In many ways, LaserSoft Imaging's SilverFast Ai Studio 8 (9 to 9, depending on the scanner model) is the Photoshop of scan utilities. I mean that in both a good and a bad way. The bad part is that although it's not hard to muddle through with SilverFast without knowing how to use it well, it's hard to master. The good part is that it's among the best known, most widely used, and most capable programs in its category for a good reason: Once you learn how to use it, it will give you excellent results. SilverFast lets you wring the best possible photo scan quality out of whatever photo scanner you use it with.
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SilverFast's main competitor is the VueScan 9 Professional Edition, another utility with lots of sophisticated features and the ability to work with any number of scanners. However, for both programs, the real competition is the proprietary scan utilities and drivers that manufacturers supply with their scanners for no extra cost. What makes SilverFast worth considering is that it promises to give you better-quality scans from the same scanners. What makes it worth paying for is that it delivers on its promise.
Shades of Silver
LaserSoft Imaging sells an assortment of SilverFast versions, including some variations on its older version 6, and three levels of SilverFast 8, which is what I review here. All three of the SilverFast 8 variations come in different versions for different scanner models, so you have to get the right version for the scanner you have. All three also use the same program file for any one scanner, with the license key unlocking the appropriate features for the program level. That makes upgrading easy, since you only need to enter a new license key.
The least expensive variation, with the fewest features, is SilverFast SE 8 (). Even with this version, you get an impressive set of sophisticated tools, including controls for manual and automatic color correction, sharpening the image, and dust and scratch removal, complete with support for a hardware-based option using an infrared scan for models that offers it.
The program can also save scans in LaserSoft Imaging's 48HDR format, which retains all the information in the standard scan with visible light, and 64-bit HDRI format, which adds the information from the IR scan. Either format lets you post-process the image in LaserSoft Imaging SilverFast HDR, a companion program for SilverFast (which I did not look at as part of this review).
The next step up is SilverFast SE Plus (9, but to upgrade from the standalone SE level and to upgrade from the bundled SE version). Among the additional features in SE Plus is an option for scanning Kodachrome slides, which tend to show a bluish tint in scans, and a multi-exposure option, which is potentially useful for scanning transparencies (i.e., slides, film strips, and negatives).
If you turn on the multi-exposure tool, SilverFast will take the scanner through two scans with different exposures and combine the results in one image. The result effectively increases the scanner's dynamic range (meaning how many shades of gray it can see), so the scan will show more detail based on shading. This is not particularly useful for scanning photographic prints, but it can make a big difference with film, which has a much greater dynamic range. The second scan adds significant time for scanning each image, however, and it doesn't always give you better quality.
The most notable addition in SilverFast is a color-calibration feature using a standard IT8 calibration target, which you'll have to buy separately. Calibrating is supremely easy. Put the target in the scanner, click on the color calibration tool, and wait a moment for it to scan and calibrate. That's all it takes to get scans with better color fidelity.
Using the Program
As useful as all of the SilverFast tools are, expect to invest a lot of time experimenting with each one to fully understand the effect it has on the scan. To make things easier, you can see the effect on the preview scan when you change settings and easily undo it if necessary. The program also includes a Wizard of sorts,which is meant to walk you through the steps for different kinds of scans. But learning how to use even the Wizard properly takes time and effort.
One potential issue to consider before getting SilverFast is that you not only need a scanner that SilverFast supports, you need to get a different version for every scanner. If you replace your scanner with a new one, you'll have to get a new version of SilverFast as well. (You can find a list of supported scanners on the SilverFast website.)
A few scanners already come with SilverFast, either as their only scan utility, as with the Plustek OpticFilm 120, or as an alternative to the manufacturer's own utility, as with the Epson Perfection V700 Photo. If you're choosing between two similarly priced models, and one comes with the version of SilverFast that you want, that might be enough reason to pick one model over the other.
That said, note that just because a scanner comes with SilverFast doesn't necessarily mean the two work well together. When the Plustek OpticFilm 120 first came out, for example, you couldn't conveniently scan, say, the third frame in a strip of film (a problem that has since been fixed).
The moral here is that before buying the program, it's well worth downloading the Demo version from SilverFast's website (by choosing the Demo button on the home page), to check how well it works with the scanner you want to use it with. The Demo software is actually a fully functional version of SilverFast Ai Studio, minus the color calibration feature. The only other limitation is that it watermarks the scans, so you can't really use them. If you decide to buy the program, you can simply enter the license key to unlock it, without having to reinstall anything.
If you're happy with the scan quality you're getting from the software that came with your scanner, there's no reason to consider getting SilverFast. If you want improved quality, but are concerned about having to buy additional copies for additional scanners, take a close look at VueScan, which is less expensive to begin with and which you can buy once and use on all the models it supports.
That said, if you're not concerned about the possibility of having to buy additional copies, SilverFast Ai Studio 8 is an attractive choice, particularly if you want to go a step further and use it in combination with SilverFast HDR to post-process the scans for the best possible results. Depending on the scanner, either SilverFast or VueScan may be the better choice. But for any model that SilverFast works with (but doesn't ship with), it's virtually guaranteed to give you better-quality scans than the software the manufacturer includes with the scanner.