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Silverfast 8.5 first impressions

in Silverfast , Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Lasersoft Imaging recently announced the release of Silverfast 8.5 at CeBit, and shortly after it became available for download.  This is the most significant update since the complete rewrite which gave us version 8, and it has some interesting sounding enhancements. The first is a much enhanced Job Manager, and the second is the new “HDRi RAW” file format. I’ve been playing around a little with v8.5 Ai Studio, and v8.5 HDR Studio, and here are some very quick, and not terribly deeply researched first impressions.

In the past some new Silverfast features could perhaps be described as over-hyped, or poorly conceived, and on top of that were charged for. But I’m pleased to say that this time around, there seem little grounds for skepticism. First of all, it’s a free upgrade, and secondly, the new features are well designed, well integrated, and genuinely useful.

The Job Manager has gained a great time saving feature inspired by applications such as Aperture or Lightroom: the ability to copy and paste adjustments from one frame to one or more others. In Silverfast it’s called “Extract & Apply”. In Aperture, “Lift & Stamp” - whatever the name, this is really welcome and is especially useful when working on large batches of files in HDR Studio.

SilverFast HDR 8

The new “Extract & Apply” dialog in Silverfast HDR 8.5

Apart from this feature, the Job Manager, which is at the core of Silverfast’s workflow, has had a thorough refresh, and is much nicer to work with now.

The new file format, HDRi RAW, as far as I can tell retains image adjustment settings with the “HDR” file, so that they can be retained between sessions.  This is great, but so far I have to confess to being a little confused, as I thought that Silverfast HDR Studio already managed that. Possibly not, maybe it was only the case for saved Job Manager sessions.  Anyway, it works, and there is also a right-click method to reset to default within the VLT thumbnail browser.

Also, the VLT itself seems to have had some behind the scenes attention, as it feels significantly faster and responsive. Overall the application appears to have received speed and stability enhancements.

There is another new feature, the forthcoming iOS job monitor app. This seems to be more into the quirky end of Silverfast’s range of features, but I guess it might be entertaining!

In conclusion, this is one of the most comprehensive and well thought out revisions I’ve seen Silverfast receive for quite a while. It’s a good indication of the ongoing commitment of Lasersoft to their customers.

One last thing, though. The original CeBit Press Release also mentioned the re-launch, with software and hardware enhancements, of the Plustek OpticFilm 120. I haven’t seen any follow-up to that…

 

Posted in category "Silverfast" on Wednesday, April 01, 2015 at 11:24 PM

Replacing Aperture

in Product reviews , Thursday, March 12, 2015

The writing on the wall has gotten so large that even I can see it. It is crystal clear that Apple are never going to replace Aperture in any meaningful way. They are going to develop their “Photos” thing, which will let people look at thousands of photos on their watch (sorry, Watch). Well, fine. Whatever. I’m sure the shareholders are laughing all the way to the bank. Ten years ago, Apple made integrated hardware and software which provided a fantastic, frictionless way to manage and process digital photos. Now, they don’t. They make glitzy computers which look like dustbins or gold doorstops, which you can barely plug an external disk into. They make very, very dumbed down software, which ironically, is not even intuitive to use. And they run a chain of hugely successful luxury boutiques. They’re not heading down any road I want to go down.

So, time for a change. It hasn’t been an easy task to find a solution, but I think I’ve got there. I’ve discarded Adobe Lightroom, because it is so hideous it makes my eyes bleed. I’m skipping on Capture One because parts of it are just weird, it pitches too much at the high end, and the cataloging part is a bug -ridden, sluggish disaster area. But more important, I’m skipping both of these because I’ve learnt my lesson about relying on closed solutions.

The solution I’ve decided on is to use ID Imager PhotoSupreme as my cataloging tool, and Iridient Developer as my RAW Developer, with Adobe Photoshop CS6 for finishing, printing, and working on scanner-sourced files. PhotoSupreme is a cross-platform application built on top of an open-source SQL database. It acts both as an advanced cataloging tool, comparable to the venerable but obsolete MediaPro, and as a hub to other workflow applications. I’ve been running a trial for 30 days, and have just bought a license. There is some sign that PhaseOne has not given up on MediaPro, but I’ve given up waiting.

Photo Supreme window

A collection view in PhotoSupreme

PhotoSupreme takes some getting used to, especially if you’ve been using MediaPro for about 100 years, not to mention Aperture. Being old and stupid doesn’t help either. Neither does the rather patchy documentation (although an active and helpful user community where the developer participates is a big help). It has its own way of doing things, and newcomers need to take time to get in sync with it. Actually, I think I had a quick look at it a while back, and discarded it as lacking various features. Well, actually, there are very few features it lacks, but you need to work out where they are, and how they work. Once everything starts to click into place, it reveals itself as a very powerful application. I suppose the core difference between PhotoSupreme and MediaPro is that MediaPro encourages use of multiple catalogs, and PhotoSupreme doesn’t really, although it does support them. PhotoSupreme organisation metaphors are different to MediaPro’s but ultimately let you do the same things. But PhotoSupreme has one absolute killer feature, to me anyway: Version Sets.

Photo Supreme Version

Version Sets: the holy grail

PhotoSupreme’s Version Sets are like Aperture’s Stacks (and therefore Lightroom’s clumsy copy of the same). A Version Set collects various versions of the same image (or actually completely different images if you want). But it actually goes further than Aperture, and allows you to indicate the purpose of each version, through “placeholders”. So, you can have a master RAW (or a Silverfast HDR), a JPG for web, another JPG for Flickr, a PSD for printing. And you can add your own placeholders to the core set, pretty much ad-infinitum as far as I can see. The way in which Version Sets are displayed is a little confusing at first, but basically boils down to whether you have a physical (e.g folder) or logical (e.g collection) view open.

PhotoSupreme provides effective import tools for Aperture libraries and MediaPro catalogs, as well as other application formats. There is a single-user version which seems to work fine with several hundred thousand images (according to forum members - I’m nowhere near that prolific), but if that isn’t enough, there’s a heavy duty multi-user version.

All in all, this is a perfect front-end to Iridient Developer. ID has just hit version 3.0, and just keeps getting better. I won’t go into any detail about it here, I’ve written about Iridient a lot in the past. You can read a nice review of Version 3 here. ID can’t do any kind of local editing or pixel-based operations, so Photoshop remind on hand for that. And that’s fine, it’s what it’s good at.

The interesting thing about PhotoSupreme and Iridient Developer is that they’re both developed by one-man band operations, PS by Hert van Zwietering, and ID by Brian Griffith. And despite both inevitably having a few minor rough edges, they make the efforts of certain megaCorporations look pretty sad. And neither impose any kind of lock-in, either through software design, or through pay-or-lose-access rental schemes.

It’s still going to be a hell of a job transitioning from Aperture, but now I’m beginning to feel it will be an upgrade, not a downgrade.

Posted in category "Product reviews" on Thursday, March 12, 2015 at 07:45 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

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