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Silverfast 8.8 revisited

sorry seems to be the hardest word

in Silverfast , Monday, January 04, 2016

It’s timely that I set out my motivations for writing this blog. Quite simply, it’s personal. I have nothing to sell, I’m not harvesting clicks, I’m not looking to grow a big audience or profile. Yes, to some extent I’d like to draw attention to my photography, despite having long ago realised firstly that this is futile, and secondly, being dependent on recognition is not a path to happiness or fulfilment. But I have no illusions or expectations that my opinions on anything amount to much, or provide anything other than very mild entertainment. I like to engage with readers, and try to answer queries and questions as best I can (most of these come via email, as a rule people don’t like commenting or debating in the public arena).

So, why is this timely? Well, I’ve been taken to task in quite a major way by a representative from Lasersoft for my last, rather unappreciative, posting on Silverfast. Since that also was via email, I will not go into details here, apart from to comment on the fact that posting it as a comment would have been far more beneficial to Lasersoft, as it shows that the company both listens and cares, and is hurt by what it sees, probably correctly, as unfair criticism. But it also reinforces that their handling of customer relations via social media needs improvement, and does their image and probably their sales a lot less good than it could.

But I will readdress my criticisms of Silverfast 8.8, and try to correct some inaccuracies.  First of all, it is again important that I set out my ground rules here. I am a paying customer of Silverfast. I have no special relationship with the company, indeed no relationship at all beyond being a customer. I have been using Silverfast for around 15 years, on Minolta, Canon and Plustek scanners, as well as the HDR version which reprocesses generic Silverfast scan files. Film photography is still important to me, and I scan standard 35mm, “panoramic” 35mm, and a range of medium format from 6x6 to 6x12. Silverfast is therefore “mission-critical” to what I do. I pay for it - and it isn’t cheap - and I expect it to work as advertised. When it works nominally, I’m very happy. When it does stuff that impresses me, I praise it. When it lets me down - which is not often - I get annoyed. When it lets me down badly, as it did recently, I get angry. And then I turn to Vuescan, and 5 minutes later, decide to give up film photography… (I know that Vuescan works for some people, but it doesn’t for me. Believe me, I’ve tried).

So, my position is that Lasersoft has a duty to me, and to other paying customers, to provide reliable software which performs the functions it is advertised to provide. In return, if I choose to write about Silverfast, I should do so fairly, and with attention to factual accuracy. Possibly neither party here has quite achieved this is the last iteration.

There is very, very little written about Silverfast on the web these days, at least not in English. Actually there’s not a great deal in Germain either. And a large proportion of that little amount is either recycled PR or individuals declaiming that “Silverfast sucks”, that it has “the worst GUI”, that it is “the worst software ever”, bla bla etc etc. None of these people have read the manual of course. Or, rather, they would not have read it if one existed. Which it doesn’t, still, for version 8, and this is a point that Lasersoft badly needs to address seriously. So, since I do write about the software and the process from time to time, reasonably fairly, and quite positively, I suppose it isn’t that surprising I get some traction on the topic, and very occasionally, some reaction from Lasersoft.

So let’s get back to 8.8. My basic problems seem to be associated with side effects of the introduction of SRDx. My rather rude dismissal of SRDx was more to do with the fact that it seemed to be destroying my workflow, rather than any actual evaluation. In fact I still haven’t evaluated it. But eventually I did what probably I should have done to start with, and used the “Reset Software” feature in both AI Studio and HDR Studio. This seemed to clear up some issues - although unfortunately it also appears to delete all of my stored presets - and I was able to complete the 64bit HDRi scans of the batch of 6x7 negatives I was working with. I ran out of time for running them through HDRi, though, although I did process one sample with SRD turned off. I’m not yet sure about the other issues I noticed, in particular the “black screen” where Silverfast seems to get confused about previews. This needs some dedicated time in order to try to replicate and report to user support.

I do retract the derogatory comments I made about the ColorServer feature, which in any case I’m in no position to evaluate. Actually I’m rather reassured that there is still professional customer demand for such a high end pro feature. And of course I made the classic mistake of assuming that since I could not, immediately, see any reason for using SRDx for digital camera file processing, then neither could anyone else. All of that was down to frustration arising from my own specific issues rather than any real complaint.

I think it is worth remembering that Silverfast has some absolutely world-class features. Just a few examples include the one-click scanner calibration, the 4-target neutral grey-balance tool, and the selective and global colour correction, which are at least on a par with recent and much lauded counterparts in CaptureOne v9. These together allow to arrive at an ideally balanced scan in way, way less time than it would take in Photoshop, even if you could work out how to do it there. Some other favourites of mine are the simultaneous, live input/output histograms and the Kodak Portra 400 NegaFix profile, which I find to be remarkably accurate. And in more recent releases, the greatly improved Job Manager, and especially the copy/paste settings feature, has saved me a lot of time.

There are areas that could be improved though, and a certain tendency towards UI bloopers which could be avoided with a little care and attention.  Simply as an example, I’m going to come back to the SRDx / iSRD issue.

When newly discovering v8.8, the first thing I’m going to look for is the banner feature, SRDx. But it isn’t there. In fact, for my Plustek OpticFilm 120 scanner, it’s hiding behind the iSRD button. Clicking on that reveals the Dust & Scratches panel, with two tabs - SRDx, and iSRD.

SilverFast SRD1

Initially SRDx is on top, which again, is a little weird as I’d clicked on the iSRD button. This then starts to make me wonder - is SRDx actually being promoted as superior to iSRD in all situations, including those for which IR Dust & Scratch removal works ? Is SRDx an alternative, or a complement, i.e can they work together ... or indeed should they? None of this is very clear from the interface. The mechanism that Silverfast uses in general to turn off an effect or tool is a checkbox in the title bar of the tool. It seems in this case that switching tabs activates the visible SRD option and deactivates the other, but to my mind this is weak feedback. Of course, ironically this is nothing new - the precursor to SRDx, plain vanilla SRD, lived in the same spot. But as it didn’t interest me, and was never visible by default, I never noticed.

So my conclusion must be that yes, the tabs are intended also as on/off switches. This goes against generally understood usage of tabs - as for example evident in Silverfish’s preferences popup - so I don’t think it is a good idea.

But in fact my attention was drawn to this simply because after playing around with these features a bit, I realised that the real time preview wasn’t working any more, for any tool, for example gradation. Otherwise I’d probably never have noticed!

Note, when the source file does not have a recognizable IR channel, or, I assume, the scanner does not have an IR channel, you get an SRDx button instead of iSRD…

SilverFast SRD2

...which, I guess, makes more sense of it all. But still, my feeling is that there must be a better way to do this for cases where both modes are available.

Final conclusion, I retract my recommendation to not touch 8.8, but as with any new release, I would say be careful, and unlike me, don’t install it when you’ve got some urgent work to do. That much is just common sense, which this time around eluded me.

I still think Silverfast is a great tool, and one that the film scanning community in particular is fortunate to still have around. The last point is on pricing. I mentioned that it costs €999. Well, yes, but that is for the fully loaded Archive Suite I use, and for the Plustek OpticFilm 120. And actually OpticFilm 120 comes with Ai Studio, priced at €658, and includes an IT8 6x7 calibration target. Depending on your scanner, the basic Archive solution comes in at €299 at the moment (hint, if you’ve got HDR Studio, you only need SE Plus as the scanning part, not Ai Studio). So yes, €999 is a bit of an extreme worst case scenario!

And then there are the entry and mid-level options, at much lower cost (under €50), and still featuring the same core scanning engine. Clearly it isn’t cheap. The competition is - at first glance - cheaper. But taking into account the output quality and the time it will save you, it’s hardly an unreasonable investment in an overall film photography budget.

So to start the New Year on a positive note, I apologise to the Silverfast team for my bad tempered rant, and I wish everybody reading this a happy and successful year of scanning. Even Vuescan users :-)

Silverfast v8.8. Don’t touch it.

The nightmare after Xmas

in Silverfast , Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Please take the following article with a LARGE grain of salt. It’s mostly rubbish. Having calmed down, and after receiving a very hurt email from Lasersoft, I wrote this.


Around 3 or 4 years ago, when Silverfast was at version 6.5, it was urgently in need of a complete rebuild, not only to replace the antiquated and extremely convoluted user interface, but also to make it compatible with modern operating systems.  Rather than grasp this nettle, Lasersoft, to all external appearances, fiddled about, adding fake Mac Intel “support”, and various new features which added precisely zero value, but which they charged for.

Finally, they released Siverfast v8, the rebuild we needed, and while it had a bit of a rocky start, there were swift iterations, and quite soon it became reliable and dependable. Various incremental features were added, culminating in v8.5, which I wrote about when it was released. Not only was v8.5 actually useful, but it was free.  Several incremental improvements to the Job Manager followed.

Now, we have v8.8. Also free. And a total, unmitigated disaster. We seem to have gone back to the bad old days (no, I have no idea where 8.6 & 8.7 went, but 8.8 should have gone there too). We have a new iteration of the algorithmic dust & scratch removal, for scanners not equipped with an infrared channel, called “SRDx”. It has an “x” in it so it must be fabulous. Well, maybe it is. It looks less unusable than the old SRD, but that wasn’t hard to achieve. As for the results, I don’t know, but since I only have IR-channel scanners, I don’t need it.  However, what it also brings to the table is that it has apparently totally screwed up the IR version, iSRD, in Silverfast HDR.  Clicking on “SRDi” (the only was to invoke xSRD) selects xSRD by default.  There is no really obvious was to switch to SRDi, expect by clicking on a tab, but that doesn’t tell me if both are invoked or just one. Also, the 1:1 or HQ preview modes just show a black screen, or sometimes a 1:1 unprocessed view.  All real-time corrections such as curves stop working, and attempting to process an image leads to a “quiet” failure at somewhere near the start of the SRD phase.

In summary, Silverfast Archive Suite, at a stroke, becomes unusable.

They have “fixed” the appealing DNG bug from the last version, in that HDR can now correctly interpret DNGs saved by AI Studio v8.8, but not and previous versions.

This is simply not acceptable for a software suite which costs €999.

So what else does v8.8 bring us ? Apparently the SDRx thing can be used on “Digital Camera Images”.  Sorry, Mr Zahorsky, you tried that with Siverfast DC.  It won’t work. Nobody in their right mind would use Silverfast to spot-correct digital camera images.  We also get a “History” feature.  Whatever. All I see here is a sequence of black frames.  I don’t need “History”.  It doesn’t work, anyway. And as far as I can tell it isn’t saved in the “HDR” format metadata.

And there’s an option for something called ColorServer, which is not aimed at people like me, but at production environments (do analog film production environments still exist ?) and which looks a whole lot like the old hot folder feature which I seem to recall existed in v6.5.  And it costs extra. What planet are they on, really?

I don’t much like criticising Lasersoft, because the contacts I’ve had with their staff make them seem to be decent, courteous people.  On the other hand, the way they’ve implemented user to user forums (every single post moderated, with long delays) and social media communication is incompetent to the level of comedy.  Two days consulting with a social media expert would bring them more benefit than a hundred “upgrades”.

In parting, here’s my current issues list.  I had intended to send it to Lasersoft, but really, they don’t seem to care. At a corporate level, anyway.

  • if the “Tool set” is supposed to remember / recall a window layout, it doesn’t work very well. For a start, the Tool-related panels (USM, iSRD, etc) get VERY confused.  They seem to show an activated state in the icon but dis-activated in the panel.
  • In 24 bit mode.  The Histogram tool is floated, and stretched. When I click on 48 bit, the Histogram tool dis-activates / disappears.
  • When 1:1, or HQ Mode is selected in iSRD tool, USM tool says “exact preview disabled” - it seems that previews are not shared between tools, even after they’re activated
  • I often use 720dpi output.  In the resolution drop down, an entry, “Custom (720dpi)” has appeared. Very nice - except it doesn’t work. Selecting this has no effect on resolution setting.
  • Histograms cannot remember that I prefer “Separate”.  SF 6.5 had no problem with this as far as I remember
  • Frame resize mode cannot preserve aspect ratio - e.g SHIFT+Drag
  • OpticFilm 120:  On first start up, first scan, the scanner makes a “clunk” noise, then a second, and then nothing.  To get it to work, I have to force-quit SF8, turn off the scanner, turn it on again, restart SF 8, and scan again. Usually it works on the second attempt, but not always.  After this, it will work fine for hours or days, until it is shut down.  I have tried different USB cables, different ports, USB2, USB3, same thing.  This only started with a quire recent update of SF 8 Ai.
  • v8.8.  The new “SRDx”, which apparently is non-IR based, is selected automatically.  Selecting SDRi makes the preview screen go black. It is totally unclear if SDRx or SDRi are coupled, i.e work together, or separate. From the GUI, it does not seem possible to select which one you want (or both). Both get activated (possibly) by clicking on the iSRD button. Eventually, clicking back and forth makes Silverfast crash. Quelle surprise.

The net result of v8.8 is make me switch to Vuescan.  Well done, Lasersoft.

Silverfast 8.5 first impressions

extract, and apply!

in Silverfast , Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Lasersoft Imaging recently announced the release of Silverfast 8.5 at CeBit, and shortly after it became available for download.  This is the most significant update since the complete rewrite which gave us version 8, and it has some interesting sounding enhancements. The first is a much enhanced Job Manager, and the second is the new “HDRi RAW” file format. I’ve been playing around a little with v8.5 Ai Studio, and v8.5 HDR Studio, and here are some very quick, and not terribly deeply researched first impressions.

In the past some new Silverfast features could perhaps be described as over-hyped, or poorly conceived, and on top of that were charged for. But I’m pleased to say that this time around, there seem little grounds for skepticism. First of all, it’s a free upgrade, and secondly, the new features are well designed, well integrated, and genuinely useful.

The Job Manager has gained a great time saving feature inspired by applications such as Aperture or Lightroom: the ability to copy and paste adjustments from one frame to one or more others. In Silverfast it’s called “Extract & Apply”. In Aperture, “Lift & Stamp” - whatever the name, this is really welcome and is especially useful when working on large batches of files in HDR Studio.

SilverFast HDR 8

The new “Extract & Apply” dialog in Silverfast HDR 8.5

Apart from this feature, the Job Manager, which is at the core of Silverfast’s workflow, has had a thorough refresh, and is much nicer to work with now.

The new file format, HDRi RAW, as far as I can tell retains image adjustment settings with the “HDR” file, so that they can be retained between sessions.  This is great, but so far I have to confess to being a little confused, as I thought that Silverfast HDR Studio already managed that. Possibly not, maybe it was only the case for saved Job Manager sessions.  Anyway, it works, and there is also a right-click method to reset to default within the VLT thumbnail browser.

Also, the VLT itself seems to have had some behind the scenes attention, as it feels significantly faster and responsive. Overall the application appears to have received speed and stability enhancements.

There is another new feature, the forthcoming iOS job monitor app. This seems to be more into the quirky end of Silverfast’s range of features, but I guess it might be entertaining!

In conclusion, this is one of the most comprehensive and well thought out revisions I’ve seen Silverfast receive for quite a while. It’s a good indication of the ongoing commitment of Lasersoft to their customers.

One last thing, though. The original CeBit Press Release also mentioned the re-launch, with software and hardware enhancements, of the Plustek OpticFilm 120. I haven’t seen any follow-up to that…

 

Silverfast: return of the VLT

a lightbulb moment

in Silverfast , Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Lasersoft are continuing to add new features to Silverfast 8, and one very welcome recent addition was the return of the integrated “Virtual Light Table” file browser (VLT). The VLT was a feature of several incarnations of Silverfast v6, and I assumed that it would not return to v8, but here it is.  It’s better integrated, much more user friendly, and so far, 100% stable.

SilverFast 8 0 HDR Studio

The VLT in Browser mode. Silverfast HDR format files are automatically labelled.

The VLT is included in all versions of Silverfast HDR and HDR Studio from 8.0.1r48 onwards. It’s accessed by clicking the lightbulb in the upper left corner.  The view can switch between browser only, split browser / viewer, and viewer only.  When the viewer is available, a loupe-type tool provides a localised magnified view of a small part of the image. I wish this feature could be included in the editor mode as well. At present, basic metadata in the form of ratings and labels can be added. To open a file in the editor, it needs to be dragged to the Job Manager icon, and opened from there. This is not 100% intuitive, although it is in harmony with HDR Studio’s multiple file handling mechanisms.  It would be nice to also have a more direct way of switching in a future version.

SilverFast 8 0 HDR Studio

The VLT in split view, showing the loupe

Until now I’ve used PhaseOne Media Pro to manage the workflow from HDR scan, to TIFF output, and to final edit in Photoshop.  The VLT offers an alternative and more direct approach, at least to the initial steps. Essentially it occupies the same place in the workflow as Adobe Bridge.

Another recent addition to Silverfast, which in this case sees it adding a feature which rival Vuescan has had for a long time, is enabling DNG output for linear “HDR” and “HDRi” scans.  This is an interesting development, and it seems to encourage Adobe Camera RAW, or Lightroom, as an alternative to HDR Studio.

Other recent updates have included the ability to share directly to web services including Facebook, Flickr and Dropbox. This doesn’t really fit into any current workflow of mine, but nevertheless, it’s nice to see Silverfast being continuously maintained and improved.

Now, all I need to add is my standard plea for Version 8 to add support for my Minolta Dimage Scan MultiPro…

Deep South

the Antarctica archives

in Antarctica , Friday, December 07, 2012

With my forthcoming cruise around the Antarctic Peninsula as the excuse, a few days ago I started posting some scans of slides dragged from the ancient past, when I spent two summer field seasons in Antarctica on British and Norwegian science programmes.

I’ve got something like 1500 slides from those trips, a mix of Kodachrome 25, Kodachrome 64, and Ektachrome (100, I think). About 250 I had selected around 15 years ago, and stored in archival boxes. The rest, some of which I’ve barely glanced at, are in the “rejects” folder. Many are in poor condition, having suffered fungus attacks. A large proportion are badly exposed, badly composed, heavily vignetted, or out of focus. Usually all of these. But some are interesting - to me at least, from a number of points of view. They show how I took photographs when I had no real idea of what phtography was about. Sometimes they are of some merit, but mostly they show that I was trying to tell stories to people back home, to capture atmospheres, moods and colours. There’s no real sense that I had any concept of “landscape photography” as an aim in itself.

some freshly minted scans

From a technical point of view, I’m benefitting from a lot more experience in scanning. I have had attempts at scanning selections in the past, in particular about 6 years ago, when I published a small book, but now I have a fully colour managed Kodachrome calibrated, Silverast HDR workflow, and I can use Silverfast 8 HDR. I started scanning on my Canoscan 9000F flatbed, but eventually switched to the Minolta film scanner. Even though the benefit with some of these slides is minimal, and I lose the 64bit HDRi option, the ability to auto focus, set the focus point, or fully manual focus on the Minolta is a significant benefit for extracting the finest detail.

Initially I was hoping to create a Blurb book, just for me, to take along on the trip, but the amount of work required just to do the initial 48bit HDR scans is huge. It seems I’ve been feeding the scanners since summer, and I’m not even half way through. So at best it will be an iPad portfolio, and starting a few days back, a daily post on Flickr. Maybe life is easier with digital…

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