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Review: SilverFast Archive Suite 8 for OS X

Sections: Graphics / Design, Mac Software, Reviews

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If you’ve been taking photographs for more than then years, you probably have a number of photos, slides, and negatives lying in drawers and boxes, and maybe a few on the walls in frames. If you’ve been taking photos within the past ten years, you probably have a hard drive with a bunch of images (which may or may not be organized, but that’s a different issue). I’m in the category of having thousands of slides in boxes, and since I typically do not bring out my slide projector on a regular basis, I almost never see these images. SilverFast (R) Archive Suite means to help me digitize my images. While SilverFast can do a lot more than it needs, it does what it needs to do quite well.

There are a number of ways to digitize your images. I have one friend who solved the problem by projecting his slides on a screen and taking digital photographs of the slides on the screen. I still cringe as I think about the quality (and complete loss of dynamic range) that came from that approach, but he’s happy, and he got the job done. Admittedly, using SilverFast it will not be as fast a process, but the quality you get will be excellent.

The basis of using any digital application is that if you start with a good quality image, anything you do to enhance that image in your computer will take less time and you’ll have a better end result. This is the “garbage in, garbage out” principle. If you have good quality photos, slides, or negatives, the amount of time to make them look good will be less (or even dramatically less) than if you have a poor quality image to begin with.

This also goes with your scanner. If you have an inexpensive scanner, the options available to you are significantly less than if you have a good quality scanner. For my testing, I used an Epson V700 Photo, which is a good quality scanner. The software that came with that scanner was pretty good. However, Epson tends to not update their software as user’s operating systems update. This leads one, at a certain point, to either use Apple’s Image Capture or purchase some 3rd party scanning software that actually works.

Why use good quality scanning software?

The key point in scanning is that any adjustment you do at the time of scanning will give you a better quality than if you make the same adjustment after the fact in Photoshop.

Let me show you an example of why this is important. Below is an image I scanned using Apple’s Image Capture. I then opened this up in Photoshop and since this is an old photograph, it suffers from a limited dynamic range (it’s faded). The easy and fast way to fix this is to open up Levels and move the dark and light endpoints to the left and right base of the histogram as shown below on the left. When you then close and re-open levels, you can see all of the “combing” that action has caused. [Note: if you do this as an Adjustment Layer, the results are the same, it’s just not permanent to the image.]

SilverFast Archive Suite

This is caused by the fact that the original image was captured with limited dynamic range, and when you have Photoshop increase the dynamic range, it doesn’t have the information to expand what’s there. This may not look too bad on a monitor, but when printing, there is very likely going to be posterization.

Now, look at the same image scanned in SilverFast. Note that the histogram was set during the scanning process so that instead of inventing or ignoring the missing data, SilverFast looked for the missing data and incorporated that into the final image. If you look at the face you can see smoother tones around the cheek and less blotchiness in the shading around the uniform.

SilverFast Archive Suite

What comes in the SilverFast Suite

The CD box comes with SilverFast AI Studio Version 8 (the actual scanning application), SilverFast HDR Studio Version 8 (an extra application for processing already scanned images), and two IT8 Targets, one for Reflective images and one (as a slide) for Transparent images. Within the SilverFast software are automated processes to read the IT8 Targets which have pre-calibrated colors so that SilverFast knows that any given color it’s reading is the same color that it purports that color to be. While you do not need to have your monitor calibrated to receive full benefit of this, it’s a very good thing to have done. Below is a screenshot of a successful IT8 calibration on the reflective Target.

SilverFast Archive Suite

The SilverFast scanning process

So now that we know why it’s worth the time to do a better scan, and what scanning Bit we need for scanning and/or saving, let’s see what’s involved in scanning with SilverFast.

The basic SilverFast window is shown below (after a pre-scan). On the left are the controls to adjusting the image, and on the right is the image in progress. Across the top right is the Standard Toolbar, and down the middle is the Special Toolbar. After placing your image(s) on the scanner, you now have two choices; you can work on your own and select the tools you want in the order you need, or you can use SilverFast’s Workflow Pilot.

SilverFast Archive Suite

If you look in the upper left corner of the image above, you’ll see a red icon. If you look below, you see the same icon is now blue; that means I’ve clicked on that icon and I’ve started the Workflow Pilot. This lets SilverFast take you by your hand (as it were) and lead you through the various steps needed to get the results you want. Notice that the Standard Toolbar is filled with gray icons. You’ll click through the various steps (starting with choosing what kind of document you’re scanning and what kind of end result you want), then continue step by step by clicking on the Start button. As you go through each step, the icons go from gray to color and then back to gray.

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If you look at the 2nd image above (showing the SilverFast window) you can see that on the left side there are many collapsed panels to select from. This is because the Workflow Pilot is not initiated. When using the pilot, only the workflow windows for that operation are shown. When you are learning SilverFast, this is a big time saver and confusion reducer.

When you consider the amount of potential tools to finish each scan, the Pilot is, at a minimum, a great way to learn the scanning process. Probably the biggest limitation is the inability to go off of the workflow to adjust something in a different manner: you can’t. Another limitation is that you have to know exactly what you want to end up with. If you didn’t properly consider the options for what you wanted to end up with when you started, you may have to restart the process from the beginning.

As an example of both, consider the image below. When selecting what I want to end up with, notice that I can either remove a color cast or I can remove grain and noise. If you are not using the Workflow Pilot, you can do both, but if you want to use the Pilot, you’re stuck. Also, it’s curious that there is one option for “Presentation” and one for “Web.” Both do low resolution scans, but the presentation defaults to the width and height of a Power Point or Keynote slide. Nonetheless, the makers of SilverFast wish to have you covered regardless of what you know or do not know.

SilverFast Archive Suite

If you are not using the Workflow Pilot, you first need to set the type of image to be scanned (transparent/reflective), whether the image is a positive or negative (slide or negative), and the Color format and Bit depth. Finally, if you have multiple images (multiple slides, negatives, or images), you have to select what kind of Frame you want/need. What you actually find, though, is that the Frame icon hides a variety of tools in a dropdown menu.

SilverFast Archive Suite

Then set the output format, both in image kind and size. As you can see below, you can select a predetermined size or, if you select Custom, there is no restriction on the height and width setting. By clicking on the Gear icon, you can set a specific output size. Lastly, if you look just below the dropdown menu on the left hand side, you’ll see a green-to-yellow-to-red sliding bar. This sets the resolution of your scan. The full range of this depends upon your scanner. On the Epson V700, I can scan a slide easily up to 2400 dpi, that’s just at the final edge of the green. Beyond that, I’m starting to get into interpolated data. This is no different than the difference between Optical Zoom and Digital Zoom on a camera. Both “interpolated data” and “Digital Zoom” create “invented” pixels. Since I’m creating an image that I want as a “keeper,” I’d rather do the best quality scan with known quantities than take the time to do this scan only to learn that some other software can do a better job of interpolating greater resolution.

SilverFast Archive Suite

One thing you’ll quickly encounter when working with SilverFast is that they love Initializations and Acronyms. You find things like ACR (Adaptive Color Restoration), SCC (Selective Color Correction), SC2G (Selective Color to Grey scale), ME (Multiple Exposure), iSRD (infrared based Dust & Scratch Removal), and others. But my favorite is MidPip (one of the acronyms found in the Preferences; in one of the videos, the speaker reads past this with panache). The good news is that it doesn’t take too long to learn which means what. Learning how to use them properly, though—that’s another issue which I’ll get to a bot later.

As I mentioned, scanning can take some time. It takes a lot more time to scan an image at 2,400 dpi than at 400 dpi but if you want an image that is not a mess of blurry pixels and can be printed at a reasonable size, you need the greatest amount of resolution you can achieve out of your scanner. Thus, if you wish to scan small things such as slides so that they can be viably be printed out in a reasonable size, this can take some time. Processes that can add to that time include ME and iSRD, as both of them must be done at the time of scanning, and both require multiple passes of the scanner to do their job.

As an example of the value of ME (multiple exposure) is any image with dark regions. During a regular scan, the scanner does a general pass; but if you’ve selected an ME pass to be done, the dark regions get an extra pass. An example below shows an image on the left as it came out of the scanner when not using ME. On the right is the result when using ME.

Example of using multi exposure

As mentioned, if your scanner supports multiple scans you can process multiple slides at the same time. Below shows that general process. In the middle shows the pre-scan of 12 slides. On the left is the Navigator Panel that can be used to select a specific slide that you wish to examine and on the right is the Job Navigator. What you can do is to pre-draw the individual frames on each slide, then click into each slide in the Navigator. This will zoom into that slide so that you can fine-tune the size of the frame and set any minor rotation that might be necessary. Then click on the slide in the Job Manager and add any additional processes you wish to have performed on that slide. When I did this run of slides that all had some dark regions, I selected the ME process. I had successfully removed all dust from the scanner table and from the slides so I did not need to use iSRD. Running all 12 slides with ME at 2,400 dpi took 42 minutes to process. However, during that time I was doing other things around the house and was not captive to process each slide individually. The Job Manager is your friend. (Later I’ll explain how another part of SilverFast Archive can speed that up.)

SilverFast (R) Archive Suite

One omission from the Job Manager is that you can only see the resolution of any given scan; you cannot see what processes you’ve established for any of the scans in a Job series. I found this very frustrating and found I had to take notes. This is a computer…I shouldn’t have to take notes. Each slide shown in the Job Manager should show the resolution and every scan process set for that slide (or negative, etc.).

By the way, you’ll note that the panels in the image above have been dragged out from the where the Panels are normally stored as seen in the very first image. These Panels can be pulled out or snapped back in with ease and can be dragged to separate monitors if you have them or at a minimum, different parts of your single monitor.

The one area on which SilverFast prides itself is an area where I do scratch my head. You can select a color—say, the color of a car or jacket—and change that color using SilverFast. Why scanning software is involved in doing this, I’m not really sure, but they can. What SilverFast cannot do is separate an image into layers so that this change of color doesn’t affect any other similar colors in the picture. This is where software such as Photoshop is perhaps better suited.

In addition, when converting an image from color to grayscale, the best results are never done by simply desaturating the image. This is because the color information can help you fine-tune the contrasts between colors very easily. Again, this is something that can be done with SilverFast, but is also easily done within Photoshop, Adobe Camera Raw, or Lightroom. One of the big drawbacks to doing this in SilverFast is that if you have a color image and wish to scan it into grayscale, you’ve lost your color image. However, if you do the color to grayscale conversion in SilverFast HDR (see next section), you can have your color and grayscale it too.

Not covered in this review are the aspects of scanning negatives (it does a great job) and scanning images from magazine for descreening. I found both of these worked as expected, and I wish to keep this review from being any longer than it already is.

SilverFast HDR Software

One of the big slowdowns of scanning and enhancing images is that any time you need to change a zoom of an image for any given process to do it’s thing (such as iSRD), an additional scan must be done to get the 100% zoom required for that feature to work. This is in addition to an extra infrared scan that is necessary to do the actual process. When you multiply this times 12, that’s a lot of scanning time.

So, what LaserSoft did was create a 2nd piece of software that doesn’t scan, but does everything else that SilverFast can do. During the setup for scanning, one of the options using the AutoPilot is Archive. If you are scanning reflective images (photos), then you can save that as a 48-Bit HDR image (16-bit HDR for black and white). And if you are scanning transparencies, you can save as either of those or as a 64-Bit HDRi (or 32-Bit HDRi for black and white). Here, the extra 16 bits and the “i” indicate that the infrared scan is also being done for dust and scratch removal at some later time.

The one big negative of creating these larger bit images is that they are simply larger (storage) images. Consider that a scan of 48->24-Bit image saved as a TIFF image (3,234 x 2,144 pixels) was 21.3 MB. The same image as a 48-Bit HDRi was 42.7 MB, and the 64-Bit HDRi was 57.1 MB. However, Because you captured all the data during the original scan, most of the scanning operations that require extra scanning time is not done during the scanning process, so time is saved there. In addition, let’s say that next year SilverFast comes out with whole new set of algorithms to deal with dust and scratches, USM (Unsharp Mask), or GANE. You do not need to scan again, only run your scanning raw images through SilverFast HDR again.

A caveat to this; I did discover is if you have an image that does need ME (Multiple Exposure), you do need to do that during the original scan. A dark image scanned without running ME will still be a dark image. If you do run ME, you will have full control to bring up the exposure.

One extra thing about archiving your images; you do have a choice in format saving. You can either use a TIFF format (that can only be dealt with using SilverFast HDR), or you can save as a DNG format: Adobe’s Digital Negative format. This lets you import the the image into either Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom and have full access to the enhancements that can be done within those applications. The biggest limitation on this is that Adobe Software does not know what do with with infrared data and will not be able to remove dust and scratches with that data.

My biggest complaint

My biggest complaint with SilverFast is the documentation. They have quite a lot of short videos, but typically they only shows what to do, not why. Or they may say what something is, but not how or why to use it.

For example, when setting the midtone, you can have the slider be either Normal or Logarithmic. In addition, the Saturation can be either Adaptive or Classic. In either of these, a user is bound to ask “Why, what makes one better/worse than the other? Under what conditions would I want to use one or the other. What should one be looking for in the image to make a decision?”

I suppose it could be argued that people who use this should know, so why bother explaining this information. The simple argument against that is why not use this as a learning experience for those who do not know and make them better scanners and more likely to want to use SilverFast, because it does give you the choice.

Another issue is that on every Panel there is a Question Mark you can click for further information. Most of these link to the LaserSoft web site where you can watch a video or read a PDF. You can also download every video and every PDF they have, and they mean it. When you do this, you get the videos for the standard software, the SE version of the software and the Studio version of the software. In some cases there are differences between the former two, but usually not. The Studio version typically has more information (and is longer) because the Studio version has more features. Nonetheless, if you purchased one of these versions, why are you also downloading the videos to the other software that you do not have? In addition, if you now click on any of the question marks in the Panels, you still are sent off to the LaserSoft website to watch the video there. If you are hoping for some PDF manuals, they do have a few of those, but they are just as terse as the videos. Surprisingly, with all of their videos, none of them show a whole process. These should be done to show the beginning of grabbing a photo and ending up with a scan. The same for processing slides. Sure there were be differences from one scanning model to another, but those are trivial issues.

One of the built-in complications with SilverFast is that tools you are looking at can change depending on which mode you are in and/or what you’ve clicked on. In these videos, you will see the instructor tell you to click on such and such a button, but not tell you what you need to do so you can see that button. There almost needs to be a “Start Here” button within SilverFast so each video can say “OK, click the Start Here button and then…” One other example of this are the videos to help you through the Preferences. As I looked through these videos, I didn’t recognize a thing. Finally I thought that maybe these were the Preferences, and sure enough, they were. But nowhere in the dialog that’s spoken does it say. “In the preferences, first tab you have…” In addition, since I mentioned it before, one of the Preferences is “MidPip Fixed Target” with a number and an option to check “Active.” The video does not say what this is for and why that number is better than another number and what happens if you use a larger number or a smaller number.

Now, with all of those complaints made about the help material, let me also add that they do have an aggressive support staff on their forums. Most of the questions and/or problems I had could be found in those forums. What is a disappointment is that no one seems to think these questions could be compilated into a standard manual.

Overall, a lot of effort went into these videos with an end result that could provide more confusion than answers. If you look at the forum on the website, you’ll see a number of answers that should have been covered in the PDFs that they do not (yet) provide.

In Short

Simply, the software that came with your scanner is probably OK and may be very good. But the level of what SilverFast can do dwarfs much of what I’ve seen by 1st party software. As you’ve kept your scanner over a period of time, you may not have any choice but to get 3rd party software, and SilverFast is something that you should check into.

At a minimum, SilverFast can do much more than just help you get good images to start with. The range of features that SilverFast provides is probably much more than most people are likely to use. In addition, people who want the level of scanning support probably have Photoshop, and—to be honest—Photoshop can do a number of the extra capabilities better than SilverFast. On the other hand, those who are rebelling against the rental of software (i.e, the Creative Cloud) might find SilverFast a welcome relief.

But, for those who want those good quality scans of their images, and make the time to do those scans, you will be rewarded with excellent scanned documents.

However, when you first get SilverFast, plan on a day of experimenting and learning. After that, things should go much more smoothly. It is because of limitations in the documentation that I’m dropping this software a point. One should get software and spend a day learning how to use it, not hacking their way through to learn how to use the software. While there are minor issues with the software that I hope are addressed in future versions, I do hope that their documentation becomes as good as the software itself.

 

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Buy SilverFast Archive Suite

Provides: Archiving of slides, negatives and reflective originals
Developer: LaserSoft Imaging
Minimum System Requirements: Intel processor with OS X v10.5
Price: $499
Availability: now

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