown menus, while the bottom of the screen is divided into a preview area and utility window. A series of tabs above the preview area and utility window provide access to controls for different stages of the scanning process, and include Index, Prescan, Image Correction, and Digital GEM headings.

The top two pulldown menus set the film type and size, the first step in the scanning process. Two buttons are directly to the right of the Film Type pulldown menu. The first displays the Preferences window, and the second is the Custom Wizard button, which lets you combine certain scanning processes into an automated "wizard" or access previously created wizards. Below these menus and buttons, a row of icon buttons provides access to several scanner functions. From left to right, the button functions are as shown below.

  • Index Prescan: Creates a thumbnail prescan of all images in the film adapter.
  • Prescan: Prescans the selected thumbnail image, creating a larger preview display in the preview area.
  • Scan: Performs the actual scan.
  • Film Eject: Ejects the film adapter.
  • Digital ICE: Activates Digital ICE, which minimizes the effect of dust and scratches on the film.
  • Digital ROC: Activates Digital ROC, to recover color from faded negatives.
  • Digital GEM: Turns on the Digital GEM function, for removing grain in images, and enables the Digital GEM adjustment tab.
  • Help: Leads to a fairly typical online help system.

 


Index Tab
The Index tab lets you view thumbnail prescans of each individual image in the 35mm (or optional APS) film adapters. Pressing the Index Prescan button initiates a rapid, very low-res prescan, after which each thumbnail is displayed in order on the screen. You can select an individual image for scanning by clicking on it, which highlights the frame with a black border. Below the index tabs is a row of buttons which perform the following functions (from left to right):

  • Rotate Left: Rotates the selected image 90 degrees counterclockwise.
  • Rotate Right: Rotates the selected image 90 degrees clockwise.
  • Flip Horizontal: Flips the image on a horizontal axis.
  • Flip Vertical: Flips the image on a vertical axis.
  • Fit to Window: Automatically sizes thumbnails to the utility window size.
  • Reverse Frame Order: Reverses the order of the frames in the display.
  • Save Index Image: Saves the index display as an image file.
  • Save Index File: Saves the index as an index file.
  • Load Index File: Loads a previously saved index.
  • Load Image Correction Job: Loads any previously saved image correction settings files, and applies corrections to the selected image.

On the left side of the Index tab is a window of image information. Here, you can set the image resolution, import a settings file from another scan, and set the output size. An Undo button in the bottom right corner removes the most recent change.





Prescan Tab
Clicking on the Prescan button activates the scanner to create a larger prescan preview of the selected image, and automatically opens the Prescan window. The larger preview image is then displayed in the preview window. The right window of the tab holds the same image resolution and size options, though the buttons that line top of the window change. From left to right, their functions are as follows:

  • Rotate Left: Rotates the selected image 90 degrees counterclockwise.
  • Rotate Right: Rotates the selected image 90 degrees clockwise.
  • Flip Horizontal: Flips the image on a horizontal axis.
  • Flip Vertical: Flips the image on a vertical axis.
  • Fit to Window: Displays a larger preview image
  • Zoom: Enlarges the cropped area of the preview.
  • Grab: Lets you "grab" the portion of the image displayed in the preview window, and move it for viewing other areas.
  • AE Area Selection: Changes the area of the image from which the automatic exposure is determined.
  • AE Lock: Locks the exposure for the preview image shown, allowing you to scan multiple images in the same film strip with the same exposure. (Handy, can save scanning time.)
  • Point AF: Since scanners often have trouble focusing on dense and/or low-contrast negatives and slides, this button lets you select a specific portion of the image for the scanner to readjust the focus from. (For example, you might select a high contrast area of the frame which will be easier for the scanner to judge focus from.)
  • Manual Focus: Lets you manually adjust the scanner focus. A focus readout window is displayed with a "thermometer bar" display indicating the sharpness of the image in arbitrary units. You adjust the focus until both lines are at their maximum length and are even with each other. (Depending on the subject, this could be tricky or easy - easiest with high-contrast, sharp detail in the image. Overall though, I really like the immediate feedback, and not having to do a full scan to see the results of my focus changes.)
  • Auto Cropping: Automatically crops the frame to the edges of the active image area, cropping out any additional black space from the media surrounding the image. (Handy, speeds the workflow.)
  • CHP: (APS film only) Crops the image to C, H, or P APS formats.
  • Crop Prescan: Performs a new prescan of the zoomed area of the image.

At the end of this row of buttons is the frame indicator as well as the RGB numerical display, which reports the color value numbers of specific points in the image as you scroll the mouse over the preview.


Image Correction Tab
Once you've adjusted the image resolution and size, as well as the orientation and cropping, clicking on the Image Correction tab lets you perform prescanning corrections. The buttons across the top of the preview area again change, and from right to left perform the following functions:

  • Tone Curves / Histogram: Displays the Tone Curves / Histogram window.
  • Brightness / Contrast / Color Balance: Displays the Brightness / Contrast / Color adjustment window.
  • Hue / Saturation / Lightness: Calls up the Hue / Saturation / Lightness adjustment window.
  • Variations: Enables the Variations adjustment window, which displays a handful of variations for each of the available adjustments.
  • Selective Color: Activates the Selective Color adjustment window.
  • Unsharp Mask: Calls up the Unsharp Mask window.
  • Undo: Removes the previous adjustment made.
  • Redo: Reapplies the previously undone adjustment.
  • Correction Reset: Resets all image corrections to the default settings.
  • Snapshot: Creates a thumbnail snapshot of the current preview image and displays it in the snapshot window on the left side of the preview screen.
  • Save Image Correction Job: Saves all image correction settings as a "job."
  • Load Image Correction Job: Loads a previously saved correction job.
  • Pre/Post Correction Comparison Display: Displays a split screen showing the current image correction and the previous image.
  • Fit to Window: If the preview image is shown less than full-frame, this button expands it to fit the full display area.


Tone Curves and Histogram
Clicking on the Tone Curves / Histogram button displays the Tone Curves and Histogram window, which provides an easy way to adjust the white and black points of the image, stretching the tonal range as appropriate. You can also use the histogram sliders to control the "gamma" (midtone boost or cut) of all the color channels, either individually or together. This is my favorite way to quickly deal with color casts and poor tonal rendition.

I like the way this control panel combines the tone curve and histogram controls into a single interface, yet keeps them separate so you can see what you're doing. The two graphs are linked so that changes on either graph affect the other one, but you can use both independently. For some tough pieces of film, I found the histogram best for making the gross adjustments, and the curves tool better for fine tweaks in specific tonal ranges. Very slick.

At the top of the window is a pulldown menu which selects which RGB channel shown, or you can look at the main RGB channel. To view all four histograms at once, as in the image above, click on the RGB graph icon button just to the right of the pulldown menu, which expands the display. (You'll still need to switch channels for the Tone Curves.) You can adjust the Tone Curves by creating points on the curve and dragging them. You can draw a freehand curve by clicking on the Freehand Curve tool (the pencil button to the right of the Tone Curves graph), which converts the cursor into a pencil draw tool. The Smooth Curves button, on the left side of the pencil button, smoothes out any points on the curve.

Directly below the Tone Curves graph is the Histogram, which plots the tonal distribution of the image, from black point to white point. The input and output values of the image are listed at the bottom right side of the histogram, and a slider bar allows you to adjust the shadow, midtone, and highlight points. Three eyedropper tools let you set black, midtone, and white points by clicking on the eyedropper and then clicking on a specific portion of the image.

At the bottom of the window are the Auto Setting (which tells the software to analyze the histograms and make its best guess as to the proper correction) and Reset buttons.

The Tone Curves and Histogram window "floats" above the preview area, meaning you can move it anywhere on the screen. Thus, you can immediately see the changes as you apply them. The shot above shows an applied histogram correction and a tone curve move.

Brightness, Contrast, and Color Balance Correction
As with the Tone Curves and Histogram display, clicking on the Brightness / Contrast / Color Balance Correction button displays an adjustment window that "floats" above the image. The window can be moved anywhere over the preview image, so you can see the effects of any changes made.


A curve at the top of the Brightness/Contrast window shows the changes made. Below the curve are adjustment sliders for Brightness, Contrast, and Red, Green, and Blue color balance corrections. A text box at the end of each slider bar reports the amount of change numerically, with a minus sign indicating a decrease. You can also type a numeric value into these text boxes. The Auto button at the bottom of the window applies any automatic adjustment, and any change can be undone by pressing the Reset button.

Hue, Saturation, and Lightness Correction
Clicking on the Hue / Saturation / Lightness button displays another adjustment window, which can likewise be placed anywhere on the preview area.

Three slider adjustment bars at the top of the window correct the Hue, Saturation, and Lightness, with the amount of change reported numerically on the right side of each bar. Two color strips below the slider bars report the pre- and post-adjustment color mapping. The Auto and Reset buttons are also at the bottom of the window.

I generally find that overall hue and lightness errors are best corrected with the histogram/tone curve controls. Often though, making large moves in the tone curves can adversely affect the color saturation in an image. This control lets you adjust overall saturation without affecting lightness or hue, a useful capability.

Variations Correction Tool
The Variations button pulls up the Variations correction window. This is perhaps the most "user friendly" adjustment control, ideal for people who are novices at image correction. Three separate displays are available, dealing with color cast, contrast & brightness, and color saturation. In each case, a number of small thumbnails appear onscreen, with the central image showing the effect of any currently-selected image adjustments, and the surrounding thumbnails showing a range of possible adjustments. If you decide you like one of the surrounding options better than the current selection, you choose that adjustment by simply clicking on the thumbnail image. It then becomes the central image, representing the current state of the correction, and you're presented with a new range of alternative choices. A slider bar next to the pulldown menu adjusts the amount of difference between each variation. The "Display Limit" checkbox activates an indicator of the maximum level for each adjustment.

Using this interface, even complete beginners can achieve pleasing results, since most everyone can at least tell whether they like one image more than another. It's still possible to get yourself "lost in the woods" though, since it can be difficult to judge color and tone accurately from small thumbnails like this. Likewise, novices are prone to make the images too contrasty or oversaturated, due to poor color judgement. Nonetheless, this is a very approachable interface that can get you "in the ballpark" quite quickly, with no detailed knowledge of color theory.


Selective Color Adjustment
This is a very powerful tool, hiding behind a deceptively simple interface. It's also one though, that requires some knowledge of how color works in order to use it successfully. The Selective Color Adjustment tool separates the color region into six groups (Red, Green, Blue, Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow), letting you adjust only the colors in the image that fall within the specified color ranges. As with the other adjustment windows, the control panel can be moved anywhere on the preview screen.

Four slider bars adjust the amount of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black in each color, with the amount of adjustment reported at the end of the bar. This is the tricky part of this control, in that the adjustments are made in subtractive color space (CMYK), rather than the RGB additive color space most photographers and computer graphics users will be familiar with. The thing to keep in mind is that these colors are inverses of the ones you're familiar with. That is, adding cyan to an image is equivalent to removing red, adding magenta is the same as removing green, and adding yellow is the same as removing blue. Note that adding a subtractive color darkens the image, rather than lightening it as with the additive primary colors.

This tool can be very useful for "cleaning up" colors that the film and/or scanner reproduced poorly. For instance, this is a great way to brighten up the weak greens color negative film so often records. As powerful as it is though, I'd like to see it extended in two ways. First, I'd like the ability to select specific colors from within the image, so the correction could be applied to specific hues within the image. (Flesh tones, for example.) Second, I'd like to see a control that would affect how broadly the effect is applied. (That is, to a very narrow range of colors around the one selected, or to a broader range of hues.) Despite my wish-list for the control, it's a very useful one as it stands, although it will take many users a bit of fiddling to become familiar with its operation.


Unsharp Mask Tool
The Dimage Scan Elite II offers an in-depth Unsharp Mask tool, which can be particularly useful for images that will be going directly into printed publications. (If you plan to manipulate the scanned images much on the computer, you're better off leaving the unsharp masking alone until you're done with your retouching.) The structure of the USM controls in the Dimage software is very similar to that of Photoshop. The top slider bar controls the amount of the effect, from zero to 500 percent. The remaining bars control Radius, Threshold Level, and "Dark Part Protection Level." The Radius adjustment controls how large an area the sharpening function is applied to around contrast edges in the image. The Threshold Level control affects how large a contrast difference must be found between adjacent pixels before the sharpening operator will be applied. Finally, the Dark Part Protection Level prevents sharpening from being applied to dark areas of the image. This last is an enhancement beyond the capabilities offered by Photoshop, and is useful for avoiding sharpening noise in shadow areas.

The one thing I'd really like to see added to the Dimage Scan software's unsharp masking tool is an (optional?) preview window. As it is, short of repeated trial and error, there's no good way to tell the effect of adjustments you're making on the final picture. If you do a lot of the same type of scanning (that is, for the same output medium and reproduction parameters), you could probably develop a group of settings that could be applied blindly. In my experience though, USM is such a multivariate function, and frequently so subject-dependent that a preview option is almost mandatory.


Split-Screen View
Clicking on the Pre/Post Correction Comparison Display button lets you check the image adjustments made against the original preview image. I've found this quite beneficial in the past, as it provides a complete perspective on each change. (I've seen some software packages that only show the changes relative to the last change you made. This is much less useful in my opinion, I prefer to see the reference back to the original, as shown here.)

Loading and Saving Correction Jobs

The Minolta Dimage Scan Elite II lets you save image correction settings as a "Job," so that you can apply the same settings to an entire group of images or any other image. Saved job files show up in the far left column of the Correction tab, with a scroll bar so that you can zip through various settings and determine the one you would like to apply.

Digital GEM Adjustment Tab

Clicking on the Digital GEM button at the top of the preview window enables this tab, so you can adjust the amount of the "GEM" processing that is applied. (Note that the Digital ICE and Digital ROC features do not have any adjustments available.) Digital GEM reduces the appearance of film grain in images. A slider bar at the top of the preview area adjusts the amount of Digital GEM applied, with values from zero to 100. The GEM button directly to the right activates a full scan of the selected portion of the image (indicated by a crop box which can be adjusted over the preview image). When the scan is complete, the cropped portion appears in the other preview window, allowing you to check on the GEM effect. NOTE though, that GEM apparently scans and processes the image at maximum res (in order to "see" the film grain), regardless of the resolution chosen for the final scan. Thus, this option takes a long time to preview or apply! (And I mean a looong time.)


Preferences Menu
Clicking on the Preferences button in the preview window brings up the Preferences window, which lets you set a variety of scanning parameters. The following checkboxes and settings are available:

  • Auto Expose for Slides: When activated, this tells the scanner to perform an autoexposure while prescanning color slides. This slows scanning somewhat because the scanner does a prescan to set exposure before the main scan.
  • Auto Focus at Scan: Instructs the scanner to perform an autofocus prior to the scan and prescan. As a default, this setting is turned off to reduce scan times. (The scanner apparently always focuses prior to the prescan, so a second focusing may not be necessary prior to the scan itself.)
  • Close Utility After Scanning: Specifies whether the driver software remains active after the final scan.
  • Color Depth: Sets the scanning to 8-bit, 16-bit, or 16-bit linear.
  • Multi-Sample Scan: Provides the multi-sample scanning option, which reduces image noise by analyzing image information from multiple scan samples. Options are 2, 4, 8, or 16 samples, or Off.
  • Index Scan Priority: Determines the quality of the index prescan. "Speed" reduces the prescan time and compromises quality, while "Quality" emphasizes the prescan quality and thus slows down the prescan time.
  • Color Matching: Activating Color Matching lets you match the output of the scan to a specific device, such as a monitor or printer. You can select a specific color space, such as sRGB or Monitor RGB (several options are available), or specify a monitor ICC profile.


Test Results
As is my customary practice, the comments here are an abbreviated summary of my findings: See the test image index page for the Dimage Scan Elite II for full details and links to a large number of sample scans.

Overall, I was pretty impressed with the Dimage Scan Elite II, particularly given its low selling price. As I mentioned above, I also liked its software interface quite a bit, as it made it easy to achieve the results I wanted.

Color and detail on the DSEII were quite good. I was somewhat surprised by the sharpness of its scans, given that it uses a diffuse, fluorescent light source, which I'd always associated with slightly softer-looking scans. In my tests, the DSEII delivered about the highest resolution I've yet seen from a scanner in its general resolution category (2700-2800 dpi units). Sharpness was also very good in the corners: In my experience, there's always some falloff of sharpness in scanned images as you move from the center of the frame to the corners. (The scanner after all has to have a lens in it, and lens design is always a juggling act, trying to get the best quality across the entire frame.) The the DSEII showed this corner-softening effect slightly. But that's all it was: Slight. Chromatic aberration in the corners of the scans was also very low. The infamous Train slide showed some signs of lens flare, as with most other scanners I've tested but there didn't appear to be any more than with competing models.

I don't have a quantative test for maximum "scannable" film density, but the DSEII did fairly well with the ultra-dense "Train" slides. I did see more random image noise than on some scanners with less A/D depth (the DSEII has a 16-bit A/D in it), but the multi-sample scanning option was very effective in removing this noise. What the multi-sample option didn't remove was a background pattern of streaks in the deepest shadow areas. In fairness to the DSEII, these only appeared in the face of really extreme tonal adjustments, but they were quite apparent on the original Train slide. (Hardly visible on Train 2 though, which I guess means that that slide is less challenging.) I don't know how much of an issue this streaking would be in any sort of normal usage, particularly given that it didn't appear in Train2, which is probably about as tough a piece of film as any average user would be likely to encounter.

Preview scan accuracy was quite good, and I appreciated the fact that the effects of even fairly major tonal adjustments were pretty faithfully reproduced in the preview window, without necessitating another prescan. - In my experience, this is critical to achieving good scanning throughput.

The Digital ICE defect removal on the DSEII was a little less effective than I've found it to be on some other scanners. I think this is largely a result of the fluorescent light source: Its diffuse illumination of the film surface helps to minimize the effect of dust specks and small scratches in the raw scans, but likewise reduces the ability of Digital ICE to form a clear "defect map." The result is that the DSEII tends to be less affected by dust and scratches in the first place, but is also less able to remove their effects via Digital ICE. The net result with the DSEII is that it doesn't remove dust and scratches (particularly scratches) as thoroughly as some other scanners I've tested that have Digital ICE. It's still a huge benefit over not having Digital ICE available in the first place, just not quite up to the best performance I've seen. - As a (pure) guess, I'd say expect to spend about an extra 10% of your time retouching the DSEII's scans to get results as free of scratches as from the best Digital ICE implementations I've seen.

With all the foregoing commentary on Digital ICE, it's important to put it into perspective: Digital ICE is first and foremost a productivity enhancer. When looking at productivity though, you need to consider a range of other factors, most of which have to do with the user interface design. Because the DSEII's driver software produces accurate prescans that accurately reflect the effects of tone and color adjustments, a great deal of re-prescanning is avoided. In my opinion, this more than offsets additional time you may need to spend on spotting your images to remove the effects of dust and scratches

After working with it for a while, I have to say that I liked the DSEII quite a bit. I continue to prefer the Minolta software's user interface over most others I've tried, and the results produced by the DSEII are generally first-rate. I'd like to see less streaking in the deepest shadows, but have to acknowledge that the conditions under which I saw the problem were pretty extreme ones. Taking its performanc and cost together and evaluating the package as a whole, I'd have to say that the DSEII is currently (April, 2002) one of the best buys in an advanced amateur-level desktop scanner.


Conclusion

Minolta's film scanners are marked by good user interface design (IMHO), strong specs, and excellent optics. The Dimage Scan Elite II really pushes the envelope for what's possible with a desktop scanner for a street price of under $700. For all but high-end professional users, it offers about as much scanning power as you're likely to need, and at a real bargain price.

 

 

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