Drum Scanning – The Film Photographer’s Ultimate Pursuit

We recently caught up with Daniel Katz, a film photographer hell bent on bringing the medium back into the public eye. We like what he has to say and wanted to share that with you here. This article discusses the merits of drum scanning by explaining different technology used in the process and sharing example film scans.

What is it?

Drum scanning is the ultimate pursuit of quality in the realm of film photography. It is the last scan you will ever need, since there is nothing that will give you the kind of resolution, detail, sharpness, dynamic range, and color rendition that drum scanning can give you.

drumscan1
Image taken in Germany with a Hasselblad 501C, 80mm 2.8 Zeiss CF lens, and Fujichrome Astia 100 reversal film.

PMT vs CCD

CCD scanners are basically all consumer, prosumer, and many high end scanners, that are not drum scanners. The difference here is essentially that it uses the same technology that digital camera’s use  (a chip) that is used to record an image through a lens (usually one that is highly inferior to the one you shot the image with). Essentially, with a CCD scanner, you are taking a picture of your image with a digital camera.

How a drum scanner differs is that it uses PMT’s (Photo Multiplier Tubes). These are basically vacuum tubes (one for each RGB color) that absorb the image pixel by pixel. It’s a technology that was derived from nuclear physics.

The image on the left was scanned with a pro grade CCD scanner at a lab, while the one on the right was scanned with a drum scanner. As you can see - the contrast is completely blown out on the left image and the colors were not as vibrant or natural as they were on the Fuji reversal film it was shot on.
The image on the left was scanned with a pro grade CCD scanner at a lab, while the one on the right was scanned with a drum scanner. As you can see – the contrast is completely blown out on the left image and the colors were not as vibrant or natural as they were on the Fuji reversal film it was shot on.

Why compromise on quality when you can get the best scans that are out there? National Geographic, Vogue, pretty much every big publishing house used to have drum scanners which cost up to $65K or more when new and could scan at up to 11,000 dpi. For these publications, for advertising agencies, for anyone that wanted to have the ultimate quality and/or print big, there was no compromise.

As you can see - the image on the left scanned with a prosumer CCD scanner is a lot less sharp with much less dynamic range than the one on the right scanned with a drum scanner. The left image was actually slightly sharpened in post, while the right one had absolutely no sharpening done to it. This is again due to the fact that a CCD scanner is basically taking a picture of your image through a lens and sensor. Why the drum scanner scan is so much sharper and clearer is the least-optics on the signal path,, better mechanics and that it uses PMT's.
As you can see – the image on the left scanned with a prosumer CCD scanner is a lot less sharp with much less dynamic range than the one on the right scanned with a drum scanner. The left image was actually slightly sharpened in post, while the right one had absolutely no sharpening done to it. This is again due to the fact that a CCD scanner is basically taking a picture of your image through a lens and sensor. Why the drum scanner scan is so much sharper and clearer is the least-optics on the signal path,, better mechanics and that it uses PMT’s.
PMT’s are ultra sensitive to light and therefore outperform CCD’s in their dynamic range. The stated D-Max on most CCD scanners is highly inflated. Many of the consumer and prosumer manufacturers do this to show that their specs are higher than drum scanners, when in reality those specs are not very accurate.

In this slide of a shoemaker in Kobe, Japan you can easily differentiate between the two images. The one on the right (Drum scan) is more accurate in terms of both color reproduction and shadow detail. You can really see the creases and lines on the shirt and the image is overall sharper on the drum scan vs. the CCD on the left.
In this slide of a shoemaker in Kobe, Japan you can easily differentiate between the two images. The one on the right (Drum scan) is more accurate in terms of both color reproduction and shadow detail. You can really see the creases and lines on the shirt and the image is overall sharper on the drum scan vs. the CCD on the left.
Wet-mounting

Wet-mounting is the act of sandwiching the film on the drum between a sheet of mylar and the drum surface. Having the film in this fluid creates an optical effect that increases dynamic range, color vividness, renders fine details more refined, removes much of the defects (scratches and most of the dust) and reduces film grain. You can’t emulate, simulate or fake this optical effect in digital post processing – it’s pure physics.

Unlike flatbed or prosumer scanners the scanning surfaces on the drum create almost no side-reflections from neighbouring areas. This drum design gives the best possible flatness to the film.

A wet mounting station holds the drum in place, while the roller on top helps to press the mylar sheet onto the film, getting rid of most of the bubbles.
A wet mounting station holds the drum in place, while the roller on top helps to press the mylar sheet onto the film, getting rid of most of the bubbles.
I use the highest grade mylar and oil based fluid made by Scanscience. This fluid is the safest for the environemnt and myself, as well as for the drum and the film. Most labs will use much cheaper fluids that have hydrofluoric carbons such as N-hexane, whilst ours are the safest in the industry. These fluids are completely neutral to the negatives and positives and do no harm to the film. In fact, the mounting fluid evaporates fairly quickly after dismounting the mylar sheet. Wet mounting is a lot of time-consuming handwork but the results are well worth it.

Resolution and Color Rendition

Drum scanners use each of the red, green, and blue photo multiplier tubes to scan the image pixel by pixel. Drum scanning is slower but a lot more precise reading the film point-by-point when compared to a CCD scanner that scans an image much like taking it with a digital camera. The drumscan therefore has the upper hand in optical density, resolution and color rendition.

This is a drum scanned image that was taken in Lake Tahoe. The bottom was fogged a bit due to an in camera light leak. The reason I chose this image is to show the kind of richness in color and clarity that is possible with drum scanning.
This is a drum scanned image that was taken in Lake Tahoe. The bottom was fogged a bit due to an in camera light leak. The reason I chose this image is to show the kind of richness in color and clarity that is possible with drum scanning.
The scanner I use is a Danish made Scanview Scanmate 5000 which offers up to 5000DPI in scanning resolution. This works out to around 35 megapixels from a 35mm scan, 80-200 megapixels in medium format, and 400megapixels up to a gigapixel in large format. Printing sizes vary but needless to say scans like these have been used to print extremely big prints at art galleries and even billboards. It makes digital look like it’s years behind in resolution.

Operation

Drum scanning is a lot of hard work due to wet mounting compared to regular consumer or prosumer CCD-scanning. Drum scanners are high-end high-precision mechanical devices that need a lot of care, regular maintenance and most of all – a skillful operator. It takes months to learn the skills and nuances needed to be able to wet mount and scan well.

The drum in operation here is spinning at up to 1600RPM in the drum scanner. The xenon light bulb illuminates through the drum onto the film. The image is fed through the PMT's and transformed into a digital signal through A/D converters.
The drum in operation here is spinning at up to 1600RPM in the drum scanner. The xenon light bulb illuminates through the drum onto the film. The image is fed through the PMT’s and transformed into a digital signal through A/D converters.
Drum scanners need a lot of care, regular maintenance, and often big investments to replace expensive high-end electronic or mechanical parts to keep them performing to the very best of their ability. However, they are overall very bulletproof and built to last many years, even decades of use with proper maintenance.

Value

For those seeking second rate quality, this may not be something you would be interested in. Drum scans are not as cheap as a local lab’s CCD scan, but they are truly the best and purest path to the ultimate quality possible. It’s better to scan less but scan better images that will really wow people.

View of the Cliff House in San Francisco taken with a Leica M3 and Voigtlander 15mm lens.
View of the Cliff House in San Francisco taken with a Leica M3 and Voigtlander 15mm lens.
The costs of running a drum scanner is never as cheap as a CCD. The costs may add up – from the chemicals, tape and mylar needed for wet mounting to the maintenance and power usage. However, the value is worth it when you compare the quality and only want to ever have to scan an image once. It may be a time consuming process but drum scanners were actually built for volume scanning, so even though the actual mounting of the drum may take a while, scanning many images at once is easier than with many CCD’s that allow you to preview only one at a time.

View of a house near in Virginia City, Nevada on the way to Reno. Taken with a Hasselblad 501C, 80mm Zeiss CF lens, and Fujichrome Astia reversal film.
View of a house near in Virginia City, Nevada on the way to Reno. Taken with a Hasselblad 501C, 80mm Zeiss CF lens, and Fujichrome Astia reversal film.
My goal is to make the highest quality scan of your negatives and slides with a 16 bit tiff output. The high resolution and detail is something that will be future proof for many years to come. In fact, for larger negatives the resolution is still years ahead of digital. Analog photography is something that is pure and it is my goal to keep this art form alive by helping people digitize their images for their own use.


A price list and order form for your drum scanning requirements are available where this article was first published by Daniel Katz. Alternatively for further inquiries you can drop Daniel an email on info@silverchroma.com

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5 thoughts on “Drum Scanning – The Film Photographer’s Ultimate Pursuit

  1. Guenter W. Luettgens August 15, 2016 / 8:36 pm

    Your article on drum scanners has inspired me to keep and experiment with my old style Mimeograph /stencil duplicators. Everything was going to go in the trash since I’m in the process of moving. Although these are on the low end of drum scanning they are nevertheless fun to experiment with. I have a Roneotronic , a Danish manufacture for AB Dick and an American Manufactured one. Two use PMT’s.The US uses Led. Working on the High End Scanners would have been a Dream.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Michael LLOYD January 15, 2017 / 9:04 pm

    I was a “High End” Scanner operator for 20 years. I worked on a Hell DC360 and then on a Crosfield system, subsequently converted to a Celsis system. I I was made redundant from my work with the advent of desktop scanners (jeez!) and the initial digital photography revolution. If you love music I guarantee that within your music collection there is imagery that I would have reproduced.
    What I still dont understand to this day is how historic prints-film/politics/music/art/photo journalism/reportage etc, and positives are now being reproduced at the level of quality available 20 years ago. My guess is that they are not. The Scanner I worked on cost over £250000 but people came for the results. Manytimes those scans vastly improved upon the photographs.
    Very sad to have seen the demise of this industry.
    I spoke to a guy in another trade… film making. He told me that once upon a time they strived to set the scene and make everything right before shooting. Then when AVID came along they just shot the scene then got back to the studio and tried to get the best out of the software.
    This is similar to the attitude of many photographers who bracket shot many scenes relying on Photoshop or the Scanner Operator to fix. Maybe an “it will do” attitude rather than “its got to be the best” killed the scanner.
    I have never seen graphic representation in print, move on to better things in recent years.
    maybe Im just jaded !

    Like

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