Woke up this morning
Stumbled out of bed
Tried to make a 48 bit HDR scan
But my scanner would not be led
Tried to fire up Vuescan
Gave Dimage Scan a chance
But even good ol’ Silverfast
Couldn’t make that scanner dance
When halfway through my scan
The thread it seems to lose
Yeah, I’m stuck down here in Memphis*
With the Failing Scanner Blues
* well ok, Lugano, but that’s not very Blues.
Yep, my 13 year old Minolta Dimage Scan MultiPro has started having senior moments. Part way through a scan, or even a preview, it just gives up and decides it’s done quite enough. The software’s left in limbo. Vuescan looks round in confusion, Silverfast, naturally, locks up, and Dimage Scan wonders why the hell I’ve woken it up after a 5 year nap.
This isn’t good news. Received knowledge over at the MultiPro Yahoo Group is that it is probably a symptom of a failing Firewire controller, apparently a known ageing issue with these scanners. And it probably can’t be fixed. Apparently a company in Germany called RTC Solutions can sometimes fix Konica Minolta scanners, but they’re not answering my email. Probably on holiday. Or stuck at the Gotthard Tunnel with most of Germany.
The MultiPro also has a SCSI interface, which apparently is much more robust. I believe I last used it around 2005, which would have been when my last SCSI-equipped Mac caught fire just after I’d sold it. One can in theory use a Firewire to SCSI converter, but these went out of production some 4 years ago, and sell on eBay for $Stupid. And of course Apple have killed off Firewire as well, so that’s not much of a long term solution. Possibly I could find a Firewire PCIe card which might work in my Mac Pro, and which might then hook up to the scanner, but even then, since I have to use an old version of Silverfast running on a semi-retired laptop (version 8 doesn’t support the MultiPro), if all that unlikely chain worked, I’d still lose my Silverfast workflow. Vuescan would work, but well, it’s not really my first choice.
Things are looking grim on the Medium Format film-scanning front (and not much better on 35mm). There were basically 3 good MF film scanners all launched around 2000: The Polaroid 120 (and Microtek clone), the Nikon Coolscan 8000/9000 and the Minolta MultiPro. There is some debate over which of the Coolscan 9000 and the MultiPro is better, but there’s not a lot in it. They’re both excellent. However, the Multipro is half the size & weight of the Nikon, and scans XPan format at 4800dpi rather than 4000dpi. For general MF use, however, the Nikon offers 4000dpi over the Minolta’s 3200. Of course all of these are out of production, and thanks to Sony’s acquisition of Konica Minolta’s photographic activities, even the statutory period for spares and servicing was ignored.
Today, there are actually two MF scanners available new. The Reflecta MF5000 (and several clones with different labels, such as Pacific Imaging), which isn’t terribly exciting, and the Plustek 120, which in theory is interesting, but has received mixed reviews, to put it politely. In any case, even a glitch-free Plustek 120 would seem to be inferior to the Minolta MultiPro, a 15-year old design! And you can even find new copies of the Nikon Coolscan 9000, if you’ve got more money than sense.
And of course there are the outrageously expensive Hasselblad Flextight X5 & X1. Sadly I have no grandmothers left to sell. And anyway, they’re don’t even have dust removal - and, reportedly, the MultiPro delivers results almost as good.
MultiPros and Coolscans on eBay fetch prices way in excess of their original retail, and who knows how much life they have in them ? I can hardly complain about my Minolta, it has given over a decade of faithful service, which isn’t bad for an electro-optical-mechanical device.
So I’m left looking at a set of unattractive options: try to patch up the Minolta for a while yet; buy a modern but expensive, slow and less performant Plustek scanner; try to find a secondhand replacement Minolta or Nikon which doesn’t require a kidney to raise the funds. Or rent a Hasselbad X5, 250km away in Zürich, every now and again, for CHF 300 / hour. Or give up on film.
Meanwhile, while I’ve been writing this, the MultiPro has just managed to get from one end of a scan to another without losing the plot, and delivered this:
Really clutching at straws, I’ve ordered a new Firewire 400 cable (yes, even these are special order now, abet $0.50 from the USA). If that fixes it, I’ll be on the phone to the Vatican.
A photographic post with a return to the topic of street photography (which I don’t do). Here I line up all sorts of obstacles for myself by first trying to do street photography, second using a camera which really is at it’s best on a tripod and used slowly, and third, using what was always an unconventional choice of film, and now is just plain flat-out eccentric, Agfa Scala monochrome E6 slide film (or indeed using film at all).
Agfa Scala is nominally rated at ISO200, but is designed to be used from 100 to 1600 depending on circumstances. The canisters are not DX-coded, so you need to set the speed yourself. I ran this roll at ISO800, as the XPan’s 45mm lens is relatively slow at f/4. Note, 45mm on an Xpan corresponds to a horizontal field of view around 28mm for a normal 35mm frame, so you need to get close.
It’s pretty easy to scan in Silverfast, using 16bit greyscale settings and auto-levels.
The results are, well, at best tentative, but it was an interesting experiment.
I don’t know about the rest of the world, but you can still buy the allegedly withdrawn Agfa Scala film from Fotomedia in Switzerland, who will also process it.
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.
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.
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…
Looking through Tiina Itkonen‘s Greenland images I can’t help remembering my one and only visit to Greenland, some 14 years ago. I spent 3 weeks in August 1999 with a small group trekking west and north of Tasiilaq. I had various motives for this trip, one being to be able to get away from daily routine and decide if I wanted to make a big change in my life, another was to try to recapture the memories I had of the Antarctic Peninsula, still another was to purge the memory of a fairly disastrous trip to Venezuela. Oh, and of course to visit Greenland.
On most counts it was a success. I enjoyed the environment, the company, and the welcome we got from the local people. I even enjoyed eating whale meat (seal, not so much). But on a photography level it was a total disaster. Something went badly wrong with my Canon A1, either the exposure meter was defective, or it mis-read in low temperature, or I just screwed up. In any case, most photos were badly over-exposed. And worse, at one of the absolute high points, a trip out into a fjord in a small open boat with an Inuit guide tracking a humpback whale, my Tamron zoom lens fell apart and I was left with a 35mm lens. As far as I recall I just gave and enjoyed the show. But I took a few shots.
I dug out the photos again yesterday, and actually in the age of Instagram they’ve got a certain something about them. Well some of them, at least. In fact there’s a hint of “honour thy mistake as a hidden intention” in some, in retrospect.
Greenland is unfinished business to me. It will probably remain so. Going back seems increasingly unlikely.
Of all the reward and enjoyment that photography can bring, for me there’s still nothing that can quite match seeing a newly developed, well exposed transparency on the light table for the first time. The digital alternative of downloading a file from a card, opening it up in some application, applying basic corrections and pixel-peeping it on a screen is nowhere near to the same league. The colours in slide film just leap out at you, the contrast is already there, there’s a delicate vibrancy and luminance that is practically irreproducible in the digital world. Of course that’s where the fun stops and the pain starts.
The long process of scanning the film, while trying to keep it dust free, of carefully storing it, of checking the archive scan, converting the scan into a viewable and printable version is just starting, while over in digital workflow world you could have munched through 30 files at least. But it’s worth it. There’s no misty eyed nostalgia at work here: to my eyes, a well processed and printed photo scanned from slide film still has a character which digital can’t match. Or at least my digital can’t.
Maybe $50,000’s worth of Hasselblad or PhaseOne gear might change my mind, but that’s not going to happen on my pay grade. It’s purely subjective, of course, and by most if not all technical measurements it makes no sense, but I still find that I get a far higher proportion of keepers from film than I do from digital (interestingly, just after I wrote this, I read a blog post from Ming Thein which makes exactly the same point). And then there’s also the point that there is nothing in the digital world like the Hasselblad XPan, which is now my only regularly used film camera.
But increasingly the end looks to be nigh. Film cameras have their needs, and handling film does too. The obvious risk is that the ever dwindling supply of slide film on the market will shrink to nothing. Just today I discovered 3 rolls of the now defunct Kodak E100G lurking on the back shelf of a shop. They expire this month, but I still grabbed them. Then there’s the scanning part. My Minolta medium format film scanner is still going, after 12 years of constant use, but it’s getting cranky. The only feasible replacement on the market is the $2000 Plustek Opticfilm 120, which may or may not work well for XPan format slides. I have my doubts, and there’s no way to check it short of buying one. Then there’s another vital part of the chain: the light box for reviewing and editing slides, and preparing them for scanning.
I have a high quality Cabin A4 size light panel which I bought about 14 years ago. These days the company doesn’t even exist, and the light tube is not going to last forever. I’m not sure you can still buy anything even vaguely similar. Even more trivial but still vital: residue-free canned compressed air for blowing dust away. Whenever I see a few cans on sale, I buy them ... as today, when I also found those 3 rolls of E100G. Exotica such as electrostatic dust cleaning brushes have quietly vanished from the market over the last 5 to 10 years.
Sooner, probably, rather than later, the weakest link in this chain is going to break. Maybe even the camera itself will pack up. And at that point, photography is going to stop being quite as rewarding.