Just some stuff about photography

INDEX

Silent Night

(hopefully)

in General Rants , Thursday, December 24, 2015

I’d like to take this opportunity to wish everybody who has visited here over the last year, and provided on- and off-line feedback, positive and less positive, a very happy Christmas, and a happy, safe and rewarding New Year.  I’ll be back soon with lots of riveting tales and uncannily fabulous photography.

drm_20151215_DP0Q0040.jpg

/rant/I’m absolutely Nondenominational, possibly atheist, but I really, really abhor this “happy holidays” nonsense. If somebody the concept of Christmas (the real one, that is) offensive, then I wouldn’t wish them happy anything. /rant>

Snippets #1

opinions are like cameras

in Unsolicited, rabid opinions , Wednesday, October 01, 2014

This is the first installment of what might turn out to be a semi-regular series. Or it could just be #1 of a series of 1. Basically a bunch of mini-blogs (blogettes?) inspired by random stuff I come across while commuting. Even more flippant, sarcastic and opinionated than usual.

So here we go:

Absurd gear rambling of week. Geek idol Ming Thein declares the Sony A7r as “unusable” (quick, somebody warn Joe Cornish!) and parades another million dollars’ worth of gear he’s just bought while declaring he’s just in the pursuit of Higher Art. Well, he does make some nice photos, but, really, “unusable” ?

The truly unique wildlife photography of Vincent Munier is given center stage in this month’s edition of Reponses Photo. I devoured every page, several times. So far away from the usual so-close-you-can-see-the-DNA wildlife shots.

And I’m still trying to over the shock of discovering that my 20 year old Minox 35ML loaded with Kodak Portra 400 is aesthetically more satisfying than my Olympus E-P5, and is pretty much a match technically too in equal conditions.

I came across National Geographic’s Your Shot Iceland collection the other day. To say that Iceland has become a cliché for photography has itself become a cliché. And fittingly this collection is a soul-destroying sequence of clichéd clichés of pretty much every crushingly over-exposed photo-op on the island. The dream location is fast turning into a nightmare.

And finally, on a positive note, the hopeful resurrection of Ferrania, starting with of all things, an E6 slide film. Really, who saw that coming ? Hopefully the first batch will be ready in time for my next trip to Iceland.

Tribal warfare

Rant mode engaged

in General Rants , Thursday, May 16, 2013

I’ve had an absolute headache from hell today - still got it - so I’m going to make myself feel better with a good mindless rant. Here goes.

The never-ending cycle of new camera releases marches onwards, and fuels the ongoing mindless squabbles in vast swathes of internet fora where self-appointed pundits viciously attack each other for daring to have a positive view on a camera made by another tribe, er, sorry, company. Is there any other object, or topic, which drives such futile passion? This year’s camera is inevitably lauded as being unbelievably superior to last year’s (well, assuming it doesn’t cross tribal boundaries), while last year’s, which was, of course, a revelation over it’s predecessor, cannot even be used to take photographs now, or so it seems. And of course this years’ best-ever-camera will be sneered upon as useless junk in under 9 months. One wonders to what extent camera companies stoke this stuff on forums, after all it all works out pretty well for them. I found out a few minutes ago that my Olympus E-5 is the worst digital camera you can buy, which came as a shock. I have to confess that the several thousand photos I took with it back in January are probably far from excellent - but at the same time, I never once felt they would be any better with a different camera.

Drm 2013 05 11 EP33042

Hopeless photo taken last weekend with useless camera (Olympus E-P3). No shadow detail. Blown highlights. No DOF. Really hopeless. Must ask internet forums which new camera to buy

Very few of these warring snapshooters actually seem to take any photos. Those that do get shown are almost always banal to the point of comedy. Endless shots of nothing in particular at 256,000 ISO, or at f0.95, of cats, kid shots that only a mother (or expensive camera-owning father) could love, or dull closeups of flowers. And more f***ing cats.

And the noise is deafening.

Even on the more hip side of the scale, it seems these days that it cannot have been conceivable to take a decent photo without a Fuji X series camera (although they’re pretty quiet about the XS-1 and XF-1. I wonder why). Even Michael Reichmann has got in on that particular act, which may well dismay some of the hipper of the hippest. But this, I’m sorry to say, takes the absolute biscuit. “Choices need to be made, however heartbreaking” … “Safe travels little one” - Retch! It’s a sodding camera, fercrissakes. I do generally like Patrick LaRoque’s blog, and his stream-of-consciousness albeit rather affected photography, so I’m praying he’s being ironic. There is some vague hope, he’s Canadian, not American, but not much I fear.

The interesting thing is, when you actually see some good photography, and an interview of the artist touches upon gear, as it seems it must, in the vast majority of cases it turns out that they use boring old Canons and Nikons. Canon 5Ds seem particularly popular. And when I ask acquaintances of mine why they use these cameras, rather than some hip new Fuji, pretty Olympus, or tech-overkill Sony, the answer tends to be a bit boring. Basically, the killer feature is that they are ubiquitous, you can get good service and emergency spares pretty much anywhere in the world, you can get just about any lens or accessory you can think of, they “just work”, oh, and they’ve got pretty good image quality. The last point tends, indeed, to come last, because these days it’s pretty much a given. Hell, even my much aligned Olympus E-5 has quite good enough image quality for 99% of cases.

And then they just go out and concentrate on making great photos. And they stay away from nerdy forums. And they’ve never heard of most “new” cameras - they already know what they’ll buy when the current one finally wears out. By which time they’ll be making even better photos.

Time to get off the treadmill I think.

 

The Olympus EP-2 is a horrible camera

A rant

in Olympus E-System , Wednesday, September 07, 2011

I’m on vacation in Sicily. It’s absolutely not a photo trip, but Sicily can be painfully photogenic at all sorts of level, so good casual opportunities do come up.

WARNING: high levels of sarcasm ahead, may offend.

It started with a week on the island of Favignana, which was good enough for the likes of Selgado, Burri, and a gaggle of other Magnum photographers, so it should be good enough for me. But ... they, very luckily for them, did not have an Olympus Pen-since-1959 EP bloody 2 “camera” with them. I am coming to loathe this all style and no content device. It is by far the worst camera I have ever used. Considered as a device to prevent photography it would rank pretty highly. But that wasn’t what it was intended to be, alledgedly.

It’s difficult to know where to start, but perhaps I’ll be slightly unfair and start with the add-on electronic viewfinder. Now, this camera is unusable without the EVF. In fact it should be returned as unfit for purpose without it, because the screen is abysmal. I loathe using a back screen as a framing tool, but on my Ricoh GRD at least it can be done, quite effectively even. On the EP2, forget about it: the screen is dim and coarse. So, EVF it is. And this EVF is rated as one of the best in the business. But guess what, it still sucks. It doesn’t pixelise, it has very low delay, it even has pretty good dynamic range. But it doesn’t have enough. Under harsh contrast there is just no way I can get a fix on the highlights and shadows. It burns or blacks out stuff which my eyes do not, making it impossible for my brain to instinctively make exposure decisions. It just gets it the way. And of course, when I apply exposure compensation, it reacts. No! Don’t do that! I know you can, but if I’m sussed enough to understand what exposure compensation means, then it really is not going to help me if you keep moving the electronic goalposts around. And that’s just for starters. I could go on for a lot of paragraphs about how an EVF screws up DoF preview as well. And then of course there’s the idiot fact that the camera has to be turned on to look through the viewfinder (this is “progress”, I believe), which is unfortunate given the gusto at which the EP2 drains its battery (very easily twice as fast as the E400 with the same battery). Of course, all this applies to any EVF camera, not just the EP2, but the scary thing is that this EVF really is - relatively - very, very good. But it ruins photography as an enjoyable experience, and that’s scary.

So, what about some specifics? Let’s start with “manual focus assist”. This zooms the center of the VF area so you can focus more easily. Well fine, provided (a) the object you want to focus on is in the middle, which if you’re slightly beyound idiot level it quite probably isn’t, and (b) you’re not interest in the object’s context. Ok, so you can turn it off, provided you can remember where the option is in the labyrinthine menu system - I’d happily swap it for the “art filter” position on the mode dial - and it is genuinely useful in Live View mode, on a tripod, when you’re moving the focus point around. It is absolutely a pain when it engages when you as little as think about glancing at the focus ring, ruining another shot. And yes you can turn it off. If you remembered to, and if you’ve got several minutes to waste in the menu system.

Ah yes, the menu system: ever since the E400, Olympus cameras have had the “super control panel” screen for direct access to shooting parameters. It’s actually pretty useful and has been widely copied, like a lot of good innovations from Olympus. I’m fairly sure the EP2 has it to, but I cannot for the life of me work out how to get at it. If it is there, and not just a figment if my immagination, it is anyway but 1 of 3 completely seperate systems for configuring the camera. One well designed one would suffice.

(ok, finally I worked it out. Press “OK” several times to cycle through the modes.)

The electronic level is very nice. It would be even nicer if it could be combined with the display of basic shooting info, like Aperture, Exposure, that sort of thing.

Then there’s more general stuff about the ergonomics and user interface. In A-mode, which is pretty much all I use, if you press the exposure compensation button, the value highlights in the display and you can change it with either the thumbwheel or the control dial. I try to avoid the control dial. If you click the button a second time, both the aperture and compensation values highlight, and now you can change the aperture with the thumbwheel and compensation with the dial. Or is it the other way around? And why, anyway? The opportunity for error is endless, especially if you have to use the control dial.
The control dial is a truly stunningly bad example of industrial design. Like many similar devices, it also functions as a 4 way pad, with the 4 buttons providing a quick entry point to things like ISO and White Balance. Useful, but not when the thing is so fiddly and sensitive that when you just had that shot lined up of Elvis climbing out of his flying saucer, you discover that you’re in 12 second self timer mode. Or something even more obscure. Even when you’re intentionally using the dial, the slightest misapplication of pressure can have you at ISO 3200 in a microsecond. Reversing out, however, would take a while longer.

Finally, because otherwise this could go on for ever, a word about the standard 14-42 lens. In order to pretend that it is small, Olympus made it collapsible. This provides yet another potential roadblock in getting the shot. And attaching a filter to it, especially a polariser, is an exercise in frustration. Turning the polariser almost always throws the focus completely off, and triggers an error message. And when you remove the filter it feels like you’re in serious danger of dismantling the lens inner barrel. Yet another ghastly Pen experience.

kodak_films

Kodak Films? Unfortunately, no ho bisogno, grazie

Ok, you can get good results out of the EP2, all being well, but for me at least it provides little enjoyment and kills spontaneity. So much that the whole point of the thing seems weak.

On a general note, in 2 weeks, some spent in very photogenic tourist spots, where everybody has a camera, I have not seen one “compact system camera”. No micro four thirds, no Sony NEX, no Samsung. Plently of Lumix and Fuji bridges, plenty of Canikon DSLRs, even a sprinkling of Olympus DSLRs, some high end compacts and of course hordes of digicams. But the world takeover by compact system cameras? I see no evidence of that on the streets.

So, what ‘s the alternative? I don’t always feel like carrying a DSLR around, even a small one, and compacts have their own compromises and lack creative control. Film seems tempting. A small SLR, maybe, but even an Olympus OM isn’t all that light. Or maybe a Voigtlander or Zeiss Ikon rangefinder ... but again, these involve compromises. Maybe somebody will make a CSC actually designed to encourage photography, but I’m not holding my breath.

But as far as the Olympus EP2 is concerned, I think I’ve had my fill. The worst, and possibly the prettiest, camera I have ever owned. And it seems I’m stuck with it.

Why is Vuescan struggling ?

Worth what you pay for it ?

in Unsolicited, rabid opinions , Tuesday, August 23, 2011

August 2014: Apparently this post is the most popular on my site. And by far. Which is a bit sad for both of us.  I’m tempted to take it down, but I’ll leave it for historical interest. Maybe you’ve come here to observe a bit of wild-eyed flaming of Ed Hamrick and Vuescan. Well, enjoy, but please note it is water well under the bridge, indeed we can’t even see the bridge any more. Ed & I had an email conversation and it all ended up perfectly amicable even if we agreed to disagree.  These days I sometimes use Vuescan. I took some time to understand it better, I managed to calibrate it, and when my scanner, or Silverfast, causes problems, it’s always useful to be able to fall back on Vuescan for issue solving. And if your workflow would be to take uncorrected linear gamma scans direct into Photoshop, for some reason Vuescan’s 48bit output is much more malleable than Silverfast’s 48bit “HDR”. Oh, and you might also like to see Ed’s original riposte.


Earlier today, I came across a piece of negative marketing of a type which always irritates me. This was from Ed Hamrick, of Hamrick Software, author of Vuescan, offering Silverfast users a free upgrade to Vuescan Pro if they promise never to use Silverfast again and to send him their Silverfast serial number. This is already sounding ethically dubious, and possibly worse, but then he goes on to roundly rip Silverfast to pieces, while saying what a nice guy Karl-Heinz Zahorsky, the CEO and founder of LaserSoft is. All this under the strawman banner “Why is LaserSoft struggling ?”

Now, as far as I know, LaserSoft has never engaged in such tactics. It promotes its own wares, sometimes well, sometimes less so, but it never, ever rubbishes the competition. Hamrick then follows up with a gratuitous analysis of LaserSoft’s “problems” and an “unedited list” of more than 1000 largely illiterate one-liner comments of converts to Vuescan, the majority of which seem to have very little clue of what they’re talking about - and Hamrick knows it. Frankly, these people are not Silverfast’s customer base.

Hamrick goes on to pick apart various aspects of Silverfast, and Lasersoft. Now, Lasersoft sure aren’t perfect, but if you’re going to start slinging mud, you’d better make sure of your target.  A few choice examples:

Anyone who primarly does reflective scans can buy a good printer/scanner/copier for $100, and anyone still scanning film can use the Epson V700 to do this

Sure, Ed. You’re right, and pretty much every reasonably experienced film photographer in the world is wrong. The V700 is ok. In fact, for large format it’s probably the only reasonable option. But for optimal 35mm scans ? Come on!!  And this “anyone still scanning film” ... well, yeah. Guess what. They’re using Silverfast. 

Let’s see what a in-depth review of the V700 has to say:  “Finally one can say that the Epson Perfection V700 Photo is good for digitizing normal vacation pictures and similar images even directly from the film. For applications without professional requirements the scanner is very well suitable. Professionals, whom the V700 actually addresses with the possibility to scan medium formats and large formats, won’t however be satisfied with the picture quality”.  I think I’ll skip Ed’s advice on this one.

This leads to a dilemma - the market for the scanners SilverFast supports is shrinking rapidly, and even the least expensive printer/scanner/copiers are more than good enough for 99% of reflective scanning.

Well, Hamrick may believe that “printer/scanner/copiers are more than good enough for 99% of reflective scanning”. So what ? Silverfast is designed for photographers and pre-press. Possibly there little ROI in providing a cheap enough version for casual users of all-in-one, Walmart special offer copiers. 

What can LaserSoft do, other than try to reduce costs by laying off engineers and delay new product development? It’s been 5 years since Intel Macs were introduced, and LaserSoft still hasn’t released a universal binary version of SilverFast.

Again, so what ? First, how does Hamrick know so much about LaserSoft’s business ? If they are reducing costs, they’re hardly alone.  As for the Universal Binary, up until recently it has been of no use.  LaserSoft, correctly, point out that scan times and limited by scanner performance.  So post processing may be a touch faster with a Universal Binary, but frankly I’m not convinced.  This is really typical software geekery.

The majority of LaserSoft revenues used to come from bundled software sales

I believe it still does

Epson Scan is better than SilverFast

Totally unsubstantiated wild claim. Epson Scan is better than Vuescan!!!

Canon sells many more printer/scanner/copiers than high-end flatbed scanners

Yes, Ed, you’ve made it clear that you’ve missed the point. Stop digging.

Plustek and Reflecta scanners aren’t very good

Really. Why do you support them then ? And pro photographers such as Mark Segal beg to differ. Have they turned down your bundling offer ?

VueScan is a 5 MByte download, SilverFast 8 is a 170 MByte download

Well yes… but that does include the video guides and documentation. Documentation, Ed. Heard of it ? I haven’t downloaded Silverfast 8 yet, but Silverfast 6 is around 25Mb. Bigger than Vuescan, yes, but there’s quite a lot more in it.

It goes on, and quite frankly is astonishing. Did Zahorsky run over his dog or something ?  But anyway, we finally get on to this little claim:

VueScan produces better scans

Well, now I’m listening. Especially as I’m a licensed Vuescan user. I gave up at around version 5, where the appaling UI and bizarre behaviour finally drove me away. So let’s see if Version 9 has improve things. Honestly, if it gives better results, I’m not proud.

The Test

So, I downloaded Vuescan 9, although I had a bit of trouble getting past a website which insisted on pushing “Vuescan Mobile” at me. Let the customer decide, Ed, please.

First impressions were pretty familiar. It’s still got a design only a geek could love, full of weird UI elements and oddities. But at least they line up and the labels don’t overflow any more.

First run: although it did find my networked multi-mode printer/scanner, it failed to find my USB connected Canoscan 9000F. After a relaunch, it found my Minolta film scanner as well. It never did find the Canon. Probably because it’s not a “printer/scanner/copier”.

I went to pick up my old serial code, and entered it. It didn’t work, but that was just a guess really, because I got no feedback. Ok, so I need to get an updated serial number. Fine. That worked, well enough, but the user experience has already deviated well away from smooth. I wonder if the average printer/scanner/copier user would have worked it out ?

Ok, fine. Let me at those awesome results.  I loaded up a slide.  And clicked on “Preview”.  And Vuescan, way off in a little corner, tells me it is “Calibrating”.  I wait for minute or so, then it shows Busy 0%, eventually after, 2 minutes or so it shows Busy 100%. This goes on for a while. It starts again: Busy 0 to 100% another 2-3 minutes. No attempt to tell me what is going on, and no attempt to show a standard system activity bar.  During this time the application is locked up. And then it starts again - busy 0%.  What is it doing, calibrating R, G & B channels ? No idea. Anyway, the claim of “speed” is already wearing thin. Nope, not RGB, because it’s started again. And again.

Finally, a dialog. Please insert the film holder. So I did. But the scanner does not grab it. There’s something not right here.  Everything locks up. Great. I shut down the scanner, force quit Vuescan. And try again. I’m tenacious.

It starts up again, can’t find the Minolta. Shut down. Starts up again, finds Minolta. Finally I get it do a prescan.  It contrives to make the usually quiet-ish Minolta sound like a garbage truck in a tin can factory. Very noisy AF, very noisy prescan and no faster than Silverfast.

The prescan area is too big, which reminds me I’ve always been very suspicious of Vuescan’s handling of the Minolta’s hi-res area (4800dpi for a 35mm strip, 3200 for 120 film).  Using the Scanhancer, it seems there’s no way to get a decent preview, which Silverfast has no trouble with.  Also, nothing approaching Silverfast’s tuning tools. Not even remotely. However, there is one big plus, potentially: the option to use Multi Exposure at the same time as Multi Scanning (which Lasersoft have always said is of little benefit).

Vuescan Preview

Vuescan preview

Silverfast preview

Silverfast preview


I eventually found the “advanced” settings. Not exactly intuitive, but well at least that’s consistent. And I get things set up as I want, and start a scan. Is it faster ? No, of course it isn’t: scan time is scanner limited. Output is very dark, very compressed histogram. However shadows are exceptionally clean - although later when I ran the same slide through Silverfast, it was equally good.

The UI remains exceedingly clunky and uninspiring, and if Silverfast 6 has its annoyances, VueScan just responds with a different set. Some things, for examplre setting preferences, are marginally more simple with Vuescan, but other things, for example prescan colour correction, or manual focus, are way, way worse.

Vuescan’s web site features testimonials from Smart Computing, PC World, Computer Shopper, Mac Guild, etc. Although to be fair Amateur Photographer praised it highly. But Silverfast features reviews by pro photographers such as Mark Segal (who was complimentray about the Plustec scanner which Hamrick dismisses), John Barclay, Timothy Grey, etc. No PC geeks here.

I could probably could make Vuescan work for me, especially if I invested in Sascha Steinhoff’s book.  Vuescan is not bad. For a casual user it’s a better investment than Silverfast, which in its consumer, dumbed down mode is too complex for the target market but also too light on features. VueScan is much cheaper. For advanced users it can also deliver scans just as good as Silverfast. Probably. But it will make you work much harder and it is missing all the refinements of Silverfast.  Generally I’d say there’s a pretty even split out there between Silverfast and Vuescan fans.

But it’s the negative, dishonest marketing that really leaves a bad taste. Another Hamrick quote is “they don’t ask for my advice, and free advice is worth what you pay for it”. Is a free Vuescan upgrade worth what you pay for it too ? So what is this Vuescan upgrade free ? Why such aggressive marketing ? Why is Vuescan struggling ?

I wouldn’t cut off my nose to spite my face if Vuescan really was better,  but the fact is I’ve had years of great results, friendly support and trouble free operation from Silverfast, and I’m not going to switch.  Silverfast has lots of flaws, and probably it is a touch too expensive. But frankly, looking at similar image products from, say, Adobe, or Nik, it certainly isn’t outrageously priced. And personally I don’t find that an annual price-gouging upgrade to be a benefit.

 

 

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