Just some stuff about photography

INDEX

Digital’s Not Dead

It’s just been having a bit of a rest

in Photography , Thursday, September 28, 2017

I realised the other day that my last 12 posts have been almost exclusively about film photography. Since May, I’ve mentioned digital just once, and that was in the context of comparing with film.  This seems to have started in March, but it really wasn’t intended. I’ve also noticed that by and large, the quality of my photography has dropped significantly. Possibly I have fallen prey to the very same strain of gear obsession that in past posts I have charged the “film community” with. It may also be that I’m not finding much inspiration, and am just repeating myself.

I suppose really I’ve been dedicating quite a lot of time to getting my film photography back up to speed again, and ensuring that all the stuff I need to work works as well as it can. I think I’m almost there on that front. I’ve also been getting familiar with the Linhof 612, which is not that simple. Actually, the Linhof seems to have quite a serious fault which is causing uneven film winding, in some cases resulting frames overlapping. So it looks like its going off to the factory for servicing, which is going to be expensive. The previous owner told me he never had any issues, and I have no reason to disbelieve him. Caveat emptor, I suppose, especially when buying through eBay.

drm_E-M5MarkII_20170912_EM520315.jpg

The above photograph is absolutely digital. It was taken two weeks ago, way off the beaten track in the Aspromonte region of Calabria, right in the south of Italy. Aspromonte, most of which is a national park, is absolutely stunning. It is harsh, arid, with precipitous abandoned villages connected by crumbling, vanishing roads (Europcar would have a fit…), and astonishingly beautiful.  There are few people around, but those few are welcoming, friendly and embarrassingly generous. We had only 2 days there, but I’m certain I’ll be going back.

I suppose Aspromonte would look even more stunning on Portra or Provia. But hauling medium format film cameras down there would be a real struggle. And would it even be worth it? I’m not going to try to pretend: in terms of real resolution, even a 5300dpi scan from medium format film doesn’t beat a 16MPix Olympus file, never mind a Sigma Quattro file. Resolution isn’t everything though, and there remains a clinical precision in digital which I sense rather than see. It don’t like it, but I can live with it.  Just as the lens I took the above shot with, the Olympus 14-150 zoom, is probably optically my worst. The bottom right corner is really soft at wide to medium focal lengths. But it is extremely light, very flexible, and great to travel with. So, like digital, I tolerate it.

So yes, I am quite conflicted about film versus digital, and I suppose I always will be. I wish I could just choose one, but I don’t suppose I ever will. But it does seem that the less I bother about gear in general, the more enjoyable I find photography. Maybe I should turn off the internet.

Chromatic abberations

vario, panned

in Photography , Monday, September 25, 2017

A few posts ago, I wrote a rather dismissive impression of the new Rollei Variochrom film. Unfortunately, I’d bought 4 rolls of the stuff, so I felt I should do something with it. Having discovered what it actually does, which is to transport one back to the Good Olde Days of wildly inaccurate colour and grain you could eat for breakfast, it occurred to me that the part of the world I’m constrained to wander during the working week might actually benefit from this treatment. Well, it would be hard to make it look more dull than it actually is - although Dog knows I’ve tried over the years.

I’m pretty much at odds with todays retro film community, which seems only interested in the flaws and weaknesses of film. There are certainly people doing fabulous work today with film, for example Bruce Percy, but the film camera hipsters don’t actually seem to be interested in photographing much else than their cameras. 

Oh dear, have I got off track again ? Where was I ? Oh, yes ... Variochrome.

When used forewarned and with intent, I have to admit it can be quite interesting.  I quite like the following sample, although its not really my thing.  In the right context Variochrome is interesting, but I still pretty much stand by my earlier comments.

xpan-variochrome2-03.jpg
xpan-variochrome2-06.jpg
xpan-variochrome2-18.jpg
xpan-variochrome2-17.jpg
xpan-variochrome2-20.jpg

The canister light leak I encountered on the first roll repeated itself, by the way, despite my taking special care in loading, unloading and handling the film.

Oh well, only another 2 rolls to go.

Using the Flextight X5 scanner

Those grapes up there, they’re sour

in Scanning , Wednesday, September 20, 2017

This is an addendum to my two previous posts comparing the Plustek OpticFilm 120 to the Hasselblad Flextight X5. The X5 is supposed to be the nirvana of desktop scanners, a dream machine with a nightmare price tag, which provides the benefits of a drum scanner with none of the downsides, such as fluid mounting, even huger cost, and elephant-level proportions.

IMG 4213

X5 workstation at Light & Byte

So, what’s the X5 actually like to use ? Well, overall, it’s pretty nice. The hardware is on a completely different level. It is easy to use and very fast in operation. It scans a 6x12 frame in under a minute. But there are some drawbacks.

First of all, the film holders. They’re a little weird, to be honest. The heavy rubber masks remind me of the protective shroud things you have to wear when being X-rayed! And actually they’re not that easy to use. The problem is, you lay the film on a base plate, then lower the flexible mask, which has an aperture corresponding to the frame size. But there are no guides to align the film on the baseplate, so getting it to fit correctly in the aperture is quite fiddly. Maybe with more than two hours’ experience I might realise that there is a better way to do it, but actually I find that the Plustek holders are much easier to load accurately. And them the fixed aperture size is a bit of an issue: although in theory Medium Format film has defined sizes, different cameras have slightly different film gate dimensions. So, my Bessa 667 seems to expose slightly more area in the cross-film direction, and the Linhof 612 is more like a 612.5. Actually the Plustek holders are a bit narrow in the cross-direction too, but they are fully adjustable in length. The X5 holders have no adjustment whatsoever, although I believe Hasselblad will be delighted to sell you a custom holder.

Once you’re loaded, though, it’s really smooth: just slide the holder forward between the guides until the magnets latch on, and it disappears into the scanner and does its stuff.

IMG 4214

The 612 holder latched up and ready to roll

Then, there’s the software. Really, I have yet to meet a simple, straightforward and well-designed piece of scanning software, and Flexcolor is no exception. For example, if I select the 6x12 film holder, would it be unreasonable of me to expect the scan size to default to 6x12 ? Obviously it would: it took some time for me to realise that the bloody thing was producing two scans (overlapping, fortunately).  Why it does this for 6x12, but not 24x65, or 6x7, will remain a mystery.

Another unattractive thing about Flexcolor is that it only responds to adjustments after you let go of the respective control (slider or whatever). This makes it exceedingly annoying to use. And I still haven’t figured out exactly what it is that makes it show a full resolution rather than horribly pixelated low resolution preview - but then again, Silverfast still hasn’t figured out zooming.

Flexcolor includes a fairly limited set of negative profiles, a bit like Silverfast Negafix. However, they are much less extensive, far less adjustable, and too my eyes less accurate than Silverfast, although they do produce very flattering results.

stbeach_x5

X5/Flexcolor interpretation of Kodak Provia 400

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Plustek/Silverfast interpretation of Kodak Provia 400

I don’t think either are fully accurate (actually, the Silverfast version suffers from using Multi-Exposure, which doesn’t play nice with Negafix - the marketing material doesn’t tell you that). So, I could do better “out of the box” from the Plustek. Even as it stands, to my subjective eyes the Plustek/Silverfast version looks more like how Provia is supposed to look, The X5/Flexcolor version is almost Velvia, and too neutral. Of course, Silverfast is regularly updated. Flexcolor isn’t.

On the plus side, Flexcolor coupled with the X5 can really pull out clean shadow detail to an extent I’ve never seen before from a film scanner. Of course that is limited by the exposure range of the film, so it is more useful for negatives. But still, the difference is clear.

Generally Flexcolor feels old and fairly clunky, but I suppose that is because it is old. The X1 & X5 scanners are just rebadged Imacon Precision 848 and 949 models, which Hasselblad inherited when they bought / merged with Imacon to get digital back technology. They’ve carried on selling them, but they certainly haven’t tried very hard. I reckon they could drop the price by 50% and quadruple their sales, and still make a decent profit. They’re just not interested. The only update to the hardware is case redesign and a Hasselblad logo. The backplate is still branded “Flextight Precsion”. And the backplate also features a Firewire 400 interface, the one and only port, fully obsolete. At least it isn’t SCSI. The Mac Pro running the X5 at Light & Byte is running Mac OS X Snow Leopard, which must be 8 years old or something.

So, is the X5 worth €25’000 ? No, unless you’ve got a business model which will subsidise it, or you work for a Swiss bank or something. Is the X1 worth €16’000, then ? I don’t think so - it loses the X5’s diffuse light source, it’s slower, and (if this matters to you) it can’t do batch scanning, or, indeed reflective scanning (which I really doubt is a mahor selling point of the X5, but whatever).  If Hasselblad were showing some sign of continuing development, even if just to add a USB3 interface, and updating Flexcolor, then just maybe it could be considered a long term investment, but I would even be concerned that it will continue to work with current operating systems for much longer.

After all, Hasselblad recently named their new pride and joy camera the “X1D”. Presumably they didn’t even remember they’ve already got an X1 in the catalogue.

OpticFilm 120 vs. Flextight X5 - Round 2

the plot thickens

in Scanning , Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Last week I published the first part of my Plutek OpticFilm 120 vs Hasselblad Flextight X5 scanner bake-off. The results from scanning XPan frames were surprisingly close, with the X5 subjectively winning by a whisker.

The key word in the above paragraph is “subjectively”. Because film scanning is nothing if not subjective. While preparing this second part, I once again fell down the rabbit hole of comparing output from different scanners, different software, different settings, reproducible bugs, irreproducible bugs, and indifferent customer support.  I learned, or-relearned, a couple of key points about scanning, which can be summed up by saying that magic features - like “multi-exposure” - generally don’t work. It’s better to keep to the basics.

That out of the way, this time around I’m going to look at two Medium Format scans, a Portra 400 negative taken with the Voigtländer Bessa III 667, and a Provia 100F positive taken with the Linhox 612.

First up, the Portra shot. This was taken in a secluded spot in Venice, far from the tourist gyres.  Note, you can click on any of these images to see them in larger size on Flickr.

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Left: Plustek OpticFilm 120 (OF120), right Hasselblad Flextight X5 (X5)

In this case I decided to apply a simple grey balance using the same reference (the letter box in the background, on the right) in Silverfast HDR for the OF120, and in FlexColor for the X5. For the OF120 I used Silverfast’s Negafix Portra 400 profile, for the X5 I used FlexColor’s Portra 400NC. As you can see, they’re pretty close. Preferences are subjective. I could show you a similar frame from my Sigma DP0, and you would see that there are differences, but if I went down that path it would never end.

So, what about detail ? Well, I decided to zoom in on the notice in front of the staircase. Since the OF120 allows a scan a 5300dpi, and the X5 only at 3200dpi, the size at 1:1 is different.

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1:1 zoom - left: Plustek OpticFilm 120 (OF120), right Hasselblad Flextight X5 (X5)

The extra resolution of the OF120 doesn’t really seem to add much, here. But it might be interesting to downsample to 3200dpi to get a better idea.

b667_1_privato_of_downsize

Matched resolution - left: Plustek OpticFilm 120 (OF120), right Hasselblad Flextight X5 (X5)

Well, that’s interesting, isn’t it ? As we saw in the last episode, the X5 is perhaps slightly less noisy, or possibly the diffuse light source is decreasing grain contrast, but in terms of resolution it’s pretty much a dead heat.  The OF120 scan is a little more contrasty, which may give the impression of more detail. On the other hand, it may really be delivering more detail.

So far so good, the Plustek has nothing to be ashamed about.  Let’s move on to the Provia frame. While colour negative film presents substantial challenges in colour representation, it is generally low contrast. Slide film , on the other hand, should present less problems for colour accuracy, but contrast is another matter altogether. Shadow areas can be extremely dense, and detail easily visible on a light table can be completely lost in a scan. Provia isn’t too bad in this respect, but Velvia is very tricky.  It’s just as well that I don’t much care for Velvia.

So, here’s our Provia frame:

provia_of120_x5

Top: Plustek OpticFilm 120 (OF120), bottom: Hasselblad Flextight X5 (X5)

You can immediately see a colour difference. The X5 scan is direct from FlexColor with all settings zeroed, and sharpening off. The OF120 scan has had some magenta removed from the highlights and shadows, and contrast reduced slightly. The FlexColor scan is a remarkably accurate representation of the slide on the light table, to my eyes. The greens especially are more accurate. The OF120 scan seems to be lacking a certain amount of tonal separation in the higher midtones. Still, I’m not sure there’s $23’000’s worth of difference.

So what about detail? Slide film is generally sharper than negative film, so this also could be more challenging.  Note, however, I’m not really very familiar with the Linhof 612 yet, and I have some question if I was using an optimal aperture here.

Provia_of120_x5_stick

Top: Plustek OpticFilm 120 (OF120), bottom: Hasselblad Flextight X5 (X5)

In the above illustration I have downsampled the Plustek scan to 3200dpi. Although contrast and micro-contrast might be playing a part here, I have to - just - give the prize to the X5. Looking at the tree branch, you can see a smidgeon more detail. But let’s face it, unless you make a print the size of a bus, it is totally insignificant.

Note though, if you allow FlexColor to do post-capture sharpening, the gap widens considerably. FlexColor appears to have very good sharpening algorithms, tuned to scan resolution and scan type.  Silverfast’s USM on “automatic” setting is also not so bad. But nowhere as good as the FlexColor / Flextight combination. Still, there are many options for sharpening.

However, there is one area where the X5 nails it. Just as we saw for the XPan slide scans, for shadow detail the X5 wins easily.  In the sample below, I haven’t even touched the shadow depth slider in FlexColor, which can widen the difference still further with significant downside.

provia_shadow_of120_x5

Shadow detail - left: Hasselblad Flextight X5 (X5), right Plustek OpticFilm 120 (OF120)

So, from this point of view, it is difficult to avoid envious glances in the direction of the X5, or at least it’s X1 sibling, which is only astronomically priced rather than absurdly.

But wait.  There’s an elephant in the room, keeping very quiet over there in the corner. Well, a very small elephant.  Take a look at this:

canon_compare_provia

Same slide scanned using the Canoscan 9000F

The above version was scanned on the Canoscan 9000F flatbed scanner using Silverfast Ai Studio, calibrated with the same IT8 slide as the OF120. This is straight from the scanner, with all Silverfast settings flat. The colour accuracy is quite noticeably better than the pre-adjusted OF120 version, and it appears to have more shadow depth.

This is a bit scary. So what about resolution ?

provia_3up_compare

1:1 - top: Canoscan 9000F, middle OpticFilm 120, bottom: Flextight X5 (X5)

Well, the 9000F can’t quite keep up, but at less than 1/100th of the cost of the X5, I guess it does a reasonable job. I only really bought the 9000F some years ago because I needed a document scanner, and remarkably it came bundled with Silverfast HDR: this was easily the cheapest way to acquire that software. So really I haven’t paid that much attention to it. It just sits there and does what it’s told. I am vaguely aware that it has a reputation of being rather under-appreciated, especially compared to Epson flatbeds.  These days you can pick up a 9000F MkII, sadly without Silverfast, for just $200. The film holders are truly horrible, but otherwise, it’s pretty good.

So, what about the OF120 vs X5 ? Well, I think the OF120 delivers quite enough resolution. Colour accuracy is another matter. Of course, one could blame Silverfast, but I have used the latest versio of Vuescan as well and have found similar issues. And the same Silverfast delivers much better results with the Canoscan.  I have made a whole series of Portra 400 scans with various combinations, which I may present as addendum, but in that case getting good colour out of the OF120/Silverfast combination proved quite a challenge.

On balance I think the Of120 put up a pretty good fight against the Flextight X5, but at the same time it is not as superior to the 9000F as it should be.  For scanning 35mm film I’d still go with the higher resolution of the OF120, but for medium format, honestly I’d be tempted to recommend the cheap but excellent Canoscan, or perhaps the more expensive but theoretically superior Epson V850 (which I’m tempted to try). One advantage that a dedicated film scanner should have is delivering better shadow depth and tonal separation for slide film. I’m not convinced that the OpticFilm 120 achieves that.

As a final note, I should point out that I haven’t yet extended testing to black & white film. That brings a completely different set of issues, and may well result in very different conclusions.  I don’t generally have much to do with black & white, but since I have 5 rolls of Ferrania P50 to burn through, I may have something to say on this later.

Finally, if you have any questions, feel free to ask…

OpticFilm 120 vs. Flextight X5

Enter Goliath

in Scanning , Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Last week, I finally ended up doing something I’ve been wanting to do for years. I rented a Hasselblad Flextight X5 scanner for a few hours, at Light + Byte in Zürich. My basic objective was to find out if this scanner really is the miracle device some make it out to be, to find out how easy it is to use, and to evaluate if it would be a worthwhile investment in time and money, long term, to book regular sessions to scan my favourite shots. And, while I was at it, to benchmark my OpticFilm 120.

I think this is going to be the first of several posts, because fitting it all into one is going to end up far too long. I took several examples of film with me to scan, including XPan positive, XPan Scala, Linhof 612 positive and negative, and Bessa 667 positive and negative. I managed to get through a fair few of these, but not all.

In this post I’m going to concentrate on a couple of XPan Kodak E100G frames. I won’t say much about user experience of the Flextight X5 here, I’ll leave that for another post, but suffice it to say, while it is impressive, like all film scanners I’ve ever used, it is not free of issues.

All the Flextight scans were processed with FlexColor v4.8.13, and all OpticFilm 120 scans with current version of the Silverfast Archive Suite.

My first example is a photograph taken in Antarctica in 2013. On the light table this looks fabulous, but it is an absolute nightmare to scan. The detail in the shadowy “cave” area is quite apparent on the slide, but very hard to dig into with the scanner. And the very bright snow required pushing E100G’s exposure range to the edge. I’ve tried scanning this in the past with the Minolta Multi Pro and with the Opticfilm 120, with all the various combinations of multisampling and multi exposure, but getting acceptable shadow detail has been very difficult.

xpan-antarctica05-12

my most recent OpticFilm 120 interpretation of this frame

So, I loaded the slide into the X5, and created a “3F” raw scan, which allows me to play with it later as much as I want in FlexColor. This is very similar to creating an “HDR” file in Silverfast. Note, the stated resolution of the X5 when scanning 35mm film is 6300dpi.  That should be enough…

FlexColor produces some very flattering “default” output, and seems to have some special tricks up its sleeve regarding white/grey balance, but after some evaluation I’m a little wary of taking it fully at face value - flattering isn’t always the same as accurate. Anyway, here is what FlexColor delivers:

xpan-antarctica05-12-flex

Flextight X5 / FlexColor version

Obviously things like brightness and colour balance can be tweaked for ever, within the quite restricted range of flexibility. Although it would be nice to get an exact duplicate of how the slide looks on a light table (or rather, a specific light table), that’s not going to happen, for a very long list of reasons. This is just the nature of film scanning, and fighting against will only lead to frustration. But what we can hope for is to extend as far as possible the flexibility of the scanned file, to increase its tolerance to manipulation. This is where mumbo-jumbo stuff like “DMax” and “DeltaE” comes into play. I’m not going to get into that, I’m going to limit myself to subjectivity.

Ok, so let’s start looking at a few details. First of all, resolution, and (much) more important, focus. The OpticFilm 120 gets very maligned for its alleged suboptimal focus. It does not have autofocus, but rather fixed focus, with a lens depth of field which is designed, so they say, to ensure that all areas of the film are within the zone of sharp focus.  Actually, if you think about it, this is in theory a better plan than have auto focus on a very small area of the film with a lens with very narrow (we’re talking sub-millimetre here) depth of field. But geeks like to be in control. Of course, just because Plustek marketing tells us this works, this does not mean we have to believe it. The X5 does its own fully automated focus calibration. But anyway, lets take a look at some 1:1 zooms. Remember, the X5 is delivering 6300dpi, and OF120 “only” 5300dpi, so the sizes are a little different.

x5of120_1

Left tip of foreground iceberg zoomed at 1:1

Well, that’s quite interesting, isn’t it ? Just possibly the X5 is producing cleaner grain, but in terms of useful information, it’s pretty much a dead heat. Please don’t pay attention to highlight detail, by the way - there is a curve applied on the OF120 scan which is a touch too strong. The X5 has some kind of diffuse light source which should give cleaner grain, but honestly, at any kind of sensible print size you will not see any difference at all in resolution.  And sharpness ? Well, despite Internet forum prejudice, I don’t see that the OF120 has much to be ashamed of.

Let’s also remember a minor detail: the OF120 costs around €2’000. The X5 costs around €25’000 - TWENTY FIVE THOUSAND EUROS.  And the X5 has an obsolete Firewire interface, and software which has had no meaningful update in about a decade.

Ok, lets take a look at shadow detail. As I said above, this has been a big challenge with this slide.

x5of120_2

The “cave”

Here we can see where the X5 starts to earn its keep. It is extracting a lot more usable detail in the deepest shadows, which may end being usable for a print - although it is still going to require some careful post-processing.  The OF120 doesn’t do too badly, but it can’t quite keep up, and any attempt to open up the shadows further just makes the image fall apart. So, for any extra €23’000, you can get a bit more shadow detail. Of course, sarcasm aside, to an exhibiting photographer selling through galleries, this can actually be worthwhile.

Looking in more detail, we can see that OF120 / Silverfast combination does a pretty good job in terms of noise suppression, and that the detail is very, very nearly there - but not quite.

x5of120_3

By the way, the colour difference is a result of adding a curve on the OF120 version to try to match the highlights on the X5 version. This introduced a slight green shift in mid-blues which I need to dial out. I haven’t actually bothered here, because getting an exact match of two completely independent impressions of a physical slide - neither of which match the slide perfectly - is a fool’s errand.  I repeat, accept that film scanning is a subjective activity, or accept that your head will explode.

My second test case is even trickier. This is a frame with underexposed mid-tones but near blown highlights. It also has no neutral tones, and is predominately blue, which is neither scanner’s favourite channel. It was shot in very challenging conditions, doubly so for a manual focus film camera. But it is worth working on - a shot taking a few seconds earlier, with slightly different framing, is by far my post popular on social networking.

11-002-penguins

Example 2 - the penguins. This version is from the X5, but required quite some manipulation in FlexColor. It’s quite close to the original.

Zooming in on the stars of the show, once again in terms of real detail and focus there isn’t much to separate the two versions.

x5of120_4

The grain is a bit smoother on the X5 version, and to be honest the initial colour out of FlexColor (not shown here) is probably better than that out of Silverfast HDR. However I’m working from a very small sample here, and with intentionally challenging slides. I’m not sure if the difference is worth €23’000.

You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned that there is a cheaper less eye-waveringly expensive version of the X5 called the X1.  I haven’t tried it. It offers less resolution than the X5, and probably more significantly, does not include the X5’s diffuse light source. It costs around €16’000.

So, based on what I can see here, for scanning XPan film, the Plustek OpticFilm 120 is comparatively a real bargain - albeit itself not cheap. The Hasselblad Flextight X5 returns higher resolution scans, but with two examples here, it seems that the OpticFilm 120 already outresolves the film-lens combination. And XPan lenses are very sharp. Possibly using some ultra-high resolution, ultra-low ISO monochrome file, Adox something or the other, we might see an advantage to the X5, but that film has very little practical use for me anyway. The X5 can also extract more deep shadow detail from slide film, which could be useful now and then.

So, technically, a win here for the Flextight X5, but I’d say the OpticFilm 120 is the moral victor. That’s all for now - following posts will look at medium format scans, and describe what it is like to work with the Flextight.

 

 

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