SilverFast DC Pro

This review first appeared in August of 2003. As you will see, it was not very complimentary about DC-Pro. But, now, in December 2004, SilverFast has updated the program toDC-Pro Studio, a vastly improved product. My initial impression is quite favourable.DC-Studio Pronow joins the ranks of Raw conversion software that I can recommend. I will have a comprehensive review online later in January, 2005.

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A Digital Camera is Not a Scanner

Make Mine RAW

RAW files can be considereddigital negativesbecause they are what the imaging chip in a digital camera sees without any processing whatever. When one shoots in JPG or TIFF or anything other than RAW the camera is responsible for setting white balance as well as other parameters. The camera also takes care of doing theBayer Matrixconversion, which all imaging chips use (except for multi-shot medium and large format backs, and cameras that incorporate the three-layerFoveonchip).

Camera makers that provide RAW capability all provide their own converters, but for the most part these are not full-featured high-productivity tools. This lead to a proliferation of early alternatives such asBreezeBrowser and YarcPlusforCanoncameras, as example. At under $50 the price was right, and workflow was superior to Canon’sZoomBrowseroffering, but they both used Canon’s SDK (SoftwareDeveloper’sKit), which provided the RAW decoding. A similar situation was found in the early Nikon digital environment.


Farm, Bird and House, Iceland. June, 2003

Canon 1Ds with 70-200mm f/2.8L @ ISO 200

Then in 2002 we saw two products become available that changed the name of the game. The first wasCapture One Profor theCanon 1Ds,1D,10D,D60,D30andNikon D1XandD100, and alsoCapture One LEfor theCanon 10D,D60,D30andNikon D100. It is everything that a RAW converter should be — fast, flexible, full-featured and with both excellent workflow and superior image quality.LEat $100 is a relative bargain, whileProat some $500 is the converter of choice for high-end cameras.

The second revolutionary product isAdobe’s Camera RAW, which is a plug-in forPhotoshop 7. Written byThomas Knoll, the original author of Photoshop,Camera RAWintegrates into the file browser within Photoshop and is able to read virtually every RAW file format available, at least for cameras on the market at the end of 2002. It is priced at $100.Photoshop 8,when it’s released, will have Camera RAW built right in, and all then-current cameras will be supported.Camera RAWis an exceptionally well designed product that does its job smoothly and efficiently, and which produces converted images of top quality.

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The New Contender

It is into this environment in late August, 2003 thatSilverFastbrings to market SilverFast DC-Pro for both Windows and Mac. Over the past several yearsSilverFasthas developed a first-class reputation for its scanning software. Many scanner manufacturers bundle various SilverFast scanner versions with their equipment, includingNikon,Umax,Polaroid,KodakandMictotek. My own experience withSilverFastscanning software has been limited, because for the past few years, until I recently switched away from film completely, I was using anImacon Flextightscanner which comes with their superbFlexColorsoftware.

SilverFast DC-Prois available at an introductory price of USD $299. This makes it 3X the price ofCamera RAWandCapture One LE, but only 60% of the price ofCapture One Pro. It is aPhotoshopplug-in, but also comes with a stand-alone loader so that if you use another image processing program you can still access it. Version for PCs as well as Macs are contained on the same disk.

Given its provenance, can it run with the big dogs of this new product category?

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In a Word

IsSilverFast DC-Proa contender? In a word— No. Unfortunately not. WhileSilverFastmay be one of the market leaders in scanning software, when it comes to RAW conversion they’re not on the right page, at least not with this first release. Therefore I won’t be providing the usual overview of how the program goes about its task. In fact the rest of this brief review will simply be to address the areas in which I find the program to be lacking.

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A Digital Camera is Not a Scanner

This subtitle to the review is not simply intended to be "cute". The point that it makes is that the way one processes a RAW camera file on the one hand, and a scanned transparency or negative on the other, isverydifferent. And this lies at the core of bothSilverFast DC-Pro‘s greatest strengths and weaknesses.


Dirty Air, Death Valley. May, 2003

Canon 1Ds with 70-200mm f/2.8L @ ISO 200

The program’s strengths lie in its fully developed and sophisticated image processing tools, derived from the company’s and the program’s roots in scanning. In fact,SilverFast DC-Profirst flaw is that it appears to be a wholesale port of the scanning software. One quickly finds that countless menu items within the program are related to scanning. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this approach. Software developers recycle code all the time. But in this instance, whileSilverFasthas added RAW camera file conversion capability they have not removed any of the scanner menus, features or functions — other than the fact that the programcan’trun any scanners. In the end it has the feel of scanner software with RAW conversion bolted on as an afterthought. (I am told bySilverFastthat scanning function selections will be remnoved in future release).

This criticism also applies to the very nice 400 page printed manual that comes with the program. It is the original scanner manual, without even a nod to RAW conversion. (SilverFasttells me that there is an addendum for DC-Pro, but I didn’t receive it.)

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It’s All About White Balance

The most glaring omission inSilverFast DC-Prois the lack of a proper white balance setting tool. There simply isn’t one. Thereisa slider markedWhite Balance, but it doesn’t really do what a proper WB control should.

Themost important thingthat one does in a RAW converter is set the white balance. This can be done by actual colour temperature, or by common set point (Daylight, Flash, Tungsten, etc), or by "eye".DC-Prohas neither. The program does have a very good Gray Balance selector, but this isn’t the same thing. Also, the gray point setting appears to be taking place after the tone-curve conversion, while it should be done more accurately on the linear data.

By not having a proper White Balance setting capabilitySilverFast DC-Prodisplays its scanning roots. A scanner doesn’t have to deal with white balance. Of course one can adjust the colour balance with the usualLevelsandCurvessliders, but these simply don’t do the right job. Also, top digital cameras when set toAuto-White-Balance, which most photographers do when working in RAW, do a very fine job of estimating the appropiate white balance. A RAW converter needs to honour this setting. It isn’t at all clear howSilverFast DC-Prohandles this.

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Reading RAW Files

With few exceptions camera makers would prefer that their RAW file formats be proprietary, and if third parties wish to process them that the manufacturer’s SDK be used. But, there’s an unsung hero who has single-handedly decoded virtually every RAW format on the market,andwho has made this information available to be freely used by anyone. His name isDavid Coffin, and you can read about his program,DCRAW,inan articlethat he wrote forUwe Steinmeuller’sDigital Outback Photoweb site. In it he says about hisDCRAWthat, "it’s an ANSI C program to decode any raw image from any digital camera on any computer running any operating system. It is a unique and vital tool in the world of digital photography."

Why do I mention this? Because when we first looked atSilverFast DC-Prowe were quite surprised to see the large number of supported cameras — pretty much the ones thatDCRAWsupports. For this and other reasons I am making the assumption thatSilverFast DC-Prouses DCRAW. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact other reputable RAW conversion programs do so as well. But, while the better ones use the DCRAW routines as a jumping off point,SilverFast DC-Prodoes not appear to go any further than simply using the routines as provided. As a consequence it suffers in comparison to those programs that do their own conversion routines after decoding.

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Bayer Matrix

As most digital photographers know digital cameras can’t see colour. Instead, the monochrome sensors are overlayed with a series of Red, Blue and Green filters in what is called aBayer Matrix. To obtain a true colour image this matrix must be converted to RGB. None of this exists with a scanner, which are RGB devices, soSilverFasthas had to come up with their own Bayer conversion routines. Now, this is a non-trivial matter and really needs to be finessed and fine tuned on a camera-by-camera basis. There are some generic routines available, but the best converters, such asCamera RAWandPhase One, go to great pains to customize this for each particular camera file type.

Based on several discussions with people who have now looked closely at converted files and whose level of technical expertise is greater than mine in this area, it appears that there has not been much if any customization for each camera type. This shows up in various forms of ailiasing, some of which can be quite visible.


Warm Dunes — Death Valley. May, 2003

Canon 1Ds with 70-200mm f/2.8L @ ISO 100

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Not 100%

There are other concerns, and I won’t belabor them. One omission in particularly bothers me though. There is no easy way to view the image at 100% magnification. This is a vital first step when using a RAW converter. One needs to do this so as to decide if the image or its most important areas are optimally sharp. With a slide or transparency one always can view the original for this purpose with a loupe on a lightbox. A RAW fileis the originaland therefore this is the only way to be sure that a particular file is one that one wants to work on.

The only way that I can see to view a RAW file at 100% inSilverFast DC-Prois to use theUSM Sharpeningtool box. This provides a probe and a small preview window, not the full screen 100% image that I want to be able to scroll around on, and which all competitive programs provide.

When I commented toSilverFastabout this lack they told me that there is such an ability, and that it’s described in the video tutorials. I check the tutorials (I find them to be very tediouslydone) and all I could find was a 100% preview in a small window. What I want is a full screenactual pixelspreview that can be scrolled. Doing small sections at a time in a tiny window with slow refresh simply doesn’t get the job done.

Curiously, the program actually does its RAW conversion when you load the file from a thumbnail. This is also slow and tedious and not conducive to productive workflow.

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Conclusion

One might wonder given what I have reported above as the various shortfalls of this program, why I have bothered to review it here. The answer is that its failings are not immediately obvious to someone that is not completely familiar with what a RAW converter is and what it does. Frankly, I ended up consulting with some of my colleagues on the more technical issues discussed above because I wanted to be sure that I could explain them appropriately. In the end I decided that my opinions on how this first release ofSilverFast DC-Profails to be competitive would be of value to anyone considering the purchase of a RAW converter.

The program’s inclusion of anIT8test target is unique, but I wonder at its purpose. Most experts now agree that camera profiling is problematic, and whileSilverFast DC-Proincludes the ability to create custom camera profiles, in much the same way as doesinCamera Professional, few photographers will find this to be of utility, especially with the missing white balance control. Again, profiling a scanner with an IT8 transparency makes a lot of sense, but translating this into the RAW realm seems inappropriate under the circumstances.

There are some things to be admired inSilverFast DC-Pro,including a superbCurvestool.Job Managerlooks very powerful but also daunting in its complexity. The strengths that the program has are all due to its derivation from top-flight scanning software. IfSilverFastcould apply its development skills to producing atrueRAW conversion program, rather than scanning software with a RAW converter grafted on, they’d then have a real market contender.

Not currently recommended.

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Other Reviews

Uwe Steinmeullerthe publisher ofDigital Outback Photohas made the review and understanding of RAW converters something of a specialty, and he is considered by some to be one of the more experienced people regarding this topic.His reviewof DC-PRO is now online.

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