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Silverfast 9 bursts forth - UPDATED

just when they least expect it…

in Silverfast , Friday, December 18, 2020

A totally unexpected email popped up in my inbox yesterday, announcing the release of Silverfast 9. It’s a weird time of year to announce a new product, but Lasersoft are a weird company (I used to think of them as eccentric, which has a certain charm, but now they’re just weird, as in irritating).

I still like Silverfast. Actually, it’s chugging away now on my Mac, but only as a input provider to Negative Lab Pro. But this update… well, let’s see what’s new:

Banner silverfast9 newsletter en

So, the headline feature is a new E-Book, written by Chief Mad Scientist, Wing Commander Karl-Heinz Zahorsky. Ok. I wonder what Mark Segal thinks about that?

Then we have Innovative Design. Well, from the screenshots this appears to be a touch more lipstick, only this time also available in fashionable black. I regret my cynicism, but I very much doubt that any of the outstanding usability issues have been fixed. The actual layout looks 100% identical to Silverfast 8, with - and here we have to recognise a serious accomplishment - even uglier icons.

Next up, My SilverFast Portal.  This is apparently a web page where I can see a list of licenses I own. Awesome.

And last but very much not least, SAC - Single Archive Command. Yes, we get the obsessive Air Force reference. What this does is anybody’s guess, but it claims to be a “One-click-archiving solution”.  Basically it seems to be rearranging some existing deckchairs (auto frame finding, Job Manager, VLT), and is of use only for flatbed scanners. Also, the blurb adds, without evidence, “you too can enjoy the advantages of our scan booster with the Single Archive Command” and “75% faster with SAC”.  I have no idea why scanning speed itself should be faster with SAC, or why it should be only available through SAC. Sounds a lot like bullshit to me.

So, that’s it. Apart from some other unspecified “improvements”.

And how much does it cost? Well, as ever, Lasersift is very coy about this, making you jump through all sorts of hoops to get a price.  Here’s what I found, eventually:

Sf9price

So, the Archive Suite, which includes Ai Studio AND HDR Studio, costs less than half the upgrade price of Ai Studio alone. Ok. Whatever.  Note the “new” prices though - not sure what they’re smoking up in there in Kiel, but I want some too.  Of course, this only allows my to run SF9 on my Plustek scanner, not on my Canon scanner.  I expect I’d have to pay the same price again to have both on SF9. And I would be very unsurprised to find that trying to run SF8 for Canon and SF9 for Plustek leads to System-Fehler-Alles-Kaput.

Anyway, I suppose I’ll buy it at some point, but based on experience the initial release is likely to be a stable as one-legged Bremerhaven dock worker after a night on the schnapps.

There is one interesting thing - apparently it supports the mythical Plustek Optic Film 120 Pro.

The website is of course a total train wreck, but you can try to check out Silverfast 9 here.

UPDATE, 21st December
Well, I did buy it. Part of the rationale was that LaserSoft have been quite generous with their upgrade policy with v8.  Certainly the first 18 months or so was just bug fixing, but some useful new features were introduced in later 8.x releases, particularly the Copy/Paste settings in Job Manager.

Well, what v9 brings to the table is actually a slight improved Job Manager dialog (all it is somewhat a case of 2 steps forwards, 1 step back), and, get this, they’ve actually REDUCED the Copy/Paste functionality.  Apart from that, there is nothing new I can find apart from a bit of a visual overhaul, which doesn’t amount to much.  The “new E-book” displayed prominently in the marketing email is not included in the release, but is yours for an extra €29.99.  This is a clear case of misadvertising in my opinion.  Then again, I doubt that the content amounts to much more than self-promotion.  I’ve had a good look, but I cannot find the “new NegaFix profiles” mentioned on the website.  One new “feature” is that v9 implements internet-managed spyware licensing. Yet another thing for LaserSoft to screw up, and they surely will.

So-called HDR-Raw files produced in Silverfast Ai v9 and processed/saved in HDR v9 open fine in HDR v8, so clearly nothing significant has changed at the level of file processing.  The much vaunted “One Click Archiving” is not enabled for my Plustek Optic Film 120, even though it can take a tray of up to 10 unmounted 35mm frames (or 5 mounted), so it could potentially be useful.

So what, substantially, do you get for your money?  Maybe stability with new OS releases? A nice warm feeling that you’ve given money to that nice Mr Zahorsky & friends?  I’m afraid that’s about it.
It is still, in my opinion, the best scanning software on the market, but from a company that’s even harder to like than Adobe. And that’s quite an accomplishment.

 

Negative Lab Pro

Auf Wiedersehen, Silverfast

in Film , Friday, October 16, 2020

This is a quick review of Negative Lab Pro, a piece of software I’ve been aware of for some time, but only just now got around to trying.

Upfront, the website claims “NEGATIVE LAB PRO brings impossibly good color negative conversions right into your Lightroom workflow”. And it does exactly this. And it’s a really big deal.

I’m a long term user of Silverfast, and have defended it more than once, despite its insistence on ignoring all conventions, and the total deafness of its developers and managers to any kind of feedback or dialog. Despite all this, it’s pretty good. But the workflow is stuck in the 1990s, even if some minor concessions to openness have been added. Sadly for Silverfast, I think that Negative Lab Pro (NLP) is a major nail in the coffin.

NLP provides conversions which are at least as good, provides a totally non-destructive workflow in Lightroom, enabling easy creation of multiple versions of the same source scan, all fully re-editable.  On top of this it taps into Lightroom’s Profile mechanism to enable devastatingly accurate emulations of the rendition of standard scanners such as Fuji Frontier and Noritsu.

Of course, negative conversion is a very subjective thing, but the respective look of basic Frontier and Noritsu output is quite objective.  Generally I do all my own scanning, but some time ago I did have some lab scans done, just to get a reference point. For for now I’ve just take a recent XPan shot as a test.

NLP test

The top version is Silverfast’s Kodak Portra 400 NegaFix profile at default settings.  The lower is NLP at default settings. Again, colour negative conversion is a very subjective thing, but frankly, the NLP version to me looks like what Portra 400 is supposed to look like. The greens are more natural (although the Silverfast version may just possibly be more accurate, the grass was very green), and the NLP sky is complete free of the cyan tinge given by Silverfast, the shadows are better balanced. Game over, basically.

Of course, Silverfast provides a wide range of tools to tune profiles, to make colour adjustments way beyond what Lightroom alone can do, but all of this is destructive, sits within a clunky application framework, requires multiple steps and multiple file generations, and is generally slow.  NLP also has a wide range of adjustment tools, which are easier to understand and much faster to apply, making far more fun to experiment.

I’m sold on NLP. Silverfast will now be restricted, in most cases, to Raw scanning. Of course, by generating a Raw scan, in theory I can still process it through Siverfast HDR, but it gets very fussy if any other application has so much looked at one its DNG files.

There is only one drawback (and it could be major in some cases): NLP cannot remove dust and scratches using the infrared channel.  But on balance I guess I can live with that.

 

Carmencita Film Lab

let someone else do the work

in Scanning , Saturday, October 27, 2018

I bought my first film scanner sometime in the late 1990s, a Minolta 35mm device. I upgraded to a higher resolution Microtek sometime later, and When I started using the Hasselblad XPan, I really wanted to be able to scan complete frames, so I eventually bought a Minolta medium format model. I used this until it became unreliable and unsupported by current operating systems, and replaced it with the Plustek Opticfilm 120 which I am using today. I started using Silverfast with the Minolta medium format scanner, so I’ve been using it continuously for well over 10 years. So, all in all, I’ve built up a reasonable level of experience, and possibly even expertise, in film scanning.

Apart from a few instances where I got scans for consumer film labs for quick test purposes, I have never outsourced scanning. One reason is the cost - for example, Procine in Switzerland change CHF 7.50 per frame for 120 format film (I guess this makes shooting 617 more economical…) so for a roll of 6x7 this means CHF 75. Add development and we’re practically a CHF 100, per film - scanned to 18Mb JPG (that’s pretty much $100). This is just nuts. In recent years some rather more realistic pricing has emerged from companies such as Richard Photo Lab in the US, and the quality and range of customer service seems pretty good too. However, I’m a little dubious about sending unexposed film to California.  So, when I came across Carmencita Film Lab in Spain offering a similar service, I decided to give them a go. To compare, they charged me €133 including courier delivery for 4 rolls of Portra 400, scanned to (roughly) 120Mb TIFF. It’s still far from cheap, but starting to get reasonable.

Carmencita Film Lab (CFL from now on) offer a range of scanning options. You can choose between Fuji Frontier and Noritsu scanners - I chose the Noritsu, as based on what I’ve read it offers a more neutral rendition with a little less baked-in contrast. I believe most people go with Fuji Frontier for Portra 400, but as long term readers here may have gathered, I’m not “most people”, and if there’s a less popular option, I’ll choose it. CFL also allow you to specify a “look”, but here I had no clue of either what I want or how to describe it (which may be a clue to the underlying reason why I’m not an Award-Winning Photographer). However after this first experiment I may now have a slightly better idea. CFL also recommend that in order to protect the film in transit you pad it with chocolate. I complied with this suggestion.

I accidentally sent my films by economy post, so they took a while to arrive, but once they did, CFL kept me informed of progress, and turnaround was quite fast. A few days later I received a email with a link to download the scans, and a week or so later Fedex delivered the negatives. So, now I can compare CFL scans with my own.

The four films were all shot in Calabria, in Parghelia and Pizzo, late last August. I have already published a selection of the CFL scans as a Photo Diary entry.

Cfl1

In this first screen grab, the CFL version is on the left, and my scan (Plustek 120, Siverfast with Portra 400 Negafix profile) on the right. We can see a fairly significant difference. This can be reduced by adjusting the white balance to be a little cooler, and with a tint shift towards green:

Cfl2

However, the overall colour palette is still quite different. Note the colour of the leftmost door, of the green window frames, and shaded paving stones. These are complex shifts. It is possible to get somewhat closer by playing around with HSL sliders in Lightroom, and certainly in Photoshop, but that isn’t really my intention. Another possibility would be to tune the Portra 400 Negafix profile in Silverfast to a closer match, but that’s getting into rocket science territory.

Another point of comparison is resolution and sharpness. The Plustek scans were done at 5300dpi with no sharpening, and then resampled to 50% in Photoshop. I’m not sure what the nominal resolution of the Noritsu is, but initially it looked a lot better. However, after dialling in some fairly heavy sharpening, the two ended up pretty well matched.

Cfl3

At pixel-peeping levels the Noritsu appears to show a degree of luminosity noise which is not so apparent in the Plustek scans. This may actually be grain exaggerated by heavy sharpening, but in any case, in isn’t obtrusive.

A second example shows a similar behaviour to the first: the CFL scan is considerably warmer, particularly in the shadows. As in the first example, the road and pavement surfaces are much warmer. However, the Silverfast interpretation gives more neutral grays in this area, in fact they are nearly perfectly neutral. Of course, maybe Portra 400 isn’t supposed to be neutral…

Cfl4

Again, it is relatively easy to dial out a large part of the difference with a white balance tweak, but an exact match would be tricky to deliver.

Cfl5

I have to say that I’m pleasantly surprised by the Noritsu scans. They hold up very well against the Plustek/Silverfast combination, which itself comes out quite well against the Hasselblad X5. In fact at a first glance they are better than the Plustek output, but it is clear that the Noritsu process applies some pretty heavy sharpening, which when applied to the Plustek scans evens things out considerably. Nevertheless, from a resolution point of view, I’m not so sure that the extra time required to make my own scans is worthwhile.

The colour is another matter though. Although the CFL scans are very attractive, I’m not entirely sure that they are what I want. Unfortunately, I do not have a grey card shot to compare, or indeed a reference shot on digital. I do have digital shots in Parghelia from the same days, but not really at the same time of day. I can however make some kind of rough comparison based on experience, and that tells me that the Silverfast Portra 400 profile is closer to a neutral white balance digital shot that the Noritsu.

Looking at the following pair, while the Noritsu version (left) is very attractive, my feeling - which is inevitably subjective - is that the Silverfast version on the right is more accurate and closer to what I actually want.

Cfl7

There are two factors at play here: one, the overall colour / white balance, and the second the response curve across the colour spectrum and tonal range. Let’s not forget we’re dealing with actual film here, not emulation, and the differences are due to how two different processes interpret the exposed negative film. There is a kind of “received view” of how Portra 400 is supposed to look, which has emerged over the past 3-4 years, exemplified by Johnny Patience’s published work and writings. CFL’s scans dial right into that look and do an extremely good job of delivering it. However, my reading of this look, which is reinforced by the client work that CFL publish, is that is very much driven by the wedding / portraiture market, where the combination of flattering skin tones and subdued saturation is very appealing.  It can work for other genres as well, but it has to be a conscious decision.

I think I will carry on with this experiment, because potentially it is very liberating. Probably I will ask for cooler shadows, although that might apply only to Portra 400, and the next film I am likely to send will be 160NS.  CFL TIFFs are delivered as 8-bit sRGB, which I fell is a bit restrictive. I would much prefer 16-bit ProPhoto RGB, or at a push, Adobe RGB. But that may be technically impossible.  The fact that the Plustek/Silverfast combination delivers me ProPhoto RGB at 16-bit may actually account for some of the differences, and may indicate that they are more “accurate” - whatever that means when discussion negative film. But certainly what Carmencita Film Lab deliver by default seems to be perfect for their main target market.

 

New Favourite Film

green is the colour

in Film , Friday, July 20, 2018

I think I have a new favourite film. I was tipped off about by Alex Burke, in his excellent eBook, Film in a Digital Age. It’s called Fuji Pro 160NS.

I was only very, very vaguely aware of this film. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever used Fuji negative film before, ever. I’m strictly Kodak. I’ve just gone back to check what Alex Burke writes about Pro 160: “as with Portra, it has an incredible dynamic range but I felt it to be a tad more contrasty and colorful”, and “this film is all about the greens. Many people say that the Kodak negative films are more for red hues and the Fuji 160NS is about greens”. From my experience so far I completely agree with both statements. Kodak Ektar certainly likes reds - in fact it makes everything red. And indeed, my first impression was of a less washed out Portra, but without the shrill vibrance of Ektar.

Pro160 vlt

My first roll of Fuji Pro 160NS, freshly scanned

The results look fantastic to me, straight out of the scanner. The two examples below were scanned in Silverfast using the Fuji Pro 160S 6x6 Negafix profile, otherwise totally un-retouched.

B667 2018 03 01
B667 2018 03 10 2

All shot on Voigtländer Bessa III 667.

 

Using the Flextight X5 scanner

Those grapes up there, they’re sour

in Scanning , Wednesday, September 20, 2017

This is an addendum to my two previous posts comparing the Plustek OpticFilm 120 to the Hasselblad Flextight X5. The X5 is supposed to be the nirvana of desktop scanners, a dream machine with a nightmare price tag, which provides the benefits of a drum scanner with none of the downsides, such as fluid mounting, even huger cost, and elephant-level proportions.

IMG 4213

X5 workstation at Light & Byte

So, what’s the X5 actually like to use ? Well, overall, it’s pretty nice. The hardware is on a completely different level. It is easy to use and very fast in operation. It scans a 6x12 frame in under a minute. But there are some drawbacks. First of all, the film holders. They’re a little weird, to be honest. The heavy rubber masks remind me of the protective shroud things you have to wear when being X-rayed! And actually they’re not that easy to use. The problem is, you lay the film on a base plate, then lower the flexible mask, which has an aperture corresponding to the frame size. But there are no guides to align the film on the baseplate, so getting it to fit correctly in the aperture is quite fiddly. Maybe with more than two hours’ experience I might realise that there is a better way to do it, but actually I find that the Plustek holders are much easier to load accurately. And them the fixed aperture size is a bit of an issue: although in theory Medium Format film has defined sizes, different cameras have slightly different film gate dimensions. So, my Bessa 667 seems to expose slightly more area in the cross-film direction, and the Linhof 612 is more like a 612.5. Actually the Plustek holders are a bit narrow in the cross-direction too, but they are fully adjustable in length. The X5 holders have no adjustment whatsoever, although I believe Hasselblad will be delighted to sell you a custom holder. Once you’re loaded, though, it’s really smooth: just slide the holder forward between the guides until the magnets latch on, and it disappears into the scanner and does its stuff.
IMG 4214

The 612 holder latched up and ready to roll

Then, there’s the software. Really, I have yet to meet a simple, straightforward and well-designed piece of scanning software, and Flexcolor is no exception. For example, if I select the 6x12 film holder, would it be unreasonable of me to expect the scan size to default to 6x12 ? Obviously it would: it took some time for me to realise that the bloody thing was producing two scans (overlapping, fortunately).  Why it does this for 6x12, but not 24x65, or 6x7, will remain a mystery. Another unattractive thing about Flexcolor is that it only responds to adjustments after you let go of the respective control (slider or whatever). This makes it exceedingly annoying to use. And I still haven’t figured out exactly what it is that makes it show a full resolution rather than horribly pixelated low resolution preview - but then again, Silverfast still hasn’t figured out zooming. Flexcolor includes a fairly limited set of negative profiles, a bit like Silverfast Negafix. However, they are much less extensive, far less adjustable, and too my eyes less accurate than Silverfast, although they do produce very flattering results.
stbeach_x5

X5/Flexcolor interpretation of Kodak Provia 400

stbeach_plustek

Plustek/Silverfast interpretation of Kodak Provia 400

I don’t think either are fully accurate (actually, the Silverfast version suffers from using Multi-Exposure, which doesn’t play nice with Negafix - the marketing material doesn’t tell you that). So, I could do better “out of the box” from the Plustek. Even as it stands, to my subjective eyes the Plustek/Silverfast version looks more like how Provia is supposed to look, The X5/Flexcolor version is almost Velvia, and too neutral. Of course, Silverfast is regularly updated. Flexcolor isn’t.

On the plus side, Flexcolor coupled with the X5 can really pull out clean shadow detail to an extent I’ve never seen before from a film scanner. Of course that is limited by the exposure range of the film, so it is more useful for negatives. But still, the difference is clear.

Generally Flexcolor feels old and fairly clunky, but I suppose that is because it is old. The X1 & X5 scanners are just rebadged Imacon Precision 848 and 949 models, which Hasselblad inherited when they bought / merged with Imacon to get digital back technology. They’ve carried on selling them, but they certainly haven’t tried very hard. I reckon they could drop the price by 50% and quadruple their sales, and still make a decent profit. They’re just not interested. The only update to the hardware is case redesign and a Hasselblad logo. The backplate is still branded “Flextight Precsion”. And the backplate also features a Firewire 400 interface, the one and only port, fully obsolete. At least it isn’t SCSI. The Mac Pro running the X5 at Light & Byte is running Mac OS X Snow Leopard, which must be 8 years old or something.

So, is the X5 worth €25’000 ? No, unless you’ve got a business model which will subsidise it, or you work for a Swiss bank or something. Is the X1 worth €16’000, then ? I don’t think so - it loses the X5’s diffuse light source, it’s slower, and (if this matters to you) it can’t do batch scanning, or, indeed reflective scanning (which I really doubt is a major selling point of the X5, but whatever).  If Hasselblad were showing some sign of continuing development, even if just to add a USB3 interface, and updating Flexcolor, then just maybe it could be considered a long term investment, but I would even be concerned that it will continue to work with current operating systems for much longer.

After all, Hasselblad recently named their new pride and joy camera the “X1D”. Presumably they didn’t even remember they’ve already got an X1 in the catalogue.

 

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