Scanner prices constantly are falling, while the quality supposedly keeps improving. It seems hardly a month goes by without someone introducing something new. While quality does not always improve with each new model, what annoys me about these new scanners is manufacturers put all their money into creating better and cheaper hardware, and almost nothing into improving the software drivers. It always has been my contention that while the hardware may be responsible for 'seeing' the image, it is the software that actually makes the image. Now there is a new product that proves this theory beyond doubt. The head of Germany's LaserSoft company was once a consultant to imaging giant Linotype-Hell. The connection is apparent in LaserSoft's SilverFast scanner driver, which shows some distinctively 'Lino-like' characteristics. The Photoshop plug-in is available in versions compatible with many scanners and digital still cameras, including those from Nikon, Agfa, Epson, Howteck, Canon, Kodak and Umax. There also are drivers built for acquiring photo CD images and for opening and correcting high-bit files which have been stored on disk. Several of these scanner manufacturers have been so impressed with SilverFast that they now include it as the standard driver with their scanners. I tested the SilverFast using a Nikon Super Coolscan. The difference in quality immediately was noticeable. My two biggest frustrations with Nikon's own driver are its inability to capture some highlight details and the absence of an automatic function to remove colour casts. SilverFast tackles both of these problems quite well. Controls in the SilverFast driver are almost too many to mention. In addition to the click white and black that the Nikon driver has, SilverFast adds levels, curves, colour cast adjustment, selective colour and an expert mode which is much like LinoColor VisuaLab's expert mode. All of these controls are more sophisticated than Photoshop's and allow for more finite adjustments. Also, the driver has a highly sophisticated sharpening function. Whatever your level of expertise, I recommend you RTFM (read the flippin' manual), which is written rather entertainingly in 'Germlish' ('vertikal', for example). It contains lots of tidbits, such as holding down the command and option keys to see the lightest point in an image and command and control to see the darkest. With the SilverFast driver installed, I really found no use for Photoshop's colour correction abilities. The SilverFast driver operates in the scanner's native bit depth - 36-bit in the case of the Super Coolscan. Photoshop operates in 24-bit colour, which means an RGB file has only 256 shades of red, 256 shades of blue and 256 shades of green. Whenever a correction is made to colour, contrast or lightness, some of these shades are deleted. By the time you have made an image look right in Photoshop, you may be down to fewer than 256 shades of each colour, which will result in images that lack detail. Typically, a portrait suffering this problem will have a subject with only one or two skin tones, while a well-scanned image will show dozens of shades in the skin. By working in a higher-bit depth you are working with more tones. With 42-bit colour, for example, you have 16,000 shades of each colour. By making your colour corrections in the SilverFast driver, you can afford to delete quite a few tones and still have 256 shades of each colour when the image lands in Photoshop. SilverFast has the ability to scan in normal RGB mode as well as LAB mode, and can perform on-the-fly colour separations. The latter supports both Photoshop separation tables and Colorsync tables. In the month or so I have been using the SilverFast driver, the results have been excellent. For the first time, I feel I am using the full potential of my scanner. No Hong Kong dealer sells SilverFast. But the driver can be ordered directly from the company. Laser can be reached through their Internet Web site [ www.las ersoft. de], which also has demo versions of SilverFast drivers for most scanner and camera models as well as the Photo CD driver. Prices vary depending on the scanner, but expect to pay US$150 to $400 for most versions.