Bigger Is Sometimes Better:
The Nikon LS-8000 ED Scanner Reviewed
By Bjørn Rørslett
|UV Sunlight ©
An old-time classic which is brought into new life by the scan quality of LS-8000 ED.
Long awaited, my Nikon LS-8000ED scanner finally arrived in July, 2001. I planned to deploy this 4000 dpi-resolution unit mainly for scanning XPan (24 x 65 mm) and 6x9 slides from my Arca-Swiss and Linhof cameras. In addition, I hoped to be able to scan the 6 x 12 panorama format as well. Nikon designed this scanner for formats from 35 mm up to 6x9, but since I've already had succeeded to scan 24x65 mm (XPan) format on my LS-2000, something similar should be possible for the LS-8000ED as well. Or so I expected. As things later turned out, my hopes were fulfilled but not the way I initially thought. Read on to learn more.
The LS-8000ED is an impressive piece of equipment, being huge in size compared to traditional desktop scanners. Thanks to lots of plastic material in the scanner, its heft is not entirely up to its giant size, though. Nikon equipped the LS-8000ED with an advanced lens design. Consisting of 14 elements (6 of which are ED glass) in a sophisticated process-type design, the Scan-Nikkor ED lens is capable of rendering truly superb imagery regardless of the scanned format. Scans are crisp and clear with vibrant rich colours and there is little problem with lens flare.
The film holders for the LS-8000ED are worth a chapter by themselves. There are a total of 8 holders, 3 of which are supplied with the scanner. All of them are made up of blackened plastic material with holes in it to provide a kind of "DX" code to the scanner, in fact a neat and clever idea. The three freebies accompanying the LS-8000ED are glassless holders for 35 mm film strips (FH-835S), mounted 35 mm slides (FH-835M), and 120 mm film strip (FH-869S). Nikon insists the latter is for holding "Brownie" (sic) film. The 35 mm holders function quite well and will cater for either mounted frames or film strips.
The FH-869S has a large scanning window to accommodate 120 mm strip with up to 4 frames of 645 format (or, equivalently, 2 frames of 6 x 9). The film strip is held in place with two clamping hinges, one of which can be moved to exert more pressure on the film to remove curl. In practice this doesn't work very well, in particular for the bigger film formats such as 6 x 8 or 6 x 9 where film evenness is very difficult to obtain. Furthermore, the task of making the film lying flat depends on using a length of film, thus to remove curling from just a single frame can be infuriatingly tricky. The plastic of the holder wears at critical points so locking action deteriorates over time. Use this holder as a paperweight and get the FH-869 GR and FH-869G holders instead. These use specially treated glass and are able to keep the film quite flat. You do have to add black spacer inserts (coming with the holders), if the incidence of Newton rings is to be kept at a minimum. Just put the slide on top of the insert, not the other way round, to give best results. However, if the film curls stubbornly, you are adviced to put both the format mask and the spacers on top of the film strip.
The FH-869 GR has a revolving mechanism to allow the alignment of vertical or horisontal lines before scanning is performed, a clever idea which has the further potential of raising scan quality because you won't need to rotate the image afterwards in Photoshop or similar software. A format-encoded black mask overlay needs to be used with the 869 GR, and gives the scanner instructions as to the precise film format to be scanned. This speeds up scanner operating to a certain extent. The holder will accept panorama formats such as 24 x 58 and 24 x 65, along with all 120-film formats up to 6 x 9.
The big brother, the FH-869 G can handle up all 120-film formats to 6 x 9 according to Nikon and even the 6 x 12 and 6 x 17 panorama formats, the latter are not supported directly by the scanner software. However, the software can, given the proper user inputs, be directed to scan these extra-large panorama formats as well. You do have to accept them being two separate images which have to be aligned in an image-editing program, but at least the film needs no additional handling during scanning and the entire process can be done with a few mouse clicks. It is mandatory to use a spacing mask to avoid Newton rings from the large film area, and you can adapt some of the masks which are delivered with the holder to this end simply by cutting the crossbar with a sharp knife. Auto exposure must be turned off after the first scan otherwise scan densities won't match at the overlapping area.
I had tremendous problems with the Nikonscan software (version 3.1) accompanying the scanner. Nikonscan 3.1 would not install properly on a Windows 2000 computer, mostly because the setup for the firewire driver is erroneous. There is a missing driver file (scsiscan.sys) which has to be copied from the \win98 folder on the CD into your ..\system32\drivers folder. The setup program will NOT do this for you and accordingly, even though Nikonscan installs, it will never be able to access the scanner. Not the best way of catering for the users of this scanner, in my opinion.
Another problem with Nikonscan is its voracious appetite for computer memory. This program hogs RAM as no other application I've used. Never, ever, consider running Nikonscan on a computer with "only" 512 MB or less of RAM. It needs at least 1 GB of RAM to work effortlessly, and more is even better. I set up a dual-CPU PC with 2 GB of RAM just in order to serve the LS-8000 ED adequately. On this system, Nikonscan purrs along quite happily - while it lasts, that is. I have never used a software prior to Nikonscan with anything like this instability. The program easily could crash 100 (!) times a day, under all kind of "contingencies" (removing the film holder, asking for a preview, changing a scan parameter, during batch scanning, and so on in nauseum, in fact, just by using the damned software). This exceedingly poor software was responsible for delaying this review for more than two months, simply because I never could get the sample scans I needed for assessing the scanner's qualities and features.
This hopeless situation improved, however, when I got a beta version of Nikonscan 3.1.1, and also had the 1.05 firmware upgrade done on my LS-8000 ED. Suddenly, the software became co-operative and I at last could scan a number of images and film formats. In fact, I could scan for days without ever encountering a system crash. It is my understanding that ver.3.1.1 of the software now ships with the scanner. (Note January, 2002: Nikonscan 3.1.2 now ships and the 1.05 firmware version is standard).
Using the LS-8000 ED unit revealed two facts, (1) scans have a superb quality, and (2) the scanner is so slow in operation it will stress your patience to the very limit. This is definitively NOT an item for production scanning, and should be deployed on a PC (Mac) dedicated to this scanner only. Scanning time depends on a number of parameters, of which film format and oversampling rate (1, 2, 4, 8, or 16 X) are critical factors. The selected resolution (up to 4000 dpi) influences scanning time to some extent, too. In order to avoid banding noise on some high-contrast images, the "Superfine" CCD setting should be enabled and this will triple (!) the scanning time. You can easily end up waiting literally hours for a scan to complete (16X oversampling on a 6 x 9 image, Superfine CCD enabled, digital ICE on, etc.). Be aware also that insufficient hardware (not enough RAM) can significantly extend scanning time on its own, if disk swapping becomes actived during the scan.
I've compared a number of images run through the LS-2000 and LS-8000 scanners, and for all images scanned at identical resolution the files from the LS-8000 have ever so slightly more image detail and richer, vibratingly saturated colours. I'm surprised to see my old workhorse LS-2000 stands up this well, but there is no denying it the newcomer is better in scan quality terms. And of course, if you need the additional file sizes which the LS-8000 can provide, there is no match at all.
A significant enhancement on LS-8000 is ICE, which sets a new standard for dust and scratch removal. There are refinements in the added features of ROC (to give contrast restoration of faded images) and GEM (to smooth and reduce graininess). These two new components of the ICE3 (ICE, ROC, GEM) package should not be used on a routine basis unlike ICE itself, because when used on the "wrong" image, quality deteriorates rather than being enhanced. You can get severe colour casts and added contrast with blocking of shadows and highlights with ROC, and significant loss of image detail and sharpness with GEM. However, both features can do wonders on old or faded images, so it is best to play around with them and their settings to get a personal experience when, or, if, ROC and GEM should be applied. Both features add to the scanning time and demand a lot of additional RAM to function flawlessly. In fact, Nikon warns about the possibility of crashing your system if insufficient RAM is available for ROC and GEM. You are warned.
The basic ICE can be run in either "normal" or "fine" mode, both of which will be just fine except for Kodachrome slides. Once again, this old champion poses a real challenge for a CCD scanner. The good news is ICE works with Kodachrome - well, sort of - the bad news is there can be very serious degradation of the image quality at least on the "fine" setting. You can end up with ugly double contours of image details in particular into the corners of the frame. If this occurs, switching ICE off will improve scan quality at the expense of tedious and time-consuming retouching in Photoshop. Another issue found with Kodachrome is the need for using a setting of "Superfine" for the CCD, that is, using only a single out of three scan lines on the CCD chip. Failing to do so is likely rewarded with clearly visible noise bands all over the image. I found that contrasty or darkish images, be they Kodachrome stock or not, usually need the "Superfine" scan setting to be active, otherwise banding noise on the ensuing images likely becomes troublesome. Well, treat yourself to some freshly brewed coffee whilst LS-8000ED treats your valuable images in its slow, but gentle, manner.
As of October, 2002, I have settled down with my LS8000ED. Hooked up to its dedicated Windows 2000 workstation, the scanner purrs happily away and I have grown accustomed to its crawling slowness. By restricting oversampling to 4x maximum, a significant gain in speed is achieved without undue loss of scan quality.Software crashes with NikonScan 3.1.2 are very infrequent and relates mainly to the devious ways in which Internet Explorer tries to gain control over my machine. I try to strike back but not always successfully. Another conflict is between Nikonscan and my CD-burning software (Easy CD Creator Platinum 5.x). After Nikonscan has run in a session, burning CDs will always fail unless the PC is rebooted clean. Likely there is a conflict here between Firewire (LS-8000ED, pretending to be a SCSI unit) and my SCSI CD burner.
Most of my scanning these days has been conducted with XPan or Noblex panoramic slides and negatives, the latter of which scans extremely slow for some inscrutable reason. However, scan quality is superb and my shooting of film has diminished drastically in terms of volume anyway, so I'm not too worried. I can live with the current state of affairs.