Monday, 20 April 2015

Fuji S5: Ship Forever Sinking

Let's have a look at the Fuji S5. The Fujifilm Finepix S5 Pro in long-speak. It was the last of Fuji's digital SLRs, and it has an air of melancholic failure about it. During the first half of the 2000s Fuji tried to crack the digital SLR marketplace with price (the S1 Pro), resolution (the S2), and dynamic range (the S3), without ever carving out a substantial niche, although the S2 came close. The S5 was intended to showcase Fuji's expertise in a professional-level Nikon body, but the market had moved on. The S5's clever sensor was inarguably effective - more about that later - but on the whole reviewers were baffled and professional photographers weren't intrigued enough to hand over their cash. Fuji eventually cleared out their remaining stock of S5s at a bargain price and then withdrew from the digital SLR marketplace entirely, never to return.

To an extent it was the right decision. Throughout the 2000s the digital SLR was The Future, but during the current decade SLRs have increasingly come to feel bulky and old-fashioned. Fuji's post-SLR compact interchangeable-lens neo-rangefinder homage cameras - I call them PSCILNRHCs - captured a whole new market, although such is the way of things that the company's recent X-T1 is more a small SLR than a large PSCILNRHC, which is pronounced exactly as it is spelled, pus-kill-nuh-ruc.

But it wasn't just the digital SLRs that died, it was Fuji's clever sensor. Which is sad, because the S-cameras were genuinely good within their niche and there remains nothing quite like the S3 and S5. I've used the Fuji S3 before, and for high-key portraits the combination of neat colours and soft highlight roll-off was a gem:

But I was always curious about the S5. Ten years later prices have gradually hovered downwards to a level where they are affordable on a whim.

Fuji's first digital SLR was the Fuji DS-505, a bulky one point three megapixel model launched in 1994. It was also sold as the Nikon E2, and resembled a medium format camera with a Nikon F-mount stuck on the front. It failed to displace Kodak's DCS cameras, but six years later the three megapixel, $3,500 S1 Pro was the first affordable digital SLR, and introduced a lot of wedding and portrait photographers to digital photography. The six megapixel S2 Pro (2002) was Fuji's high water mark; the six-megapixel S3 (2005) introduced a new high-dynamic-range sensor. But the market generally wanted more megapixels, a need sadly not met by the S5 (2007), which rehoused the S3's six megapixel sensor in a smarter body. Fuji's SLRs generally cost slightly more than Nikon's direct equivalents, which didn't help.

Fuji's SLRs were all based on Nikon bodies, with Fuji components bolted onto the back and bottom. The S1 was built on a pretty unimpressive, plasticy F60 film camera; the S2 and S3 were built on the F80, which was a popular donor body in the early days of digital SLRs (the Nikon D100 and Kodak DCS Pro used the same chassis). The F80 was still relatively plastic and hollow, and Fuji's modified interface - which used a pair of LCD screens plus a set of command buttons - was a love-it/hate-it affair.

The S5, on the other hand, was much simpler. It used an unmodified Nikon D200 body, with Fuji's electronics squeezed inside the case instead of being grafted on the outside. Operationally the only thing separating the S5 from the D200 was the menu system. The body was superb for the time and has aged well. It has an ergonomic interface, it fits well in the hand, the joints are weather-sealed. It uses Fuji's own-brand batteries. The battery grip supports AAs. Generally this is a terrible idea with digital SLRs, but I've used six Eneloops without problems. The early S2 and S3 used AA batteries, so perhaps Fuji's SLRs used less electricity than the competition. I don't know. I have no idea.

The S5's colour rendition and film simulation modes won plaudits, and the expanded dynamic range was innovative, but on the whole the S5's positive attributes were subtle and difficult to quantify. The S-series was aimed squarely at wedding and portrait photographers who wanted to bang out lots of good-looking JPGs, and the cameras had an impressive range of tone and colour controls for the early 2000s.

The next bunch of images are JPG files straight from the S5, with Photoshop's "auto contrast" (generally not needed), using the S5's Velvia simulation. Notice in particular how the first two images, which are backlit, blow out very gracefully:

I've shot a lot of film over the last couple of years, and even slide film tends to blow out in a way that leaves at least some colour, whereas digital just clips to white. The S5 emulates film well. The next four images were shot with Velvia 100 with a 35mm SLR, Provia (cross-processed) with a medium format Yashica Mat, and Velvia 50 with a half-frame Olympus Pen respectively:

The S5's film simulation modes emulate Velvia and presumably Provia slide film and Portra negative, although for some reason the camera calls them F1, F1a, F2 etc. Generally I don't bother with in-camera JPGs, but the S5's colours are really nice, and a good reason for shooting RAW+JPG all the time. The RAW files are uncompressed 25mb monsters that were difficult to process and archive in 2007, not so much now. The following image illustrates the difference between F2 (top, with Velvia's distinctive rich purple tinge) and F1 (bottom):

The next three are F2, F1a and F1b in that order, with the tone and colours boosted with the camera's menu:

When the S-cameras were new Fuji's RAW developing software was very limited, and it was a while before Photoshop could get the most out of the extra dynamic range. The S5's sensor has two sets of pixels arranged in an octagonal matrix. One set captures the image normally, the second captures the same image but four stops underexposed. A kind of safety exposure. RAW decoding utility DCRaw can unpick the S5's .RAF RAW files, thus:

From top to bottom, the RAW file as Photoshop sees it, then DCRaw's unpicking of the standard exposure (middle) and the safety shot (bottom).

And with much work this is the result. Ignore the skip and the van. I don't care about them. I don't care about the objects in front of the camera; they're transient. They're probably already gone. They will be gone. What matters is the composition, the arrangement of geometric shapes. That lives forever. Mathematics is the language of nature and I am trying to draw out meaning from what amounts to patterns of energy.

In the end there was never a full-frame Fuji digital SLR with a twenty megapixel SuperCCD SR sensor, and after a few years there weren't any cameras with SuperCCD sensors. Evolution runs down little blind alleys, without knowing where they will lead; Fuji tried hard to make SuperCCD a thing, but I have to assume that the company never managed to balance technology and economics. Nowadays almost all digital camera sensors are made by Sony, including the sensor in your iPhone. It's striking to think how much things have changed since 2007. The first-generation iPhone was launched in July of 2007, and with it came the modern world we know today. Nowadays most photographs are taken with phones, and dedicated cameras are junk from the past.

But enough of this gay banter. The SuperCCD SR sensor was shared with the S3 and S5, and a couple of Fuji's compact cameras. Presumably it was too fiddly to manufacture all those pixels, and Fuji eventually developed something called SuperCCD EXR, which tried to achieve the same results with a single set of pixels, although it wasn't as successful. The other thing about SuperCCD is that it produced double-size output, although in practice the six megapixel S5 is a six megapixel camera, no matter how you develop the files. In fact it's not a particularly sharp six megapixel camera. It came in for some stick for soft images, on account of a strong AA filter. The following two shots were taken with an S5 (top) and a Kodak DCS 760 (bottom), using the same lens zoomed to slightly different settings, because the S5 has an APS-C sensor and the DCS 760 is APS-H:

Both images rendered with ACR using zero sharpening, although obviously ACR is applying some sharpening to the S5's files. The DCS 760 had a conventional six megapixel sensor with no anti-aliasing filter, and although dating from 2001 it was a very sharp six megapixel camera. The S5's output has basically the same level of detail, but the DCS 760's image looks less processed.

This is your home now.

 Since 2007 advances in sensor design have eroded away the S5's uniqueness, generally by reducing noise in the shadows, which has the effect of extending usable dynamic range southwards. A combination of careful exposure and bracketing with (say) a D4 can match or even exceed the S5's dynamic range, but where the S5's malleable RAW files excel is in getting good results from uncareful shooting, in a dynamic environment. The "safety shot" plus Photoshop's graduated filters is like having a permanent, flexible, switchable four-stop ND filter on every exposure, even grab-shots.

Consider the following, a snapshot of the Prince Charles cinema, which is showing Blade Runner. It's not a great photograph from a compositional point of view. Nikon's matrix metering did its best, but the lighting conditions simply didn't have an optimal exposure:

Two minutes of fiddling with Adobe Camera Raw's ND filters and adjustment brushes produces this, which is crude and looks like a CGI render, but the sky isn't blown out and you can see detail in the shadows:

Or consider the following, which is a deliberately extreme example that taxes even the S5. The white wall is blown out and the corrections look very flat and artificial, but the resulting image at least has something:

It seems that the S5 was often used as a dedicated portrait camera, with the D200 for everything else. Ultimately, if you aren't fussed about resolution, the S5's colours and dynamic range are still wonderful, although on a practical level the S3 is lighter, has a built-in handgrip, slightly cheaper on the used market, and if you aren't under pressure the slow buffer isn't a big problem. Most digital SLRs of the 2000s are basically much of a much nowadays. I can't see any reason to own a Canon 40D in 2015, or a Nikon D70; they don't have a technical niche, they aren't technically impressive any more, and prices have depreciated to a point where you might as well buy a 5D or a D2x instead.

The S5's dynamic range nonetheless still has limits.

But a few digital SLRs stand out, the S5 among them. Unlike Sigma's Foveon cameras the S-series used standard Nikon F-mount lenses, although only the S5 meters with non-CPU manual focus lenses. The S5 can even record the focal length and aperture of non-CPU lenses, which allows the use of matrix metering. Unlike Kodak's old DCS cameras the S3 and S5 use readily-available batteries, and the colours are a lot more vivid. Now that prices have fallen and software has caught up, the S5 actually makes more sense in 2015 than it did in 2007, I plan to use it more often.

What happens now is that I click "post" and collapse, exhausted, and then I re-read this article and spot numerous really obvious typos, which I correct, and in doing so I re-write large parts of it until the article is twice as long and has a lengthy review of Twilight Time's Zardoz blu-ray half-way through it, plus a short poem about woebegone aubergines and their merry adventures in the land of transparent sand. Also, if you continue reading past this point, you get something about Vienna.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Vienna 2

Off to Vienna, with a Yashica Mat and a bag of Fuji Superia (above) and Fuji Velvia (Duran Sandwiches, below). Vienna is a popular day trip on the train from Budapest or Bratislava. They all lie on the Danube, and a river cruise is a cost-effective way of ticking several countries off your list. I'm going to visit Wales and Scotland last, because they're easiest.

After spending five hours in Vienna I now feel that I can look Central Europe in the eye, as an equal; me a human being, Central Europe a mass of countries where young men debate politics in coffee houses and women dress in big skirts and they have horse-drawn carriages etc. I learn this from Project Gutenberg's With the World's Great Travellers, a compendium of travel writing from the 19th Century.

On the day I visited Vienna the horse-drawn carriages and early photographers and men with large moustaches and anarchists had been packed away; in their place there was a large shopping mall attached to a smaller museum area that was also a shopping mall, with a low-key style. We are all heading in the same direction, driven by the same fears and desires. With the World's Etc has a lengthy excerpt from John Russell's A Tour in Germany, published in the mid-1820s. Of Vienna I learn that:
    "The proper city is of nearly a circular form, and cannot be more than three miles in circumference, for I have often walked quite around the ramparts in less than an hour. The style of building does not pretend to much ornament, but is massive and imposing; the streets are generally narrow, and the houses lofty, rising to four or five floors, which are all entered by a common stair. ... Some individual masses of building, in the very heart of the city, are as populous as large villages."
Which suggests that Vienna circa 1820 must have seemed like Judge Dredd's Mega-City One to John Russell. Little did he know what the future had in store. New York of the 1820s was a modest port, and Europe was still the centre, the future, the pinnacle of the world.

Elsewhere in the book American traveller Bayard Taylor, writing in the mid-century, is "...lost in astonishment at the perfection of art attained by the Greeks and Romans. ... I should almost despair of such another blaze of glory on the world were it not for my devout belief that what has been done may be done again, and had I not faith that the dawn in which we live will bring another day equally glorious."

After all, "why should not America with the experience and added wisdom which three thousand years have slowly yielded to the old world, joined to the giant energy of her youth and freedom, re-bestow on the world the divine creations of art?" And only one hundred short years later Jeff Koons was born.

I find it hard to think about Vienna without thinking about Hitler. Perhaps that's because I'm British, or perhaps it's because I'm a closest Nazi. Not thinking about Hitler is like not thinking about an elephant, it's difficult to do it consciously. (tries) And now I'm thinking about a Nazi elephant, wearing a stahlhelm, and did you know the Germans had a tank called the Elefant? It was actually a tank destroyer, basically an anti-tank gun in an armoured chassis. They were awesome! But German industry could only make a few dozen of them and so sadly the Nazis... and so the Nazis lost the war. Which is a good thing.

Hitler was of course born in Austria. There was nothing particularly unusual about Hitler's early life. His dad was an authoritarian bureaucrat who was a big fish in a small pond; Hitler seems to have consciously rebelled against his father whilst simultaneously and unconsciously becoming a copy of him, incapable of admitting error and prone to outbursts of anger whenever people failed to heed his instructions. As with Adventure Time's Earl of Lemongrab he found himself continually butting against a world that was unacceptable! but also bigger than him, but rather than learn to fit his environment he decided to change the world instead. Some people try to change the world constructively, by inventing a more efficient vacuum cleaner or curing Hepatitis; Hitler had no time for that.

After finishing school Hitler essentially became a pretentious hipster, and it's fascinating to draw parallels between him and the modern world. Hitler's dad died when he was young, and so he spent his teenage years lazing about whilst his mother did the housework. At the risk of offending single parents worldwide, I maintain that it's easier for two people to raise children than a single person by themselves, if only on a purely practical level, and that the socialist alternative - for the state to raise children so that everybody has seven billion parents - is unworkable and open to abuse, beside which it's just mean.

Like all teenagers, Hitler was an arrogant sod who learned about the human world from books first and from first-hand experience second, so that he began with a vastly over-inflated sense of his own importance and knowledge. His modern heirs spend their days on Reddit; my generation grew up with Wired magazine and No Logo, and my ancestors presumably grew up with The Downwave and Omni, pre-packaged facts with all the little details and boring working-out removed. As an autodidact Hitler was free to ignore anything he didn't agree with or have the time to think about, and throughout his life he seems to have surrounded himself with a mixture of fawning sycophants and strong people who saw in him a useful shield.

He set himself the task of becoming a great artist, and failed, and from that point onwards he seems to have blamed his failure on those around him. Meanwhile his mother died and he found himself essentially a piece of human flotsam in Vienna, an insignificant dot, like a tiny particle of radioactive fallout; like fallout he continued to burn. The Great War fashioned his generation into a bomb, and during the 1920s and 1930s he finally achieved critical mass, touching off a runaway chain reaction that engulfed the world in another one of its periodic orgies of bloodletting, this time on a truly global scale.

It's just "Duran Sandwiches". Named after Vladimir Duran, who founded the place.
The New Romantics had a thing for Europe, in homage to David Bowie's Berlin period, and the retro-futurism of mid-70s Kraftwerk. They had a thing for a kind of fantasy mitteleuropa that linked the Weimar republic with the modern day, skipping over the Nazi regime. There was Bauhaus, Spandau Ballet, "Vienna". Future historians of culture will wonder why a bunch of London clubgoers decided to draw inspiration from half a century ago and far away.

And yet the human race keeps going. The two World Wars demonstrated that individual human life was insignificant; but in terms of mass death the wars were just a blip, because the Earth's population more than tripled during the twentieth century. A few months ago it was theorised that a new world war would have almost no effect on global population. Over the coming century the human population will increase even if a catastrophic event kills two billion people, assuming that this event does not make the planet uninhabitable.

The average human being weighs 62kg. Two billion corpses would weigh one hundred and twenty four million metric tonnes of flesh bone and blood. If my calculations are correct that would equal the world's tonnage of chicken meat production for one year in the mid-2030s. For human beings the deaths of two billion people would be a horrendous event that would hopefully cause us to turn away from violence forever, although in practice we would get used to it and carry on as before; for chickens, the deaths of two billion chickens is the United States' chicken consumption for four months.

It would take the elimination of over four billion of us to cut the human population down, so the next time you complain that the roads are too crowded, or that you have to sit next to fat people on the plane, bear in mind that the alternative is far worse.

"And it was the buildings themselves that were always the principal attraction for me."