Cameras

Fujifilm FinePix S3 Pro Digital Camera Review

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Testing / Performance

Color*(8.39)

*Since color preference is largely subjective, our testing measures the accuracy of the reproduced tones by contrasting the camera’s rendered tones with the corresponding ideal. We do this by recording a series of exposures of an industry standard GretagMacbeth color chart and importing the results into Imatest Imaging Software. For cameras that offer multiple color modes as well as tonal and saturation adjustments, a series of tests are conducted at the various available settings, with the best results reported. Again, these are the most accurate color results achieved by the camera, not necessary the most striking or appealing to the user. It is far easier to embellish a "realistic" representation of a scene in postproduction than it is to try to revert it back to its actual appearance. Cameras that score high on these color tests will give photographers an opportunity to capture a more natural scene and then work with the file; it is not a gauge of how well the camera might be tailored to any given individual’s taste.

Below is a modified GretagMacbeth color chart, displaying the Fujifilm S3’s reproduced tones. The chart has been modified by Imatest Imaging Software to display the variance between the camera’s produced colors and the corresponding ideal from the original chart. For each color tile, the outer square contains the camera’s rendered colors, while the vertical rectangle is the ideal. The small inner square is a color-corrected version of the camera’s produced tones, approximating editing with a software application.

The chart below displays the S3’s color results in a more quantitative, linear manner. The circles represent the tonal ideal, while the corresponding squares are the camera’s produced tones. The line bridging the two shapes indicates the degree of error; the longer the line, the less accurate the camera’s reproduction of that particular tone.

The S3’s color performance was acceptable, earning an 8.39 overall color score; however, overall performance was not quite as strong as might be expected. While users can manually adjust color saturation in 3 levels, the S3’s rendering of most red and green tones (# 15 Red, #9 Moderate Red, #16 Yellow, #14 Green, #11 Yellow Green) were far from accurate. Blue channels were shifted, while red values were over-saturated and green values under-saturated. The inconsistency in the S3’s rendering makes it difficult for users to properly calibrate tones in-camera, making it necessary to adjust individual tones post-capture. For some users, this will not be a problem; however, those looking for a usable JPEG straight off the card might see this as a sizable roadblock.

Most of the inaccurate tones produced by the S3 appear to be deliberate adjustments by Fujifilm to add vibrancy and brilliance to the image. While many might prefer the aesthetics of the S3’s reproduction, those seeking flawless color representation will have to invest time some editing the file.

**Still Life Scene **

Below is a shot of our vibrant still life scene captured with the Fuji FinePix S3 Pro at 31mm, using a Tamron SP AF Aspherical XR Di LD (IF) 28-75mm 1:2.8 Macro [phi]67 lens at f/22.

Related content



Click on the image above to view a full resolution version (CAUTION: the linked file is very large).

Resolution / Sharpness*(5.55)

*The S3’s 23.0 x 15.5mm Super CCD SR II imaging sensor records 6.17 million pixels, but it has two photoreceptors for each pixel - an "S" photoreceptor for the basic image, and a smaller, less-sensitive "R" receptor for the highlights. When the camera is set for maximum dynamic range, the S and R data are combined to produce a single 6.17 megapixel image. The "S" site is very much like the ones on traditional CCDs, but the "R" site is much smaller and less sensitive to light. So, when the "S" is overexposed, the "R" site is not, which is key to the S3’s extended dynamic range. The camera can interpolate the CCD data into 12.1 million pixels, but not by using the "R" data as separate pixels.

To test the resolution of the S3 Pro, we captured several exposures of an ISO 12233 resolution chart and uploaded the images into Imatest Imaging Software. The software reads the imported file and detects the number of pixels active in forming the image. Our resolution tests are conducted under controlled studio conditions, using three softbox lamps totaling 350 lux of illumination. The exposures are recorded at various aperture settings and span the entire focal range of the applied lens. We report the best results attained, indicating the camera’s optimal performance capabilities. The results are given as both an exact pixel count and as a percentage score of the camera’s advertised resolution. When this is done, cameras that achieve a score exceeding 70 percent of their advertised megapixel count are viewed as 'good' performers, while cameras that score beyond 80 percent are 'very good' and anything exceeding 90 percent is designated as 'excellent' and is quite rare.



Click on the chart to view full resolution file
 

Our tests concluded that the Fuji S3 records images with 5.55 megapixels of resolution. This is 91% of its advertised pixel count and earns the rare and coveted "excellent" distinction. By contrast, the Canon Rebel XT achieved a resolution score of 89% of its advertised count, though with an 8.0 megapixel sensor, the XT utilized 7.102 megapixels during imaging. But the 5.55 active pixels used by the S3 will certainly enable photographers the flexibility to tweak images to their client’s specifications and create 11 x 14-inch prints with stunning sharpness and tonal quality. The image displayed above was captured at a focal length of 41mm with an aperture setting of f/9.5. This was taken using the S3’s expanded dynamic range as most users willing to pay $2500 for a camera that features such a thing will likely keep the camera on that setting.

Noise – Auto ISO*(0.0)

*The S3 does not offer an automatic ISO setting, but contains a manually selectable 100-1600 ISO range, accessible in all shooting modes.

Noise – Manual ISO*(14.17)*

When shooting with the Fuji S3, users can choose a sensitivity rating between ISO 100 – 1600, in full stop increments, with the exception of an additional ISO 160 option. This is a flexible range, although it does not include an ISO 3200 rating which would significantly increase the camera’s low light capabilities.

We tested the amount of noise produced by the S3 Pro at each available ISO setting and imported the results into a regression analysis to determine an overall noise score. The incremental results are displayed in the chart below, with the available sensitivity ratings placed along the horizontal X-axis and the resulting noise plotted along the vertical Y-axis.

In terms of noise suppression, the Fuji S3 performed far beyond expectation, earning a 14.17 overall noise score. Even at ISO 1600, images produced by the Fuji S3 had impressive image clarity and minimal perceivable noise. To shed some perspective on the S3’s performance, the images captured by the S3 at its highest ISO setting (ISO 1600) contained less noise than images that would be shot from the Canon EOS 20D and Rebel XT at an equivalent ISO setting of 300 (as interpolated from our noise graph). When the cameras were set to ISO 800, the amount of visible noise produced by the 20D and EOS Digital Rebel XT was nearly double that of images shot with the S3 at 1600. The S3’s performance at 1600 even rivaled Olympus’ introductory/prosumer-level DSLR, the EVOLT E-300, at its lowest available ISO setting (ISO 100).

The tonal gradations and expanded dynamic range of the Fuji S3 are clearly strides beyond other available digital SLRs, and the S3’s ability to control noise is equally impressive. Although the S3 does not contain the resolution or speed offered by most competing models, the minimal noise and expanded tonal range of the camera results in images of superior quality. This test clearly shows why so many wedding and portrait photographers are willing to spend $2,500 on a 6.1 MP DSLR that can only capture high quality JPEGs every 1.02 seconds.

Low Light Performance*(5.5)

*To evaluate the Fuji S3’s low light performance, we captured a sequence of images at decreasing light levels. The images are shot at the camera’s highest available ISO setting without the assistance of the flash. This isolates the camera’s sensitivity to light and provides insight into the camera’s ability to capture shots at night or in dim indoor situations. Cameras are tested at 60, 30, 15, and 5 lux to simulate common low light conditions; 60 lux is comparable to an interior scene at dusk, while 30 lux appears similar to a room lit by a 40 watt light bulb. Images recorded at 15 and 5 lux indicate the camera’s ability to perform in near darkness.

Click on any of the above charts for additional image analysis

As you can see in the sequence above, the S3’s low light capabilities are what might be expected from the camera’s more generalized strengths and weaknesses. Images captured with the S3 under minimal lighting remain clean with only a slight degree of noise present. However, the four low light images display the S3’s auto focusing deficiencies, which become more pronounced as the available light is decreased. The camera also had difficulty achieving accurate calibration using the manual white balance settings in the expanded dynamic range mode in compromised lighting. The resulting images captured in less than 60 lux of illumination displayed strong reddish overtones in warm color values, while cooler tones were shifted and a bit muted. This is surprising and a bit unexpected considering Fuji’s professional reputation in color capability.

**Speed / Timing **

*Startup to First Shot (9.41) *

The Fuji S3 takes a relatively leisurely 0.59 seconds to start up. That’s the slowest start-up among the digital SLRs we’ve tested, but not by much.

Shot to Shot (8.98)

The Fuji S3 needed an average of 1.02 seconds between shots for JPEGs in extended dynamic range mode. Shooting RAW, shots went off every 0.67 seconds, but the buffer was saturated after only three frames, and it takes many seconds for the buffer to clear. The camera performs much better when extended range is turned off, indicating that the delay is the mainly the result of the significant data processing the camera performs to integrate the information from the two sets of photoreceptors. Since the camera’s main strength is its extended dynamic range, the lag time in that mode is clearly the one to consider when evaluating the camera.

Shutter to Shot (9.99)

The Fuji S3’s only good Speed score is an important one: we measured only 0.0001 seconds of shutter lag, so when you press the shutter, you’re going to get the shot.

Physical Tour

Front* (8.5)

*Although the curves are new, the features on the front of the S3 virtually mirror the previous S2. From the top: there is a pop-up flash nestled into the pentaprism. It’s mechanically controlled: it is opened by pressing a small button on the right side of the pentaprism housing. The PC flash sync connection is above and to the right. Also on the right side, along the lens mount, is the lens release button. Below sits a lever to select the focus mode (the choices are: continuous, single, or manual). Further below the focus selection there’s a sparkly and gratuitous Fuji logo. A bulge along the bottom serves as a good gripping contour when holding the camera vertically. To the left of the lens, there’s a small white light for low light autofocus assist, red-eye reduction, and signaling that the self-timer has been tripped. At the far left is the hand grip with the shutter release placed on the top, along with the on-off switch and a command dial.

Back*(9.0)*

There are two LCD displays on the back of the Fuji S3; the upper one shows text and icons indicating camera settings and data on saved images, while the lower screen is the camera’s 2-inch, 235,000-pixel color LCD. The color LCD is very attractive; it displays images with vibrant colors and a range of tones, although its size is only average for a DSLR. To the left of the two displays are the buttons to activate them. Controls for bracketing exposures and flash sync mode are above both displays. The "FUNC" button cycles through the various modes on the upper display, and there are four buttons arrayed below. In its various modes, the display indicates the functions of these buttons; in shooting mode, the buttons can change settings to color, resolution, and other options. In playback mode, they delete or protect the image, or vary the display. The "PLAY" button will activate the color LCD, bringing up the last image shot.

On the right side of the back is the autofocus and autoexposure lock button, which is surrounded by a ring that sets the metering pattern. At the far right is the "Main-command dial" which changes exposure in shooting mode, and scrolls through various other settings when shooting in other modes. Below is a dish-shaped four-way controller. In shooting mode, rocking the controller will determine which autofocus site is active. In playback, it controls the magnification of the displayed image and navigates across the image, as well as scrolling through the saved files. When the control menu is displayed (as it is when you press the "MENU/OK" button below the four-way controller) the controller navigates through the menus. The four-way controller is equipped with a lock, to prevent accidental changes. There is a "BACK" button next to the "MENU/OK" control, which cancels certain functions and takes you back to the upper levels of the menu.

There is a deep, rubberized thumb rest to the right of the four-way controller. Below is a nicely-finished, heavy latched door covering two slots for removable media. The camera accepts xD and CompactFlash/Microdrive media.

Left Side*(8.0)

*There’s a heavy strap mount at the top of the left side. Lower down, in two clusters, are terminals for various connections. The digital terminal is protected by a rubber port cover shielding both IEEE 1394 (FireWire) and USB 2.0 connections. Below that is the remote release terminal socket, for a standard Nikon 10-pin remote. The cap for that screws on and off, and could get lost easily. A bit forward of that are the more analog sorts of terminals, one for a five-volt DC power supply, which Fuji makes and sells separately, and one for analog A/V out, to a television. Fuji supplies the necessary cord for A/V.

The battery compartment latch is at the bottom of the left side. Release the latch, and a tray for the camera’s four AA batteries slides out.

Right Side*(9.0)*

The right side of the S3 features the shutter release for shooting verticals. Otherwise, it is characterized only by the camera’s graceful curves, which form a comfortable grip.

Top*(9.0)*

The top of the camera is a pretty clean, but reveals the camera’s lineage as successor to the S2, which combined components of the Nikon N80 with Fuji’s own electronics. The large mode dial sits at the far left. In addition to exposure modes, the dial also has settings for ISO and custom functions. This design is a bit of a drawback, requiring users to take the camera out of shooting mode to switch the ISO. A concentric ring controls the camera’s release mode, with options of burst mode, single shot, or self-timer.

There is a hot shoe on top of the pentaprism, which is compatible with the latest Nikon dedicated flashes. To the right of the prism is the top display, which shows the ISO rating, shutter and aperture settings, exposure compensation, flash exposure compensation, battery level, flash sync mode, and active focus area. (Yes, the S3 has three displays in total.)

The LCD illuminator button is at the far right; pressing it lights up both the top LCD and the monochromatic LCD on the back of the camera. 

Components

Viewfinder*(6.5)*

I wish Fuji had crafted the S3’s viewfinder a bit larger. Conventional wisdom about the S2 was that its viewfinder was simply a 35mm one masked off for the smaller digital format. The S3’s viewfinder isn’t any better. On the plus side, it’s easy to see the entire display, even when wearing eye glasses.

The diopter setting was somewhat troublesome; without a lock, it is susceptible to accidental alteration if bumped.

LCD Screen*(8.0)*

The FinePix S3’s LCD is a bit larger than the S2’s, at 2 inches. That’s comparable to the Canon 20D and the Nikon N70. At 235,000 pixels, though, it nearly doubles their specs, and the S2's specs. While it may not offer quality that’s exactly twice as good, it is a substantial and noticeable improvement.

The image quality of the S3’s LCD display is excellent. Though the view on any LCD shouldn’t be the final say on image quality, inspecting a shot on the S3’s LCD will tell you much more about highlight and shadow detail than the 20D or N70 displays, and it performs well in bright light. Its off-axis performance is as good as any DSLR display I’ve seen.

Flash*(7.5)*

The S3’s pop-up flash does an excellent job adding a bit of fill in portraits, but it’s no substitute for an external unit. It covers the field of a 20mm lens, but at ISO 200, it won’t reach past 10 feet at f/5.6. And of course, it won’t bounce or accept any diffusers.

The FinePix S3 is compatible with Nikon’s dedicated flash system, offering multi-sensor balanced fill flash. Sync modes include standard, slow shutter speed sync, red-eye reduction, slow shutter speed red-eye reduction, and rear curtain. Nikon’s dedicated flash system is flexible and accurate, so compatibility with them is a significant advantage for the S3. Unlike the S2, the S3 can take advantage of the full capabilities of the Nikon flashes. In this sense, the S3 and the Nikon D70 are equal; however, the Nikon D70s offers a significant advantage in terms of sync speed. The D70s syncs at 1/500, while the S3’s only offers a maximum flash sync speed of 1/180. This could be a major handicap for photographers shooting in high-contrast daylight scenes without an accessory flash unit.

Lens Options*(9.0)*

Fuji does not market the camera with any lens, but they sent the test model with a "Tamron SP AF Aspherical XR Di LD (IF) 28-75mm 1:2.8 Macro [phi]67," which delighted all us fans of initials and arcane product names. The lens is a very good choice for the camera. Though we didn’t test it rigorously, at first blush it’s sharp, has nice build quality, is bright at f/2.8, and has a useful zoom range.

Compatibility with the Nikon F lens mount is a major feature of the FinePix S3. Most importantly, Nikon makes excellent lenses. Not all Nikon optics are excellent, but lots are. Nearly as important, other strong lens makers offer excellent lenses that are compatible with Nikon cameras and the S3 – the Tamron lens on our test camera is an example. It’s possible to buy excellent Nikon and Nikon-mount lenses on the used market as well. Whatever lenses work on the S3 will work on current Nikon DSLRs, and almost certainly on future Nikon DSLRs. No 35mm and digital camera manufacturer has protected its customers from obsolescence better than Nikon. 

Design / Layout

Model Design / Appearance*(7.0)*

The S3 is cosmetically more refined and coherent than the S2. There are fewer straight lines on the S3, the buttons on the back of the camera are larger, and they better match the scale of the lines of the camera. Even though the S3 offers significantly more options than its predecessor, Fuji chose not to crowd the interface with more buttons or displays. That was a good decision – it’s not exactly an elegant camera, but the S3 at least appears uncluttered and utilitarian.

The right-hand grip of the S3 curves a bit around the lens mount, helping to form a more comfortable and suitable gripping platform. The camera’s black-to-very-dark-gray plastic and rubber surfaces are reminiscent of both the S2 and Nikons cameras, but Fuji finally dumped the red plastic accents that the S2 inherited from the Nikon N80. Though it seems that the S3 shares many internals with the S2, and by extension, the Nikon D100 and N80, Fuji isn’t playing up that link in marketing materials, referring instead to the camera’s "Unique, Professional Body," which is "designed and crafted to Fuji specifications."

While the camera’s specifications and components place the S3 Pro into an undefined category among digital SLRs, falling somewhere between prosumer-grade cameras (Canon EOS 20D) and Professional-level models (Nikon D2H), the large, rugged frame is entirely professional. Most cameras falling within the prosumer level offer a consumer-friendly element in handling and transport. The S3 does not. The size and styling clearly distinguish the camera as a professional model and structurally, the camera is designed to cater to the needs of professional shooters. The camera contains both vertical and horizontal shutter releases to conserve time for vertically oriented shots, as the camera is largely marketed to portrait and wedding photographers.

The S3 has a multi screen interface on the back of the camera, similar to the S2. The top display shows the camera’s pertinent shooting information, while the bottom LCD acts as the traditional screen and can be used to review recorded exposures. The informational LCD display can be illuminated with an orange glow by pressing a button to the right of the display on top of the camera. One interesting feature that’s sure to draw mixed responses is the camera’s clip-on plastic LCD protector, which covers both screens. The plastic cover will help ensure the surface of the screens remain untarnished, though some may find the cover more of a bother than a convenience.

Size / Portability*(5.0)*

The S3, spanning 5.8 x 5.3 x 3.2 inches and weighing 28.7 oz. (excluding lens and battery), is a full inch larger than the S2 and 5.6 ounces heavier than the Canon EOS 20D. It’s almost an inch taller and 8.8 ounces heavier than the Nikon D70. On the other hand, it’s much smaller than the Nikon D2H or 2DX, or the Canon EOS 1D series cameras.

The S3 inhabits a middle ground of size and weight, as it does with price; it is hundreds of dollars more expensive than the 20D and D70s, and hundreds or even thousands less than top-end Canon and Nikon DSLRs. The target market will pay for the S3’s image quality by giving up some portability, as well as a decent pile of cash. At its size, no one is going to forget that the S3 is slung over his or her shoulder. It’s a camera that probably won’t come out of the bag unless the user is scheduled to do a shoot.

The S3 will crowd camera bags a little more than its competitors, but its extra height comes in the form of a vertical grip. Considering how much wedding and portrait photography is done vertically, most users will prefer to have such a grip rather than a shorter, more compact camera.

Handling Ability*(7.5)*

At two pounds, the S3 Pro will balance well with small lenses, such as the 50 mm 1.8, as well as with heavier zooms, such as the old 20-35 mm 2.8 or Nikon’s 70-200 mm 2.8 VR. The balance is an advantage over the 20D and D70 – the S3 will handle better with heavy lenses than its lighter prosumer-level competitors.

The thumb rest on the back of the S3 is deeper and larger than the one on the S2, and offers a significant advantage in handling. The new curves on the S3 body are generally covered with rubberized material, which provide a secure grip and added comfort during shooting.

The base of the S3 bulges forward to form a very comfortable vertical grip, a nice improvement over the S2. The camera is generally well shaped for large hands and offers optimal support in both shooting orientations. The dual shutter release will help shooters make quick changes in orientation and also maximize the camera’s potential for portrait photography. There's a lock on the vertical release, so shooters who don't use it won't fear accidental exposures if it gets bumped. Control

Button / Dial Positioning / Size*(8.0)*

When holding the camera horizontally by the right-hand grip at eye level, dials that control aperture and shutter speed naturally fall under thumb and middle finger. The user’s right thumb can easily sweep down the back of the camera to select a focus sensor. The autofocus/exposure lock is placed up by the viewfinder and is also easily within reach of the user’s thumb. The exposure compensation button, which is near the shutter release, is a bit small, although still easily accessible. While most of the controls that you’d use when the camera is in shooting position require only one finger, Exposure compensation is an exception – the button will have to be held with while the user turns a dial with the other hand.

The buttons that are involved in LCD operation are also conveniently arranged; they’re large, well placed, and provide good feedback when pressed, helping users shoot freely when looking through the viewfinder.

To users of the S2, the modified S3 Pro should be an easy adjustment. With the exception of the new vertical shutter release, there are no additional applications in the shooting interface; the "Play," "Func," "Back," and "OK" controls are larger, but they haven’t moved.

Menu*(6.5)*

Fuji’s menu design is not user-friendly. There are too many places to look for information on the FinePix S3, and too few cues about where to look for any given setting. The S3 labels submenus with numbers instead of meaningful icons (unlike Nikon’s little wrench, camera, and pencil graphics for camera setup, shooting options, and file writing). It is much easier to remember that setting the date and time is under the wrench menu than that it’s under menu number three. Fuji even passed up the chance to color-code the headings, something both Nikon and Canon do in very helpful ways. Also, the S3 does not "tab" its menus, a feature that allows the user to conveniently jump from one submenu to another.

The S3 sports a small, monochrome, low-resolution, text-only LCD for some controls. It sits above the color LCD. In shooting mode, the monochromatic display shows settings indicating exposure information, frame number, and other EXIF data while images are shown on the color screen.

Unfortunately, the information on the monochrome LCD can be cryptic. Example: the S3 offers film simulation modes, and they’re called F1 and F2. How do you know which to pick? If you’re a film shooter, it might be more useful if they were called "Provia" and "Velvia," after the two films the S3 imitates. Regardless, the monochromatic LCD is too small to show the amount of information that would be really useful, and it puts S3 users at a disadvantage when compared to other similarly styled offerings by competing manufacturers.

Ease of Use*(6.0)*

Fuji’s press releases say that the company talked to S2 users as the S3 design and feature set were developed. Clearly, many of those users were wedding photographers. Both the high-end wedding shooters, who shoot RAW, and the JPEG shooters will see an obvious benefit from the extended dynamic range. A fair number will set the camera to automatic dynamic range and JPEG. They will get great JPEGs when they nail the exposure, and true to Fuji’s marketing materials, even their overexposed JPEGs will be more salvageable than overexposed shots from other cameras. They’ll appreciate the automatic dynamic range setting – it will not become one more setting to have to remember.

The S3 offers significant image controls, but they can be automated, set once and left alone, or turned off. The camera is not any fussier than the S2, particularly for wedding photographers, who will probably shoot tests to figure out how they want the camera set, and then leave it that way.

Fuji deserves credit for maintaining a consistent interface between the S2 and the S3. It’s likely that many folks using the S2 professionally will add an S3 to their equipment roster. Both cameras are easy to use. The most important controls are easily accessible, and the less important ones are pretty inconspicuous.

The flaws in the camera interface - labeling menus with numbers rather than anything vaguely helpful, for instance, probably won’t actually slow down a shoot. I would also pass up Hyper-Utility for anything but RAW conversion and camera control, because so many other products are easier to use for viewing and organizing images.

Modes

Auto Mode*(7.0)*

The S3 relies on an exposure control module originally manufactured for the Nikon N80. In program mode, a turn of the control dial will change the aperture-shutter speed combination without changing the exposure value, so you can skew toward faster (or slower) shutter speeds without switching modes. The S3 does not have an automatic ISO setting, which is available on some competing cameras. Leaving out the automatic ISO setting is a rare occasion where Fuji figured that omitting a feature, rather than adding one, would make the camera appear more sophisticated—an auto ISO setting apparently would have lessened the S3’s professional appearance and given it more of a prosumer-level feel.

The S3’s automatic exposures were very accurate over a range of scenes, though it could be fooled by backlighting and other tricky situations. The camera’s extended dynamic range helped compensate for small errors in exposure.

Movie Mode*(2.0)*

The S3 has a video mode, oddly enough. Usually, SLRs don’t have video modes, because their imaging chips are hidden behind shutters and mirrors, except during exposures.

When I read about the S3’s video mode, I lacked the imagination to think of anything useful to do with it. Here are a few of its limitations: it operates for no more than 30 seconds at a time. It’s black and white. You can’t shoot a still shot when it’s running. And the clincher: you can’t actually record the video. "Wow," you might well ask, "what’s left?" Simply this: it’s the best focus-checker I’ve ever seen on an electronic camera, because you can zoom way in. If you’re working on a tripod, and your focus is critical, you might actually use it.

Drive / Burst Mode*(5.5)*

Good things come to those who wait, they say. Well, S3 users will do at least their share of waiting. The camera’s method for recording extended dynamic range involves a significant amount of computation, which slows down the camera enormously.

The camera offers three modes for dynamic range, and in the extended dynamic range modes, the camera manages a bit less than 1½ frames a second when shooting RAW files, but saturates its buffer with three frames. In extended dynamic range shooting JPEG, the rate drops to 1 frame per second, but the buffer doesn’t reach capacity until you’ve shot eight frames. On the other hand, with extended dynamic range turned off, the camera acts very much like the S2, turning in about 2 1/2 frames a second for seven frames in RAW mode, or for 12 frames in JPEG.

Playback Mode*(8.5)*

The 2-inch, 235,000 pixel color LCD on the back of the camera offers bright, saturated replay of images. When an image is displayed on the LCD, the other rear display and its buttons control the histogram, an image delete key, an image protect key, and a key to show multiple images on the LCD. The histogram is small, and a bit hard to read.

The S3 allows video playback, and is both PAL and NTSC compatible through an analog A/V output jack. In the US, NTSC is the standard television format; elsewhere, PAL prevails. The user can set both intervals and transitions. Fuji recommends using an AC adapter to power the camera during playback, but the AC adapter is not included with the camera. Fortunately, Fuji has added auto-rotate to the S3, allowing proper orientation of images that are played back on a television.

Custom Image Presets*(8.5)*

The S3 offers a range of options for color reproduction. Like the S2, the S3 offers four color settings: "High" produces punchy, saturated colors; "Standard" tones things down for smoother color for portraits, "Original" doesn’t shift things at all, leaving the file intact for postproduction editing; and "Black and White" does the obvious.

Also in line with the S2, the S3 offers a "Tone" setting to adjust contrast. The choices are "Hard," for higher contrast, "Standard," and "Original," which again leaves as much data intact as possible for post-processing.

Perhaps in support of its dynamic range options, Fuji has included "Film Simulation" settings. I smell marketing hype here, but here’s a pretty straight description: there are three choices for simulation. "Film 1" is optimized for portraits. The priority is smooth transitions from mid tones to highlights. "Film 2" is recommended for landscapes and nature, where more vibrant colors are a priority. The third choice is "Standard," which is recommended for general use.

Both "Film 1" and "Film 2" lock out changes in Color, Tone, and Dynamic Range (which I’ll discuss in the Picture Quality section). It seems as though they are simply grouped combinations of settings for those parameters. Regardless, they do render image adjustments as Fuji describes. 

Control Options

Manual Control Options

The Fujifilm FinePix S3 allows full manual control of shutter speed and aperture, as well as ISO, color saturation, contrast, dynamic range, sharpening, and focus. The settings are not as fine and precise as many users would like. Aperture and shutter speed vary in half-stop increments rather than third-stops; saturation, contrast and sharpening settings are essentially limited to "high," "low," and "unchanged," and ISO varies in full stops. The exposure-related settings are an inherent limitation of the components that Fuji buys, rather than what it manufactures. The image quality settings can be tweaked much more finely in RAW files via Hyper-Utility2 software.

**Focus **

*Auto Focus (6.5) *

The camera has five autofocus sensor sites: one in the center of the frame, and others above, below, to the left and to the right of center. The sites all fall within the middle half of the frame. I handled the S3 side by side with an S2 and a Nikon D2H, swapping lenses between the three bodies. The S3’s autofocus mechanism seems identical to the S2’s. Their performance is like the Nikon D70, and significantly inferior to the D2H. The D2H focuses faster, focuses in low light better, has more sensor sites (which are spread further across the frame), and is much more competent at handling moving subjects. In very low light, and light that is both dim and flat, the S2 and S3 can simply fail to focus at all, repeatedly racking the lens from infinity to the close-focus limit of the lens. Though it’s possible to defeat the focusing systems on high-end cameras, many of them work in much dimmer light than the FinePix S3.

It makes sense that the D2H, a $3500 camera designed for sports and photojournalism, performs better than a D70, a $900 camera designed for committed hobbyists. But does it make sense that the $900 D70 has better autofocus capability than the $2500 S3? At wedding receptions, superior autofocus performance would come in handy, which a D70 or S2 can’t offer either. This places S3 users at a disadvantage when the camera is pitted against higher-priced models in this regard. When compared with the autofocus of prosumer-level cameras (which Fuji has tried to distance the S3 from), the camera performs comparably. Then again, while low light focusing capabilities are critical to the target market of the S3, many portrait and wedding photographers are not primarily concerned with focus speed. It’s a tradeoff.

*Manual Focus (8.5) *

Autofocus can be turned off on the S3, so that the camera does not actuate autofocus lenses. Manual focus with the S3 is comparable to other SLRs: the focusing screen is bright and clear, and focus "snaps in" pretty well. Many older, non-autofocus Nikon AI-mount lenses fit on the S3 body as well. No matter what lens is mounted, the autofocus indicator lights up visibly when focus has been achieved.

Metering*(8.5)*

Because the FinePix S3 includes Nikon-made components for exposure control and metering, the camera offers standard Nikon fare in metering configurations: spot, center-weighted, and matrix. In this area, Fujifilm chose well in going with Nikon – the Nikon components yield accurate exposures and are straightforward to use.

In spot mode, the metered area is about two percent of the frame. The metered area is usually centered on the active autofocus area. The exception is Closest-subject Dynamic AF mode. In that case, the meter reads only from the center of the frame, while the autofocus system moves around.

Center-weighted metering simply takes an average of the frame, with a heavy bias for the center 12 mm.

Matrix metering is a Nikon-based technology. It computes an exposure based on readings from 10 areas on the frame, and is less likely to be fooled by difficult lighting conditions, such as backlighting, than center-weighted metering. The matrix system can take subject distance into account when D- or G-type Nikon-mount lenses are in use.

The S3 meter does not function with old, non-autofocus Nikkor lenses. Not all of these lenses even fit on the camera. If you want to use the ones that mount on the S3, you’ll need to use a handheld meter, or shoot by trial and error.

**Exposure ***(7.5)*

The Nikon N80 legacy haunts the Fuji S3 in this category. The S3 allows only half-stop shifts in shutter speed and aperture, which has long been a sore point for Fuji users. Many other cameras offer one-third stop increments, and the Canon 20D offers a choice between half- and third-stop intervals. Fuji marketing sniffs that third-stop intervals are "…more important to low dynamic range CCD based cameras," but that seems to be a backhanded acknowledgment of the camera’s shortcoming.

Notably, Fuji’s software for converting camera RAW files to TIFFs allows for one-sixth-stop increments in exposure compensation. But of course, that’s only a way to change the digital file, not a way to get it right in the first place.

The FinePix S3 offers aperture priority automation (you choose the aperture, it chooses the shutter speed); shutter priority (you choose the shutter speed, the camera chooses the aperture) and program (the camera chooses both aperture and shutter speed).

White Balance*(7.5)*

The S3 offers eight white balance settings: Daylight, Tungsten, three types of fluorescent, Cloudy/Shade, two custom settings, and an Automatic option. Users can set custom settings via the "Set Up" menu. It involves making an exposure of a white card. The FinePix S3 does not offer fine-tuning of white balance as is available on the prosumer-level Canon 20D and the Nikon D70, as well as many professional level DSLRs. The feature would allow the user to tweak the white balance in small increments directly within the camera, and it can be very useful. There are a other settings that were excluded from the S3 that would have been useful as well: typically, the Daylight setting is a little cool for electronic flash, so a specific flash white balance preset would be nice, along with separating the "cloudy" and "shade" options.

**ISO ***(8.0)

*The Fuji S3 offers ISO settings from 100 to 1600; except for a 160 setting, they are in full-stop increments. The S3’s performance at 1600 is excellent. The colors are still saturated, and it produces less noise than many competing prosumer and professional level cameras. A 3200 option would have been a nice inclusion, aiding in low light situations and overall flexibility. With the camera’s impressive image quality at ISO 1600, the 3200 rating would undoubtedly be inferior to it, but would likely be the best 3200 available.

Shutter Speed*(8.0)*

The S3 shutter offers exposures from 30 seconds to 1/4000 of a second, plus a Bulb setting. ("Bulb" leaves the shutter open as long as the shutter release is pressed.) The maximum flash sync speed is 1/180.

Many S3 shooters may feel limited by the rather slow flash sync -- the Nikon D70s offers sync to 1/500. Many other cameras offer a 1/8000 of a second shutter speed as well.

I don’t think many users will miss the 1/8000 setting, but fast flash sync is crucial for good fill flash. In bright sunlight, or in other kinds of contrasting light, many subjects, and particularly people, look better with a bit of extra light to brighten (or "fill" in) the shadows. You set the camera to the proper exposure for the sunlit part, and then adjust the flash to slightly underexpose the shadows. When it’s done right, it’s both natural and flattering. The problem is, in bright sunlight, the correct exposure for the bright parts usually calls for a fast shutter speed and a pretty small aperture. At slower shutter speeds, the aperture setting needed gets too small to be practical to use with portable flashes.

Aperture*(7.5)*

The Fuji S3 is marketed as a body only, so it doesn’t have an aperture. The camera only has an effect on aperture via its half-stop increments in controlling aperture, and the fact that it won’t control the aperture on non-autofocus lenses. 

Image Parameters

Picture Quality / Size Options*(9.0)

*The S3 offers unique picture quality among comparable cameras. Extended dynamic range is a fundamental shift in what’s now possible with digital SLRs. There are a few controls over whether and how this technology functions in a given shot. Because the camera takes such a heavy performance hit from the wide dynamic range technology, Fuji provides a way to turn it off completely. The option is in a Set-Up menu, and the choices are "Standard" and "Wide."

When "Wide" is selected in the camera’s Set-Up, three choices for dynamic range become available on the monochromatic rear display. They are "Auto," "Wide1," and "Wide2." According to Fuji, "Wide1" accommodates 230 percent of the standard dynamic range, and "Wide2" accommodates 400 percent. In photographic parlance, 200 and 400 percent amount to one and two stops, respectively. "Auto" lets the camera choose among no extended range, "Wide1," or "Wide2."

The camera also offers three "Quality" settings: "Normal," which creates JPEGs with significant compression; "Fine," which creates a less-compressed, higher-quality JPEG; and "High," which records the image in Fuji’s RAW format. With the S3, Fuji has dropped the option of in-camera TIFFs, which are very large and extremely slow to produce on the S2.

Fuji is rightly proud of the quality of the JPEGs the S3 produces, arguing that it’s not necessary to shoot RAW to get great quality from the camera. Many wedding and portrait shooters apparently agree, and ship the camera’s JPEGs straight to the lab for proofing.

Finally, in either "Normal" or "Fine" quality settings, the camera will produce image sizes of 1, 3, 6, or 12 megapixels. Six megapixels is the native resolution of the CCD, but because of the layout of the pixels on the CCD -- they’re staggered, a bit like cells in a honeycomb -- there is extra data to use when interpolating a 12-megapixel file. Picture

Effects Options*(9.0)*

The S3 does not offer the sorts of effects often found on consumer cameras -- sepia tone, posterization, et cetera. Its film simulation modes, however, are a subtle alternative and have been described in detail in the previous section. 

Connectivity / Extras

Connectivity

Software (8.5)

Fuji’s Hyper-Utility2 software is capable, but tricky. It wouldn’t be my first choice for sorting, organizing, or editing photos, but its RAW converter does an excellent job, and it’s the only option for controlling the camera with a computer.

Controlling the camera with a computer works well, though it was only with a revised software version, not the one packed with our sample, that it was possible to trip the shutter via computer. Running the camera with a tethered laptop is a surprisingly convenient way to shoot in the studio, and rather common among commercial users of S2s and S3s.

The RAW converter is set up quite a bit like the camera itself -- white balance, tone, color, sharpness, plus "Sensitization," which is simply exposure compensation, available in 1/6-stop increments from 1 stop under to 2 stops over.

Some other settings in the converter are more flexible than the in-camera settings as well. The tone control allows the user to draw a curve, as you might in Photoshop. White balance can be set in degrees Kelvin, by picking a gray region with an eyedrop tool, or by setting any of the camera presets.

Adobe’s RAW converter plugin for Photoshop also converts S3 RAW files, and does a good job. Its exposure compensation tool allows a much wider range of adjustment than Fuji’s one stop under and two stops over, but it looks to me as though you might get into trouble with that option. Adobe’s converter does not offer control over dynamic range.

Throughout Hyper-Utility2, I found the interface fussy and too technical. The histogram display includes, as a table of numeric data, the Mean, Standard Deviation, and Median values for each channel. I’m sure some users might find that useful, but I don’t think most wedding or portrait photographers would jump for it.

The help system, which pops up in a web browser, is a bit self-defeating and filled with cryptic lines like, "In this mode, the display will be similar to histograms in Adobe Photoshop. Values are normalized to 1/68 of the total number of pixels."

Some features did strike me as both useful and unusual. First, the software can show out-of-range warnings in both highlights and shadows, and the values for each can be customized. Second, it allows the comparison of two images in side-by-side (or one-over-the-other) windows. (The histogram is available for comparisons, too, showing a normal histogram for the two images, or a histogram for the two images multiplied, differenced, or excluded.)

Jacks, ports, plugs (9.5)

Fuji did the right thing and included both FireWire and USB 2.0 on the S3. It may be that we only got FireWire because USB won’t run camera controls, but it’s there. Fuji makes, and offers as an extra-cost option, an AC power supply, and includes the cable to plug into the analog output and your television. The FinePix S3 accepts Nikon’s 10-pin remote controls and intervalometers. They’re expensive, but very reliable.

Direct Print Options (7.0)

The S3 offers direct print through DPOF (Digital Print Order Format). DPOF specs can be applied to images on either CompactFlash or xD media. The camera allows you to specify the number of prints you want of each image you select, and whether or not to print the date the image was shot on the print. Printers that accept CompactFlash or xD media can read the images and the DPOF data from the cards to make prints. The camera will also make prints when connected directly to a PictBridge compatible printer, using DPOF data, or by following menu commands on the LCD. The S3 also offers a system for cropping images via the LCD screen, and saving them at various resolutions.

*Memory (6.5) *

The S3 takes CompactFlash and xD-Picture Card. CompactFlash is quite common, and available in very large sizes, which would be necessary if you shoot in RAW on the S3. Each file is about 25MB in wide dynamic range, or 13MB in normal.

Other features* (8.0)

Sensor Clean -* The S3 has a setting to allow for cleaning of the CCD. Since CCDs are so very delicate, DSLR manufacturers have been skittish about recommending that users clean their own CCDs. Fuji remains skittish, and the manual notes that if you scratch your CCD, you’ll probably want to replace it, which will be expensive. The manual describes cleaning the CCD with a blower (without a brush), and with sensor swabs. The particular benefit of the cleanup setting is that it cuts all electric current to the CCD. Cleaning a sensor with the shutter set to "B" is very different, because in that case, the CCD is actually operating while it’s being cleaned.

Battery Discharge - The S3 offers a setting to completely discharge its batteries, something you should do once when you buy a set of rechargeable NiMH batteries, and then again only if their capacity drops significantly. 

Overall Impressions

Value*(8.5)*

It’s challenging to evaluate the S3 price versus performance as a value equation, because the camera’s most important characteristic -- extended dynamic range -- is unique. If you must have nine stops of dynamic range, this is your option, and it costs $2500. You can’t get that range from a $6300 Nikon or an $8000 Canon. That said, the camera is only a good value to photographers in need of its dynamic range. It does not match the shooting speed or autofocus speed of the Canon 20D, which is $1000 less, with a lens. The Nikon D70 matches or beats it at half the price, in every measure except for dynamic range, noise suppression, and color reproduction.

Comparisons

Nikon D70s - At $899 for the body, or $1199 bundled with a Nikon zoom lens, the D70s is a very attractive camera. It offers 6.1 MP of resolution – the same as the S3. The D70s is faster, shooting a solid 3 frames per second, with enough buffer to shoot 144 consecutive frames at that rate. It delivers very good color and sharpness, though not up to the S3’s standard, even when the S3 is set in normal dynamic range. The D70s is smaller and lighter, and its dedicated rechargeable battery will last much longer than the S3’s AAs. Though the Fuji surpasses the Nikon in more than one aspect of image quality, dynamic range is the only reason to pay $1600 more for the S3.

*Canon EOS 20D -*At $1600 for the body, the 20D offers 8.2 MP of resolution, an ISO 3200 setting, better autofocus, and more flexible white balance. The 20D is much faster, shooting five frames per second for 23 JPEG frames. As is the case with the Nikon D70s, the Canon 20D doesn’t quite match the S3 in overall image quality -- the S3 has more pleasing color and lower noise. Still, if it weren’t for the dynamic range, no one would spend $900 extra dollars to get the Fuji instead of the 20D.

Nikon D2X - At $6300 list, the Nikon offers a much faster, much more solidly-built camera with 12.4 MP of resolution. It offers high-end features such as the option of simultaneously recording images in both JPEG and RAW and an optional wireless link for transmitting images to a remote computer as they’re shot. It can produce gorgeous images, but it still can’t parallel the S3, with its extended dynamic range.

 

Who It’s For

Point-and-Shooters – The S3 is far too expensive, and offers far too many options for this crowd.

*Budget Consumers – *At $2500, it’s only a budget camera compared to the very top of the line DSLRs.

*Gadget Freaks – *Given its unique technology, it’s gotta be intriguing -- someone’s going to get a kick out of explaining "S" and "R" photoreceptors to all their friends.

*Manual Control Freaks – *Again, a serious maybe here. Not only does the camera offer full manual control, it offers full control over dynamic range.

Pro/Serious hobbyist – These are the users who are going to buy the S3 and utilize the dynamic range option. At least some of them will use it side by side with something faster, probably Nikon, because of lens compatibility.

Conclusion

**Conclusion **

The FinePix S3 really does offer expanded dynamic range, with beautiful color and excellent noise control. Maybe we should stop right there, because that’s the news. That’s what the competition has to try to match.

The question is whether or not to buy one. Sure, lots of people need more dynamic range and good portrait color, but do they need it for $2500? Do they need it at one frame per second? Do they need it with autofocus that wasn’t top-of-the-line even three years ago?

Actually, yes. The camera will serve a sizable market. Wedding and portrait photographers need to take flattering pictures with rich color even when they can’t control the lighting. This is a very large sect of commercial photographers, compared to other segments of the photographic profession, and they can put up with many of the limitations of the S3. Fuji is wise to go after them.

Professional photographers will have to make their own judgments about whether they’ve been losing money thanks to limited dynamic range, or if more dynamic range will pay back a $2500 bill at the camera store.

For users who don’t have a cost/benefit analysis to run, the question is much more subtle. The FinePix S3 yields much, much better dynamic range than the Nikon D70 or Canon 20D, and better color. It’s not better in any other respect, and it’s inferior in many other regards, so the decision will inevitably come down to personal preference and shooting priorities.

Specs

Specs Table

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