VueScan handles grain better than rivals

Grain reduction was tricky to judge. This was in part because each app's varying tone curves and sharpening tended to emphasize grain differently in the first place, and also because I mostly tended to shoot only film at ISO 800 or below. All three programs allow a three-step control over grain reduction strength.

The 100% crops below come from this overall scene. Each program was operating at its defaults other than the grain correction.
100% crops from Epson Scan. Clockwise from top left: uncorrected, high, medium and low grain correction.
100% crops from SilverFast. Clockwise from top left: uncorrected, high, medium and low grain correction.
100% crops from VueScan. Clockwise from top left: uncorrected, high, medium and low grain correction.

Of the three, I have to give this one to VueScan. While Epson Scan's grain reduction is stronger at its maximum, it visibly softened fine detail more than did VueScan. SilverFast, meanwhile, was prone to introducing unsightly banding artifacts that its rivals avoided.

SilverFast seemed more prone to scanning artifacts than its rivals, although I did notice them to some extent in the other apps too. This is possibly due to SilverFast's higher default sharpening, and is shown here at 200% scale for emphasis.

Epson and SilverFast do the best job of dust reduction

Color correction and grain reduction are both relatively easy to fix in Photoshop after scanning, though. Dust reduction is another matter, at least if your scanner supports infrared dust reduction. Here, there's significant potential for retouching time to be slashed if your application does a good job out of the gate.

100% crops from Epson Scan. Clockwise from top, uncorrected, high, medium and low software anti-dust.

Both Epson Scan and SilverFast offer a choice of hardware or software dust correction, and the latter also allows both to be combined at once. With that said, I found that neither software implementation did a good job, tending to remove more of the actual image than the dust and scratches no matter how they were configured.

100% crops from SilverFast. Uncorrected image (left) vs. software anti-dust (right).

Hardware dust reduction was another story. All three programs did a pretty good job here, and were able to get rid of almost all but the very finest horizontal scratches at their highest settings, although Epson and VueScan both left a touch more than did SilverFast.

100% crops from Epson Scan. Uncorrected image (left) vs. hardware anti-dust (right).

100% crops from SilverFast. Uncorrected image (left) vs. hardware anti-dust (right).

100% crops from VueScan. Clockwise from top, uncorrected, high, medium and low hardware anti-dust.

Epson Scan had a slight edge over VueScan in terms of how well it blended its corrections into the surrounding image, although it was close. In terms of blending, SilverFast trailed its rivals a little overall, but the corrections from all three are only really noticeable when viewed 1:1 against a fairly smooth background such as sky or clouds.

Epson lacks multi-exposure / multi-sampling, but they're for edge cases

One feature entirely absent from Epson's software is support for multiple-exposure scanning, something both of its rivals offer. If supported by your scanner hardware, both SilverFast and VueScan can scan your film multiple times with different exposure levels, in something akin to HDR photography, allowing for a single output image with greater dynamic range. Additionally, VueScan can repeatedly scan images up to 16 times without varying the exposure to reduce readout noise levels.

Even with the highest-contrast negatives, I couldn't see a noticeable difference from multi-exposure scanning

Depending upon how your scanner functions, both techniques can increase scan times significantly, but they offer the potential for improved image quality with contrasty negative film at a high bit depth, and if your scanner lacks sufficient dynamic range in the first place.

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Even with the highest-contrast negatives in my collection, though, including everything from full sunlight to very deep shadow, I couldn't see a noticeable difference from multi-exposure scanning, so it's definitely an edge case option to leave disabled unless you really need it, though.

And the same was true of VueScan's multi-sampling. While I could, just barely, see an improvement in per-pixel noise levels, it tended to be drowned out by the grain of the film itself.

The 100% crops below come from this overall scene. Only the number of samples was changed, from 1 (left) to 16 (right). The shadows have been lifted 35% in Photoshop for emphasis.

If you need to lift the shadows significantly on film that has very tight grain it's perhaps worthwhile, but it does come accompanied by some loss of per-pixel sharpness the more samples are taken.

It's Raw Jim, but not as we know it

One other feature of particular interest that's present in both SilverFast and VueScan, but not in their first-party rival, is support for Raw capture. It's important to note that it's not quite Raw in the same sense as a Raw file from a digital camera, however.

There's no color filter array to be demosaiced, as your scanner already captures full red, green and blue color information at every pixel location. (And if it has an infrared dust reduction function, a fourth channel including that data, too.)

Both SilverFast (left) and VueScan (right) support capture of DNG and TIFF raw files.

But that doesn't make a raw file pointless, as it's still being saved prior to a lossy compression such as JPEG being applied and your (likely smaller) output color space being baked into the file, making it easier to tweak color information without losing quality. It also gives you the option to use third-party software for dust processing, if you're not happy with results from the built-in algorithms.

Both applications can save their raw files either in Adobe's widely-recognized DNG format or as a TIFF file, with up to a 48-bit RGB or a 64-bit RGBi bit depth. While Epson Scan allows you to save TIFFs, dust correction must be baked into the image at scan time, and DNGs are unsupported.

VueScan is the best all-rounder, but Epson Scan does surprisingly well

Overall, the winner in this roundup has to be Hamrick Software's VueScan. Although it isn't the best at everything it does, it turns in a solid performance in basically every category, and includes a several features Epson Scan lacks. It also has by far the cleanest, most responsive user interface of the bunch, and the best documentation.

With that said, I thought Epson Scan did surprisingly well also. Sure, its interface is dated and clunky, its cropping overenthusiastic and it lacks some features like multi-exposure, multi-sampling and Raw output. But it turns out pretty decent image quality most of the time, with especially good dust reduction performance. And if you're an Epson Perfection owner, you've already got a copy free with your scanner purchase.

As for SilverFast, it too is capable of very good image quality, and with a good bit more control and features than Epson Scan offers. But its overly complex user interface and weak documentation coupled with performance that trails its rivals and algorithms that more often need manual intervention conspire to hold it back from what it could be.

Epson Scan

Pros Cons
  • Ships free with the scanner
  • The fastest by a hair
  • The best default image quality
  • Good results from fade, color and hardware dust correction
  • Dated user interface
  • Fewer controls than third-party rivals
  • Inaccurate cropping and can't batch scan if manually cropped
  • Occasionally buggy
  • Software dust correction is of little use

SilverFast SE Plus

Pros Cons
  • Broad scanner support
  • Fair image quality by default
  • More control than Epson Scan
  • Tailors results based on film type (but fewer types than VueScan)
  • Multi-exposure scanning
  • DNG and TIFF raw support
  • The slowest of the bunch
  • Images tended to be too warm
  • More manual intervention needed than rivals
  • Sharpening defaults too high
  • Prone to some artifacts from over-sharpening
  • Hardware dust correction doesn't blend as well as rivals
  • Software dust correction is of little use
  • Multi-exposure scanning doesn't offer much advantage for most shots

VueScan Professional Edition

Pros Cons
  • Broad scanner support
  • Good image quality by default
  • Lightweight and responsive user interface
  • More control than Epson Scan
  • Tailor results based on film type (and more types than SilverFast)
  • Multi-exposure scanning
  • Multi-sampled scanning
  • DNG and TIFF raw support
  • Not quite as fast as Epson Scan
  • Images tended a little too cool and a little low-contrast
  • Multi-exposure and multi-sampled scanning don't offer much advantage for most shots