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.
Following on from my post from a few days ago, today I received some very unwelcome, and unexpected news in my Inbox. Apparently, the company to which I send film to be developed, and which does an excellent job, Studio 13 in Zürich, is shuttering permanently on December 23rd. This was also the only place that I know of that processes Agfa Scala. Even the (probably) last remaining significant Swiss E6 lab which I know of, fotomedia, which sells Scala, outsourced processing to Studio 13. So I guess that’s it for Scala. And E6 slide film is on the precipice.
Apparently their C-41 lab has been acquired by Tricolor, a company I haven’t heard of, but who’s website is a little intimidating. And it doesn’t mention film development services in any clear detail. And C-41 is not E-6. I don’t know if Chromobyte, in Basel, are still in the development business. They were possibly the best I ever found in Switzerland, but at some point they also started outsourcing to Studio 13, so I decided to cut out the middleman.
I’m not sure why Studio 13 is closing. They offered a very fast, fairly priced and extremely high quality service. I guess there’s no demand for film anymore, but that didn’t appear to be their principal business anyway.
In a strangely coincident way, earlier this week, responding to a price so low it must have been an error, I ordered a Sigma DP0 from Amazon Germany. They honoured the price, and it’s on its way. The DP0, in particular with its aspect ratio setting of 21:9, has been mentioned by several people as the potential ersatz “digital XPan”. That ratio sits halfway between the XPan 65:24 and 2:1 ratios, and the Foveon Quatro sensor should have enough resolution to support the crop.
We shall see. Is the end of film, and film scanning, approaching faster than I thought?
Prompted by a number of queries both in comments here and more frequently by email, and also by a very well written article on the Plustek OpticFilm 120 scanner, I have decided to write up my feeling on the current state of film scanning.
First up, an appeal: people, please manage your expectations. Seriously. Film scanning is now right on the edge of a niche within a niche market - film photography - which is either small but stable, or still dwindling, depending on who you believe, and if you consider “Lomography” to be a genuine component of this market (I don’t). Film scanning requires a combination of a complex opto-electronic-mechanical device together with high specialised and complex software. And customers - well, the few that exist - are demanding a perfect solution at an increasingly low cost. Frankly it’s astonishing that any enterprises still find a viable business model in this space. And then when you narrow it down even more to medium format film scanning, it gets crazy.
Please correct my if I’m wrong, but I believe there are three current manufacturers of MF film scanners: Plustek, Reflecta, and Hasselblad. The Reflecta scanners are badge-engineered versions of a white-label device built in Taiwan and sold under several labels, including Pacific Imaging. The Hasselblad scanners are so mind-blowingly expensive that it is hard to imagine them having any customers other than major media companies or very well-funded public institutions. Which leaves Plustek. I don’t really know a lot about Plustek the company, but my impression is of a small but enthusiastic company in a very small pool, not unlike Cosina with rangefinder cameras - oh, wait.
Fifteen years ago the story was very, very different. There were at least 5 manufacturers active in desktop MF film scanners alone (Nikon, Minolta, Polaroid, Microtek, Imacon), with new models and innovations appearing regularly. Add to this several others producing 35mm models only (including Canon and Plustek), and you had a healthy market at a range of price points. There are of course still secondhand models to be found, but the prices tend to be insane, there is mostly no servicing or repair available, and people tend to hang on to scanners that work properly. As said before, these are complex, delicate devices, subject to considerable wear, and don’t last for ever. And drivers compatible with latest operating systems are unlikely to be found. So realistically, you need to rule out the second hand market if you’re planning on staying in film scanning for the foreseeable future. Note, there is another path, which is to buy a second-hand drum scanner. These formerly insanely expensive devices, found only in Pre-Press shops, can now be acquired for something close to a pittance. But wait - they are very complex to install, maintain, and operate, requiring specialist knowledge which is hard to find even on the internet. They are very large, very heavy, and very cumbersome. And as for software - usually dongle protected through something like Apple ADB - forget about compatibility with anything released after around 2005. At the latest. Some brave souls offer bespoke scanning services using these monsters. If you want the ultimate quality, because they really are very, very good, you could go in that direction.
Note though, Tim Parkin, who runs the above linked drum-scanning service, reviewed the Plustek OpticFilm 120 (paywalled), and had this to say (I’m quoting very selectively here): “What’s quite surprising is how good the Opticfilm 120 is compared with the Howtek (4500 Drum Scanner)”, and “The Opticfilm 120 is undoubtedly a very good scanner and if the film holder and focus issues can be addressed this should give results that are dramatically better than the Epson V750 and potentially on a par with the Nikon 9000”. This, with the caveats that he modified the film holder to use two glass inserts to hold the film flat, and that he stated he would not buy an OF 120 with the existing film holders.
This is a real shame, because Plustek clearly put a huge amount of thought and resources into the film holders, which are the best I’ve ever seen, better even than Minolta’s, and provided no fewer than 7 different types with the scanner. It is quite baffling why they do not provide, or at least sell, glass film holders, as based on Tim’s tests, this would elevate the scanner from “best of a poor bunch” to “best desktop film scanner ever”. It may be possible to hack together a holder or two, buying spares and anti-Newton glass inserts, but I’m really not very good at that stuff, not to mention lazy and impatient. Oh, and ugly. Finally, another caveat on the OF 120 is that your chances of getting a glitch-free copy seem to hover around 50%. My first one had a stuck pixel or two in the Infrared channel, and went back for servicing (a total hassle in Switzerland, where Plustek has no official distribution, which is not unusual for small companies, as we’re a small country and not in the EU - but the retailer, Heiniger AG, was very helpful, and eventually I got a brand new scanner). At least we see there the benefits of a warranty and active production.
So, that’s the hardware. The Plustek OpticFilm 120 is, in my opinion (based on 20 years of film scanning), the least-worst choice for a new desktop film scanner. Note, I’ve never tried the Reflecta MF–5000, but the German film scanner info site prefers it over the OF 120. I think they got exasperated with the OF 120’s glitches. To me the Reflecta looks a little clumsy, especially the 35mm holder, and I’m not sure it can scan XPan panoramic format, a must for me. As for the Hasselblad X1/X5, even hiring one for half a day is horrendously expensive. And they don’t even have dust / scratch removal.
Now, the software. And again, we need to manage our expectations here. I’m a Silverfast (by Lasersoft) user, and have been for a very long time. I’m under no illusions that Silverfast is perfect - it is software, after all - but I do believe it delivers the best combination of scan quality and workflow efficiency. Note, you do need to consider the software/hardware combination together. It is possible that for other combinations, you’ll get different results. However, Lasersoft are closely involved with the initial and ongoing development of the OpticFilm 120, to the extent that it has a Silverfast badge on the front, and the shipping box is dominated by Silverfast PR. So, I expect that if Silverfast is going to be optimal for any scanner, it’s this one.
Silverfast was stuck on Version 6.x for many years. It had grown into a bit of a monster, with newer features seemingly bolted on at random, and it was crippled, on the Mac, by being based on PowerPC APIs. It ran under Rosetta, but when Apple dropped that as fast as they could (typical a***h*le behaviour from Cupertino), we were stuck. It took Lasersoft a long time to respond, in the light of the parallel dramatic downturn in demand for scanning solutions, but eventually they delivered the completely reengineered Version 8. Well, v8 is still idiosyncratic - it wouldn’t be Silverfast otherwise - but in my opinion, the current v8.5 is their best ever.
A lot of people complain about Silverfast. Now, I’ll admit to long-term user bias, but I’m not fan boy. I’ve been using Apple kit since 1990, and I’m certainly no Apple apologist. I also have professional UX/UI Design experience, and I’m neither known for my willingness to compromise, nor to suffer fools gladly. But given all this, and agreeing that Silverfast has a bit of a learning curve, I cannot understand why people are so critical of it. It makes a very complicated set of tasks, i.e reliably capturing an image imprinted as a positive or negative on a physical transparency, into an optimal, accurate, colour-managed digital copy quite easy. It’s colour editing tools are far superior to Photoshop, when considered specifically for film scanning, although probably the subset of users which can understand and benefit from this is also getting smaller. Yes, it requires some learning time. So does Photoshop. Yes, the documentation for v8 is crap. So is Photoshop CC’s. It’s an industry trend, you don’t get manuals any more (but with a small outlay, you can buy Mark Segal’s excellent guide). Lasersoft customer support is included in the price. It’s a bit haphazard, and trying to find the link to submit a question through the web page is a stroke-inducing experience, but if instead you use the “Request Online Support” feature in the application, you get a very quick response. The heavily moderated forum is a marketing disaster area in my opinion, and it is really frustrating to see what, frankly, seems to be team of dedicated, approachable and responsive people making such an unholy mess of promoting themselves. But, baseline, Silverfast works, and works well, and if you invest a little time into understanding it’s more advanced features, you might well be surprised at how much it can do.
It would not be fair to not mention the alternatives to Silverfast. Well, realistically, there’s only one: VueScan. Yes, Reflecta has its proprietary CyberView (not terribly good apparently), and there are long lost options like Binuscan (a seriously weird product). But now there is only VueScan. I’ve had a few public run-ins with Vuescan here, and indeed one of those articles is, to my astonishment, the most visited of all my posts. For some scanners, VueScan is the only option under modern operating systems, and it is certainly the case that you can obtain equally good results with Vuescan in your workflow as with Silverfast, but in my opinion, and experience, it’s more cumbersome, much more hit & miss, and requires a lot more post-processing. But, doubtless, if you’ve used VueScan for many years you’ll be comfortable with it, and you’ll find Silverfast weird. VueScan costs less money than Silverfast, that’s an undeniably fact. Allegedly VueScan also has good customer support. This is debatable - if VueScan’s sole owner, designer, programmer, marketer and support guy, Ed Hamrick, takes a dislike to you, you’re screwed, despite being happy to take your money. Unfortunately Ed is a little cranky. Clearly he is also to commended for his Herculean efforts, but then again, if tomorrow he decides to retire, where does that leave VueScan?
On top of all this, people who say VueScan is easier (or even easy) to use must be living on a different planet - the one the user interface was designed on. Working out how to tell it where you want to save a scan to is complicated enough, but say you want to color calibrate your scanner: in Silverfast, you do this: load the calibration slide, press IT8 calibrate. That’s it. In VueScan: in Input menu, set “Profile Scanner”. Load the calibration slide. Preview. On the internet, find your calibration slide reference data file. Download it. In Color Menu, under Scanner IT8 data, press the “@“ button (which in Vuescan apparently means “file path”), located the downloaded file. Use another “@“ button to tell it where to save the profile. Press Scan. Oh, that’s it! (probably). And all that profile stuff hides in the same menu where you can set colour balance using crude sliders. Ok, I’m not saying none of this stuff works. Clearly, it does. But people saying that VueScan is “easier to use” ? Give me a break - cheaper, yes. Wider scanner compatibility, yes. Good enough output, certainly. But easier to use - well, possibly it’s a more satisfying challenge for digital imaging geeks, but for people for whom scanning is necessary evil on the path to getting good prints, I’m very doubtful.
Of course it is all highly subjective. The upside is that we have two very competent competing solutions in the market. The downside is that commercial realities impose compromises on both.
So, to the people who’ve been mailing me in the past, and those who will do so in the future, all I can tell you is make your own choices, but be grateful you still have choices to make. Buying a software license for Vuescan or Silverfast is not just giving you access to the software, but encouraging the respective makers to continue. Same for hardware - Plustek and Reflecta (and clones) still make new, up to date film scanners for 35mm and Medium Format. Buying one gets you new hardware, a warranty, and customer support. And the right to nag their marketing teams to do better. Given the state of the film photography market, I’d say things are in better shape than we might have expected a few years back.