ALPA SILEX MK II – The Technical Camera Powerhouse
As covered previously in Copal Shutter Care & Alternatives, we are at a turning point for the use of the Schneider & Rodenstock optics used on technical cameras, with their purely mechanical Copal-0 shutters working like little gear & spring timepieces that are now (and have been) out of production and are in dwindling supply for new installations and repairs, forcing us to contemplate what’s next in technical camera shooting.
A strong entry into this next arena is the ALPA SILEX MK II, a control unit and mini-powerhouse in its own right that among other things, interfaces with and controls Rodenstock electro-mechanical aperture and shutter diaphragms in the new e-Shutter 250 modules, which have been available since summer 2016.
I propose that we define terms and perhaps determine the correct nomenclature moving forward when discussing these technologies. The ‘e-shutter’ terminology is decades old and originates from a time where the only option over purely mechanical shutters for view camera use was from Sinar which used a computer interface or an external, a/c powered controller to actuate an electro-mechanical shutter while imaging film.
Previously the Rodenstock eShutter 250 lenses could only be controlled by the Sinar eControl unit (also discussed before). The ALPA Silex Mk II now offers substantial benefits to technical camera workflow as well as added benefits to other camera platform owners that I will not discuss here. The Silex can be mounted directly to and work with any ALPA 12 camera.
Today, the term ‘Electronic Shutter’ is being used broadly by contemporary camera manufacturers as a technology that is purely electronic, features no moving parts, are used in cell-phone cameras and available in a number of mirrorless cameras from companies like Fuji, Sony, Canon as well as digital backs like the Phase One IQ3-100, Hasselblad H6D-100 and the upcoming Phase One IQ4-100, IQ4-150.
Somewhat confusingly, the shorthand term ‘e-Shutter’ is being used for both of these technologies, and while while the Sinar/Rodenstock units are emblazoned with ‘e-Shutter 250’, it would perhaps be better to refer to this technology when speaking about it as ‘E-M shutter (for
Electro-Mechanical Electro-Magnetical [Leaf] Shutter*) leaving e-Shutter terminology for purely electronic captures by the digital sensor needing no additional parts or moving pieces.
(Currently, the digital artifacts caused by the Electronic Shutter rolling shutter in certain circumstances and the lack of ubiquitous strobe syncing put e-shutter at a significant disadvantage for many photographers’ needs, also covered in the previous post). – BK
*EDIT 11/8/18 – André Oldani, CEO of ALPA was kind enough to clarify that the system used in the e-Shutter 250 units are electro-magnetical as there is no mechanical clockwork running, but rather, opening/closing is performed by retainer magnets and the exposure time is derived entirely externally by a digital controller like the Silex Mk II.[/box]
Navigation on the Silex Mk II is easy and intuitive, I was able to fire up the camera and shoot through 90% of the feature set without looking at the manual, firmware 5.0 being a serious improvement from my early firmware operations of the FPS and Silex Mk I.
Actuation of the shutter is incredibly precise, quiet and most importantly repeatable… quickly. Once you have your camera in position to fire your first frame, you can fire the Silex as fast as an automated medium format camera, so if you’re watching for cloud movement, tree movement, people movement etc., you can keep your eyes down range and fire at will.
- All navigation thru the features and functions are actuated with the directional arrow buttons and thru the top wheel that rotates and has a down-click function.
- The gold button fires the camera and with a long press of the on/off toggle.
- The square button universally opens and closes the shutter to enable live view from the digital back and the circle button universally opens the aperture to wide open or shuts down to operating f-stop.
- Pressing the gold shutter button automatically readies and shoots the camera, no matter what the previous state of the shutter/aperture were.
- Long presses provide further utility with toggling the backlight and, new in Firmware 5.01, automatic exposure compensation for creating LCC’s. (more on this fantastic addition later)
SILEX USER INTERFACE
Select Shutter Speed (Increments available in 1/4, 1/3, 1/2 and 1 stop)
Good-bye 1-stop increments, GOOD BYE dreaded 2 second exposure. Shoot 2 seconds with confidence… heck even go for a repeatable 2.5 seconds!
Select Aperture (Increments available in 1/4, 1/3, 1/2 and 1 stop)
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve shot an entire sequence of shots, only to realize that somewhere in the middle I bumped the aperture while cocking the Copal-0. Now, just set it and forget it.
Lock Exposure Ratio
Bringing some SLR automation into the technical camera realm, the ability to lock your exposure ratio allows you to preview your falling light exposure wide open on the lens with a reasonably short exposure time and then easily stop down to your operating f-stop and have the shutter speed appropriately follow your moves to maintain a consistent exposure.
Set Self Timer (1/4 second – 1 minute)
Perfect for firing the system with no additional cabling or remotes, set the timer to 1/2 second to 2 seconds to allow for the camera to settle down after touching it, although with it’s solid mount and light touch to fire, I’ve shot many images that resulted in perfect clarity even with no latency programmed in.
Auto-Bracket Dialog (How many increments of Change, 0 = Off)
At first this dialog can be a bit daunting to figure out, before realizing it’s simple efficiency. How many increments of change / bracket order / EV change / Bracket or Multiple Exposure / Latency between shots.
Auto-Bracket Dialog (Bracket Order)
Having this feature is fantastic, set as shown, it will fire from longest exposure to shortest exposure with its midpoint the selected exposure, which can be reversed. Additionally, the ‘+’ only will fire a bracket with only increased exposure times from set-point with the opposite for ‘-‘
Auto-Bracket Dialog (Set Increment of EV Change 1/4 to 9)
Honestly, with the 15-stops of dynamic range on the Phase One digital backs I shoot, I rarely bother to bracket in increments less than 2-3 stops, but like every dialog on this system, user preference ranks high, so if 1/4-stop is your choice, you have that ability.
Auto-Bracket Dialog (Set for Bracket or Multiple Exposure)
Automated multiple exposure? YES! Now you can easily build exposures in-camera with multiple bursts of light from a fixed strobe head or from a wandering single light. (The indicated 3 second latency can be set to manual and by using a radio remote trigger, you could light paint individual portions of the scene to combine in-camera to a final image w/o having to return to the camera)
Auto-Bracket Dialog (Showing 5 total frames to be fired [as indicated by ‘B5’] in 1/2 stop increments, starting from brightest exposure to darkest, 3 seconds of latency between frames)
New in Firmware 5.01 – Automatic LCC EV Change
An absolutely perfect integration of a much needed feature for technical camera use, a long press on the left arrow brings up this dialog which will temporarily increase the time exposure value from a user determined 1/2 to 5 stops for capturing LCC’s which would otherwise be underexposed. Well done ALPA, well done.
I have been a vocal proponent of using Electronic Shutter on the Phase One IQ3-100 since it became available 2 years ago, certainly from the sense of conservancy for Copal shutters, but more specifically I liked the workflow of producing my shoot from the back of the technical camera, needing only to move around front to eye the aperture and to reach up front to open/close the master diaphragm when the digital back prompted for a black frame reference.
The Silex doubles down on shooting ease with all camera operations except focus being actuated comfortably and precisely from the rear of the camera. No accidentally bumped aperture values, no torque on the camera whatsoever to cock the shutter. All this refinement and automation leads to consistently perfect multi-panel stitches and bracket sequences that shoot as fast as the highly automated Phase One XF camera.
While the unit does not share the same battery as the Phase One digital backs, it does use inexpensive, off the shelf Sony L-Series batteries ranging from 2900 mAh to 7800 mAh. Firmware is easily updated through the side USB port.
If you have a radio trigger, you can mount it to the top of the SIlex, wire into the PC port and remote fire the camera from a 2nd radio tranceiver.
The backlight on the LCD can be dimmed or its contents turned upside down, wheel directions can be reversed, timing for black frame reference is included in the programming and can be turned off if shooting with it suppressed, available self timers, radio remote firing, ethernet remote firing, multiple exposure capabilities all with a simple and intuitive workflow, hyper-tight control and beautiful aesthetics that compliment the ALPA camera bodies.
The ALPA Silex Mk II now has me excited about shooting E-M shutter lenses as a positive augmentation to my current shooting style and I look forward to the full transition away from the antiquated Copal-0’s. -BK