SilverFast(est Way to Hell)

Much to my chagrin, i’ve been having a hard time with scanning b&w negatives. My fancypants new scanner, was giving me images with blown highlights, hardly any shadow detail, and atrocious grain. Great. On the plus side they were brimming with contrast, the kind of contrast that makes every shot look like a scene from a horror movie. Which is all well and good, but when you are trying to capture the silence and serenity of a north sea coastline…

By way of example:

Apologies for the hard water marks; Hamburg water seems to have enough calcium to deposit teeth on an roll of film.

High drama, you have to admit! But look at the blown out sky at the top of the frame. I’m willing to live with a few blown pixels in an over exposed shot that i’m trying to save, but that’s just too much. My recollection of that day, taking the shot, and my thought process at the time, was nothing like the above. Pretty sure the sky was much flatter, and that the exposure was set not to blow out the sky (meaning it was metered a little way above the horizon, and the difference between the shore and sky was only a couple of stops). Looking at the negative on a lightbox with loupe, it’s obvious that there is a bunch of detail there, and the grain is pretty fine.

Obviously i don’t know what i’m doing with the scanning software.

This is something of a relief. Since moving pretty much everything has changed in my process (the film, developer, water, scanner) but at least being able to trust that the negative looks alright gives me a starting point. My old cheapo Canon scanner, with its horrendously inflexible software had never given me these problems… how could SilverFast be doing so much worse?

Being a simple sort, my initial attempts to improve the situation involved turning a lot of things up: DPI, bit rate, etc. End result: better quality scans of the same mess. Not encouraging.

Then found the ‘Tolerance’ slider, describing itself as ‘set orange mask detection tolerance’, which when pushed over to the left (on the above image) reduced the contrast, gave me back my highlights and shadow detail. Victory? Well, not really, no. The same solution, or variations of it – messing with the tolerance at various settings, wasn’t always guaranteed to change things. Sometimes it didn’t change anything…

Clicking around some more revealed the ‘Expert’ button (which i’d actually clicked on thinking it was a tutorial, the icon is mortar board. An obvious sign of desperation, RTFM…) One of the tabs behind the expert button, labelled ‘Expansion’, contained RGB histograms. Finally something useful.

It seems that by default SilverFast sets up these histograms for maximum contrast, at the expense of dynamic range. That seems like an odd choice. You think that they’d focus on getting as close as possible to giving you all the information in the negative, but maybe this way works best for colour negative film. The results there are certainly better, as are the results scanning reversal.

Anyway, after some mucking about with the histograms, which pretty much comes down to not clipping the shoulders off both ends of the curves, it possible to get a reasonably flat image which can have contrast added back to it in Lightroom.

Which for a start is much closer to the reality of the scene, and then much closer to the atmosphere that i’d hoped to create.

That said, what a colossal PITA to have to be dragging sliders around on histograms just to get a reasonable b&w scan! One of the problems with being a software engineer is that you often find yourself thinking, maybe i should file a bug to encourage them to fix it… In reality it’s no doubt a difficult problem to balance all the parameters and come up with reasonable defaults for all scenarios. Given that they already include presets for different flavours of film, it doesn’t seem like it would hard to include a ‘maximise range’ preset.

Long and short: it’s possible to get decent / good scans of b&w negatives out of SilverFast 8, but its more involved than it (perhaps) ought to be.

14 thoughts on “SilverFast(est Way to Hell)

    • It seems that when given a choice between ‘tolerance’ and ‘expansion’, one chooses ‘expansion’.


  1. hahahahaha. reminds me of when i had a t-shirt you could attach velcro letters to and once went to a DIJ gig with ‘discrimination is essential’ across my chest.

    • hehe. hard to imagine a better venue.

      did you read his letters to the german government when they took a dislike to a few of the tracks?

  2. The xPan shot of the former FTD office building looks pretty much like what I usually get with my Minolta Dimage…. btw, 5 Litres of distilled water is €1.99 at Budnikowsky’s. No more watermarks.

    • Hmm. That’s a down scaled image, with the scanner doing about a quarter of the resolution of which it’s capable. Will have to do a full size scan sometime and look at the results.

      Distilled water for final suds… now there is an idea 🙂

  3. You have been busy! I’m guessing that wide bit of grey you were scanning is near home? If that’s the case I don’t know what you’re complaining about when you go back. I’d be well up for a bit if that.
    Now, serious result on the software settings. I’m going to give the same a go in the next few days and report back on the blog.

    • Relative to when i was in Tokyo, it’s very near to home. Right around the corner. It’s also in England, which makes it a little painful to visit regularly. That said, it has become my latest obsession / project. Which is a nice feeling. As is getting the process back to reasonable state of usefulness.

      Will be interested to see what you discover – clicking around almost randomly is a great laugh. I found a button that did a 48bit IR HDR scan the other day. When i looked at the result it’s inverted and had some completely mad tones… WTF?!

      No doubt there is a manual somewhere, but i’m too good for that shit!

    • I don’t read so well early in the morning. Yes, it’s near home, and i shouldn’t complain.

  4. I, too, recently bought a new scanner expecting all problems to be solved. This is helpful as I’ve been running around for hours in SilverFast trying to understand why the hell all of my highlights were blown. Thanks again!

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