Updated September 2014: Added additional info
One of the most frustrating parts of the hybrid digital/film workflow is making the leap from the chemical to the digital. Photographers are not alone in this, as Hollywood spends millions upon millions of dollars on transferring their 35mm stock to digital (and back again). The process requires massive scanners, military-grade processors, and an excessive amount of storage.
The 35mm photographer has many choices in scanning that vary wildly in cost, time and quality, many of which are covered in my article on workflow. For our purposes here, we’re assuming you’re doing it yourself and you want an insane amount of quality.
If cost is at all a concern, get a flatbed scanner. Screwing around with dedicated film scanners like the Nikon Coolscan V is a very expensive hobby. I have a CanoScan 9000F flatbed scanner that only costs a little less than $200 that handles medium format, Polaroids, 35mm, and anything else I can throw at it. Epson makes fantastic scanners as well that many people use and love.
However, flatbed scanners have a glass surface that sits between the scanner and the film itself, and this glass ever so slightly blurs the 35mm image. This isn’t much of a concern when using medium format because of the massive negative, but in 35mm every grain counts if you’re looking for the best quality image possible.
Nikon made a line of fantastic digital film scanners in the 2000s, but unfortunately has ceased production of new units. Demand, however, has remained steady, driving up prices of the few units still in the wild. The newest scanners are the Nikon Coolscan 5000 (35mm) and CoolScan 9000 (medium format and 35mm). Both are the best Nikon ever made and are incredibly expensive. The cheaper option for 35mm is a Nikon Coolscan V, which is essentially the same as the 5000, but with older drivers. I wouldn’t bother with a Coolscan IV or older, as their scan quality is far below what a modern flatbed can do.
The rest of this article focuses on the Coolscan V, but much of it still applies to the 5000 as well. First up, let’s accessorize.
THE HARDWARE COMPONENTS
Unlike a flatbed scanner, you can’t just stick film inside of it and hope for the best. The Coolscan V is just the scanner itself, so you will need a series of adapters in order to get film inside of it.
The default adapter and the one you’ll usually find in Coolscan Vs floating around on eBay is the MA-21 slide mount adapter. By itself, this adapter is fairly useless to most shooters, since it only takes 1 mounted transparency at a time. These days most of us use color negatives or unmounted black and white negatives, so you’ll need to make sure to have one of the following adapters as well in order to actually scan anything.
You can pull out the MA-21 and replace it with the SA-21 strip film adapter, which is the best option available for anything that’s not a mounted slide. Cut your film into strips of 6 frames or less, and stick a piece in the slot. The SA-21 will ingest the strip and be detect where each frame is. Using the Nikon Scan 4 program, you can advance between frames and scan away to your hearts content. You will have to use the program to eject the film as well, and you can’t take the adapter out until the film has been ejected.
The SA-21 can sometimes be hard to come by or too expensive when you do, so your other option is the FH-3. The FH-3 strip film holder is a bracket that allows you to scan strips of unmounted film in the MA-21 slide mount adapter. You snap it open, put your strip of film inside, attempt to line it up correctly, snap it closed, then shove it into the scanner. It’s very easy to accidentally get fingerprints on the negative, and the whole process is frustratingly slow. However, if you have film with damaged sprocket holes this is your only option. It’s best to have one of these on hand for damaged film or if your SA-21 breaks down.
CONNECTING THE COOLSCAN V TO A COMPUTER
The most frustrating aspect of the Coolscan V is that it only works on Windows XP and OSX 10.4 and older. There’s no working around it, as the drivers themselves are incompatible with newer operating systems. Nikon really dropped the ball here, as these scanners have the potential to work perfectly fine with newer systems. Nevertheless, you need to figure out how to set up a legacy system to operate the scanner and Nikon Scan 4.
On an older OSX system, it’s fairly easy to install a Windows XP partition via bootcamp. I installed XP on my 2010 Macbook Pro with Snow Leopard and it works great. The scanner worked fine on the XP partition and you can download Nikon Scan 4 free off of Nikon’s site. I did have the occasional blue screen of death when writing to an external hard drive with Nikon Scan, but nothing too serious.
In Windows 7, your best option is to use Microsoft’s free virtual XP program. This program is only available to Windows 7 Professional users and up, sorry home premium users. Look up Windows Virtual PC for instructions on how to download and install the program. If you’re using an illegally downloaded form of Windows be careful, Microsoft will check your OS during the download.
Once you have the Windows Virtual XP running, download and install Nikon Scan 4 in the virtual pc, then plug in the Coolscan V. Windows 7 will fail to install the drivers, so ignore any error messages you get. In the top menu of virtual XP select the USB drop down menu, then select LS-50 to attach it to the virtual machine. XP will install some drivers if it is the first time you’ve attached the scanner, and then it will be ready to go.
Virtual XP can be a bit laggy and look sort of crummy, but you’re just there to scan photos, not play games. Personally, I found virtual XP to run faster than the real XP partition I keep on my Macbook Pro.
Update: Windows XP has been officially discontinued by Microsoft as of 2014, making it dangerous at best to run on any computer connected to the internet. In addition, Windows 8 doesn’t have the Virtual XP feature I use on Windows 7. If you plan on using the Coolscan V, I recommend building or purchasing a small dedicated Windows XP box that isn’t connected to the internet. You don’t need anything powerful and you probably have an old computer sitting around in the basement that will fit the bill.
USING NIKON SCAN 4
It may be ancient technology by today’s standards, but I found that Nikon Scan 4 is the best option for controlling the Coolscan V. Vuescan is a fantastic program, but it gave me poorer results than Nikon’s program and isn’t as closely tied into the Coolscan’s hardware. It also costs money.
Before opening the program, make sure your scanner is on and plugged in. If for some reason your scanner is damaged, you will get a message reporting a hardware error when opening Nikon Scan. If no message pops up you’re good to go. Make sure the Twain Source window is open; if it’s not, just click file>twain source. In the window, select what kind of film you’ll be scanning, whether it be color negative, positive, or black and white negative. Personally, when I scan black and white negative I leave it at color negative so I can get color out of any imperfections in the film. You can always make everything true black and white later.
If you have the SA-21 strip film adapter plugged in, stick in your strip of film. It will ingest it and after a few seconds you’ll have a series of frames to pick from. Select the frame you want, then click either preview or scan. Preview will pull up a low res version of the image that you can use to pre-adjust the final scan using the tools panel. You can crop, rotate, flip, adjust color etc. Once finished, click scan and it’ll generate your image. Personally, I skip preview and just click scan on everything. It’s slightly faster, and I don’t bother with any adjustments at this stage. It’s much easier for me to do it all in Lightroom or Photoshop.
A HUGE timesaver I never used until recently is Digital ICE. Unlike most scanner ‘enhancements’ that just corrupt color, Digital ICE simply removes all scratches and dust from the image. I’ve done lots of comparisons, and it really does work. I’ve manually removed scratches and dust for years using Photoshop, and it’s an insane amount of work. While Digital ICE isn’t perfect, it’s much, much better than nothing. In order to use it, open the Digital ICE 4 dropdown and select the checkbox next to ‘Enable Digital Ice’ before clicking on scan. You have to manually select this before every scan, so be sure not to forget.
That’s it! Save your nearly 6000×4000 pixel tiff file wherever you have room for it or transfer it to the machine where you store your photo library.
ACQUIRING A COOLSCAN V
If you’re convinced that a Coolscan V is for you, the next step is finding one. eBay is the one of the best places to find Nikon film scanners, and it is where I found mine. Amazon has some as well. Demand is high for these things, so you’ll have to be competitive to land one for under one thousand dollars. Sometimes people will include accessories with the scanner, many times they will not. Obviously, the newer and better looking a particular listing is, the higher the price will be. I suggest reading Ken Rockwell’s outstanding free guide to eBay for advice on how to score your own scanner.
Be careful to find a scanner that actually works. I got a deal on mine, but I also received a scanner that had obviously been dropped and severely damaged (and looked nothing like the photo the seller provided). Below I’ll talk more about getting your scanner repaired, but its easiest to just make sure you’re not getting screwed in the first place.
REPAIRING THE COOLSCAN V
Despite discontinuing their scanner line, Nikon still repairs all of their scanners at their New York location. Simply mail your scanner in with the proper slip, and Nikon will repair your scanner for a flat fee of $250. Mine was returned in about a month with the front panel and most of the innards completely replaced. My wounded scanner that squealed and barely worked now looks like it’s fresh out of the box. Thanks Nikon repair!
The Coolscan V is time consuming, expensive, and difficult to use, but you can’t argue with the results. After using it in the basement of my old college, I couldn’t go back to blurry flatbed scans and I certainly couldn’t afford the cost of having other people scan it at the level of quality I want. Hopefully Nikon will continue to repair and support the scanners still floating around in the world, because I don’t plan to give up 35mm anytime soon.
Good luck and happy shooting!