Saturday, 2 April 2016

Fuji S1 Pro: Big and Thick

Today we're going to have a look at the Fujifilm FinePix S1 Pro, a digital SLR from 2000. During the first decade of our century Fuji sold four digital SLRs, each interesting in its own way; I've written about the S2, the S3, and the S5 before (there was never an S4), so when an S1 fell into my lap I decided to finish off the series.

Technically it was called the Fujifilm Finepix S1 Pro, but Fuji S1 is easier to say. The S1 Pro has nothing to do with the modern FinePix S1, a weather-sealed big-zoom bridge camera that came out in 2014.

On a physical level the S1 Pro is essentially a Nikon F60 film camera with a three-megapixel Fuji digital module grafted onto the back, like a venomous parasite. The handgrip is extended down by a few centimetres to accommodate the extra battery compartment and there is an ugly square box on the front that houses the TV plug and irritatingly non-standard mini-B USB connector. The S1 is ugly, it just is.

As far as I can tell the only part of the Nikon F60 changed by Fuji, beyond the nameplate, was the shutter button. The S1 Pro has a thread for a cable release; the F60 doesn't. When you take a shot the S1 makes a whirring noise like a film SLR. My guess is that the camera's firmware expected the presence of a film transport motor, and Fuji found it easier to leave this in place rather than alter the firmware.

The F60 was Nikon's budget SLR. It was a step up from the child-friendly Nikon F50, but still pretty naff and plasticy. Compared to the posh F90, it suffered from a limited top shutter speed (1/2000), an unexceptional flash sync speed (1/125), a single autofocus point, limited control over focus tracking, limited on-camera flash control, no mirror lock-up, an unilluminated top LCD, meanness to children, untruthfulness, duplicity, and cowardliness.

Britain is a nation of people who don't want to live in Britain, who hate people who want to live in Britain.

The camera has two card slots. The CompactFlash slot only works with cards smaller than 2gb. The other slot takes SmartMedia cards, which were naff even in 2000. A few musical instruments used them, but on the whole the format was totally bum slops. The cards are little flimsy things with exposed contacts. They only went up to 128mb. They were launched in the mid-1990s as yet another replacement for the floppy disc, and in that respect they made a bit more sense - but the exposed contacts were still a bad idea.
Cleverly the S1's battery and memory card doors don't foul the tripod mount, and you can access them when the camera is on a tripod.

It spreads lies and cunningly spins people's words. The S1 Pro's big selling point in 2000 was its price. Back then digital SLRs were at the cutting edge, and you had to pay top dollar for one. In the very late 1990s digital SLRs were sold mainly to organisations rather than individuals; they were expensive professional tools. At $3,500 the S1 Pro was a relative bargain, undercutting the $5,500 Nikon D1 and the astronomically-expensive Kodak DCS 620/660. The only comparable digital SLR was the Canon D30, which was launched just slightly after the S1 Pro at a slightly lower price, but of course it was no use if you had a tonne of Nikon lenses.

Back in 2000 there wasn't much choice if you wanted a digital SLR. The D1, D30, S1, and DCS models made up essentially the entire digital SLR market. The only other digital cameras were compacts of various types that used smaller sensors and had horrible electronic viewfinders.

The rugged, weatherproofed D1 and the high-resolution DCS 660 were aimed at the pro photojournalist market. Fuji didn't try to compete with them, instead the S1 Pro was aimed at wedding and portrait photographers, small-town photojournalists, product photographers and the like. The camera was sold with software that could do tethered shooting, and Fuji worked hard on the camera's JPG engine in order to give photographers images they could instantly print out or email to their newsdesk. The Canon D30 targeted the same market and was on the whole a better camera, although Fuji had the field to itself for a few months until Canon managed to ship enough D30's to meet demand.

The images in the Tate Modern were shot at ISO 1600 with a fisheye lens. As you can see the S1 tends to go green under artificial light, as if the camera had suddenly been drawn into The Matrix. The images are grainy - exacerbated by the defishing algorithm I used - but on the whole ISO 1600 is much better than I expected for a sixteen-year-old digital SLR.

This leads to one of the S1 Pro's big limitations. It saves JPGs and 8-bit TIF files, but it doesn't have a RAW mode, not at all. I miss the extra headroom and post-shot control over white balance. The early prototypes of the camera had a CCD-RAW menu option, but for whatever reason Fuji took this out of the final product. Perhaps the files would have taken too long to save, or perhaps Fuji hadn't finished developing a consumer version of their RAW development software. I don't know.

On the positive side Fuji's JPG engine was class-leading at the time and has aged well. I've used all of the cameras mentioned in this article, and with the exception of the D30 their JPG output was unimpressive. The Kodak DCS models tended to generate washed-out, purple-looking images; the D1's images also had a purple cast, apparently because the camera was calibrated for NTSC television. The images required a bit of work with DCS PhotoDesk or Nikon Capture before they looked good.

In contrast the S1 produces snappy, sharp, naturally-colourful images straight from the camera. The camera has a small but useful range of tone controls, and for the images in this post I used auto white balance and shot HARD (contrast) - HIGH (colour) - STD (sharpening), and just boosted the contrast a little bit later on, although I could have used the images without further processing. The only major Photoshop work in this post, beyond defishing, is in the following image of the Allegro, and in that case I just boosted the shadows. Under artificial light the S1 Pro tends to go green, which mimics the look of slide film and isn't entirely unpleasant, although it feels a bit dated and 1990s.

The ISO range is weird, 320-400-800-1600, which makes shooting in sunlight with wide apertures difficult. ISO 1600 is surprisingly good, especially for such an old camera. The S1 doesn't seem to do any noise reduction (the output has some stuck pixels), but overall the output at ISO 1600 is superior to the D1 and DCS cameras, on a par with the Canon D30.

In common with the other early digital SLRs the S1 has a relatively naked sensor. Contemporary reviews pointed out the camera's tendency to moire, which suggests a weak anti-aliasing filter. Furthermore the infrared filter is very thin. I shot the next few images with an IR filter over the lens. ISO 1600 in bright sunshine, and of course I couldn't see through the viewfinder to compose; with a tripod the S1 would make a decent albeit basic infrared camera although in my experience the exposure latitude of RAW is very handy.

In 2000 Fuji sold the S1 Pro as a six megapixel camera. This was the other big selling point; you were getting a six megapixel camera at a bargain price. It wasn't true. The S1 Pro produces three-megapixel files that are interpolated up to six megapixels. This adds nothing to the image and simply takes up more space. At this point I would ordinarily include DCRaw's interpretation of the original SuperCCD data, but the S1 Pro doesn't shoot RAW, so I can't.

Back in the distant past, picture agencies were fixated on file size. It was a legacy of the days when all digital images were scanned from film as uncompressed .TIF files; a lot of early digital camera advertising touted the file size rather than the sensor resolution, e.g. the S1 Pro was often described as an 18mb camera, which is true but misleading.

After doing a few tests I settled on the 3mp output. With standard sharpening the images are crisp. The 6mp images are larger but don't look any better. Consult the following 100% crops from a pair of images taken a few seconds apart, the top at 6mp and the bottom at 3mp. I sized them both to 6mp with Photoshop. Then I pressed my nose against the monitor and rubbed it left and right until it no longer pleased me to do so. Then I made a cup of tea, and after that I read a bit of Robert Massie' Dreadnought while listening to BenoƮt Pioulard's Noyaux, all of which was a lot more interesting than writing about the S1 Pro's interpolated file sizes. I had an old monitor sitting in the attic doing nothing, so I bought a VESA stand, and now I have two monitors on my desk - one of them in portrait orientation. This is useful for iTunes, and furthermore it makes my desk look exactly like NORAD. I can sit in front of the monitors and imagine that I am launching nuclear missiles at people I don't like. Earlier today I picked up the phone and shouted "YOU'RE TOAST, MARJORIE-JAM!" into it seven times, without dialling a number, and over the next few weeks I will check the news to see if the message got through. Still no word from Helena Bonham-Carter.

Fuji's emphasis on resolution was understandable - it grabbed the headlines - but led to something of a backlash, especially when Fuji tried it again with the 6/12mp Fuji S2. It had the negative effect of overshadowing the genuinely good high-ISO capabilities of the sophisticated SuperCCD sensor. I've written about SuperCCD before, and I don't want to repeat myself, but on the whole the sensors (particularly the HDR versions in the S3 and S5) were very clever, but trapped in camera bodies that were a little behind the curve at a higher price than the competition. Fuji had trouble scaling their sensors to higher megapixels, and sadly the technology died off.

What else? With modern Eneloop batteries the S1 lasts forever, and with a CompactFlash card (instead of a Microdrive) I didn't have a problem with buffer flush times. The S1 Pro shoots at a leisurely 1.5fps but otherwise feels surprisingly fast. It has a Fuji's distinctive soft-button interface:

This works very well, and I only had to use the menu to set the date and time. The FUNC button flicks through about four pages of options - ISO and file size on one page, tone controls and sharpening on the other, file information on the third. The S2 and S3 moved the ISO control to the camera's top dial, which was a step backwards.

The S1 was infamous for its odd battery layout. It takes four AA batteries in the base, plus a pair of CR123As in the handgrip, plus a 2025 button cell for the date. Luckily I have a stash of CR123As for my Olympus Stylus. In practice the 123As only power the camera's flash, but the S1 won't work if the compartment is left empty - a legacy of its F60 origins - and so Fuji supplied a dummy battery insert for when the on-board flash was unnecessary. This dummy battery insert is probably amazingly rare nowadays and also completely worthless. Fuji progressively smoothed the battery situation out with later cameras, although it remains one of the few things people remember about the S-series.

What about the other cameras? The S2 (2002) had a six megapixel sensor in a sleeker body built on a Nikon F80. It competed with the Nikon D100 and seems to have sold very well; I have always thought of it as the high water mark of the S-series. Tonnes popped up on eBay a few years ago. Now it is landfill. Like the S1 and the Austin Allegro it will be very rare in the future because no-one cherishes them.

The S3 (2005) was an S2 with an added vertical handgrip and a fascinating HDR SuperCCD sensor that bracketed every shot four stops down. With Photoshop work the resulting files had striking dynamic range that is still impressive today, but the camera was expensive and had a very, very slow data bus that made it unsuitable for the very markets it was aimed at.

Here's an example of Fuji's HDR SuperCCD sensor - they called it SuperCCD SR - using an image I shot with an S5:

It's a casual snapshot of the Prince Charles cinema. At the top, the unprocessed, unretouched JPG; at the bottom the RAW file worked on for a few minutes with Adobe Camera Raw. With careful exposure most modern digital SLRs can do something similar, especially if you expose for the highlights and bring up the shadows, but where the S3 and S5 stood out was that every shot was like this, even on-the-hoof images.

The S5 took the S3's innards, upgraded the processor, and put the lot into the body of Nikon's D200. The soft-button interface and battery jiggery-pokery was gone, but although the S5 was an excellent camera it was just too little, too late. Fuji subsequently abandoned the digital SLR form factor, which was perhaps the right decision; the old-fashioned flippy-mirror SLR feels increasingly anachronistic in an age of digital viewfinders and iPhones.

What of the S1 Pro? As far as I can tell not a single famous photo was taken with one. Photojournalists ignored it. The Vogue / Pirelli crowd continued to use medium format digital bodies. In 2000 it was very expensive, and digital photography was still novel outside the top professional world. You needed to spend $3,500 on the camera, several hundred dollars on memory cards, plus another $3,000 for a computer and backup storage, or even more if you needed a laptop etc.

Crushing saviour, and/or Madonna trouser.

Eighteen months later a new wave of $2,000 six megapixel cameras hit the shops and as a consequence the S1 Pro dated very quickly. Nowadays it is essentially worthless. A mixture of Paypal and eBay fees, plus the cost and awkwardness of packaging make it economically unviable on the used market. If you are strapped for cash and want to try out a Nikon digital SLR there are lots of used Nikon D100s and Fuji S2s for only a few more pounds. Unlike the Kodak DCS models it doesn't have quirky antique Gen Zero appeal and as an imaging tool it has nothing over later, more competent cameras.

It is the least of the S-series cameras, although it's fascinating to see how things started.