So far my camera reviews have concentrated on the camera manufacturers that I know well – Canon and Pentax. This time however Wex Photographic decided to throw me in at the deep end and enter uncharted waters by reviewing the brand new Fuji Finepix S2 PRO. This is their much awaited flagship D-SLR and as an unfamiliar “new user” I would look on it with a fresh pair of eyes, albeit still as a cynical pro!
Owing to the press demand for the S2 PRO I was only allowed it in my grubby hands for three days, hence I faced a steep learning curve. This was made more acute by the absence of a manual for the first two, the fact that I managed to set up and use the camera within fine minutes without the manual is a testament to the cameras ease of use. A quick chat with Colin at Fuji set me straight about the CDD RAW settings that I had read so much about (see later), so within a few minutes I was set up and ready to go. At the end of the day all top end D-SLRs have the same features so being without a manual was far lot less drama than a Friday night episode of Eastenders.
To review the camera I decided that the best test was to use it on a real shoot, where the pictures really counted. There is no point going out into the garden to shoot macro shots, or pictures of the local church, as they would not be a true test of the camera capabilities. So for two of the three days, in the worst weather you could want, I tested the S2 PRO on my local country estate, filming roe deer, hares and poppies. For the final day I had a PR shoot with otters arranged at the British Wildlife Centre for a magazine spread, so that again would be another hard test.
My initial impression handling the S2 PRO was of a well balanced camera, not too light and feeling good to hold. This is hardly surprising as the S2 PRO is based on the Nikon F80 body which is a much better choice than the S2’s predecessor, the S1. Just for your information the main competitor to the S2 PRO, Nikon’s D100, is also based on the F80 body. Clearly Nikon have supplied the photographic side to this camera (exposure, autofocus etc) whilst Fuji have implanted the digital expertise.
The only lens that I could manage to borrow for the test was an AF-S Nikkor 500mm F4. The S2 PRO is fully compatible with all D type AF Nikkor lenses, and with all non D-Type AF Nikkor lenses provided you don’t want 3D matrix metering. It is also compatible with older non-CPU lenses but restricts the user to manual exposure mode, which is not so much of a pain with a digital camera as with a film camera.
My otter shoot really tested the autofocus capabilities (and my patience ) to the limit. Otters rarely hang around for you long enough to take a second shot, but I managed to get some really good shots of them. The autofocus capabilities were exactly as I had expected, very quick and accurate on the central point and a little ropey on any of the surrounding four. The lens tended to track a lot when any point apart from the centre one was used, and in the end I had to resort to using the central point to lock the focus onto the subject and then recomposing the shot. I tried the AF-C continuous autofocus mode but had little luck, I think that it probably works OK but as I am used to Canon autofocus I expect a lot more. I also found the autofocus mode selector dial to be in the most difficult place to access, right against the lens barrel on the front of the camera. To be fair I should point out that these functions are inherited from the Nikon side of the camera, hence they will be present on the D100 too. One autofocus option that has been added by Fuji is the Autofocus Area, which is controlled by a function button on the rear LCD. When dealing with moving subjects the autofocus point that you have selected (usually the centre) may not always be the closest to the subject, which can cause tracking problems. At the press of a button you can select the Dynamic AF option which will allow the S2 PRO to change the focussing point according to where the subject is in the frame. I did not have time to test this feature so could not ascertain whether selecting Dynamic AF automatically switched the camera into Continuous AF mode (without which it would be pointless anyway).
One big plus for the S2 PRO was the motordrive, which advanced very quietly and without much vibration to 2 fps. Silence is not a feature of many cameras today and it is refreshing to see one that is quiet enough to be used even in the most sensitive situations. Of course 2fps might be slightly slow for some applications, i.e. sports, but it is par for the course for most digital cameras (the Canon EOS 1D being the exception).
My biggest complaint about most digital cameras is the time it takes to write the pictures from the buffer to the drive, and the fact that the camera locks you out whilst it is happening. I am very pleased to say that this has been well addressed by Fuji, with a lot of thought obviously going into the solution. I tested this by firing a continuous burst of 7 shots at an unsuspecting roe deer that was lurking close to my car. The deer, becoming aware of my presence, raised its head up and stared straight down my lens. Normally I would be swearing and banging the camera in frustration as it would have locked me out whilst writing the precious pictures to the drive. Strike one for Fuji, the S2 PRO allowed me to take more shots whilst it was still writing to the drive, thus capturing me the lovely deer in poppies shot that you can see here. In fact very rarely over the three days did I miss any shots due to this “lock out” problem. Digging a little deeper, I found out that the S2 PRO uses a dual buffer system that allows more data to be written to the buffer whilst it is chucking the rest onto the drive. Clever trevor. Of course there is a limit and the S2 PRO’s max burst size is 7 frames (TIF), which is quite respectable, and in all but the most taxing situations, quite enough.
Being familiar with two other camera systems I expected to be all fingers and thumbs when trying to work the camera’s controls. In truth, apart from the AF selector switch mentioned above, most of the controls were very well placed. The exposure mode dial on the top left of the camera contains options for Programmed Auto, Shutter Priority, Aperture priority, Manual, Custom Settings and ISO setting. Underneath this dial is the control switch for the release mode – single frame, continuous, self timer and multi-exposure are represented there. The only other controls of note on the top are the exposure / flash compensation buttons, which are well sited next to the shutter button.
There are three LCD displays, one on the top as usual and two located on the back of the camera. To be honest I found that top LCD panel to be of limited use, as Fuji has moved most of the functionality onto the rear display systems. This is particularly smart thinking, when I am shooting the last thing I want to do is tilt the camera up to read from the top panel.
The rear of the camera is clearly the Fuji end of things, and a lot of thought has been put into ease of use. The smaller of the two displays has several pages of options that are used to control both shooting and playback via a series of neat little function buttons. When in shooting mode the default display shows ISO setting, battery level, date / time and the number of frames remaining on the card. Pressing the FUNC button changes the display to White Balance, AF Area, Image Size and Image Quality, pressing it again displays options for Colour (including a Black & White setting), Tone and Sharpening level. All these functions have their own button, thus removing the need to scroll down time consuming menus. Although to be honest you would not change most of these settings, it is nice to have the option to do so and the ease with which to do it. When an image is played back, the functions change completely, with the default page allowing you to view the histogram for the image, delete it, protect it or change the number of images displayed on the screen.
The larger of the two displays is a 1.8” 110,000 pixel TFT colour panel, which is used both to display the menu and for reviewing images. I’ll discuss the menu options below, for now let’s concentrate on the image display side. I quickly found to my cost that the image display is no guide to exposure. Early one morning I managed to edge up next to a hare who was fast asleep. Slowly I wrestled the 500mm lens onto the beanbag, locked the focus and took my first exposures of Mr Sleepy. Being used to the EOS 1D’s hunger for light, I deliberately compensated the exposure by –1 stop (forgetting that I had a Nikon meter). I quickly checked the LCD screen, it showed the images were well exposed so I decided to leave him to his slumbers and moved slowly off. Something nagged at my brain, difficult before 6am in the morning, and I realised that I had forgotten the first rule of digital SLRs – never trust the LCD! I pressed the PLAY button to bring the image onto the screen, then used the corresponding FUNC button to show me the histogram. The graph had its peak to the left, the images were all too dark. Quickly I swung my vehicle round and edged back to where the hare was still sleeping away. This time I reset the meter to 0 compensation, took several test exposures, checked the histogram each time, and recorded images that looked far too bright on the LCD. I know from experience however that the histogram is always right, and in this case it was spot on. I guess that I cannot really blame Fuji for this as most D-SLR LCD’s give the wrong impression, but I thought it important to mention it before you all fall into this trap. In the excellent manual for the S2 PRO it does actually mention that you should always view the histogram, and even has diagrams to show you how to interpret what you see in terms of exposure. Shame I cannot read.
The one feature that I really, really, really love about the LCD was the Image ZOOM and PAN facility. It is so important when shooting that I can check the focus point of my images, as even a few inches off can make a huge difference to the impact of the shot. Fuji’s system is really smart, after pressing PLAY to get the image displayed, I could simply use the 4-position switch to zoom in to the image. More than this I can also PAN around the image to zoom into a specific location. A great feature and well thought out, I wish that the Canon 1D had this facility.
Flexibility – The Menu System
The S2 PRO has a very simple menu system that is activated by the MENU button on the rear of the camera. Most options are fairly standard and obvious, I have picked the three most useful to expand upon below:
1) Image Display – this controls how the image is displayed after a shot has been taken. The options are:
- OFF – the image is recorded straight away without display
- POSTVIEW – the image is displayed for 2 seconds then recorded
- PREVIEW – the image is displayed and you then have the option to store it or delete it
- PREVIEW + HISTOGRAM – as above but a histogram is displayed too.
Looking at these in reverse, PREVIEW is clearly for the studio / location photographer who photographs immobile objects and has the time to do this. Having the histogram option is a nice touch as it will be vital in determining exposure, which in turn will dictate whether you keep the shot. Both ZOOM and PAN work in PREVIEW mode too. POSTVIEW is not really that useful as the image is on and off the screen for such a short time that you cannot really make a decision, especially as Fuji have omitted a HISTOGRAM for this option. Note also that displaying each image in POSTVIEW mode will use up valuable battery power and may cause a longer buffer wait. I always select the OFF option as I think that in my situation it is best to concentrate on getting the shots. In quiet moment I can then PLAY the images, check their histograms using the FUNC button and delete as appropriate. It is far too easy to make a rash decision in the heat of the moment and delete something good, remember the no1 rule – never trust the LCD!
2) Custom White Balance – the camera comes complete with the usual pre set white balances of sun, shade, auto, tungsten etc. Sometimes however it is desirable to set ones own custom white balance, for example when working indoors. The S2 PRO allows you to do this, and when I tested it I found it simple and easy to use. More importantly I found the results to be very accurate.
3) Media – the S2 PRO has two media slots built into the rear of the body, one for SmartMedia cards and one for CompactFlash / IBM Microdrives. The card in use must be specified by setting this option. It is a good idea to support both types of card, but a more practical usage might have been to use the dual slot to house two CompactFlash / Microdrives side by side.
The Nikon side of the camera provides three different metering systems – 10 segment matrix, centre-weighted and spot. After my experience with the sleeping hare I learnt to always trust the matrix metering and rarely compensated the meter from 0. Perhaps the only real difficulty the meter encountered was the reflective nature of an otters fur, a quick compensation corrected for this with no real stress. The one big negative for the S2 PRO (which I suspect comes from the F80) is that the exposure compensation is measured in ½ stop increments not 1/3rd . If this were a film camera then this would create major problems when dealing with the tolerance of slide film, but of course we are in the digital world where post corrective surgery is the norm. So it is not really a major issue but I would like to have seen 1/3rd stop increments as I am a firm believer than the less manipulation you need to carry out on an image the better.
The Final Image
As I always say, the quality of the image is the bottom line. The S2 PRO uses Fuji’s own 6.1 MP sensor, which utilises their much discussed SuperCCD technology. You can read pages about this technology on their website and I am not going to re-invent the wheel here. Suffice it to say that Fuji claim this honeycomb layout gives a larger photodiode per pixel, which should result in a better quality image. Perhaps an important point is that they manufacture their own sensors, so they can design it specifically for use in a digital SLR, rather than adapting a general sensor.
The sensor can generate pixel sizes of 4256 x 2848, 3024 x 2016, 2304 x 1536 and 1440 x 960 pixels respectively. It can do so either as a CCD-RAW, RGB-TIF or EXIF-JPEG file. Both of these are set via the FUNC buttons of the rear display panel, and also from the MENU option. The 4256 x 2848 setting (12.1 MP) is perhaps a little misleading as the maximum size of image that the 6.1mp sensor can produce is 3024 x 2016. Confused, well simply put, the 4256 x 2848 is a much larger image than the sensor should be able to produce, so how does it do it? Simple, it uses our old friend -interpolation. The 3024 x 2016 MP image is interpolated (expanded is another word for it) up to the much larger size. Is this cheating or dodgy? No, not at all, as interpolation has been around for years. All professional photographers that I know interpolate their images up to the size that their clients require, it is standard industry practise. So Fuji are merely doing exactly the same and giving you the photographer the option of whether to do it or not. Personally I would rather be in total control of this interpolation, so I always generated 3024 x 2016 pixel files from the S2 PRO.
OK, so that is the size sorted out, what is a CCD-RAW file and why should you use it instead of an RGB-TIF? Simply speaking it is the raw image data before any in-camera processing takes place. No sharpening, no toning, nothing. It is primarily used so that fine adjustments can be made before processing the image, thus preserving the final quality. A TIF image undergoes some conversion within the camera (from the RAW image) therefore some slight image quality can be lost as any corrections are made AFTER conversion. The CCD-RAW images are also smaller, being 12.4 MB compared with 35.5 MB (at the HIGH setting), so you get more on the media card. Over my three day test I shot both CCD-RAW and RGB-TIF images. To be honest I could see little difference between them, but I chose CCD-RAW for the post processing flexibility. For most users the RGB-TIF will be the preferred choice as this can be loaded straight into Photoshop and adjusted to your hearts content. Of course there is one major downside of using CCD-RAW - you need to purchase extra software to process the images (see below).
So, what did I think of the final images? The 6.1 MP image (3024 x 2016) was razor sharp, with good crisp detail to 100% and beyond. Expanded up to 12 MP also retained the quality although the 6.1MP image looked sharper on screen. The close ups of the hare showed really fine detail (I could even see the legs of the tick attached to his eye!). Colours were well reproduced, at first I thought my poppies were a little red until we received the same results on the Canon D60. Prints at A4 were superb, with no banding or any trace of pixelation, good detail in the lowlights too. Admittedly I only shot at ISO 100 and 200 so could not judge whether the internal progressive noise reduction system worked at higher ISO settings. According to a couple of independent technical reviewers that I respect the system works, so who am I to argue! In short the S2 PRO produces a lovely image.
The default software that is shipped with the S2 PRO is FinePix 3.1. Reading my other reviews you will no doubt be aware of my views on this kind of software but I am pleased to say that the Fuji offering was better than most. In appearance it is much the same as the Canon Twain browser or BreezeBrowser, and offers the same thumbnail manipulation and conversions. The S2 PRO offers both IEEE 1394 firewire or USB connectivity to suit whichever PC / MAC system you have.
If you want to utilise CCD-RAW images you will need to purchase Fuji’s Hyper Utility software. This has two main components, the CCD-RAW converter (driven from the standard FinePix viewer) and the Camera Shooting Software (for PC / MAC controlled image capture / studio work that kind of thing). The CCD-RAW converter takes the RAW image from the camera and allows you to make subtle changes to it before conversion, such as changing the white balances or adjusting the tone curve / sharpness. It also allows you to tag an ICC profile to the image, either Adobe 1998 or Fuji sRGB, which is vital for further PC processing. To be honest the Hyper Utility Software pack is a little over priced for what it gives as most users will not want the fine control that CCD-RAW gives.
The S2 PRO uses two different battery sizes – 4 x AA and 2 x CR123a. The former is used to power the digital side of the camera, the latter for the photographic. Choosing AA batteries instead of a NiMH rechargeable pack is a major plus point for the camera. Wherever you go in the country, or the world, you will always be able to get AA batteries and will never be caught out. With a rechargeable pack you are reliant on getting power to the charger, something that may not always be possible. By the way I shot continuously for three days and did not change the batteries once.
I have really enjoyed delving into the Nikon world and testing the S2 PRO. I was extremely impressed with it’s ease of use, attention to detail and great image quality. It is not the first time I have used a Nikon lens, the first was evaluating the D1x, but it is the first positive experience that I have had of one. I think that Fuji have really got it right with the S2 PRO and if you are the owner of a Nikon lens system then you now have a great choice between two manufacturers. Fuji have most definitely come of age with the S2 PRO and know they have a winner on their hands.