A quick survey of this website will reveal the author’s recurrent obsession with Venice. Indeed, if Venice had ice and penguins I’d never need to go anywhere else. Since another popular theme of mine is phonebooks PHOTObooks, damn it, Apple auto-correct - then there is an obvious intersection to explore. However, as I’ve noted in the past, this particular crossroads is less populated than one might expect. In fact to date I’ve yet to find a book of Venice photography that really grabs me, although I discuss on that last link, there are a couple that get close.
Well, now there’s a new candidate to consider: Timeless, by Rafael Rojas. Over the past 5 years or so Rafael has been steadily building a reputation as one of Europe’s leading and most inventive landscape photographers. It might therefore seem a little strange for his first published monograph to feature not wild, colourful open spaces, but instead restrained monochrome studies of Venice. And indeed, taking it another step away from the habitual by photographing exclusively on film. With a fully manual prehistoric Hasselblad. But I’m certainly not complaining.
The first thing that struck me about Timeless was the painstaking attention to detail and to providing a rich visual, subtle experience - and this was even before I bought the book: the dedicated website is a work of art in itself. The physical book fully backs up that impression. It arrives nestled in a black, silver printed slipcase, the book itself bound in vermillion hardcover. The whole presentation is somehow reminiscent of the spirit of La Fenice, an impression reinforced by the frontispiece. The print quality is just sumptuous, with deep, rich blacks and subtle tonalities. At the risk of repeating myself, the care and attention to detail that just leaps out of the pages is quite remarkable.
As far as I am concerned, any Venetian photobook loses points for the showing following subjects: gondolas, The Rialto, The Grand Canal from the bloody Rialto, gondolas, St Mark’s Square, carnival masks, actually pretty much anything to do with the carnival, and gondoliers. And San Giorgio Maggiore is right on the limit. Oh, and did I mention gondolas ? Naturally, I’ve personally photographed all of these hundreds of times. And naturally, most are to be found within the pages of Timeless. But, crucially, they are all treated in original and interesting ways. Moreover, Timeless visits the quiet backwaters of Venice, featuring places I immediately recognise without having any idea where they are, but could surely find. Laundry hanging out over a nocturnal Castello contrada, quiet details from areas so close to, yet so far from the swamped, stifling tourist hotspots.
The real star of Timeless, and indeed Venice itself, is stone. Stone in all its forms which has been used to create this absurd, impossible city, floating on a bed of mud and ancient wooden pilings. The photography revels in the endless combinations of texture of stone, the interplay with glancing natural and artificial light, with fog, with water, always reminding of the sheer unlikeliness and ingenuity of it all. Through the study of light and stone Timeless gets right to the heart of Venice. It’s a book to revisit and explore time and time again.
Obviously, I fully recommend this book. You should stop reading right now and get over here to order it. And yet…
And yet, Timeless is missing one important dimension for me. It’s obviously very subjective, but what else would it be: colour. For me, there is something absolutely unique about colour in Venice, especially winter light. It is incredibly hard to capture on film, needing an extremely delicate touch, and so I can understand the temptation of black and white. I don’t want to imply that black and white is some kind of surrender or second best choice - personally I’m completely inept at it, not that I’m much better at colour. But there still seems to be a certain strand of opinion that colour photography is for tourists. I’m certain Rafael Rojas does not share that view, and I understand that Timeless has certain set parameters, within which it succeeds brilliantly, but I’d love to see him produce a colour photography companion.
[Disclosure - I should note that Rafael and I are friends, but I’m a full-price paying customer, and this review was neither requested nor influenced in any way]
Ah, the eternal quandary of the dilettante art photographer: film, or digital ? And if digital, which kind of digital ? For many, the ultimate expression of film in these End Days is Kodak Portra 400, with its oh so aesthetic transparent, lucid, indeed filmic quality. Or to put it another way, washed out. And that description is not exactly unreminiscent of the way Sigma Foveon digital sensors paint the world. So, which is “better” ? The two examples here offer no conclusion, are not a test, and make nothing other than an observation. And they’re taken with completely different lenses, so obviously the framing and viewpoint are quite different (the sign on the wall at the left of the second photo can be seen on the right of the first, beneath the stairs). But the scene, lighting and time of day are the same.
The first, on Portra 400 120 roll film, was taken using my Voigtländer Bessa III (aka Fuji GF670). It has an 80mm lens, so near enough 50mm in old money equivalence. It’s probably the last (serious) medium format film camera ever to be designed, and it’s probably the best fixed lens MF rangefinder ever. The rendering of the Porta 400 film was entrusted to Silverfast’s NegaFix tool, scanned at 5300dpi on the OpticFilm, which at this setting easily resolves grain.
The second was taken using the quite remarkable (in several senses of the word) Sigma DP0 Quattro. This has a Foveon Quattro sensor producing a file roughly equivalent, so they say, to a standard 39Mpix sensor. Which is quite big enough. More to the point, it produces absolutely gorgeous, natural, transparent, lucid, indeed filmic colours. In my opinion, anyway. In this case the lens is a highly corrected, good enough for architecture, 14mm, which is near enough to 21mm in old money.
So which is best ? I don’t know. I’m happy with both. They don’t call me Indecisive Dave for nothing, you know. One might expect digital to be more convenient than film, but Sigma levelled that one with a (ahem) fabulous piece of mandatory software called Sigma Photo Pro. Of course, I could also have compare with my standard, sensible Olympus digital camera. But there’s no fun in being sensible.
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.
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…
...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 :-)
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.