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Kodak / Pakon F235 Plus high-speed film scanner

Credible, rapid work with black and white negatives

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Of toys and tools

Ok, so that day has come.  You have reached the point where you need to (1) catalog all of your pictures; (2) contact print them; or (3) make a mad dash to digitize everything.

One of the worst things about normal film scanners is speed.  You can boast all you want about your Nikon 5000ED or your Dimage or whatever, but the bottom line is that if you have thousands of negatives, you are never, ever going to finish.  Why?  Because the software is inefficient, the hardware is slow, and Digital ICE extracts huge performance penalties.  And it doesn't work on black and white, anyway.

The Pakon F235 Plus is a 35mm and APS* rollfilm scanner that Kodak previously leased to operations like Target for the purpose of providing input for digital minilabs (Pakon has been a division of Kodak for more than 10 years).  If you think that its original $12,000 price tag is absurd, consider that its only real competition is the Fuji Frontier scanning station at $25,000.  Yes, you read that correctly.  At around $2,000 used, the F235 Plus units you see (assuming they work) are a relative bargain.

*APS is handled by removing the film from the cartridge and feeding it through in one strip, just like most photo labs do with APS.  This requires special tools, which are very difficult to find.  The F235C has a cartridge-fed APS capability.  I hope for your sake that you didn't shoot a lot of APS.

Not your average Coolscan

This minilab scanner differs from your Coolscan in a few key ways.  First, it is designed for speed.  An F235 Plus, for example, will do 800 frames an hour at 3000x2000 resolution (yes, that's 33 rolls per hour, or a roll or 24 frames about every two minutes).  With Digital ICE turned on, it still does 400 frames an hour.  Reduce the resolution to one of the lower settings (such as what you would use for web-sized pictures or 4x6 prints), and it really flies.  Part of the speed comes from obviating negative carriers, the cumbersome and relatively fragile part of any consumer-grade scanner.

Second, the F235 Plus is designed for a minimum of human intervention.  Despite the availability of an SDK for this scanner, the proprietary PSI software is the only thing that will run this scanner.  This software, by the way, is brilliant in its simplicity.  Even in "advanced" mode, the F235 has only a few settings: what type of film (color, b/w, slide), how many frames per strip (4, 5, 6 or many), whether you want Digital ICE on or off (color only), and the roll number that will become the name of the folder when you save the roll.  That's it.  The machine scans as much film as you want to give it, figures out where the frames are, does all color corrections without human intervention (unless you want to participate) and kicks out your choice of output (3 resolutions, JPG or TIFF, RAW or processed).  It even reads the DX codes off of the film and gives each frame the name of the nearest barcoded frame number.  Brilliant.

Finally, the F235 Plus does not generate information that you do not need.  The first thing that a gearhead will look at is the scanning resolution.  The maximum is 3000x2000 (6MP), which is the minimum acceptable resolution for an 8x12 on a dye sublimation printer.  Is that a limitation in the real world?  For most people, no.  Most 35mm pictures don't get enlarged more than that, and for situations where you need to, you can always use a high-end desktop negative scanner or have your work drum scanned.

The results

As of this writing, my brother and I have scanned over 12,000 negatives with this machine.  We have scanned a variety of color and black and white frames on brands of film from 1967 to the present.  These are our collective observations on the general characteristics.

/5 Color correction.  Kodak basically owns the world of color correction, and this machine nails the colors 99.5% of the time.

Sharpness.  Pictures are universally sharp, and it's rare that you encounter a frame where you cannot see down to the grain.  This machine has autofocus, and it appears to me that it also has a film tensioning system that keeps film flat.  Use of Digital ICE does not degrade sharpness noticeably.  There is a manual sharpening function, but this is something more easy to consistently apply in Photoshop or Lightroom.

Digital ICE.  This functionality at high speed is a game changer.  On this machine, ICE is very, very effective and eliminates even some dust particles that are big enough to see on the negative.

+ Speed.  Nothing to say about this except that this unit may extend the life of your film cameras.

  Noise (sound).  The startup sequence makes a Sprintscan 120 or Kodak RFS3600 sound quiet.  The machine has a very audible fan, but you just need to turn up the iTunes.

File handling.  This machine makes compact files.  Full-resolution RAW files (TIFFs) are the biggest, at 16Mb.  A whole roll of film saved this way will fit on a single CD.  RAW files are linear.  Because you punch in your roll number at the beginning of each run, everything ends up in the right folder.  Save the same roll more than once (e.g., when you make corrections after saving the first time), and the new copy will simply overwrite the old, no questions asked.

DX code reading.  If you have reasonably modern DX coded film, the scanner will automatically name each file after the correct frame number.  For some reason, T400CN does not work well with automatic DX reading.

Framing.  The machine gets the framing right 99% of the time; if you get a black margin on one side or the other, the software actually lets you reframe manually on one or all frames, after the scan!  This is possible due to the fact that the PSI software takes in all frames you scanned as one huge bitstream.  One really great thing about PSI is that a misregistered frame will not cause an auto-correction error (like on Photoshop, Lightroom or Vuescan).  PSI ignores the presence of a strip of film base in the frame when computing color and exposure.

Manual adjustments.  You can adjust color balance, brightness and contrast on a single frame or a number of frames at once.

Versatility.  We can all agree that a machine that pulls film in by the 35mm sprockets or the edges of APS film is not going to take 110, 126 or Disc film.  But it would be nice if the framing mechanism could accommodate half-frame 35mm, panoramic, or 34mm-wide Nikon rangefinder frames (it will probably handle the latter).

These are our observations on the use of this scanner with various types of film stock:

Modern color negatives.  This is the raison d'etre of this machine.  No complaints.  We would recommend saving as finished TIFFs.  You won't do much better than PSI in trying to reverse and correct negatives yourself.

Ancient color negatives.  There are two difficulties you might encounter with old film, one of which is related to that old Kodak warning that "color dyes in time may fade" and the other is due to some peculiarities of edge printing.

The first is fading of certain dyes.  Vericolor from the early 1970s was probably the worst I encountered, with about 10% of rolls affected by a shift to green in positives.  The F235 Plus can take up some fading, but for the stronger problems, you need Kodak's excellent Digital ROC plugin for Photoshop (sadly, though, not for Lightroom yet. 

The second problem is mis-framing on short strips (3 frames or less - usually Kodak processing in the 1970s) due to Kodak's use of strange blocks and arrows near the frame numbers (particularly with 5025 and 5035).  The machine looks for DX codes or sprocket holes to regulate scan speed, and these Kodak blips read as false DX codes, giving you "half frame" scans.  This can be remedied by scanning as slide film and reversing in other programs. 

Recommended file format is finished TIFF.

Monochrome.  Black and white auto leveling is serviceable, and certainly tweak-able in post-processing.  T400CN sometimes gets trippy with DX coding, resulting in some "half frame" scans.  If you have this problem, save as raw and try scanning the same frames as slide or b/w negative.

For best results, you might consider scanning in RAW and working from a digital negative in Vuescan or Lightroom (for the latter you will need an inversion curve). 

Repurposed 35mm motion picture film (Seattle Filmworks, etc.).  That film ages poorly and has a base color that is outside the normal range.  Save as a finished TIFF and correct with Digital ROC.

Hardware requirements

Ok, Mac users, I hate to break it to you, but you need a PC to run this scanner.  You need to be able to run Windows 2000 or XP, you need a USB port on the motherboard, and you need an unformatted drive partition called "N:" (for the bitstream buffering).  You will need to set all of this up manually. 

You can do it with Bootcamp on a Mac Pro desktop (as I do), but for simplicity (and protecting your Mac files), I would counsel you to use a dedicated drive for Windows, PSI, and the partition.  Honestly, for what it would cost, I would counsel buying a simple Windows host computer to run it and plug the video of that computer into the second port on your flatscreen (use your A/B switch to toggle between computers).  That way you can scan without being stuck in PC-world the entire time.

Do not buy this scanner unless you get the software with it.  You need the install disk because you will not only go through the PSI install, but you will also need to "install new equipment" on Windows several times at the outset, and the driver is on the install CD.  The software is a $500 part, as reflected on my invoice when I bought the scanner.  No, I will not burn you a copy.

The upshot

In sum, this is an exiting piece of equipment made accessible, sadly, by the collapse of commercial film processing.  If you want to do a lot of scanning and don't want to go through the time, expense and frustration of outsourced scanning (you can bet that you'll see a piece on that shortly), the F235 Plus is a good alternative.  The F-335 is a very similar machine, just faster and more expensive.