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 to DC-Pro Studio, a vastly improved product. My initial impression is quite favourable. DC-Studio Pro now joins the ranks of Raw conversion software that I can recommend. I will have a comprehensive review online later in January, 2005.
A Digital Camera is Not a Scanner
Make Mine RAW
RAW files can be considered digital negatives because 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 the Bayer Matrix conversion, which all imaging chips use (except for multi-shot medium and large format backs, and cameras that incorporate the three-layer Foveon chip).
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 as BreezeBrowser and YarcPlus for Canon cameras, as example. At under $50 the price was right, and workflow was superior to Canon's ZoomBrowser offering, but they both used Canon's SDK (Software Developer's Kit), which provided the RAW decoding. A similar situation was found in the early Nikon digital environment.
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 was Capture One Pro for the Canon 1Ds, 1D, 10D, D60, D30 and Nikon D1X and D100, and also Capture One LE for the Canon 10D, D60, D30 and Nikon D100. It is everything that a RAW converter should be — fast, flexible, full-featured and with both excellent workflow and superior image quality. LE at $100 is a relative bargain, while Pro at some $500 is the converter of choice for high-end cameras.
The second revolutionary product is Adobe's Camera RAW, which is a plug-in for Photoshop 7. Written by Thomas Knoll, the original author of Photoshop, Camera RAW integrates 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 RAW is an exceptionally well designed product that does its job smoothly and efficiently, and which produces converted images of top quality.
The New Contender
It is into this environment in late August, 2003 that SilverFast brings to market SilverFast DC-Pro for both Windows and Mac. Over the past several years SilverFast has developed a first-class reputation for its scanning software. Many scanner manufacturers bundle various SilverFast scanner versions with their equipment, including Nikon, Umax, Polaroid, Kodak and Mictotek. My own experience with SilverFast scanning software has been limited, because for the past few years, until I recently switched away from film completely, I was using an Imacon Flextight scanner which comes with their superb FlexColor software.
SilverFast DC-Pro is available at an introductory price of USD $299. This makes it 3X the price of Camera RAW and Capture One LE, but only 60% of the price of Capture One Pro. It is a Photoshop plug-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?
In a Word
Is SilverFast DC-Pro a contender? In a word — No. Unfortunately not. While SilverFast may 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.
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, is very different. And this lies at the core of both SilverFast DC-Pro's greatest strengths and weaknesses.
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-Pro first 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, while SilverFast has added RAW camera file conversion capability they have not removed any of the scanner menus, features or functions — other than the fact that the program can't run any scanners. In the end it has the feel of scanner software with RAW conversion bolted on as an afterthought. (I am told by SilverFast that 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. (SilverFast tells me that there is an addendum for DC-Pro, but I didn't receive it.)
It's All About White Balance
The most glaring omission in SilverFast DC-Pro is the lack of a proper white balance setting tool. There simply isn't one. There is a slider marked White Balance, but it doesn't really do what a proper WB control should.
The most important thing that 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-Pro has 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 capability SilverFast DC-Pro displays its scanning roots. A scanner doesn't have to deal with white balance. Of course one can adjust the colour balance with the usual Levels and Curves sliders, but these simply don't do the right job. Also, top digital cameras when set to Auto-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 how SilverFast DC-Pro handles this.
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, and who has made this information available to be freely used by anyone. His name is David Coffin, and you can read about his program, DCRAW, in an article that he wrote for Uwe Steinmeuller's Digital Outback Photo web site. In it he says about his DCRAW that, "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 at SilverFast DC-Pro we were quite surprised to see the large number of supported cameras — pretty much the ones that DCRAW supports. For this and other reasons I am making the assumption that SilverFast DC-Pro uses 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-Pro does 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.
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 a Bayer 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, so SilverFast has 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 as Camera RAW and Phase 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.
Canon 1Ds with 70-200mm f/2.8L @ ISO 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 file is the original and 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% in SilverFast DC-Pro is to use the USM Sharpening tool 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 to SilverFast about 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 tediously done) and all I could find was a 100% preview in a small window. What I want is a full screen actual pixels preview 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.
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 of SilverFast DC-Pro fails to be competitive would be of value to anyone considering the purchase of a RAW converter.
The program's inclusion of an IT8 test target is unique, but I wonder at its purpose. Most experts now agree that camera profiling is problematic, and while SilverFast DC-Pro includes the ability to create custom camera profiles, in much the same way as does inCamera 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 in SilverFast DC-Pro, including a superb Curves tool. Job Manager looks 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. If SilverFast could apply its development skills to producing a true RAW conversion program, rather than scanning software with a RAW converter grafted on, they'd then have a real market contender.
Not currently recommended.
Uwe Steinmeuller the publisher of Digital Outback Photo has 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 review of DC-PRO is now online.