Nikon's Photo Repair Station

This low-end film scanner fixes dusty, color-faded slides with sharp optics and flexibility

Digital cameras are great, but what do you do with the boxes of 35mm negatives and slides stacked in your cabinets? They contain lots of great material for cropping, printing, and e-mailing. But first you need to get them into your PC. The best tool for the job in any well-equipped digital darkroom is a film scanner, one that makes high-resolution scans of both negative and positive (slide) film.

Nikon's $895 Coolscan IV ED combines high-resolution imaging with a basic selection of film holders; it also includes Applied Science Fiction's Digital ICE3 image-correction technology. Digital ICE3 is a set of three technologies that can improve scanned images from old, damaged negatives or slides. ICE (Image Correction and Enhancement) looks for dust and scratches on the film and attempts to remove them from the scanned image; ROC (Reconstruction of Color) corrects color shifts that you typically find in old slides; and GEM (Grain Equalization Management) sharpens images from fast, grainy films.

DON'T SPARE THE CROP. Though the Coolscan IV ED is at the bottom end of Nikon's new ED scanner line (ED stands for extra-low dispersion and describes a type of glass used to increase lens clarity), it's far from low-end. It scans at a maximum resolution of 2900 dots per inch, or 2657 by 4104 pixels. (By comparison, a 4-megapixel digital camera has a maximum resolution of 2240 by 1680 pixels.) Our typical scans of a 35mm slide ranged from 1 to 20 megabytes, depending on the settings used. That's large enough to allow you to make some fairly tight croppings and still print sharp 8-by-10 enlargements. However, at the top end of the scanner's resolution, the quality of the image is more often limited by the size of grain in the film. Taken together, Nikon's optics and Applied Science Fiction's technology make an impressive package that can create sharp, accurate scans.

Nikon bundles two filmstrip holders and a simple slide holder that lets you insert one slide at a time. An optional adapter lets you use Advanced Photo System (APS) film; it costs $199.

Getting our test Coolscan unit up and running took only a few minutes; a USB cable connects it to your PC, and a single CD has the drivers and Nikon's Scan 3.0 scanning utility. Other applications on the disc include Altamira's Genuine Fractals 2.0, Adobe's Photoshop 5.0 LE image editor, and a demo version of Canto's Cumulus 5.0. Genuine Fractals is a handy program for increasing the resolution of digital images (for making bigger prints) and Cumulus is a platform for managing and archiving images and other digital media.

It's after you get the Coolscan working that you start a fairly daunting learning phase, especially if you're new to scanners. And Nikon's documentation doesn't help. The model we received had a thin, paper installation guide; beyond that, all the instructions for scanning images were contained in Acrobat files on a separate CD. The documentation does a good job of describing the basics of how to use the scanner's film holders and the Scan 3.0 tools, but, because it's targeted at the non-professional, it could really use a thorough tutorial on the techniques, terms, and tips of scanning images.

Once you've got a solid understanding of Scan 3.0's many settings, it's relatively easy to use. A drop-down, on-screen tool palette lets you change cropping, orientation, bit depth, color balance, contrast, and many other setting by either clicking on simple sliders or by entering numeric values. In many cases, your changes happen almost immediately in the image preview window. Two tabs let you compare the raw scan to the tweaked version.

MAKING REPAIRS. ICE3's ability to correct aging slides is surprisingly good. We took an old, dust-covered Kodachrome slide that had obviously deteriorated, leaving it with washed out colors. With ICE3 off, the scanned image was worthless--black spots from dust were plainly visible, and the colors had a distinct purplish cast, as if the yellow dye had faded over time. Turning on the ICE and ROC controls and re-scanning restored the slide to an acceptable image. (Given the slide's age, it's impossible to know how close to the original our scan came.) All of the dust marks appeared to be gone, and colors looked much closer to real life. We also noticed, however, that images run through the ICE and ROC processing were slightly less sharp than raw scans.

ICE does not seem to be capable of fixing everything, unfortunately. One of our Agfa slides, which has a blue line through it thanks to a scratch in the emulsion, was completely unaffected when using ICE. This type of Agfa slide film is noticeably grainier than Kodachrome, but even when we ran it through the grain-controlling GEM, we did not see any difference in the scanned images.

Using ICE3 can also add significantly to your scanning times, especially if you have an older PC. On a Pentium II-333 with 64MB of RAM, basic scans generally took under a minute; but turning on ICE3 stretched the process into a moderate coffee break. If you plan to do extensive film scanning, a more powerful PC, with 128MBs of memory or more, would probably improve performance.

Upshot: Nikon targets the Coolscan IV ED at the high-end consumer market, and for that, it's a good find. It nicely combines the two features that type of buyer needs: sharp optics and enough flexibility and control to get the most out of your film.


Nikon Coolscan IV ED

Street price: $895


By Tracey Capen, PC