work anyone? When hooked up to a battery and a Mac Powerbook
you too can make 140MB digital images in the field.
Photos © 1999, Jay Abend, All Rights Reserved
For those of you who think
that digital cameras cannot replace conventional medium and large format
film, get a load of the Better Light 6000 scanning camera back. This
rather expensive pro digital tool not only replaces 4x5 transparency
film for most still life applications, but actually extends a photographer's
creative options. If you've heard of Better Light through the
landscape and scenic work of acclaimed photographer Stephen Johnson,
then you already know that breathtaking results are possible with this
camera back. My goal was to see how it worked for its real purpose--studio
If you make your living with a camera, the thought of going digital
probably terrifies you. I've read several articles in various
pro-oriented photo magazines (including Shutterbug) that set the price
of admission to the digital studio to be around $30,000 and up. While
this may have been true several years ago, the continued price pressure
by the low-end consumer cameras has finally forced many high-end camera
makers to drop their prices. For example, $30,000 Leaf three-shot cameras
dropped to $20,000; Imacon Flextight film scanners went from $17,000
to $12,000; and various Phase One scanning cameras had thousands knocked
off of their price as well. One of the pioneers of the digital imaging
business, Michael Colette, has now dropped the prices on his line of
scanning cameras as well. The once mid $20k Better Light 6000 is now
available from CDS, the digital wing of Calumet, for a price under $15,000.
stem magnified--that's sharp.
While $15,000 for a camera
back is a good chunk of change, the economics of such a device are stunning.
The Better Light 6000 can deliver a 6000x8000 non-interpolated file when
inserted into the back of nearly any garden-variety 4x5 view camera--a
staggering 137.3MB. That's like a 1500dpi drum scan of a 4x5 transparency,
but with no dust, dirt, or scratches. (And it's ready in minutes.)
For those who think a $1000 Nikon CoolPix is "high res" with
its 1600x1200 interpolated pixels, the Better Light is in a whole other
solar system. (One-shot cameras like the CoolPix use a dyed pixel array
which interpolates color.)
Can a pro really make money with a $15,000 digital camera? Let's
examine the film world for a moment. I'll use my own example. I
used to shoot lots and lots of 4x5 sheet film. Assuming that I shot an
average of 60 sheets of 4x5 film per week, I was spending about $200 per
week including processing and wasted sheets. Include a good amount of
Polaroid type 59 and I could figure on a decent $8000-$12,000 film bill
Now that the cost thing is out of the way, what makes the Better Light
different or better than the other high-end cameras out there? Well, cost
is an issue. The excellent Phase One line of scanning cameras cost a bit
more, and the $26,000 Leaf Volare yanks another $9000 out of the budget.
A scanning camera like the 6000 requires constant lighting, like tungsten
lamps, and those do add to the cost. As you'll see later on in my
review, the new software Better Light provides makes it easy to use inexpensive
lighting and get decent results.
now that's detail. Look at the stainless glass stems--flawless.
The colored plastic of the glasses holds a stunning amount
of detail with no noise, dirt, etc. You'd be hard
pressed to create this level of image definition with anything
less than 8x10 film and a $300,000 drum scanner.
To evaluate the Better Light,
Shutterbug contacted Calumet and arranged for a brand-new Better Light
6000 for review. Calumet sent us the full boat package--the 6000 scanning
back with 6000 pixel trilinear pixel array, the Better Light interface
box with integrated 2GB hard drive, and the Better Light battery pack
and cables to operate the back from an Apple Powerbook. The portability
option is intriguing, but I never could figure out why you would want
to drag one of these into the field. For me, a scanning camera has two
great uses--to document art work and literature and to use for product
Once out of the box it was simply a matter of hooking up the interface
box and camera, loading the software, and powering up. Unfortunately the
back is factory set for SCSI ID of 6, which conflicted with an internal
device on my Mac, so out came the tools. Once the SCSI conflicts were
resolved the Better Light camera driver came to life. This is a stand-alone
application that does not operate from within Photoshop, so you need to
open Photoshop after each scan to evaluate your image. The Better Light
cameras have been around for a few years, and the camera driver software
reflects this. On a decent sized monitor the user interface is a very
small box with a bunch of controls and an even smaller preview window.
The preview window reflects what the scanner is doing in real time, but
it's too small to really see what's going on. Luckily there
is a full histogram displayed directly below the preview window, so you
can get a good sense of your overall exposure level. The Better Light
has an extensive array of controls, including capture area (cropping),
file size, sensitivity (film speed), exposure time, lighting type, and
post exposure processing. It's a dizzying array of choices, but
once you start shooting it becomes quite simple. Even with all of these
controls, the Better Light does lack a few niceties that are present in
many other camera drivers; namely white and black point settings, adjustable
curves and levels with a preview, and on the fly CMYK conversions, unsharp
masking, and other image enhancements. Better Light promises new software
with many of these features in the near future, and it will be a no-charge
upgrade for current owners.
the heart of a scanning camera--the tricolor wand of pixels.
This array made by Kodak is a hefty 6000 pixels wide, and
can make 8000 individual steps as it works its way across
the film plane.
Once I had the unit powered
up and ready to roll I decided to try a few different lighting sources.
Since flashes or other non-continuous light sources don't work with
a scanning camera, I set up a few inexpensive tungsten lamps. I metered
out the setup and dialed in a line time of 1/60 sec and an aperture of
f/11. To my amazement the Better Light whipped through a full preview
scan in a mind-blowing 8 sec. Not only that, but the preview scan was
actually a nice little 2MB file saved on the hard drive. Imagine shooting
a catalog using nothing but the preview scans--8 sec a pop and ready to
roll to the next product. This may be because the Better Light uses its
own proprietary hard drive, but the speed is really eye opening.
Once a preview scan was captured it was time to prepare for a full scan.
First step: color balance the scene. The Better Light neutral balance
routine is a bit involved, but still relatively easy to do. Shoot a Macbeth
color chart, click the "probe" tool over the gray box, then
enter the Color Balance dialog box and click "Auto Balance."
It's that simple. The beautiful part is you can now save that setting
as "Jay's Tungsten" or whatever. You can have different
balance settings for "Lowell Lights" or "Arri Fresnel"
or whatever your lighting choice is. Once set the individual color planes
can be changed manually to create a warmer or cooler color rendition.
This level of control is standard on all high-end devices, and it comes
in handy when trying to create a mood or special effect.
$15,000 Better Light next to a $7 film holder. Going digital
is easy when you can use your existing 4x5 studio camera,
lenses, and tungsten lights.
Now that we have our gray balanced
it's time to apply a curve. Curves, for you Photoshop fans, allow
you to manipulate the image to make the whites look white, the blacks
look black, and everything in between to look normal. There are a few
preset curves already in the software, but custom curves are easy to set
up manually. The advantage of editing the image within the application
is that you are working with full 48-bit data. Applying all of the digital
enhancements within the plug-in will result in a smoother, cleaner file
with less noise in the shadows then saving it as a 24-bit file and editing
it in Photoshop.
Now that I had everything dialed in, it was time to scan. To really see
what this thing could do I pulled out my Britek HMI lights. As I mentioned
in a previous review, these inexpensive magnetic ballast lights provide
a ton of daylight-balanced light for a low, low price. The downside to
the Britek units is their flicker rate, which mimcs the pulsing of the
wall current (60Hz in the US). My first scan at 1/40 sec with the Better
Light looked quite good, but enlarging it in Photoshop showed slight banding
from light source flicker. A quick read through the Better Light User's
Manual revealed that line times that were not synched to the incoming
wall current were noted on the screen in red. I chose a black number,
1/60 of a sec, and tried another scan. To my utter amazement the next
scan contained no flicker--I mean zero. The image was flat-out perfect
from edge to edge. Those who plan to use inexpensive hot lights or high
frequency fluorescents take note--the new software for the Better Light
cameras all but eliminates flicker.
green filter on the front is mandatory--it balances the
IR light in tungsten lights. The back simply fits in any
Graflok style film back. It couldn't get any easier.
One of the great knocks against
scanning cameras has always been the time required to shoot a picture.
Earlier scanning backs could take five to 10 minutes just to scan one
picture. With the HMI lights I was able to get full resolution scans--137.3MB--in
a remarkable two minutes and 35 sec. Decent scans at 50 percent--34MB--apiece
yielded breakneck one minute and 30 sec scans. This compares very favorably
with three-shot cameras like the Leaf Volare, and even is comparable to
the workflow of good old-fashioned film. (Polaroids take one minute.)
To see what the experience was like with less elaborate lighting, I lit
the same subject with a handful of 1000w tungsten lights. Scan times increased,
but not drastically so. I was able to get f/16 in about two minutes flat
for a 34MB file. Not bad. In my experience this is clearly the world's
fastest scanning camera. The big question--how good was it?
I shot a couple of colored glasses to see what the Better Light 6000 could
do. This was a good test; gleaming stainless steel highlights to see if
there was any undesirable blooming, bright colors to gauge the accuracy
of its color reproduction, and lots of little nooks and crannies to see
how sharp this thing was. Lit with three 1000w Colortran lights mounted
in Chimera softboxes, I set up my Toyo view and 210mm Fujinon lens and
grabbed a big 75 percent scan (77.2MB). Once I shot the image it was time
to review it in Photoshop. With the Better Light acquire module you must
pull the raw image off of the hard drive located within the control unit.
The image opened and looked pretty good right away. Since the Better Light
camera driver is not color managed, the image I got was just a hair off.
A quick trip to the curves and levels windows fixed it up and it was time
to zoom around and figure out what was going on. First of all, I could
not find any instances of blooming, where the hot highlights get a pronounced
orange or yellow fringe. Highlights were perfect. Now that my image was
color balanced the colors of the glasses looked pretty good. I increased
the saturation by about 15 percent and we were just about spot on. Shadow
noise was very well contained. While I could detect some blue channel
noise due mostly to the tungsten lights (the gain in the blue channel
is increased to compensate for the red color of the light source), it
was negligible and certainly as good as any camera I have used to date.
Sharpness was just plain great. While I added a bit of unsharp masking
to really punch it up, I can honestly say that images from this camera
can be used with no sharpening of any kind. It's that sharp. I could
present this file to a client and be confident that they could run it
as a 2x3' poster and it would look absolutely perfect.
A great image, captured in a few minutes. That's what it's
all about, really. So how does it stack up to the competition? Well let's
compare it to film. I pulled out a bunch of drum scans that I have had
made from 4x5 transparencies and really exmained them in Photoshop. My
feeling is that the Better Light 6000 is sharper and cleaner than many
drum scans, with no dust or dirt. While the drum scans seemed to handle
dark areas very well, the grain of the film was noticeable, making the
Better Light images seem more like 8x10 or larger film. Since I've
used scanning backs from Dicomed and Phase One I have to admit that the
Better Light stacks up very well. While the Phase One PowerPhase offers
a more robust software package and excellent product support, I think
the ultimate quality of the images is about the same, and the Better Light
is thousands of dollars less. There is practically no comparison with
one-shot cameras. Even compared to exotic tools like the $23,000 Phase
One LightPhase, the Better Light files are cleaner, sharper, and more
accurate. (But of course you can only take pictures of things that don't
move.) Compared with similarly priced cameras like the $16,000 Kodak DCS
520 the Better Light blows it away. If still life photography is your
bag, the Better Light is hard to beat. For those really looking for a
bargain, Better Light offers a 4000x5000 pixel version of this camera
complete for under $10,000. If a 53.6MB file can do it for you, then maybe
the Better Light 4000 is your best shot to get into the digital realm.
If Better Light can really deliver on its promise of a modernized camera
driver then the Better Light 6000 will be a near perfect combination of
price and performance. While the $15,000 list price may seem high to some,
working photographers who made it through ninth grade math should be able
to figure out the short and long term advantages of such a device. Is
this camera better than film? Well, yes and no. Until the dream of a super
duper high-resolution one-shot camera is realized sometime in the next
century, scanning cameras like the Better Light backs represent the only
way to get really big, really sharp still lifes.
For more information, contact Better Light, 1200 Industrial Rd., No. 17,
San Carlos, CA 94070; (650) 631-3680. You can also contact Better Light's
distributor CDS (a digital division of Calumet) at: (888) 237-2022.