A couple of weeks ago, Silverfast 8 HDR finally, quietly slipped out of Beta. I’ve been using it for a few weeks now, so it’s time for a quick review. I’m running Silverfast HDR under MacOS X 10.8.2, and it was actually this that I was waiting for before upgrading from Snow Leopard.
So, what’s new in this first full release (8.0.1r16)? Well there seem to be a lot of small stability fixes, and everything runs more smoothly, but perhaps the most obvious, and very welcome, is the pre-population of the output file name with the input name. Now, a great enhancement would be to be able set up a rule for this. For. Example, I always name my HDR files “whatever.hdr.tif” - so it would be great if I could specify that the form of the output should be the first part of the filename, and the appropriate suffix, e.g “whatever.psd”.
The Job Manager now seems to be fully featured. Actually I think that this was already introduced during the Beta, but it’s main feature isn’t very obvious and deserves to be highlighted. Previous versions of HDR included a semi-standalone, fully featured file browser / organiser, the VLT (Virtual Light Table). Amongst other things this enabled you to open a large sequence of files and handle them as a batch in HDR. You could switch between files in HDR using the Job Manager, and carry out all the edits you wanted, before submitting the whole batch for output processing - a very powerful and useful feature (yes, I know RAW processors such as CaptureOne do similar things, but remember that Silverfast seriously predates any of these). Anyway, the VLT is missing in action, but the Job Manager functionality has been restored by allowing multiple files to be selected in HDR’s file open dialog, which then appear as a batch in the Job Manager. I’m not really sure we still need the VLT.
For people unfamiliar about Silverfast’s approach, maybe a few words of explanation would be useful. First, “HDR”: in the Silverfast world, HDR really applies to a workflow, where 48 (or 64) bit, uncorrected, colour managed, linear Gamma scans are made, saved, and later reopened and processed in a dedicated application - Silverfast HDR. Lasersoft describe this as an archival workflow, since you create and save a “raw” (not “RAW” scan with the highest possible fidelity, and can then create as many output variations as you wish without altering the original scan. The alternative is to create scans with corrections “baked in”, a much less flexible approach. So, “HDR” in this sense has nothing to do with “HDR” in the digital photography sense, but to be fair Lasersoft was using this terminology long before the now commonly understood meaning was in general circulation.
I should also note that VueScan supports a similar workflow, although personally I’ve never been able to it to work to my satisfaction. A great advantage of Silverfast in general is that while it can be complex - indeed, very complex, in the vast majority of cases it also delivers very acceptable “all auto” one-touch results. You can dive deep into Silverfast, but you don’t have to. That’s not my experience with VueScan, which pretty much requires that you come to terms with its arcane and user-hostile interface before delivering the excellent results that it is capable of. Of course, there’s no avoiding the fact that you get what you pay for: VueScan is a lot cheaper that Silverfast, especially the full Archive Suite, but there may be considerable trade offs in time you spend in front of your computer screen. Suffice it to say that I respect VueScan as a viable alternative, but I made my choice a while ago.
Before ending this topic, I should mention that you can, if you so desire, open Silverfast 48bit HDRs in other applications such as Photoshop, but at the price of losing Silverfast’s proprietary processing algorithms. If you’re a Photoshop luminary and relish a serious challenge then possibly you could get results as good as Silverfast’s, but I’ve got better things to do with my time!
Returning to the review itself, the obvious general highlight in version 8 is the all-new user interface. New users will find it far easier to understand and use than the previous versions, while upgraders will generally not be too disorientated. All the tools remain, with similar, but updated icon design, and many features are now accessible through a standard OS menu bar. Application Preferences have been moved to where one would generally expect to find them. The UI is now unified in a single window, although tool palettes can be floated and detached.
The UI is in general quite configurable and generally a pleasure to work with, although it retains a few idiosyncratic touches. One major improvement is that most adjustments can be toggled on or off, therefore allowing a before and after view. It would be great if there were a global toggle to switch back to the unadjusted file, but this is a good start. Various adjustments have detail improvements, including highlight / shadow compensation, the USM sharpening tool, and especially the very effective iSRD dust & scratch removal. However, version 6’s clone tool seems to have gone. In fact, were Silverfast to gain a few extra tools such as free rotation and something like Photoshop’s patch tool, it could become fully standalone. It even includes a pretty nifty layout / print module, PrinTao, but this is unfortunately of little practical use as files almost always require a little extra work in Photoshop.
One area where Silverfast has long held the aces is in colour correction. This has been even further improved in version 8. Features like the multi-point “neutral pipette”, and the global and selective colour correction tools would take far too long to cover here (for that I recommend Mark Segal’s excellent book), but make complex colour cast removal (or creative colour adjustment) not only fairly simple but even fun. In a geeky sort of way. One minor grumble is that the excellent colour cast removal slider, which often is all you need, and in all cases will get you in the ballpark, has been hidden in the advanced settings of the gradation tool. This seems a strange decision. Actually so long as you calibrate your scanner(s), using the idiot-proof IT8 tool, quite often Silverfast will deliver excellent results with one click on the auto-adjust button.
Of course all these adjustment tools are available in the scanner-specific companion application, Silverfast Ai Studio, but if you use them there you’re baking them into your scan. One tool you do, however, need to use at scan time is the noise-reducing multi-exposure. One important issue for people with older scanners considering upgrading is that some features of version 6 are not going to make it into version 8. This includes Digital ICE support (for licensing reasons), which is replaced, more than adequately, by iSRD, and multi-sampling, which is replaced by multi-exposure. I’m not too sure about the latter: in version 6, when multi-exposure works, it is as good as, if not better than, multi-sampling, as well as faster, but sometimes it suffers from alignment problems, seemingly at random, which make scans useless. Multi-sampling in version 8 works fine for my CanoScan 9000F, but my Minolta film scanner is not yet supported (and probably never will be), so I have no idea if it has been improved.
So far Silverfast 8 HDR has been pretty stable. I have encountered a few glitches with the Job Manager, where it sometimes gets confused about image rotation, and where the application has crashed half way through a batch process. Annoying, but the edit settings for each image in the batch were retained, so no great harm done.
With version 8 Silverfast has gained a new lease of life. It retains the solid strengths of the previous versions, in some cases with significant enhancements, and packages them all up in a vastly improved user interface which will be much more familiar in concept to users of other image editing applications. Although there are alternatives, in my opinion Silverfast has cemented its position as the gold standard for the film-based digital imaging workflow. The full Archive Suite with Silverfast HDR is not cheap, but if you’re regularly shooting and scanning film, it’s an investment that will pay off in quality of results and time saved. And it will make your scans sing.
Note: coincidentally, today Lasersoft announced the lower cost Silverfast SE Archive Suite