in Scanning , Monday, September 22, 2014
Following major problems with my Minolta Dimage Scan MultiPro scanner over the previous months, I recently decided to switch to a new Plustek OpticFilm 120 medium format film scanner (or “OF120” for short). My principal motivation for this is to scan film, not to make tests, but since several people have already asked, and there is very little information on the web about the OF120 which does not quickly degenerate into foam-at-the-mouth ranting, I’ve decided to dedicate a little time to provide some comparisons between the two scanners.
I recommend you first read these two in-depth reviews by qualified experts.
My own report will be entirely subjective.
My primary “use case” for the OF120 is scanning Xpan format film (nominally 65 x 24mm), and the vast majority of that is reversal film, principally Ektachrome E100G, Provia 400X, Provia 100F and Velvia 100F. I have some 6x6 and 6x7 120 reversal film (and a little 612 if we consider the Belair), but currently I do not shoot medium format. I do not shoot much negative film, although I’ve just shot 5 rolls of 35mm Portra 400, 2 in the Xpan and 3 in my Minox 35ML. They’re not yet processed. I’ve also used Portra and Ektar in the past, but generally I’ve preferred reversal film. For black & white you’ve come to the wrong place: I’ve only ever shot C41 B&W, and small amounts of Agfa Scala. If you want to know how well Tri-X or HP5 or whatever scans, you’ll have to send me a sample (but please ASK FIRST, in the comments below: I’ve got a day job too).
A few other ground rules:
- I use Silverfast. I might try Vuescan just out of curiosity at some point, but I won’t put any time into resolving any issues, if there are any. Ed Hamrick’s antipathy towards the OF120 doesn’t encourage me much. He probably had a fit when he saw the Silverfast logo on the front :-)
- In “productive work”, I use the Silverfast Archive solution. I know some people don’t see the point. Fine, variety is the spice of life, and I have no wish to either defend or evangelise my personal choices.
So, for me it boils down to this:
- Can the OF120 match, or come acceptably close, to the scan performance of the MultiPro on XPan slides ?
- Can it do this reliably, with crashing, and with requiring constant nursing ?
- Is it reasonably fast ?
If you want to stop reading now, the answers so far are, in summary, yes, yes, and yes.
1. The Plustek Opticfilm scanner
First impressions are good. The scanner arrives in a large box, well protected. Half of the box real estate is given over to Silverfast marketing, which is some indication of the co-operation between the two companies. Inside the box is the scanner, a 6x7 Silverfast IT8 target, a Plustek DVD, a Silverfast 8 DVD, two skimpy getting started manuals, and seven boxes containing the film holders. There are film holders for mounted 35mm, 35mm filmstrip (with two slots for multiformat 35mm such as XPan), 6x6, 6x7, 6x8, 6x9 and 6x12 medium format. All are glassless. All except for the mounted 35mm are adjustable, I assume in order to account for the different spacing between frames on various MF cameras. The closing mechanism is via two magnetic clasps. Loading film is very easy, and all in all these are by far the most impressive, best engineered scanner film holders I’ve ever seen. Film appears to be held tight and is well tensioned. Whether or not this is good enough for curled film remains to be evaluated. Note, I can’t see any technical reason why a 6x17 holder could not be added. You could load 6x17 into the 6x12 holder, but there’s no obvious way to tell Silverfast to scan it. Although there is a potential workaround, which I’ll try out. There are no technical specifications provided whatsoever. Not even the usual admonitions not to use the equipment in the shower or use it to fry eggs. Or indeed the mandatory CE notices…
The design of the scanner itself is quite minimalist. It’s larger than the Minolta, but about the same weight. It features small Silverfast and iSRD badges on the front. Mechanically it seems pretty sound.
Black is the new Beige
Setting up the OF120 on a Mac is basically a matter of plugging it in. The Plustek installation disk has an installer which appears to do something, but I have no idea what, as the driver is apparently included in Silverfast. It would be nice if Plustek had included a slightly more detailed manual on the DVD, but they didn’t. Anyway, there’s not actually a lot to discuss. Next, Silverfast is installed. The version on my disk is 8.0.1r18, which is seriously out of date. The current version is 8.0.1r54, and it’s a very good idea to update this before going any further.
The first thing I then did was to unwrap the gorgeous IT8 target and go about calibrating the scanner. Then comes the first stumble: on first run, Silverfast defaults to the 35mm holder. It does not recognise the inserted holder as it does for the Minolta. Therefore, if, as a seasoned Silverfast user, you just pile in and press Auto IT8, things are not going to go according to plan. After a brief movement of puzzlement, I selected Image > ScanMode > Tranp. 6x7. From then onwards, Silverfast performs its favourite party trick with the usual aplomb, and hey, presto, you have a colour-profiled scanner.
The OF120 is quieter in operation than the Minolta. The ticking of the Minolta stepping motor is quite absent. At the start of the scan, an abrupt “clunk” issues from the OF120, and then in the main it just whirs fairly peacefully.
My first trial (I’m trying to avoid the term “test” here) involved my number one priority, XPan scanning. A pre-sales query to Plustek tech support in Europe produced a detailed reply explaining how to do this: the film size is not explicitly supported, so use the 35mm filmstrip holder, then tell Silverfast it’s the 6x9 holder. As a bonus, you can actually load two strips in, and batch scan them. As a downside, the film needs to be cut into 2-frame strips, which is a touch unfortunate as in recent years I’ve been using 3-frame strips in the Minolta. Anyway, the film slides snugly into place (none of the fiddling around you need to do with the Minolta holders) and the holder snaps shut with a reassuring clunk.
I’ve read scare stories about scanning speed. Well, I didn’t sit here with a stopwatch, but I’m extremely familiar with how long the MultiPro takes to scan an XPan frame, and the OF120 is in the same ballpark. I might even dare to say it’s a bit quicker. I’ve tried various combinations of iSRD (infra-red dust removal, the OF120’s alternative to DigitalICE and multi-exposure, and scanned at 5300dpi, close to the the Minolta’s native 4800dpi for the centre area. In each case the more complex combinations slow things down, but to the same degree as for the Minolta. Interestingly, the hardware scan times don’t vary much, unlike with the Minolta, but Silverfast sits there processing for longer.
So, let’s get to the important bit: the results. Here’s my test frame, an XPan shot taken earlier this year, and scanned at 4800dpi, 16 bits per channel, with 4x Multisampling and D-ICE on the Minolta.
I scanned the same frame on the OF120, at 5300dpi, 16 bits per channel, with iSRD (no Multiexposure. I’ll get to that later).
The nice thing about this frame is that it features the vital Brick Wall need to test stuff. Sadly no cats are currently present, which I know will be seen as a major failing in my methodology. It will just have to do. Let’s look at a couple of details of the frame. In both cases there is no sharpening involved. First of all, the plaque on the bridge:
Minolta at 100%
OF120 at 100%
Not a lot in it really, is there ? Note, for the Minolta there was some contrast added in Silverfast. For the OF120 I left it flat.
Now let’s look at a shadow area, under the bridge to the left:
Minolta at 50%
OF120 at 50%
Again, not much in it. The shadow detail is about the same, despite the fact that the Minolta scan benefitted from multi-sampling and the OF120 did not. The two scans have slightly different black points.
On this example, I’d say that the OpticFilm 120 is a close match to the MultiPro. While I might be just a little disappointed that it isn’t better, in terms of resolution the lemon is squeezed dry anyway at this point. There isn’t any more detail to extract from 35mm film.
Here’s a second example, from a very different part of the world.
This time I’ve taking a sample from the middle of the frame:
Minolta at 100%, 4800dpi, 8x multi-sampling, 48bit HDR scan, manual focus, no sharpening
OF120 at 100%, 5300dpi, 48bit scan, no sharpening
This time around the Minolta undeniably has the edge, although do note that printing this file at 360dpi resolution would give an output size of 97 x 38cm. The largest XPan print I’ve made is 80 x 30cm. Nevertheless, my feeling is the Opticfilm 120 can, in theory, do a little better than this.
I have done some initial fiddling around trying to insert AN glass over the film, to improve flatness. Results so far were either “no change” or “worse”. But my methodology was hardly robust.
4. Some issues
I’ve spent far too long on this write-up already, but there are some issues I’ve come across which merit a brief mention.
This is currently the biggest problem I have. Multiexposure, which is required according to Plustek to reach their quoted DMax of 4.1, doesn’t work. The two exposures do not align properly. I have reported this to Lasersoft, and received a quick reply from Arne Ketelhohn, who states “In case there is a large offset in the infrared or ME images you can increase the detection offsets in the preferences’ special tab. The ME setting would have to be set in the scansoftware”. Ok, but while there is indeed a preference to set the maximum correction range from ME alignment, there’s no way I can see to apply the offset itself, and believe me I’ve looked. Unfortunately Arne did not reply to my follow up. Possibly Lasersoft were/are busy with Photokina, but I’m not letting them off the hook. They need to fix this. Note that ME alignment was always a bit haphazard with the Multipro, which is why I preferred to use the slower but equally effective and 100% reliable multi-sampling.
Same story as above, although strangely it has so far only cropped up in “64bit HDRi” files. In this case, there is a manual offset slider (two in fact, horizontal and vertical) and these can be used in Silverfast HDR to fine-tune alignment. iSRD seems to be pretty much on a par with DigitalICE, with the plus point that it is tuneable. Or maybe that’s a drawback…
A lot of people have reported problems with frame detection. I had one issue with the software not scanning all the way to the edge of the holder. A reset of both software and scanner fixed it. It only happened once, no big deal.
Fuji “pepper grain”
And a real blast from the past here: the old Fuji Provia pepper grain issue pops up again. Not really a problem with the scanner, and probably only a pixel-peeping issue. However I now wish I’d kept one of my Scanhancers to see if it works with the Opticfilm. I guess probably not, but pepper grain dissolving was one its benefits.
iSRD edge artefacts
In some extreme cases iSRD gives stair-step artifacting at high-contrast edges. I’ve only found this once so far on a 6x6 Velvia slide. Note that DigitalICE suffers from similar issues, which again the Scanhancer resolves. Since in Silverfast, iSRD can be fine-tuned and masked, there’s probably a workaround to this, it just requires a little time.
5. Initial conclusions
It is very important to bear in mind that my conclusions are heavily biased by my personal needs and quality thresholds. I also just want things to work, I have no desire at all to spend all my scant free time “testing”, debugging and resolving issues. I just want to be able to scan my films at a high enough quality to frame them, show them around, and take them to potential exhibitors as samples of my work. The largest I print is A2 size on an Epson 3800 (on on A3 height panoramic sheets). Much as I loved my MultiPro, it was getting far too frustrating coaxing it along all the time.
In a nutshell, so far the OpticFilm 120 meets and perhaps slightly exceeds my expectations. So far it, and Silverfast 8, have been stable and reliable.
If today I had the choice between on OpticFilm 120 and a new Sony DimageScan MultiPro designed for OS X 10.9 with full tech support, I’d buy the MultiPro. But given the choice between fading MultiPros and Coolscans, requiring maintaining second computers with old operating systems, and increasing amounts of attention, and a new Plustek OpticFilm 120 designed for OS X 10.9 with full tech support, I took a deep breath and went with Plustek. So far I don’t regret that decision.
As witnessed by the badges on the front, the OF120 was born joined at the hip with Silverfast Ai Studio 8. In my opinion this is a good thing, but as with every other first world problem these days, there are astonishingly rabid opinions expressed about this on the internet, many of which seem to emanate from uninformed, rigid and closed minds. Although personally I like Silverfast, and indeed Lasersoft, I’m far from blind to their shortcomings, and I’ll be making a considerable nuisance of myself getting defects recognised and resolved. Lasersoft really, but really needs to get with the program and engage constructively with its remaining user base. Satisfied Silverfast users are Lasersoft’s biggest asset, it really is remarkable that they do not appear to understand this.
Ok. Enough already. Any questions ?
in Gear , Tuesday, September 16, 2014
Yep. Gear Acquisition Syndrome is peaking dangerously in the first world. The moths are circling the flickering flame called Photokina, the biannual high temple of photographic consumerism and gear lust. Fur is flying on the internet fora, as photo geeks of all sizes descriptions hurl invective at each other over the champions they are backing from the Houses of Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Fuji, Sony, Ricoh et al. More well-off photo geeks are disdainfully ignoring these champions of Hoi Polloi and are (with dangerous courtesy) debating the merits of Leica, Alpa, PhaseOne, Hasselblad.
It’s kind of entertaining to watch, especially when compared with Work, but after a week of using just a humble little Minox 35ML (and realising that focus and aperture ring markings were meant for eyes less, er, mature than mine), and having lots of fun with it, I can’t really get all that excited about all these latest electronic marketing iterations. I’ve also just cast off quite a large amount of digital gear, in the biggest sell-off I’ve ever done.
Oh, but I’m not immune to G.A.S. It’s just in my case it’s getting seriously, but seriously twisted.
This, above, is basically a very heavy, very solid metal box to which a lens board is screwed. The lens board features a stone-age Copal shutter and a lovely, but equally stone age Schneider lens. On top of the box is a film winder, and a film counter - well sort of, actually it’s a dial you have to remember to set for yourself. And perched on top of it is an accessory viewfinder which is of legendary quality. The lens is vertically offset from centre by 8mm (“8mm permanent shift”) which sounds crazy but would make a deal of sense to most dedicated wide-format photographers (I don’t much care for “panoramic”, it doesn’t mean the same thing). Oh, and you can pull the back off and drop in a roll of 120 film, assuming you can find one. Oh, and one last thing. A price tag that would make fellow Teutons Leica gasp in amazement.
Meet the Linhof Technorama 612PC II, the device of my dreams.
I don’t want one of these just for the sake of it, but rather because the 612 “cinemascope” frame is absolutely natural to me. I confirmed my hunch about this with my ill-fated experiment with the Belair X 6-12, and recently with the iPhone application 645Pro. Although I dearly love my XPan, sometimes, often even, it’s too wide. Sure, you can crop, but cropping an XPan frame down to a 2:1 ratio loses a lot of area, and on 35mm film it’s getting borderline for biggish prints. For the same reason, the 617 cameras don’t appeal that much.
I first discovered the existence of the 612 format through New Zealand photographer Andris Apse’s work. There aren’t actually many practitioners of the format to be found. Sure, there are gear geeks on Flickr who’ll pick up anything and run a few rolls of expired C41 film through it, photographing whatever and thing it’s art. But very few people have made the form their own (a recent exception I discovered is Alberto Bregani, whose mountain B&W work is quite gorgeous).
Anyway, there’s no way in this life I’m going to find nearly $10,000 to buy one of these new. But with my recent gear recycling, I’m dangerously close to having freed up enough cash to get one of the few on offer on eBay (actually, not so long ago I missed an absolute bargain there).
Yes, but. It takes 120 film. The only 120 reversal film still produced is Provia 100F (actually pretty good) and Velvia 100 (not my thing, really). It’s far too heavy to consider taking on my rare but vital polar trips, especially after I swore blind I was going to just take a point-and-shoot after my last trip. It is absurdly expensive. And really, unless I get off my backside and start actually promoting and displaying my photography, it’s total overkill. I’ve got the XPan. I can do stitching (I was a very early adopter of pinheads, back around ‘95). I could buy one of those mega Sony A7r thingies for the SAME MONEY, for heaven’s sake. And yet, finally, it all gets pretty meaningless, taking photos without much sense of direction or purpose.
And film ?? C’mon, digital blows it out of the water, surely ? Well, I’m not so sure. I just happened to dig out an B3 size folio album of prints I made from photos taken in Santorini and Naxos, back in 2002, on Provia 100F using XPan and Canon T90. I haven’t looked at these for ages, and I was really taken aback at the clarity and sense of form in the prints. Although the difference isn’t that huge, actually they look better than prints from digital (well, except from the Sigmas). It doesn’t make a lot of sense, and all the experts will tell me I’m nuts or making things up, but really, the results speak for themselves.
Clearly, I was born 15 years too late. I missed the glory years of wide format film, and maybe trying to get back to it now is tilting at one windmill too many, even for me. Maybe I should get back to the Photokina frenzy and inoculate myself against this craziness.
Meanwhile, I have actually finally made another decision and acquired some other new gear. More on that soon. It’s either going to have been a very good or a very bad idea. And it involves film.
in Film , Thursday, September 04, 2014
Tomorrow evening we’re off for a long needed week of relaxation, in the very familiar surroundings of Sardinia. My initial thought was not to take any camera at all, because if I do I’ll feel under pressure to use it. Last year, also in Sardinia, I did get a few interesting shots, but by and large I’d probably have done better just to settle for the beach.
But, well, what I’ve ended up doing is I’ve decided to try something different. I’m getting a little jaded with digital cameras, even though the Olympus E-P5 is very nice, and the Sigma twins are fabulous when they’re having a good hair day, I just don’t feel like dragging all the paraphernalia of chargers and whatever with me.
So I bought some film.
I’ve never used Portra 400 before, but since sooner or later I’m going to need to move away from reversal film, I decided to give it a try. It gets a pretty good write up from all sorts of people. Hopefully it will be better than Ektar 100, which is a bit too Velvia for my tastes.
My earliest visits to Sardinia were film-only, so this is a bit of a nostalgia trip. Not decided yet if the XPan is coming along. I might just take the Minox. And maybe the XA, one with Porta, the other with Scala. E100G is reserved for the XPan.
There’s a lot of talk these days about the revival of film, and how film is better and just switching to film turns you into an instant mega-hip star photographer. Well, frankly, that’s utter bollocks. Back in those pre-digital years when everybody used film, was everybody a totally brilliant gifted photographer ? No, they weren’t. Most were crap. A far higher proportion than today were utterly hopeless. The instant feedback and accessibility of digital has had a huge impact of helping many, many people to become brilliant photographers. Most people who have “rediscovered” or just started using film are producing truly ghastly work, seemingly believing that drastic overexposure will turn any sow’s ear into a silk purse. Of course there are exceptions - many exceptions - but as a trend, it’s all more than a little hollow.
I’ve also just discovered and download a nice little iPhone app made by Kodak - remember them ? Anyway, it’s largely a bit of marketing fluff for Kodak film, but I’m all for that, and it is very pretty. I haven’t found the section on Kodachrome or Ektachrome yet though. It does include a location finder for approved development labs and film retailers. In my case, these (both of them) are 250km away, on the other side of the highest mountain range in Europe. No one said shooting film was getting easier.
(I can highly recommend Photo Studio 13 by the way. One of the very, very few labs that still process Agfa Scala)
in Photography , Tuesday, September 02, 2014
Anybody who has more than glanced at these pages will have noticed that apart from a twisted devotion to snow and ice, I also suffer from a chronic obsession with Venice. There’s no cure for either, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It would be interesting to hear what a psychoanalyst would make of these recurrent themes.
So, more Venice. Back in June, sort of on a whim, I took part in an Olympus-funded photo workshop in Venice. Now, I don’t function well as a photographer in a group setting. I try to impress, or I try not to impress, I get distracted, I make terrible mistakes, and by and large terrible photos. But I enjoyed the vibe, a lot. Nevertheless, knowing that this would happen, I made sure I had some time beforehand to myself. I had a number of pieces of the jigsaw to track down.
It was a hot, sunny day, quite busy, which in Venezia equates to “very crowded” for other cities. But as usual, away from the main attractions and routes between them, it was quiet, alternating between peaceful, and slightly eerie. In other words, perfect.
This selection of photos has been staring back at me for sometime, but with so many ideas and projects clamouring for attention, not to mention the rest of daily life, it’s taken a while for me to let them out. So here they are.
The idea of presenting the first and last as diptychs, I must confess, is partly inspired by the wonderful work of Johnny Patience, which I’ve been devouring in the past few days. However it’s also a nod in the direction of another idea which has been bouncing around my skull for a while. Maybe it will emerge.
All these photos taken with the Sigma DP3 Merrill and brought to life by Iridient Developer.
in Scanning , Sunday, August 31, 2014
Since my last post mourning the apparent demise of my faithful Minolta film scanner, I have tried every kind of arcane trick know to the Internet, and a few more besides, to bring it back to life. It is sometimes possible to get it to revive, but there’s no pattern to it. I managed to extract a full-blown, medium format 16x sampling megascan from it, too, but soon after it relapsed. I have to face facts, I’m wasting far too much precious time on this.
One reason why it has been so much the focus of my attention - apart from a 15 year film archive, which can always benefit from my improving scanning skills - is my current project to refine a set of Antarctic landscape panoramas. I’m trying to get the colour profile exactly as it should be, which to my way of seeing needs to be delicate, slightly subdued, but still allowing the often astonishing colour to speak. But not the overblown, digital look that plagues so much photography (Adobe Lightroom default profiles have to take of the blame for this). Of course, photographing on reversal film means that I’ve pretty much defined the look before it gets anywhere near a computer, but there are still opportunities and decisions to be made in the scanning and post-processing stages. The ideal is to transfer what I see on the light table on the screen, and then to print, but that’s very hard to achieve, especially without a drum scanner. And when I’m engaged in a long stretch of batch scanning, sometimes my initial post-processing attempts are not ideal. For example:
I’m not sure what I was thinking of here. The contrast is too strong, and the delicacy of the colours in the ice is lost. I’ve also pushed the sky and sea too much towards neutral.
The revised version is much closer to the Ektachrome, although with less density. In the processing, “less is more” certainly applied. Note, in both cases, reducing down to web sized JPGs is introducing some exaggerated tone transitions, especially in the sky.
Fortunately, using the Silverfast archive workflow I can go back and re-work the post processing without needing to do new scans. Unfortunately, for most of my Antarctic scans I used the Scanhancer to try to eke out the last bit of pixel-peeping quality, and this has not worked out to well. The coupled increase in exposure times seems to have greatly exaggerated shadow noise, possibly due to an ageing scanner CCD, and a few near invisible scratches on the Scanhancer itself have resulted in bands of shadowing on the scans, which was not immediately noticeable, but which are almost impossible to fix.
So going back to the scanner quandary, unless I decide to give up, I have three choices: try to get the Minolta fixed, which seems unlikely, track down a good, working Minolta DSMP or Nikon Coolscan 9000 at a sensible price, or take a chance on a Plustek OpticFilm 120. Although the inter webs are full of whining about the Plustek, two reviewers who actually have some track record have been less negative: Mike Pasini (“we achieved our finest scans of the test images we’ve ever managed. But it wasn’t easy.”), and particularly, Tim Parkin, who is something of a scanner guru (“the OpticFilm is definitely has the potential to be a great scanner and I can only recommend if you have the wherewithall to play around with creating a custom film holder”). Another strong argument is that the OpticFilm is currently in production and support by a company for which scanning is a major business activity. Well, I’m going to dither for a little longer, but I’m leaning towards the OpticFilm. Especially as it supports 6x12 film format and alledgedly could be persuaded to scan 6x17.