Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Fuji S2: A Congregation of Vapours

Two six megapixel cameras based on Nikon bodies, but sold by others:
on the left, a Kodak DCS 760 (2001), on the right, a Fuji S2 (2002).

A while back I had a look at Fuji's range of digital SLRs, which blazed an interesting but not entirely successful trail during the 2000s. At the time I had a Fuji S3, but the camera I always associate with Fuji's SLR range is the S2. The original S1 was launched in the pre-history of the modern digital SLR marketplace, and the later models - the S3 and S5 - had an air of failure and obscurity about them. The S2 was the right camera at the right time, and holds a certain nostalgic appeal.

Back in the very early 2000s six megapixels was generally seen as the resolution that separated the men from the boys, and there was hot competition amongst the leading camera manufacturers to launch a six megapixel camera that didn't cost a huge fortune. The Kodak DCS 760 in the picture above was launched in mid-2001 at a list price of $8,000, a considerable saving on the $15,995 Kodak had charged for the DCS 660 a year earlier, but competition from Nikon's $6,000 D1x was making that sort of price untenable.

Fuji S2 / Nikon 50mm f/1.8 D / London

Only a year later the white heat of competition and consumer desire had transformed the digital SLR market. By 2002 the DCS 760 was old news, and the same $8,000 would have bought a full-frame, eleven megapixel Canon 1Ds. Outside the world of professional photojournalism the 1Ds was still out of reach of all but the most wealthy individuals, but beneath the top professionals was a far larger stratum of independent wedding and portrait photographers who would have struggled to spend nigh-on $10,000 for a digital camera (and the batteries, memory cards, accessories, and hefty computer to go with it), but still wanted to transition to digital.

It's "uniforms", dammit. You don't need an apostrophe. Google's image search tells me that this is Kathy Lee of Actiongirls, who has obviously given up on her modelling job.

The three-megapixel Fuji S1 and Canon D30 had opened up this market, and by the time of the Fuji S2 there was a scramble amongst the top camera companies to sell mid-priced, six megapixel cameras at mid-range professionals, and perhaps even well-heeled amateurs who wanted in on this digital thing. The S2 was launched in parallel with the Nikon D100 and Canon D60, all of which were priced around the $2,000 mark, with the S2 about $300 dearer than the D100, and the D60 slightly cheaper still. I don't have access to Fuji's sales figures, but as far as I can tell the S2 sold quite well. They regularly appear on the used market, at any rate.

Contemporary reviews portrayed it as a viable alternative to the D100, with a quirkier battery arrangement but sharper and more colourful out-of-camera JPGs, and a slightly higher resolution. Meanwhile the D60 seems to have meshed poorly with Canon's release timetable, and was replaced within a year by the popular, six-megapixel 10D.

Physically the S2 was based on a Nikon film body, the Nikon F80. Nikon used the same body for the D100, and for that matter Kodak also used an F80 chassis for the fourteen megapixel, full-frame DCS 14N. It's interesting to compare them with the DCS 760, which is conceptually similar - it was based on a Nikon F5 - but huge in comparison, with dual PCMCIA slots and an enormous battery stick. The S2 is much shorter and lighter, and feels more of a whole, whereas the DCS 760 comes across as a film camera with a separate digital back. The S2 still has a little bit of this binary nature (the PLAY button doesn't wake the camera from sleep, for example) but it's less pronounced. On the other hand, the DCS 760 feels every bit as tough as it looks, and it makes a bold loud commanding authoritative reassuring industrial professional tick-a-clack when the shutter fires, whereas the S2 is a bit plasticy and makes a wimpy-sounding shuw-shoom noise. Yes, shuw-shoom.

Camera-wise the S2 is an F80, with a top shutter speed of 1/4000, flash synch at 1/125th, five-point autofocus, pop-up flash, G-type lenses, pre-AI lenses BAD, sadly no metering with non-chipped AI lenses. One unfortunate consequence of the film body is that the ISO can only be changed via the main command dial, which is awkward, and there's no auto-ISO mode. For a film camera this is understandable, but it's irritating in a digital body and the one thing that stops me from loving the S2.

Electronically the S2 uses Fuji's clever hot-button interface, which made its debut in the S1 and was continued with the S3. It looks like this:

The FUNC button - top-left, the label has rubbed off - steps through the top LED's pages, and the PLAY button turns on the screen. In this shot the hotkey menu displays the histogram, deletes the image, locks the image from deletion, and shows a 3x3 thumbnail grid. Other pages show the shot settings (in PLAY mode) or allow the user to change the tone controls (when shooting). It would have been great if Fuji had added ISO to one of the menu options, but no, they didn't. Seriously, I would have hugged them. They didn't add ISO to the S3's menus, either.

Price & Mann is or was some kind of art duo; this appears to be the only photographic record of their career on the internet (it's an intervention, e.g. a sticker on top of a sticker on top of a sticker intended to make you question the existing order but more importantly intended to build up Price & Mann's CV so they can apply for Arts Council funding).

The S2 has two card slots. A Toshiba SmartMedia slot, which is basically useless - SmartMedia never took off, and the maximum size was only 128mb, which stores about nine .RAF files - and a Compact Flash slot. The camera's filing system can only use 2gb cards. It seems to work fine with my old 1gb IBM Microdrive, which might be handy if you fall into a timewarp back to 2001, when Microdrives were still relevant.

If this happens to you - if you fall through a timewarp back to 2001 - I suggest you sell the S2 and invest in gold and property. Cameras are terrible investments. Try to invest in Blackwater Security, because there are going to be a lot of nasty wars. Also, in just three short years Peter Andre will be huge. Yes, Peter Andre. And it won't be an ironic hugeness, either. The nation will fall sincerely in love - yet again - with Peter Andre. The people of England will look at the wars and then look at their house prices and then shrug their shoulders and vote for Labour once more. Also, Dido.

Nowadays almost all cameras use sensors made by Sony or Canon, but mostly Sony, and they're all broadly the same. A rectancular grid of photosites with a Bayer filter matrix and an infrared blocker bonded to the top. Back in 2001 there was much more diversity. Sigma was making a lot of noise about the novel new single-pixel Foveon technology, and Fuji had SuperCCD. As it turned out Sigma badly botched Foveon and seem to have kept it alive solely to torture it, like in I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream - I've used that joke before, but it's a good one - whereas SuperCCD was very successful, for a while. It powered Fuji's popular range of compact cameras, which included the F10, F30 and F31, all famous for their good image quality in low light.

SuperCCD used octagonal pixels that were orientated in a diagonal pattern. Fuji also eliminated some of the on-sensor electronics, which allowed the SuperCCD pixels to be slightly larger than the competition. And the sensor could theoretically do away with a physical shutter, although unfortunately the S2 doesn't do this.

As a consequence of all this the S2 had slightly lower noise than the competition, and supposedly the resolution was slightly higher, although this was a point of controversy and unfortunately tended to overshadow the S2's good high-ISO performance. The S2 had a six-megapixel sensor that could output twelve-megapixel images, which were interpolated. Top RAW conversion utility DCRaw can translate SuperCCD files without scaling or rotating them, which in the case of the S2 produces this:

Internally the camera seems to store the image as a 3583x3584 pixel file, which is roughly twelve megapixels, although a lot of the space is just blank. As a consequence the S2's RAW files are unusually cumbersome (almost 13mb each, which can't have been much fun to archive and work with on 2001-era computers). The camera presumably rotates this by 45 degrees and cuts off the edges in order to save the 6mp file. In retrospect it would have been more sensible for Fuji to leave out the interpolation, and simply output six megapixel files. The larger file seems to store no more detail and just takes up space.

Amateur message board people picked up on the S2's supposedly twelve-megapixel resolution and divided into two camps. Those who pooh-poohed it, and those who maintained that they had a twelve megapixel camera yah boo sucks. It's just as meaningless now as it was back then. Think of all the arguments on message boards going on right now. They are just wasted effort and will leave behind a trail of nothing.

While I'm at it, here's a little experiment.The raison d'etre behind Sigma's Foveon sensor was the knowledge that traditional digital colour cameras don't actually output their full pixel resolution. The interpolation required for the Bayer colour matrix results in a loss of fine detail which is cleverly reproduced with software. Furthermore there's the influence of the camera's anti-alising filter, which softens the image slightly in order to eliminate moire, and as a consequence some six megapixel cameras were sharper than others. Just for fun I decided to pit my S2 against my twenty-one megapixel Canon 5D MkII. Here's a 100% crop of a shot taken by both cameras and then scaled down to six megapixels:

S2 at the top, 5D MkII at the bottom. If we assume that the 5D's image is the optimum possible with a six megapixel file the S2 obviously falls short, although it has to be said that the difference is only apparent on close inspection. And of course it's academic nowadays. Here's the S2's output (rendered by ACR at twelve megapixels) scaled up to match that of the 5D:

It's possible that Fuji's own software might pull more detail from the original .RAF, but I doubt it would be significant. Extra resolution is one of those things that's nice to have, assuming it doesn't introduce too much noise, although it's not as important in practical terms as it seems unless your client absolutely demands high resolution files (perhaps for industrial purposes). I was in the Natural History Museum a while back, and there was an exhibition of rocks... no, sorry, minerals, accompanied by four-foot-high prints of the Grand Canyon etc. From a distance the prints were lovely, but on close inspection - six inches - it was apparent that they were low-resolution JPG files blown up to fit the space. Given that this was the Natural History Museum they had probably been printed out fifteen years ago and never updated since, but did anybody care? Did anybody care? I didn't.

A professional geologist might have cared, but... well, as Iain Duncan Smith has pointed out, Britain doesn't need professional geologists. They're scroungers. Parasites. Vermin of the lowest order. What do they do, anyway? It's not as if there are, like, precious metals or oil or stuff like that underneath the ground. And if there are, just dig a hole. That doesn't take a geologist.

Here's the same comparison, but with the Kodak DCS 760, which has a conventional six megapixel sensor. Fuji S2 at the top, DCS 760 at the bottom, without sharpening:

The DCS 760's image is slightly crisper, although the S2's image can be sharpened to almost match it. In common with the other six megapixel Kodaks the DCS 760 had an APS-H sensor - about half as large again as the S2's SuperCCD chip, which meant that I had to zoom the lens in a little bit more - and a removable anti-aliasing filter, which I removed.

The tragic thing is that subsequent iterations of Fuji's SuperCCD sensor had genuine, useful, tangiable advantages, which were overshadowed by something trivial but marketable. The S3 and later EXR cameras had more dynamic range than the competition, which allowed for an unparalleled degree of highlight recovery, viz the following image, which was shot with an S3:

At the top, the original was grossly overexposed; the S3's sensor recovered the image from the bottom which, at full size, is identifiable as G-SRUM:

If I had tried the same thing with my Canon 5D MkII it would have been a disaster. The S3 had its own problems, and ultimately the market didn't care for SuperCCD. I tend to place it in the same mental box as Apple's old PowerPC machines. Clever for a while, but in the long run it was cheaper to buy mass-produced chips from the market leader than persist in developing a proprietary solution. Less control, but as Sigma has shown with its purchase of the Foveon company, more control equals a lot more work.

SuperCCD had a last burst of glory with Fuji's EXR models of 2009 and was then quietly abandoned in 2011, in favour of sensors from Sony. Nowadays the only way to get a SuperCCD camera is second-hand.

In its day the S2 was praised for the excellent quality of its out-of-camera JPGs, which was important for busy professionals who didn't have time to mess around with RAW files. Bear in mind that Lightroom and Aperture didn't exist in 2001; the alternatives were either very involved (Photoshop) or Fuji's own proprietary Hyper-Utility software, which was slow. I usually shoot RAW all the time but for this post I shot a lot of JPGs as well for nostalgia - with HARD and HIGH tone - and the S2 has nothing to be ashamed of. White balance was rarely fooled, and the images straight from the camera were pleasing to the eye. The following are out-of-camera JPGs with "auto contrast" applied in Photoshop and nothing else:

The S2 has an ISO range of 100-1600. The S1 had an awkward base ISO of 320, which made daylight photography with wide apertures difficult. The S2's noise at ISO 400 is negligible, workable at ISO 800 and not great at ISO 1600, by which point it gets streaky.

People say that computer games rot your brain. But I've learned far more about fighting zombies with modern military hardware from computer games than my ancestors could have imagined. Okay, my granddad knew how to fire a real machine-gun, but he was facing Germans, not zombies. And he knew how to pluck a goose and cook it, and also fix a car, but I know how to do that as well. You just face the object, scroll the mouse wheel, and click when the appropriate action comes up. Easy! Here's "Infinite and Tenderlovin'" by Adron, a truly excellent track that deserves more exposure:

I avoided macaroni and cheese for a long time. My first experience was from a can, but the sauce was this awful gloopy thick urgh it was horrible. Many years later I decided to try it from a packet, and my life was transformed. No longer would hunger consume me. I have ninety-nine problems, but hunger is not one of them, not any more.

I cook it with olive oil, and a tomato, and I add some black pepper and thinly-sliced onion. There is so much scope for variety that I will never run out of ways to make macaroni and cheese. Mustard powder. Breadcrumbs. Salami. Soy sauce. There have been dark times, there will be dark times again. But short of major intestinal surgery or a cheese allergy the darkness will not win. Or, if it does, I will be too dead to care.

Back to the S2. It's made out of plastic and feels it. The body doesn't creak but I wouldn't expect it to stand professional-level abuse either. The S3 apparently had a problem whereby the USB port would come loose and fall inside the body, and the S2 has a hollowness to it. The deep handgrip is nice to have and fits my deep manly hands. The autofocus selector is frustratingly slow - and as mentioned before the ISO control is hard to operate quickly. Fuji never released a vertical portrait grip for the S2, an odd decision given the intended market of wedding and portrait photographers. There are hacks that allow the S2 to use an F80 grip, but the shutter button doesn't work. The D100 had a grip; the F80-based S3 had a grip; the S2 didn't.

The S2's battery layout is odd. The handgrip takes a pair of CR123A lithium batteries, which last forever, and the base of the camera takes four AA batteries, which also last a long time albeit that I didn't spend a day shooting sports with a screw-drive 300mm f/2.8. It seems to work without the CR123s - it autofocuses, takes a shot, saves it, displays it - but the camera is convinced that it's about to run out of power, and the on-board flash doesn't work. Fuji fixed this for the S3, which did away with the CR123s.

The S3 was launched three years later, in 2005. It had the same six megapixel resolution but benefited from a clever HDR sensor that used two pixel matrices, one exposing several stops below the other. The S3 combined the two matrices to produce files with higher dynamic range than the competition, and with the right RAW conversion software the S3's dynamic range is still excellent today. But at $2,500 the S3 was a thousand dollars more expensive than the classic Canon 20D and the extra dynamic range was too esoteric for the market to care much about. It was also very slow, viz this video:

Fuji replaced it two years later with the S5, which had the same basic sensor in a Nikon D200 body. It was slightly more expensive than the D200, but six megapixels was behind the curve. The files seemed unusually soft, too. In a fantasy world a full-frame, twenty megapixel HDR SuperCCD SLR based on a D2x body would have been a glorious thing. In the real world Fuji did the maths and gave up on the pro SLR market. Kodak had made the same decision five years earlier, and it's to Fuji's credit that the company managed to make a go of it for so long.

Still, wither the S2 circa 2013? Nowadays it's basically obsolescent, like an old PowerBook G4. It still works, but there are better options for not much more. Your mobile phone probably outresolves it, your digital camera almost certainly outresolves it several times over, and unlike later Fujis the S2 doesn't have expanded dynamic range. Nikon subsequently made several six-megapixel SLRs that were smaller and cheaper, and by a quirk of fate the once-premium-priced S2 is now one of the cheapest F-mount digital SLRs on the used market. As an entry-level beginner's SLR it makes a lot more sense (the JPG output is excellent) and it doesn't matter if it breaks*. Unlike for example the later Nikon D40 it will autofocus screw-drive Nikon lenses, but on the other hand it doesn't meter with non-CPU lenses.

It's a 2001 camera, and so there's no in-built CA, distortion, or vignetting correction, so you need to have good optics. For the shots on this page I mostly used a Nikon 50mm f/1.8D - 50mm lenses are always good - and a 28-80mm f/3.3-5.6G, which is utterly cheap and plastic but surprisingly sharp.

If nothing else, this article demonstrates that you don't need to spend a fortune to take good photographs. You just need to have Photoshop and spare time and access to an interesting subject and of course you have to be me. So, if you see someone on the internet taking dull, flat, colourless photographs of uninteresting things with five thousand dollars' worth of Nikon D4 and a 24-70mm f/2.8, hit them in the face as hard as you can. Tell them it was your own idea. When they're down, kick them - in the low back, because that's where the kidneys are.

* It doesn't matter much nowadays, anyway. Some S2s were manufactured with a defective sensor that failed after a short time, which was painful for a camera costing more than $2,000. Fuji replaced the sensors, and by now I suspect that all the duff S2s have been thrown away.

I now present a short poem in the style of Scott Walker via Half-Life II:

The old grey skull-whispers
bubble out from broken
softly spoken infestation
and the parasite mind
inbound, inbound