Monday, 21 October 2013

Kodak DCS 520: He Pays the Landlord's Wage

Today we're going to have a look at the Kodak DCS 520, a digital SLR from 1998. Aeons ago in digital photography terms. In its day it was the most advanced portable digital camera that money could buy, and you needed a lot of money because it retailed for $14,995. Nowadays it's essentially scrap, a big heavy professional camera body perpetually welded to a tiny obsolete digital imaging sensor. Does Mickey Mouse have a surname? That would be like calling a person John Human Being or something.

Before I go on, here's some music from 1998, which jumped out at me because (a) it's excellent (b) it's cold, futuristic, and black, just like the subject of this post and (c) the picture is a compositional echo of the photo of the camera, just underneath it:

What do you call an echo that comes first? Here's what the camera looks like:

A Kodak DCS 520 with a Contax Zeiss 50mm f/1.7, and some accoutrements - an original Kodak battery, a 520mb Callunacard (essentially a hard drive in a PCMCIA enclosure), and a 1gb Sandisk PCMCIA card. In 1998 the Callunacard sold for $620. It still works, but the double-height, Type III enclosure is awkward unless you have a very old laptop.

See what I mean about the composition? It's a very different subject, but the composition is basically the same. I love the word accoutrements. Here's a photo of a lady stroking a fox tail. The DCS 520's top half is most of a Canon EOS-1n film SLR, which was shipped from Japan to Kodak's facilities in Rochester, New York, where Kodak took it apart and grafted the remains of slain officer Alex Murphy onto it. In theory the camera had no recollection of its past life as a policeman on the mean streets of Detroit, but in practice the human spirit is unquenchable, and before long it set out to find the people who killed it so that it could knock them off their motorcycle, throw them through some glass windows, and stab them in the throat with a metal spike! That bit was always censored on TV. On VHS you saw a fountain of blood.

No, Robocop didn't kill the melting acid guy. Emil. "College boy? Think you can outsmart a bullet?" What a little shit he was. Clarence drove into him, which caused Clarence to crash his car, because the windscreen was covered in Emil. I was 11 when that film came out, and it was the best film ever - it had robots, guns, more robots, explosions, and some of the most creative deaths in the cinema. The brutality didn't affect me in the slightest, because I had seen so much violence already that I was basically incapable of feeling anything at all. Which is good, because we live in a brutal world, and unless you toughen up at an early age you'll be crushed.

London is full of places always opening. Eventually they close and something else opens in the same space, and over time the city churns and regenerates.

Well, he was, wasn't he?

The DCS 520 has a two megapixel APS-C sensor, and in common with all the old Kodak DCS cameras it has a strange mixture of features - an intervalometer, Firewire, audio memory recording, batch JPG processing, and a serial port that could hook the camera up to a GPS unit or a Nokia 7110 in order to transmit photos back to home base. It seems that this was by no means a straightforward operation and I suspect that only a handful of photographers ever bothered. Thank God I don't have to put Morrissey references into this post.

Another quirk of the DCS range was the relatively naked sensor. The 520 has a thin infrared blocking filter mounted on the CCD, but there's no integral anti-aliasing filter, so the images tend to be very sharp but prone to moire:

The camera has a combined infrared/antialising filter just behind the lens mount:

It can be unscrewed and taken out. Contemporary reviews suggest that most press photographers didn't bother with it, and neither did I. Take it out and the camera becomes passable for black-and-white infrared if you mount an IR filter on the lens and work out proper infinity focus:

On a brighter day than this a combination of ISO 400, 1/60th, and f/2.8 would give much less grainy results.

The old Kodak DCS cameras could only shoot RAW, although the DCS 520 has a very slow built-in JPG converter with options for sharpening, file size, and tone control. The EOS-1n supported TTL flash, whereas the DCS 520 has been modified to support E-TTL as well; it communicates and works perfectly with my 550EX. The DCS 520 was launched when the E-TTL system was in its infancy and the manual only mentions the 380EX and 220EX, which were very basic units. Surprisingly, Kodak still hosts a support page for it.

This here balloon - looo-ooon

The DCS 520 was the first ever digital SLR with an LCD preview screen. The earlier Kodak DCS models had a tiny pocket calculator-style LCD that simply showed the frame count, and the Nikon E2 didn't even have that. It's surprisingly fast, although it's very grainy and blocks up the shadows:

The same basic interface appears to have been carried over for Canon's 1D. The extent of Kodak and Canon's relationship remains a mystery to me. Kodak's first DCS cameras were based on Nikon camera bodies, a practice that continued while the DCS 520 was on sale - its Nikon equivalent was the DCS 620, which had the same electronics grafted onto a Nikon F5. There was also a Canon-badged version of the DCS 520, which was sold as the Canon D2000. Although Kodak continued to upgrade its Nikon-bodied SLRs, the DCS 520 (and its six-megapixel cousin, the DCS 560) was the last of the Kodak/Canon collaborations.

The DCS 520 originally used NiCad batteries, which had a memory effect; later Kodak switched to NiMh.

Canon seemed to drag its heels when it came to devising its own professional digital SLR, and so the DCS 520 remained on sale for an unusually long time. It was still on sale in 2001, for $7,995 (or $6,995 for the camera body without a charger), by which time it was poor value compared to the Nikon D1, which was cheaper and generally superior. Kodak sold a final batch of refurbished bodies in October 2002, by which time the DCS 520 was an antique. Kodak itself was becoming an antique in 2002, although the company still had ten years left before it declared bankruptcy. As recently as 1996 Kodak had been bigger than Canon; at that time its arch-rival was Fuji of Japan. Nowadays there are still Kodak billboards here and there.

BOXOUT: Processing the DCS 520's files
Kodak's DCS series predates Adobe RGB and sRGB; the DCS 520 seems to have used NTSC or some Kodak-specific colour space. Although modern versions of Photoshop still open the DCS 520's files, the colours often look odd. Here are two shots, the top one rendered with the camera's JPG engine, the bottom one output with the most recent version of Kodak's DCS Photo Desk (click white balancing on the white outline):

Photoshop seems to do a terrible job, at first, but this can be fixed in CS4 at least by changing the camera profile from ACR 4.4 to ACR 2.4. The following two images were output with default settings, ACR 4.4 at the top and ACR 2.4 at the bottom:

The reds are blown-out, but tweaking the exposure produces this, which is much more pleasing:

It's hard to tell whether the Kodak that made the DCS 520 still exists. The digital imaging sensor part of Kodak was sold in 2011 and now exists as a separate company, Truesense Imaging, which makes digital sensors for movie cameras. The professional digital camera part of Kodak was shut in 2005; the consumer digital camera part of Kodak - which dominated the volume market for a while, to no effect - was shut in 2012. The film part of Kodak is now called Kodak Alaris, and it's nice to hope that it will survive in much the same was as Ilford. Ironically, Kodak Tri-X outlasted Kodak's digital cameras. The rest of Kodak is called Eastman Kodak and sells printers and scanners and "imaging solutions".

On the other hand, the DCS 520 had a very simple game of Pong, whereas the D1 had nothing of the sort:

On a more serious level Kodak was generous with its software, and gave away DCS Photodesk - which could process the camera's images and also do tethered shooting - for free, whereas Nikon made people pay extra for Nikon Capture.

The camera has dual PCMCIA slots, which work fine with FAT32 Compact Flash cards and the old IBM Microdrives:

Despite being older than the hills the DCS 520 has surprisingly wide coverage on the internet (it was the first digital SLR reviewed by Digital Photography Review, for example). The most interesting article was a contemporary review hosted at Rob Galbraith's website, here, although sadly it has long since been deleted. Luckily a chap seems to have uploaded it to Scribd:

Did you get your money's worth, way back then? Presumably most of the people who used DCS 520s didn't actually pay for them, and Rob Galbraith's article makes a case for it being a worthwhile update of the DCS 3, so I imagine that photographers were thrilled by it. $15,000 would have bought a lot of film, but then again photojournalists shot a lot of film, which had to be processed and scanned and couriered about.

I have no idea if the DCS 520 was used outside the context of sports and spot news. The only photo I have seen of a Kodak DCS being used for the macho business of war reporting is in this blog post, which shows a man called John Costello editing images he shot with a Kodak DCS 620 in Kosovo. It's a fascinating glimpse of digital photojournalism at the turn of the millennium - Costello is surrounded by power packs, flash units, and cameras, and he's using an original G3 PowerBook to edit a photo with presumably Photoshop. One of the images he shot seems to have been used here.

Resolution-wise, two megapixels is quite a way behind the curve. Here's what it looks like, superimposed on the same scene shot with a twenty-one megapixel 5D MkII:

If we size the DCS 520's image to match the 5D, it's quite obviously not nearly as sharp:

If we go the other way, and size the 5D's image down to match the DCS 520, it seems that the DCS 520's two megapixel sensor was pretty efficient way back in 1998:

What does it feel like to use the DCS 520 nowadays? It's big and heavy although less bulky than the Nikon F5-bodied DCS cameras. People will think you're a tourist with a big camera rather than a voyager from the past. ISO goes from a clean 200 to ugly 1600, which suffers from a mixture of banding, amp noise, and inconsistent colour response. The blue channel is much noisier than the red and green channels, which has the effect of putting yellow splotches over the image where the blue channel didn't "stick". Batteries are still available on the internet, and the modern units I have last for several hundred shots.

If there's one lesson the cover of Oasis' "What's the Story" teaches us, it's that you should invest in buildings, not shops.

Colour-wise the camera seems to love red. Red was its first child; it doesn't love the others as much, but it tries not to show it. Exposure-wise the camera tends to err on the side of overexposure, which in my experience is a Canon-y thing. The autofocus system has five points arranged horizontally across the frame; the middle point is extra-specially precise with lenses that have an f/2.8 or wider maximum aperture, although in practice in daylight I had no problem autofocusing.

On an emotional level, using it felt exactly like using a modern digital SLR. It has a standard APS-C crop and shoots at 3.5fps with a 13 frame buffer, which is almost exactly the same as the more modern 5D MkII (vs 6fps with a 36-shot buffer for the EOS-1n film camera). Unlike the CoolPix 990 that I covered a couple of posts ago it's no slower or more awkward than a modern digital camera. The only obvious difference is that you can't zoom into the image to check your focus. As with the CoolPix 990 it's essentially pointless nowadays - not enough quirks, not objectively superior to anything, and it's very heavy. But, again, for one day I was probably the only person in London, perhaps even the world, using that camera.

It seems that the DCS 520 had a fairly limited afterlife once it was no longer current. Kodak pulled out of the professional digital imaging business in the mid-2000s, by which time the digital SLR market was booming and prices were crashing down, and any mid-decade six megapixel digital SLR outperforms the DCS 520 by a considerable margin. Today it's in the odd position of being a big, impressive-looking piece of equipment that's essentially worthless. Much like Eastman Kodak itself! I thank you.