Review: Nikon Coolscan V ED

A product review by Bobulous.

Understand the Nikon Coolscan V ED

The Coolscan V ED is a 35mm film scanner by Nikon. It allows 35mm photographic negative and slide film to be scanned into digital image files with a resolution of up to 4,000 PPI. The Coolscan V ED comes with a set of features called Digital ICE Quad Advanced to make scanning of imperfect film more successful (often written as Digital ICE4 Advanced).

The Coolscan V ED is also known as the Nikon LS50 ED.

Using the Coolscan V ED

Preparing to scan

The package came with six Quick Start guides, covering six languages. Setting up the software and the hardware was very easy, and very quickly you're able to use the Nikon Scan software to start scanning your 35mm film.

photo: The front of the Coolscan V ED, showing the SA-21 negative strip adapter in place. The opening to the adapter is just a dark, gaping hole.

Feeding a 35mm negative strip (of 2 to 6 images in length) into the SA-21 negative adapter is mildly daunting at first. Offering the film timidly into the deep, dark opening, you have to keep pushing forward gently until the scanner grasps it and draws it in the rest of the way. I found this a little tricky from time to time, with the film feed mechanism beginning to motor without actually having hold of the film strip. And a couple of times the film was drawn in, then rejected. However, persistence has always won out for my film collection so far, even with film strips that have curled somewhat along their width (rather than along the length of the strip).

Using the MA-21 slide adapter is much easier. A mounted slide can be pushed into the slot, and you can later eject it with a simple spring-loaded button. Changing between slide and negative adapters is also easy, as you just pull one adapter out of the scanner body (without any film in it) and then slide the other adapter in. This has to be done while the Nikon Scan software is open, so that the software detects the change, but is otherwise very simple to do. For people who bought into the APS film hype, you'll have to pay extra for the optional IA-20(s) adapter that takes APS film cartridges, but note that as this film is smaller in size than 35mm film, you'll end up with smaller digital images.

When scanning a negative strip, the Nikon Scan software can create thumbnails of the images so that it's easier to choose which image frame you want. Once you've selected the desired frame, a preview scan takes about sixty seconds, but it's a necessary step as the preview allows you to select the area to scan and to see the effects of the settings you choose.

A couple of times I found that the scanner had failed to detect the boundaries of dark images on negative film. I think this happens because pitch-black images are clear on negative film, so the scanner has no way of telling where the image frame ends. Worse still, I found no way of manually adjusting the offset used by the scanner [see Update below], so some images seem to be impossible to scan fully.

Most of the time, though, the preview scan shows the full image frame. Then you use the crop tool to select the area you want to scan. You can also set a focus point but, as the negative surface is flat, the user guide does not make it entirely clear what the benefit of setting a focus point is. Other settings allow you to alter the curves, colour balance, and sharpness, but most important of all are the Digital ICE Quad Advanced settings.

Digital ICE Quad Advanced features

First of the four features is the confusingly-named Digital ICE, which does an excellent job of removing dust specks, minor scratches, and film-length scratches (caused by rollers either in the camera or at the film development lab). It replaces specks and scratches with colour to match the surrounding area in the image, and doesn't reduce image quality noticeably. Note that when I use the term "Digital ICE" in this review, I'm referring to the dust-removal part of the Digital ICE Quad Advanced set of tools.

Digital DEE is a very useful feature for underexposed images, but its success depends on how underexposed an image is. For a seriously dark portion of an image, DEE can only boost brightness by wildly increasing the amount of image noise. It also offers help by reducing the brightness of overexposed sections, such as bright skies.

Digital ROC is designed to boost colours in old film that has faded over the years. I haven't tested this feature because my film is all less than ten years old, and the colours are all still vibrant.

Digital GEM reduces the appearance of photographic film grain. GEM seems to be able to soften stretches of grainy colour without losing valuable detail.

Performing a scan

Having set the crop area, focus point, and chosen the scan settings, it's time to start the scan. The scanner is pretty noisy while it's adjusting, focusing and scanning, and the body vibrates gently. In fact, the noises given off by the scan process are very similar to the noises an MRI scanner makes while doing a brain scan, but nowhere near as loud.

Scan times vary depending on which Digital ICE Quad Advanced settings you enable. Nikon's website claims that the Coolscan V ED offers a "38 second scan time", but that bears no relation to the scan times I've experienced. For one particular image, with a fixed crop area that covers the full image frame, the times taken for a 4,000 PPI scan were:

Time taken to scan one image, dependent on advanced features enabled.
No features ICE only ICE + DEE ICE + DEE + GEM
1m28s 2m00s 2m23s 4m13s

(Note that I haven't tested ROC because I haven't got any old negatives that need faded colours restored.)

For this full-frame image, the 4,000 PPI scan produced a digital image 3,728 by 5,725 pixels in dimension. That's 21.3 megapixels.

Once you've got your full-size image, Nikon Scan lets you save the image in either TIFF or bitmap format, both lossless. I'd have preferred the option to save in PNG format, because PNG is also lossless but produces smaller file sizes.

Alternatively, you can use Nikon Scan as a TWAIN interface in your preferred photo-editing suite. Using Adobe Photoshop Elements 4.0 to import images from the scanner worked fine, but I was forced to close the Nikon Scan tool before Photoshop Elements would allow me to save the image [see Update below]. At least using a photo-editing suite to save the image lets you save it in your preferred image format.

Sample output from the Coolscan V ED

The 300×300 pixel samples below are taken from a full-size 4,000 PPI scan. Note that the area shown in each 300×300 sample takes up only 1.9mm by 1.9mm on the actual negative. The reduced-size images that show the whole photo are less than half-a-percent of the area of the full-size 4,000 PPI scan.

Digital ICE

sample: A small section showing the corner of a tiled roof. Small white flecks blight this portion of the image. sample: The same section, this time no white flecks are visible.

The image on the left shows bright flecks where dust or scratches on the negative have affected the scan. These can be retouched using a good photo-editing suite, but this can take quite a lot of time depending on how much of the image is affected.

The image on the right shows the effect of enabling the Digital ICE feature (at default setting "Normal") of the scanner. This examines the film to determine what should not be there, and then tells the Nikon Scan software to repair those damaged areas automatically. This adds a bit of time to the scanning process, but it is clearly worth the extra time.

sample: A small section showing a classically-styled stone building features. A white line runs down the whole length of the section. sample: The same section, this time with no white lines running down its length.

The image on the left shows a heavy scratch that runs down the length of the photo, and a more subtle scratch next to it. Because this scratch runs through detailed areas of the photo, it would take the average person a long time to remove the scratch carefully in a photo-editing suite.

The image on the right shows how Digital ICE has removed the scratch so that even if you knew it was there before you'd be hard pressed to point out where it had been. Though ICE has reduced the photographic grain a little, it hasn't significantly altered any of the fine detail in the image.

Digital GEM

sample: The section showing the corner of the tiled roof. The blue sky is speckled, some pixels lighter and some darker than average, giving a noisy appearance. sample: The same section, the sky looking much smoother, much less speckled.

At 4,000 PPI, the grain in photographic film shows up very clearly, as seen in the image on the left. Smooth patches of colour are often the worst-looking, such as stretches of blue sky.

The image on the right shows the effect that Digital GEM (at default setting 3) has in reducing the appearance of grain. At first it looks like the image has been grossly softened, but closer examination shows that fine detail is left intact.

sample: A small section showing a clock-face on a stone clocktower. Grain gives the image a speckled appearance. sample: The same section, much smoother this time, almost no speckled pattern.

The image on the left shows that grain fits in better in areas of detail, but it still may look fuzzy to some people.

On the right we see the effect of Digital GEM. Though the image looks much softer, all but the very finest of detail has been left intact.

Digital DEE

photo: A view along Mostecká Street, beyond which is a view of St. Mikulas' Cathedral, a stone tower and green-copper dome below a blue sky. The parts of the street that are not in sunlight are very dark. photo: The same photo of Mostecká Street, this time the shaded street is much less dark, and much more detail can be seen.

On the left is a reduced-size version of the whole image. Because half of the image is in sunlight, and half is in shade, the contrast is very high and the shadow areas have become very dark.

Enabling Digital DEE (at default values of shadow: 50, light: 1, threshold: 190) causes the shadow areas to be boosted in brightness so that the overall scene is more appealing, as shown in the right-hand image.

Note: this is an image taken in Prague. Thanks to Radim Frank for pointing out that it's a shot along Mostecká Street, and the tower in the background is that of Saint Mikulas' Cathedral.

Evaluate the Nikon Coolscan V ED

The Nikon Coolscan V ED is an excellent piece of equipment for people who have got a large number of photos in the form of 35mm negatives and slides but would like to have them available in digital form.

I have in the past had my negatives scanned by professional labs to give me images on Kodak PhotoCD (such as the images used in The Booze Cruise), but I wasn't totally happy with the results. Plus there was the risk of loss or damage while the film was being posted to and from the labs.

Being able to scan your film yourself allows you much more control over the final result, and the Coolscan V ED offers plenty of control. Digital ICE makes minor scratches and dust almost irrelevant. Digital DEE can save images that looked wrongly-exposed when the photo lab printed them. Digital GEM does a pretty good job of softening the grainy texture of high-resolution scans. I can't comment on the effectiveness of Digital ROC, but I will do if I find any old, faded film to test it on.

One thing I would like to have seen included in the package is a custom-fit dustcover. Dust is the enemy of high-resolution scanning, so I'm not too happy leaving the scanner out in the open the whole time, especially as the film entrance doesn't have a cover, just a gaping whole.

Overall, though, I'm very happy. If you're a serious professional photographer, then maybe you'll need either one of Nikon's high-end film scanners, or the services of a professional scanning company. But for non-professionals who just want a high-resolution scan of their 35mm film, and don't mind spending time scanning images individually, the Nikon Coolscan V ED ought to do an excellent job.

Examples produced by the Coolscan V ED

The photographs [before 2008] in my new Travel Destinations section were all (bar the pictures of Cork) scanned using the Nikon Coolscan V ED.


18th September, 2006

I found that there is a way to tell the scanner to offset the preview scan. In Nikon Scan, in the tool palette on the right, there is a section called "Scanner Extras". This has an option to adjust the offset by a negative or positive amount, so that you should be able to scan negatives that are so transparent that the scanner has trouble identifying the edges of the image frame.

Also, I've noticed that exiting the Nikon Scan software can crash Photoshop Elements 4.0. Which is a problem because it's not possible to save a scanned image in Photoshop Elements without first exiting Nikon Scan. Luckily it doesn't seem to happen too often.

15th August, 2011

I knew it was a stupid idea to upgrade to Windows 7. And as soon as I'd replaced my Windows XP setup with Windows 7, I remembered why. Nikon Scan does not work in Windows 7. Nikon no longer sell film scanners, so they no longer develop the software for them. If you want to continue using your Nikon Coolscan V ED in Windows 7 you'll need to buy third-party software such as Vuescan (cheap, supports multiple models of scanner with one purchase, available for Windows, Linux and Mac) or SilverFast (expensive, has to be purchased for one specific scanner, not available for Linux). I failed to beg a review copy, so I've not used either of these titles. But if you need to keep using your film scanner in a modern operating system then you may have no other choice.

The only alternative is to keep a machine running Windows XP, or skip upgrading to Windows 7 altogether. (The newer version of Windows really adds nothing except the ability to address more than 3GiB of RAM, so you won't be missing out on much if you stick with XP.)

Oh, and I also recently discovered that you can't scan thirty-five-year-old Ilford IP4 black-and-white negatives using Nikon Scan's Digital ICE (scratch removal) feature. Enabling Digital ICE led to all shadow detail going pure black. I'm guessing that the infra-red lamp used to detect scratches and dust could not penetrate the unusual, silvery, opaque-looking underside of the Ilford IP4 film, and this led to calculation problems. I don't know whether this applies to newer versions of Ilford IP4, but the thirty-five-year-old stuff certainly wasn't in the mood for automatic scratch removal. Disabling Digital ICE led to excellent scanning, though the resulting image was littered with hundreds of scratches of all sizes.