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 consensus 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 mega pixel 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 mega pixel 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.