The Epson Expression 1680 Pro
A flat-bed scanner with the capability of scanning the smallest medium format (6x4.5cm) film frame for a 13x19" print has been largely unaffordable to me and many digital darkroom enthusiasts, until now. Epson's latest Expression model scanner, with an 8.5x11.7 scan area, has the performance specifications and versatility ideal for medium and large format film images. In addition, it also handles print and document scanning. The list price of the Expression 1680 Pro model, with a film scanning TPU, is $1149. This buys you 1600x3200dpi hardware resolution, the highest bit depth of 16 bits per RGB channel (48 bits) in this price range, and 3.6 D-max. The Expression 1680 Pro also comes with what I consider the best photographic scanning software--LaserSoft SilverFast Ai 5--and an IT-8 Target Calibration Kit for custom profiles. It includes Epson's TWAIN Pro driver, Monaco EZ Color software--to calibrate and profile your entire system--Adobe Photoshop LE, ScanSoft TextBridge Pro, and NewSoft Presto! PageManager.
For the digital darkroom user, the greatest value in a letter-size flat-bed with a full area transparency scanning accessory is the ability to scan medium and large format film affordably. But the Expression 1680 has a much broader scope of capabilities. It will scan 35mm film at an optical resolution that provides image files that will make quite good 8.5x11" prints. It is also an efficient tool to proof an entire roll of 35mm or 120 film or four 4x5s. In reflective mode, it does a superb job of color print scanning, as well as all kinds of gray scale and black and white image and document scanning. This includes OCR (Optical Character Recognition) with fully capable software.
The Epson Expression 1680 Pro scanner comes with both SCSI 2 and USB interfaces to connect with either a Mac or PC Windows computer (software for both Macintosh and PC Windows is included). There is also a Pro FireWire model available to obtain the highest speed and convenience of connection, priced at $1399.
Using The Epson Expression
I started with a selection of 120 and 4x5 black and white silver-based film images. This was partly to satisfy a serious personal interest and curiosity, and to test the Expression 1680's ability to make sharp scans at full hardware resolution. If you recall, I had a minor reservation about Epson's earlier 1600 model in this regard. Considering that the Expression 1680 will very likely be paired with one of Epson's 13" wide printers, I made all of my test scans (except 35mm film) at an image size of 13" wide by 300dpi. Using 24-bit output this results in a 50MB plus RGB file or about 17MB for 8-bit gray scale). Both drivers--the Epson TWAIN Pro and SilverFast--support output at the scanners' bit depth of 16-bit gray scale and 48-bit RGB color.
B&W Scan Tip
Then, I opened the negative, high-bit image in Photoshop 6.0, I used the Levels dialog to optimize the gamut and adjust the midpoint (on-screen brightness) to a perceptual level that years of wet darkroom printing had taught me "looked" like a good negative. I then Inverted this image to a positive, and again used the Levels dialog to fine-tune the optimization of the gamut. If necessary, I also adjusted Curves to increase the image contrast, which affected some levels of tone relationships in the picture.
These results were uniformly excellent, just about the best scans I've made with any scanner of black and white silver-based film. Out of about 65 scans of a wide range of subjects and negative characteristics there was only one image with which I was not satisfied, and I believe that was due as much to the original photography as the scanning. I also reported this problem to both LaserSoft and Epson. In both instances they were interested in a resolution, and I promised to provide some samples to assist in finding a fix for this minor software problem.
All of the scans were made using SilverFast Ai 5 to adjust the pre-scan. This resulted in an image open in Photoshop 6.0 that was very close to the values in the transparencies. One of the negatives, a fairly old Ektacolor, resulted in a particularly fine scan. I then made a few minor editing adjustments, mostly to fine-tune the image gamut using Levels, and then made a test print with my Epson Stylus Photo 1270 printer. The print images, I believe, were very accurate and were high quality representations of the original film images.
My next tests included many more 35mm film images, including many slides, more than I usually scan with a flat-bed. From this sample I found that this newest Epson Expression did a much better job scanning 35mm images than any affordable flat-bed I have worked with so far. I was particularly impressed that scanning to a 10" long by 300dpi image file resulted in very good prints on 8.5x11 photo paper. Even very fine detail in the slide was captured and reproduced crisply in the test prints I made. In the course of my test work I also scanned a few prints and documents. I also found that the TextBridge OCR was efficient and accurate. It was apparent that the Epson TWAIN Pro driver interface has been improved. It now provides a magnified thumbnail of the image pre-scan of wherever the cursor is on screen. This assists in the precise placement of the eyedroppers to select highlight and shadow points. It is backed up with before and after "Densitometer" readouts. However, I would personally prefer a histogram display instead of numeric readouts to provide a graphic representation of the image gamut as a better guide to adjustment.
I particularly appreciated the physical film handling with this Epson scanner. They have provided well-designed film holders for 35mm, 120, and 4x5 film sizes. They are both efficient to use and support the film evenly to obtain good focus and sharpness and eliminate any fear of a Newton ring resulting from the film's contact with the glass of the scan surface. This feature is made effective by the Expression's dual focus, which automatically adjusts the scanner's lens to focus 0.25mm above the scan area glass surface when the software is adjusted to film scanning. This dual focus advantage was particularly evident when scanning slides that exhibited quite a bit of film curvature within the mount, causing parts of the image to be scanned slightly out of focus. The uneven focus was resolved by remounting the slides in Wess Plastic mounts, which hold the film flatter.
Evaluation And Recommendations
The Epson Expression 1680 Pro is also exceptional in the diversity of accompanying software. The Epson TWAIN Pro driver is very efficient and easy to use, providing appropriate access to the full range of the scanner's capabilities. It could even handle small office tasks such as document scanning, using your scanner and printer as a copier, or connecting to MS Office and using it as a means to send a fax of a document. Epson's inclusion of the full version of LaserSoft SilverFast Ai 5 provides what I have found to be the most effective tool for obtaining precisely and finely adjusted scans of all kinds of photographic images.
In addition, the inclusion of IT-8 targets and SilverFast's utility to custom calibrate and profile the scanner for both reflective and transparency scanning is invaluable. It is especially so with the included Monaco EZ Color (CMS) color management software, which adds monitor calibration and profiling as well as custom printer profiling. This results in a completely and precisely color managed imaging computer system. Added to this is Adobe Photoshop LE. All of the above provides any photographer with a computer and printer with a complete beginning package to do digital darkroom imaging at a professional quality level.
Epson has directed much research and development specifically targeted to products that support the digital darkroom. The Epson Expression 1680 Pro is another example of this effort, one that brings a new level of photographic scanning to the digital darkroom enthusiast. Being a member of that club, and having as yet not purchased a scanner for doing my medium and large format film, this new Epson product will get my nod. I'll be placing my order soon.
For more information, call (800) 463-7766, or visit their web site at: www.epson.com
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