By the time I’d tested the Plustek OpticFilm 120 scanner, I’d tried plenty of scanners and was pretty worn out. Let’s face it – scanning sucks. It’s time consuming, and confers the same level of enjoyment as things like yard work, dusting the house, or attempting to converse with your drunk uncle at a holiday gathering; at least for me, anyway. But if you’re the type of shooter that’s interested in more than just sharing photos on social media or the web, then a consistent and reliable scanner is of paramount importance.
When I returned to shooting film a few years ago, I picked up an Epson v550. It worked fine for sharing images on Instagram, or just simply digitally archiving old photos, but as my shooting volume and printing requirements increased, it became clear that I was going to need a more professional-level scanner. Sadly, this dumped me into a rather depressing category of film shooter; I was shooting too much film to justify the cost of having a lab do it, but I needed a scanner that was going to scan both 35mm and medium format film (and here’s the important part) do so at lab quality.
Flatbeds were out. Do-it-all scanners like the Epson v800 produce decent results, but the v800 lacks the resolution I was yearning for (at least on 35mm). I looked into purchasing a Noritsu or Frontier machine, but the fear of it breaking and the scarcity of parts was just too much for me to swallow.
Fortunately, James was able to get his hands on a Plustek OpticFilm 120 to demo. I’d already achieved stellar results with my Plustek 8200i, so I figured the OpticFilm 120 would be a cut above.
Well, it is and it isn’t. Let me explain.
Marketed as a scanner for both professionals and amateurs alike, the Plustek OpticFilm 120 is quite a remarkable piece of hardware. The unit feels hefty and solid; like I’m dealing with a pro-level machine. It’s roughly double the girth of my 8200i (and about four times as heavy), which isn’t bad for a dual format scanner, and its aesthetics aren’t anything to turn away from either.
Scanning veterans know the importance of keeping film flat, and the OpticFilm 120 does an outstanding job at this due to its extremely well-designed negative carriers. Supplied with carriers for 35mm, and every flavor of 120/220 film (6 x 4.5, 6 x 6, 6 x 7, 6 x 8, 6 x 9, and 6 x 12), each carrier has strong magnets that snap tight and force flat even the most curled of negatives. Opening them up to retrieve the film is simple as well, made possible by a small knob on the end of each carrier; a design choice that feels both purposeful and attractive. This is in stark contrast to my 8200i’s 35mm carriers, which feel flimsy by comparison.
Plustek scanners are famous for having great dust control, and the OpticFilm 120 affirms that reputation nicely. Both the front and rear negative carrier openings are sealed by a plastic door when the carrier is not inserted.
Unfortunately, that’s where the industrial design strengths come to an end. The back of the scanner houses two plug entry points (one for power and one for data) which are confusingly hidden by a plastic flap. When the scanner is plugged in, the flap makes it impossible to sit flush against a perpendicular angle. I suspect the flap is intended as a dust prevention measure during transport, but this doesn’t make much sense to me. Moreover, the front loading entry point of the negative carriers only adds to the awkward form factor of the scanner. The carriers themselves are quite long, so the additional length is something that users with shallower desk space should be cognizant of.
Lastly, if silence is important you may want to look elsewhere because this thing sounds like a ninth grade robotics experiment gone bad. It’s loud as the carrier enters the scanner body and gets even louder when the CCD makes its optical passes over the negatives.
As a consumer paying a premium for this scanner, I expect the experience of setup to be smooth. That was not the case with the OpticFilm 120. Plustek bundles this scanner with Silverfast Ai Studio 8; a very powerful yet horribly designed piece of software. And while I understand that users might opt for VueScan instead, I wanted to test this scanner with the software that I would ultimately be paying money for.
My experience during setup may be a bit unique, but it’s an acceptable use case, and highlights what will likely be a common problem that both Plustek and LaserSoft Imaging didn’t take the time to preemptively remedy. I already owned Silverfast Ai Studio 8 and had the program installed for use with my 8200i. I assumed that since I purchased Silverfast, that it would simply recognize the scanner as a new piece of hardware and allow me to begin working with it. However, that wasn’t the case.
My previous installation of Ai Studio 8 failed to recognize the scanner despite my best efforts, and I was forced to fully uninstall it, and then re-install the same software with a new license key from LaserSoft (not to mention the difficulty involved with getting this key from them should you own a computer without a CD/DVD ROM drive). LaserSoft, it’s 2018! Time to hire a UX designer!
After installing the software I experienced subsequent app freezes and hardware stalls; none of which I could identify a solution for. And if you’re an existing Silverfast owner, you may know that their support team is next to useless. It goes without saying that Silverfast is a “use at your own risk” software suite, and it really does take a few hours in the saddle to get comfortable with the more powerful features of the software. But if you are willing to invest the time, there isn’t a better option on the consumer market (less a complement to Silverfast and more a lament for a lack of options).
And now for the good stuff; the scanning results. Ho-ly crap, this scanner produces some beautiful scans. Like my 8200i, the 35mm scans I created were outstanding. Sharpness and clarity are excellent, and I’d say they’re on par with anything that I’ve received from a pro-level lab.
But the real strength is the scanner’s medium format output. The claimed 5300 dpi (which I would be willing to bet is somewhere closer to 3800 – 4000 dpi) shined through in every scan I made. It resolved medium format negatives beautifully, and my results appeared sharper than the images I get back from the lab in side-to-side testing.
Boasting an eight-element lens, 48-bit color depth, an infrared channel, and a whopping 4.01 dynamic range, the OpticFilm 120 really does check all the boxes for me. On paper, it seemed like a dream come true. Regretfully, there are features that simply do not work as claimed.
Batch scanning, which Plustek states as a big selling point, did not work as advertised. The required steps involved in the Silverfast workflow are far too complicated, non-intuitive, and are sadly buried deep in the software. It took me a few hours to fully understand how it works, and even then I was coming back for rescans time and time again. The reasoning behind this is a bit complicated, but to put it simply, the batch processing feature in Silverfast was an obviously distant afterthought, and is arguably one of the greatest examples of poor interaction design.
Is it worth buying?
The short answer is – no. In fact, as of writing this, both B&H and Adorama are showing the Plustek OpticFilm 120 as discontinued on their websites, so if you are hell bent on buying one, you’ll have to look on eBay or elsewhere.
Fortunately, less expensive alternatives are still available. Pacific Image makes the PrimeFilm 120 Pro, and Epson continues to push the v800/850 (same scanner, just a different version of bundled Silverfast software). I’ve yet to test the PrimeFilm 120 Pro, so I can’t comment on that, and while the v800/850 produces acceptable results, the output from flatbed scanners can’t touch what the Plustek 120 can do.
But even though it makes great images, Plustek flat out missed the mark with this scanner. Woefully, this is not a scanner for enthusiasts, nor do I think it’s a scanner for professionals. The price point is far too high to have to deal with a clunky setup, exacerbated workflow, and sub-par customer experience from their bundled software partner. Sure, the results are stellar, but the overall user experience wasn’t thought through well at all. Frankly, every touch point that Plustek should have hit, was missed. It’s fate was sealed from the start.
I’ll continue sending my medium format film to the lab, at least for now. As my fellow Casual Photophile writer Josh commented during a recent discussion about scanning, it’s crazy that no one has produced a relatively inexpensive, quick, auto-feed scanner for both 35mm and medium format film. Pakons are still floating around, but they only do 35mm film, and who the hell wants to brave not only old hardware failures, but also inflation and (gasp!) Windows XP? Not I.
If film is going to survive and even thrive in a digital age, scanners and their software are going to require real improvement. The OpticFilm 120 was a noble effort by Plustek to address a more serious and niche market. It’s just a shame that such a wonderful piece of hardware can be crippled, and ultimately sidelined, due to a lack of assiduous user experience design. I just hope that there are others out there willing to take this as an example and improve upon it.