The Minolta Dimâge Scan Multi

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Even 35mm scans turn out quite well. I was very impressed with the level of sharpness on the little girl's hair and the overall nice skin tones.
Photos © 1999, Jay Abend, All Rights Reserved

I am a digital photographer. Whether I am using one of my digital cameras or shooting on film and scanning the images, everything I shoot has to become digital at some point to be printed. What started out as a career move to gain more work in my area has turned into just another fact of life. Get used to digital because the photography, graphic arts, and pre-press world are never going back.

Being a digital photographer, I usually am asked to provide files for my clients on a CD-ROM. (In fact, the photographs that accompany this article were provided on a CD-ROM.) Since I shoot a fair amount of difficult location assignments, I shoot regular old Fuji Velvia and Provia. Once the film has come back from the lab and the client has chosen the proper image, I usually am asked to have the images scanned and then perform some manipulations to suit the client's needs.

Early on I favored having Kodak Pro Photo CDs created, since they were reasonably priced and offered high-resolution files. As time went on, I wanted some more control in the scanning process, so I started using local service bureaus who had high-end drum scanners. The drum scanner spins the film at breathtaking speeds past a sensor, which allows it to make a remarkably high-resolution scan in a modest amount of time. A scan suitable for a full-page image costs anywhere from $50-$150. While I do a fair amount of film scanning every year, it's not enough to really justify owning a drum scanner. Since a lot of images are only going to reproduce as 1/2 or 1/4 page images, I don't often need a really great pro drum scan. I do need a reasonably sharp, accurately portrayed image that can reproduce at 4x6" or 5x7" at 300dpi.

Tired of paying several thousand dollars a year for drum scans that really didn't need to be quite so perfect, I invested in a very good desktop flat-bed scanner with a transparency adapter. While scans of reflective materials like "C"-prints were excellent, scans of transparencies, especially medium format transparencies and smaller, weren't that great. While the colors looked okay, everything was soft. Not out of focus soft, mind you, just dull, hazy soft. No amount of unsharp masking in Photoshop could rectify this situation. In fact, I get almost sick looking at some of the files I gave to clients, produced using the flat-bed.

The Dimâge Scan Multi comes with three film holders. One for medium format film up to 6x9, one for mounted transparencies, and one for unmounted film like negative strips.

Still motivated to bring a high-end film scanning solution into my studio, I looked into desktop film scanners like the Nikon LS-4500AF, the Polaroid Sprintscan 45, or even the venerable Leafscan 45. Each of these scanners offers a multi-lens system, reasonably high-resolution, and a reasonable price. Now reasonable still means around $8000, so these aren't casual purchases. The more I looked into each of these devices the more interested I became. While the quality still wasn't really in the league of even the most modest drum scanner, it was tremendously better than my flat-bed scanner. To check out the quality, a local pro camera shop let me scan an image on the Nikon scanner, a clean used Leaf scanner, and on a new desktop film scanner, the Imacon Flextight. Once I opened the files on my studio Macintosh it became clear that the Imacon scanner produced a really excellent scan. While it still wasn't quite as smooth and crisp as a drum scan, it was absolutely professional quality. The Nikon and Leaf scans were also pretty good, but no match for the Imacon. With the Flextight running around $17,000, it was out of the question--for now.

For the acid test, I actually provided a client with a catalog photo scanned on the Nikon LS-4500AF. It ran as a 4x6" image, printed at 133 lines per inch. The other images in the catalog were scanned on a $300,000 Crosfeld drum scanner. Looking at the catalog right now, I can't even remember which is the Nikon scanned image. Had the images reproduced larger, I certainly would have known. Since I couldn't find the bargain scan, for little work the desktop unit seemed good enough.

Encouraged that I could use a desktop film scanner for some of my work, I began saving my pennies and doing some more research. In the middle of my research I saw a mention in Shutterbug of a new scanner from Minolta. Called the Dimâge Multi, it was essentially a larger version of their 35mm film scanner, but with interchangeable film holders and the ability to scan film up to 2x3". With list prices well under $2500, I could actually swing one of these right now--even though it didn't scan 4x5" film. I shoot almost exclusively medium format, since I now use a scanning digital back in place of 4x5" film in the studio. Sight unseen I went out and bought one, working out a partial trade on some old equipment with my ever understanding pals at Ken Mar Camera in Great Neck, New York.

Once I received the unit I had to decide whether to install it on a PC or Mac. While I finalize all my work on a Mac, I do a lot of my Photo-shop work on my speedy NT Workstation. Once I decided on the Mac, it was time to hook up the SCSI cables and give it a whirl. After 10 or 15 minutes of messing with SCSI ID numbers, termination settings, and Mac extensions, I had the unit working. The Minolta software has a great feature--you can use the scanner interface as either a stand-alone scanning utility or as a Photoshop plug-in. The utility only feature is nice when batch scanning a group of images, but I like to massage every image in Photoshop immediately, so I chose to use the plug-in first.

I loaded up a 6x7 Fuji Velvia image in the medium format holder and pushed it gently into the mouth of the unit. It quickly grabbed the holder and sucked it in some more. Once I opened Photoshop and chose the Dimâge Multi plug-in, it was simple to choose 6x7, Slide Film, and 1128dpi from the menu. The scanner offers a maximum resolution of 1128 for medium format film, 2820 with 35mm film. Why can't you use 2820 with medium format film? Well, the scanner element is probably only 2900 or so pixels wide, so higher resolution would result in severe cropping of the image.

Once I pulled a quick pre-scan and chose an autofocus point, it was time for a final scan. Once the final scan was produced, I exited out of the plug-in and looked at the image in Photoshop. I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised. Even though this machine was about a thousand dollars less than my flat-bed scanner, the image quality, especially sharpness, was infinitely better. Color balance with no adjustments was very good, and overall saturation was acceptable right out of the unit.

Loading a 6x6 transparency shot with a Hasselblad, I delved into the plug-in's touted JOB feature. Minolta claims that the JOB feature allows the user to set up a preliminary scan as the JOB, and then all subsequent scans using this JOB will have the same parameters. I played along, setting up my resolution, crop area, and image modifications. I made my final scan, reloaded the film holder, and went to my next chrome. I loaded the JOB I had setup, hit final scan, and waited. When the scan was complete, it looked nothing like the first scan. I was surprised and tried to repeat it over and over again. I soon learned that the JOB setting only dialed in dpi and crop area--nothing else. Big deal. There are, however, a decent array of image modification windows, allowing you to adjust levels via a histogram, contrast and brightness via a Photoshop like variations window, and curves. All of these settings are savable and may be reloaded later, giving you excellent repeatability for batch scanning. The only problem is you must load three different settings independently, which takes too much time. Minolta, hopefully, will incorporate these savable settings into the JOB feature in upcoming software releases.

Once I learned my way around the software window, I became quite adept at dialing in brilliant scans quickly. While there is no provision for manually setting exposure, the autoexposure works fairly well, though transparencies that are dark do contain a bit of dark noise, and manually adjusting exposure would cure this. Autofocus is available, but I preferred to manually determine the exact autofocus point. Doing this adds one extra step but results in consistently sharp scans. While I wish the unit offered a pro-level plug-in like my flat-bed scanner, it's just enough to get by, and there is no arguing with the sharpness of the scans. In fact, even 35mm scans are reasonably sharp, a pleasant surprise.

A close comparison of the output of the Dimâge Multi when compared to other medium format film scanners really shows what a bargain this unit is. While dark noise and overall color depth is quite a bit better on more expensive units, the Minolta is actually a bit sharper than others I have tested. When compared to any flat-bed, even expensive pro units, the Minolta compares quite favorably. A skilled user with some decent Photoshop knowledge can produce very clean scans that are suitable for moderate reproduction sizes.

For the home user, this thing is a blast. I dug out dozens of 35mm transparencies and medium format negatives of my family, scanned them up, and made 8x10 prints on the Epson Photo Stylus 700 printer on glossy film paper. The results were breathtaking--sharp, smooth, colorful, and vibrant; the prints looked almost as good as expensive Ilfo-chrome. Negative scanning was especially surprising, producing decent looking positive images that printed great. In fact, I scanned some VPS negatives shot on a Hasselblad at the highest resolution, interpolated up in Photoshop using Bicubic interpolation, and made 13x19" prints on Mitsubishi Artist paper on my Epson 3000 printer. The final print now hangs, framed, on my wall. It looks every bit as good as a handmade "C" print (as long as you don't get really, really close), and cost about $2 to make on my desktop.

The bottom line--the Minolta Dimâge Scan Multi, like all digital devices, isn't perfect. It is however, a groundbreaking product, bringing near pro-level medium format scanning to the masses for about the price of a decent flat-bed scanner. In an age of $79 scanners at every electronics store, $2300 for a scanner may seem like a lot, but when you compare the output quality of this unit with expensive professional devices, it becomes very clear what a deal the Dimâge Scan Multi really is. If you like film but also live in the digital world, this is a must-have device.

For more information, contact Minolta Corporation, 101 Williams Dr., Ramsey, NJ 07446; (201) 825-4000, fax: (201) 327-1475, Photofax: (800) 528-4767; web site at: www.minoltausa.com.

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