Monday, August 17, 2009

Digital Convergence and USB powered scanners


IMAGE/TECH
Reviews of equipment that make imaging, in all its forms, easier and better.

The ideal of convergence in digital imaging continues unabated. Today one never considers buying a digital still camera unless it also shoots quality video, preferably in high definition (HD). And video cameras are not immune to this idea, being expected to shoot respectable quality still images as well as quality movies - standard play (SD) video is no longer enough. With the public’s growing acceptance of HD television, both subscription and free to air, HD video is fast becoming the standard expected by the consumer - whether with dedicated video cameras or digital still cameras. This marks a real convergence, both privately and professionally of the two mediums for today’s photography. And with newspapers now publishing both still and moving images in their online publications, these new cameras fill a genuine need. Remarkably, this is not confined to high end camera models such as Canon’s EOS 5D Mark ll - relatively inexpensive cameras such as the recently introduced EOS 500D DSLR now offer both sides of this imaging coin. Consumers are clearly the beneficiaries of this evolution. One camera might now be all you need for covering important family occasions - or professional events.
It is also a measure of how quickly these cameras are evolving that the quality of imaging continues to improve - especially in areas such as shooting at high ISO speeds in low light.
The Canon 500D is a camera to pick up and take with you when larger, heavier digital cameras seem simply too bulky for carefree picture taking. And you can be sure of quality images with a 15 megapixel CMOS sensor, Canon’s proven DIGIC image processing and the ability to shoot RAW and jpeg simultaneously, if required. The 500D is also another camera where a brief look at the manual sets you up for handling this camera intuitively. That this DSLR comes with the extremely modest Canon 18-55IS lens should not cause too many any visual inhibitions. I read somewhere that no human hand was involved in its making - so automated was the process of manufacture. I had modest expectations until I saw the pictures - it is a clearly well designed 11 element 9 group aspheric lens, capable of sharp images with visual aberrations kept well under control. I naturally prefer the 17-85IS for its longer range, more robust construction and proven performance - but the prospect of a lighter, stabilized 28mm-90mm (equivalent) lens for little more than $150 is hard to resist. This modest but well performing lens cannot be bought separately, coming as part of the 500D’s basic kit. The difference between the cost of the camera body alone and the kit, with 18-55IS, lens is only $150. There are also evolutionary improvements in the camera's design. The LCD screen on the camera’s back is larger, at 80mm wide diagonally, with extremely fine resolution, being composed of 920,000 pixels. Higher resolution is helpful when viewing a picture's small details or inspecting several thumbnail images at once. The detail is simply much finer than previous DSLR’s whose screens usually run to 300,000 pixels. The shutter release also seemed more responsive than on the earlier EOS 40D DSLR.
And with the 500D I found myself only referring to the instruction book when I needed precise shooting parameters such as discovering the new experience of shooting HD video with a DSLR. Other frequently used controls, ISO settings, white balancing, reviewing pictures and AE lock were easy to read and reach. And shooting HD is simple - turn the rubberized control wheel on the top right camera panel to align the movie camera symbol. Press the button with the camera symbol and red dot (just to the right side of the LCD screen) to activate the live view. When you wish to start filming simply press the red button again (a red dot will appear top right in the LCD screen telling you filming is taking place.) All features of the camera and lens function as normal, except AF, which must be activated using the AE lock button (*) on the top right of the camera’s rear panel. From experience this technique provoked the AF mechanism to hunt a little until it found sharp focus. Correct AF was then registered on the LCD screen by a central white, vertical, rectangle (delineating the autofocus area) turning green. Readers might try filming using manual focus for a change. But the resulting vidoes were uniformly excellent. Once HD filming has been selected, darkened crop marks suddenly appear, automatically revealing what is being filmed using the 16:9 format. I took the manual’s advice and bought a 4GB fast-writing SD HC card. HD filming devours memory capacity with filming at 1280 x 720 and 30 frames per second allowing only 18 minutes on my 4GB card. Fast-writing, larger capacity cards are mercifully coming down in price with these wafer thin devices also being more compact than the chunkier Compactflash CF cards used on cameras such as the EOS 40D.
In conclusion the EOS 500D is the kind of camera that invites being used. Being compact and easy to operate, it promises quality picture taking as fun, even if you may be planning for your pictures to be used professionally. HD video capability is a huge bonus, effectively allowing the owner to have this important capacity wherever you go. The EOS 500D can be attached to a High Definition television for viewing both video and stills via HDMI cable (HTC 100 - purchased separately from the camera) using a socket concealed in the left hand side of the camera (behind a durable rubber seal). Still images were uniformly fine in colour, resolution and freedom from intrusive digital artefacts up to and including ISO 1600 (note the still life with mandarins) At ISO 3200 in the picture of waitress Monika at Maggies of Potts Point, results were coarser but certainly useable - and therefore publishable. The Canon EOS 500D Kit also includes an equally sharp, optically well designed, 55-250IS zoom. Together with the 18-55IS most photographic bases are covered for a recommended retail price of $1999.
Other standard features of Canon’s digital SLR’s are included, such as sensor cleaning, an extensive choice of picture taking modes from sports and landscape to nature in closeup, with the camera having a durable battery life. Even after days of inactivity Canon’s LP-E5 Lithium Ion battery retained most of its charge. A separate input for a stereo microphone would help.

Canon LiDE 700F Scanner with 9600 dpi scanning and USB power
Another product with the potential to make photographers' lives easier is Canon's elegant LiDE 700F scanner - the only scanner I am aware of that is solely powered by its USB cable. Mains power is not even an option.
The 700F flatbed scanner builds on the successful design of its predecessor the LiDE 600F, being also powered only by USB. Capable of scanning flat images on its platen as well as 35mm negatives and transparencies using the film holder supplied, the 700F goes a step further than the 600F in being able to scan at an astonishing, optical 9600 dpi. (it's timely that portable hard drives are dropping in price.) This elegant silver and black machine sits on the desk next to my black HP notebook, looking, at first glance, like a second silver laptop. The lid is double hinged, making copying and scanning objects of different thicknesses easier. Where the lid closes at the front edge the 700F has two small surprises - recessed silver rectangles about the size of hearing aid batteries at each corner. Looking closer revealed Canon had added two magnets with which to hold the lid flatter. A small but impressive design feature which suggests the scanner is well thought out.
This scanner departs from usual Canon scanners, such as the 5600F which have hinged plastic film holders illuminated from a light source contained within the lid. As there is no room within the 700F’s ultra thin lid for a light source, the Canon designers found an ingenious solution. The bottom half of the film carrier sits close to the platen surface, registered in alignment by two hollow spaces - one square and the other rectangular (so they can’t be misaligned). A strip of six negatives literally sits on this ‘half’ film carrier, emulsion (dull) side upwards. Once a strip of negatives have been positioned (an awkward task to manage with large fingers) a small, moveable, diffuse light source is positioned above, making direct contact and illuminating a single frame of 35mm film. (This light source, with diffuser, is powered via a cord which plugs into the left hand side of the scanner.) The light is then moved along manually, to cover and illuminate the frame selected for scanning. For such a simple device the results were impressive. To test the scanner in a practical way, I chose a sharp, rather ancient medium speed black and white negative from my archives of a woman I was asked to photograph forty four years ago. Posed against the setting of a derelict, vintage Rolls Royce, this photograph was commissioned for the front cover of CENSOR newspaper by its publisher, Richard Graham. Photography was to take place in the Haberfield home of a Sydney identity who shall remain anonymous.

My subject, however, was a woman of rare grace named Angelica. After scanning this negative, taken on medium speed film all those years ago, I was impressed by the fineness of detail the scanner resolved. Strands of the woman's hair on her forehead were clearly defined. Nothing appeared to be lost and the film’s grain structure was clearly visible - all one could ask for, especially when scanning 35mm negatives using a flatbed machine - generally a lesser option when compared to dedicated film scanners. With Canon’s proprietary ScanGear software, all major controls for scanning were easily detected and accessible. Once I had loaded the software CD and completed the scanner’s simple calibration procedure (found in ScanGear's Preferences) I established resolution and basic image controls and decided to scan in greyscale. After years of supplying pictures for newspaper publication, I routinely scan using the combination of resolution and output size - 300dpi at A4 - most commonly requested by publishers. For finer book reproduction I will, of course go higher. I normally avoid applying unsharp masking or tonal ‘curves’ if the negative is reasonable to start with. Only after the first, basic scan will I apply more detailed corrections. If I wish to sharpen an image, I will sometimes employ Photoshop’s ‘smart sharpen’ to a degree that leaves the image sharper, but not obviously so. Image manipulation is fine as long as you don’t notice it. My main reservation about the 700F was its film holder, in which is sometimes difficult to align the negative accurately beneath the light source sitting above. Transparencies can only be scanned individually and unmounted. Perhaps future generation scanners will address this.

Though my prime interest was scanning B&W negs, I also scanned several Fuji RTP transparencies I shot in 1993 of actors Cate Blanchett and Lech Mackiewicz (L)in a memorable professional stage performance of Timothy Daly’s austere, beautiful play “Kafka Dances” at the Griffin Theatre in Sydney’s King’s Cross. Again, I achieved fine, reproducible scans. In case you thought I only scanned negs and trannies, I also used the 700F to archive some tiny family snapshots sent to me by my cousin John Chaplin recently. Taken sixty years ago during a childhood holiday in Tasmanian snow, these credit card sized snapshots were able to be scanned and enlarged to A4, with revealing effect. I am the timid soul seen on the right of frame. My mother, Poppy, now 93, is in the centre of the group holding my sister Helen. My late father, Bill, is on the left of the picture, cradling an ever present cigarette.

While the Canon LiDE 700F is not the scanner for all seasons, its results were uniformly good. Readers should know that I have little interest in what the dmax of this scanner might be (Canon don't quote it anyway) Practical testing proves that, with care, the 700F is capable of making excellent film scans as well as being versatile.(there are individual buttons for PDF, email attachments and copying documents) Its very reasonable price ($249 RRP) makes it an ideal travelling companion for laptop users; it also promises using one less power cord for accessories.

Copyright Robert McFarlane 2009

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