The Imacon Flextight Photo Scanner

This 6x7cm night shot of the Santa Barbara Court House made by James Chen on the latest Ektachrome 100VS (Vivid Saturation) film, captured a wide range of very subtle tones and coloration from a diversity of light sources. The Imacon Flextight Photo captured the fine detail in the full range of tones and rendered the unusual coloration of this just after dusk exposure with extreme fidelity.
Photos © David B. Brooks, 2000

Imacon scanners stand out from the rest because the company follows a more focused purpose in their design. If I may use automobiles as an analogy, the family car is designed to serve a broad range of purposes, and does them all satisfactorily. However, if you want a vehicle just for driving fun you select a purpose-built vehicle like a sports car. It will not serve as wide a range of uses as a family car, but what it is designed for, handling and performance, it does much better than a family car.

The Imacon Flextight Photo was designed to provide the highest level of performance doing just one thing, scanning 35mm and 120 size film. By taking this sharply defined approach Imacon developed a unique design combining all of the attributes that accomplish this task most effectively. The first and most basic element that is unique to the Imacon Photo is the film holder and transport that provides a basis for the name Flextight. The base of each holder is a good-sized rectangle of thin stainless steel in which an aperture is cut the size of the film format to be scanned. On the top surface of this steel frame there is a cover also with a film format aperture cut out of it. This cover is made of a magnetized rubber-like material that adheres gently but firmly to the steel. The film frame to be scanned is placed between the steel base and rubber cover and is thereby held firmly in position. This composite film holder is then put into the start position and a magnet that's a part of the film transport mechanism secures the holder. When the scan is begun the transport pulls the holder onto a drum-shaped support. The flexible holder then keeps the film in a gently curved position across the width of the scanner assuring that the surface of the film is flat and even as it passes under the scanner lens and CCD array above.

This cityscape of Los Angeles at night was challenging to photograph with a brightness range which was almost 12 f/stops read with a spot meter. It was photographed with a Horseman view camera with a 6x12cm 120 film back using Tri-X film, which was processed in Kodak Technidol LC developer. Although the resulting negative was close to normal in its density range it was a challenge to print because the tone differences were so close together. However, this negative scanned by the Imacon Photo to make a digital file with incredible detail and excellent definition of all of the tones in the scene from deep shadows to fully detailed highlights, even revealing detail inside the brightly lit rooms of many of the buildings.

The shape and configuration of the Imacon Photo is unusual because rather than use the folded optics using mirrors between the scan surface and the CCD array, Imacon puts this entire path in a straight line, somewhat like a darkroom enlarger in reverse, creating a uniquely tall overall shape. To use the scanner there is a thick, hinged panel in the front you fold down that has an etched grid-pattern glass top surface lit from below from a window at the side of the scanner's tube-type light source. This panel provides support for the film holders and the illumination from below through the glass makes positioning of the film in the holder easy, convenient, and precise.

Imacon Performance. The Imacon Flextight Photo design advantages are backed up by performance attributes of the internal components which are of a much higher than typical order. One of the deficiencies in most scanners is the light source is a constant. The adaptive light source used in the Imacon adjusts the illumination level transmitted through the film to compensate for atypical image densities possibly caused by underexposure of a transparency or low-key subject, avoiding the potential for noise in the shadows of a scan. The CCD sensor at the opposite side (top) of the light source is a trilinear array with 24,000 pixel elements. This provides a true optical resolution of 3200dpi applied to all formats from 35mm through 6x18cm supported by the scanner. Film holders are provided with the scanner for 35mm, 6x4.5, 6x6, and 6x7cm film frames, with optional holders available to accommodate sizes from 6x9 through 6x12 and 6x18cms.

While selecting film images for my tests I happened onto a 6x4.5cm 120 negative, along with a 4x5 transparency made from it, from a cover assignment photographed close to 20 years ago. The transparency made from the negative still looked great, but the scan from the 6x4.5 negative resulted in an image with astounding delicacies of natural complexion and hair tonalities adjacent to costume and background values close to 100 percent saturation. This very successful color negative scan was no fluke as I followed it with many others with equally challenging subject attributes, all of which yielded entirely satisfactory image files comparable to scans one expects from good quality transparencies.

The Imacon Photo sensor scans with a dynamic range of 3.9 and a D-max of 4.1, well beyond the density range of film images. It also scans at a bit depth of 14 bits per RGB channel. Output bit depth can be selected between 24-bit RGB, 48-bit RGB, and 56-bit CMYK, as well as gray scale and line art. Conversion from the analog signal from the CCD to digital is done at 16,000 levels of color, and the output data is transferred to the host computer via SCSI 2 for Macintosh and PC Windows platforms.

Imacon Colorflex Software. The Imacon Colorflex software supports Macintosh and MS Windows operating systems, providing a flexible and powerful set of tools easily customized to meet a variety of work input and output requirements. Colorflex can be used either as an automated color adjustment scanning procedure that is fully customizable to adjust the image dynamic range including the amount of gamut clipping and gamma output, as well as to turn on or off automatic color caste removal. The automated adjustment can also be used initially and then modified to accommodate differences in image subjects and photographic conditions, or to match the light balance over a selection of images that need to be matched in output.

Colorflex also contains a full set of accessible manual image adjustment tools, including a new feature which enhances shadow detail more effectively than either adjusting gamma or shaping the characteristic curve. In addition to adjustment of the dynamic range, gamma, brightness, and contrast, as well as the characteristic curve, and adjustment of the color balance as well as hue and saturation, there is a very finely tunable unsharp mask filter window interface which allows precise adjustment of the sharpening effect, and including grain suppression.

The Imacon Flextight Photo scanner comes with a stand-alone application driver providing automated and detailed image quality and color adjustment capabilities supporting the Apple Macintosh and PC Windows computer platforms.

The Colorflex software is fully color management aware and is supported by a setup interface dialog so you can select a calibrated monitor profile (essential to the effective use of the scanner), the scanner profile, the colorspace and its profile in which the image will be edited (e.g. Photoshop), as well as a CMYK output profile selection.

Working With The Imacon Flextight Photo. Fortunately I had an open calendar and was able to work with the Imacon Flextight Photo more than enough to try and learn all of its capabilities, as well as test scan a very diverse selection of film types and images with a wide range of subjects. I was able to scan all formats supported by the Imacon, and scanned a collection of films including black and white silver-based and chromogenic negatives, color negatives on portrait and higher contrast commercial films, as well as a wide range of transparency films from the most current Ektachrome 100VS through a variety including a set of 40-year-old Agfachrome CT-18 images. My subjects ranged from studio lit to all kinds of available illumination, portraits to still life, architecture, and landscape.

The Imacon film holder's unique design, combined with the little light table loading platform, makes using the Imacon Photo superbly easy and efficient. A preview that represents the full 14-bit depth of the scanner's capability comes up quickly and is adjustable in size of the preview window to the space you have available on your monitor screen. The control window dialogs are full floating and can be arranged conveniently and either left remaining on-screen at all times or some may be closed and others opened as needed. The Colorflex application is a stand-alone on the Macintosh and Windows platform, and final scans are saved as image files in any designated folder accessible to the host computer. In addition the software has a "setup" function with a multi-page window which allows creating a unique configuration including automatic adjustment parameters, color management and scanning mode and output specifications, which can be set and saved for any number of possible film/size/output combinations. This along with the very effective automated adjustment capabilities of Colorflex makes the entire system very efficient to use supporting the acquisition of a high number of scanned images within a limited space of time. On the other hand, if each image scanned requires a different approach, the manual access to all of the facets of setup and adjustment are straightforward and direct also supporting adaptive flexibility of use.

Besides convenience and efficiency of use, the unique design of the Imacon Flextight Photo provides rewards in the scan results that are immediately evident. First of all the image sharpness and detail is at an unusually high level for the scan setting in all cases, but even rarer, this high level of image information is precisely uniform all across the image from corner to corner. This is a particular advantage and rarely achieved with some unusual film formats like the large number of 6x12cm negatives I scanned, which when scanned with some scanners suffer from unevenness because the film sags in the middle, especially with some very thin-based films. Black and white silver-based film images are also well within the Imacon scan capabilities, and even some which were dense due to some overexposure scanned without any highlight blocking. Color negative films, which can be a challenge to scan with many scanners, are also handled effectively by the Colorflex software.

Evaluation And Recommendation. The Imacon Flextight Photo is an entirely professional scanner providing uncompromised performance and efficiency scanning 35mm and medium format film sizes. Of all of the scanners I have used and evaluated it is as close to an ideal solution as possible producing image files with optimum size and resolution relative to the original film image for any purpose whether done for archiving, direct reproduction by an offset press in CMYK mode, or output as RGB for printing and all other media. From every perspective the qualities captured from film by the Imacon Photo excel in every dimension of quality whether it is fidelity to the colors of the original to the sharp definition of detail across the entire tone range, from one corner to the other of every image.

The Imacon Flextight Photo should and does meet all expectations as its just under $10,000 price suggests. This cost can now be more easily afforded by a business lease plan that has a monthly payment of $299. Considering the quality of the scans and the efficiency with which they can be produced a sufficient volume of work should readily assure a profit from its installation and use. I can only wish I had the expendable income or wealth if not the business justification to own one myself. It has been an entirely enjoyable and satisfying experience scanning every imaginable kind of film image with the Imacon Photo.

For more information, contact Imacon Inc., 4109 Clipper Ct., Fremont, CA 94538; (510) 651-2000; fax: (510) 445-3988;

The Imacon Flextight Photo professional film scanner.

Technical Specifications

Sensor: Single pass trilinear CCD array with 24,000 pixel elements
Input: Photographic film images in all sizes from 35mm through 6x18cm
Software: Colorflex stand-alone application supporting PC Windows and Macintosh platforms. Full Apple Colorsync compatibility and custom ICC profiles with profile editing.
Scan Modes: 24 and 48-bit RGB, 32-bit CMYK, gray scale, and line art
Optical Resolution: 3200dpi
Color Depth: 14 bits per RGB channel or 42-bit RGB and 56-bit CMYK
Interface: SCSI 2
Density Range: 3.9 with 4.1 D-max
Dimensions: 9.4x10.2x11.8"
Weight: 15.4 lbs
Price: $9995