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photoblogography - Just some stuff about photography

Sprocket Rocket

Junk. No, really.

in Product reviews , Thursday, December 02, 2010

Back in the mists of time when cameras like the Holga first appeared, they were pretty much born out of necessity. Within the cultural and economic constraints they existed in, they were the best that could be done, and certainly better than nothing.

Being elevated to a cultural chic platform certainly changed all that. Suddenly that unfocussed, badly vignetted, flare ridden and imprecisely framed look was the next Big Thing in Cool. And it turn into an industry. The Lomo look became a major trend, and made a virtue of what was, to all intents, just bad photography.  Some interesting and possibly even good art came out of it, but these days it’s really just got out of control.  The painful limitations that the devices impose can only be held up as virtues for so long.

Nevertheless, when I saw the announcement of the Sprocket Rocket panoramic camera from Lomography, I was interested. I even briefly thought of buying one ... until I saw the price. It is quite frankly ridiculous.

The Sprocket Rocket’s main claim to frame is that the image area includes the film rebate, or “sprockets”. Yeah, well, whatever. A cute effect that wears off after about 1 photo, and can anyway be pretty easily faked in Photoshop. Oh, and it’s panoramic, with a “super wide angle lens” - apparently something like 30mm, f/13, although the website doesn’t tell, and plastic, of course - and a couple of knobs which let you wind the film forwards - and backwards - to make absolutely damn sure that you get overlaps and other magnificently arty imperfections.

And speaking of imperfections, well here the Sprocket Rocket really shines.  It appears to be just about impossible to take anything approaching a “good” photo with this POS, and the “badness” of what it does produce is just, well, bad. Not interesting, not arty, just gouge-your-eyes-out ugly. Massive vignetting, weird colour, no focus, and of course, sprockets.

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Yours, for ONLY $89.00.  Oh. And you’ll need a “scanning mask”. That’ll be another $30 or so.

Really, you can do so much better than this with any number of easily obtained vintage cameras. You can get the distressed look if you want, but you get to choose. Creativity means nothing if you’ve got no part in the process.

Lomography: it’s cool-speak for “laughing all the way to the bank”.

 

Olympus EP-2

my preshussssss!

in Olympus E-System , Friday, November 12, 2010

I’ve been meaning to write more about the Olympus EP-2 for a while, but for various reasons I didn’t get around to it. One of these is that I wanted to compare with the E-3, but I haven’t got a lens adaptor for the EP-2 yet, and in any case, I’m not really into doing “tests”. Anyway, there’s little point: it is glaringly obvious that in terms of image quality, the EP-2 is way ahead, even with the 14-42mm kit lens.  I say “even with” ... to be honest, I seriously doubt that the vast majority of web chattering about lens quality is based on any sort of objective evaluation of real-world use. This lens certainly isn’t limiting my photography.

Oh, and it’s great fun to use.

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An EP-2 photo using the Fake Hasselblad preset

There are a few things I don’t like so much about the camera, and all of them are concerned with handling and the user interface.  The control dial is pretty horrible to use. You have to be very, very careful to not completely change the setup when you were intending to dial in +0.3EV. The various ways of changing settings, through the menu, the super control panel, or the info layer (if that’s what it’s called) are just too confusing. At least one of them should go, and actually, although I’m very familiar with it, my choice would be to deep-six the super control panel. As I get used to the info method I’m finding I hardly ever use the control panel. I wonder if it has made it through to the E-5, or if Olympus consider it to be a “consumer” feature ?

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Another pretty picture

There are a lot of things I do like. First of all, in my experience so far this camera has by far the most accurate auto-exposure of any Olympus E-System camera I’ve used. Very good and very consistent, unlike the E-3 which frankly seems to use random guesstimation as it’s baseline method. Second, dynamic range is also much better. The photo above would have caused my all sorts of problems with the E-3. With the EP-2, it’s just routine. The EVF is excellent, and without it the camera would not be anywhere near as useful or enjoyable. It would be nice if it were orientable in two axes, like the E-3’s screen. The general feel and construction of the camera is very good, and personally I love the design. It is so much easier to carry this camera around than a DSLR, although it is notable that it is only slightly smaller than the E-400. I like the shutter sound, although it would be nicer if it were a touch quieter. Oh, and I really like the AF-C Tracking Mode - this is fantastic when combined with “focus and recompose” shooting, although I suppose that wasn’t quite what it was meant for! It might not be quite so hot with fast moving targets - I don’t know, I haven’t tried - but it works fine for motionless inanimate objects. 

I’m not quite so keen on manual focus.  I’m still not entirely sure how to pre-set the focus point: I found out once, and then forgot (manual ? what manual). And moving the focus point while zoomed in in MF mode is probably the most frustrating and curse-inducing activity I’ve encountered on a camera in many years. But then again, who cares when you’ve got AF-C Tracking Mode ?

So, I won’t be selling it. In fact, since I bought it, I haven’t picked up the E-3 (or E-400) once. Obviously in some cases the E-3 will still be the better tool, but in general I can see it settling on a quiet semi-retirement.

 

A Scanning Workflow with Silverfast

just like the old days

in Film , Wednesday, July 28, 2010

I’ve been spending a lot of time recently scanning film.  Strangely, I actually enjoy it. Somehow it gives me greater satisfaction that working with digital files, it feels like a more creative process. And although in the past I haven’t always been fully complimentary about Silverfast, the scanning software I use, I think it’s time to set the record straight. 

The worst thing I can say about Silverfast is that it is sometimes a bit eccentric, and in this I include the software and the company. But frankly a bit of eccentricity isn’t a bad thing at all in my book. Silverfast, the company, as represented through its vast web site and forum moderators, is significantly different from the bland corporate face we see more or less everywhere else these days. Silverfast the product may have some UI issues, but actually they’re not so bad, and finally who cares, when it works so well ? I could think of some other niche applications in the imaging world (hello ImagePrint, hi there ColorEyes) who have far, far worse User Interfaces … albeit often equally good people.

A while back I realized that I had quite a lot of folders on my various hard drives with the word “rescan” in their name. Right now I’m re-evaluating and rescanning my whole catalog of Iceland XPan slides, and although I’m coming up with different interpretations from those I made a few years back, they’re not always better - just different. So the idea of “baking in” corrections seems less attractive than scanning a master file and reprocessing it at leisure, never touching the raw scan data.

I’ve played around with this a bit in the past, using Silverfast Studio AI’s 48bit HDR Color output, and trying to process in Photoshop using a variety of techniques. Well, sometimes it worked, sometimes not so well, whatever I tried. I’m sure it CAN be done in Photoshop - well, almost sure - but I’m equally sure I’d need a level of expertise and fundamental understanding far better than mine, not to mention a lot of spare time.

The alternative, of course, is to use Silverfast HDR, which re-opens and reprocesses HDR scans. I have to admit I haven’t been all that polite about HDR in the past, partly on performance grounds, partly on cost. On the performance side, a bit of RTFM and working with the demo has worked wonders, not to mention the patient and detailed help from the Silverfast team on the user forum. I now fully appreciate how to set it up and how to make it work for me. Spending a few minutes learning how to use the Job Manager was also a bit of an eye opener…

On the cost grounds, I’ve complained that HDR and HDR Studio are little more than a “Re-open” dialog which could be added to Studio, Well, I’m wrong.  Actually, technically I suspect I’m close to right, but from a business perspective I’m wrong.  I guess there could be a case for an extra product in the range which can ONLY do 48 bit HDR Color scans, without all the SE or AI processing features, but I can imagine that would be difficult to justify, and probably would not end up much cheaper.

The basic point is that HDR Studio offers you the option of a more flexible workflow, but part of that flexibility is that you can still process at the scan stage in AI Studio if you wish, or need to. And however many scanners you have, you only need one copy of HDR Studio, which is an important point.

As for the cost… well it’s worth looking out for special offers on the Lasersoft web site.  I have a Canon 9000F flatbed scanner which I’m starting to use for proof sheets, and that came with Silverfast SE bundles.  Lasersoft advertise a 25% discount for upgrades, but, well, the current discounted upgrade price from SE to Archive Suite is worth buying the scanner for! It certainly works out rather more than 25%.

So, I now have what must be close to the ultimate workflow for scanning my XPan film:

1. Low resolution index scan using Silverfast AI Studio on the Canoscan into Expression Media

2. Selection of best frames in Expression Media / Silverfast VLT, and “raw” 48 Bit HDR scan on the Minolta Dimage Scan MultiPro, with Scanhancer fitted, and multiexposure enabled.

3. Colour balance a batch in HDR Studio, trying different settings for GANE where needed

4. Batch process using Job Manager

5. Spotting, sharpening and further fine-tuning in Photoshop

A note on Multiexposure: I’ve had mixed results with Multiexposure in the past, in particular with mis-alignment, and I’ve tended to prefer to use 8x Multisampling. However, for whatever reason (software update, luck ?), I’m now having no problems at all with Multiexposure, and I use it in HDR scans as a matter of routine. At worst, it is as good as Multisampling, but usually a bit better in shadow regions, and it is one helluva lot faster. So from being a sceptic, I’m now a full convert. I suspect that it was released a touch too early, and as a result, got some bad press early on, which is a pity.

As the years go by it is becoming harder and harder to find reasonably-priced solutions for scanning film. And yet the signs that film is making a comeback of sorts, or at least that its decline has halted. Lasersoft are doing the community a great service by keeping a whole raft of dedicated film scanners long-since abandoned by their makers (Polaroid, Minolta, and now Nikon) fully usable with modern operating systems and hardware, and I, for one, am happy to support them as a licensed customer.

The only thing is, if they do actually manage to implement HDRi support for Minolta, then I’m going to have to start all over again!

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A local cow gives Silverfast HDR a big thumbs up!

 

 

The perfect camera bag

until the next one

in Photography , Wednesday, April 07, 2010

How many articles, blog posts, reviews start off with something like “the search for the perfect camera bag is a never-ending quest” and conclude with something like “the perfect camera bag doesn’t exist”, using this assertion somewhere along the line to justify the confession that the author has an innumerate number of said items ?

Quite a lot. And I’ve read most of them. And I’ve got a lot of camera bags. My favourite so far is the only one I didn’t pay for, an unexpected free gift from Olympus. It’s great for general use and doesn’t get in the way. And I’ve got some heavy duty LowePro stuff for the more epic outings.

But what I didn’t have is a satisfactory combo camera / daypack, and I really, really wanted one for a forthcoming trip to Costa Rica.

I actually hate camera backpacks. They’re a necessary evil, but really, ... instant dork. They always seem so huge, so clumsy, so inflexible.

I spent endless hours looking at catalogs, websites, reviews, etc - because in this neck of the woods, actually getting to see anything other than really basic stuff in the flesh is impossible. I nearly went for a LowePro sling bag. Then a Kata 3 in 1 sling. Then I even considered Domke. And I had a good look at esoteric stuff like Think Tank. But finally I went back for a closer look at a bag I’d dismissed at first: the Kata 467i. And I ordered one. 

And it’s great. A really nice bag which swallows an impressive amount of gear, is comfortable, has plenty of “daypack” space, and can even take a laptop (which I would never use, but the compartment is great for maps and stuff). And it looks really small.

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Here, the lower section of the bag holds the following:

- Olympus E-3 and 12-60 lens
- Olympus 50-200 lens, with tripod collar
- Olympus 50mm lens
- Olympus FL36 flash
- Olympus 1.4 teleconverter
- memory card holder

That’s a lot of gear.

The laptop section has swallowed a filter pouch. The rest is empty, apart from the Kata rain cover in one of the front pockets. Oh, and my Gitzo Traveller tripod is attached to the foldaway tripod holder.

You can close it all up faster than than you can say “cabin baggage - no problem sir”.

Frankly, my LowePro Rover AW, which follows a similar concept, but is much heavier and larger but has much less room, and is much clumsier to use, should be embarrassed. Ok, so it has a more robust harness, but even so… the Kata is hardly uncomfortable.

So, there we have it: at least within it’s particular niche, the perfect camera bag… maybe. Time will tell!

 

Silverfast Multisampling revisited

but unfortunately little has changed…

in General Rants , Friday, October 09, 2009

UPDATE, July 8 2010

In the past month I’ve been using Silverfast multi-exposure almost every day, in a re-archiving project, and it has worked flawlessly.  I also have to admit that my sometimes harsh comments about Lasersoft I always regret later. Sometimes they can be infuriating, but often as not I suspect that it is mainly language issues. They’re actually a great bunch of people doing a great job of keeping film scanning alive for mere mortals who can’t afford Hasselblad’s luxury good price tags.  Oh, and my comments about excessive pricing ? I’m wrong.

So for the sake of consistency, I’ll leave this article up, but take it with a VERY large pinch of salt


Lasersoft’s Silverfast has long been considered the best scanning software around, although fans of Ed Hamrick’s VueScan would disagree. I’ve had a love/hate relationship with it for about a decade. I love the results it is able to deliver (once you’ve got over the learning curve) but I really dislike the user interface, and I have little time for the company itself, with its cranky staff and very exaggerated prices. I don’t believe I’m alone in this.On the positive side I have to recognise their continued support for a large range of scanners, many obsolete and/or orphaned by their makers. They play an important role in keeping film alive. I also realise that it must be getting harder and harder to maintain their business, especially sales of their higher range products such as Silverfast AI Studio. Which leads me to the point of this article, revisiting a topic discussed some time back.Around about version 6.0 Silverfast was pretty much complete. There wasn’t really much to add, which is a problem for a software company. Nevertheless things were added, often hyped to the heavens but actually delivering very little. For example, the “Studio” version of 6.5 added things with clever sounding acronyms (e.g AACO, Auto Adaptive Contrast Optimisation) which actually didn’t seem to do anything useful, although they spent a long time doing it. Ever desperate for upgrade revenue, a more recent attempt was Multi Exposure. As opposed to Auto Adaptive Contrast Optimisation, Multi Exposure is supposed to, er, optimise contrast, auto-adaptively. It does this by making two scans, the first at normal exposure, and the second deliberately over exposing to pull out shadow detail. It then combines the two into a final image. Initially I seem to recall there was an option to make 4 exposures, but this seems to have been quietly dropped.

Some film scanners, like my Minolta Scan Dual Pro, have the ability to multisample, taking a number (between 2 and 16 in the Minolta’s case) of samples at each point and averaging them out to improve the signal to noise ratio, especially in the shadows. Many Silverfast users were puzzled about the difference between “Multi Exposure” and “Multi Sampling”, especially as they are mutually exclusive in Silverfast, even for scanners like the Minolta where the film doesn’t move. An interesting discussion took place here. The drawback of Multi Sampling is that scan times are increased by the same factor as the sample count. Lasersoft promised that Multi Exposure would not only be faster, but would deliver better results.

Well, Multi Exposure went through a few iterations, and the 4x option vanished.  My experience is that it does not offer any significant dynamic range advantage over multi-sampling, at least as far as scanning slides is concerned. It is quicker, slightly faster than 4x multisampling. However, it has a serious flaw, which others have noted: the results are considerably softer than standard or multi-sampling. This may be due to misalignment, or due to flare or bloom in the over-exposed scan. The result can clearly be seen in the 100% crops below:

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Top: 4x Multi Sampling - Bottom: Multi Exposure

Sometimes Multi Exposure works fine, but it is just too unreliable to use routinely. In most cases I find that 4x multisampling gives excellent results, with diminishing improvements (if any) at 8x and 16x. And in extreme cases, you can make two multisample scans and different exposures and blend them in Photoshop. So, in conclusion, another pointless feature.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: if Lasersoft really feel there is a future in this product, then they should concentrate on repackaging the technology in a completely new, modern user interface. Unfortunately, I would guess that the codebase is ancient, and I’ve never seen any evidence that Lasersoft have any interest in genuinely improving the Silverfast user experience. Since the competition is at best no better, and in general considerably worse, I suppose there’s little commercial incentive in doing anything.

 

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