EditorialPosted November 2017

Scan comparison – Lab vs flatbed vs film scanner




That a dedicated scanner offers better scan quality than a flatbed is pretty common knowledge. But how big is the difference? And how do the scans stack up with what you get from a good lab? Are flatbeds totally hopeless for 35mm and only really usable for medium format and up? There’s not really a whole lot of objective and visual comparisons out there, something I figured I’d have a little stab at in today’s entry.

I’ve been happily using the Plustek 8200i to scan all my 35mm film for close to two years. As I’ve written about in my rolling article on the scanner I have very few reservations about it and it’s paid for itself many times over since getting it. Being a dedicated unit it excels at one specific task – scanning 35mm film, but there's very little it can do beyond that one specific task.

However I’ve also been wanting to get back into medium format a bit more as well. The Hasselblad 500C was the first serious film camera I bought but I feel I’ve never used it enough to really get to know it on more than a superficial level. Every time I look over at my shelf of camera gear it gives me pause that I have such a nice camera sitting unused for so much of the time. Especially since whenever I do use it I come away really enjoying the experience.

There are a few reasons I’ve not been using it more often but the biggest issue has been the same issue I faced when first returning to 35mm film around two years ago – not being quite satisfied with the scans I was getting back from the local labs, especially for the high price asked for them.

Fortunately it’s much easier to coax a good enough scan from the larger medium format negatives than it is from the smaller 35mm variety.

So even if it can’t quite extract all the detail from the negatives even a lower end flatbed scanner can offer medium format scans good enough for the vast majority of uses.

Since I was, and still am, a little unsure of how medium format fits for me I decided to get a pretty basic model. The Epson V550 fits the bill well – it’s one of the lower end machines in Epson’s lineup with the ability to scan negatives*. The difference between scanners in this tier is small but as I've seen great work scanned on both the V550, the V600 and the similar specced Canon 9000F I felt confident that either scanner would be fine for my use. The final pick mostly came down to availability and software. I’ll likely get back to a more complete review of the unit at a future date, but for todays entry I’d like to focus on the image quality it offers when scanning negatives.

* There are many even more basic scanners available but they lack a backlight function, practically required for good negative scans, as well as negative holders which makes life a lot easier.

The Plustek 8200i and Epson V550 side by side. The Plustek is certainly compact and a more capable scanner for 35mm, but the Epson can do more things and is cheaper to boot.

I had been shooting with my Hasselblad over summer in preparation for getting the scanner, so I had a bunch of rolls fresh from the lab waiting to be scanned.

But just as when I got my Plustek I figured that a good first step was to get a few scans to compare to a known quantity – scans I’d previously gotten from my lab. This would both allow me to get familiar with the software and hardware and maybe pick up a few tricks on getting the best quality from the scanner.

Out of curiosity I also couldn’t keep myself from doing a few 35mm scans as well, to compare to both results from the lab as well as my previous scans from the Plustek.

But before getting to the 35mm comparisons, lets see how the Epson stacks up against lab scans for medium format film.

Two frames from the Hasselblad 500C scanned on the V550.

Medium format comparison

The photos we’re going to compare here are from a roll of Portra 400 I’ve actually written about before, shot using the Hasselblad 500C with the 80/2.8 Planar. I have some negatives that are shot under somewhat more controlled circumstances from other rolls that might contain a bit more detail to extract, but this is one of the few rolls I’ve opted to have scanned by the lab at their highest offered quality making it the best option for a comparison. The scans from the lab are pricey at around €30 excluding development, but at least of reasonably high resolution and low compression, done on a Fuji Frontier.

Ideally I’d like to add a dedicated film scanner to the mix here as well, but as I don’t have access to one you’ll have to have a look at the 35mm section and use your imagination a bit for how good a medium format scan with that kind of resolution would look. Comparing the lab scan to the flatbed ones actually proves fairly informative as it stands.

The lab doesn’t offer doing any custom adjustments of contrast or color at scanning so whatever parameters they decide on you’re stuck with. Generally the resulting files look nice but can come across as a little harsh and too high contrast in some instances. Some high-end labs abroad look to offer scans that are flatter in contrast and of higher resolution making them a better starting point to work from, but I’ve also gotten back far worse scans than these. So for comparisons sake they seem a pretty representative middle ground.

I was interested in a few things doing these comparisons. Firstly I wanted to see if I could get images with an overall look and feel similar to the lab scans. Secondly I wanted to see how the scans stack up in terms of detail and resolution.

It seems like a reasonable order to look at things for this article as well. So for each comparison we first take a look at the full frame, followed by a few representative crops from each frame. I’ve edited each image from the V550 to be a fairly close match to the lab scan I’m comparing to in terms of tonality. I’ve not spent more than a few minutes per frame for this, so some minor differences still exist, the main point is to make sure I can get in the same ballpark.

The nuance here is of course that for the scans I do myself on the flatbed I have a lot more control over how it looks coming out of the scanner. I always scan my files very flat to have as much information as possible to work with to get tonality as I want it. Compared to the lab scans there are more detail in both the deep shadows and the bright highlights from the flatbed in all of the scans. This to me is probably the biggest advantage of doing my own scanning.

Unedited scan from the V550

Edited scan from the V550

This difference in tonality is a little hard to illustrate in a comparison like this, but above are examples showing the difference – both are from the V550, but the first one is as it looked straight from the scanner and the second one I’ve edited to look like the lab scan. The second one probably looks more finalized at first glance, but have a look at the difference in detail in the trees on the bottom right for instance. In the lab scans it’s very hard to pull any data out of these dark or corresponding bright areas, and what’s there is quite muddy and unappealing. Detail like this makes a lot of difference when making more subtle edits as well as in print.

After some quick experimentation with settings, a few test scans and my experience with the Plustek I quickly came to a good configuration for the scans. 2400 dpi seems to be the sweet-spot for the optics in this scanner with higher resolution not giving any meaningful increase in detail and only resulting in bloated file sizes. I also chose to scan at 8-bit* with contrast as flat as possible and all additional features disabled in the scanner software.

* Yes, 16-bit yields theretical advantages, but from my testing it’s not really neccessary even for heavier edits in Lightroom. In a different work-flow it might bring a more significant difference, but to me it turns out to be superfluous.

With all that said – let’s move on to the comparisons. We'll move through the three of them and I’ll keep my analysis until afterwards.

Frontier scan

V550 scan

Frontier (7MP) Epson V550 at 2400 dpi (26MP)

Frontier scan

V550 scan

Frontier (7MP) Epson V550 at 2400 dpi (26MP)

Frontier scan

V550 scan

Frontier (7MP) Epson V550 at 2400 dpi (26MP)


So what are your conclusions? You probably have a pretty good feel for it by now, but I’ll sum up my thoughts briefly.

As for the full frames no major differences stand out. It’s certainly possible to get a similar enough tonality and look to the lab scans from the flatbed. The advantage for the flatbed scans are obviously that there’s more data to work with if you’d want a flatter look, or higher/lower key edits. The lab scans are cropped slightly compared to the full negative scans of the flatbed.

The most apparent difference at first glance is that the files from the Epson are quite a bit larger with less of the image fitting into the same image area. In terms of detail there isn’t really much of a gain, despite what the resolution difference suggests. You have to be looking very closely to see that the flatbed scans are a little more revealing and show some subtle detail that’s not present in the lab scans, but the lab scans look a little more relaxed. The fact that the lab scans are smaller actually benefit them as they look sharper and not revealing technical issues such as the slight motion blur that can be spotted on my wife in the flatbed scan in the first example. Still, the differences are very small and only close scrutiny reveals the subtle gains.

A small aside is that I think I need to tweak my sharpening for 120 – I used mostly the same settings here as for my 35mm negs and actually the grain seems overly prominent compared to the detail. So better sharpening and maybe also better negatives could potentially show a a little crisper results, but we’ll probably be splitting hairs at that point.

So then the gains in terms of resolution are quite minute and honestly a little less than I was hoping for. It’s certainly a lesser improvement than what I saw comparing 35mm scans in my Plustek article (also see the 35mm comparison below).

So while there's not huge gains in terms of detail, on the other hand you also don’t lose anything doing your own scans and I would have no problems making even large prints from these scans. Also the gains in tonality and flexibility of the files coming from the flatbed are significant and more important for the overall impression than subtle resolution differences.

Consider also that the low price of the scanner means that it will have paid for itself by just scanning a handful of rolls and while a higher end unit such as the Epson V800 or Plustek 120 would give higher quality results than the V500 you can’t really complain about the value this scanner offers.

Overall it certainly gives me scans that will let me happily shoot medium format more frequently in the future with files fit for pretty much anything I would want to do with them.

But before we call it a day – let’s have a look at the 35mm scans too.

A frame shot using the Leica M4-P scanned on the V550.

35mm comparison

The general consensus seems to be that doing 35mm scans on a flatbed isn’t really worth the bother. That the resulting files lack all semblance of detail and can’t be used for anything larger than postage stamp sized prints.

However I know of quite a few photographers who do very well with 35mm flatbed scans and I’ve seen sample scans that look perfectly fine even for moderately sized prints.

Both can’t be true. So what’s going on here?

To find out for myself I did a rescan of the same negative I used to compare my Plustek 8200i to Frontier lab scans when I first got it. It’s an image shot with the Leica M4-P and Summicron 50 V on Fuji Superia 400.

In my original comparison I looked at the output from the Plustek at both 3600dpi and 7200dpi, but in this context 3600dpi is the one that’s most relevant as it’s the sweet-spot for the Plustek. The sweet-spot for the Epson is probably 2400dpi as mentioned above, but to give me the best chance of extracting every last ounce of detail possible I chose to scan the 35mm negatives at 3200dpi.

Frontier scan

V550 scan – edited

Plustek scan – edited

V550 scan – No edit

As with the medium format comparison I’ve edited both the Plustek and Epson scans to look like the Frontier one, with far higher contrast and saturation than the flat files I opt for from either scanners software. Both the Plustek and Epson can give a much gentler tonality than the lab scans in this context and the two home scanners seem to be about on par in terms of dynamic range for negatives (though for slide film it might be a different story). You can click either image to view larger (though not full-size) in a separate window.

In terms of the full frame overall impression all three scanners actually do alright. I’ll get back to this in a bit, but let´s look at some crops first.

Frontier (8MP) Epson V550 at 3200 dpi (15MP) Plustek at 3600 dpi (20 MP)

Looking at these crops it’s pretty clear to my eye that the optics of the V550 are really being stressed here. I’ve had to really push up the sharpening to get a reasonably comparable result to the other two scanners with some artefacts starting to crop up in some of the finer detail areas. Minor features such as leaves on the ground behind the boat and the ladder on the rooftop aren’t really resolved on the flatbed scans. High contrast areas also push the optics with some glow and lack of definition, for instance around the boat or where the house’s roof meets the sky.

So in terms of fine detail the flatbed is certainly a step down from the other two scanners and overall a step down from the Plustek in particular. But let’s put this in context just a little bit – these crops represent just a fraction of the frame (around 10% or so), and as most detail is still there in the flatbed scan, only less well defined, you’d have to print pretty big and scrutinise the print quite close to make out these differences.

For web use, in social media and even for moderately sized prints I’d probably be hard pressed make out any meaningful difference. Compared to the lab scans the option for a gentler tonality probably makes a bigger difference once again than the difference in definition. The Plustek offers both gentler tonality and higher resolution so it’s clearly a step up overall, but again you’d have to print large to see most of the differences*.

* Though certain aspects such as the loss of definition around high contrast areas can be seen even at smaller sizes.

Below are a few sample scans where I’ve again tried to match the output from the Frontier to get a reasonably close comparison between the two. To my eye the differences are small enough to be practically irrelevant at these sizes and when visible they’re in favour of the V550 as often as the lab scans (e.g. the tonality of the second example where the shadows look very muddy and highlights blown out in the lab scan).

Frontier scan

V550 scan

Frontier scan

V550 scan

Frontier scan

V550 scan

So my overall impression is that the general image quality isn’t quite on par with either scans from a good lab or ones from the Plustek, but for a lot of uses the differences are too small to notice.

As you also gain the option to scan up to twelve 35mm frames in one go with the flatbed* the question of which scanner is the better once again comes down to needs and preferences.

* However the fact that you need to set up the scan in pretty great detail before starting up the batch process as well as the scan taking quite a while means that the time saving compared to the single frame approach of the Plustek ends up surprisingly small.

As mentioned earlier, the V550 definitely does well enough in terms of image quality for medium format scans, giving good enough files for almost any use. It does surprisingly well for 35mm too and depending on your needs it might be good enough for just about everything. If you’re shooting a mix of 120 and 35mm it’s hard to argue the need for two scanners.

So in terms of a bottom line then – yes – a dedicated unit or high end lab scans offer better image quality in many instances, but the differences are often smaller than what you’d expect and only visible under rather demanding circumstances. The value the V550 offers is also quite fantastic considering what it offers in relation to other options out there. Surely it’s a piece of equipment I’ll have reason to return to in the future.



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All film photos in this editorial were taken using a Hasselblad 500C with the Planar 80/2.8 or the Leica M4-P. The photo of the scanner itself was made using a Sony A7. Exif-data is intact. Open any image in a new window for a closer look.