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.

It was probably the right decision. Throughout the 2000s the digital SLR was The Future, but during the current decade SLRs have increasingly come to feel like desktop PCs - bulky, old-fashioned, throwbacks to an outdated paradigm. 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 1.3 megapixel model launched in 1994. It was also sold as the Nikon E2. Physically it resembled a medium format camera with a Nikon F-mount stuck on the front. Despite a quasi-full frame optical system - it used a special lens to preserve the field of view of SLR lenses, at the expense of a few stops of light - it failed to displace Kodak's DCS cameras. Six years later Fuji tried again, with the three megapixel, $3,500 S1 Pro. It 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 time.

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. Immediately after I took this shot twenty men crawled out of the skip, across the floor, and into the van, which drove off.

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:

The two images were rendered with ACR using zero sharpening, although obviously ACR is applying some sharpening to the S5's files. The DCS 760 was launched in 2001. It has a conventional six megapixel sensor with no anti-aliasing filter, and although Kodak's technology was out of date the DCS 760 was nonetheless 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:

Most modern digital SLRs would be able to brighten up the shadows without introducing too much noise, but without careful shooting the blown-out highlights would be gone. 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, is 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 muchness 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 remember 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.