The Better Light 6000 Scanning Camera Back

Field 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 photography.

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.

The 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 per year.

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.

Wow, 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 photography.

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.

There's 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.

The $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.

The 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.