Sunday, 26 June 2011

The Fuji S3: Shoot, Don't Talk

"War", sang Edwin Starr. "What is it good for?" By coincidence the Fuji S3 Pro is pretty good for high-key portraiture, although as a means of winning wars it would be terrible. Still, the sensor doesn't blow out the highlights unless you're a complete klutz, and so you can expose to the right to your heart's content, and claw back anything that lies outside the histogram by using Photoshop's Recovery slider, as per the image at the top of the page, of the lovely Bleeka doing something silly with a leaf (remember to update text. -Ed). But that's not all. Have a look at this lion, which guards Room 89 at the Victoria and Albert Museum:

The reflections on the lion's nose are blown out; most cameras would render this as a patch of blank whiteness with some ragged, monochrome edges, but with careful processing the S3 file looks natural, and the shadows are nice and clean, too. Here's another example, of a knight:

Again, the brightest highlights have gone, but the transition into clipping is gradual and pleasing to the eye. That was shot at ISO 1600, at which level the image is grainy but holds up well, with good colours. It was further processed with NeatImage. On a more practical level, here's a shot of a metal microphone standing next to a white computer, which would have been a tricky shot with a conventional camera:

And here's Bleeka again, just because, with the histogram mostly crushed into the top stop, shot like almost everything on this page with a Samyang 85mm f/1.4 at f/1.4:

So, the S3 has no problem with women, lions and knights. Put like that it would seem to be the ultimate camera, but there are problems. Mostly little ones, but lots of them. The biggest one is speed. It's not a fast camera, at least not if you have the wide dynamic range mode turned on (and if you don't, the S3 becomes a run-of-the-mill six megapixel SLR, no better or worse than any other). The problem stems mostly from the huge raw files, which are 25mb each, not much smaller than the files from my 5D MkII. The camera takes ages to write them to the card, and you can't review the shots until the very last byte of the last image has finishing writing. If you're photographing a person and you want to show them the results you'll spend a lot of time waiting for the little red light on the back of the camera to stop flickering.

In its day the S3's huge raw files were problematic for another reason; a then-decent 2gb card could only store 80-ish shots (a 512mb card can only hold 19). Nowadays we all have gigabytes coming out of our ears, but in 2004 memory was still expensive. And so was the S3 Pro.

In common with Fuji's other SuperCCD cameras, the imaging pathway produced a double-sized, twelve megapixel output file, with apparently slightly more resolution than a six megapixel file. In practice the advantage was undetectable and buried amongst the other variables involved in converting a raw file into visible output. Compared to a twelve megapixel camera (such as the popular Canon 5D), the Fuji S3's files were obviously less detailed. Here's a little example. First, the lovely Helen Diaz, straight from the camera, shot with a Samyang 85mm at f/5.6, at which aperture the lens should be more than a match for the sensor:

And here's a mouseover. I used Adobe Camera Raw to render the file at both resolutions, and then sized the six megapixel file up to match the twelve megapixel file. Move your mouse over it to see the twelve megapixel file:

No, really, it works. There is a difference, but it's insignificant, and with a bit of sharpening the six megapixel file would look almost exactly the same as the twelve megapixel file.

In theory the camera has a three-shot raw buffer, but in practice this is only the case if you turn off the histogram review. In a fashion-style environment the shooting experience is click, refocus, click, refocus, click, refocus, press press press press, check the back of the camera, press press press press. Wait. Press press click. There's no indication in the viewfinder that the buffer has filled up. In fact the only indication is a black square in the hotkey control screen. For a camera apparently aimed at wedding and events photographers, the write speed is a major flaw, reminiscent of the glacially slow Kodak DCS 14n. I shall demonstrate with a short film:

I surmise that some photographers bought the camera, tried it out, tried to live with it, failed to do so, and then got rid of it as quickly as they could when the Nikon D200 came out. Fuji offered a buffer upgrade as a paid-for modification, but this would have probably made things worse, stretching the post-capture review delay into minutes.

I'll tell you about how the S3 does its magic, by the way. The sensor is divided into two six megapixel arrays. One group of pixels are of conventional digital SLR size, and record the image in the usual way. With the dynamic range enhancement turned off, the camera only uses these pixels, and as a consequence the file sizes are more manageable.

Buried between the big sensors is a second array of smaller pixels which are much less sensitive to light. They record the same image, but roughly four stops darker. For in-camera JPGs the S3 uses this information to fill in the highlights that the larger sensors have blown out, and most raw developers allow you to do the same. DCRaw, the top-notch free raw developing tool, can even split the S3's raw files apart, and this is what the component images look like:

I should, er, probably have picked an image with blown-out highlights. Here's a better example, normal shot at the top, sub-pixel exposure at the bottom:

Shot on a rare sunny day in England during the middle of summer. The S3 doesn't meter with pre-autofocus, AI-type Nikon lenses, and that includes the Samyang 85mm f/1.4 that I used for most of the shots on this page. As G-SRUM flew by I focused correctly, but got the exposure very wrong. Here's a 100% crop of the sub-pixel image:

It's relatively noisy - the noise resembles film grain, oddly enough - because the pixels are relatively small. This isn't a huge problem, though, because they're only used to recover highlight tones rather than useful detail, although in practice and with a bit of noise reduction this image could be turned into a technically correct albeit very boring photograph. Unfortunately, although the two sets of pixels are slightly offset, they can't be layered so as to increase the camera's resolution. At least, I haven't found a way of doing so. They used the same microlenses, and so were exposed to the same packets of light.

What about the other, smaller problems? It's irritating beyond belief having to switch the ISO value from the mode dial. There's no auto ISO feature, so you have to leave A or M or P or what-have-you, turn the dial to ISO, rotate the appropriate control wheel, and then turn the dial back to A or M etc. Which is a bother. The camera's automatic white balance really loves the colour green. In A, the meter seems to want to overexpose by half a stop. Perhaps Fuji tweaked the meter in order to take advantage of the camera's highlight range, although having said that the meter doesn't read any differently when the extra dynamic range is turned off. I'm unwilling to make too much of this, because it could be the lens (my only autofocus Nikon lens is an old, full-frame, screw-driven Tokina 20-35mm).

The S3 has a pair of card slots, one for Compact Flash and a second for xD cards, which you swap between by diving into the menus. Unlike some old cameras the S3 will work with cards larger than 2gb. You can write to one or the other, but not both at the same time, and you can't copy between them or do anything clever like that. Nowadays the xD format is defunct, although the cards are still on sale. The largest you can buy is 2gb, which will set you back about a tenner. 2gb is enough for 81 of the S3's full-fat raw files. xD cards are about twice as expensive per gigabyte as Compact Flash - this was one of the reasons the format died off - and so there's no point buying one unless you just want to fill up the slot. Perhaps you have an obsessive-compulsive tendency that compels you to fill holes. Obsessively. That obsessively compels you to fill holes. Really, though, when you're a man, everything is a hole.

I surmise that the second card slot might be useful if you're a spy, and you want a teeny-tiny data card that you can hide underneath your shirt collar, or inside your mouth. Perhaps you're a photojournalist who travels to to the world's trouble spots, and you want to hide your photographs from guards at the border checkpoint - you could put the dangerous photographs on the xD card, and fill up the Compact Flash card with innocuous snapshots of camels and happy smiling people holding up pro-government slogans, and when the guards check the camera they will assume that you're on their side. Perhaps you could could pro-government demonstrators on the xD card and anti-government demonstrators on the Compact Flash card, and swap between them depending on which checkpoint you pass through. So perhaps the S3 could be used to win a war after all.

You'd have to be careful to select the right card, though. Get it wrong and you'd be in trouble. Do you remember that bit in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, when thingy puts on the Confederate uniform in order to blend in with a column of approaching soldiers, but it turns out that they were actually Union soldiers whose outfits had been covered in dust? That bit always impressed me. It's cartoonish, but not so cartoonish that it's silly; it feels just ridiculous enough to have actually happened, and it fits the film's audacious, giddy tone. I've always liked Spaghetti Westerns, because they were loud and disrespectful and aggressive. Like punk. They exhibited an active lack of respect for their genre, their field, the world as a whole. It wasn't a passive, uncaring lack of respect; it was an obnoxious, extroverted contempt.

The extroverted contempt of the oppressed, confronted by the arthritic fists and uncontained drool of the senile, elderly oppressor. John Ford had an emotional connection with the old west, and with the Western; in contrast, the Italian film industry didn't give a flip about 19th Century America or cowboys or indeed films at all. Only fools, and their money. And yet, paradoxically, it produced some of the most iconic films of all, and some of the most iconic Westerns, at a time when the genre was dying hard in its native land. The big bang of Fistful of Dollars and its heirs reinvigorated what remained of the American Western, energising one last push that gave us The Wild Bunch, Little Big Man, McCabe & Mrs Miller - a revision of revisionism - and High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Long Riders.

When the Western died for the second time - Heaven's Gate probably did it in, but the genre was running out of steam before that - there was a sense that it was a good death. No unfinished business. No more to be said. Young Guns attempted to mash the Western with the mid-80s action film and the Brat Pack, but fizzled out. Unforgiven was another revisionist take on a revisionist take, a superb film, but a throwback to a bygone age. And yet there is so much from ages gone by that still excites the mind, the liver, the loins. No shame in that.

Of Leone's Westerns, the critics tend to rate Once Upon a Time in the West, although a few of the more daring youngsters maintain that Duck, You Sucker was Leone's true masterpiece. I believe that Once is a deeply flawed work, and that instead The Good, The Bad, and the Etc is the best of the lot, just ahead of For a Few Dollars More. To my eyes Once is a visually striking, slow-moving, mostly empty grafting of the revenge plot from For a Few with some of the themes of The Good, with masses of padding, and a curious void where there should be a magnetic central character. Charles Bronson might have been a good substitute for Clint Eastwood, but he is given very little to do. Jason Robards is a fine actor, but he is not Clint. Claudia Cardinale is very pretty. She is not Clint either. The screen only comes alive when Henry Fonda appears. Because that means someone is going to die.

Fonda dies, too. There was no good in him. He was a throwback to a bygone age, although this isn't set up very well; he seems a lot more urbane than the grizzled heroes of Leone's earlier Westerns. Ultimately Once is a superb ten-minute short film followed by a good five minutes of set-up followed by an hour and ten minutes of nothing and then an unspectacular build up to an unspectacular gunfight, with a central mystery that isn't as poignant or macabre as it should be, and a major action climax that actually happens off-screen.

It's striking how much George Lucas borrowed from Once for Return of the Jedi. The relationship between the two chief villains - the decrepit mastermind and his brutal thug - is similar, but more openly antagonistic; the basic thread of the plot, in which a group of heroes assemble in order to help a pretty, feisty lady from the baddies, and one of the heroes has a particular bone to pick with one of the baddies... and they both have the in the title. The assault on the Death Star is basically the same as the assault on Morton's train, except that (a) it has spaceships instead of horses, and (b) in the immortal words of Mark Prindle, I decided not to come up with an ending.