Epson Perfection 4870 Pro
An All-In-One Scanner For Serious Enthusiasts

The new Epson Perfection 4870 Pro print and film flat-bed scanner.
Photos © 2003, David B. Brooks, All Rights Reserved

It is said that good things come to those who wait. If you have been waiting for a flat-bed scanner that will scan 35mm film as well as function as a dedicated 35mm film scanner, Epson says the wait is over. Their claim is that "Customers can now enjoy photographic image quality and high performance that was previously only offered in high-end dedicated film scanners." Is this a credible claim, one that plays out in real-world terms of practical experience? I'll do my best to verify if and how much of the Epson claim about their new Perfection 4870 Pro scanner is true.

Upgrades And Specs
First, let's compare the improvements in the Epson 4870 over the Perfection 3200 Pro model it replaces. To begin with, and probably most significant, is the 50 percent increase in optical resolution, to 4800dpi. This increase is not just more sensors in the linear CCD array; it also involves design changes in the optics used to scan the media. Second is 48-bit color depth, which provides information equal to the best of the dedicated 35mm consumer film scanners now on the market. And finally there's the 3.8 D-max specification, which indicates a dynamic range that covers the highest film density ranges, with ample room to spare. True, some dedicated film scanners have quite a bit higher dynamic range specification. But any advantage this may provide to scanning positive transparency film is offset by the fact that scanning much lower density range negative films involves a much steeper ramping and expansion of the scan data to fill the output gamma.

Over 40 years ago I was traveling through the desert toward Colorado just after a rain shower had passed. I came upon this vibrant color scene and captured it with a Rolleiflex loaded with Agfachrome CT-18 film. In the past I had scanned this and a number of images from that trip with limited satisfaction. This time, using the Epson Perfection 4870 Pro, I was able to reproduce all of the potential of the image and put it into a high-resolution image file that's entirely faithful to the scene.

Another plus factor is the inclusion of Applied Science Fiction's (Kodak) Digital ICE film dirt and scratch repair. This probably accounts for the upgrade of the film scanning light, now a moving carriage with a cold cathode fluorescent tube. This setup supports the infrared sensor functioning that is a part of the Digital ICE implementation. This brings the Perfection 4870 closer in line with the characteristics of dedicated film scanners, with which it now competes. Incidentally, the scan area for film has been increased to 6x9" with similar sized film holders, which makes the system easier and more efficient to use. All of these changes have been incorporated into a scanner that has only grown slightly thicker than its predecessor.

Enhanced Software Bundle
Compared to often more expensive dedicated film scanners, the Epson Perfection 4870 Pro software bundle is both more generous and comprehensive. It includes a newly upgraded Epson Scan driver with Easy Photo Fix; LaserSoft's SilverFast Ai 6, which provides the most sophisticated yet easy to use professional quality photo scanning driver performance; Adobe's Photoshop Elements 2.0; Monaco's EZcolor color management software suite; the ArcSoft suite; and ABBYY's FineReader Sprint OCR. The retail price of this very complete digital darkroom scanning kit is a modest $599.

Of all the 4x5 black and white film I scanned with the Epson Perfection 4870 Pro this image, made on infrared film taken when I was a student at Brooks Institute of Photography, was the greatest challenge. It was also the one to which I had the most attachment. Photographs of the trees along the Pacific Coast at Monterey, California, are a cliché, but this scene with the moon nestled under the treetop against an almost black sky made it a bit out of the ordinary. It and many other black and white 4x5s I found scanned easily with this new Epson scanner and improved SilverFast negative support. The scans produced very printable, full tonal range image files.

Setup And Testing
When the Epson Perfection 4870 Pro was delivered to me I was working on a guide to retouching and restoration, so after a quick and easy installation I used the 4870 first of all to scan some portrait and snapshot prints that were from 50-100 years old. The project was perfect for checking out the performance of the included ASF Digital ICE to clean and repair image dirt and scratches in print scans. Although the scan quality was exceptional, Digital ICE did not do all that much to make flaw-free scans. Being inherently lazy when it comes to boring, repetitive manual work, I decided to re-scan, this time using the LaserSoft SilverFast Ai 6 SRD software cleaning function. Because this method is interactive, allowing you to adjust based on the recognition of what is a flaw and what is not, I achieved a much better result and removed as much as 2/3 of the image flaws in the print scans.

As soon as I finished my work on the retouching and restoration project I was eager to scan some 35mm film images. After being somewhat disappointed with the Digital ICE performance with antique prints, I also wanted to see if it would do a better job with film, at least when compared to what I have grown to expect with dedicated film scanners that have Digital ICE. I selected a fairly large random representation of both slide and color negative 35s from my library and began scanning.

This is just one of several contact sheets made from the image files of a random selection of 35mm chrome and color negatives. All of the scans from my tests reproduced the images faithfully, with well-defined detail and sharpness, as well as colors with high fidelity to the original.

Comparison With A Dedicated Film Scanner
My first test was an image I'd made of an oil refinery, shot with just about the sharpest lens I've ever used, a hand-picked 90mm Vivitar Series I. I made two scans with the Epson 4870, one with Digital ICE and another with ICE turned off. I also made a third scan with my Minolta DiMAGE Scan Elite 5400 (a dedicated film scanner) with Digital ICE turned on. Comparing the three images on screen, I found that the effectiveness of Digital ICE scanning an E-6 process 35mm slide is quite comparable to the cleaning performance of Digital ICE in the Minolta 5400, and that's very good.

I also found that the Epson scan compared favorably in image detail and sharpness to the Minolta 5400 scan with both images on screen at the same magnification. I can't in honesty say that the Epson scan is an exact match with the higher resolution Minolta 5400. The Minolta defines fine lines and detail with more crispness, but on the other hand it also makes the film grain much more apparent. One caveat regarding the Epson 4870 scanning 35mm film images does need mentioning. I found that quite a lot of Unsharp Masking must be applied carefully and judiciously as part of the scan adjustments in SilverFast to obtain all of the image sharpness and detail in 4800dpi resolution scans with the Epson.

I then scanned all the rest of the 35mm film images I had gathered, using the Epson Scan software occasionally, but mostly using SilverFast Ai 6. This turned out to be a rather time consuming process. When the scanner is set at 4800dpi with Digital ICE turned on it is pretty slow--there is a lot of data to process. To be fair, full-resolution scans with Digital ICE made with the Minolta 5400 are almost as time consuming.
I then took the time to produce a large collection of representative 35mm scans. The images were from a wide variety of subjects recorded on a diverse group of slide and color negative films. The results were of consistently good quality. In fact, some subjects, particularly portraits that depend on the reproduction of smooth, gentle tonal gradations, look even better than similar images scanned with a dedicated 35mm film scanner.

This picture of my mother and her three sisters made in the early 1920s was an enlarged print of a snapshot negative. Over the 80 years since it was made it had numerous bits of dirt and scratches on the surface, as well as unspotted flaws in the original print. I scanned the print with the Epson Perfection 4870 Pro with SilverFast Ai 6 software and LaserSoft's SRD scratch and dust removal utility. This resulted in a scan that made the restoration work in Photoshop much easier than it would have been otherwise.

Scan To Print
My next step was to check the files in Photoshop to see how effectively Digital ICE performed. This is where I do my post-scan tweaking and cleaning up of any flaws in the film emulsion (Digital ICE usually misses these), as well as retouching subject flaws. In the end I had a very large collection of surprisingly fine, clean, high-resolution image files. How fine? Selecting some representative samples, I made some 12x18" image prints on 13x19" paper. The resulting prints were also of consistently good quality in terms of sharpness, detail, color, and contrast. In fact, compared to some prints I had made of recent scans of 35mm film images using both my Minolta and Microtek scanners, I found little to distinguish them from the prints from the Epson 4870 scans. The greatest difference is that the prints from Epson 4870 35mm film scans have, in general, less apparent graininess.

Scanning Medium And Large Format Film
Knowing that Shutterbug readers would be most interested in the scanner's 35mm scanning potential, I did spend less time working on larger format film scans. But I also knew that the potential for making larger format film scans should be checked as well. I chose some challenging 6x6 Agfachrome CT-18 transparencies I had scanned a while back with only marginal success, as well as a stack of 4x5 black and white film from my "art" collection. This time, the Agfachrome CT-18 film was not so challenging, and I obtained good color corrections with ease. I was particularly pleased with the way Digital ICE cleaned up those old chromes. I sized the scans of the 6x6cm images to be roughly equivalent in print image size to the 35mm film scanned at 4800dpi. I was surprised to find that although the final file size was close to the same, the scan time was noticeably shorter than when scanning 35mm film images, even when applying Digital ICE processing.

(As a side note, Agfa film products were hard to come by in the US in the late 1950s and '60s, but I went to the trouble to import them because I found the Agfachrome CT-18 color fidelity was more neutral as well as richer than either the then-current E-3 Ektachrome or Anscochrome. It was very satisfying to finally obtain clean and sharp images from this emulsion with the Perfection 4870.)

Black And White 4x5 Scanning
The stack of 4x5 black and white film I scanned turned out to be the coup de grâce of my test experience. In the recent past I have found that getting very good results from black and white film required extensive, time-consuming work-arounds. This, I discovered, was because the combination of hardware and software did not provide the proper tools to obtain ideal tonal curves for printing. The Perfection 4870 and SilverFast Ai 6 software improvements, combined with the performance attributes of this scanner, have finally resolved the shortcomings of the past. Besides obtaining vivid sharpness and detail and smooth gradations of tone, I found I could obtain an undistorted balance of tones across the range of densities. The values provided good separation across the board in highlights, mid tones, and shadows. However, I must confess that I tried several of the black and white film brand choices in SilverFast's NegaFix, often not corresponding at all with the brand of film I was scanning, to find a selection that "worked."

Evaluation And Recommendation
Usually you have to take manufacturer's claims for performance with a large grain of salt. In the case of the Epson Perfection 4870 Pro, the grain of salt turned out to be small indeed. Now, after several generations that attempted to provide all-in-one scanning capabilities for a serious enthusiast's digital darkroom, they have produced a scanner that needs no excuses. Head to head, the Epson 4870 matches up very well with dedicated film scanners, at least when making scans for prints on the popular 13x19" paper size. Does that mean I am going to abandon my dedicated film scanners? No, but if I didn't already have one I'd be inclined to choose this very affordable Epson instead, and have some money left over for something else for my digital darkroom.

Epson has done well for photographers in their continually improving scanners and printers. This latest product, the Perfection 4870 Pro, reaches a level of overall performance that provides value I believe most photographers will find hard to resist.

For more information, visit Epson's website at: www.epson.com, or call (800) 463-7766.

Technical Specifications
Scanner Type: Flat-bed color image scanner with Digital ICE technology for film and photo prints
Optical Resolution: 4800dpi
Hardware Resolution: 4800x9600dpi with Micro Step Drive technology
Maximum Resolution: 12,800x12,800dpi with software interpolation
Color Hardware Bit Depth: 48 bits per pixel internal, 48 bits per pixel external (External bit depth is selectable to 48 bits depending on the image-editing software.)
Gray Scale Hardware Bit Depth: 16 bits per pixel internal, 16 bits per pixel external (External bit depth is selectable to 16 bits depending on the image-editing software.)
Optical Density: 3.8 D-max

Accessories
Transparency Unit: 6x 9" Transparency Adapter built-in lid with four film holders: 35mm slides (eight frames), 35mm film strips (24 frames), medium format strips 21/4", 120/220mm, 6x12cm (three to six frames), and 4x5" film (two frames)

Hardware And Software Details
Maximum Read Area: 8.5x11.7" (21.6x29.7cm)
Light Source: White cold cathode fluorescent lamp
Interface: USB 2.0/1.1, IEEE 1394 (FireWire)
Scanning Speed: 4800dpi high-speed mode: Monochrome 16.9 msec/line; Full color 16.9 msec/line
Physical Dimensions: Width: 11.97" (304mm), Depth: 18.74" (476mm), Height: 5.28" (134mm), Weight: 14.8 lbs (6.7 kg approx.)
Suggested Retail Price: $599

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