Thursday, 12 March 2009

Nikon IV ED vs Epson Flatbed

The aim of this article is to compare the LS-IV ED with an Epson flatbed scanner (in this case a 4870). Since the Nikon's are still pulling good money on Ebay the Epson's seem quite the bargain (with new V700's costing about what you'll pay for a Nikon LS-V or LS-5000). The reason for this comparison is that many people make decisions on which scanner to buy without much personal experience and by only reading web pages of tests of the devices. So, in this article I'd like to compare one to the other in a variety of ways which I hope will be more meaningful than simply individual machine test results.


As a long time photographer with a quite an amount of 35mm film in my store I have long been interested in scanning my film. My first film scanner was a Nikon LS-20E scanner which scanned 35mm quite nicely at 2700dpi giving files more or less about 3700 x 2700 pixels (or 10 megapixels for those more comfortable with that).

One of the first things which becomes apparent to the newbie in film scanning is just how bloody annoying dust is on the film. Nikon (and others) eventually solved this issue with the ICE technology, while the early implementations were a bit harsh on the image quality the Nikon LS-IV ED (or LS-40) was the first model to do so well at this that I was more than stunned at the results. One thing I'll say for certain up front here is that the ICE on the Nikon scanners works very very well. So if you have anything like fingerprints, dust or even washing streaks on your negatives the Nikons ICE does such a good job that the Epson isn't even usable in comparison.

Having started on Nikons and then moving to Epsons for my 120 and 4x5 film needs I had harbored the notion that the Nikon was a much better scanner for dedicated 35mm work than the Epson. My early comparisons between my much older LS-20 E and my Epson 4870 surprised me so much that I stopped bothering with the Nikon (which is clunky to use) and used my Epson exclusively.

One day I got some time on a friends LS-IV ED and was so impressed by how much better is penetrated the shadows of a particular slide and how well the dust removal worked that I decided that I should get the latest model (the LS-V) or a used LS-4000.

Now that I own an LS-IV ED I have done some more definitive testing, and the results surprised me.

Methods and results:

I'd like to use a segment of film for this test which has been discussed on my blog before (here for instance). I took this with my EOS 630 and an EF 50mm lens when doing side by side testing with my 20D, which can be found here.

After getting used to the Nikon for a few days, I scanned this negative and was immediately surprised that it didn't look any clearer than that obtained by my Epson flatbed. I opened up that image (and also the RAW file from my 20D too) for comparison. Below is a screen grab of that.

Now, don't get stuck on the colour rendition of the Nikon as I didn't do much work on that to match the Epsons (and if you've ever used two scanners you'll know how hard it is to match one negative on two machines), but look at the details, the leaves and the brick work. Now I know that 2900 dpi is not enough to capture what's on 35mm (see my 2002 pages on that here), yet still I was amazed that the difference would be so much.

Especially given that the Nikon is often praised as being able to scan a true 2900 dpi and that the Epson is lambasted for being much less than it is specified to be.

Now, you'll note that the image from the Epson (bottom right) is much larger than the image from the Nikon, this is because it is scanned at 4800dpi while the Nikon is scanned at 2900.

Given that people will read on many photographic forums that the Epson scanners only scan more mush pixels when pressed above 2000 dpi, I think that this clearly shows that there is not borne out by my examination results.

I thought I'd try another negative, and pulled out an old favorite which is also quite a challenging negative (being shot right into the sun). I was so glad I was using Negative for this shot as I'm sure a digital would have needed HDRI to get this...

This was scanned on my Epson 4870 (at 4800dpi then scaled back to 2400dpi) and I think it did a pretty good job. I scanned it today on the Nikon and even tried fiddling with selecting focus points and adjusting manual focus. Its a nice flat negative (thanks to good storage) so I believe that it scans easily.

It is however a very challenging negative to scan as it has high-light like you wouldn't believe and needs the shadow details to make it a picture. Lets look at some details from it (please click on any of these images to load a larger copy, the ones below are 100% crops from the scans).

A corner of the roof from the Epson:

and the same corner from Nikon IV ED

I think they are pretty equal, perhaps when you look into the patterns in the ends of the tiles there is slightly more detail in the Epson scan and I could get better high-light detail in the sky from the Epson too. To do this with the Nikon I had to scan as positive (muchos fiddling with the SA-21 required to line up the thumbnails for prescan aligment) and set much less agressive clipping points.

Looking again at my scan from my Epson I was surprised, both seemed to show more or less equal detail and handled a very dense negative quite well.

Lets look at shadow details. A segment from the Epson

and segment from the Nikon

Not much to separate them, and if anything I prefer the results from the Epson.


So, after all this time it seems to me that I indeed have had the greener grass (the Epson) all along.

Not only are image quality results from the Epson equal or close to the Nikon, for the Nikon to better them requires significant work, rescans and examination. So operationally its simpler to load 4 strips of 6 negatives into the Epson than it is to feed strips one at a time into the SA-21 film system. Used on Automatic Exposure and thumbnail mode the Epson is a set and walk away machine for 24 images. This may in some ways make it better.

Considering that professional scanning bureaus use flatbed systems (like the Creo iQsmart scanner), not only for their scan quality, but also to simplify operatoins this puts more points to the Epson. While the Epson is not in the league scanners like the Creo in areas such as mechanical precision for 1/10th of the price its damn attractive.

Out of the Box the Epson does not give spectacular results (maybe that's true of the Nikon too?) but with a little tweaking of what you do and how you do it you can get significant returns. So the improvements that can be had with some attention to details in scanning those "have to get the best from it" negatives or slides (some tips can be found here in understanding and addressing the limitaitons of the Epson) I think that the Epson stacks up rather well.

Without doubt the LS-IV is not the lastest and greatest Nikon, you'd need to consider the LS-V, LS-4000 or a new LS-5000 / LS 9000 to get that, but then the 4870 compared here is hardly that either.

But this comparison was not to see if the Nikon was better or worse, in my eyes it was to see if the Epson could come within close limits, and that it did!

Hmm ... perhaps the market also thinks so too, and that's why Nikon is rationalizing its scanner market (stripping out the 'consumer' end and leaving only the 5000 and 9000 scanners) and that Epson seems to be continually developing and improving their scanner "for home users".

So, if you've bought (or are considering and Epson) don't think of it as the poor cousin of the Nikon LS-IV or even the V ... recognize that you've got a very good value for money package.

NOTE: when I bought the Nikon, and did some scans I was thinking that the results were not perfect, so I dismantled it (following this fellows instructions) and found that the mirror was indeed filthy. I carefully cleaned and replaced the mirror and this indeed improved the contrast of the scans (although not the resolution). BTW ... if you do follow his instructions, I recommend turning the scanner on the side not upside down when removing that clip. The mirror can then be neatly removed at no risk of falling with a chopstick with a blob of blue-tac on it.

Lastly, I value discussion, so if you disagree with my findings and have got both units and have made comparisons between them (rather than just have opinions based on personal faith in what should be and some net reading) and would like to supply some evidence then please post a link to that, as I would love to belive that the Nikon is better than the Epson ... and pretty soon this Nikon is going up on ebay and I think I'll be looking at trying an LS-4000 (these really do draw the best from problem negatives).

but who knows, I may just stick with the 4870



Charles Maclauchlan said...

Do you use the Epson software or a 3rd party?

Charles Maclauchlan

obakesan said...


good question. I have tried (ohh how I've tried) to like the 3rd party stuff but in the end I keep comming back to the supplied software. I used Nikon Scan 4.0 and Epson Scan 3.x

I find that I get better control with these although if I were doing more batch operations I may prefer something like vuescan (but I don't nor can I feel comfortable with it).

Anyway, I don't think that anything can improve the focus on the Epsons from what it is, cos they're fixed focus (unlike the Nikons).


Charles Maclauchlan said...

A year or so ago I had some slides scanned with a drum scanner and also with a Microtek 120. I then scanned the same slides with my Epson (V700). Although neither were in the drum scan category the Epson quality was actually quite close to the Microtek. When I re scanned the images using Silverfast with my Epson the differences between the Epson and Microtek narrowed even further.

obakesan said...

I was still in disblief about this myself, so today I tried 6 times to get better scans out of the Nikon. I used Ctl to choose the spot for AF and on one occasion got a sharper scan ... so perhaps there is some built up wear in the mechanism taking the edge of the scanner (although it does not look or feel like its had a lot of use).


Anonymous said...

I've tried Epson Scan for 35mm on my 4990, and it's a pain to use the software: as far as I can tell (and I spent a long time trying to have an intelligent conversation with Epson tech support, going nowhere), if you use the template for multiple slides, you must individually resize (or whatever specification each and every one (can't select multiple and perform any operation on all the selected). Epson finally agreed this can't be done, and you must make changes on every slide. Have you found a way around this?

obakesan said...

Anonymous that's a good point (about cloning the window adjustments). I'm not sure if I can find a solution but I'll have go.

However alternatively you could work with it rather than against it. I have setup a way of working that seems easy to me. I'll post a blog entry on it, but is uses my prefered workflow not the Epson one.

Personally I find the workflow of each (Epson and Nikon) to be different and requires a rethink of acquisition.

obakesan said...


I've put a set of instructions which may help you with bulk scanning here

Anonymous said...

Thanks- I'll take a look!

Unknown said...

awesome read !!! love it !! I am looking into an epson v600 cause I do have 120 film... is there any other options out there for 120 films ? I have been scanning my 35mm with my sony a7riii but it is a bit of a hassle getting it right

obakesan said...

I think that sadly there are no longer any real options for 120 film than a flatbed scanner such as the Epson. When tuned up its pretty good. Also I've done comparisons with digital cameras in the past, and really once you go past 35mm the results fall away

I also recommend you consider looking at using Negative if you aren't already. It has some advantages