|Fujifilm Finepix S2 Pro
by Vivid Light Staff
Photographers tend to be a bit religious about brand loyalty. As I wrote that sentence I realized it was kind of like saying there might be a small political problem in the Middle East. It's a bit of an understatement.
That's precisely what makes digital SLRs from folks like Kodak and Fujifilm so interesting - they don't come from an established camp. But it also makes them a bit of a mystery to a lot of photographers. You can go down to your local camera shop and you're virtually assured of finding D100s and 10Ds sitting on the shelf. That's not the case with an S2. So what is this strange animal and should it be on your short list if you're looking for a new digital SLR?
A Foot in One Camp
Invariably there is a temptation to compare the S2 to another camera based on an N80 platform - the D100. Pick the two cameras up and the similarities are obvious. They have a similar weight and feel, though the D100 is slightly smaller and lighter than the S2. And the similarities don't stop there.
Under the skin both cameras use Nikon's proven matrix metering and offer both center weighted and spot metering options. They also share the same Nikon Multi-CAM900 autofocus system with a choice of five focus points controlled via a rocker switch on the camera back.
Both cameras share the same shutter with available shutter speeds from 1/4000th of a second to 30 seconds and a bulb setting. One thing we did find to gripe about is the fact that exposure compensation on the S2 is in half stop increments rather than the half or third stop increments available on the D100.
So you may be wondering if they are essentially the same camera? The answer is not even close.
The most obvious difference is in the way the two cameras handle and in how the photographer changes the camera's settings (more on that below). But there are differences below the skin as well. These cameras use two very different technologies to capture the image. The D100 using a 6.3 megapixel CCD and the S2 using a third generation Fujifilm 6.2 megapixel Super CCD. Fujifilm makes some technical claims about the superiority of the Super CCD but in reality the images captured by these two cameras are amazingly close in quality. You would be hard pressed to look at 8x10 prints from both and tell which came from which camera. The Super CCD also gives you the option of producing 12 megapixel images (through interpolation). That fact may explain whey the S2 has developed such a following among wedding photographers.
A more serious concern for us is the fact that the S2 uses a two battery system to the D100's single battery. Experience has taught us to be a bit leery of two battery systems. They add weight to the camera and to your camera bag because you're carrying two sets of spares. Though battery life wasn't a problem with the S2 we tested we can virtually guarantee that at some point one of those sets of batteries will die and you won't have a replacement handy. The S2 uses two CD123A batteries and four AA batteries to the long lasting rechargeable lithium ion battery that is supplied with the D100. The top deck display is right off the N80 and its battery indicator displays the status of the two CR123A's. There is a separate battery indicator on the camera back for the AA batteries.
The flash system is pure Nikon. The S2 uses the Matrix Balanced Fill Flash system, which has proven itself accurate and trouble free over many years of service. An autofocus assist lamp is included on the right side of the camera as an aid to focus in low light conditions and flash sync is at 1/125th. The pop-up on camera flash does an admirable job of fill flash duty and is fully integrated with the camera's matrix balanced TTL flash system. We were glad to see a PC-sync terminal included on the S2 - a feature that is noticeably missing from the D100. Front and rear curtain sync modes are available with red-eye reduction and the S2 is compatible with all current Nikon flash units.
In the Field
Back in 2001 (the S2 debuted just before PMA 2002) when the S2 was being designed Fuji made the decision to base the camera's user interface on its predecessor the S1. That decision made sense in light of the fact that Fuji had an installed base of S1 users who were likely to upgrade to the S2 when it became available. The problem today is that the user interface that originally appeared on the S1 circa 2000 feels long in the tooth today. It's not that the S2 is impossible to use. Once mastered, the idea of using a series of buttons above the LCD to access digital functions versus a menu system makes sense. But there is a learning curve to figure out what each of those buttons does, and that means keeping the manual handy until you get there. Newer cameras like the D100 and Canon 10D are of a later generation and make good use of their menus and controls. The result is they are a bit easier to learn and are more intuitive for new users.
We worry about dual battery systems but in use the S2 seems relatively easy on its batteries. We were puzzled by the fact that autofocus speeds felt a bit faster on the D100 with the 80-400VR since both cameras use the same autofocus system. Write speeds on the S2 were fast - a result of Fujifilm's parallel buffer system, which ensures that any image data in the buffer is being written out to the memory card regardless of what the camera is doing. That buffer will hold up to a seven frame burst when shooting in continuous mode; and eighth frame will be squeezed into the frame buffer due to the S2's parallel buffer system. While you're shooting the camera is writing from the buffer to the card. So by the time you record the seventh frame room has been cleared out for an eighth frame. But the S2's maximum frame rate of two frames per second will be a limiting factor for sports and action shooters.
But the bottom line to all this is the quality of the images from the S2. We're happy to say you won't be disappointed. Image quality was excellent. The Super CCD can produce either a 6.2 megapixel image or an interpolated 12 megapixel image! The color, tonal quality and sharpness of those images were excellent as well.
But then things got interesting when we compared images made with the D100 and the S2. Back in Issue #25 we compared the D100 and the SD-9 from Sigma. As part of that test we shot reference slides using Fujifilm's Provia 100 and compared the color of those slides with the results from the two cameras. We found the D100 to be extremely accurate when compared to the reference slides. Now comparing the D100 and S2 we were surprised at the subtle differences between the two. The blues and greens in the S2 images appeared more saturated and the overall tone of the S2 images was slightly warmer. That yielded more pleasing skin tones.
Now we find ourselves having the argument that was once reserved for film. What is the better choice: color accuracy or more pleasing color?
In the film world you can choose film that will accurately render colors. You can choose a film like Ektachrome 100S which is a bit warmer and more saturated or a film like Fujifilm's own Velvia which is very saturated. Images from the S2 had a bit of a Velvia look to them. Whether that's good or bad is up to you. But sales of Velvia and Kodak's Ektachrome 100VS would indicate that it's a popular choice.
But remember this is digital not film. That means you can tailor the look of your images to your own taste right in the camera. If you don't want the more saturated look in your S2 images simply adjust it in-camera. If you have a D100 and want a bit more of a Velvia look you can adjust that in-camera too. For more on this check out Putting Film in Your Digital Camera.
Finally a short comment on the S2 software. We usually don't delve too deeply here. Everyone has their own workflow and photographers are all over the board about using manufacturer software vs. third party packages. That said the S2 software felt pretty sparse compared to what we've come to expect from the software shipped with digital SLRs so you'll find much of your workflow taking place in Photoshop rather than in the camera's software.
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