Meet the Scanner: PrimeFilm XA

After several years of frustration at trying to get decent color scans out of the Canon 8800F flatbed scanner, I finally made the jump to a dedicated 35mm film scanner, the PrimeFilm XA (also known as the Reflecta RPS 10M). It’s a smaller unit than the flatbed, and includes nice features like auto frame advance and (importantly) auto focus. It comes with the manufacturer’s own software, which they call CyberView X5, as well as SilverFast SE.

Predictably, some experimentation was necessary to achieve acceptable results. I’m going to share some of that experience here in order to perhaps save other new users some time in the initial phases. I started with SilverFast and immediately hated it. Not only was it overly complex and ergonomically disastrous, but the scans it produced were incredibly noisy no matter what I did. Apparently one can spend an exorbitant sum on an upgrade from the mid-level SE to the AI deluxe package, which offers some sort of multiscanning that reduces noise, but I was not inclined to take this route, in no small part because I don’t like the approach the company seems to take of providing flawed base packages (which aren’t cheap) and only making it really work if you buy the top of the line. Maybe I gave up too quickly, but for what SilverFast charges for their software, I’m not inclined to think I should be required to work too hard to get acceptable results.

Anyway, I settled into CyberView. Both are pretty poorly documented, but at least that’s not as big a hurdle to overcome with CyberView, as it’s a simpler package. I ran some tests and pretty quickly found that I could generally get good results scanning color film at 2500dpi with Auto Exposure, Balance, and Contrast turned on, Multiscan set at 4 (the maximum value), and MagicTouch (the IR dust and scratch removal) also turned on. MagicTouch works really well, far better than the system on the Canon flatbed. Multiscan slows things down a lot, but it’s necessary to tame noise, especially in large relatively homogeneous color areas, like clear blue skies. Auto Balance seems to work pretty much all the time, while Exposure and Contrast need to be turned off for tricky lighting like dark night shots. One annoying aspect of CyberView is that applying any adjustments at all to color, contrast, or exposure causes horrible blocking – just don’t do it. Once dialed in, however, the XA produced color scans that were noticeably better than the best I could manage with the 8800F, and which were easily finished in GIMP.

Black-and-white, however, appears to be a different story. No matter what I tried with the XA, the results are not more than marginally improved over the flatbed scans, at least once I had applied my highly-developed post-processing regime (which consists of two types of sharpening and some other bits, applied in layers). The raw scans from the PrimeFilm are clearly better, with one caveat: I found it necessary to scan B&W at 5000dpi to completely eliminate artifacts, meaning much larger files. Grain is ever so slightly crisper in the higher resolution XA scans than in my sharpened 2400dpi scans from the Canon, but you’d never notice in anything smaller than a massive print. Maybe with finer-grained film like TMax or Delta there would be more visible improvement with the XA, but for traditional films like HP5+ or Tri-X I can’t see much of a benefit, assuming you’re accustomed to optimizing the scans.

So is the XA worth it, or perhaps more generally, is a dedicated 35mm film scanner worth it if you’re currently using a flatbed? Well, if you want to be able to scan color 35mm film to a high standard, then yes, without a doubt. The same holds true if you want the best possible straight scans of B&W and don’t want to do much (if any) post-processing. If you’ve got a post-processing regime you’re happy with and you’re shooting exclusively traditional-grained B&W, well, maybe not so much. If you do get one, I really don’t suggest fighting with SilverFast for too long. Some people swear by VueScan, but I’ve never tried it. The included CyberView package is at least adequate for my needs right now.