I have to be honest; I’ve never really been much of a fan of so called “bridge” cameras. I was always of the opinion that if you wanted a compact camera you’d buy just that, but if you wanted to take your photography a little more seriously, you’d go for an SLR with interchangeable lenses. I’ve also always had a soft-spot for Fuji which dates back to my discovery of their transparency films when I was at college, but of course we’re digital now, and digital is an entirely different beast. So exactly what does the Fuji S100fs have to offer?
I was given no instruction booklet with the Fuji S100fs compact digital camera, so everything was learnt as I went along. It was, however, supplied with a rather nice black leather shoulder bag which is large enough to hold the camera plus memory cards and a few other small accessories or a mobile phone. And yes, it’s genuine leather; it has the little “Genuine Leather” tag and its smell reminded me of my days spent working part time in a saddlery many years ago.
Removing the camera from its case brought the first surprise – it’s heavy, proper SLR heavy at just over 900g. The Fuji S100fs is also roughly the same size as a digital SLR, which was something of a disappointment. Now, it’s just possible that bridge-cameras in general have become larger since I last picked one up. However, I think it’s far more likely that the smaller size of the latest entry level digital SLRs means that, by comparison, a bridge-camera no longer offers much of a saving in size and weight.
The reason for the weighty feel of the camera is quite clear though; it comes equipped with a whopping great 14.3x optical zoom, covering focal lengths with a 35mm film equivalent of 28mm to 400mm. What’s more, this is a quality lens. Bridge-cameras of yore would oft’ be equipped with long zoom lenses that were so thin and weedy that by the time the lens was fully extended the front element would have drooped by several mm. Not so with this Fuji!
The lens feels strong and sturdy and much like an SLR lens on the front of the camera. Zoom is altered by twisting the barrel and manual focus can be controlled via a smaller ring near the body of the camera. All of this combines to make the lens feel like a proper piece of glass, rather than a button controlled telescopic piece of plastic. In addition, the lens features a 67mm filter thread meaning that a whole range of filters can be fitted on to the front element. This is ideal if you are the type of photographer who likes to protect your glass with a UV filter or make use of a polarising filter, and something that all cameras of this type should offer but too few do.
The camera also has a hot-shoe for attaching an external flash. I’m not entirely sure how useful this would be, as its single contact connection means it doesn’t offer TTL flash metering and I’m not convinced that somebody versed in manual flash metering would purchase this type of camera. Still, it does open up some flash options, and the PC sync socket means this camera can easily be connected to a studio lighting set up, something many entry level digital SLRs do not offer.
Another feature of the Fuji S100fs that is still absent from most digital SLR cameras is the fold out rear screen. At 2½” it’s not the biggest on the market, but plenty big enough. The screen can not be swung left or right, but simply flips up by 90° for low-level and macro shots, or down by approximately 35-40° so the camera can be used held above your head.
The controls are all within easy reach when holding the camera and are where you would expect to find them, with a couple of exceptions. For some reason the IS mode button and the continuous frame option button have been located on the left side of the camera next to the USB, AV and power connections. The AF mode selector is also here, but that makes some sense as it is roughly where you’d expect it to be on an SLR, but as for the others, I can only assume they ran out of room elsewhere!
The camera has a single memory card slot that can take either xD or Secure Digital cards. I, like many people, already have a supply of SD memory, so inserted a WexPro 4GB SDHC card.
A rather neat feature that Fuji has included is the reproduction of the mode control dial on the rear screen. As you turn it to select Auto, Program, Aperture Priority etc, an icon on the right of the screen shows you what’s being selected so you don’t need to take your eyes away from the image.
The camera’s menu is functional but uninspiring, but anybody who’s ever been truly inspired by the menu system of a camera should probably get out more. That said, the first option on the menu is worth mentioning; the Film Simulation mode. The Provia, Velvia, Soft and Portrait modes are essentially, just 4 pre-sets for Dynamic Range, Colour, Tone and Sensitivity, with Provia being the standard setting. However, back in my film days I’d always had a love affair with the punchy colour and tone of Fuji’s Velvia transparency film, so I chose that particular option. I’d be spending the next day on a boat out on the Norfolk Broads, so figured that landscape and wildlife shots would probably be the choix du jour.
So, with the controls familiarised and the battery charged, the camera was tucked back away in its snug leather bed, ready for use the next day.
Messing about on the river
Now, there’s something I just have to put on record. I have a strong aversion to electronic viewfinders. I know they use less power than the screen on the back, but I firmly believe that as far as an actual viewfinder goes, you should either have an optical one, or not bother. Unfortunately the Fuji S100fs has done nothing to sway my opinion on this. Its electronic viewfinder may be better than those found on other cameras, but it’s uncomfortable to use and is all but useless for fast moving subjects or when panning, the flickering image making it difficult to establish exactly what’s in the frame. I shouldn’t be too harsh on the Fuji; as far as electronic viewfinders go it is one of the better ones I’ve used, but I still turned it off in favour of the rear screen and a diminished battery life.
The first few opportunities for testing the Fuji’s performance were generated by accident. The bread being thrown out the back of the boat seemed of far less interest to the passing ducks than it did to the seagulls overhead, which soon began flocking around the rear of the boat to collect the soggy bread pieces from the water. It may have been a little too tough a challenge; many SLRs would struggle under these situations. The weather was overcast, the contrast levels low, and the birds fast moving. That said, the S100FS failed to nail a single shot. I’m afraid to say that the auto-focus was painfully slow and inaccurate. I tried the various focus options: centre, multi and area points plus single and continuous focus, but it would appear that the Fuji is simply not up to this kind of photography.
Now, to be perfectly fair, fast-moving birds in flight would test any camera, but even when attempting to take shots of passing birds on the water, the auto-focus was slow to lock on, although the results were certainly more consistent and acceptable. Clearly then, action shots are not really what this camera is about.
I must confess to being a little disappointed. With a 400mm focal length at its top end, I’d hoped for some cracking wildfowl shots, but I was prepared to put this down to over-expectation on my part rather than under-performance from the Fuji. No longer worried about keeping an eye out for some excellent bird in flight photo opportunity, or having to battle with the camera’s auto focus system, I relaxed a little and simply began to enjoy the trip, rather than worrying about the camera.
Funnily enough, that’s when the camera started to come in to its own.
A grand day out
Rather than treating the boat trip as a camera test, I began to treat the camera as if I was just taking it along with me on a day out. I started by taking a few “snaps” of my fellow crew. It soon became clear that the less I rushed the Fuji, the better it became, with the Velvia film setting making the best out of the dull lighting.
A few abstract shots with the Fuji S100fs also proved its ability to record delicate tonal ranges with accuracy, rarely blowing out the highlights in all but the most contrasty of images.
By the time we “parked” for lunch (yes, I know, it’s moored, but not everybody onboard was getting the hang of the boating lingo) I was beginning to find my flow with the camera.
The pub was one of those typical country pubs, with lots of ancient looking agricultural and nautical brass bits and bobs adorning the walls, and not much in the way of lighting. A lovely place to eat lunch on a Saturday afternoon, even if you have to squint a bit to read the menu. Just as a record of the day, I took a couple of shots of the inside of the pub with the camera resting on its case to allow the slowish shutter-speed. The result is actually not bad at all. Compact cameras, even these larger bridge-type cameras, are usually notoriously noisy at anything approaching a high ISO. The Fuji, however, managed to produce a perfectly acceptable image at ISO 800.
Sure, there is some noise there, lurking in the shadows, but even where it appears it is even and regular and more like the subtle mottling of film grain than the garish digital noise I’ve seen from some cameras.
The relaxed approach with the Fuji S100FS continued on the journey home. The Norfolk broads are a beautiful place to be, and for long stretches we were the only boat on the river. This no doubt had something to do with it being a dull March afternoon, with only a few optimistic day trippers like ourselves and the occasional die-hard fishing enthusiast out on the water. Still, this quiet tranquillity complimented my Zen like method of photography with the Fuji. Rather than actively hunting out photo opportunities, I sat back, enjoyed the scenery and let the opportunities come to me as we floated along.
The Fuji’s ability to record even the subtlest of tones combined with the slightly punchier colours the Velvia film effect creates meant that even the bleak weather and dim lighting conditions didn’t prevent some rather nice images being captured. The solid 28-400mm lens was also proving to be an invaluable asset, enabling the open skied vistas of the broadland scenery to be photographed one moment, then a distant (but stationary) tree top cormorant the next.
The image above was shot with the lens fully extended to 400mm. The tree was still some distance away, as you can tell, but blowing up the image shows that the camera has still recorded a large amount of detail,
This image has been enlarged by 4x. The ISO is 400 so the noise has inevitably started to show, but the level of detail is still pretty impressive. Given a brighter day with better lighting, the Fuji would no doubt have produced an even more impressive image. Alas, as the end of the day moved closer the lighting only deteriorated, but I’d seen enough to know what the Fuji could do.
Hmm, difficult one this. As I said at the outset, I’m not really a fan of bridge cameras and my initial impression of the Fuji was not all sunshine and roses, but let’s look at why you might buy this camera.
If you’ve previously used a point and shoot compact and are now looking to expand your photographic skills, it’s entirely possible that you’ll consider going down the route of a bridge camera. But given the lower prices and smaller sizes of entry level DSLRs these days, is there really any point in compromising with a bridge camera? The short and sweet answer is “Yes”.
For starters, many people are still put off by the “component system” involved in owning an SLR. That is to say, many people just want to spend their money on a camera and know that what they’ve bought will do all they want it to; they’re not interested in having to buy additional lenses or accessories to upgrade the kit they’ve bought in to the kit they want. They’re simply after an all-in-one out-of-the-box solution. The Fuji offers just that.
It has a reasonable built in flash for the odd indoor portrait, a variety of different shooting modes to help the beginner develop, and of course there’s that lens, that large image-stabilised zoom lens covering a decent wide-angle at 28mm right up to an impressive telephoto at 400mm. To achieve the same zoom range with an entry level digital SLR you would require a lens with a focal length of approximately 18-250mm, although it’s far more likely you would end up with 2 lenses: a standard 18-55ish lens plus a telephoto zoom. And of course to truly match the Fuji, these would need to be image stabilised. By now you would have already spent almost double the price of the Fuji, and for what? Well, if you’re investing in a system, then you’ve got the option of buying different lenses and accessories to add to your collection, but as I’ve already mentioned, that isn’t for everybody, and if it’s not for you the Fuji is a far more sensible option.
Granted, the Fuji doesn’t do everything well. The one piece of equipment I’d steal from an SLR in an instant would be an optical viewfinder. I’m prepared to admit that it could just be me, but I really do not like electronic viewfinders. It’s also fair to say that the Fuji doesn’t do everything well. Sport and action photography are simply not its forte. However, if you spent the money the Fuji costs on an SLR and lens, the equipment you’d end up with would be equally unsuitable and would offer far less adaptability.
What the Fuji S100fs does well is to be an all purpose holiday/travel/day out camera. You can take it with you knowing that, thanks to its monster lens, it will be up to the job of capturing most subjects! I’d happily take this camera on one of my jaunts up to the lakes or on a short city break – it’s simply ideal for this.