Re-publish of an article/review from 2007...
Is the New Fuji S5 Pro really ready for Prime Time?
By Kirk R. Tuck
We’re always looking for the perfect camera. It’s human nature. We all want big, luscious image files with super wide dynamic range. We all want resolution that goes on forever and a frame rate that competes with an Arriflex movie camera. And we all want this camera to retail for less than the price of a car.
The sad reality is that every digital camera in the marketplace is a collage of compromises. But as business owners there are some features we need and some features we can do without. The secret of investing in photography equipment is to buy a camera that provides the stuff you need to make money. All the other bells and whistles are just icing on the cake. (To mix two metaphors.…..)
If you shoot sports you’ll need a camera that autofocuses with accuracy and speed, writes files with dispatch, and has a massive frame buffer. If you’re a still life photographer you’ll want a solution with a staggering number of megapixels. Autofocus won’t really matter and, since most still life professionals shoot tethered, the size of the buffer is pretty much meaningless.
When it comes to photographing people the camera attribute most photographers are looking for is dynamic range. They want a camera that will handle a wide range of tonalities without loosing detail in the shadows. And they definitely want a camera that won’t easily burn out highlights to bald white. Portrait and wedding photographers, especially, live in fear of the “blinking highlight” indicator. The nasty little blinking lines that mean you’ve blown out all the detail in anything close to white that may have been in your frame. Important things like the heirloom wedding dresses with hand sewn pearls, the fine blond hair of the flower girl, the high light tones of the CEO’s face (especially the CEO who thinks make up is not necessary) and pretty much anything with diffuse highlights.
If you make your money photographing people in the studio and on location you’ve probably been searching for the “Holy Grail” of cameras since the dawn of digital. I’ve always wanted a digital camera that produced film-like images. You know, long tonal range with a nice “roll off” in the shadows and highlights. I thought I found it when I started using the Kodak DCS 760 back in 2001. That was a great camera, if you always shot at ISO 80, and if you shot tethered so you could see what you got on a real screen, and if you were willing to shoot only raw, and……… I really liked the long tonal range of the Kodak files but the desire for all the creature comforts kept winning out.
Then Fuji came out with the S3. I bought one and used it but never warmed up to the consumer class Nikon body and baby sized buffer. Now we’ve got the Fuji S5 Pro and I’m impressed. But I spend most of my time photographing people, so your mileage may vary.
I’m not going to give you any charts or graphs. I’m not going to give you test photos. There is an exhaustive technical review available at DPReview.com. I’ll give you my somewhat Quixotic review based on owning the camera for six months and using it on a wide range of assignments. You can read the review below, but here’s the executive summary concerning the Fuji S5 Pro: If your business entails photographing people, and you use Nikon lenses, you need to buy this camera. Here’s what it does well:
1. Beautiful, long tonal range images of people with a great, almost unreal, resistance to “blown out” highlights.
2. Built in “film emulation” settings that mimic the feel of our favorite “people” films, such as Fuji NPS 160. (Many a professional’s favorite “face” film.)
3. Gorgeous flesh tones even from directly “out of camera” jpegs. Raw files can be even better!
4. Nearly all the great handling characteristics of the Nikon D200* ( A few caveats to follow).
5. Relatively clean high ISO files. Very usable right up to 1600 ISO with careful exposure.
Here’s where the Fuji S5 Pro stumbles:
1. The processing is very slow and the buffer fills up quickly. Don’t even think of buying this camera if you are a sports shooter. You will not be happy!
2. The frame rate hovers around one and one half frames per second so you won’t be shooting any fast sequences. You’ll need to wait for that “decisive moment”.
3. To squeeze the absolute quality out of this camera you’ll need to shoot raw and you’ll want to use Fuji’s Hyper Utility raw conversion software. That’s actually a mistatement. I should have said that you’ll have to use the Hyper Utility software because the quality of the files is unmatched, but you’ll hate every minute of the process because the program is as slow as rush hour in Austin. And the interface is anything but intuitive.
4. If you’re already shooting with Nikon D80’s and D200’s you’ll be seriously miffed that the batteries have been chipped so that they are not interchangeable.
5. If you’re coming from a Nikon D2x you’ll really be annoyed that the file view on the rear LCD can’t be zoomed up to 100% for careful evaluation of focus! The face recognition feature really works but that’s like saying that my car doesn’t have airbags but the radio is really good. Sometimes you really need to be able to check details!
That’s it in a nutshell so if you’re still interested let’s get on with the guts of the review.
Nuts and Bolts. Fuji got the physical handling of this camera just right. They used a Nikon D200 body as their starting point and that was smart, because even people who aren’t fond of the Sony sensor chip used in the D200 still have high praise for the ergonomics of this particular body. Holding the Fuji S5 Pro, with a 50mm lens attached feels just about perfect. The camera is dense enough so that its inertia helps dampen vibration, yet it is small enough to carry around all the time.
The viewfinder is bright and clean, with very good magnification. If you take the time to adjust the diopter carefully you’ll find that most fast lenses (50mm and longer) can be focused manually without a problem. The well designed finder is a welcome step backwards in the evolution of cameras and it’s one of many almost intangible aspects of the D200 body that all add up to a happy user experience.
While the file size and buffer limitations won’t allow the S5 to shoot as fast as the D200, the shutter response time and general autofocus characteristics are nearly identical. You will enjoy the feel of the shutter release and the solid feel of the mechanical processes “under the hood” no matter what systems you’ve used in the past.
So what’s the difference? Up till now the big complaint of most people photographers has been the limited dynamic range of available digital SLR’s. How does this limited range affect portrait, wedding and advertising photographers who’s livelihoods depend on gorgeous flesh tones? The most obvious problem with limited dynamic range is that, with proper exposure, many of the lightest highlight tones in a photograph tend to burn out. The detail just vanishes and there’s really nothing you can do to bring it back. Back when the majority of people photographers still shot film they chose color negative emulsions with lots and lots of “latitude”. The generally accepted interpretation of “latitude” was “I can overexpose by a bit and still recover the highlights in the printing stage.”
When we all started shooting digital the concensus was that these new cameras were like shooting with contrasty slide film. Slide film was famous for having very little latitude for exposure error. If you overexposed slide film the highlight areas were nothing but clear film base. No detail remained and nothing could be salvaged! All of a sudden photographers who were used to leaning on the latitude of films like Fujifilm NPS 160 ( A gorgeous color negative film designed to have the perfect characteristics for people shooting ) were using digital cameras that produced files more akin to Provia slide film in their tonal curves.
A general howl ensued, especially from wedding photographers who were trying to keep some detail in the black formal wear of a groom and the delicate detail and bead work on a white wedding dress. These photographers were happy enough with the resolution they were getting from previous generations of cameras but they definitely needed cameras that could keep a handle on contrasty lighting. It wasn’t so long ago that Denis Reggie was singing the praises of his FOUR megapixel Canon 1D’s as fantastic wedding cameras. But none of the major photographic suppliers stepped up to the plate to deliver what they saw as a niche product, a camera that compromised speed and high megapixel count for increased dynamic range and image quality.
The Fuji S5 Pro changed everything. Especially for Nikon owners. Fuji’s new camera, while not perfect, is a big step in the right direction and is being adopted by wedding and portrait shooters around the world. It’s the first professional camera that allows you to “dial in” the exact amount of dynamic range you require for your style of shooting. Fuji does this by sandwiching two sets of sensors on their chip. Six million sensors are big fat, sensitive chips that help the camera achieve really good high ISO performance. An additional six million sensors are smaller, less sensitive imagers that are resistant to overloading when confronted with high light levels. Every exposure combines the information from both sets of chips into one very smooth and long ranged file.
The dynamic range menu. When you set up the S5 Pro for shooting you have a menu option that allows you to set dynamic range, expressed as a percentage. The ranges are spread out in these steps: Auto, 100% (Standard), 130%, 170%, 230%, 300% and 400%. In Auto, the camera computes the range of tones present in the scene and sets a level that captures the widest range of tones. Here’s the one trade off of which you need to be aware, the wider the dynamic range of the file, the flatter it looks. This implies a bit of post processing. If you set the dynamic range to 400 and you shoot a scene that is not very contrasty you will end up with a very flat image. That’s okay by me because it’s a file that’s filled with good information. I can go into Photoshop and make a custom curve that’s just right. The obverse is almost never true, a file that is too contrasty will have already been shorn of important detail and information--especially at the two ends of the dynamic scale.
The good news for busy practitioners is that the “Auto” setting works very well for 90% of photographic situations!
I don’t shoot weddings but I do shoot a lot of portraits on location for advertising agencies and direct corporate clients. I find that the same dynamic range capabilities are a real advantage to me. We don’t always have the luxury of working with make-up people and faces can get a bit shiny in Texas in the summer time. The dynamic range control helps to keep big, soft diffuse highlights on portrait subjects’ faces from burning out to white. And I can still keep necessary detail in the shadow.
All this and clean Jpeg files into the bargain. From their very first professional, digital SLR, the S1, Fuji has had a reputation for building cameras capable of producing very nice jpegs directly from the camera. No user intervention required. The S5 Pro carries on this tradition. With the introduction of this camera and the introduction of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom we have a “perfect storm” of workflow options for busy shooters. The camera delivers wide dynamic range Jpegs that look great. Lightroom allows the same kinds of color and tone controls for Jpegs that have been traditionally only available with RAW files. And now Lightroom can batch correct Jpeg files. Wedding photographers should rejoice as they now have access to files that are nearly equal to the quality of RAW files with all the convenience of batch processing and file management. And that’s a good thing considering that the RAW files from the Fuji S5 are over 20 megabytes each. The large, fine Jpeg files are about 3 megabytes each.
Let’s talk about the files for a second. The bottom line is that this camera delivers great Jpeg files and even better RAW files. The color and tonal quality of each is very impressive but there is a bit of confusion as to the size of the files. Fuji advertises the S5 Pro as a twelve megapixel camera, and it’s true that there are twelve million pixels being used to generate most images. But in terms of real resolution the camera is taking two sets of six million sensors and combining their tonal data. The real number of image sites is six million. The camera uses interpolation to produce it’s final twelve megapixel files.
You can set the camera to produce 12 meg, 6 meg, and 3 meg files in Jpeg but in RAW you are stuck with only 12 Megapixel files. If I’m shooting for a client that needs immediate access to the files as Jpegs I routinely shoot them as 12 Megapixel files. If I’m shooting portraits and will be going back to the studio to make web galleries or proofs I rarely go above 6 megapixels. For most uses these sizes are absolutely fine, and with the six megapixel files I’m post processing files that around a quarter the size of the larger interpolated files. That makes every step of the workflow more efficient.
If you’re looking for the highest quality possible you’re going to end up using RAW. Most RAW shooters are control freaks and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. There’s good news and bad new about using the Fuji S5 Pro as a raw camera. Here’s the good news:
The files can be absolutely gorgeous! Silky smooth skin tones. Long, detail rich tonal values, and a sharpness that belies the real resolution of the camera. If you have the time and patience you’ll be rewarded with rich color images.
Now, here’s the bad news: To really unlock all the potential of the Fuji RAF Raw file you’ll need their $100 raw converter. It doesn’t have the depth of control you’ll find in Adobe Camera Raw (the built in Raw converter for Adobe Photoshop CS 3 and Lightroom) but Fuji knows their own raw file better than anyone else and it’s the only program (currently) that recognizes camera settings such as dynamic range and “film looks”. I used Fuji’s raw converter for the book cover shots of Sianelli and the results were smoother and more realistic than the same images converted in either one of the Adobe products. In same way that Nikon NX delivers the highest quality from Nikon NEF files, Fuji has a decisive quality edge with the combination of their RAF files and the Hyper Utility Converter.
At the beginning of the last paragraph I stated that the need to use the Fuji HU converter was bad news. How can that be if the files are wonderful and the conversion is a level above the Adobe Camera Raw conversion? Simple. The Fuji converter is slow, slow, slow. If you are using an older Powermac G5 machine or one of the new Intel Macs, be prepared to wait for every single step. Hyper Utility is also an very non-intuitive program so be prepared to do some “trial and error” training.
My advice? Buy the Fuji converter for the times when each individual image must be absolutely perfect. But do all your sorting, web gallery proofing and general image administration in a faster, more flexible program such as Lightroom or Bridge. Nikon users tend to spend most of their time dealing with NEF raw files in a variety of different programs, chosen for their speed and robustness. When the client has made final selects most Nikon users turn to Capture or NX to ultimately fine tune color, tone and other parameters. I suspect Fuji users will want to adopt the same strategy.
Moving on from dynamic range I find that my second favorite aspect of the Fuji S5 Pro is a menu that lets you set the “look” of the camera’s files to match those of some favorite films. When you set this in Jpeg you are locked into a film look. When you shoot RAW and process in Fuji’s raw converter you can change the settings during processing.
The menu lists four settings in additional to the default (Standard). They are: F1, F1a, F1b, F1c and F2. Here is how Fuji defines each setting: F1: Suitable for studio portrait work. Similar to professional color negatives. Suppresses flare in flash highlights. Also provides smooth tonal transitions in skin tones. F1a: Saturation is slightly increased in comparison to F1 mode. F1b: Reproduces skin tones with smooth transitions Also provides vibrant reproduction of natural colors such as blue skies and is ideal for daylight portraits. F1c: Increased sharpness in comparison with F1. Ideal for fashion photography. F2: High color saturation like Fujichrome slide film. Suitable for nature, product or architectural photography.
It’s obvious that Fuji brings a lot of expertise to the creation of digital solutions from their experiences as one of the world’s dominant film makers.
The final area I want to cover is that of high ISO performance. This is one area that Nikon shooters have worried about for years. Everyone seems to be fixated with the idea of shooting at ISO 1600 or 3200 for every day photo work. The Fuji S5 Pro is the first camera to use Nikon lenses that gives relatively good performance at ISO 1600. I’ve included some examples from a dress rehearsal shoot for a theater performance of “High School Musical”. I think the Fuji does a fine job at 1600 ISO but I think all cameras do a hell of a lot better at settings between ISO 100 and 400 and that’s where most of our commercial work gets shot.
So, to recap the positives: Great camera body. Really superior Jpeg files. Outstanding RAW file performance using the manufacturer’s conversion software. Dynamic range that will cut down on the need to retouch and post process. Fast enough in camera processing to handle most weddings and events. A camera that can handle wedding dresses in sunlight. An ISO 1600 that’s reliable and usable. The S5 can meter and shoot with any Nikon manual focus lens equipped with AI or AIS. The ability to use most D200 accessories except for the ones you want to use the most---the batteries. The camera is stingy with battery power. Two batteries in an MB-200 grip will last you for at least 1600 exposures with lots of “chimping”. And finally, the price. I think $1900 is quite reasonable for a camera with all this imaging potential.
Now to balance out with the negatives: It’s hard to get used to 1.5 frames per second once you’ve shot with a Nikon D2x in the crop mode at 8 frames per second. Even the D200 at 5 frames per second seems blazingly fast. Many will want a “real” twelve megapixel sensor rather that a six megapixel sensor that uses software “voodoo” to get there. I didn’t like the menus at first but now I’m used to them. The raw file size is about twice as big as I’d like.
My totally subjective conclusion: This is the camera I’ve wanted since I put down my Hassleblad medium format film cameras and started trying to make digital work for my business. I know that when I shoot a portrait with Fuji S5 Pro I can light a little “hotter” and shoot a bit closer to the right of the histogram without constantly worrying about blowing out highlights. I know that flesh tones will be delicately and accurately rendered, and I know the color will be right on the money. Saving time and effort on post processing, combined with files that are rich and beautiful is a successful business strategy for any portrait professional. I’m sold.
(About the author. Kirk Tuck is a people photographer who works mainly for corporate clients and advertising agencies. Based in Austin, Texas he works for clients such as Dell, IBM, Motorola, Freescale, Time Warner, Renew Data, AMD, Ziff Davis, and Tribeza Magazine.
Gear: All current professional Nikon Digital Bodies, Fuji S5 Pro, 2 Sony R1’s, Rolleiflex Medium format cameras, Profoto and Alien Bee lights. Apple Computers.
He has just finished writing a book on location lighting for a major publisher. He lectures to college classes and is a successful speaker on photography and marketing.)