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Let down by a lens

in GAS , Tuesday, December 23, 2014

As part of a dedicated weight saving exercise before leaving for Colombia, I decided to buy the Olympus 14-42EZ “pancake” zoom. According to reviews it is better optically than the standard 14-42, which I already feel is pretty good for a kit zoom, and so it seemed to be a good idea- Well, as it turns out, it wasn’t. The 14-42EZ is the worst Olympus lens I’ve ever used, in fact the only one I’d qualify as bad (or even less than very satisfactory). The results from it are uniformly soft, far more so than could be explained by poor technique on my part. This was not helped by the terrible “shutter shock” behaviour of the E-P5 body.  Yes, I know there’s a fix for that, yes I installed it, but not having read all the reams of internet chatter about this, and in the absence of any guidance whatsoever from Olympus, I failed to set all the correct obscure menu entries. And since I hadn’t really used the E-P5 much I hadn’t noticed the issue before (actually it seems to be much worse with lighter lenses).

Drm 2014 11 29 PB291539

This photo looks ok as a small web jpeg…

Shuttershock

...not so good at 1:1

I also had the 40-150 “plastic” zoom with me, and that worked pretty well, as ever. I’m not sure why that lens gets so dismissed by the forum denizens. But in general I’m pretty disappointed with Olympus in general, and not regretting my decision to pass up a good offer on an E-M1. It seems that camera is plagued with exactly the same issues for which the company does not appear to want to invest in research for a fix.

At this point then I’m wondering what to do next. I’ve sold off a lot of gear this year, initially to fund a Linhof 612 (which I chickened out of), and now I have no “rugged” camera. My general idea was to buy an E-M1 at some point, but now I’m really questioning that decision. I’ve been using Olympus cameras since the introduction of the E-1 in 2003, so changing brands now would be a major shock to the system. I find the Sony A7 series interesting, but the lenses are expensive and there’s no realistic telephoto. Also, I tend to believe that rather than an expensive camera makes you a better photographer, you should first be a good enough photographer to justify an expensive camera, and my output doesn’t merit a Sony A7 system. Another option, going against the flow, would be a Nikon DSLR, but the same caveat applies. However that would open up the potential to use tilt/shift lenses … but then again, would go totally counter to the objective of having a lot weight, good quality travel kit. Based on personal experience I wouldn’t touch Fuji X-series cameras with a bargepole. Too fragile by far, and slightly ridiculous with all their design pretensions and luvvy owner clubs.

Perhaps my 14-42EZ is a “bad sample”, a concept I’ve always been a little dubious of. From a sample of internet reviews is does seem to get a mixed press, and some report very good results. But even if that’s the case, and even if I could get it replaced, which would be pretty hard in Switzerland, the damage is already done. And my confidence in Olympus Quality Assurance is severely dented. I have one major trip planned for next year which without doubt would require me to replace my now sold Olympus E-5s with something equally robust and flexible. However at present I’m feeling more like cancelling the trip and taking several steps back from photography. This might sound like a major over-reaction to disappointing performance from a (fairly) cheap lens - well, also from a fairly expensive camera, but in fact it’s perhaps the final of a whole series of nails. Investing all this time, money and emotion in photos which attract little interest except from me is getting a bit ridiculous.

Posted in category "GAS" on Tuesday, December 23, 2014 at 05:24 PM

Hello (again) Ricoh

in Ricoh , Monday, November 10, 2014

Just under 2 years ago I became unwillingly separated from my Ricoh GRD4 due to a bit of carelessness in Buenos Aires and some anonymous Argentinian who doubtlessly is now roasting in hell for his/her misdemeanours. This interrupted something like 14 years of continuously using Ricoh GR series cameras. Although I had (and still have) a GRD2, it was falling apart and frequently refused to work. I adored the look of the “new GR” when it first came out, but it was a bit too expensive for me.

But no more. Thanks to a very low special offer from Digitec here in Switzerland, I am now the new owner of an APS-C sensor Ricoh GR, quite a different proposition from the GRD4 from an image quality point of view (although not always necessarily better) but with the same fantastic usability, design and build quality. And I’ve got it just in time for our next Latin America jaunt, to Colombia, where discretion is highly advisable. Hopefully it won’t get “liberated” like its predecessor.

Ricoh group

GRs old and new - the GR1S film camera, GRD2 digital, and new GR.

Due to the large sensor and subsequent shallower depth of field, it isn’t quite as forgiving in use as the the GRDs.  Closer in a way to the film GR, and also closer in size.  But from my first hurried attempts in grim weather, it gives great results. And it fits in my pocket.

All the photos here are pretty much straight from camera…no time for faffing around right now.

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Posted in category "Ricoh" on Monday, November 10, 2014 at 08:32 PM

Sigma Merrill: good in parts

in Photography , Tuesday, October 28, 2014

On a few days wandering around the trails of Grindelwald, under the shadow of the Eiger, I decided to take my Sigma DP2 Merrill out for another outing.  Although it’s a nice camera to use - at least I find it to be - it is ultimately so frustrating that sometimes I’m tempted to just bin it.

In good conditions, which for the Sigma means flat, diffuse light, it is an absolute dream. It produces colours so real they’re surreal, and detail which just goes on and on without getting overwrought or artificial.

But, Lord help me, point it any kind of interesting sky, or indeed snow, and it’s a total lottery.  This, below, for example. Is the sky that colour on your planet ? Does it have gorgeous purple rainbows in the corners ?

Drm dp2m 20141026 1809

But then again, what camera that size could extract this kind of detail ? The Eiger ridge Mittelegi Hut is clearly visible at 100% zoom. You can even see the light.

Eiger detail2

In more subdued light, it really can be quite remarkable…

Drm dp2m 20141025 1775


...but on the whole, it’s just too unpredictable, and using it has a feel of being different for the sake of being different. The experiment of using it in Antarctica was a disaster, and although probably I’d do a bit better with it now, last weekend’s outing underlined that wintery landscapes can really trip it up badly. The white balance goes so wrong that it is near unrecoverable.

It some surroundings it is great - along with it’s sibling DP3, it has let me produce some very satisfying photos of Venice. But otherwise, it’s too risky to rely on. I doubt I’ll be buying the new Sigma Quattro.

Posted in category "Photography" on Tuesday, October 28, 2014 at 09:48 PM

The Plustek OpticFilm 120 film scanner

in Scanning , Monday, September 22, 2014

Following major problems with my Minolta Dimage Scan MultiPro scanner over the previous months, I recently decided to switch to a new Plustek OpticFilm 120 medium format film scanner (or “OF120” for short). My principal motivation for this is to scan film, not to make tests, but since several people have already asked, and there is very little information on the web about the OF120 which does not quickly degenerate into foam-at-the-mouth ranting, I’ve decided to dedicate a little time to provide some comparisons between the two scanners.

I recommend you first read these two in-depth reviews by qualified experts.

Mike Pasini
Tim Parkin

My own report will be entirely subjective.

My primary “use case” for the OF120 is scanning Xpan format film (nominally 65 x 24mm), and the vast majority of that is reversal film, principally Ektachrome E100G, Provia 400X, Provia 100F and Velvia 100F. I have some 6x6 and 6x7 120 reversal film (and a little 612 if we consider the Belair), but currently I do not shoot medium format. I do not shoot much negative film, although I’ve just shot 5 rolls of 35mm Portra 400, 2 in the Xpan and 3 in my Minox 35ML. They’re not yet processed. I’ve also used Portra and Ektar in the past, but generally I’ve preferred reversal film. For black & white you’ve come to the wrong place: I’ve only ever shot C41 B&W, and small amounts of Agfa Scala. If you want to know how well Tri-X or HP5 or whatever scans, you’ll have to send me a sample (but please ASK FIRST, in the comments below: I’ve got a day job too).

A few other ground rules:

  • I use Silverfast. I might try Vuescan just out of curiosity at some point, but I won’t put any time into resolving any issues, if there are any. Ed Hamrick’s antipathy towards the OF120 doesn’t encourage me much. He probably had a fit when he saw the Silverfast logo on the front :-)
  • In “productive work”, I use the Silverfast Archive solution. I know some people don’t see the point. Fine, variety is the spice of life, and I have no wish to either defend or evangelise my personal choices.

So, for me it boils down to this:

  • Can the OF120 match, or come acceptably close, to the scan performance of the MultiPro on XPan slides ?
  • Can it do this reliably, with crashing, and with requiring constant nursing ?
  • Is it reasonably fast ?

If you want to stop reading now, the answers so far are, in summary, yes, yes, and yes.

1. The Plustek Opticfilm scanner

First impressions are good. The scanner arrives in a large box, well protected. Half of the box real estate is given over to Silverfast marketing, which is some indication of the co-operation between the two companies. Inside the box is the scanner, a 6x7 Silverfast IT8 target, a Plustek DVD, a Silverfast 8 DVD, two skimpy getting started manuals, and seven boxes containing the film holders. There are film holders for mounted 35mm, 35mm filmstrip (with two slots for multiformat 35mm such as XPan), 6x6, 6x7, 6x8, 6x9 and 6x12 medium format. All are glassless. All except for the mounted 35mm are adjustable, I assume in order to account for the different spacing between frames on various MF cameras. The closing mechanism is via two magnetic clasps. Loading film is very easy, and all in all these are by far the most impressive, best engineered scanner film holders I’ve ever seen. Film appears to be held tight and is well tensioned. Whether or not this is good enough for curled film remains to be evaluated. Note, I can’t see any technical reason why a 6x17 holder could not be added. You could load 6x17 into the 6x12 holder, but there’s no obvious way to tell Silverfast to scan it. Although there is a potential workaround, which I’ll try out. There are no technical specifications provided whatsoever. Not even the usual admonitions not to use the equipment in the shower or use it to fry eggs. Or indeed the mandatory CE notices…

The design of the scanner itself is quite minimalist. It’s larger than the Minolta, but about the same weight. It features small Silverfast and iSRD badges on the front. Mechanically it seems pretty sound.

IMG 1116

Black is the new Beige

2. Setup

Setting up the OF120 on a Mac is basically a matter of plugging it in. The Plustek installation disk has an installer which appears to do something, but I have no idea what, as the driver is apparently included in Silverfast. It would be nice if Plustek had included a slightly more detailed manual on the DVD, but they didn’t. Anyway, there’s not actually a lot to discuss. Next, Silverfast is installed. The version on my disk is 8.0.1r18, which is seriously out of date. The current version is 8.0.1r54, and it’s a very good idea to update this before going any further.

The first thing I then did was to unwrap the gorgeous IT8 target and go about calibrating the scanner. Then comes the first stumble: on first run, Silverfast defaults to the 35mm holder. It does not recognise the inserted holder as it does for the Minolta.  Therefore, if, as a seasoned Silverfast user, you just pile in and press Auto IT8, things are not going to go according to plan. After a brief movement of puzzlement, I selected Image > ScanMode > Tranp. 6x7.  From then onwards, Silverfast performs its favourite party trick with the usual aplomb, and hey, presto, you have a colour-profiled scanner.

The OF120 is quieter in operation than the Minolta. The ticking of the Minolta stepping motor is quite absent. At the start of the scan, an abrupt “clunk” issues from the OF120, and then in the main it just whirs fairly peacefully.

3. Results

My first trial (I’m trying to avoid the term “test” here) involved my number one priority, XPan scanning. A pre-sales query to Plustek tech support in Europe produced a detailed reply explaining how to do this: the film size is not explicitly supported, so use the 35mm filmstrip holder, then tell Silverfast it’s the 6x9 holder. As a bonus, you can actually load two strips in, and batch scan them. As a downside, the film needs to be cut into 2-frame strips, which is a touch unfortunate as in recent years I’ve been using 3-frame strips in the Minolta. Anyway, the film slides snugly into place (none of the fiddling around you need to do with the Minolta holders) and the holder snaps shut with a reassuring clunk.

I’ve read scare stories about scanning speed. Well, I didn’t sit here with a stopwatch, but I’m extremely familiar with how long the MultiPro takes to scan an XPan frame, and the OF120 is in the same ballpark. I might even dare to say it’s a bit quicker. I’ve tried various combinations of iSRD (infra-red dust removal, the OF120’s alternative to DigitalICE and multi-exposure, and scanned at 5300dpi, close to the the Minolta’s native 4800dpi for the centre area. In each case the more complex combinations slow things down, but to the same degree as for the Minolta. Interestingly, the hardware scan times don’t vary much, unlike with the Minolta, but Silverfast sits there processing for longer.

So, let’s get to the important bit: the results. Here’s my test frame, an XPan shot taken earlier this year, and scanned at 4800dpi, 16 bits per channel, with 4x Multisampling and D-ICE on the Minolta.

Xpantest venice straight

I scanned the same frame on the OF120, at 5300dpi, 16 bits per channel, with iSRD (no Multiexposure. I’ll get to that later).

The nice thing about this frame is that it features the vital Brick Wall need to test stuff. Sadly no cats are currently present, which I know will be seen as a major failing in my methodology. It will just have to do.  Let’s look at a couple of details of the frame. In both cases there is no sharpening involved. First of all, the plaque on the bridge:

Minolta venice crop1

Minolta at 100%

Plustek venice crop1

OF120 at 100%

Not a lot in it really, is there ? Note, for the Minolta there was some contrast added in Silverfast. For the OF120 I left it flat.

Now let’s look at a shadow area, under the bridge to the left:

Minolta venice crop2

Minolta at 50%

Plustek venice crop2

OF120 at 50%

Again, not much in it. The shadow detail is about the same, despite the fact that the Minolta scan benefitted from multi-sampling and the OF120 did not. The two scans have slightly different black points.

On this example, I’d say that the OpticFilm 120 is a close match to the MultiPro. While I might be just a little disappointed that it isn’t better, in terms of resolution the lemon is squeezed dry anyway at this point. There isn’t any more detail to extract from 35mm film.

Here’s a second example, from a very different part of the world.

Xpantest2 srd

This time I’ve taking a sample from the middle of the frame:

Xpan antarctica minolta detail

Minolta at 100%, 4800dpi, 8x multi-sampling, 48bit HDR scan, manual focus, no sharpening

Xpantest2 srd detail

OF120 at 100%, 5300dpi, 48bit scan, no sharpening

This time around the Minolta undeniably has the edge, although do note that printing this file at 360dpi resolution would give an output size of 97 x 38cm. The largest XPan print I’ve made is 80 x 30cm. Nevertheless, my feeling is the Opticfilm 120 can, in theory, do a little better than this.

I have done some initial fiddling around trying to insert AN glass over the film, to improve flatness. Results so far were either “no change” or “worse”. But my methodology was hardly robust.

4. Some issues

I’ve spent far too long on this write-up already, but there are some issues I’ve come across which merit a brief mention.

Multiexposure alignment

This is currently the biggest problem I have. Multiexposure, which is required according to Plustek to reach their quoted DMax of 4.1, doesn’t work. The two exposures do not align properly. I have reported this to Lasersoft, and received a quick reply from Arne Ketelhohn, who states “In case there is a large offset in the infrared or ME images you can increase the detection offsets in the preferences’ special tab. The ME setting would have to be set in the scansoftware”. Ok, but while there is indeed a preference to set the maximum correction range from ME alignment, there’s no way I can see to apply the offset itself, and believe me I’ve looked. Unfortunately Arne did not reply to my follow up. Possibly Lasersoft were/are busy with Photokina, but I’m not letting them off the hook. They need to fix this. Note that ME alignment was always a bit haphazard with the Multipro, which is why I preferred to use the slower but equally effective and 100% reliable multi-sampling.
UPDATE, 23-09-2014I did get a reply from Arne Ketelhohn, who explained that there is no manual adjustment for ME, you just need to try different values of offset to get it calibrated.  I spent about an hour on this, I eventually found that a value of 6 gave a nearly flawless result, however looking closely a few “ghosts” could be found.

iSRD alignment

Same story as above, although strangely it has so far only cropped up in “64bit HDRi” files. In this case, there is a manual offset slider (two in fact, horizontal and vertical) and these can be used in Silverfast HDR to fine-tune alignment. iSRD seems to be pretty much on a par with DigitalICE, with the plus point that it is tuneable. Or maybe that’s a drawback…

Frame detection

A lot of people have reported problems with frame detection. I had one issue with the software not scanning all the way to the edge of the holder. A reset of both software and scanner fixed it. It only happened once, no big deal.

Fuji “pepper grain”

And a real blast from the past here: the old Fuji Provia pepper grain issue pops up again. Not really a problem with the scanner, and probably only a pixel-peeping issue. However I now wish I’d kept one of my Scanhancers to see if it works with the Opticfilm. I guess probably not, but pepper grain dissolving was one its benefits.

iSRD edge artefacts

In some extreme cases iSRD gives stair-step artifacting at high-contrast edges. I’ve only found this once so far on a 6x6 Velvia slide. Note that DigitalICE suffers from similar issues, which again the Scanhancer resolves. Since in Silverfast, iSRD can be fine-tuned and masked, there’s probably a workaround to this, it just requires a little time.
CORRECTION, 23-09-2014The stair-steps were Operator Error. I had the detection slider set far too high. A “normal” value is about 5.

5. Initial conclusions

It is very important to bear in mind that my conclusions are heavily biased by my personal needs and quality thresholds. I also just want things to work, I have no desire at all to spend all my scant free time “testing”, debugging and resolving issues. I just want to be able to scan my films at a high enough quality to frame them, show them around, and take them to potential exhibitors as samples of my work. The largest I print is A2 size on an Epson 3800 (on on A3 height panoramic sheets). Much as I loved my MultiPro, it was getting far too frustrating coaxing it along all the time.

In a nutshell, so far the OpticFilm 120 meets and perhaps slightly exceeds my expectations. So far it, and Silverfast 8, have been stable and reliable.

If today I had the choice between on OpticFilm 120 and a new Sony DimageScan MultiPro designed for OS X 10.9 with full tech support, I’d buy the MultiPro.  But given the choice between fading MultiPros and Coolscans, requiring maintaining second computers with old operating systems, and increasing amounts of attention, and a new Plustek OpticFilm 120 designed for OS X 10.9 with full tech support, I took a deep breath and went with Plustek. So far I don’t regret that decision.

As witnessed by the badges on the front, the OF120 was born joined at the hip with Silverfast Ai Studio 8. In my opinion this is a good thing, but as with every other first world problem these days, there are astonishingly rabid opinions expressed about this on the internet, many of which seem to emanate from uninformed, rigid and closed minds. Although personally I like Silverfast, and indeed Lasersoft, I’m far from blind to their shortcomings, and I’ll be making a considerable nuisance of myself getting defects recognised and resolved.  Lasersoft really, but really needs to get with the program and engage constructively with its remaining user base. Satisfied Silverfast users are Lasersoft’s biggest asset, it really is remarkable that they do not appear to understand this.

Ok. Enough already. Any questions ?

Posted in category "Scanning" on Monday, September 22, 2014 at 10:07 PM

It’s GAS week!!

in GAS , Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Yep. Gear Acquisition Syndrome is peaking dangerously in the first world. The moths are circling the flickering flame called Photokina, the biannual high temple of photographic consumerism and gear lust. Fur is flying on the internet fora, as photo geeks of all sizes descriptions hurl invective at each other over the champions they are backing from the Houses of Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Fuji, Sony, Ricoh et al. More well-off photo geeks are disdainfully ignoring these champions of Hoi Polloi and are (with dangerous courtesy) debating the merits of Leica, Alpa, PhaseOne, Hasselblad.

It’s kind of entertaining to watch, especially when compared with Work, but after a week of using just a humble little Minox 35ML (and realising that focus and aperture ring markings were meant for eyes less, er, mature than mine), and having lots of fun with it, I can’t really get all that excited about all these latest electronic marketing iterations.  I’ve also just cast off quite a large amount of digital gear, in the biggest sell-off I’ve ever done.

Oh, but I’m not immune to G.A.S.  It’s just in my case it’s getting seriously, but seriously twisted.

T612front k

This, above, is basically a very heavy, very solid metal box to which a lens board is screwed. The lens board features a stone-age Copal shutter and a lovely, but equally stone age Schneider lens.  On top of the box is a film winder, and a film counter - well sort of, actually it’s a dial you have to remember to set for yourself. And perched on top of it is an accessory viewfinder which is of legendary quality. The lens is vertically offset from centre by 8mm (“8mm permanent shift”) which sounds crazy but would make a deal of sense to most dedicated wide-format photographers (I don’t much care for “panoramic”, it doesn’t mean the same thing).  Oh, and you can pull the back off and drop in a roll of 120 film, assuming you can find one. Oh, and one last thing. A price tag that would make fellow Teutons Leica gasp in amazement.

Meet the Linhof Technorama 612PC II, the device of my dreams.

I don’t want one of these just for the sake of it, but rather because the 612 “cinemascope” frame is absolutely natural to me.  I confirmed my hunch about this with my ill-fated experiment with the Belair X 6-12, and recently with the iPhone application 645Pro.  Although I dearly love my XPan, sometimes, often even, it’s too wide. Sure, you can crop, but cropping an XPan frame down to a 2:1 ratio loses a lot of area, and on 35mm film it’s getting borderline for biggish prints. For the same reason, the 617 cameras don’t appeal that much.

I first discovered the existence of the 612 format through New Zealand photographer Andris Apse’s work. There aren’t actually many practitioners of the format to be found. Sure, there are gear geeks on Flickr who’ll pick up anything and run a few rolls of expired C41 film through it, photographing whatever and thing it’s art. But very few people have made the form their own (a recent exception I discovered is Alberto Bregani, whose mountain B&W work is quite gorgeous).

Anyway, there’s no way in this life I’m going to find nearly $10,000 to buy one of these new.  But with my recent gear recycling, I’m dangerously close to having freed up enough cash to get one of the few on offer on eBay (actually, not so long ago I missed an absolute bargain there).

Yes, but. It takes 120 film. The only 120 reversal film still produced is Provia 100F (actually pretty good) and Velvia 100 (not my thing, really). It’s far too heavy to consider taking on my rare but vital polar trips, especially after I swore blind I was going to just take a point-and-shoot after my last trip. It is absurdly expensive. And really, unless I get off my backside and start actually promoting and displaying my photography, it’s total overkill. I’ve got the XPan. I can do stitching (I was a very early adopter of pinheads, back around ‘95). I could buy one of those mega Sony A7r thingies for the SAME MONEY, for heaven’s sake. And yet, finally, it all gets pretty meaningless, taking photos without much sense of direction or purpose.

And film ?? C’mon, digital blows it out of the water, surely ? Well, I’m not so sure. I just happened to dig out an B3 size folio album of prints I made from photos taken in Santorini and Naxos, back in 2002, on Provia 100F using XPan and Canon T90. I haven’t looked at these for ages, and I was really taken aback at the clarity and sense of form in the prints. Although the difference isn’t that huge, actually they look better than prints from digital (well, except from the Sigmas). It doesn’t make a lot of sense, and all the experts will tell me I’m nuts or making things up, but really, the results speak for themselves.

Clearly, I was born 15 years too late. I missed the glory years of wide format film, and maybe trying to get back to it now is tilting at one windmill too many, even for me.  Maybe I should get back to the Photokina frenzy and inoculate myself against this craziness.

Meanwhile, I have actually finally made another decision and acquired some other new gear. More on that soon.  It’s either going to have been a very good or a very bad idea. And it involves film.

Posted in category "GAS" on Tuesday, September 16, 2014 at 09:25 PM

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