Ah, scanning. If you're not printing in the darkroom, it's a necessary evil when dealing with film. You could argue that outside of the moment of exposure, scanning carries the most weight in determining the quality of the final image. For those that choose to develop their film at home, scanning is the next step in our workflow. Most of us want to get in, get the best scan we can, and get out to the greener pastures of Photoshop to make our final edits. Your choice of software has a lot to do with how efficient and how tolerable it will be to get your negatives into the computer. It's through that lens that we take a look at VueScan.
There are generally two schools of thought when it comes to scanning: do as much of the work as you can while scanning, or get as much information as you can out of the scan and do the rest in Photoshop and Lightroom. Your choice of software can have a lot to do with where you land on the spectrum. For myself, I'd rather get as much as I can done in the scanning software so that my Photoshop time is limited to retouching. There's no right or wrong here, just personal preference. As long as you get the image you want, do it the way you want. It's difficult to review a software package without comparing it to other packages that I'm familiar with, so in this review, I'll be comparing VueScan to Epson Scan, the free software that comes with any Epson scanner, and SilverFast 8.8. I'll step through my own scanning workflow and we will see how VueScan helps or hinders my own efficiency.
It Ain't Pretty
When you get into VueScan, the first thing you're going to notice is the Spartan nature of the user interface. This software, visually, seems like a flashback from the nineties. There are hardly any graphic elements to be found. There are six tabs on the left moving from "Input" on the far left to "Output" and "Prefs" on the right. Seems fairly intuitive. Unfortunately, that's about where the user friendliness ends. A lot of my working through VueScan has been trial and error. There are a plethora of options under each subsection, and although some do have sliders, it's difficult to determine what does what without some experimentation. More on that while we are fine-tuning our scans.
The first step in any scanning workflow, apart from mounting the film, is going to be previewing your work. Essentially, you're getting a bird's eye view of your negatives or slides so that you can decide which frames you want to work on in earnest. Previewing won't show you critical focus or color, but it will enable you to build a roadmap to the rest of your workflow. What I typically do is lay my entire sheet of negatives directly on the scanner bed, set the software to wide transparency, and scan my entire sheet at once. There are two lenses on the Epson V700, my scanner of choice. One is pre-focused at the height of their film holders. The other is pre-focused directly at the scanner glass. By choosing "Transparency 8x10" in VueScan, or whatever each scanning software calls it, I can preview scan the whole bed in one sweep.
Selecting and Scanning an Image
Once we've previewed the whole sheet, we select a shot to zoom in on and work with. A plus in VueScan's corner here is that you can zoom in on an image without the scanner making a slightly more detailed scan. When using Silverfast or Epson Scan, each time you zoom in on a selection the scanner will re-scan the image. The tradeoff, of course, is that the zoomed in image in VueScan is not very high resolution, but if you want to get in and out of the software quickly, this greatly cuts down on your time.
Once the image is selected, we get to the nitty-gritty. Here's where you have to decide your workflow. Do you want to maximize the information in your scan or get close to a finished product? If you want to get in and get out, you manipulate the preview to bring out the most possible detail in both the highlights and shadows, in essence creating a very flat file, then bring that image into your image manipulation software of choice. For that, once you figure out the sliders, VueScan is simple enough. But when you want to do any real manipulation in VueScan, the process is clumsy at best. The sliders have names like "Black Point%" and "Curve Height." In order to crop an image it's not a matter of drawing a box. You adjust offset sliders.
Look, I understand that there must be some sort of grand reasoning for all of this complication, but seeing as the online help system is vague at best, I've yet to figure out what that is. When I crop, I want to draw a box and be done with it.
What About Color Profiles?
While Epson Scan has no built-in film profiles, both Silverfast and VueScan provide specific film stock profiles that claim to give your scans accurate color. In practice, I find Silverfast more consistently accurate than Vuescan, but every once in a while, when you play with a setting just so, VueScan will nail it. In the end, though, neither program is 100 percent accurate so expect to do some tweaking in Photoshop or Lightroom.
But, when I checked the "Restore colors" and "Restore fading" buttons...
I got this:
Of course, I tried those options with a couple of other slides and it only worked half the time, so your mileage may vary.
The image quality coming out of VueScan seems, to my eye, no better or worse than Silverfast or Epson Scan. No noticeable difference in noise or shadow and highlight retention. In short, it looks fine. One weird quirk I found though was I couldn't get sharpening to work. I'd select sharpening and the finished scan would look exactly the same as a non-sharpened scan. I know, I know, I should be sharpening my scans later in Photoshop, but Silverfast does a pretty good job of it so I tried it here. No dice.
Here's the thing: all of these software packages are capable of yielding good results, but at what cost? Epson Scan is free with Epson scanners. There are no film profiles to speak of and not many bells and whistles, but for free software it's more than capable. The basic Silverfast package that I run with cost $49.99. For that, you get a more graphical interface, film profiles that get pretty close results, and a pretty stable platform. VueScan costs $79.99 and you get an unfriendly interface, lots of film profiles that sometimes work, sharpening that is buggy, and a lot more headaches. Looking at the cost/usefulness ratio, VueScan just doesn't hold up.
What I Liked
- Image quality is fine
- Fully featured
What I Disliked
- Not intuitive
- Ugly Interface
- Lags behind competitors in ease of use
- Feels dated
- Color profiles are quirky at best
- Useless online help
Obviously, I'm not recommending this software. However, I feel like with an interface overhaul and some bug removal it could compete well with Silverfast. As it is, scanning is already tough enough without dealing with a horrible interface. I'll stick with Silverfast. Do you have any experience with VueScan or can you add some tips for myself or other users? Sound off below.