Epson Perfection 636 Scanner

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Even my first film scan of a 4x5 Ektachrome was so dead on that no post scanning editing in Photoshop was required.
Photos © 1999, David B. Brooks, All Rights Reserved

Less than a year ago I tested and wrote a report on Epson's Perfection 600 scanner. Before the report was set in type Epson sold out of every Perfection 600 scanner in stock, and the report was canceled. Let's hope Epson has produced enough of this new Perfection 636 scanner so you get to read this report. And, you should, because for anyone who has been a photographer for a while and wants to try "the digital darkroom" the Epson Perfection 636 scanner is an ideal entrée. You get for just under $400, a basic scanner for $299 and $99 for the film scanning accessory. Most significant, you don't have to compromise your expectations of picture quality as part of this bargain.

The expectation of obtaining good quality scans using the Epson Perfection 636 is largely revealed in the basic specifications. This standard 8.5x11" format flat-bed scanner has 600dpi overall optical resolution and scans at 36-bit color depth (12-bit gray scale). In addition, Epson's MicroStep Drive technology increases the hardware resolution to 600x2400, which can then be increased further to 9600x9600dpi by software interpolation. These high-performance values are made possible, and support the unusually effective film scanning accessory, by limiting the 600x2400dpi scanning to a 4x11.7" strip in the center of the scan area. The TPU transparency adapter provides illumination for a 4x6" area in the center of the overall scan area, with 4x5, 120, and 35mm film templates especially designed for the purpose.

In support and software the Epson Perfection 636 provides drivers and utilities for both the Mac OS and Windows (a fast PCI SCSI interface card is supplied for PCs). This includes LaserSoft scanning software, with the ability to upgrade to the full professional version of LaserSoft SilverFast. Built-in Text Enhancement Technol-ogy and Auto Area Segmentation as well as the Xerox Textbridge Classic OCR application to make the conversion of scanned text documents easy for all purposes, including fax input and output. These kinds of information communications functions are aided by Epson including in the bundle Presto! Page Manager and Broder-bund's PrintShop Press Writer applications. The package is rounded out by the inclusion of Adobe PhotoDeluxe Business Edition to use for all kinds of photo-imaging tasks.

Using The Epson Perfection 636 Scanner. Everything from unpacking to setting up and loading the software is quite simple and straightforward. This new Perfection 636 was ready to do its first scan in just a matter of minutes. The physical design is compact and very clean. The TPU to scan film is quite simple and ingenious making it easy to use, and it can be stowed away when not in use quite readily. Epson provides their own TWAIN driver as well as the LaserSoft scanner driver, with the former intended primarily for scanning text documents and to use TextBridge, Presto! PageManager, and the Broderbund applications. LaserSoft is intended for photographic and similar scanning of art and images using PhotoDeluxe or other similar applications a user may have. Coincidentally, I had a typed letter I needed to scan and used Textbridge to do OCR so I could put the information into my word processor. This use of the scanner was exceedingly easy, not even requiring a reference to the documentation, though I'd not used the Xerox software before.

While I was set up to scan reflective copy, I opened Photoshop and the LaserSoft acquire dialog to scan an Ektacolor IT-8 ICC color reference print target. Using the LaserSoft manual controls, I set the highlight and shadow points on the respective areas of pure white and black in the IT-8 image, and otherwise made a straight scan. Then with the scanned IT-8 image open in Photoshop, I used the pointer with the information dialog open to read a selection of the color patches in the target image to compare to the ideal values I have on file from Kodak. The values I read were quite close to what they should be, and were also consistent in their variance from one color to another as well as in a selection of different density gray patches. These very good indications really whetted my appetite to see what this inexpensive Epson would do scanning film with the TPU.

My choice for a first scan was a 4x5 transparency made on Ektachrome duplicating film used in a camera to do a night shot of the Los Angeles city center. It is, from past experience, a difficult image to scan, but I soon found using the LaserSoft software that I was able to make the necessary adjustments to obtain the best balanced scan of this transparency yet. Night scenes of cityscapes present a wide range of tones as well as a lot of variation and detail in shadows and highlights. The advantage of the LaserSoft controls is that you can precisely determine both the brightest highlight and darkest shadow, and then within that range adjust the levels of shadow mid tone and highlight separately to produce an ideal balance of values. Then if there is any color shift either overall or a skew of color balance between highlights and shadows, you can make color balance adjustments overall or applied just to highlights, mid tones, and shadows separately. Although seemingly complicated as described, the LaserSoft controls are extremely simple and logical, providing very obvious ways to adjust images.

In the color balance dialog you have a color wheel with a center button that can be moved in the direction of correction, or you can go to the bottom of the dialog and change each balance of RGB values with one of three sliders. These color balance adjustments can be applied overall to the entire image or separately to shadows, mid tones, and highlights by clicking on the appropriate icon at the top of the dialog window. The same goes for the image density adjustments. The dialog window offers a typical graph-type curve tool, which can be manipulated directly, as well as moving any one of five sliders below which control contrast, overall brightness, highlight, mid tone, and shadows, so you can lighten or darken each of these three ranges of value. When you adjust the sliders, what you have done is reflected in changes in the image curve graph above. The LaserSoft software adjustment tools by their design provide ways to learn by action and reaction just how to adjust image values. And, if you want to scan with even less effort there is a single button which automatically adjusts the image to preset ideals correcting brightness, contrast, and color balance.

After my initial tests I continued to make scans from 120 size and 35mm film, including a variety of different kinds of positives, color negative as well as black and white negatives. The LaserSoft scanning software provided very good control of the image characteristics of these diverse sources and produced good to excellent results consistently. I was also impressed by the fact the speed of this new Epson Perfection 636 is quite comparable to even scanners costing considerably more in typical flat-bed operations as well as film scanning at high-resolution settings. Obviously considering the 600x2400 optical resolution limit, scanning 35mm film originals does not produce the same level of detail definition you would obtain from the better 35mm dedicated slide scanners, but to make prints up to 8.5x11" any difference is slight. With larger film sizes the scans the Perfection 636 can produce should result in prints and other output as large as most individual photographers are likely to require and as large as any desktop printer is currently capable of making.

The Bottom Line. Over the last 10 years I've used a considerable number of different scanners and have made thousands of scans. What I've been able to do right off the bat with the Epson Perfection 636 is as good or better than most of those scans, and comes amazingly close to the quality I've achieved with the best of these scanners. That this is possible at a cost of under $400, for scanner and film adapter, is quite amazing to say the least. It is very well suited for use by anyone who has photographs they want to scan that are in a variety of formats and sizes as well as to scan text documents and other information on paper for a variety of other purposes. So I would recommend the Perfection 636 to anyone new to computer photo processing and as a first choice for the startup of a digital darkroom as a hobby, unless their scanning would be limited exclusively to 35mm film images. For more information about the Perfection 636 scanner, contact Epson at (800) 463-7766 or visit their web site at: www.epson.com.

Technical Specifications
General Specifications: Flat-bed single pass color scanner; 600x2400dpi maximum hardware resolution with MicroStep Drive technology; 9600x9600 maximum interpolated resolution; 600dpi CCD sensor optical resolution; 36-bit color scanning with 3.0 dynamic range for transparencies; 12-bit gray scale scanning
Outstanding Features: ColorTrue® Imaging technology; Built-in Text Enhancement Technology (TET); Built-in Auto Area Segmentation (AAS) technology; One-button scanning; OCR/document management; Batch scanning
Software Bundle: LaserSoft Perfection 636 Scan Software; Adobe PhotoDeluxe Business Ed (Win); Adobe PhotoDeluxe 2.0 (Mac);
NewSoft Presto! PageManager for Epson; Xerox Textbridge Classic; Broderbund The PrintShop PressWriter
Dimensions: Width 11.29"; Depth 16.73"; Height 3.46"; Weight 9.9 lbs
Scanning Speed: Line art--approx. 2.7 msec/line; 256 gray scale--approx. 8.1 msec/line; Full color--approx. 8.1 msec/line
Interface: SCSI
Compatability: Windows '95, '98; NT 4.0 and 5.0 TWAIN compliant Macintosh System 7.lx, 7.5, 8.x
Light Source: Cold Cathode Fluorescent Lamp (CCFL)
Photoelectric Device: Color CCD line sensor
Maximum Scan Area: 8.5x11.7", and 4x11.7" for 600x2400dpi resolution
Color Depth: 36-bit internal/24-bit external
Gray Scale: 12-bit internal/8-bit external
Street Price: $299
Optional Features, Price: 20-page Automatic Document Feeder, $199; 4x5" Transparency Unit, $99

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