Sunday, April 01, 2007

Dynamic Range Torture Test

One of the interesting features of the S5 Pro is the expanded dynamic range feature. But, does it really make a difference that can be seen? I came up with the scenario that I might typically use--photographing someone inside a car without a flash, while hoping to keep as much of the detail outside the car windows. This would be roughly equivalent to photographing someone inside a house against a window and wanting to keep the outside scene through the window visible.

Now, normally what I would do is meter for the exterior, adjust the camera to ensure the shutter speed is at or slower than sync speed, and use a flash. This keeps the dynamic range within what a camera can handle. However, sometimes I don't want to use a flash or a flash will ruin the look I want.

Sadly, I didn't have a model handy for this torture test, but maybe in a few weeks...

So, here's the overall layout. It's a black interior of my auto on a sunny day. In the background is a neighbor's house. This shot was taken with the S5 Pro at the 400% DR setting, manual exposure at 1/15 and f/11 at ISO200. The meter actually recommended (correctly) 1/60 at f/11, but I deliberately set the shot at 1/15 to match what the D50 meter recommended for the D50 and to pick up more detail of the interior of the car:

Now, here's how three cameras, the D50, the D200, and the S5 Pro compare. These are 100% crops, which is why the D200 has a "zoomed" image look to it. All three cameras were at 1/15 and f/11 at ISO 200. Notice how the S5 Pro retains not only details from the tree in the background, but also shows a branch just outside the car window, in front of the roof. You'll probably have to click on the image to see the full-size comparison.

When I can get a real human to pose in the car, I'll redo this torture test. But in the meantime, be aware that the DR feature of the S5 Pro is real and it can make the difference between a white fluffy cloud and just a white blob in the sky.

Initial Review of the Fujifilm S5 Pro

I finally have had enough time to sit down with a human and take some photos with the Fujifilm S5 Pro and make a real comparison with my other main camera, the Nikon D200. Lots of people have been wondering:

1) Which camera is better, the S5 Pro or the D200?
2) Are 6 megapixels enough or does the higher resolution of the D200 carry the day?
3) Is the dynamic range feature of the S5 Pro a real feature or just a gimmick?
4) Is the S5 Pro significantly slower than the D200, enough to make a difference in getting a photograph or not?

So, I'll try to answer some of these questions with this mini, initial review.

First off, handling the cameras and working with both of them, the first thing to notice is that both cameras use essentially the same body, that of the Nikon D200. If you pick up each camera, you can't detect any differences in how each camera feels in the hand. If you like the feel of the D200, you'll like the feel of the S5 Pro (and vice versa).

Fujifilm has modified some of the button layouts on the back of the camera compared with the D200. Perhaps the most significant of these is the "face detection" button on the lower left corner of the S5 Pro, which allows the photographer to magnify images to check focus and exposure on faces in the photographs. Note that face detection only works after the image has been taken. Unlike point and shoot cameras with face detection technology, an SLR camera cannot yet use face detection before the photo is taken because of the current SLR designs which use a mirror and pentaprism to deliver a live image to the eye-level viewfinder.
By comparison, point and shoots use the actual imaging sensor to deliver their images to an LCD, allowing the face detection software to work on a live image.

It's too bad that Fujifilm has gotten away from their very good design for menu controls used in the S1 Pro, S2 Pro, and S3 Pro cameras. The old 4-button controller under the LCD icon is superior in my opinion to the Nikon button layouts and nested menus, as it allowed quick access to the most used settings without a lot of layered menus. For the S5 Pro, Fujifilm has created a TWO nested menus controlled by different buttons. Pushing the button labeled "menu/ok" leads to a shooting menu of three tabs; pushing the button labeled "setup" leads to a two tab menu for camera setup. Worse yet, Fujifilm has a line here labeled "Shooting" which has options not found in the shooting menu.

Example: to set the amount of time the self-timer should delay, that's in the "Setup" menu under "Shooting." The "Shooting Menu" under the "Menu/OK" button doesn't have a way to change the self-timer delay.

The menus themselves are clear and easy enough to understand, but the menu system itself has the feel of a kludgy, no-thought-went-into-this system. After the previous Fujifilm cameras with their easier system, Fujifilm users deserve better.

Another gripe, this time related to the use of the D200 body: the switch to control the AF/manual focus system is positioned in such a way that it's possible to accidentally take the S5 Pro (or D200) off autofocus when holding the lens when zooming/focusing. I've done it myself with the D200, and I've learned to avoid it, but new users may run into this.

The rest of the camera and controls are pretty much straightforward. Formatting memory cards requires that two widely spaced buttons be pushed twice, just like on Nikon dSLRs. The LCD is big, bright, and clear. The compact flash door opens right into the users hand, which takes a bit of getting used to. I like the older system of the earlier Fujifilm SLRs, which had a flip down door on the back, but the D200 design requires Fujifilm to use the side system. The S5 Pro only takes 1 compact flash card at a time; no longer can Fujifilm users have two memory slots at their disposal.

The use of the D200 design means that the S5 Pro now takes a dedicated lithium battery. It's identical to the D200 battery, but it's not interchangeable with the D200 battery. The Fujifilm NP-150 battery won't work in the D200, and the EN-EL3e of the D200 won't work in the S5 Pro, although they are of identical form factor, voltage, and capacity. Battery life is excellent for the Fujifilm NP-150, and I was easily able to get the 300 advertised images with a fully charged battery, with a lot of "chimping" (viewing) of the LCD after the images were taken. The battery will hold a charge for a long time, an advantage over the old AA system of the S1,S2, and S3 Pro cameras.

For those who want to use AA's, the D200 battery grip will fit onto the S5 Pro. However, if you want to use the proprietary lithim batteries, you will need to buy the Fujifilm version to use the battery grip.

One important improvement of the S5 Pro over older Fujifilms is the incorporation of i-TTL, Nikon's state-of-the art flash system known as the Creative Lighting System. This system fires a quick preflash to judge exposure, then fires the actual flash for the photo. The preflash occurs before the mirror flips up, but the quick return mirror keeps the preflash delay to a minimum, unlike the older D70, where the preflash was distinctive enough to cause some subjects to blink during the main flash.

In actual shooting, the S5 Pro behaves pretty much like a Nikon D200 with a Fujifilm wide dynamic range sensor inside. That means great color, great out of camera jpegs, good focusing even in dim light, and good flash exposures. However, it also means that the camera will be slower in some settings and won't be able to take as many burst shots as the D200. The D200 can shoot at up to 5 frames per second; the S5 Pro manages 3 frames per second in regular dynamic range and 1.5 frames per second in wide dynamic range settings. Putting the camera on auto DR will also slow the camera down to 1.5 fps. Likewise, RAW shooting with wide DR setting will reduce the buffer depth down to 7 or 8 shots before the camera stops to write. As images clear the buffer, the camera will unlock and allow images to be taken again. Expect a wait of up to 20 seconds before the camera flushes the first RAW image out of the buffer. Users who don't shoot RAW or don't shoot big bursts are unlikely to find the camera to be slow. For sports shooting, the S5 Pro is acceptable, but the 5 fps of the D200 may make that camera more suitable for some types of sports shooting.

The S5 Pro is missing a few features compared to the D200. Missing features include the built-in intervalometer, the 30 second mirror lockup shutter release (this appears to need a firmware fix), and the great menu banks of the D200. This latter feature is a big loss; apparently Fujifilm feels that their film simulation modes make up for the loss of custom menu banks.

So, which camera is better? That will depend upon your style of shooting and your needs. That said, there's no question in my mind that the S5 Pro has much better image quality, especially at ISOs above ISO 400, where the D200 is very noisy. Color is more pleasing to my eye from the Fujifilm, and Fujifilm skintones are legendary. It doesn't take a lot of work to get great color from this camera. However, there is a cost in speed. The dynamic range feature will slow the camera down, which can make the camera less practical for some users.

As for resolution, there's no practical difference as the images below will show. At this level, the biggest variables are going to be the skill of the photographer and the quality of the lens used. Some stock companies have megapixel requirements which may push the S5 Pro out of contention, but otherwise, I wouldn't fixate on the 10 mp vs. 6mp debate with the S5 Pro. A 6mp image from the S5 Pro is very high quality and holds its own against a 10mp image from the D200, at least in jpeg. RAW comparisons will have to wait until the release of the HyperUtilities 3 in the U.S.

The dynamic range feature of the S5 Pro is real and practical. It's not a gimmick. But it means you'll get bigger RAW files and slower in-camera processing and fps numbers.

The S5 Pro is quick enough for most applications, although some sport shooters should probably look elsewhere for a digital SLR solution.

Now, on to the images...

Here's a shot of model Isis, taken with the S5 Pro and the D200, daylight WB, 1/125 at f/8 with the same lens, with out of camera jpeg output. The D200 was set to custom imaging, with minus tone comp, medium high sharpening, color mode I, sRGB, +3 hue. These settings are my own for getting decent skin tones out of the D200. The S5 Pro was shot in F1c color mode, which is designed for portraits with higher than default sharpening.

Next are 100% crops from these two photos. You can see that there's little difference in resolution between the two cameras, and that the variable is likely to be the photographer, not the camera.

This is obviously just an initial review. As Fujifilm releases its RAW software, I will update this review and take more photos.

The bottom line? The S5 Pro is fully capable of taking fantastic photos, and Fujfilm users finally have a camera body worthy of the very good sensor inside. There's a few rough edges that Fujifilm has to fix, like the menu system, but nevertheless, there's no denying that great Fujifilm color, which is subtle but very pleasing to the eye.