Stephen Schaub, over at Figital Revolution, has laid down some common sense about film scanners today that I hope Kodak runs with. Check out his audio-blog entry and get it straight from him, if you’re not already following The Figital Revolution in your feed reader. You should be, if you love film and fine-art photography.
But the gist of his post is this: Kodak (he says) has the technology on the shelf to make a simple, high-quality film scanner at the $500 price point; and they should do this if they want to help ensure an ongoing market for their film products. It’s an interesting idea, if Stephen’s information is accurate. His post has prompted me to think more about all this, and how it might work.
For Kodak to implement such an idea would pay homage to its earliest days, when George Eastman told his customers, “You press the button, we do the rest!” Back then, you bought the “Kodak” ready to go with 100 exposures already loaded. You shot them all up, and returned camera and all to Kodak for processing. Kodak returned your pictures along with your camera, preloaded in Rochester with another 100 shots. It would comport with this Kodak tradition of soup-to-nuts customer service to offer a low-cost scanner—assuming it can be done profitably. Whether they would be willing to take on the financial risk, in their current fiscal straits, during a stubbornly-persistent recession, is another question. I’d love to see it happen; but I’m not betting the (shrunken) 401k on it.
Kodak generates a huge portion of its cash flow on an analog product, film, much of which is consumed as the first step in an analog-digital hybrid workflow—exactly what The Figital Revolution is all about. The majority of color (still) film shot today is destined for scanning, followed by digital printing, if prints are made at all. But with the current pre-eminence of digital for color still photography, color film is the most-endangered segment of the film market. Who, then, is buying color film, and how to keep them buying it? Digital has pretty much conquered the snapshot-taking consumer public on one end of the user spectrum, and the commercial/editorial/portrait/wedding pros on the other end. For these people, digital is the right choice for many reasons: immediate gratification, ease of image dissemination, film and processing cost, turnaround time, client demand. There’s not much, really, that Kodak or anyone else can do to lead these people back to film. That ship has sailed and it’s not coming back.
In between, though, you find the film aficionados (FA’s, let’s call them), both amateur and professional, who prefer shooting film for artistic reasons. They like its look, and the overall experience of shooting it. Further, many of these FA’s have a significant investment in pro-level film gear that they are unwilling to part with it at a fire-sale loss to move to a digital alternative they find less aesthetically appealing. But faced with having to drop five large on a scanner, you can hardly blame them for surrendering the RZ to eBay to get what they can, while they can, toward the Nikon D-whatever-x. What if Kodak could clear one big impediment to using its cash-cow product, while improving its bottom line in the doing? Lots of ifs, I acknowledge. And as a film lover, I fear to know the answer.
Scanning in its current state is not for the faint-hearted. Stephen and I use the same Imacon/Hasselblad 646 to scan 35mm and medium-format film. I’ve also used Nikon dedicated film scanners in the past with just about as good results. But the cost of any of these machines ($2200 for the Nikon 9000, when you can get one; $5k used/>$13k new for an Imacon/Hasselblad 646), and the steepness of the learning curve, are insurmountable barriers for many would-be users. Prosumer flatbed document/film scanners, such as the Epson V700/750, are an option, and these can be had for around that $500 price point. For many, these scanners are quite good enough, and that’s fine. But Stephen is convinced—based on extensive testing—that these scanners are inferior to their more expensive dedicated siblings, when one is trying to extract the maximum quality from film as the first step in the hybrid workflow. I tend to concur after my less rigorous comparison of both the Nikon and the Imacon with the better flatbeds. They’re good, but it’s not a real contest.
If a color-film lover could buy a high-quality dedicated film scanner at least as good as the Nikon 9000 for $500, it would be a game changer. Spend $500 for a scanner that keeps your Hasselblad or Mamiya 7 from fading to obsolescence? Or drop $8k for the latest rapidly-depreciating Canikosony DSLR body, merely to achieve a result arguably no better than a good scan of a MF film negative made with the gear you already own? Faced with this arithmetic, a lot of FA’s who are on the threshold of pulling the digital ripcord might reconsider film.
Here’s the capability I’d want in such a scanner. Above all, it would be simple and speedy to operate. It would present the user with as few choices as absolutely necessary to capture and save a scan that contains full tonal information at a selectable pixel resolution. Its film-handling operations would automatically discern, and scan as separate files, each image from multiframe film strips with minimal user intervention. Epson Scan and Nikon Scan in their present iterations perform lower level “autonomic” driver control functions for the hardware; but they needlessly duplicate image-editing functions better left to Adobe and Apple’s more capable image editors. This scanner’s install package should concern itself only with hardware drivers, and leave the thinking to the mammals.
Taking this a bit further, Kodak could simply provide whatever specs or API’s are necessary to enable Lightroom and Aperture to run the scanner entirely from within themselves. This is an approach similar to the way LaserSoft has developed SilverFast scanning software, bypassing Nikon’s crappy MAID drivers to control the scanner directly. It might even cost Kodak less in the long run to pay Adobe and Apple to do this, rather than to develop its own software from scratch, and to bear the ongoing support costs. And with healthy companies like Adobe and Apple in charge of software, perhaps there would be less chance the hardware would be orphaned when its maker loses interest in upgrading its software. Y’know, like Nikon has so shamefully done with Nikon Scan (yeah, let me kick those guys ONE MORE TIME—they deserve it.)
This is all the rankest speculation, based on candyfloss and vapor. I have no idea whether Kodak can actually make a $500 scanner like Stephen believes, much less hit that price point after fulfilling my wish list. But I can dare to dream. If you want to take action, though, follow the links Stephen has posted to express your feelings directly to the people who count at Kodak. It couldn’t hurt, and might even help.