Original Review Date: Feb 5, 1999
|High-end scan quality for a "prosumer" price
|2700 dpi resolution (28 meg file from 35mm neg!)
|30-bit color depth
|High-speed SCSI interface (card included for PC)
|Amazing "Digital ICE" dust & scratch removal
The LS-2000's "Little Brother"
Nikon is one of the true giants of the photographic industry, well-known for superb quality in their traditional film cameras. Recently, they've been making waves with their "prosumer" digital cameras as well, with their CoolPix 900 establishing a new benchmark for cost and image quality. Long before anyone had heard of digital cameras though, Nikon made some of the first 35mm film scanners. As such, they probably have more experience in this area than any other manufacturer currently active in the desktop film-scanner business. Recently, they've pioneered a remarkable defect-elimination technology they call "Digital ICE", that does an extraordinary job of removing dust and scratches from scanned images.
Elsewhere on this site, we have an extensive review of Nikon's flagship Super CoolScan LS-2000 film scanner. Here, we review the little brother of that unit, the CoolScan III, or LS-30 model. Overall, the CoolScan III was made to the identical specifications as the LS-2000, but with several features dropped or scaled back, to make a unit more affordable for those not needing the high-end capabilities of the more-expensive device.
Actually, our review task here is made much easier by the fact that the LS-30 is identical to the LS-2000 in almost every operating characteristic, with the exception of a few that we'll discuss below. Rather than repeat the long list of features and functions here, we'll just cover the differences from the LS-2000, and refer readers to the LS-2000 review itself for full details on how the Nikon software works, and on the extraordinary Digital ICE technology.
What you DO get with the CoolScan III:
Excellent image quality, even with default scan settings
One of the things we noticed about both the LS-2000 and CoolScan III is how good a job they do with tonal and color balance, without and adjustment of the default scan settings. This translates to higher scanning productivity, but is a hard factor for us to quantify. Nonetheless, you can look at the scans captured with the default settings, and see for yourself the good color and tone they have.
Digital ICE defect-removal technology
After using this with a few very dirty and one REALLY badly-damaged negative (see the LS-2000 review for some samples from the latter), we can't overstate the significance of this feature! If (like many of us) you're looking for a film scanner to plow through all those boxes of old slides and negatives, you'll soon find just how big a problem dust and scratches are. Trying to remove the effects of these from your scans manually (with the cloning tool in an image-manipulation program) can easily take hours! When it comes right down to it, it doesn't matter how fast the scanner is, if you have to spend 15-20 minutes to spot-out all the dirt and scratches from each image, that's what will determine your scanning throughput. We found Digital ICE to work very well, and even when the level of damage went beyond what it could cope with, the resulting images were much easier to retouch manually.
Very powerful scanning-control software
Nikon's scanning software is one of the few we've found that really gave us the control we needed to properly adjust the tone and color of our scanned images. This power doesn't come for free, and the scanning program has a bit higher learning curve than some. Nonetheless the (relatively modest) effort spent learning it is more than amply repaid by the results you can obtain.
Very accurate autofocus
The Nikon scanners use variable-focus optics (as opposed to fixed-focus ones), but have an autofocus mechanism that lets them adjust automatically for differences in film position or thickness. One feature we liked was the ability to choose what part of the image the autofocus would be performed on, which let us pick areas of high detail that would produce the most accurate result.
The Nikon CoolScan scanners are both quite fast, advertising a 20 second minimum scan time. This needs a little qualification though, as the only way you'll get to 20 seconds is at lower resolution, with all the fancy features (like Digital ICE or color management) turned off. Nonetheless, the scanners are quite fast, for the resolution they deliver.
Excellent resolution and detail in scanned images
We say "resolution and detail," because we're finding the two terms really apply separately. Resolution refers to the smallest feature that can be distinguished on our resolution targets, while detail refers to the extent to which the scanner can pick out small features or textures in the scanned images. Surprisingly, these two are not directly related. The Nikon CoolScans use an LED light source that produces a very highly "collimated" beam. Other scanners use more diffuse fluorescent light sources. We've found that the collimated light source used in the CoolScans reveals more fine detail in scanned images than do the diffuse lighting of other units. Note though, that you may or may not like this: Part of the detail that the collimated LED light will reveal is the film grain itself, which some photographers would rather suppress. We personally tend to prefer the results obtained with the collimated lighting, but recognize that others may not. Compare the sample images from the various scanners on this site, to see which suits you best.
What you DON'T get with the CoolScan III:
As we mentioned at the outset, the CoolScan III is a scaled-back version of the Super CoolScan LS-2000. Here are the features that were dropped to make the CoolScan III more affordable.
Digitization is only 10 bits per channel, vs. the LS-2000's 12 bits
This is probably the biggest difference, in that the number of bits of digitization accuracy directly affects how far into the shadows the scanner can "see". Secondarily, it may affect color accuracy, particularly in highly-saturated colors, where the "contaminant colors" are at very low levels. Even if you only get to see 8 bits of data in the final image files (see below), having more bits available for the scanner to work with is important for maximum shadow detail. This will thus be a factor when scanning either underexposed slides or overexposed negative film, with slides presenting the biggest challenge. Despite its reduced digitization depth, we were surprised by how well the CoolScan III did with the very difficult "Train" image.
No multi-sample averaging to reduce noise in shadows
Another technique for improving shadow detail is to perform multiple scans and average the results together. This reduces the random "noise" in the shadow areas, because the noise varies from scan to scan, while the picture information doesn't. The Super CoolScan allows you to average up to 16 scans together, producing a fourfold reduction in shadow noise, while the CoolScan III has no such option.
No option for output files with more than 8 bits per channel in them
This is a feature that is probably only of interest to imaging professionals, and as such is quite appropriately absent from a scanner intended to be more of a "prosumer" device: Most imaging programs, and virtually all consumer-level output devices can only handle 8 bits of data in each of the red, green, and blue color channels. Normally, scanners with greater bit depth process the data to result in the "best" 8 bits of data ending up in the final file. Some advanced units allow you to retain all the raw scan information in files stored on disk, allowing greater post-scan manipulation of the images. The Super CoolScan permits this, while the CoolScan III does not.
No option for bulk slide feeder
If you have a LOT of slides to scan, this is probably the single feature that would tip you over into the higher-priced Super CoolScan: Nikon makes a bulk slide feeder as an accessory for the LS-2000 that can accept up to 50 slides at a time for automatic scanning. This bulk feeder option is not offered for the lower-end CoolScan III.
Want to know more? Visit the LS-2000 scanner review!
As noted, other than the differences we've listed above, the operation of the CoolScan III is identical to that of the Super CoolScan LS-2000. We therefore refer you to our review of the LS-2000 for more-detailed information.
Sample scans and test results from the CoolScan III
We exercised the CoolScan III pretty thoroughly with our standard suite of test images. See the CoolScan III Pictures Page for a full analysis of the results.
Like its big-brother the LS-2000, the Nikon CoolScan III LS-30 is a world-class scanning instrument. Its excellent "default" performance minimizes the amount of tweaking needed to produce superb scans from common subjects. Yet, when the occasion demands it, there's a powerful set of hardware and software capabilities to let you handle images that would simply be impossible with a lesser machine. While not quite up to the performance of the LS-2000, it will likely be more than adequate for the needs of most photo enthusiasts, and even some professionals. At a street price of between $900-$1,000, it still isn't an "impulse buy", but packs a lot of capability at a price a good $800 less than the LS-2000 model. It would be an excellent choice for any serious 35mm or APS photographer.
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