Saturday, 30 March 2013

Canon SX50, Fuji HS50, Nikon P520, Sony HX-300 Reviewed in AP

Amateur Photographer (20 March) has a useful comparative review of these 'flagship bridge cameras' in the 'zoom war' I have followed in earlier posts.

I have covered the main points previously as far as birding/wildlife are concerned. By comparing the handling and output of all four, the AP review adds further information.

Some issues AP raised are:

Canon SX50. Difficult to grip. LCD and EVF (the thing that passes for a viewfinder these days) worst on test.
Fuji HS50. Largest and heaviest. On/off switch turns too easily.
Nikon P520. Autofocus (contrast detection) slow compared with the others. No quick menu. Handles well.
Sony HX300. Handling very good. Large but lightweight.

In terms of resolution, the Sony and Nikon were best but the Fuji and Canon were better at higher ISO settings, as would be expected from the size of, and number of photoreceptive sites on, the sensor.

At the 24 mm equivalent to 35 mm end of the zoom, the Fuji showed marked barrel distortion. The Nikon and Sony were best. However, for chromatic aberration, Fuji was the best, followed by Sony and then the Nikon and Canon.

AP gave an overall mark of 81% to the Canon (why?) and Sony, 79% to the Fuji and 78% to the Nikon, which, surprise, surprise, correlates with the price. They regarded the Sony HX300 as the best overall, despite its lack of RAW output.

I would be hard pushed to choose now that Nikon has been joined by the others in this market. Since my P510 is used for birding/wildlife and travel as an additional camera, only if one of the others showed a marked superiority in speed of focusing would I consider defecting from the really light Nikon to one of the others.

The player missing in this market at the moment is Panasonic. Will they come up with a competitor?

Here is an Easter Bunny, taken a couple of days ago using one of the family Nikon P510s with the zoom fully extended.

180 mm (equivalent to 1000 mm full-frame 35 mm). ISO 320, f5.9, 1/500. AJP Photo

Friday, 22 March 2013

Photographic Magazines: Circulation Figures

I had not realised what dire straits photographic magazines were in until I read a remark by William Cheung in Advanced Photographer. He said that from a circulation of 100,000 copies in the 1980s, sales of Amateur Photographer had fallen to just under 19,000. Intrigued, I investigated further and found the circulation figures for most, if not all, of the current UK magazines for 2012 together with the change over six months and year-on-year.

Magazine sales in general continue to fall. On average, the circulation of all photographic magazines fell by 7.9% year-on-year. Of those for which I could find figures, the worst performing was Digital Photo (-22.4% year-on-year). Then came Practical Photography (-20.2%), Digital Photographer (-17.6%), What Digital Camera (-15.5%), Photo Plus (-8.6%), Amateur Photographer (-8.1%), Digital Camera Magazine (-8%), Photography Monthly (-6.7%), Digital SLR Photography (-3.5%). Of these, of course, Amateur Photographer is the only weekly, with sales of 17,200 for each issue — even lower than William Cheung had indicated. Of the monthlies, Digital Camera Magazine was selling the most with 39,460.

Certainly, when I have looked at some of these magazines, the quality has seemed pretty dire. Digital Photographer, I thought, started fairly well but the quality has declined. Practical Photography, when I looked at it a couple of months ago, was really poor. Other readers must think the same given the marked decreases in circulation.

What happens next will be interesting. Will there be attempts by publishers to launch new titles in the hope of making a niche, as with Advanced Photographer? Or shall we see titles folding in what is an overcrowded market? Ot both? 

The demographics must worry the publishers. The average age of the reader of Amateur Photographer is 52 and 93% of its readers are male; for Practical Photography, it is aged 48 and 86% male. The male bias is to be expected but does the 7% female readership represent a spillover from the days Amateur Photographer was known by the female in this house as Amateur Pornographer?

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Scanning 35mm Slides...If Only They Were All Kodachromes

As well as the 4 x 4 cm Superslides I have written about previously, I have scanned thousands of 35 mm full frame (24 x 36) and half-frame (18 x 24) transparencies, dating from 1956 to 2002.

Whenever I read an account of slide scanning, the writer has concluded that Kodachromes had survived the passage of time in better condition than any other transparencies. I can only agree. But many of us were tempted by the home processing of Ferraniacolor or the marketing that promoted Agfacolor CT18, for example.

My Ferraniacolors have actually survived well. The colour is maintained including the yellowish tinge they had originally. They now look better scanned with their colour corrected than they ever did projected when newly processed.

Two films stood out as poor. The first, the old film of the two, is Agfacolor CT18. A few slides have turned a purplish shade over the years but the main problem is ‘grain’. I have put ‘grain’ in inverted commas because the term seems to cover a multitude of sins. Scanning the films, I noticed a very great difference between films. In other words, the degree of ‘graininess’ was similar in slides of a similar subject taken on one film but different on a different film. Thus, ‘grain’ varied from acceptable to dreadful. Such a difference clearly indicates a difference in manufacture or in processing.

The effect was particularly noticeable in half-frame transparencies because the size of the grain was greater in proportion to the image.

In an attempt to get better scans, I searched for more information. What is the ‘grain’ and are there hardware/software solutions to getting better scans?

In colour film, ‘dye clouds’ rather than ‘grain’ is a better term for the final result of film development. Is the scanner, though, simply picking up what is there or is what is there being exaggerated by the optical scanning process? The latter is known as ‘grain aliasing’ and there has been some discussion of this phenomenon (see below for links to websites). I do not think the problem with the Agfacolor CT18 slides at the poor end of the apparent graininess spectrum lies with grain aliasing. There was no apparent change in structure or position at different scanning resolutions or in different scanners. There was no effect of changing the scan direction across the slide. Furthermore, the same structures could be seen in the transparency under a microscope. By now, I was convinced that the ‘grain’ had a physical presence that was not being increased by the scanning process.

I tried several standard grain-reducing bits of software including Nikon Scan (when Nikon supported the software for their scanners), VueScan and Epson Scan during the scanning process. There was a little improvement but not much. If the graininess apparent in the scans was really there, were there any software solutions to remove it. Because graininess is a form of noise in the image, I tried the standard noise reduction controls in Photoshop and Aperture with little effect.

Then I then came across an article by Norman Koren on Grain and Sharpness in Scans and Enlarger Prints (website address given below). He recommended Neat Image and showed some examples of grain reduction in scanned images. Within minutes, I had loaded the trial version, installed it as a plug-in in Aperture and tried it on a few scans. The result was that a few minutes afterwards I paid for it and had the software in operation. I can only describe the effect as amazing. Only the worst two films still show obvious graininess and they were really bad to start off with. Even with them there has been a significant improvement, the worst effects of graininess being apparent in areas of sky.

So far I have been dealing with Agfacolor CT18. The other poor but more modern film was a Fuji transparency film (not Velvia) I used in Botswana in 2001. That showed a similar problem. Again, there was considerable improvement using Neat Image.

With the Agfacolor CT18 scans, I have never been completely convinced that the problem was in the emulsion per se. The appearance I can best describe as a reticulation (not the old burst blister appearance of reticulated film but think of the pattern of a Reticulated Giraffe) could have been in the base layer. I even wondered if the films had been varnished after processing and rubbed one over with alcohol to see if any coating could be removed (there was no effect). Then I came across a 2002 article by Nick Rains on Fuji 'Pepper Grain' The Mystery Resolved (website address below). The problem, as Fuji apparently admitted, was in the film base, not the emulsion. The effect was not apparent with wet, drum scanning, only with dry. Since the effect could be removed with Digital ICE technology (mine could not) we clearly are not dealing with the same phenomenon but I don’t think we can eliminate the film base from consideration entirely with the 1960s CT18.

This following is a comparison of enlarged images of a scanned full-frame  35 mm transparency taken in 2001 on a Fuji transparency film before (A) and after treatment with Neat Image (B). You should be able to see the difference. Finally, the best I could get out of this slide and, really, you do not want to see the untreated version.

A Scanned 35 mm Fuji transparency before and B after application of Neat Image.
The full frame version of B is shown below

Returning to where I started, why did we not take everything on Kodachrome? Well, Kodachrome was more expensive and it was slower. In the mid-1950s and using film speeds published in the BJ Almanac, Kodachrome was only 10 ASA. To put that figure into perspective, the ‘standard’ ASA setting on my Nikon D700 is 200 or more than 4 stops faster than the old Kodachrome. Ferraniacolor was 1 stop faster at 20 ASA and Agfacolor CT18 (18° DIN) was 50 ASA — more than 2 stops faster than Kodachrome. The next version of Kodachrome at 25 ASA brought that difference down to 1 stop.

For half-frame films, processing by Kodak was a hassle, whereas other processors, like Agfa, offered mounting in card or plastic after processing. My wife with her Olympus Pen FT avoided Kodak for that reason.

I think I have now finished with trying to get the best possible scans from my old slides. There will be one more article in this series but that’s it for 35 mm and 127 film Superslides. Somebody asked me the other day whether I would like to go back to colour film from digital capture. The answer is: NO! Only the luddites (and the real luddites at least had the excuse that their livelihoods were at stake) don’t realise that we have never had it so good. That’s my view on colour; to monochrome I shall return another day.

Website Addresses

Norman Koren Website (follow links there to earlier studies on grain aliasing): 

Fuji ‘Pepper Grain’ on The Luminous Landscape

Neat Image Website†

†I had an unexpected benefit from using this software which I will cover in a future post.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Modern Film Creases More Easily?

Until last week I had not developed a film for over 20 years. I did so for reasons that will become apparent in later posts.

I was using 35 mm Ilford FP4+ and noticed that it seemed to crease much more easily than the old FP3. I had to be very careful even when hanging it up to dry and, later, putting it into the scanner.

To make sure my memory has not been playing tricks I dug out some strips of FP3 negatives from the 1960s. Sure enough, they were much more difficult to crease. Apart from feeling more robust, they also seemed thicker. So, out came my vernier calipers to see if the overall thickness had changed (I knew emulsion thickness has been reduced over the years). I made five measurements at different places on the strip. The average for my 2013 rolls of FP4+ came out 12.8µ (I shall use the old non-SI unit µ instead of typing 0.0128 mm). That agrees nicely with the Ilford technical information of 12.5 µ as the thickness of acetate base. 1960s FP3 was 14.5 µ while a 1960s Kodak film was 13.8 µ.

So, old FP3 was thicker (by 13%) than modern FP4+. Is that difference sufficient to account for the lack of flexibility that leads to creasing — or is the base of different material? Whatever the reason, old FP3 was — and is — much easier to handle before and after development than FP4+.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Cameras for Birding: The Zoom War Hots Up — Sony HX300

For bird and other wildlife watchers needing a light camera to record sightings, there was no choice a year ago. There was only the trend-setting Nikon P510 with its 24-1000 mm (35 mm equivalent) lens.

'Bridge' cameras have been selling very well (much to the tut-tutting of the mainstream photographic magazines who do not realise that carrying heavy binoculars and, often, a tripod and telescope as well means that an SLR with a long lens (often of inadequate length at that) is out of the question).

Canon soon followed Nikon, then Fuji and now Sony have followed with basically similar products; Nikon have followed up the P510 with the P520 (see my posts of 19 February 2013, 18 October 2012, 31 August 2012, 15 July 2012).

The Sony HX300 will be available in UK in early April. It is very difficult to say which model has the edge at the moment. The new Sony has more pixels but to see whether that compromises noise reduction we shall have to wait for the reviews. Disappointingly, it does not offer RAW, although with a 1200 mm equivalent lens and an output of 5184x3888 pixels, it could give that extra push that birders are always striving for. It is heavier than the Nikon but not so heavy as the Fuji

Here is my extraction of data from the technical details that are important to birders:

Nikon P520Canon SX50Fuji HS50Sony HX300
Optical Zoom (equiv)24-100024-120024-100024-1200
Max Aperture3-5.93.4-6.52.8-5.62.8-6.3
Sensor Size1/2.31/2.31/21/2.3
Resolution (Mpixels)18.112.11620.4
Output Size (pixels)4896x36124000x30004609x34565184x3888
VideoFull HDFull HDFull HDFull HD
Weight g550595758623

On Amazon UK prices of these models today are: Nikon P520 £355 (the P510 is still available at £239); Canon SX50 £362; Fuji HS50 £470; Sony HX300 £419 (pre-order).

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Slide Scanning: Nikon LS-40 vs Epson V500

After I bought my Nikon LS-40 ED (Coolscan IV ED) I scanned all our 24 x 36 and 24 x 18 (half-frame) slides using the Nikon Scan software. When Nikon disgracefully stopped supporting its software and when I switched to Mac, I changed to the excellent VueScan software in order to use the LS-40.

The LS-40's gate size is approximately 24 x 36. I could only scan the central slice of a superslide. Anything larger, I scanned in the office SCSI-interfaced HP scanner. After I retired I decided to scan all my old 6 x 6 cm negatives and bought an Epson V500 running it either with Epson Scan software or with VueScan.

Originally I had scanned all my slides as they came - some in cardboard, some in glassless plastic and some in glazed mounts. Recently, I decided to remove the glass and remount the 24 x 36 slides in glassless plastic (Reflecta) in order to scan them free of the anti-newton rings glass.

Scanning transparencies in the V500 is less time consuming than in the LS-40. However, reading the various comments in discussion fora, I should have been discouraged from using the V500 instead of the LS-40: 'dedicated film scanners are always better' blah blah. Well, having done extensive trials using both for the same slides, I can say that I have found that the LS-40 is no better for 35 mm slides than the V500. Indeed the higher resolution from the V500 to me gives it the edge. I find it easier to get a good scan using the V500 with Epson Scan in 'Professional' mode than using the LS-40 with VueScan. I can get there with the latter but it takes longer to get the settings right.

Having scanned all my slides, my LS-40 has been relegated to a box at the back of a cupboard. When the inevitable request comes to scan a few slides for somebody, I shall use the V500. The LS-40 is not on the 'to be disposed of' list though. The filmstrip and the APS attachments could still prove useful in the future.