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The Digital Print, by Jeff Schewe

mmm, such delicious crow

in Book Reviews , Thursday, August 20, 2015

I’m firmly of the belief that a photograph isn’t finished until it is printed. And yet I make very few prints. The reasons for this include a lack of time, a lack of space to hang them on the walls, a lack of people to show them to - nobody I know is interested - and not forgetting pure unadulterated sloth. And then, when I do decided to settle down and do some printing, stuff always goes wrong. Either the printer comes up with one of it’s various ruses to frustrate me, or I forget to set something up correctly, or the colour profiles have mysteriously corrupted themselves. And then when it does work technically, the print seems to lack a certain something. A couple of days ago, I was trying to print a photo taken back in June in Norway, and on paper it just looked flat and lifeless.

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Flat & lifeless in Norway

It was mainly to address the last point that, pretty much on a whim, I decided to buy the eBook version of Jeff Schewe’s “The Digital Print”. A successful and award-winning commercial advertising photographer, Jeff Schewe has become a well-known and larger than life figure in the world of digital imaging. He’s a very strong advocate of all things Adobe, having been closely associated with the company since very early versions of Photoshop. While earning a lot of well-deserved respect he has also cultivated an abrasive online personality especially on the forums of the Luminous Landscape. To say he doesn’t take fools gladly - or indeed anybody expressing a divergent opinion - would be as much of an understatement as to say he quite likes Lightroom. Having followed his curt, rude dismissals of all and sundry over the years, I’d decided I couldn’t stand him. Ironically, a quick glance at pretty much any personnel report on me over the past 300 years will say pretty much exactly the same thing. And that’s in person, not online. Anyway, I refused to buy his two books “The Digital Negative” and “The Digital Print” because (a) I didn’t like “forum Schewe”, and (b) I was anti-Lightroom. Well, that was a serious case of cutting off my nose to spite my face.

As it turns out, “The Digital Print” is probably the best book on digital photography I’ve ever read. It has immediately made a significant improvement to the quality of the prints which I’m able to make. Rather than just provide a dry set of instructions, it has the knack of encouraging the reader to think about how to make a good print, of what it actually means to represent a digital image on paper, and then concisely and clearly provides the technical information you need. It focuses squarely on Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Lightroom, and mainly on Epson printers, although Canon gets a look in. I have an Epson printer and I use Photoshop to print, but generally I wouldn’t touch Lightroom with a bargepole. Apple (may they rot in corporate hell) forced me to abandon Aperture, and I now use Capture One, with round trip to Iridient Developer for top picks. But the presentation of Lightroom Print Module in “The Digital Negative” is the most persuasive argument I’ve ever seen to switch. Comparing a sharp ORF file with all sharpening turned off in Camera Raw and Capture One shows noticeably more detail in Capture One. But frankly it’s unlikely to be significant in a print. Still, another migration is too painful to contemplate, and in fact a large part of the content of the book is applicable to most imaging software.

“The Digital Negative” is written in a very accessible and concise style. There is humour (sorry, “humor”), but it’s never forced, like in so many of these books. And there is no padding, although the depth of the section on Colour Theory might seem a touch excessive. Really, I think most photographers just want to know how to setup colour management and get good printer profiles. The nuts and bolts under the hood are all very well, but frankly, about as relevant as a Photoshop binary dump to most people. But the rest, covering not only preparing and printing the file, but also selecting paper, displaying and storing prints is captivating. The very detailed section on managing Epson printer settings is worth the price on its own. I’ve found out some secrets about my Epson 3800 which I have eluded me over than five or six level six years that I’ve owned it. The end result is a big smile on my face and a lot of fun making prints.

So as you can tell, if you’re at all serious about printing digital images (and that includes scanned film, by the way), I thoroughly recommend this book and herewith will consume copious amounts of crow. I should probably buy Jeff Schewe a drink or five.


p.s. - Jeff, “tirer” in French also means “to print”. A photographic print is “un tirage”. I guess 27 million people have already told you this.

 

 

 

Down in the details

Flip, Flop

in Photography , Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Back in June 2006, several geological eras ago in Internet years, I wrote a blog post which started out like this:

Following earlier posts about this, today I managed to find time to evaluate Iridient RAW Developer 1.5.1 against CaptureOne Pro 3.7.4, for Olympus E-1 RAWs. The results are clear: RAW Developer is extracting more detail and more neutral colour than CaptureOne

Now over 9 years later, I’m repeating the same loop. In recent months I unhappily emigrated from Aperture, and eventually settled on returning to CaptureOne as the best compromise. I painstakingly exported my Aperture library and watched CaptureOne painfully, sluggishly import it. It didn’t do too bad a job - better than Lightroom anyway - and I was more or less able to recreate my Aperture projects within the approximation of MediaPro which has been bludgeoned into CaptureOne. And I diligently set about getting back up to speed with C1, helped by the ample, free tutorial material on Phase One’s website.

I managed to convince myself I (still) quite liked the default “Film curve”, and I was and am impressed by the exposure controls and the layer adjustments, in particular to apply local white balance.  I am a lot less impressed by the total lack of luminosity, or indeed luminance curves/levels.  But I guess I can live with that with some help from the saturation sliders.

But more and more I started getting a feeling that things didn’t look quite right when taking a closer look. I’m no pixel peeper, but even so, once I’ve noticed something at 100% magnification I find it hard to ignore. I was seeing a disturbing “plastic” look in low frequency areas, and lack of definition in high frequency detail like foliage. First I thought it was just a limitation of the small sensor in the Olympus camera I mainly use, or maybe the less than top-level lenses. But then I started down the rocky road of comparing Raw developers. Yet again.

The following nondescript postcard shot from Norway provides a good example - shot with an Olympus E-P5 and 17mm f1.8 lens (actually quite a good lens) at f8.0 (which, yes, is a slightly suboptimal aperture if you’re a pixel peeper), handheld. So it’s hardly a technical masterpiece, or indeed an artistic one.

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Within this photo, I’ve compared two areas at 100%, one processed with Capture One 8.2, the other with Iridient Developer 3.0.3.  The differences, at least to me, are obvious.

Iridient Developer 2

Left: Iridient - Right: Capture One

Iridient Developer

Left: Iridient - Right: Capture One

For the Iridient images, I have used default settings, including the Iridient Reveal sharpening mode and default noise reduction. On the Capture One side, I have used default settings, but with Pre-sharpening 2, and noise reduction disabled. Leaving camera default noise reduction on is a real disaster. I cannot for the life of me imagine why people say Capture One has good noise reduction. And I have tried very hard to fine tune it, I really wanted to be able live with it.  At the same time I briefly tried comparing with Adobe Camera Raw (Photoshop CS6) and Aperture 3. Abobe Camera Raw gave pretty much identical results to Capture One. Aperture was marginally better. But Iridient is miles ahead.

Iridient has one other ace up it’s sleeve, the Lab mode curves. Being able to apply contrast with no colour shift using the luminance curve is very nice. It’s also very good for highlight recovery, which is just as well, as Iridient “Extreme Highlight Recovery” slider is not one of it’s strong points. The sharpening and noise reduction are industry-leading, and the general level of control is outstanding.  Of course, there are no layers, no local adjustments, none of that fancy stuff. But that’s what Photoshop is for.

All this really only holds for my personal experience with Olympus micro-four thirds cameras. I daresay Capture One might handle my Ricoh GR better, but that’s out of scope here. I’m sure it does an excellent job with digital backs and high-end DSLRs, but I really don’t think Phase One has much focus on us “little people” - although they’re happy to take our money.

Probably before long I’ll have changed my mind again, but for the time being I’m fully committed to an Iridient-centric workflow. 

 

 

Aperture gets the boot

never trust a hippy. Or an MBA

in Apple Aperture , Saturday, June 28, 2014

So, Apple has admitted, in some roundabout way, that Aperture is finished. It hasn’t been announced on their website, indeed, it is still promoted and up for sale. No, somehow the news has been leaked in a very uncharacteristic way.

Nobody should be surprised by this. If Apple is consistent about anything, it is in dropping products or complete product lines without any second though for its customer’s investments. But with Aperture, it’s worse. Much worse. With Aperture, it’s customers are not just financially invested, but also creatively invested. This is the drawback of both non-destructive editing and proprietary digits asset management: you need to be able to trust that the software supplier you depend on is committed to long-term support. It was always a risky bet with Apple, and now it has proven to be the case. Apple is focused purely on short-term gain in increasingly dumbed-down disposable consumer electronics, and is fundamentally an untrustworthy partner. It is telling that the company has made no formal statement on its website, and shown absolutely no concern at all for its customers’ plight, and instead offers the insulting idea that it’s a fair swap to lose years of work for some rubbish piece of iCrap gloss in “the Cloud”. And in some cases, those customer’s entire business model rested on trusting Apple as a reliable partner.

I’m pretty sure that within the Aperture team there are people who well realise just how badly customers have been let down, but with Apple’s corporate Iron Curtain firmly in place, we’ll never know. And for the rest, from Tim Cook and all his anonymous MBA cohorts, we’re collateral damage. Long term I suspect it will be their loss.

So what went wrong ? When Aperture hit the market in 2005 it was unexpected and revolutionary. It was also a massive resource hog, and expensive - $599 - and that didn’t help it gain early market share. People assumed it was a Photoshop rival, and perhaps even Steve Jobs did too, with his antipathy towards Adobe, but it wasn’t. It was something completely new, an application designed specifically for the needs of photographers in the digital age. Looking at it as a Photoshop rival obscured the real marvel of Aperture, its photo management and cataloging tools. There’s still nothing to beat it on that front, in fact as far as I know, nothing even comes close.  Then there was the non-modal UI, which some people had (and still do have) a really hard time getting their heads around.  Basically, with Aperture, you choose the context to work in (Project, Album, Book, Website, Light table, Print) and all editing and management tools are available at all times. This is quite the reverse to all other applications, including Lightroom, where the workflow is firmly object(photo)-centric.

Aperture 2

This is a key and unique feature in Aperture: here, as I lay out a selection of images on a light table, perhaps to plan a print series, I can tweak each photo’s settings in-situ as I work. The UI is completely non-modal. Were it not for the Apple Iron Curtain, whoever devised this would be celebrated in the design community. And no, it wasn’t Jonny bloody Ive. Or indeed St Steve.

So Apple had a fantastic application on their hands. But apart from high profile launch events, they essentially put no effort at all into explaining it, or marketing it. When Adobe brought out their rival application, Lightroom, which was certainly a major step forward from Photoshop for digital photo workflow, but much, much less imaginative and ambitious than Aperture, they rolled out the full force of their marketing tools, including getting legions of industry stars and opinion-formers on board, they kept up contact between engineers and users - hell, we even knew who the key engineers were - and they maintained open Beta programs for each new version. Aperture, crippled by general Apple arrogance towards customers, had no chance. The few opinion-formers they got on board seemed to be used solely as marketing mouthpieces, whereas Adobe avoided the whole control-freakery scene. As time went on, Lightroom got caught up in the Adobe bean counters insistence on yearly upgrade fees, and so started to acquire bloat and useless features, without much improvement to the core application. Also, anybody coming to Lightroom from Aperture cannot help but feel manacled by the step-by-step workflow, which reminds me of the 1990s UI “room” concepts championed by Kai Krause. Nothing like Aperture’s unconstrained creativity. Lightroom felt like an engineer’s idea of what photographers wanted. Aperture felt like a photographer’s invention which could maybe do with a touch more engineering input, especially at version 1.

But essentially Aperture was completely out of place in Apple’s product line-up. A deep, non-glitzy application that demanded, but rewarded, serious commitment on the behalf of its users. Certainly no iOS or AppStore fluff. Indeed, although the Iron Curtain lets out no whispers, I really wonder if Aperture’s genesis lies outside of Apple, much like Final Cut. Perhaps Aperture also was initially a Macromedia project, and therefore might even share some DNA with Lightroom. Pure speculation, and I guess we’ll never know. Or care.

So now what ?

Well, Aperture is still working, and Apple has committed to maintenance support for at least one further OS X iteration. But the end is irrevocable, and that means that any work expended from now on in Aperture is wasted. There’s much talk of migrating to Lightroom, or whatever, but let’s be clear: you can migrate your metadata - ratings, stars, keywords - but that’s it. You cannot migrate any develop settings, or your whole library structure, your projects, albums, smart albums, light tables, books, etc. You might be able to migrate your keyword hierarchies, which for power users is a big deal. Certainly you can migrate these to Media Pro. I have 51,225 photos in Aperture. If I were to set aside the time to recreate all the non-destructive edits in Lightroom, I might as well give up photography.

So what are the alternatives ? I’ve tried most of them: my mainstream history goes something like this: Olympus Studio -> Adobe Camera RAW 1.0 -> CaptureOne 3.6 -> Iridient Raw Developer -> Lightroom 1 -> Aperture 2 -> Aperture 3. Along the way I’ve tried out pretty much all other options available on the Mac At present I use Aperture 3 for everything, except for Sigma Merrill files which I develop in Iridient Developer (which has indeed recently become much closer integrated with Aperture).  Prior to Lightroom, indeed prior to digital, I used what was called iView MediaPro, and is now called PhaseOne MediaPro, to catalog and manage my library. I’ve carried on using it for scanned files and Sigma files alongside Aperture, and I still consider a great tool. Indeed, many years ago I speculated that a merger between CaptureOne and MediaPro would be a combination to beat. Eventually PhaseOne did acquire MediaPro, but frankly they haven’t done a lot with it.

To replace Aperture 3 we need to consider two aspects (at least). RAW development, and Digital Asset Management. There are only two real options which cover both parts. Lightroom, which is fully integrated, and CaptureOne/MediaPro, which is more like a bunch of bits flying roughly in the same direction. Although I have no particular axe to grind with Adobe, and indeed have used (and paid for) Photoshop since v2.0, InDesign since v1.0 (and Pagemaker before that, indeed before Adobe acquired it), and a whole host of other Adobe apps, I just don’t find Lightroom very inspiring. But I can’t deny that it does the job, and is probably the sensible choice. CaptureOne, on the other hand, seems to be more driven by photographers than marketing, and v7 has a management component which clearly inherits conceptually from MediaPro, although just how C1 and MediaPro are supposed to be “integrated” still puzzles me. CaptureOne went through a very bad patch after v3.x. Version 4 was very late, all-new and something of a disaster. But now at v7 it seems to have matured.

I guess in the coming weeks, I’ll try the latest versions of both on a small library and make my choice based on what I actually see, which is how I came to choose Aperture. Ill write more about this in the coming days / weeks, maybe.

But what about Apple? I’ve been an Apple customer for over 20 years. I bought my first Mac (a Powerbook Duo) on a university discount scheme. I’ve never been a fanboy, although I got close to it in the dark years of the 1990s, and I’ve always seen pros and cons to buying Apple. These days it’s more through inertia and have a considerable investment in software and peripherals that I stick with Apple. And on the whole, indeed it does “just work”. In Management Powerpoint Bullshit speak, companies talk of being in a stakeholder, partnership relationship with their customers. Apple are not. Apple, in 2014, see customers purely as cash machines. Their total wall of secrecy and refusal to engage - and it was not always so, not by a long way - makes them, as a company, amoral and totally untrustworthy. Unfortunately the whole industry is going that way. We’re a long, long way from the Revolution In The Valley.

 

Kinds of Blue

playing with options

in Photography , Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Although my principal tool for Raw file development is Apple Aperture, every now and then I play around with other applications, mainly Iridient Developer and Photo Ninja.  Each application has it’s own look and character, not unlike different film types in Ye Olde Days.  Aperture is fairly neutral, or at least I’ve trained it to be.  A little like Kodak Ektachrome. Iridient is even more neutral, very laid back. It brings to mind cool forests and fresh sea breezes. Not exactly Instagram. Photo Ninja is pretty wild.  It’s also very, very different in how it is set up, and is very clear that it knows best. Photo Ninja could be the Fuji Velvia of Raw developers.

Actually, the reason I got into another mini-round of comparing versions and messing around is that I was finding Aperture’s very weak noise reduction tools were falling short of what I needed on a high contrast shot from a few days ago.

But then I decided to unleash Photo Ninja on a couple of Antarctic iceberg shots, and, well, wow.

This is what Aperture, with some input from me, made of this shot:

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And this is what Photo Ninja made of it, straight out of the box:

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The Photo Ninja look to me has a very “American” feel to it. I don’t mean anything dismissive about that, it’s just that American landscape photographers tend to go for a stronger palette (although there are exceptions, for example my friend Ira Meyer, who generally goes for a more subtle tone in his excellent Antarctic work).

Photo Ninja also cranks up the micro contrast, which can be pretty impressive, but unfortunately, is all or nothing - there’s no way to mask it or dilute the strength in different regions as one can in Aperture.

Although sometimes I like what Photo Ninja gives me, in fact what I usually get from it is a hint of a different direction I could take the image in.  My personal preference of these two versions is the first, more muted one, which probably one of many reasons I don’t grab many people’s attention.  Whatever, I’m doing it for me, mainly.

 

RAW revisited, yet again

Boost is your enemy

in Apple Aperture , Thursday, November 01, 2012

I’ve recently gone through another of my periodic obsessions with testing RAW converters. My default choice remains Apple Aperture, partly because I’m committed it’s excellent organisation and management tools. However, there is no reason why I cannot use Aperture to manage my images while carrying out the RAW conversion in another application. Indeed, as I wrote a few weeks ago, I’ve recently started using Photo Ninja. I’ve also been using Iridient RAW Developer for many years, and indeed I’ve just paid what I think is the first ever upgrade fee they’ve requested. The new arrival of Capture One Pro 7 and DXO Optics Pro 8 also tempted me to give them a spin. Capture One was my first choice ages ago, when they were at version 3. They screwed up badly with version 4 and lost me - first to Iridient, then to Lightroom 1. And when, with version 2, Aperture became a realistic choice, I switched from Lightroom and I’ve stayed there ever since.

The thing is, whatever the interwebs and pundits proclaim, there isn’t really a best RAW converter (although there are some appalling products best not mentioned). They’re just different, a bit like film stocks were different. Even with all settings on zero, they give remarkably varying interpretations of white balance, colour and tone. And in fact it isn’t always that easy - or even possible - to get a basic, standard gamma conversion. Iridient seems to do it, and Aperture can be convinced to do so if you zero all the sliders in RAW Fine Tuning (especially Boost! Boost is - often - your enemy). It seems that DXO’s “neutral” setting does something reasonable. Photo Ninja really doesn’t do neutral, but that’s fine, it has a very different philosophy. CaptureOne, dunno, got bored trying, and I never touch Lightroom these days, for totally irrational reasons. And then there’s also the manufacturer’s software to consider, which we might assume is a good baseline. In my case, that’s Olympus Viewer, which is far from the worst out there, but I’m still glad I don’t depend on it.

ApertureDefFlat

Above is an example of Aperture’s default setting for the Olympus E-5 (right) and a “neutral” setting (left). In my experience the neutral setting is often the better starting point, especially when you want to work on shadows and highlights. Aperture’s default can easily blow perfectly good highlights. However the default is - initially - far more flattering and attractive. And sometimes it’s just fine, so long as you’re in control of the choices, not the software.

Here’s a screen shot from Aperture’s browser of a bunch of different interpretations of a RAW file, where I’ve tried, at least some extent, to get similar results, initially driven by Photo Ninja’s interpretation.

Raw variants

From left to right: Aperture, Photo Ninja, Olympus Viewer, Iridient

None of these are essentially good or bad. It all depends on what you’re trying to achieve, what your aesthetic is, and how many comments you’re trying to get on Flickbook. And probably some applications work better for certain cameras than others. But what is interesting is to examine some of the differences in rendering. Photo Ninja, for example does a remarkable job at tonal separation in shadows, and enhancing micro-contrast. DXO, when it’s co-operating, delivers fantastic sharpening. Aperture, remarkably enough, does a great job on noise reduction, an area where it is frequently maligned (actually it seems that what it is good at is not amplifying noise). Iridient can squeeze out ultimate detail, but it needs careful application of its 4 different sharpening algorithms. As for default looks, the scale ranges between Iridient’s subdued approach and Photo Ninja’s “all knobs on 11” blast. Both can be good.

It’s interesting how many people seem to want their RAW converter to replicate the in-camera JPG. Am I the only one who sees a bit of a logic breakdown there ?

But… the really interesting thing is that the more I look at all these different results, the more I learn about how to replicate them in my primary tool, Aperture. There are some things which Aperture is really not top-notch at, in particular sharpening. However, sharpening can be applied using a plug-in, or via Photoshop. Aperture has some truly fantastic tint and colour correction tools, and it’s overall mode-less, photo-centric workflow is, in my opinion, way ahead of anything else on the market. Nobody else comes close.

Perhaps Apple might now react to the deluge of new releases from its competitors. Aperture 3 is now really ancient in Internet Years, and it could do with a few improvements. Better lens correction, much better sharpening, print tools which are actually designed to support how photographers work (setting a fixed output resolution and size, and sharpening at that setting, for example). But really there’s not that much wrong with it. Anyway, we won’t know until an update is released, if ever. I don’t think Apple’s obsessive secrecy is doing it much good in this particular market.

What I do think is important is that you pick an application and really, really learn to make it do what you want. It’s amazing that people will agonise over expensive lenses, massive amounts of megapixels, etc, and then allow some anonymous computer programmer’s idea of a default setting to dictate the look of their photos.

 

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