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Using the Flextight X5 scanner

in Scanning , Wednesday, September 20, 2017

This is an addendum to my two previous posts comparing the Plustek OpticFilm 120 to the Hasselblad Flextight X5. The X5 is supposed to be the nirvana of desktop scanners, a dream machine with a nightmare price tag, which provides the benefits of a drum scanner with none of the downsides, such as fluid mounting, even huger cost, and elephant-level proportions.

IMG 4213

X5 workstation at Light & Byte

So, what’s the X5 actually like to use ? Well, overall, it’s pretty nice. The hardware is on a completely different level. It is easy to use and very fast in operation. It scans a 6x12 frame in under a minute. But there are some drawbacks.

First of all, the film holders. They’re a little weird, to be honest. The heavy rubber masks remind me of the protective shroud things you have to wear when being X-rayed! And actually they’re not that easy to use. The problem is, you lay the film on a base plate, then lower the flexible mask, which has an aperture corresponding to the frame size. But there are no guides to align the film on the baseplate, so getting it to fit correctly in the aperture is quite fiddly. Maybe with more than two hours’ experience I might realise that there is a better way to do it, but actually I find that the Plustek holders are much easier to load accurately. And them the fixed aperture size is a bit of an issue: although in theory Medium Format film has defined sizes, different cameras have slightly different film gate dimensions. So, my Bessa 667 seems to expose slightly more area in the cross-film direction, and the Linhof 612 is more like a 612.5. Actually the Plustek holders are a bit narrow in the cross-direction too, but they are fully adjustable in length. The X5 holders have no adjustment whatsoever, although I believe Hasselblad will be delighted to sell you a custom holder.

Once you’re loaded, though, it’s really smooth: just slide the holder forward between the guides until the magnets latch on, and it disappears into the scanner and does its stuff.

IMG 4214

The 612 holder latched up and ready to roll

Then, there’s the software. Really, I have yet to meet a simple, straightforward and well-designed piece of scanning software, and Flexcolor is no exception. For example, if I select the 6x12 film holder, would it be unreasonable of me to expect the scan size to default to 6x12 ? Obviously it would: it took some time for me to realise that the bloody thing was producing two scans (overlapping, fortunately).  Why it does this for 6x12, but not 24x65, or 6x7, will remain a mystery.

Another unattractive thing about Flexcolor is that it only responds to adjustments after you let go of the respective control (slider or whatever). This makes it exceedingly annoying to use. And I still haven’t figured out exactly what it is that makes it show a full resolution rather than horribly pixelated low resolution preview - but then again, Silverfast still hasn’t figured out zooming.

Flexcolor includes a fairly limited set of negative profiles, a bit like Silverfast Negafix. However, they are much less extensive, far less adjustable, and too my eyes less accurate than Silverfast, although they do produce very flattering results.

stbeach_x5

X5/Flexcolor interpretation of Kodak Provia 400

stbeach_plustek

Plustek/Silverfast interpretation of Kodak Provia 400

I don’t think either are fully accurate (actually, the Silverfast version suffers from using Multi-Exposure, which doesn’t play nice with Negafix - the marketing material doesn’t tell you that). So, I could do better “out of the box” from the Plustek. Even as it stands, to my subjective eyes the Plustek/Silverfast version looks more like how Provia is supposed to look, The X5/Flexcolor version is almost Velvia, and too neutral. Of course, Silverfast is regularly updated. Flexcolor isn’t.

On the plus side, Flexcolor coupled with the X5 can really pull out clean shadow detail to an extent I’ve never seen before from a film scanner. Of course that is limited by the exposure range of the film, so it is more useful for negatives. But still, the difference is clear.

Generally Flexcolor feels old and fairly clunky, but I suppose that is because it is old. The X1 & X5 scanners are just rebadged Imacon Precision 848 and 949 models, which Hasselblad inherited when they bought / merged with Imacon to get digital back technology. They’ve carried on selling them, but they certainly haven’t tried very hard. I reckon they could drop the price by 50% and quadruple their sales, and still make a decent profit. They’re just not interested. The only update to the hardware is case redesign and a Hasselblad logo. The backplate is still branded “Flextight Precsion”. And the backplate also features a Firewire 400 interface, the one and only port, fully obsolete. At least it isn’t SCSI. The Mac Pro running the X5 at Light & Byte is running Mac OS X Snow Leopard, which must be 8 years old or something.

So, is the X5 worth €25’000 ? No, unless you’ve got a business model which will subsidise it, or you work for a Swiss bank or something. Is the X1 worth €16’000, then ? I don’t think so - it loses the X5’s diffuse light source, it’s slower, and (if this matters to you) it can’t do batch scanning, or, indeed reflective scanning (which I really doubt is a mahor selling point of the X5, but whatever).  If Hasselblad were showing some sign of continuing development, even if just to add a USB3 interface, and updating Flexcolor, then just maybe it could be considered a long term investment, but I would even be concerned that it will continue to work with current operating systems for much longer.

After all, Hasselblad recently named their new pride and joy camera the “X1D”. Presumably they didn’t even remember they’ve already got an X1 in the catalogue.

Posted in category "Scanning" on Wednesday, September 20, 2017 at 08:50 PM

The Great Pano Bake-off

in Scanning , Monday, July 31, 2017

Having now added a Linhof 612 to my arsenal of wide-screen photographic tools, the time has come for a showdown. Which, if any, is the best? 

The candidates are, then:

  • Linhof 612 Medium Format film camera
  • Hasselblad XPan 35mm film camera
  • Sigma dp0 Quattro digital camera with Foveon sensor, 21:9 frame ratio

Now, you may say that I could substitute any digital camera for the dp0, and “just crop”. Well, you could, but I can’t, because accurate composition through the viewfinder is important to me. The dp0 comes close to the XPan with its wider lenses, but as far as I know all Sigma Quattro cameras, so dp0, dp1, dp2, dp3, sd and sd-H offer a 21:9 crop. I don’t know of any other cameras which do.

I’ve compared the dp0 with the XPan in the past, and concluded that the Sigma is certainly a valid contender for the title of “digital XPan”. Indeed, it replaced the XPan in my camera bag on my last trips to Iceland and Antarctica. But the Linhof, surely, with its huge frame size, should come out of top ?

For the film cameras of course we have another factor in the equation: the scanner. I’m pretty sure that the OpticFilm 120 at 5300dpi extracts at least 90% of the potential resolution from the exposed film, but I’m not fully convinced that it reaches 100%. Possibly a drum scanner or a Hasselblad Flextight could do marginally better, but if it takes a €15000+ scanner to outdo a €900 Sigma camera, then we’d be be getting into the realms of insanity.

Of course, the relative file sizes are a bit scary.  But I’ve got lots of disk space.

  • Linhof: 24533 x 11245 pixels, 1.5Gb
  • XPan: 13516 x 4986 pixels, 395Mb
  • Sigma: 5424 x 2328 pixels, 73Mb

For the test, I trudged up (and down) to a local valley stream, set up the tripod, and shot frames from each camera. The scene was initially framed using the Linhof. The Linhof was loaded with Fuji Provia 100F, and had the 65mm lens mounted. The XPan, sadly, was loaded with Rollei Variochrome, set at ISO 200, in a parallel test described previously. I shot XPan frames with both the 45mm and 30mm lenses.  The Sigma of course had its fixed 14mm lens, which is roughly equivalent to 21mm for so-called “full frame”.

I was interested in two aspects: the different frame coverage, and the comparative resolution of each system. Colour was not really relevant in this particular exercise, although the differences are interesting.  But anyway I haven’t even attempted to try to match colour.

So, here are the “results”.  First, the comparative frame coverage.

panocompare_fullwidth

Clockwise from top left: Sigma dp0, Linhof 612 65mm, XPan 45mm, XPan 30mm.

It’s difficult, but please ignore the horrendous colour of the XPan frames. The scans are all “flat” from Silverfast - I have not attempted any kind of colour correction. The first thing that jumps out for me is how close the Sigma and Linhof are. I could get even closer by shooting a 2:3 frame on the Sigma and cropping it. The Linhof is just a touch wider. The XPan 30mm is the widest of all, and its vertical coverage is very similar to the Linhof. The XPan 45mm, in this company, and for this scene, is a bit neither here nor there.

Note, any attempt at choosing a “favourite” shot here is rather pointless. As I said above, the shot was framed for the Linhof, with the tripod remaining fixed for the other three, so I would expect (and indeed hope) to prefer the Linhof composition.

Working with the Linhof over the past month or so has confirmed my attachment to the (almost) 2:1 ratio. The Sigma ratio is actually closer than I expected, because the actual size of the exposed film on the Linhof is 12 x 5.5, so somewhat wider than a nominal 2:1. The Linhof has just one trick up its sleeve, but its a good one: the 8mm shift is hugely useful for this kind of shot. Note the difference between the Linhof and XPan 30mm frames: thanks to the shift (negative in this case), I’m able to put the extra vertical coverage to better use, without tilting up or down and hence distorting the perspective.  This limitation has always frustrated me with the XPan.

Now for resolution. Remember, with the Sigma, it being a digital camera with a Foveon 3 layer sensor, we can magnify up to 100% and expect sharp results.  With the film cameras it is way more complicated.  We need to factor in focussing (hyperfocal in this case), film flatness, film curl when scanning, scanner lens quality, scanner depth of field, and all the general characteristics of an analog to digital conversion.  Suffice it to say, film looks best on the light table, and goes downhill from then onwards. All we can do is damage limitation.

Having said all that, let’s look at a 100% section of each shot:

panocompare_100

100%: clockwise from top left: Sigma dp0, XPan 30mm, Linhof 612 65mm, XPan 45mm

In terms of numeric resolution, the Linhof clearly wins, but the level of actual information is debatable. There has been no sharpening applied here, so for the film shots what you see is what you get out of the scanner. What does appear to be the case is that the XPan lenses are actually sharper than the Schneider 65mm lens on the Linhof. One thing I’m finding with the Linhof is that objects at infinity seem to be quite soft, regardless of the focussing. I have no idea why this should be, but since focussing is by scale only, it isn’t straightforward to verify. Again, there are a lot of variables in the system.

Another way to compare is to try to adjust zoom to get roughly the same field of view, as follows.  Since the Sigma has the lowest nominal resolution, it defines the baseline.

panocompare_match

Matched view: clockwise from top left: Sigma dp0, XPan 30mm, Linhof 612 65mm, XPan 45mm

Now there’s not so much in it. The XPan with 45mm trails slightly, at least in this example, but otherwise the level of detail is close. Probably if the XPan had been loaded with Provia 100F then the difference would be smaller. With the Sigma there is a higher level of micro-contrast and acuity, but appropriate processing of the film images can close the gap.

Note, when printing these images at the maximum size I can achieve on my A2 printer, in all cases there is quite sufficient resolution, so this exercise in pixel peeping should be taken with several grains of salt.

However, the clear conclusion is so far that the Sigma dp0, which is more practical, lighter, considerably less expensive and offers immediate feedback, is pretty much a match for either of the film cameras on a technical level. To be honest it is probably the best of the three, in purely technical terms, and in the right conditions.

Let’s briefly compare the dp0 just with the Linhof:

panocompare_dp0_linhof

Top: Sigma dp0, Bottom: Linhof 612 65mm

The Sigma definitely seems to give slightly more real resolution, although there is a hint of some variation across the frame from the Linhof. But in the best case scenario, the Linhof / Plustek OpticFilm 120 combination is a match for the Sigma dp0 in terms of effective resolution - no more.

So why use the Linhof, and why use film at all? Well, all is not rosy in the Sigma world. Although it is not too apparent in this frame, it transitions to over-exposures in a very harsh and unpleasant way. With scenes featuring flowing water, for example, you need to be extremely careful with exposure.  And since the Sigma’s output is nowhere near as malleable as that of almost all other modern digital cameras, you have to very careful indeed. Actually it is this poor handling of highlights which makes more hesitate about investing in the Sigma sd Quattro system.

Of course, you also have to be careful with slide film, but even slide film with its aversion to highlight overexposure handles transition to burn-out much more naturally.  The Linhof also features one of the absolute best viewfinders ever made. If in-the-field composition is important to you, as opposed to fix-it-in-Photoshop, then this is a big deal.  And finally, the killer feature, the “permanent shift” lens, which avoids the Achilles’ Heel of panoramic photography, vertical entering of compositions.

And what about the poor old XPan? Well, it too has its advantages. First, the 30mm lens gives a wider field of view than either of the other two (although a Linhof 612PCII with 58mm lens would be wider).  The XPan also has a rangefinder, making manual focus very simple, and very reliable auto exposure.  And it is a quarter of the size of the Linhof 612. I’ve been using it for 17 years, and it’s not for sale. Yet.

And finally colour - although I like the colour output of the Sigma, it can be a little weird. Actually in the example here I used a custom colour profile in Lightroom. The rendition of Provia 100F, once the blue shadow cast is removed, is to my eyes more natural.  There is also something ever so slightly sterile about the Sigma output.

But finally, all three are great cameras which give me a lot of satisfaction.  If I was pushed to produce something on a tight deadline, if the subject permitted it I’d probably use the Sigma.  If I wanted the best control of composition I’d use the Linhof, with Provia 100F for landscape or Portrait 400 for urban work.  For maximum flexibility and discretion, the XPan.  In all three cases, I’d be able to print as large as I am able to with no compromises.

But I would love to see a drum scan of a Linhof 612 shot…

 

Posted in category "Scanning" on Monday, July 31, 2017 at 11:16 AM

Some Guy bites back

in General Rants , Tuesday, October 04, 2016

This stuff I wrote the other day was picked up by Andrew Molitor on his blog "Photos and Stuff" (hmm, sounds familiar), and put forward as an example of what happens when a photographer lacks a firm goal. He’s put it in a benign enough way - God help me if I should get on his wrong side - but I think maybe he’s hung his coat on the wrong nail. I don’t lack a firm goal - the problem is that I have far, far too many goals.

I could say taking my Iceland photography as the focus is not the best idea. To be honest, for me photography is just an excuse to spend time in Iceland. But since recently I have actually evolved a framework that I might be able to drape some Icelandic photography over, let’s leave that aside. Generally, the problem I was rambling on about the other week is not that I don’t know what I want to express.The problem lies in the detail of how to express it. And by extension, coming up against seemingly diametrically opposed advice on how to do so.

There is something slightly odd about advocating someone to study photo books (you should see my bookshelves) read about Real Photography (ditto, and a pretty broad selection) but at the same time advising them to steer clear of anything that smacks of technique, especially, God forbid, post-processing. Technique doesn’t make you a good photographer, but lack of technique - applicable technique, that is - can prevent a good photographer from emerging.

Certainly it is all too easy to go overboard on technique - the web is overflowing with examples of dangerous idiot savants who’ll sell you their useless advice - but that does not invalidate technique in itself. It would be like saying that a writer has no need of vocabulary or grammar. And that is a useful analogy: I often feel like I’ve got a whole bunch of stories to tell, pictorially, but I don’t quite have the technique to tell them. Let’s not fall into the trap of taking that too literally - of course there is a storytelling aspect to photography involving the sequencing of and relationships between photos. But there is also a storytelling aspect to single images, and the language to tell that story has verbs like dodging and burning and nouns like micro-contrast and tone. It’s hardly a new observation. So just because I may be having some trouble reconciling apparently contradictory advice on how to apply the language of post-processing doesn’t mean I haven’t got a clue about what I’m trying to express.

There’s another trap easily sprung - Andrew picks up on the not uncommon advice to flip a picture to study the balance. It comes naturally to view camera photographers who see the world upside down on the ground glass. The trap Andrew stumbled into is this: he exclaims “Really, who gives a shit about balance? I don't. Balance is a thing, but it's not an unalloyed good thing any more than blue is a good thing. It's just a property of the picture”. Well, yeah. But, er, who said anything about it being anything else ? The point is the trick frees you up to consider the balance. It doesn’t say, anywhere, that the balance has to be “right”. It just IS. Balance can be harmonious, and serene, or it can be tense and uneasy. If you “don’t give a shit about balance” then honestly I wonder if you give much of a shit about photography, finally. But I’m pretty sure Andrew assumed balance, in this context, means nice pretty blue skies with unicorns jumping over perfect rainbows. His reaction to my mention of this idea, by setting up and demolishing a straw man, somewhat tainted the rest of his argument. Actually I think he’d rather enjoy reading David Ward’s philosophical treatise on landscape photography, “Landscape Within”.

I suspect anything hinting at Landscape Photography is a bit of a red rag to Andrew. Landscape has become the stamp collecting or transporting of photography. It’s what socially inept people in smelly anoraks do, which lets them conflate their longing for shiny toys with wanting to impress the girls by being creative (we’re pretty much all boys). Well, anyway, that’s a view which Andrew sometimes gives me the impression he may subscribe to. He’s hardly the only one, but this idea that Landscape Photography is just a crutch for DPReview or 500px denizens and not something real Real Photographers do is pretty prevalent. Hell, it’s not far from the truth. But it’s a generalisation, and generalisations cloud vision.

To quote another bit “So what was it like, David? (and not just David, all you folks in the cheap seats should follow along) Take some time. Get out a notebook. Write. Think. What was it like to be in Iceland?” - well, actually, I’ve done that. Quite a lot. It’s scattered all over this blog, and it’s starting to coalesce.

(note, all this is in good humour. Andrew Molitor seems like the kind of guy I'd be happy to buy a drink for). Read his blog - he's definitely wrong about one thing - I'm not an "an occasional reader here", actually I read pretty much every word he writes.
Posted in category "General Rants" on Tuesday, October 04, 2016 at 10:30 PM

woe is me

in General Rants , Friday, August 12, 2016

I am aware that things have gone very quiet around here recently. It isn't that I've got nothing to say or share, but rather that I've had no time to share it. Ten very full days in Iceland were followed by hosting guests over the Swiss National Day weekend, then I had to dedicate a little time to actually working for a living. And then computer Armageddon struck. I woke up on August 3rd to find that one internal disk had failed completely, one external RAID drive was now not a RAID drive anymore, another external drive refused point-blank to talk to the computer (2008-vintage Mac Pro) over the fast eSATA interface, one of my 3rd level photo backup drives claimed to be empty, and finally the computer itself threw a fit claiming either a memory error or logic board error. It was impossible to work out which. Oh, and the primary photo RAID set was 90% full. During the following week various other things went wrong in inventive and amusing ways.

Eventually I ended up with a stable (whisper it) system with a new 4Tb primary store and everything else working. In a fit of panic I also ordered a Drobo 5Nt backup system, which (a) arrived 1 week overdue, and (b) was probably a big mistake, but it's hard to get any sensible alternatives down here in Hicksville.

Then my 15 year old original Apple Cinema Display decided it only likes displaying red. Now having replaced that with a new Eizo CS270, I've realised that the colour on my cherished Quato 240LE is way off, and no amount of calibration can fix it.

So my nerves are a little frazzled.

Here's a nice relaxing photo from Iceland. Deep breaths... and blueberry Skyr.

drm__20160716_DP0Q0351.jpg

Krýsuvíkurbjarg

Posted in category "General Rants" on Friday, August 12, 2016 at 04:58 PM

The Third Bag

in Product reviews , Wednesday, June 15, 2016

So after the lengthy bag discussion, I decided to throw caution to the wind. The PRVKE just wasn't working for me. Honestly, I think it's just trying to solve far too many problems at once, and some of them don't even need solving. The essential problem is that it doesn't seem to have a primary role. I really don't think you can mash up a camera bag, hiking bag, travel bag, gym/school bag and biker backpack in one and end up with anything sensible. It really doesn't fit my needs as a camera bag. In terms of capacity, the "cube" really makes very poor use of the space available, and as other reviews have mentioned, it's all a bit flimsy and inflexible. As for the rest, well, I'll give it the benefit of the doubt, but I'm not that convinced about the roll top standing up to much in the way of moderate rain. Ok, so there's a rain cover, but still - my experience of roll tops is that they're the bags you put other stuff in to keep dry, rather than the other way around. So, nice try, WANDRD, but I'm afraid if the Perfect Bag TM was that easy to pull off, LowePro or Tamarac or Manfrotto or whoever, with years of experience, would have already done so. The psychology of Kickstarter funding is very interesting - since backers are general early adopters, and have both a monetary and emotional buy-in, I suspect this leads to very uncritical user reviews. Or maybe it's just me. But I still needed a bag. The F-Stop stuff looked tempting, but their obvious epic inability to manage production, and poor marketing and communication left me dubious. Anyway, you can't actually buy most of their stuff, it's all back-ordered for ever. So, what was left ? Well, in the end, thought convergence, some comment by Bernard on the previous entry, and a dose of common sense led me to Bag 3: the Mindshift Backlight 26L. Sadly the green version isn't available yet, and I've got a deadline.
Mindshift Backlight

The Backlight 26L. Actually it looks quite nice in grey.

I did swear I'd never buy anything from ThinkTank again, but I guess I'm let off here on a branding technicality. Anyway, the Backlight is a really nice little bag - a blend of ThinkTank build quality and LowePro wearability. The zips are just amazing - sorry WANDRD, but please take a look at how Mindshift do it - solid, chunky, smooth running zips that you can easily open and close with one hand - unlike your YKK stuff, which may be great for jeans, but honestly doesn't work too well on a backpack. Mindshift have taken a different approach to providing space for clothing etc - the division is vertical. Camera gear goes at the back, and is accessed from the back, and other stuff goes at the front. It's less voluminous that the PRVKE, and possibly marginally less secure, but it is a lot more practical, and clearly defines the Prime Mission as being a camera bag. It wouldn't work very well for overnight trekking - but honestly, neither would the PRVKE. I wouldn't much like to carry much over 10kg on my back with the PRVKE's weedy waist strap. So the Backlight easily swallows all this: Olympus E-M1, Zuiko 12-40 lens, Zuiko 50-200 lens (that would have to stay at home with the PRVKE), Sigma DP0 (very awkward shape) and Voigtländer Bessa III, along with filters, batteries, etc. And there's still space to spare. And it is easily flight carry-on size.
Mindshift Backlight

Come on in, plenty more room inside!

So what to do with the PRVKE? I'm not sure yet. It might still be useful as a "city" backpack, or indeed a travel backpack, but it's a little too large and bulky for that. Or it might end up on eBay. After all, it's had rave reviews, so it should be easy enough to find it a more suitable home.
Posted in category "Product reviews" on Wednesday, June 15, 2016 at 10:16 AM

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