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User Review

Polaroid SprintScan 120

By Ian Lyons

A Computer Darkroom Review

Announced to the photographic world at Photokina 2000, the Polaroid SprintScan 120 was hailed as providing the professional photographer and graphics artist with their first real opportunity to acquire a medium format film scanner at an affordable price. It wasn't just the price that was so interesting; but the ability to make 4000ppi full optical resolution scans from film formats that ranged from 35mm to 6x9cm. Our appetite was wetted and so began the wait.

 

Technical Details

  • Sensor Technology: Single Pass RGB, 30K Pixel CCD (10,000 x 3 = 30,000

  • Maximum Optical Resolution: 4000 X 4000 dpi

  • Data Conversion: 14 bit A/D per colour channel/14 bit Monochrome

  • 8 bit and 16 bit output to host software

  • Dynamic Range: up to 3.9 OD (4.2 DMax)

  • Software Interface: PolaColor Insight Pro application software for both Mac and PC (*see below)

  • CCD Calibration (Prior to Scan)

  • Focusing: Automatic focusing (can be disabled for faster scans, but not recommended)

  • Light Source: Cold Cathode "Patented Diffuse Illumination System" 

  • Interface: SCSI-2, IEEE1394 (Firewire)

  • Dimensions: 27.2 x 14 x 48.8

  • Weight 6.4kg

  • IBM PC or compatible with a 300-MHz Pentium processor, Windows 95, 98, 2000, Me or NT (version 4 or later). 12MB of available hard disk space.

  • Macintosh Operating Requirements: Apple Macintosh or Powerbook computer with a Power PC or later processor. Macintosh operating system of 8.6 or later. 40MB of available hard disk space.

* Logo SilverFast Ai5  and binuscan PhotoPerfect bundled in UK and Europe

The SprintScan 120 in Use

Box Contents and Configuration

My SprintScan 120 unit arrived from the USA in late April 2001 and was probably one of the earliest production units to reach the UK. The package comprised the scanner, software disks for PolaColor Insight, LaserSoft SilverFast Ai and Binuscan PhotoPerfect. A power cable, SCSI and Firewire cables are also supplied, but not the SCSI or FireWire adapter cards. Fortunately, the G4 Mac has both and I chose the latter as the preferred connection method. Setup and configuration was painless and trouble free, incredibly so. I even tried the SCSI connection just to check if my lack of problems was unique to Firwire. No, the SCSI setup was just as quick and easy. I simply set the device number and termination then hooked it to the back of my Nikon LS30 - full marks to Polaroid for making the process so trouble free.

The SprintScan 120 styling seems to have been influenced by the Apple Macintosh "Graphite" colour scheme and so the scanner looks rather well when set beside the Mac G4 Tower. The scanner is quite large with dimensions not that dissimilar to a typical flatbed scanner, although maybe slightly higher. When powered up the most noticeable difference when compared to other scanners is the sound of a small ventilation fan. It is recommended that the rear of the scanner be given a few inches of clear space to allow the circulation of air and the free movement of the film carriers.

Film Handling

The three film carriers provided are for 120 film strips, 35mm film strips and mounted 35mm slides. The two film strip holders are a combination of metal and plastic. They are therefore much heavier than the plastic slide holder. The scanner automatically detects the type of film carrier using a series of notches on the carriers leading edge. The 120 film holder has three notches, the 35mm slide holder two and the 35mm film strip holder has one. These notches alert the scanner as to which holder has been inserted, and presents the user with appropriate options in the preview window. When the 120 holder is installed, the software allows the user to select from four film formats; 6x45cm, 6x6cm, 6x7cm, or 6x9cm. The 35mm slide holder is the easiest to work with and should present the user with no difficulties, likewise the the 120 film holder. The same cannot be said of the 35mm film strip holder; it was a not easy getting the blank spaces between frames to align with the spacer strips. To be fair, after a few attempts I did figure out the correct procedure - don't slide the top section all the way home!

My first attempts at scanning 6x45cm transparencies threw up one particularly annoying quirk. I should make it clear that this quirk is NOT of Polaroid's making; nor is it unique to the SprintScan 120; apparently the Nikon 8000ED also suffers the same problem. The problem - uneven spacing between frames. None of the medium format camera manufacturer seems to agree upon a distance between frames and so we end up with film strips from Bronica, Mamiya, Pentax, et al  all having different frame spacing. Fortunately, there is a workaround, but it may not be consistent across all manufacturers. In my case setting the software for 6x6cm and aligning the top edge of frame "1" with the RED number 1 (i.e. center of the 645cm index frame) is sufficient to make full scans of frames 1 through 3.  For the remaining two frames I simply reverse the film so that the last two frames becomes the first two.

Scan Quality and Timing

With a true optical resolution of 4000 dpi; the SprintScan consistently produces sharp scans with excellent fine image detail. Add to that; the shadow detail that can be reproduced due to the use of a 14-bit sensor and we get dark area performance (shadows) that closely match that from scanners over four times the price. The shadow detail is directly related to optical density, so in theory, the higher the Dmax, the more detail we will be able to see in the shadows. Polaroid claim a dynamic range of up to 3.9 (4.2 DMax) and who's to argue with their claim, since nobody can agree on how the value should be measured. Comparing the shadow detail obtained from the SprintScan 120 against the earlier SprintScan 4000, itself well respected for low shadow noise, the SS120 is visibly better. I have included a selection of scanned images (full resolution 4000ppi) as part of this review so that the reader can make a judgment as to whether scan quality of the SprintScan 120 matches their requirements.

Depending upon user preferences it is possible to scan images so that they are output to the host software (e.g. Photoshop) as either 8-bit or 16-bit images. Both PolaColor Insight Pro and LaserSoft SilverFast Ai support this facility, but be warned that file sizes can get very large. The following table shows the approximate file size for the various film formats.

 

The following table details my finding regarding typical scan times* for both colour and monochrome film when using LaserSoft SilverFast Ai5 software. The timings are approximate and are based upon 4000ppi scans of the first frame on the film strip.

Film Format

Colour

Black & White

35mm

1 minute 35 seconds

1 minute 30 seconds

6x45cm

2 minutes 10 seconds

1 minute 50 seconds

6x6cm

2 minutes 35 seconds

2 minutes 10 seconds

6x9cm

3 minutes 50 seconds

3 minutes 5 seconds

 

 

 

* Timings based on SilverFast Ai5, Apple Macintosh G4 Tower with I Gigabyte of RAM

Software

Depending upon which part of the world you live; the software options differ. In the UK and Europe the SprintScan 120 is supplied, as standard, with PolaColor Insight Pro, LaserSoft SilverFast Ai and binuscan PhotoPerfect. In North America SilverFast Ai and PhotoPerfect are sold at extra cost ($300) as an optional bundle. For those living outside of Europe; my recommendation would be to go the extra $'s and get this bundle.

PolaColor Insight Pro software has been designed to meet the needs of  the professional, yet easy enough for a beginner to use. This software enables the user to get the optimum colour, contrast, sharpness from scans with minimal effort. Insight Pro can detect fine scratches and dust, and can make corrections through pixel interpolation. Nevertheless, the methodology used by Polaroid is, at the time of this review, not as effective as that provided by Applied Science Fiction through their Digital ICE technology.

Insight Pro allows the user to scan, colour correct and export/save the image in either 8-bit or 16-bit mode for final editing in software such as Adobe Photoshop. The various colour and tone correction tools are very easy to operate and most users should be producing good quality scans very quickly. The ability to export or save fully colour/tone corrected images in 16-bit mode is a new feature only recently incorporated into Insight Pro, but one that many users will find extremely useful. The downside (there's always a downside) is that 16-bit images are twice the size of 8-bit images (see bit depth/file size table above).

Logo SilverFast Ai scan software is the award-winning Photoshop Plug-In that provides both, novice and high-end graphic professionals with a powerful tool for optimising scans and colour editing. SilverFast Ai has a user interface which is relatively simple to navigate and use, yet provides outstanding colour and scan control which experienced professionals demand. A useful, but hidden feature of SilverFast Ai is the ability to extend the scan exposure time and thus extract details from even the most underexposed transparencies. I use SilverFast Ai with all my scanners and find it to be exceptionally good at handling both, colour transparencies and reflective art/prints. If SilverFast Ai has a weakness it is in the area of scanning colour negatives. Fortunately, this is an area where Polaroid Insight Pro seems to be particularly competent.

Included within the SilverFast bundle is an IT8 colour calibration module and SilverFast HDR (high dynamic range) Plug-In. Using the SilverFast Ai and SilverFast HDR combination enables the process of scanning the original and colour correcting it to be separated. SilverFast HDR shares a common interface with SilverFast Ai but allows the user to colour correct 16-bit per colour channel images quickly and accurately. A comprehensive feature review and set of four tutorials can be found elsewhere on the the Computer-Darkroom web site - SilverFast Ai and HDR Feature Review - SilverFast Ai and HDR tutorials.

binuscn PhotoPerfect Software. Apparently, Binuscan and Polaroid have worked together to develop binuscan PhotoPerfect. This software  provides automatic colour correction and sharpen  for colour or black & white originals to. I haven't found any real need to use binuscan and so can't comment on how effective it is. Nevertheless, those who have used it seem reasonably happy with the quality of image reproduction, particularly with colour negatives.

Conclusions

This review has been written with the benefit of experience in use, i.e. approximately two months of almost daily use. From the very first scan it was clear that the image quality produced by the SprintScan 120 is excellent. It is reasonably fast, very flexible and produces accurately colour rendered images with the minimum of scan time editing. Sharpness and fine image detail are excellent with only minimum fall-off towards the edges.

In comparing the 35mm capability of the SprintScan 120; it is my view that the SS120 produces scans that are superior to those from  the SprintScan 4000 and Nikon 4000ED. So far as medium format film scanners go; it has not been possible to make any comparisons with the most obvious competitor, i.e. the Nikon 8000ED as this unit is not yet available in my locale. On the other hand it was possible to make quite detailed comparisons (see the following pages) with the Imacon Flexitight Precision II. Whilst the Imacon produces scans that are marginally sharper, slightly more detailed with very slightly less dark area noise; it is significantly more expensive at between four and five times the price of the SprintScan 120.

As with all scanners; the SprintScan 120 does have its foibles. The design of the carrier for 35mm film strip film needs to be revised. A firmware update would be welcome so that we can overcome the 120/220 roll film spacing anomaly mentioned earlier. For those occasions when edge-to-edge, corner-to-corner sharpness is an absolute requirement I think the option of glass carriers is a welcome option. I've seen what the glass carrier can do for the SprintScan Ultra 45 and am in no doubt the SprintScan 120 will be better still; given its resolution advantage.

Whilst the absence of the Digital ICE dust and scratch removal feature doesn't particularly upset me; it would have been nice for it to have been included, if only for convenience. However, it is worth mentioning that the cold cathode light source used by the Polaroid SprintScan 120 significantly reduces the need for Digital ICE. Given that I also own the Nikon LS-30 which has Digital ICE; and only on a VERY few occasions found myself using it; I don't believe that it is something potential buyers should be putting at the head of their must have feature list.

In summary, the SprintScan 120 is an excellent multi format film scanner; at an affordable price. The few problems that I have encountered regarding the film carrier are relatively minor and certainly nothing that can't easily be worked around. The inclusion/option of LaserSoft SilverFast Ai makes for an even better package. If you live in North America and are in any doubt as to the advantages of spending the extra $'s on SilverFast Ai, cast them aside and go for it, you won't be sorry. Finally, I believe that many will find that the SprintScan 120 will be able to fill the demanding needs of the photographer, from professional down through serious amateur.

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