Review: Nikon Coolscan V ED – Still Awesome!

First, as always, the story. Scroll down for my ‘review’.

As a film shooter I’ve been struggling a lot lately with getting my images converted to digital. I have tried two scanners, the Epson Perfection V500 and the Plustek 7500i and while both get reasonably good reviews online, I was not having any luck getting quality scans from them. I’m sure it’s operator error but even at low resolutions the scans were not even half as sharp as the source film and once scanned it took me a long time to process each image to have good color and contrast (let alone getting the scanner to help clean up dust and scratches). I was getting pretty discouraged and wondering if I should really still be shooting film at all. I was looking around online and people with the same scanners as I have were getting great results that looked nothing like mine. They were all talking about curves used and a series of tweaks performed in Photoshop or other software and frankly, I’m not that kind of photographer. I want to be shooting, not processing. Lots of people love the digital end of photography but I am not one of them. I want scanning to be easy. I want to be able to press a few buttons and have scans that look.. you know.. like the film I shot.

One of my habits though, being a geek and cheap, is to check a few listings on my local Craiglist site every day or so. I was looking over the photography section and some guy not too far from me was offering the above mentioned Nikon scanner for well under it’s market value. This is not all that uncommon on Craigslist so I did what I always do: I sent the guy an email offering him 25% less then he advertised the item as. I sent off the message expecting that, as usual, it would be some spammer who wanted me to mail him money. To my great surprise though, he emailed back and accepted my offer! I was shocked. Here I was, getting ready to plunk down more cash for a pretty high end film scanner when I was thinking film was a dead end for me.

I followed through with my offer though and setup a time to go to the guys house and pickup the scanner. He brought me in, showed me that it was working and I handed over my $150. Yes, I bought the Coolscan V ED, in it’s original box, with all the cables, manuals and CDs for $150 cash. A quick look on Ebay today (March 1st, 2010) shows that scanner selling for around $500-$600. When I saw the listing, I did a little research on Nikon’s site as to the specs of the device to make sure I could use it but I never looked up it’s current market value. On the way home I began to wonder who had gotten the better deal, me or the seller, and that’s when I did my first look on Ebay. Had I known how great a deal I was getting I may have at least offered the guy what he originally listed it for. I feel sort of bad but I suppose he too could have done a little research. From the looks of his office he was definitely a tech oriented person.

** Onto the actual review **

Now, onto the meat of the post. As I mentioned this is an older model scanner from Nikon. They don’t seem to be making them anymore and they list on their site that both Leopard and Snow Leopard are not officially supported operating systems for their Nikon Scan 4.0.2 software. Frankly, they tell you to use some other software. I’m not afraid of a little unsupported software though so I tried to install it anyway. The installation failed on my 1st Gen Mac Pro running Snow Leopard. The installer goes about two thirds through it’s routine and then just stops and seems to freeze. I ran it twice to be sure and when it reached file 384, it just stopped. I forced the application to quit and tried to run the software anyway. Oddly enough, it ran just fine. Nikon offers the main installer for version 4.0 and then an updater for 4.0.2. Since the main software was working I ran the installer for the 4.0.2 update and it ran just fine. I then relaunched the Nikon Scan software and for some reason the scanner is recognized and the whole thing runs just great.

(Technical side note: It runs within Rosetta on my Intel Mac though it would run natively on a PPC Mac. This does limit it’s performance on my Mac Pro but the app is very responsive and works pretty fast. The scanning bottleneck is the device, not the software.)

Here was the moment of truth. It was time to do my first scan and I completely expected the scanner to produce a lousy file lacking detail and needing a lot of help as all the others had. To my great surprise though, the scan looked great. I was blown away. Without any effort on my part, the scan showed up on my screen looking just great. Really great looking color and the shots were sharp! The film I loaded into the machine initially was my ‘everyday’ film, Fuji Superia 400. It’s a very cheap color negative film that I shoot all the time. The next test was a slide of Fuji Velvia 50, and that too looked great!

At this point I was pretty thrilled and ready to start scanning in some film en masse. The scanner has a few options for this. The included 35mm film adapter will scan in batches of between 2 and 6 frames. Nikon also sells an adapter to scan an entire roll of 35mm film all at once, the SA-30, but it costs upwards of $500. Since I keep my film in binders cut into section of 6 frames each, I’m using just the included adapter.

You push the section of film into the mouth of the scanner and a motor clicks on and feeds the film into the scanner. Using the Nikon Scan software you can setup a few preferences on what happens next. You can have the software automatically start scanning previews or you can choose to do that manually. One thing you’ll want to do though is tell the scanner what type of film you are feeding in, be it positive or negative, color or black and white. It also has a dedicated ‘Kodachrome’ option, interestingly enough. I’ve done a few scans of B&W film with the scanner set to color film and they come out OK but the color balance isn’t quite right. It comes out looking almost sepia toned instead of truly gray-scale, so keep an eye on that.

(Excuse the scratch, none of these images have been edited at all yet)

Once you have the preview scanned in, the Nikon Scan software offers a million options for the scan output. You can set curves, exposure, change the focus point of the scanner on the film and enable all of the extra features the device supports like scratch removal, shadow enhancement and color restoration. As I mentioned above, I’m not that interested in these features. I scan my B&W film with the defaults and I enable ‘Digital ICE’, the scratch and dust removal technology, for color film. (Unfortunately Digital ICE doesn’t work on true B&W films regardless of which scanner manufacturer you buy from. Digital ICE uses infrared light to detect image problems and since B&W films use silver in the light sensitive emulsion, the infrared light can’t penetrate through. Some manufacturers do make B&W film using the same processes as color film, and Digital ICE will work on those films. If you’re interested in using Digital ICE on you B&W film, look for C41 process B&W film.)

After that you choose which frames you want scanned and click the scan button. From there a wizard launches to help you name the batch and tell the scanner which frame number to start with. It’s smart enough to keep advancing the file name by one or each frame across multiple batches and will also add a custom prefix to the film name.

The only drawback I can see is that the scanner isn’t especially fast. If I’m previewing the images before the final scan it will take me about an hour to scan in a roll of film. The scanner does work in batches though so I spend two or three minutes prepping each batch and then walk away or work on something else while is scans the high resolution final image. While it’s working it buzzes away moving the film, focusing and performing the scan. Once it’s done the batch, you click the ‘Eject Film’ button and start the process over again. Since I’m pretty confident it’s going to produce a great looking scan I’ve mostly stopped previewing and just have the scanner do it’s thing one batch at a time.

I do see a few software crashes, perhaps once an hour. If you put a lot of effort into making tweaks to the settings before the final scan this could be a problem for you. I would recommend you not scan in batches but work each frame on by one so you don’t lose too much work if the software crashes. I’ve never had a crash happen when I was working with the software, it’s always been during a batch scan. I have the scanner plugged into a USB hub though and that could be the cause. Perhaps the connection isn’t 100% stable. Considering it’s totally unsupported software for my my computer though, I’m very surprised how stable it is. For me, when it crashes I power cycle the scanner and then pickup the scan from where it left off. I can’t really guess if the software would be more or less stable on an older Mac or a Windows machine.

All in all, I wish I had stopped wasting time and money and just bought the Nikon scanner from day one. I got a great deal on this scanner but when you add the cost of all the other scanners I’ve bought, I’ve spent about what it would cost to buy the Coolscan V new. As the saying goes ‘The poor man buys twice’.. or in my case three times!


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