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Silverfast 8.5 first impressions

extract, and apply!

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…

 

 

Replacing Aperture

the Great Leap Forward

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.

 

Apple & Olympus

piggy bank quakes in terror

in GAS , Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A couple of announcements on the gear side of photography have sparked my interest in recent days. First, the emergence of the preview of Apple’s “Photos” application. This is supposed to replace both iPhoto and Aperture, although exactly what Apple means by “replace” might not quite match up with the expectations of long-term users of either application. The synchronisation between devices is something that’s been missing since the 3rd party Pixelsync was murdered by Apple, but otherwise there’s little to be optimistic about. On the Aperture side it looks fairly grim. Photos is showing some sign of innovation on the manipulation front, but the effort seems to have gone into a narrow range of tools. Aperture’s in-depth colour controls don’t seem to have been taken over, for example. That’s not good, as Aperture was lagging a bit behind competitors such as Lightroom and CaptureOne in that area anyway (although perhaps far less so that internet chatter would have you think). But on the organisation / editing side, it’s a total wipeout. There seems to be basically no tools at all. You get Apple’s hardwired idea of how your photos should be organised (“Moments”, “Collections”, etc) and that’s basically it. And as for metadata, well, someday perhaps. Maybe a third party plugin will support it. And that’s the basic issue - Apple wants us to wait, and wait, and wait, and then (maybe) rely on some 1-man band App Store plugin developer to provide Aperture feature parity.  Well, no thanks. This is not the sort of house of cards I want to entrust a lifelong endeavour to. Aperture was - and is - fabulous, but it clearly doesn’t fit into Apple’s corporate vision, and indeed probably never did. I suspect it was largely sustained, as a square peg in a round hole, by Steve Jobs’ foaming-at-the-mouth hatred of Adobe. Aperture was a throwback to Apple’s last-century culture. It has no place in the world of the iThing factory. Photos, on the other hand, is iThing to the core, which is probably excellent news for selfie addicts casual photographers and Apple shareholders.

The other news is from Olympus. The latest OM-D camera, the (deep breath) OM-D EM-5 Mark II, might tempt me where the OM-D series so far has not. The big deal for me is not the 64Mpix sensor-shift high resolution mode, although that is interesting, but rather the long awaited (by me at least) return of the swivel mounted rear screen, which was such a key feature of the E-3 & E-5 DSLRs. The EM5.2 also seems to carry over the rugged build of these two.  Olympus is pretty much the only company to have ignored the line that swivel screens are too fragile to include on weather sealed, pro-build quality cameras. I certainly never found any issues with their implementation on the E-3 & E-5, despite those cameras being roughly handled in a fine selection of aggressive environments. Unfortunately the E-5.2 does not have the phase detect auto-focus which provides full compatibility with Four Thirds lenses. I suppose we’ll have to wait for the EM1.2 for everything to fit together. But this time around, I might, possibly, be tempted. I’m due to visit the Icelandic highlands in the summer, and at present I don’t own a camera which would put up with much of the weather encountered in those regions.

 

An Aperture + Iridient Developer workflow

Me? Stubborn?

in Apple Aperture , Thursday, July 17, 2014

The recent boat-rocking move by Apple to announce the decline and fall of Aperture has led me through several stages of anger, denial and acceptance. And it has also led me to re-evaluate my digital imaging workflow. For a while I’ve had the feeling that, technically, my photos lack a certain something, compared to other work I see published. Perhaps I’ve been rather complacent in imagining that my knowledge and skills in post-production are adequate. So this as well gave me some impetus to explore options a bit. To cut a long story short, my decision has been to adopt a solution coupling Iridient Developer with Aperture. More on this a bit later, but first a few words on the solutions I rejected.

Icons

Photoshop: I’m not anti-Adobe, and their raw decoding is generally good. However, it has some (minor) issues with Olympus files, and it can’t handle Sigma Merrill RAW. Also, I find the Camera Raw interface ugly and clumsy, and since I do this stuff for fun, well that’s a factor. I do use Photoshop very frequently, but more for my film workflow. And I’m not happy about the subscription model, even though since InDesign is an important tool for me, I’ll probably have to give in one day. For now I have Creative Suite 6, and that’s just fine.

Lightroom: Not really a contender for me. Been there, done that. It is good at many things, but pretty much everything it does something else does better. For example cataloging, which both Aperture and MediaPro do better.

CaptureOne: I own C1Pro, so it was a strong contender. But I don’t really care for the default curves it applies, and generally the GUI can be frustrating. The DAM features in v7 are very substandard, and at the same time what little interactivity there was with MediaPro in v6 has been killed off. But basically the character of the output doesn’t fit in with my objectives. I feel that C1 is optimized for the fashion industry, even if some leading landscape photographers such as Joe Cornish and Steve Gosling use it. But then they own PhaseOne backs.

DxO Optics Pro: I took a serious look at DxO following an article by Kirk Tuck. A strong point is the “DxO Lens Softness” which provides initial high quality input sharpening with no artefacts. Definitely better than Aperture. But the headline feature, lens correction, leaves me a bit dubious. For micro four thirds camera/lens combinations, rather than apply the manufacturer corrections included in the image file, DxO clearly applies its own, and the results are different. The original framing is not respected (interestingly there is significant image data outside of the frame) and to my eyes some minor distortion remains. For four thirds combinations it seems to make some weird changes too. I’m not convinced. And it doesn’t handle Sigma files. But the output is good and highly detailed. Indeed, I was on the verge of buying it when from one moment to the next the special offer pricing was removed. €269 is way too much.

So, back to Iridient Developer (ID). I’ve written about this great application before, but since Aperture has been around, it’s always been a secondary tool for me. But with the release of v2, and a host of new features, including tighter integration with Aperture, and the fact that it handles Sigma files very well indeed, it’s been getting more use. And now, finally, I’ve put a little effort into setting up a streamlined workflow.

Following my discovery of DxO’s lens de-blurring, I decided to see if I could get a similar result from ID’s generous range of sharpening tools. And indeed I could. The R-L Deconvolution method, which is specifically designed to remove minor blur rather than traditionally sharpen, works extremely well. As do ID’s highly configurable Noise Reduction tools. So these two controls together give a good approximation of Aperture’s RAW Fine Tuning brick, only with noticeably better results. These then form the basis for a camera default preset. ID allows you to define default settings for each camera type you use and for each ISO level. I haven’t gone to quite that extent yet, but maybe one rainy Sunday I’ll give it a go.

Aperture, of course, does not support alternative RAW engines. There are manual workarounds to this, but they’re tedious. However ID has recently acquired a new feature which makes this much easier. Now, if I configure ID as my external editor in Aperture, and use this to open a version, Aperture as usual sends a rendered TIFF to ID. ID, however, does not open the TIFF, but looks for the associated RAW file and opens that. Then, when you’ve finished, ID overwrites Aperture’s TIFF with it’s output. Even better, if you then re-open the original in ID, the settings from the first edit are retained. Therefore you have a hybrid non-destructive / baked-in edit workflow, which is close to ideal. Obviously you end up with an extra TIFF for each image you process in this way, but disk space really isn’t an issue any more. And I don’t do this for every image I import, only for those I select to potentially publish or print. Aperture alone is more than adequate for general work.

Aperture 3

Sending an image to Iridient Developer from Aperture

Iridient Developer

Saving an edited image back to Aperture

Aperture 4

The original version and the ID-rendered TIFF stacked in Aperture. Note I add a custom metadata field to remind me that I processed this with Iridient. It would be nice to automate that.

For further editing beyond the initial RAW development you then have the choice between ID and Aperture’s RGB edit tools. Both have strong offerings: to pick one from each, Aperture’s generally ignored extended range curve tool, which together with its 32-bit architecture lets you modify the curve for values over 100% white, is very good for highlight recovery and rolling off harsh highlights. I don’t know of any other tool which can do this. Similarly, ID has a unique - in my experience - curve tool which operates on the Lab Chroma (ab) channel, allowing precise control over saturation.

Aperture 5

Aperture’s curve tool in extended mode

Aperture’s DAM tools are, in my opinion, second to none, and plenty of commenters agree with me. So having moved on from my initial furious reaction, I’ve come to cautiously give Apple the benefit of the doubt, and hope that the forthcoming migration to “Photos” might well be less traumatic than it initially appeared. Indeed it could, possibly, be as much of a paradigm buster as Aperture 1.0 was. We shall see. If I have to migrate my catalogue to a lesser tool, I’d rather do when all bridges are burned, not before. There’s no real downside in waiting. And in the meantime with this Aperture-Iridient workflow, I’m seeing appreciably better printed results.

Pity it’s only me who looks at them!

 

Silverfast: return of the VLT

a lightbulb moment

in Silverfast , Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Lasersoft are continuing to add new features to Silverfast 8, and one very welcome recent addition was the return of the integrated “Virtual Light Table” file browser (VLT). The VLT was a feature of several incarnations of Silverfast v6, and I assumed that it would not return to v8, but here it is.  It’s better integrated, much more user friendly, and so far, 100% stable.

SilverFast 8 0 HDR Studio

The VLT in Browser mode. Silverfast HDR format files are automatically labelled.

The VLT is included in all versions of Silverfast HDR and HDR Studio from 8.0.1r48 onwards. It’s accessed by clicking the lightbulb in the upper left corner.  The view can switch between browser only, split browser / viewer, and viewer only.  When the viewer is available, a loupe-type tool provides a localised magnified view of a small part of the image. I wish this feature could be included in the editor mode as well. At present, basic metadata in the form of ratings and labels can be added. To open a file in the editor, it needs to be dragged to the Job Manager icon, and opened from there. This is not 100% intuitive, although it is in harmony with HDR Studio’s multiple file handling mechanisms.  It would be nice to also have a more direct way of switching in a future version.

SilverFast 8 0 HDR Studio

The VLT in split view, showing the loupe

Until now I’ve used PhaseOne Media Pro to manage the workflow from HDR scan, to TIFF output, and to final edit in Photoshop.  The VLT offers an alternative and more direct approach, at least to the initial steps. Essentially it occupies the same place in the workflow as Adobe Bridge.

Another recent addition to Silverfast, which in this case sees it adding a feature which rival Vuescan has had for a long time, is enabling DNG output for linear “HDR” and “HDRi” scans.  This is an interesting development, and it seems to encourage Adobe Camera RAW, or Lightroom, as an alternative to HDR Studio.

Other recent updates have included the ability to share directly to web services including Facebook, Flickr and Dropbox. This doesn’t really fit into any current workflow of mine, but nevertheless, it’s nice to see Silverfast being continuously maintained and improved.

Now, all I need to add is my standard plea for Version 8 to add support for my Minolta Dimage Scan MultiPro…

 

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