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The State of Film Scanning

in Scanning , Saturday, November 28, 2015

Prompted by a number of queries both in comments here and more frequently by email, and also by a very well written article on the Plustek OpticFilm 120 scanner, I have decided to write up my feeling on the current state of film scanning.

Xpan norway1506 2 09

First up, an appeal: people, please manage your expectations. Seriously. Film scanning is now right on the edge of a niche within a niche market - film photography - which is either small but stable, or still dwindling, depending on who you believe, and if you consider “Lomography” to be a genuine component of this market (I don’t). Film scanning requires a combination of a complex opto-electronic-mechanical device together with high specialised and complex software. And customers - well, the few that exist - are demanding a perfect solution at an increasingly low cost. Frankly it’s astonishing that any enterprises still find a viable business model in this space. And then when you narrow it down even more to medium format film scanning, it gets crazy.

Please correct my if I’m wrong, but I believe there are three current manufacturers of MF film scanners: Plustek, Reflecta, and Hasselblad. The Reflecta scanners are badge-engineered versions of a white-label device built in Taiwan and sold under several labels, including Pacific Imaging. The Hasselblad scanners are so mind-blowingly expensive that it is hard to imagine them having any customers other than major media companies or very well-funded public institutions. Which leaves Plustek. I don’t really know a lot about Plustek the company, but my impression is of a small but enthusiastic company in a very small pool, not unlike Cosina with rangefinder cameras - oh, wait.

Fifteen years ago the story was very, very different. There were at least 5 manufacturers active in desktop MF film scanners alone (Nikon, Minolta, Polaroid, Microtek, Imacon), with new models and innovations appearing regularly. Add to this several others producing 35mm models only (including Canon and Plustek), and you had a healthy market at a range of price points. There are of course still secondhand models to be found, but the prices tend to be insane, there is mostly no servicing or repair available, and people tend to hang on to scanners that work properly. As said before, these are complex, delicate devices, subject to considerable wear, and don’t last for ever. And drivers compatible with latest operating systems are unlikely to be found. So realistically, you need to rule out the second hand market if you’re planning on staying in film scanning for the foreseeable future. Note, there is another path, which is to buy a second-hand drum scanner. These formerly insanely expensive devices, found only in Pre-Press shops, can now be acquired for something close to a pittance. But wait - they are very complex to install, maintain, and operate, requiring specialist knowledge which is hard to find even on the internet. They are very large, very heavy, and very cumbersome. And as for software - usually dongle protected through something like Apple ADB - forget about compatibility with anything released after around 2005. At the latest. Some brave souls offer bespoke scanning services using these monsters. If you want the ultimate quality, because they really are very, very good, you could go in that direction.

Note though, Tim Parkin, who runs the above linked drum-scanning service, reviewed the Plustek OpticFilm 120 (paywalled), and had this to say (I’m quoting very selectively here): “What’s quite surprising is how good the Opticfilm 120 is compared with the Howtek (4500 Drum Scanner)”, and “The Opticfilm 120 is undoubtedly a very good scanner and if the film holder and focus issues can be addressed this should give results that are dramatically better than the Epson V750 and potentially on a par with the Nikon 9000”. This, with the caveats that he modified the film holder to use two glass inserts to hold the film flat, and that he stated he would not buy an OF 120 with the existing film holders.

This is a real shame, because Plustek clearly put a huge amount of thought and resources into the film holders, which are the best I’ve ever seen, better even than Minolta’s, and provided no fewer than 7 different types with the scanner. It is quite baffling why they do not provide, or at least sell, glass film holders, as based on Tim’s tests, this would elevate the scanner from “best of a poor bunch” to “best desktop film scanner ever”. It may be possible to hack together a holder or two, buying spares and anti-Newton glass inserts, but I’m really not very good at that stuff, not to mention lazy and impatient. Oh, and ugly. Finally, another caveat on the OF 120 is that your chances of getting a glitch-free copy seem to hover around 50%. My first one had a stuck pixel or two in the Infrared channel, and went back for servicing (a total hassle in Switzerland, where Plustek has no official distribution, which is not unusual for small companies, as we’re a small country and not in the EU - but the retailer, Heiniger AG, was very helpful, and eventually I got a brand new scanner). At least we see there the benefits of a warranty and active production.

So, that’s the hardware. The Plustek OpticFilm 120 is, in my opinion (based on 20 years of film scanning), the least-worst choice for a new desktop film scanner. Note, I’ve never tried the Reflecta MF–5000, but the German film scanner info site prefers it over the OF 120. I think they got exasperated with the OF 120’s glitches. To me the Reflecta looks a little clumsy, especially the 35mm holder, and I’m not sure it can scan XPan panoramic format, a must for me. As for the Hasselblad X1/X5, even hiring one for half a day is horrendously expensive. And they don’t even have dust / scratch removal.

Now, the software. And again, we need to manage our expectations here. I’m a Silverfast (by Lasersoft) user, and have been for a very long time. I’m under no illusions that Silverfast is perfect - it is software, after all - but I do believe it delivers the best combination of scan quality and workflow efficiency. Note, you do need to consider the software/hardware combination together. It is possible that for other combinations, you’ll get different results. However, Lasersoft are closely involved with the initial and ongoing development of the OpticFilm 120, to the extent that it has a Silverfast badge on the front, and the shipping box is dominated by Silverfast PR. So, I expect that if Silverfast is going to be optimal for any scanner, it’s this one.

Silverfast was stuck on Version 6.x for many years. It had grown into a bit of a monster, with newer features seemingly bolted on at random, and it was crippled, on the Mac, by being based on PowerPC APIs. It ran under Rosetta, but when Apple dropped that as fast as they could (typical a***h*le behaviour from Cupertino), we were stuck. It took Lasersoft a long time to respond, in the light of the parallel dramatic downturn in demand for scanning solutions, but eventually they delivered the completely reengineered Version 8. Well, v8 is still idiosyncratic - it wouldn’t be Silverfast otherwise - but in my opinion, the current v8.5 is their best ever.

A lot of people complain about Silverfast. Now, I’ll admit to long-term user bias, but I’m not fan boy. I’ve been using Apple kit since 1990, and I’m certainly no Apple apologist. I also have professional UX/UI Design experience, and I’m neither known for my willingness to compromise, nor to suffer fools gladly. But given all this, and agreeing that Silverfast has a bit of a learning curve, I cannot understand why people are so critical of it. It makes a very complicated set of tasks, i.e reliably capturing an image imprinted as a positive or negative on a physical transparency, into an optimal, accurate, colour-managed digital copy quite easy. It’s colour editing tools are far superior to Photoshop, when considered specifically for film scanning, although probably the subset of users which can understand and benefit from this is also getting smaller. Yes, it requires some learning time. So does Photoshop. Yes, the documentation for v8 is crap. So is Photoshop CC’s. It’s an industry trend, you don’t get manuals any more (but with a small outlay, you can buy Mark Segal’s excellent guide). Lasersoft customer support is included in the price. It’s a bit haphazard, and trying to find the link to submit a question through the web page is a stroke-inducing experience, but if instead you use the “Request Online Support” feature in the application, you get a very quick response. The heavily moderated forum is a marketing disaster area in my opinion, and it is really frustrating to see what, frankly, seems to be team of dedicated, approachable and responsive people making such an unholy mess of promoting themselves. But, baseline, Silverfast works, and works well, and if you invest a little time into understanding it’s more advanced features, you might well be surprised at how much it can do.

It would not be fair to not mention the alternatives to Silverfast. Well, realistically, there’s only one: VueScan. Yes, Reflecta has its proprietary CyberView (not terribly good apparently), and there are long lost options like Binuscan (a seriously weird product). But now there is only VueScan. I’ve had a few public run-ins with Vuescan here, and indeed one of those articles is, to my astonishment, the most visited of all my posts. For some scanners, VueScan is the only option under modern operating systems, and it is certainly the case that you can obtain equally good results with Vuescan in your workflow as with Silverfast, but in my opinion, and experience, it’s more cumbersome, much more hit & miss, and requires a lot more post-processing. But, doubtless, if you’ve used VueScan for many years you’ll be comfortable with it, and you’ll find Silverfast weird. VueScan costs less money than Silverfast, that’s an undeniably fact. Allegedly VueScan also has good customer support. This is debatable - if VueScan’s sole owner, designer, programmer, marketer and support guy, Ed Hamrick, takes a dislike to you, you’re screwed, despite being happy to take your money. Unfortunately Ed is a little cranky. Clearly he is also to commended for his Herculean efforts, but then again, if tomorrow he decides to retire, where does that leave VueScan?

On top of all this, people who say VueScan is easier (or even easy) to use must be living on a different planet - the one the user interface was designed on. Working out how to tell it where you want to save a scan to is complicated enough, but say you want to color calibrate your scanner: in Silverfast, you do this: load the calibration slide, press IT8 calibrate. That’s it. In VueScan: in Input menu, set “Profile Scanner”. Load the calibration slide. Preview. On the internet, find your calibration slide reference data file. Download it. In Color Menu, under Scanner IT8 data, press the “@“ button (which in Vuescan apparently means “file path”), located the downloaded file. Use another “@“ button to tell it where to save the profile. Press Scan. Oh, that’s it! (probably). And all that profile stuff hides in the same menu where you can set colour balance using crude sliders. Ok, I’m not saying none of this stuff works. Clearly, it does. But people saying that VueScan is “easier to use” ? Give me a break - cheaper, yes. Wider scanner compatibility, yes. Good enough output, certainly. But easier to use - well, possibly it’s a more satisfying challenge for digital imaging geeks, but for people for whom scanning is necessary evil on the path to getting good prints, I’m very doubtful.

VueScan SF menus

The File Output menus in VueScan (left) and Silverfast (right).  I know which one I find more intuitive. Of course neither follow anything approach OS UI guidelines, for no good reason I can see.

Of course it is all highly subjective. The upside is that we have two very competent competing solutions in the market. The downside is that commercial realities impose compromises on both.

So, to the people who’ve been mailing me in the past, and those who will do so in the future, all I can tell you is make your own choices, but be grateful you still have choices to make. Buying a software license for Vuescan or Silverfast is not just giving you access to the software, but encouraging the respective makers to continue. Same for hardware - Plustek and Reflecta (and clones) still make new, up to date film scanners for 35mm and Medium Format. Buying one gets you new hardware, a warranty, and customer support. And the right to nag their marketing teams to do better. Given the state of the film photography market, I’d say things are in better shape than we might have expected a few years back.

Posted in category "Scanning" on Saturday, November 28, 2015 at 07:27 PM

The Margin

in Sigma , Thursday, November 19, 2015

This is a bit of a geeky post, but whatever. I’ve always been attracted to the more marginal aspects of whatever topic I pursue. Probably because the margins are less crowded, and I don’t have to talk to people. Photography is no exception. I’ve never owned a Nikon or Canon DSLR, although my earliest film SLRs were Canons, initially “borrowed” from my father. In the digital world I backed the Olympus horse early on, and have only ever owned Olympus interchangeable lens cameras. These days they’re getting uncomfortably popular, but I found the solution to that by settling on the black sheep PEN E-P5 rather than the much more popular (rightly so) OM-D series. Oh, I can rationalise my choices, no problem.

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But my choice of the less popular range of what is still a marginal brand is totally overshadowed by what could really be my favourite cameras ever - and due to a eccentric decision by an eccentric, loss making wing of an eccentric company, it is cameras, plural - the Sigma Merrills. I’ve got two of these fantastic (in every sense of the word) devices, the DP2M and DP3M, with, respectively, equivalent 50mm and 75mm lenses. These cameras are the essence of the best in Japanese culture, but they also exhibit some of the weaknesses of small companies. Sigma is a private company run by enthusiasts for the love of photography and fine optical craftsmanship. They manage to turn a profit, too, and recently some of their lenses have been favourably compared to the best of Zeiss, and under a quarter of the price.  The lenses which are bolted on the front of these strange little “Merrill” boxes are exquisite. As, in my opinion, are the boxes.

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The Merrill cameras (there are 3, but I don’t own the 28mm DP1) produce absolutely stunning output. The colour, the liquidity, the depth, the detail all remind me of the very best of slide film, only without the ultra narrow dynamic range and total lack of exposure latitude. Unfortunately, they also share the dislike of slide film of anything over 400 ASA (on a good day).

The handling is a mix of excellent and appalling. The excellent part is the electronic and physical control: the buttons, dials and menu work together to produce the smoothest, most intuitive user interface I’ve ever encountered on a camera, or indeed any other device. But then comes the rest: the camera itself is basically a rectangular box with a lens bolted on the front. It’s a very solidly constructed box, but it’s not terribly comfortable to hold. In particular the DP3M feels very unbalanced, with its relatively large, heavy lens. But the worst part is the viewfinder, or rather the lack of one. Sigma do sell optical viewfinders. I have one on the DP2M, and a Voigtlander viewfinder on the DP3M. But both offer approximate framing, and of course no readout or preview of any kind. The focus acquisition light is visible while looking through the viewfinder, but you have no idea what it has locked on to. But anyway, since there are only 9 AF points, all quite closely clustered in the middle of the frame, so actually it doesn’t much matter.

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The LCD is ok, quite good actually, but my eyesight, while ok, is no longer good enough at close range to use a screen for focussing without glasses, and since I only use glasses for reading, it gets really, really awkward. Fine on a tripod, of course, but otherwise a total pain. Also, for me accurate framing is important - composition is maybe one thing I’m not too bad at, and for me it’s a very instinctive thing. Getting the framing right in camera is a major contribution to my enjoyment of photography - it’s a subconscious thing, I don’t make a big deal out of it, but when I can’t quite get connected in that way it’s very frustrating. And the Merrills really, really get in my way in that respect.

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Which, ultimately, is why they spend a lot of time on the shelf.  But when I do decide to take them out, and they get all their many, chaotic ducks in a row, and they don’t decide to produce totally haywire, irrecoverable white balance interpretations, they astonish and delight me every time.  When the time finally comes to drop film, they’ll be waiting.

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All photos from a wander last weekend around the area of the Lucomagno Pass, Ticino.

Posted in category "Sigma" on Thursday, November 19, 2015 at 08:53 PM

Unlike

in General , Thursday, April 24, 2014

Over the past 5 years or so, I’ve blown hot and cold on Facebook. Or rather tepid and cold. I’ve never much liked it, I find it fundamentally invasive and cynical. Basically it’s another advertising agency, like Google, and it’s users are it’s product, which it sells, with no holds barred, to advertisers. But a few years ago I had to engage on a professional level, when building applications (an awful experience), and so I kept up my public profile.

Most of my posting has been generated from this website, so most of it is essentially photography-orientated. But the majority of my Facebook Friends are probably not very interested in this. At the same time, I’m finding a lot of content pushed at me is various kinds of soft and not so soft selling. Certainly, there are people I want to remain in contact with who I only really “see” on Facebook, and I’ll be sorry to diminish that, but really, we all have each other’s email addresses, and, Heavens forbid, phone numbers, and I’m really starting to feel that Facebook has a corrosive influence on me. I’m spending too much time checking in, and getting far too distracted.

Of course, it’s about as easy to check out of Facebook as it is from Hotel California. You can deactivate any time you want, but you can never leave. And that’s another very disturbing trait.
So I’ve decided, I’m opting out. Back to the relative basics of email, and maintaining my “brand”, if that’s what I want, on my own website, with my own rules, and no advertising. I’m sorry if anyone feels slighted by this, but I’m not hiding. Even if you don’t know my email address, Google certainly does. And of course thanks to Facebook’s evil data retention policy, I could always change my mind.

But for now, I’m trying to find the passage back, to the place I was before.

Posted in category "General" on Thursday, April 24, 2014 at 07:46 PM

Flickrd Off

in General Rants , Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Ouch.  That’s what my eyes tell me when I see this - sorry, AL&S, nothing to do with your classic alpine scene, just how New Improved Flickr has delivered it to me.

WelcometoFlickr

I’ve always found Flickr to be, basically, the worst online photo sharing site except for all the others. Now, it has torpedoed itself on two fronts. The aesthetic changes are truly horrible, and the financial changes would make Abobe’s bean counters blush.

I’ve been fairly careful about how I prepare images for Flickr, with borders designed to set the photo off against the white background. This is now totally screwed, most of my photos look dreadful on the new layout. I’ve always complained about how badly Flickr presents panoramic formats - ironically, this has now improved significantly, taken alone, but the combination of all photos pushed together like sardines in a can, and the ridiculous formatting of portrait format seriously puts the balance well into the negative.

My biggest gripe against other sites such as 500px and WhyTake is that they decide to present my photos as standard square crops, in gallery views, which makes a total mockery of any pretence at being designed for photography. However, 500px does have a major plus point from my point of view, which is its emphasis on portfolios over single photos.  I generally edit my photos as part of some set or narrative, and this never really works on Flickr.

Another thing which the new layout loses is the nicely positioned title.  On Flickr, at least, the title has always been a equal partner to the image in my uploads. Now it just hides part of the image. As does the user avatar, overlaid on the photo.  I can’t believe that any even semi-serious photographer was involved in this redesign.

And it is as slow as s**t, if it loads at all.

Of course, there is always a negative reaction against unexpected change, so I’m not necessarily going to throw my toys out of the pram just yet.  But for now, I will no longer be uploading any new photos to Flickr, and I may well decide to delete my account, if it just makes my photography look even more crap than it actually is. And that’s quite an accomplishment.

For now, see you on 500px.

Posted in category "General Rants" on Tuesday, May 21, 2013 at 09:10 PM

How deep is your DOF

in General Rants , Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Bee Gees must have been prescient when they wrote “cause we’re living in a world of fools”, because they we didn’t have internet photo nerd forums back in the 70s (we had flares - much better). If there is one thing guaranteed to wind me up most in those wastelands of joined-up thinking it is when some dweeb starts whining, posturing or proclaiming that such and such camera and/or lens doesn’t have “enough DOF”. DOF, of course, meaning Depth Of Field, but all the evidence tends to indicate that 90% of the aforementioned dweebs don’t know that. Back in the 70s (well, ok, 90s as far as I’m concerned), “enough DOF” meant being able to get a significant amount of your scene in focus. And it wasn’t easy, with 100 ISO (film, that is) being considered fast!

Canon cap snow

DOF porn Exhibit 1. Almost certainly (a) the first intentional picture of DOF I ever took, and (b) the least interesting and most pointless photo ever made in Antarctica. Canon FTb, 50mm f/1.8

In dweeb-land, however, “DOF” means getting as much of your photo out of focus as possible, preferably rendering everything in a pretty swirly smoothy hazy way so as to make the subject - usually a brick wall, or their back garden - totally unrecognisable. And it gets much, much worse when you run up against a Full Frame Cultist, who will inform you, in no uncertain terms, and with no room for discussion, that His (they’re always male) Way is The One Truth. You absolutely cannot get enough “DOF” (or indeed resolution, sensitivity, you name it), with, horror of horrors, a (micro) four-thirds sensor. Well, I beg to differ.

Drm 2012 11 16 EP31744

DOF porn Exhibit 2. Only a camera geek could love it. Panasonic Lumix 25mm f/1.4

And oh do I wish I find out where to get all that extraneous DOF four-thirds sensors apparently suffer from. Then I’d be able to get the jumbled bunches of rocks I like to photograph all in focus!

All systems, pretty much, allow you to be creative with shallow depth of field. It’s all down to focal length and positioning. Sure, there are certain configurations that are easier, or perhaps only possible, with a given lens on a full frame sensor. But exactly the same can be said for other combinations. Within reason, and excluding extreme edge cases, you can pretty much achieve whatever effect you want with any camera system. It just requires less talk, and more thought.

Of course, in 95% of cases normal people neither like nor see the point of these photos. They’re not photos of anything, just “tests” to show what “great DOF” Lens X can do. Fantastic. There are a few exceptions, but actually using this effect in a truly creative and rewarding way is very, very hard.

Extreme lenses, such as the Leica Noctilux f0.95, were designed for low-light shooting, not “DOF”. I can’t imagine trying to actually focus a Noctilux on a rangefinder! These days, with digital cameras giving good performance at ISO levels beyond film’s wildest dreams, these ultra-fast lenses are even more niche items. Typically, in the Film Age, lenses designed for soft-focus backgrounds were short teles with maximum apertures in the f/2 to f/2.8 range. Which, strangely enough, in terms of “equivalent separation”, is exactly where the Panasonic Summilux f/1.4, which I just bought in a fit of futile retail therapy, sits. And don’t let any forum troll tell you different.

Posted in category "General Rants" on Tuesday, November 20, 2012 at 10:50 PM

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