Sunday, 17 December 2017

Kodak DCS Pro 14n

Let's have a look at the Kodak DCS Pro 14n, a full-frame digital SLR from 2003, notable for being one of the first ever full-frame digital SLRs. On paper the 14n looked like a winner. It was cheaper than the Canon 1Ds and had a higher resolution sensor, with fourteen megapixels to Canon's eleven. But the reviews were indifferent, and the 14n is generally regarded today as a mis-step that did nothing to halt Kodak's inexorable decline.

But before that, the most important thing. In all of my years I have pushed my body to the limits of physical endurance, and beyond; I have pushed my mind to the edge of sanity; I have gazed into the abyss, and contemptuously turned my back on it. I have sneered at God's wisdom and become numb to pain and pleasure.

A lesser man than me would break down and cry, but underneath my hard exterior there is a hard interior. I admit that I haven't had much luck with women but there's still time. However one thing I haven't done is transfer files from one device to another with FireWire. In all my years I have never transferred files from one device to another with FireWire.

Transferring files with FireWire. My life is now complete.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century many millions of people used FireWire on a daily basis to transfer music from their Apple Macintosh to their iPod, and other people - richer, more influential people - used FireWire to transfer video files, and even some PC people used FireWire, but not many, because PC people had USB. I had USB. For a while USB was much slower than FireWire, but it caught up, and eventually Apple switched to USB and gave up on FireWire.

But the air of glamour remains. FireWire was the interface of Apple people. People who had sex regularly. Sex people. As a PC person I could only dream of the kind of lifestyle that Apple people took for granted. With their model-like good looks and IKEA living rooms. They went out to nightclubs drinking just champagne, having lots of sex, and transferring files with FireWire. The Apple people probably knew nothing about data transfer protocols or eSATA or USB polling, but they did have a lot of sex.

But times change, and I can now say that I have used FireWire. I used it for the first time yesterday and I will use it again later today.

The DCS 14n has a four-pin FireWire plug, so I needed a four-pin-to-eight-pin cable to connect it with my G5. In the days when Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom were still a bit naff, camera manufacturers had their own image management software. Fuji had FinePix Viewer, Canon had Digital Photo Professional, and Kodak had DCS Capture (which interfaced with the camera) and PhotoDesk (which developed RAW files). Sadly Kodak no longer seems to host either, but I have archived copies.

After shooting some test images I plugged the 14n into my G5 with the FireWire cable. There is something sexual about plugging a cable into a socket. You have to find the right orientation and ensure you use the correct amount of force, but unlike actual sex you don't have to worry about the connector going limp. Worrying makes it worse. It's a negative feedback loop. You worry that the connector will go limp; the connector goes limp; the humiliation of failure feeds back into the worry.

One quirk of the 14n is a tendency for brightly-lit spots to have purple highlights. It's the same purple as the IR blocking filter on the sensor, which makes me wonder if it's a result of flare inside the camera body.

A wise man recognises the problem and takes steps to deal with it, even if this means admitting fault and doing a lot of hard work to rectify it. An unwise man blames his failure on others, which is how you get Peter Sutcliffe. All those women he killed weren't the problem. He was the problem. He should have killed himself. But anyway I fired up DCS Capture and transferred the files. Was the result any more or less euphoric than using USB? I can't tell. Digital SLRs are notoriously slow at transferring files, and the 14n was notorious in its day for being a slow camera. But that progress bar, oh boy. That magic feeling. If I achieve nothing with my life I can at least say I have used FireWire. I'm going to go on eBay to see if I can find an old iPod with FireWire (checks eBay) I'm not paying that much.

Over the years I've used lots of Kodak's old DCS cameras, most recently the six megapixel Kodak DCS 760, launched in 2001, and the two megapixel Kodak DCS 520, which came out in 1999. I've also owned and used the DCS 420, DCS 460, DCS 560, and the Canon D2000, a rebadged DCS 520 sold by Canon because Canon took ages to release their own digital SLR. The DCS cameras are fascinating nowadays because they're huge and strange. For the most part they're curiosities, although the 500-600-700 series are still usable as cameras if you don't mind the low resolution. They take standard Compact Flash cards and, surprisingly, the batteries are still available.

The 14n. It uses the chassis of a Nikon F80 film SLR with a custom digital "cradle". As this chap on Flickr pointed out, it looks as if it had an allergic reaction. The design has a mixture of cues from the DCS 520/560 (the abbreviated vertical grip) and the 600/700 (the bulging handhold).

It's interesting to compare it with the Fuji S3 (foreground), which was also built around the F80, with a vertical grip. The S3 is a lot more attractive.

The 14n has long fascinated me. The reviewers were unimpressed with the camera's slow interface and noisy images, but the idea of a fourteen megapixel full-frame sensor without an antialiasing filter is still intriguing today. It reminds me of Fuji's S-series SLRs, particularly the S3 and S5; they were all hobbled at launch by inadequate software support, but modern versions of Adobe Camera Raw can squeeze more detail from their files. As such they have got better with time. The 14n has a number of problems, but in general it's a better camera now than it was in 2003. In particular Kodak PhotoDesk applied smeary noise reduction during RAW development that you couldn't turn off. Modern versions of Adobe Camera Raw bypass that. The images I shot with my 14n look less plastic than the samples I can find in contemporary, 2003-era reviews.

A Brief History of the DCS Series
The original Kodak DCS 100 0f 1991 was the first ever digital SLR. It was essentially a Nikon F3 with a digital back, attached by cable to a large storage and playback unit that the photographer carried over his shoulder. The image quality was superior to contemporary still video cameras and, unlike film, the pictures could be transmitted instantly across the world via telephone line, so despite an astronomically high price it prompted Kodak to enter - create, even - the digital SLR business.

Readers of Digital Photography Review might recognise this scene.

Back in 2003 the reviewers had to use Kodak PhotoDesk, which applied noise reduction to the files. Adobe Camera Raw doesn't, with results that look less artificial.

History recalls that Kodak invented the digital camera and then failed to exploit it because they were schmucks, but I think that's unfair. The company's professional digital SLRs had a near-monopoly for several years, and its consumer digital division sold millions of cameras. But the professional imaging department faced the same problems as DEC, Sun, Digital, IBM and so forth - a dependence on high-margin, big ticket items allied with a need to make a lot of money - and its eventual demise was not a unique business phenomenon.

Meanwhile the consumer digital camera division was out-competed by the likes of Casio, which again was common in the camera and computing industries. In my opinion Kodak was not uniquely mismanaged or undercapitalised. There are no other American camera companies any more; they're all gone, all of them. Kodak suffered from being an American company in a market that America could no longer dominate.

This photo is designed to trigger your OCD disorder. The door is centered, but the columns aren't, and neither are the lines on the road.

The DCS 100's successors divide roughly into three waves. The DCS 200 and 400 of the mid-1990s were Nikon film SLRs mounted on a large imaging component that resembled a huge motor drive. The camera bodies could actually be separated from the digital back and, with a bit of work, turned into 35mm film cameras again. I've used the DCS 420 and 460. They're incredibly awkward today, with chunky batteries and erratic colours that vary across the frame. The DCS 460 is notable for its then-extraordinary six megapixel resolution and its APS-H sensor. Although the APS-H format is generally associated with the Canon 1D press cameras, it was invented several years earlier by Kodak and used in all of their six-megapixel digital SLRs. I know that "OCD disorder" is wrong. I was messing with you. You noticed it because you suffer from OCD..

The DCS 200/400 generation apparently sold quite well and introduced many newsrooms to digital photography, but the cameras still felt a bit home-made. One thing the DCS cameras all had in common was a relatively naked sensor. The infrared blocking filter was always very thin, and none of the DCS cameras had a built-in anti-aliasing filter, although later models had a removable infrared/antialiasing filter mounted just behind the lens.

The 14n doesn't have an antialising filter; Kodak didn't believe in them. In theory this makes the 14n prone to moire patterns but in practice it's rarely a problem unless you take macro photos of LCD monitors all day.
Here's a pair of images, shot with (at top) a 14n (at bottom) a 5D Mk2, a 21-megapixel camera with an antialising filter, using the same Samyang 85mm f/1.4 lens at f/8, from the same position. They're 100% crops without any post-processing.
The 14n's image is smaller but still crisp; they both exhibit moire, but in different ways.

This was shot with a two-megapixel Kodak DCS 520. It's one of the advertising displays at Piccadilly Circus. Moire abounds.

In parallel with the Nikon-bodied models Kodak also sold the DCS 1, 3, and 5, which used a Canon EOS-1n chassis. On the whole Canon was less keen on collaborating with Kodak than Nikon, so there were fewer Canon-bodied DCS cameras. At roughly the same time Kodak also sold the 300-series, which used Nikon Pronea APS film camera bodies. The DCS 300 was aimed at a lower price point, but the cameras were still very expensive (the three megapixel DCS 330 sold for $5,000+).

A DCS 760 sitting next to a Nikon D1x, six megapixels versus five, although the D1x used a certain amount of interpolation. The DCS 760 was a Nikon F5 with digital additions; the D1x was an entirely new body.

The next wave of DCS cameras was slicker. The two-megapixel DCS 620 and six-megapixel 660 were built into Nikon F5 bodies, with a more elegant design that was still very large but tough as nails. In 2000 the 620 was later replaced by the 620x, which had an unusual sensor filter with cyan-magenta-yellow pixels instead of red-green-blue; the dye was thinner and let through more light, which meant that the 620x had a top ISO of 6400, impressive back in 2000.

Again, in parallel with the Nikon DCSes Kodak also sold Canon-bodied versions of the cameras, the DCS 520 and 560, which used EOS-1n bodies and were technically similar to the 620 and 660. There was, for whatever reason, never a DCS 520x.

The ultimate first-generation DCS cameras were the six-megapixel Kodak DCS 760 and the two-megapixel DCS 720x, which were launched in 2001. They had upgraded electronics, faster processors, and larger buffers than their predecessors. By that time the relationship with Canon seems to have come to an end; the last two cameras were Nikon only.

The same DCS 760 sitting next to a Fuji S2. The S2 was a six megapixel, APS-C digital SLR built on a Nikon F80 film body, and as you can see Fuji managed to keep the size and weight down. The result was only slightly larger than the Nikon D100, which used the same chassis.
The rivalry between Kodak and Fuji was akin to that between Canon and Nikon, epitomised by the tussle over sponsorship of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Both companies dipped their toes in the professional digital SLR market, along the way producing some interesting cameras.

Kodak's DCS cameras were very expensive in their heyday, selling for $10-15k+, mainly to news agencies, and despite massive price cuts the range apparently never made a profit. As with the Apple Power Macintosh G5 I wrote about last month they were technically competitive but uneconomical, and on a business level Kodak's reliance on Nikon and Canon to supply camera bodies inevitably caused problems when those two companies entered the digital camera market themselves.

The DCS cameras are fascinating today for their quirks. There's the fact that the top half of the camera is a mutated film body; the later DCS models still had cut-outs for the film canister. The DCS 500/600/700 had huge batteries that resembled sub-machinegun magazines, and dual hot-swappable PCMCIA card slots that could take multi-gigabyte cards, plus GPS support, timelapse and tethered shooting at a time when those things were unusual.

They shared one problem - they couldn't generate JPEG images in real time. Photographers were supposed to download the .TIFF or .DCR files into Kodak's PhotoDesk and batch process them into JPGs, or presumably transmit the RAW files to home base so that the picture editors could do it instead. The cameras had an option to generate JPEG files post-capture, but it took ages, drained the battery, and in my experience the results always looked purple.

The 14n's JPEG engine isn't particularly good either, and was one of the reasons for the indifferent reviews. The 14n's JPEGs look washed-out and have intrusive noise reduction, and furthermore the camera takes ages to write files to the memory card. Back in the early 2000s it compared poorly with the vivid, warm colours produced naturally by the Fuji S2.

With the demise of the DCS 760 Kodak decided to shift from the press market to the advertising, product, wedding, historical imaging, surveying, geography etc market instead. To that end they launched the DCS Pro Back, a sixteen megapixel medium format back for Hasselblad, Mamiya, and Contax cameras, notable for having a square format at a time when most medium format backs were rectangular 645. It wasn't Kodak's first digital medium format back, but it was the first one that seemed like a finished product rather than a prototype. Lord knows if the DCS Pro Back was any good. Used examples still sell for hundreds of pounds. Can you find the batteries? What if an irreplaceable component burns out?

And Kodak also launched the DCS Pro 14n. It had the body of a digital SLR but was essentially a turn-of-the-millennium medium format camera in disguise, with all that entails. I still can't spell millennium without looking it up. I'm never going to learn. What's the point? It's 2017. I will have been dead for nine hundred years before anybody gets excited about the millennium again. You will be dead. We will all be dead. Together at last, joined by the one thread that binds us.

All of Kodak's earlier DCS cameras used Kodak-made CCD sensors, but for whatever reason Kodak decided to source a third-party sensor for the 14n. I have no idea what went wrong behind the scenes during the development of the 14n. The camera body doesn't seem to have been a problem; reviewers found the vertical grip awkward, but it's not that bad. The interface is similar to the late DCS 760 interface, with Kodak's typical hold-the-button-to-select-a-page, let-go-to-select-a-function design. The problem appears to have been either the sensor, or the electronics surrounding the sensor, or the programming involved in taking data off the sensor, or all of those things, or the management of those things.

The reviews singled out the poor startup times, the flaky interface, appalling image write times, poor battery life, a poorly-implemented lens optimisation feature that gave photographs a colour cast, plus washed-out, magenta-toned colours, and more importantly excessive noise. Nowadays full-frame cameras are generally high-ISO champs, but the early models were surprisingly poor. The early Contax N Digital was plagued with shadow noise even at ISO 25 and the Canon 1Ds was no great shakes at higher ISOs either.

The DCS Pro 14n was also noisy with long exposures. I think of it as a 35mm-sized medium format digital back, in the sense that it was made to be used with studio strobes. In contrast the 1Ds had noise at higher ISOs but could do multi-minute exposures at lower ISOs without a problem. The 14n, on the other hand, hates exposures longer than a few seconds. It has a dedicated long exposure mode that works by stacking a series of shorter exposures, but although the thought of thirty-second exposures in daylight is intriguing the feature feels tacked on.

A four-second exposure at ISO 80 with the 14n, showing my workhorse camera with my most-used lens, a Leica-R 60mm f/2.8.

A crop from the above. Notice the smeary colour noise - this is the worst kind of noise because it's hard to get rid of. Bear in mind this is a four-second exposure at ISO 80. In the studio you can just turn up the strobes, or buy more strobes. What if you're shooting a landscape at sunset with stacked grad filters and a polariser at f/11, and you need a nine-minute exposure? The 14n is not your camera. At higher ISOs the smeary noise is joined by vertical bands.

The 14n has a "longer exposure" feature that simulates lower ISOs, but with a fixed range of shutter speeds. It works by stacking a series of shorter exposures. The later DCS SLR/n had more options here, including a simulated ISO 50.

The result works, sort-of. This is a thirty-second, ISO 6 exposure. There's very little noise.

But you can see the stacked exposures. If this had been a single thirty-second exposure the people would be invisible ghosts; instead they're captured at points along their timeline.

Noise is really the 14n's big problem. The DCS press cameras were noisy as well, but it didn't matter as much because they were designed to get the image quickly at all costs for spot news. The combination of low base ISO and limited buffer makes the 14n unappealing for the wedding market. Kodak's publicity materials for the 14n included images of a wedding shoot, but the images were obviously lit with studio lights, generally not an option while on location. I pity the photographer who had to use bounce flash in a church at ISO 80, even with a handle-mounted flash. It can't do arbitrarily long exposures, so it's not much use for landscape images or astrophotography.

Even in a studio context the lack of an antialiasing filter means that fine hair and certain clothes produce unattractive multi-coloured moire patterns, something that Kodak's software was supposed to fix but didn't. For outdoors portraits on a sunny day at dusk at f/1.4 the 14n is probably fab, but even then the flash sync speed of 1/125 works against you, and I imagine the ugly purple highlights will be a problem if you use the sun as a backlight.

In common with other F80-based cameras the 14n doesn't meter with non-CPU lenses, so if you have a desk drawer full of AI/S lenses you'll have to bring along a lightmeter or guess. I'm sorry for all that stuff about FireWire, by the way. It was just supposed to be a throwaway gag, but it developed a life of its own. It's true, though. I genuinely haven't ever used FireWire. It sailed right past me.

After the relative disaster of the triangular plants thing, the swings and swinging ball / padded stairs are much more popular.

When the 14n was new Kodak released a flurry of firmware updates, and on the side of the body is a mysterious port marked TEST. This is actually a serial port that will interface with GPS units. The lack of a USB port seems odd nowadays - it has Firewire instead - but then again the Canon 1D and 1Ds didn't have USB either, so I can't really hold that against Kodak.

The last official firmware was version 5.4.1, but this enterprising chap from Ukraine managed to pull the firmware apart and upgrade a few features, in particular eliminating the lossy compression on Kodak's 12-bit DCR RAW files. I still use Photoshop CS4, so after installing this new firmware I have to run the DCR files through a modern version of Adobe's DNG converter before they look right.

What's the Pro 14n like? The F80 chassis was built for film, and the cameras based on it all had one usability flaw - ISO is on the PASM dial, which means twisting the dial to change ISO and then twisting it back again, which is awkward. The F80's buttons and dials feel a bit cheap, although whereas the S2 and S3 were all-plastic the 14n's back section is made of metal. Holding it horizontally is fine. Vertically is awkward but not impossible, although I wouldn't fancy touting around the camera around with an 80-200mm f/2.8 zoom all day.

There are two card slots, one CompactFlash and one SD, which can be set to save RAW files to one card and JPGs to another, or either format to both simultaneously, or used as one large pool of memory. At launch the 14n's SD slot didn't work, and even with later firmware upgrades it doesn't read SDHC cards, so it's limited to 2gb cards. Whereas the other DCS cameras had no problem with multi-gigabyte cards the 14n is fussy. It's unproblematic with the 1gb and 2gb Compact Flash cards I have lying around, and it has no problem with my old 1gb IBM Microdrive, but with 4gb cards I start to get ERR messages and card write errors.

It uses lightweight stick batteries. The DCS cameras were notoriously bad at power management - they drained the battery even when turned off - and it's good form to remove the batteries when you aren't using them. This generally means having to reset the date, because despite having a brand-new CR2032 button cell the camera doesn't seem to retain the date. Kodak stopped making the batteries a long time ago and they're surprisingly hard to come by nowadays. Most of the sticks available today appear to be home-made clones that lack the original metal locking hook. The ones I have will last enough to fill up a 2gb card with juice left over. My camera also came with a dummy battery that hooks up to the charger so that it can be powered by the mains. The charger is huge.

The dual-display interface is a little bit like the DCS 500/600/700 cameras, and also the Fuji S1-2-3. It has inline help.

What else? The lack of an auto-ISO mode is irritating. ISO 160 isn't too bad, and even ISO 400 is usable if the image doesn't have too many shadows. The camera tops out at ISO 800, but this can only be activated with six-megapixel RAW files, and it looks dreadful. I found myself continually switching between ISO 80 and ISO 160 depending on the lighting conditions.

When you switch ISO the camera pauses with a calibration message. I assume it's loading an uncompressed fourteen megapixel pixel map from memory that tells that camera which pixels are defective. The camera is compatible with Nikon's D1/D100-era D-TTL flash system; D-TTL didn't last long before being replaced by I-TTL, which is still used today. In practice the 14n was intended for use with studio strobes, which are dumb and use the PC Sync socket (or an IR or other suitable trigger). Unusually for a professional camera it has a pop-up flash that's usable for fill at a pinch, although it's very weak.

The 14n can be powered from the mains. The camera comes with a dummy battery that connects to the charging unit. "This is not a battery" it says, which means that the photograph above is not a not a battery.
However you don't need the charging unit or the cable. Any power adapter with the right connection that outputs roughly 7.3v at 3a will do.

The LCD screen has a pair of notches above and below it that appear to be designed for a plastic screen protector, but I can find no evidence that Kodak ever sold one. The camera is new enough to be covered extensively by camera review sites; as always Rob Galbraith's review had the best combination of technical evaluation and professional photographic oversight.

Sometimes it goes wrong.

What happened to the 14n? The reviews were poor, but judging by this list of serial numbers it appears to have sold 15,000 units or so. The 14n name suggested that there was going to be a Canon-bodied 14c, but perhaps understandably Canon were uninterested in helping Kodak compete with the 1Ds so the 14c never appeared.

Instead Kodak essentially re-released the 14n a year later as the DCS Pro SLR/n, with a new sensor and new electronics. For a fee the company offered to upgrade existing 14n cameras to SLR/n standard; the resulting cameras were rebadged 14nx. The Pro SLR/n attracted slightly more favourable reviews than the 14n although it was still overshadowed by the 1Ds.

Kodak did eventually sell a Canon version of the camera, albeit without Canon's involvement. The DCS Pro SLR/c had a body donated by Sigma, with a reverse-engineered version of Canon's lens mount; reverse-engineering the flash automation and lens interface must have been a difficult job. The result was essentially a clone, and remains unusual today as the only Canon-compatible digital SLR not made or even sanctioned by Canon.

What else? In common with digital SLRs of the era the sensor cleaning mode simply flips up the mirror. You have to clean the sensor manually. There's no live view or video recording. The only factory option I am aware of was a buffer expansion from 256mb to 512mb. The serial port could in theory interface with GPS units, and might have been used to connect to digital image verification hardware, but if so I have seen no evidence of it. Unlike earlier DCS cameras the DCS Pro 14n was never carried into space by NASA, who had by that time switched to Nikon. There are rumours of a monochrome-only model, but I've never seen one.

Kodak discontinued the SLR/n and SLR/c in 2005 and disbanded its DCS division shortly afterwards, bringing Kodak's involvement with the digital SLR market to an end. Kodak was an early driver of the Four Thirds system and continued to make sensors for other manufacturers, notably Leica - the Leica M8 had a Kodak sensor, as did the digital module for the R8/R9 - but in 2011 the company sold its sensor division. Whatever remains of it now belongs to ON Semiconductors, who make sensors for cars and mobile phones. Kodak itself declared bankruptcy in 2012. The company still exists, and still makes motion picture film. When I go on holiday I occasionally see Kodak signs, slowly fading away. Like IBM it's one of those names from the past that people remember, although no-one knows what it does any more.

A Kodak sign, shot in 2015, with Fuji Velvia.