Figital scanner solution?

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.

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12 thoughts on “Figital scanner solution?

  1. Okay, a few years back I talked to Stephen a bunch of times and he’s a great guy, I really like his style, and he’s one of the few people who is actually thinking about this stuff in the grand philosophical sense. So we need more brainstorming on ideas like this.

    But this is such bass-akwards dreaming I want to know what radioactive strain of dope Schaub is growing in Vermont and why you guys aren’t sharing. If there was an amazing all-in-one dream scanner that would make everyone happy forever, why would you sell it for $500? I don’t care how much it cost to make, you sell it for as much as the market will bear. And in the photo world that means this is a $1500+ scanner, easy. And because it’s a limited market (once everybody has one, there’s no room for growth) you especially need to maximize your profit. So now it’s the $2500 dream scanner. Are people really thinking that you call up a corporate executive, and some guy with fingers that smell like fixer is going to tell this CEO what product he’s going to make AND how little he will charge for it? Because if I was that CEO I would think either 1) these people are desperate, they’d probably pay an awful lot more for this machine, or he thinks 2) what jerks.

    Why is everyone crying to mommy Kodak? 20 years ago you needed the investment power and research of a megacorporation like Kodak or Fuji to design a scanner. But in this era, the market is too small to interest the megacorporations in something like this, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible or potentially even profitable. A small, determined group of people could design and build a dream film scanner. Most of us already own a very high quality digital capture device: a digital camera. If you can design a way to mate that camera to the right optics and transport, and run it all through the right software, then you could repurpose your existing investments into functioning as an impressive open source film scanning platform. Maybe you could sell $10 million worth of these platforms a year. To Kodak, it isn’t worth it, but to 3 guys in a garage who turned their weekend project into $10 million in annual sales, that’s huge. And we can use my garage. But I think you see my point, this is a new game. If you want to keep stuff like this afloat, it isn’t going to be because the big orange monolith is doing some pro bono work. It’s going to be saved because the teenagers down the street learned how to hotwire grandpa’s roadster.

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    1. Kevin, thanks for taking the time to slog through such a long and tedious post, and further, to comment thoughtfully.

      When you put it that way, the whole idea is kinda…well, whack. The only way this might actually work for a huge company like Kodak is if it decided to price aggressively to achieve a larger sales volume, with the overarching idea of keeping people buying film.

      So now we have your garage, and Stephen’s freedom-and-unity ganja. I’ll bring the bourbon, so we’re good to go.

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  2. The reason Kodak should do it is to follow the Gillette razor model: give the razors away for peanuts, sell them the blades. Yes, they could charge $1,500 but that severely limits the market. There are probably a few thousand folks out there who pay those prices, but many can’t/won’t. If you want to keep selling film, the users need a way to scan that film, or it’s “hello, digital”. Plus the usability of the current scanners/scanning programs leaves a lot to be desired, and turns a lot of people off.
    K.I.S.S., a good thought!

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  3. This would be a great idea, however I think there are too many people out there – non photographer consumer masses that already believe digital is, not only easier to capture, edit, and print, but they also feel it’s superior to film, wether they know anything about it or not.

    I doubt that anybody other than the die hards are going to go back to using film. Digital is too easy. When is the last time you wrote a letter with pen and paper, instead of just sending an e-mail?

    Sad truth. I am already feeling the effects of this with the cancelation of Kodachrome, which I just rediscovered recently after a long hiatus from film shooting due to my own digital revolution.

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  4. “I doubt that anybody other than the die hards are going to go back to using film.”
    A lot of people have already gone back. A lot never left. Some started shooting film after starting with digital. Some (like me) like to use both.

    “Digital is too easy”
    That’s why it isn’t as much fun!

    “When is the last time you wrote a letter with pen and paper, instead of just sending an e-mail”
    Yesterday. My parents don’t even have an internet connection at home. But maybe we’re backward.

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  5. What I really like about blog posts is the fact that they spark a thought in my mind. Once that happens, I feel like I have to respond hoping it will be interesting to others.blogs and forumsespecially I find myself coming back to your weblog only because you have lots of very good insights, that’s very impressiveknow a lot.imagination in others

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  6. “A lot of people have already gone back. A lot never left”

    This may be true, but really enough to matter regarding the above blog post? I still see masses of consumers (the snap shooters) using digital – because it’s easy and many believe it’s better than film. Are there still film users? Yes, of course. Is there enough users for a company to spend R&D on a new scanner? I’m not so sure. Don’t get me wrong I would buy it, especially at $500. I would even pay 5 times as much or more if it scan do 4×5.

    As far as the letter thing, I was merely trying to make a point. I knew somebody would chime in and say they still wrote letters..

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  7. The latest Microtek was plenty of evidence enough that the world of film people are in NEED of a cheap, but high quality scanner. The Microtek was a complete let down, but the incredibly vast amount of attention it was given is rediculous prior to its release. Talk about making a new DSLR that everyone is gung-ho about and just impatiently waiting to get their hands on, but having to wait and wait and wait, discussing what little is known about it as it is in its building stages. This is NO different than what a high level scanner would do, especially at a $500 to even $700ish price point dependent on the quality of it. The problem happens if this scanner ends up being another Epson/Microtek/etc. This is where it will sell, but just not do well since one will always be buying the Epson with all the support it has and the re-sale value vs. Microtek. But if it’s a winner, rivals or even bests dedicated film scanners, dare I say rivals drum scanners, this will EASILY sell like hotcakes. There’s the LOADS of people that already own the Epson because they cannot afford anything other than this. There’s the LOADS that own a Nikon and would gladly sell it off to some Nikon die hard if they knew they could buy a few of these Kodaks for what they could get by selling their Nikon scanner. Then all those big and massive drum/press scanners that would be sold off. I don’t think people realize how many people would buy this device if it really did come through.

    Here’s what I would want:

    1) High resolution that can rival high end scanners.
    2) Something excruciatingly simple/intuitive, but built on the premises of image quality rather than gimmicks and garbage.
    3) No frills machine that does, again, highest level of scanning that goes direct over to post-processing.
    4) Something that can nail down shadow areas that flatbeds usually cannot handle.
    5) Of course something that can handle various roll and sheet films and do just as well at scanning a 35mm=way more than enough to capture 8X10 negs.

    Cheers!

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  8. A $500 flatbed that scans everything up to a true 5000 dpi optical with ICE would be nice.

    Perhaps Kodak doesn’t need to re-invent but just repurpose something they already have on the shelves to hit a new price-point. They still own Creo-Scitex and the Eversmart, don’t they?

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  9. There is a lot more to hi-end scanners than $500 on the shelf technology. Production machines like Eversmart or Screen are big, heavy high precision machines with top notch optics and very well designed and costly film holders. I can’t see how a $500 machine could equal the performance of those machines regardless of their age. Like Ivan says, Kodak still makes the IQsmart, but considering there are plenty old top quality scanners still changing hands for little money, a new line of low cost premium quality scanners is unlikely. Certainly things could change if more and more people start shooting film. Let’s hope so! What we all can do is to encourage the digital shooters to try out film!

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  10. As an owner of a coolscan 8000 with its crappy drivers and 80’s software, that I also just had repaired for a mere 400€, I can’t think of anything better than what you just described!

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