Computing Reviews

At the beginning of 2023 we embarked on a task to digitise our entire analogue library. The formats are predominantly 35mm slide and negative film. We also inherited some very old glass plates of the local area which date back to the late 1800’s as well as hundreds of old family prints of all sizes, the original negatives long since lost. So what we have before us is a motley collection of varying formats that immediately narrowed down the search for a scanner that could handle the diverse task.

epson perfection v850 1I am not a complete newbie when it comes to scanning, although my past experience is specific to a Minolta Scan Dual II scanner that I purchased at the end of the 1990’s. I used it for a couple of years before becoming disillusioned with it and the amount of time it took to produce an acceptable scan. At the time, I was far more interested in creating new material which resulted in a gradual decline in my scanning output until I sold it due to disuse.

So here we are almost 25 years later with an even larger task than previously, but with plenty of time on my hands since giving up my job a year ago.

Something that became very apparent when reviewing scanners was that the choice is far more limited now compared to what was around in 1999. I recall being spoiled for choice back then. Today, many of the main players have long left the market, and Epson’s Perfection V850 Professional scanner was one of the few that met our criteria, as not only was it a high quality slide and negative scanner, but also of the flatbed type allowing us to scan many different photo and plate formats. The flat bed design also meant that we could scan batches of slides and negatives at the same time, instead of feeding individual strips into the machine as we did with the Minolta. A downside to the flat bed design is that their large footprint takes up a lot of desk space. Dedicated film scanners are much more compact and can easily be tucked away when not in use. 

The Hardware

The V850 is a substantial piece of kit. Size aside it is quite heavy, its weight giving the illusion that it is built to last. However, the extensive use of plastic leaves me questioning its long term durability. The front of the scanner is finished with a nice brushed aluminium plate on which the brand name is displayed along with one of just two buttons, quick scan and the on/off button. In my opinion, a little more attention to detail on Epson’s part could have seen the entire main scanner body finished in the same aluminium as the front. This would have given what is already an expensive item much more of a premium look and feel. Something that makes me smile while I type this is that I have just noticed the serial number sticker has curled up and is just a few millimetres away from falling off. Again, lack of attention to detail - a machine of this caliber should have the serial number etched into the body work, not printed on a cheapo sticker.

Two sets of 35mm slide and negative holders are included with the scanner which speeds up the process of loading film. While one holder is in the machine, the other can be prepped ready for scanning. I have read that the 35mm negative holders are less flimsy than those used with previous Epson scanners. This really surprises me as I do not think the ones included with the V850 are particularly well made. Construction is of brittle black plastic that flexes, especially when closing the negative holder. The gate is secured by simple plastic lugs that snap into corresponding holes. I am not confident they will stand the test of time without breaking off. My own use of them has been limited to about a dozen rolls of film so far, and with thousands of negatives to go, time will tell. The 35mm slide holders seem better and these have seen the bulk of my scanning so far. I cannot comment on the medium format options as I do not have any examples to try them with. As the scanner does not autofocus, the height of the holders can be adjusted which raises or lowers the holder a couple of millimetres from the scanner glass. This is achieved by sliding a plastic foot on each corner of the holder into one of five settings. The click stops on each foot are not particularly secure and it is easy to accidentally move them from their intended position, so it is important to check they are in the desired position each time a batch of slides or negatives are scanned. I also recommend that as part of setting the scanner up, a couple of test scans are made on each of the five settings to ensure that optimal focus is found. My own experiments with this have found that the height can differ from one holder to another and the settings used for negatives are not the same as slides.

Scanning photographs by means of the flat bed have been limited to a few tests and a collection of pictures of my late Mum. However the results have been excellent. 

The Software

epson perfection v850 2The Software included with the scanner consists of Epson’s own driver (Scan 2) and a third party solution called SilverFast. I was shocked when reviewing both to find out how antiquated the interface looked and felt. It really was like I had booted up my old Windows 98 box and fired up my Minolta scanner. Both are clunky but SilverFast is a more rounded solution for those who want to make their adjustments from the same package. Scan II is more utilitarian but after evaluating both I decided to use this and carry out all of my post processing with Lightroom, as it is what I use when processing my digital images. Vuescan is another option that can be purchased separately and although I have not used it, I delved into many tutorials and demo’s to find out what it offers. Like the other two, it has it’s fans and detractors. Its interface also looked like it was stuck in the 1990’s and I did not find anything that encouraged me to move away from Scan II and Lightroom.

There is no doubt about it, Scan II is probably the buggiest piece of software I have used in my life. I say that as someone who spent the last 25 years of their career working in the software industry. It is worse than many of the beta releases I used to test, and this is a finished version! Aside from it’s revised and still outdated interface, there are several problems that should have been fixed before release, or at least patches made available. The biggest problem I have come across is due to my recent move to Apple silicon. Digital ICE cannot be used with my new M3 Pro as it simply crashes part way through a scan. ICE is not something I use for slides as they have been stored carefully in a dust free environment. Negatives, however, have lead a harder life; apart from them being much older than my slides, they have been stored in various sleeves and binders before being transferred to archival storage sleeves. Many of them have scratches so to reduce the amount of post processing time, I need to use ICE as part of the imaging pipeline. Because of this I will be retaining my 10 year old Intel based MacBook and use this for negatives (and possibly photo) scanning.

Another very annoying problem is that batch scanning negatives is very hit and miss at saving the correct RGB channel adjustments. Corrections made to individual frames are often lost during the actual scanning process, resulting in odd colour shifts accompanied by over or under exposed results. They are so bad that no amount of post processing can restore them. Little can be done other than delete and start again. Image orientation seems to be very challenging for Scan II. It rarely gets a batch preview correct and more interestingly, you can sometimes get different results if the batch preview is run again on the same slides!

The final gripe I will commit to writing happens when not using the thumbnail option when previewing. As expected, the whole platen is scanned and from this, individual negatives or slides can be selected. So far so good, but then things head south; making any corrections to the colour channels or modifying the selected areas, in fact anything that changes the preview, causes latency problems often taking several seconds to complete. I thought this may be a resource problem but the same thing happens on different laptops, including my new MacBook Pro M3. Interestingly, if checking the ‘Thumbnail’ box, these problems do not happen.

There are other odd little things which happen that are less annoying; such as some of the Advanced Settings becoming ‘sticky’ either when selecting or deselecting them. The only way to free yourself from the issue is to restart Scan II. Also, Brightness, Contrast and Saturation in the Advanced settings leave a lot to be desired as they do not accurately reflect what the final output looks like.

You might wonder why I persevere with the software when there are other options out there, and the answer is simple really… over the months I have been using Scan II, I have tested every function to see if they offer a better solution regarding post processing when compared to Lightroom. In my opinion they do not, so I use it simply as a basic driver that acts only as a mechanism to digitise essential data. Therefore, the only in-software settings I use are: 

  • 35mm Slides: Unsharp Mask (low).
  • 35mm Negatives: Unsharp Mask (low), Grain Reduction (on), Digital ICE Technology (on).
  • Photographs: Unsharp Mask (low), Digital ICE Technology (on - when required).

The above are used in conjunction with modifications to remove dead space from the RGB input, and expansion of the output channels in the Histogram Adjustment. I have yet to establish best practice for working with photos and plates.

Calibration

The V850 Pro is supplied with I1 Profiler for creating custom profiles that may help with the scanner’s colour calibration. Individual profiles can be created for reflective (photo) or transmissive  (negative and slide) media and loaded through the Epson Scan II software. We spent time creating a few profiles to see what effect they had on the scanner output. The results were interesting and we found it was easier to create a bad profile than it was a good one. Consequently we reverted back to the default Epson setting and managed colour imperfections via Lightroom.

Results

epson perfection v850 3If you have read this far it may be easy to jump to the conclusion that we are less than happy with the scanner. However that is not the case. When all is said and done it is the results that are most meaningful. This is where the V850 acquits itself nicely. Once you have familiarised yourself with the software and its fickle behaviour, superb results are possible. Maybe a dedicated film scanner would outperform it, but the detail we are getting from it is very, very acceptable. Regarding negative film, we are bringing back to life memories that are long forgotten, with a richness that betters the original prints. Good results from slide film are a bit more challenging to achieve and often produce a colour cast that requires adjusting in Lightroom. This is partly to do with the highly saturated film I sometimes used (Kodak EBX, Ektrachrome E100GX are just two examples that spring to mind). Coupled with a polarising filter, the colours became saturated to the extreme - a surreal look that I was fond of many years ago but less so now.

Would I purchase the same scanner again? There has been very few (if any) new machines brought to market in 2023, so the choices remain more or less the same now as they did at the beginning of the year. When I look at products from, for example, Plustek, Braun, Reflecta or Pacific Image, there are several dedicated film scanners that are suitable for part of our needs and they have a much smaller footprint. But for multimedia scanning, a flatbed model is the most suitable and compromises little in terms of image quality when used correctly. So we are happy with our purchase and will be spending the next few years digitising a lifetime’s work. One thing about scanning that is as true today as it was in 1999 when we had the Minolta scanner; it takes time and patience. There is little in the way of automation that really helps. Understanding DPI, resolution, bit depth and colour temperature are fundamental to success. So is a deep knowledge of the hardware used. This to some degree is down to trial and error. Our advice to anyone who is new to scanning is to set time aside to try every setting the scanner has. Do this with a few test slides or negatives and compare the visible differences. This way you will not only discover what each setting is capable of, but find out what suits your own personal taste. Do not rush this process or you may find you are revisiting some of your collection and rescanning it. Above all, enjoy the learning process and put aside any frustrations. We have experienced a ton of them but are still excited every time we open a new case of slides to scan, or raid the negative archive and resuscitate a forgotten holiday.