John L Mathis

Railroad Photography

Digital Darkroom - Software

 

Which is more important in the digital darkroom, hardware or software? I guess they are equally important. Without adequate reliable hardware, the software is useless, but hardware with no relevant software is an expensive boat anchor or game machine.

The purpose of this page is to give you an idea of what software I use, and why? Although I have a rather extensive library of photographic software, please remember that this has been acquired over the last eleven years, and my purpose has always been to deliver the best possible image. If you buy a print from me you would like for me to do the best job that I can. If you want to produce excellent results at less cost you can certainly get great output from a product like Photoshop Elements or its equivalent. I use only a small fraction of Photoshop's capabilities (although what I use, I need). Also what you need determines the corresponding software. If you don't intend to scan slides, then all of the issues (and software) associated with coaxing the best image from a scan become irrelevant. In a future section on my workflow, I'll get into more detail on this.

As mentioned on the hardware page, I started experimentation in the early-mid 1990's with Corel Paint and an early Nikon scanner. My printer was a then standard HP deskjet printer. The results were somewhat discouraging and I didn't do much more until, in 2000 I saw some work that was done by one of the programmers where I was then doing contract software development. At that point I realized that a lot had happened and jumped back in to the digital world, this time for good. At Christmas 1990 with the purchase of an Olympus E10, and a Canon BJ920 bubblejet printer, I got started. I soon realized that I needed some processing software and decided to bite the bullet and go for Photoshop 6. Although the Olympus was only 4MP, they were large pixels and the results were very good. This image of BNSF 566 at Milford, NE, is an example of what this camera was capable.

From these efforts, through several iterations including now a migration to the MAC OS 10.6. my current software library has evolved. Here is the informatin on what I'm now using.

Apple OSX 10.6.8 (Snow Leopard - September 2011):

After my switch to Apple (but still with Windows 7 capability via Bootcamp) not only has my software changed but my workflow has become very different. Because of my Nikon Scanner and Epson 9800 printer (including ImagePrint), I do not intend to upgrade to OSX 10.7 (Lion) until I'm really sure that everything works. The Nikon scanning software is no longer supported by Nikon so it can get dicey, but thanks to the internet and helpful people, I hope that it will still work, but I'll wait.

In the transition to Apple, I lost the use of FocusMagic which I really use for capture sharpening of scans and at this time, this is the only reason I still cling to Windows for any photo processing. I try to use the 64 bit version of Photoshop because with large images (scans or 140MB raw Sony A900 images), 32 bit Photoshop often runs out of memory. The snag here is that FixerLabs FixerBundle as well as Imagenomics Noiseware do not work with 64 bit Photoshop on the Mac. I'm taking another look at the latest version of Neat Image, Topaz Lab's DeNoise 5 or NIK Software's Dfine2. Since most of my digital images are ISO 250-400, noise isn't a big problem, although with scans it is still a problem.

The biggest plus for my digital image workflow resulting from the switch to Mac is the ability to use 64 bit Raw Photo Processor (RPP). I started using it when I found out about it in a Luminous-Landscape Sony A900 review. I have done comparisons between it and Adobe Camera Raw and although Adobe Camera Raw is an excellent product, the images produced by RPP are slightly sharper and yet the overall output has a smoother more film like character. It also has the ability to output a 32bit RGB file.

This brings me to the next major change in my image processing. Photoshop CS5 has the ability to produce a pseudo HDR image for a 16 bit image using the Adjustment->HDR toning option. With a 32 bit image, tone mapping is applied when reducing the 32 bit image to 126 bits. While not a true multi-image HDR process, the tone mapping process does "open up" the image, and when used judiciously, does, in my opinion, improve the base image. Some HDR or pseudo HDR images are really far out. What I hope to achieve is a more realistic looking image rather than special effects.

I will update my workflow on this page in the near future. In the meantime, I am gradually re-working my older digital images to bring them up to my newest standard.

Previous Windows info:

Slide scanning software: (Update 5/23/2009) I've always considered slide scanning acumen to be a branch of witchcraft since it at times seems to be impossible to "nail down" a repeatable technique. I do all my slide scanning on my 7 year old Nikon LS8000ED Coolscan scanner. Although it comes with NikonScan software, I had never been able to get as good of results with it as with VueScan or SilverFast AI. Recently however, I found a site: MarginalSoftware.com that has an excellent primer on scanning especially using the Nikon Scan software. However even using other scanner/software combinations, the information on this site is very useful and based on what I've learned, I'm getting great results using Nikon Scan now. It originally came with version 3. Version 4, which was released to support the 5000/9000 series CoolScans also upgrades the 4000/8000 (although the features specific to the later series cannot be used).

The main problem with my slides is that when photgraphing with slides, I shot to protect the highlights. This means that the slides will lean toward under rather than over exposure. In the digital realm underexposure is BAD! Most information in a digital image's spectrum is contained in the brighter portion of the image. To over simplify, shadows contain less bits of information than does the lighter portion. This means that both when photographing with digital, or scanning, the image should be exposed just below the point where the highlights are blown out. With film, highlight overexposure "rolls off", but with digital exposure, overexposure causes highlights to clip. With RAW image processing, some highlight recovery is possible. With scanning on the Coolscan because it uses CCD's, if you over expose the slide as you scan it (gain too high) the over exposed area will "bloom" and blow out the surrounding area. After a lot of experimentation, I rarely raise the gain above neutral exposure because the highlight colors will simply become too distorted (highlights blown out and sky colors green/cyan).

One problem with the 4000/8000 series is a cold bluish tint to Kodachromes. At this point I'm going to the RGB curve and reducing the blue to try and neutralize the color cast.

The technique I use to bring out the darker portions of the slide is to CAREFULLY amplify the lower portion of the lightness curve.

All in all, after seven years of experimentation, I think my scanning techniques have advanced beyond voodoo and have become much more stable.

 

VueScan by Ed Hamrick was previously my preferred scanning software. (Revised 2/4/2009) While I've had many successful scans using VueScan, I find that it lacks the control that I need for producing an optimal scan and throws too much to the post processing. It is excellent software for scanners which don't come with adequate (or with crippled) software. It's two main strengths are that it is available for many scanners and it is inexpensive: (the standard version is $39.95) and, the Professional version for $79.95 provides free lifetime upgrades. I've used it since 2003 and during that time I've upgraded it countless times as Ed is constantly upgrading the software to account for new scanners and to provide better images, as well as bugfixes. VueScan does not provide much manipulative capability, rather it concentrates on getting the best image which you may then post process in your image processing software. I now feel however that if possible, good slide scanner software must provide you with the ability to get the most of the original scan. Additionally, I feel that Nikon Scan's Digital ICE scratch and color recovery is superior to VueScan's. (A caveat: it's easy to overuse Digital ICE or other slide recovery software. - This can kill detail and create ghastly color if used at too high a strength setting.) If at all possible, I DO NOT USE any color recovery or scratch reduction software as it plays hob with details and can cause goofy shadows. I do have a set of slides processed by Fox color in the 1950's where the dye has blown out and it does best when Digital ICE color recovery software is used, but only on the lowest settings.

SilverfastAI by Lasersoft is considered by many to be "the" professional scanning software. It allows a huge amount of image manipulation. However, it is complex to use and is expensive, especially if you have more than one scanner (such as a slide scanner and a flatbed scanner). I use Nikon Scan (earlier, VueScan) because it takes longer with Silverfast to prepare a slide and there are too many tweaking possibilites, some of which conflict with each other. However, at this point, if I did not have NikonScan then I would use Silverfast in order to get the most out of my image at scan time.

Image Processing: Adobe Photoshop CS4. In 2001 I started with Photoshop Version 6. Since then, about every 18 months Adobe has demanded another pound of flesh to get the latest and greatest version. Aside from one upgrade, they have provided more for the digital photographer in each release. Adobe Camera Raw which is also part of Photoshop Elements is what I use for raw image processing. Photoshop provides me with the tools I need. However, if you are serious but don't want to go through the learning curve, spend the money, or want to use less time on image processing....consider Photoshop Elements. It provides much of what Photoshop provides at much less expense and with a friendlier interface. Newer versions of Adobe Camera Raw also allow initial processing of scanned images which can help reduce casts, correct light temperature, optimize exposure range, and cropping to correct ratios.

Plug-Ins: Plug-ins are add on's to Photoshop, and in many cases also Photoshop Elements. Some are also compatible with other image processing programs as well. The add-ons that I use are:

Noise Reduction: Noiseware Professional (Imagenomics), NeatImage and NoiseNinja are all excellent products. Currently for most of my noise reduction requirements I use Imagenomics Noiseware Professional. It samples each image and provides a lot of flexibility. NeatImage and NoiseNinja are older products and they are also excellent and upgraded, but I find that now I use Noiseware Professional for almost all of my noise or grain reduction efforts. It seems that noise reduction has evolved quite a bit over the last several years, and I picked up each of these products as they appeared. The thing that I like about Noiseware Professional is that when used with care it doesn't step on the details as much as other products. In the near future I intend to check out NIK Software's deFine 2.0. I've used NIK sharpener for years and I should also check this out.

Blur Reduction: Blur reduction is not like "traditional" sharpening. Rather, it attempts to compensate for lens aberrations or softness, or slight out of focus or motion blur by mathematically determining what the image "should look like". My understanding of this "deconvolution" process is that it stems from research into correction of the original Hubbell space telescope's focus problems. As far as I am concerned these products take care of all except print sharpening. FocusMagic is one of my most usefull tools as I can use it for both slides and digital photos. The other software that I use for this process, FocusFixer is more refined and is only useable on digital camera/lens combinations as it uses a database to determine the camera/lens characterstics.

to be concluded...........

Last edited: 9/17/2011