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Fuji S2 Pro — A Field Report

Fujifilm's Second Generation DSLR

This hands-on field report on the Fuji S2 Pro was done during the same two week period as the Canon EOS 10D, and therefore I will be drawing some comparisons between these two cameras. Though one uses Nikon mount lenses and the other Canon's, both cameras are aimed at a similar segment of the market and therefore such a comparison is valid and will be interest to someone without an existing commitment to either lens mount. I will also be drawing some comparisons with the Kodak DCS 14n because it to is based on the same Nikon body and components as the Fuji S2.

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A First Hand Examination

Nikon and Canon dominate the pro and prosumer DSLR market. Each now has a range of cameras from entry level to high end. But while Canon lens owners are limited only to cameras from that company, Nikon lens owners have two additional choices — Kodak and Fuji. Kodak has made a line of professional DSLRs based on Nikon bodies for some years, but starting with the S1 Pro a couple of years ago Fuji entered the game as well.

Like the Kodak 14n, the Fuji S2 is based on the Nikon N80 body. And since this is the case it's worth drawing some comparisons as to how these two companies have approached integrating their digital systems with Nikon's camera guts.

While both cameras add bulk with their digital additions Fuji's is sleeker and physically better integrated. As I mentioned in my Kodak 14N review the digital component addition bulges out significantly toward the back and thus prevents the user from being able to comfortably get his eye up to the viewfinder. I found that I had to mash my nose against the LCD and usually managed to press the Menu button with it, turning the LCD on at inopportune moments.

The S2 Pro doesn't have this problem. The rubber eye cup isn't quite flush with the protruding digital back, but doesn't present a problem. The view through the viewfinder is par for the course for consumer camera bodied digital SLR's. The image frame is smaller than from a film camera (due of course to the 1.5X reduction factor). It also appears slightly dimmer and further away than the view through the Canon 10D, though the difference isn't huge.

Because it is based on the same N80 Nikon body as the Kodak 14n the S2 also sets the ISO via a position on the top left mode knob. The problem with this method is that it is possible to accidentally leave the knob in that position and then not be able to take a photograph, with no indication why not.

Fuji S2 Pro with Nikon 35-70mm f/2.8 D lens at ISO 160

A word or two on cosmetics and ergonomics. The right hand side of the S2 Pro is nicely contoured and fits the hand quite well. But the finish is of smooth plastic and is slippery. The Canon 10D, for example, has a rubberized grip, front and back, and consequently has a more secure holding surface.

I was also a bit disconcerted to see a large number of exposed screw heads on the camera. Eighteen by actual count. The Canon 10D, for example, has eight, The Canon 1Ds has just six. I don't want to ascribe any greater merit to this than necessary, one way or the other, but it does say something to me about the integrity of design. And, not to put too fine a point on it, but the Canon 10D is a much more compact camera, in large measure I'm sure because it is an original DSLR design rather than being based on a film camera body with digital components added on. Of course if you add the accessory vertical battery grip to the 10D the size differential is reversed, and in either event the Fuji is the lighter camera.

The information LCD on the rear panel of the S2 Pro is backlit, with a bright orange glow that looks a bit like the instrument lighting on a BMW, while the top panel LCD is illuminated in green. This highlights the dual manufacturer nature of the camera — top and front from Nikon, digital rear panel from Fuji. I was somewhat disconcerted though to note that the illumination of this panel doesn't turn off when the camera is put into shooting mode by touching the shutter release. The main colour LCD does, but not the orange information screen. In anything other than very bright light levels I found this to be a distraction as it is located just beneath ones field of view. (There is a menu choice available for disabling this, though it took a while to find).

Surprisingly there is no vertical shutter release on the S2 Pro, and the position where one would normally be located is taken by the holder space for the two CR-123A lithium batteries used to power the flash and autofocus. The Kodak 14n has a vertical release in this spot on their design, though it is poorly positioned and difficult to reach.

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Batteries / Multiple Exposures

Battery power on the S2 Pro is provided by both 4 AA cells in a removable tray in the base and also 2 CR-123A batteries. These two lithium batteries primarily power the built-in pop-up flash, and also the camera's autofocus. The AA batteries power the rest of the camera and, in a pinch, can also power the autofocus if the lithiums run down, but not the built-in flash.

Some observers have commented negatively about the need for two separate power sources. I don't see it that way. In fact I see the use of readily available disposable AA batteries as a real plus. This is the only DSLR currently on the market that uses them instead of proprietary rechargeable batteries. (The Pentax *ist D, due in late summer 2003, will also use 4 AA batteries). The plusses in this are significant. Firstly, anyone shooting away from AC power for any length of time will appreciate the freedom from the need to recharge. And, for those that like the economy of recharging they can purchase a couple of sets of rechargeable AA batteries along with a charger for a lot less than most other manufacturer's proprietary solutions. Kudos to Fuji for taking this approach. And if you anticipate shooting a lot of pictures with the built-in flash simply load up with the necessary batteries. No big deal.

One other area where the S2 Pro is unique among DSLRs is that it can take in-camera multiple exposures. The rear LCD shows the stacked images as they are taken, and one can accept or reject each new frame as it's taken. Nicely done Fuji! I don't know why Nikon and Canon don't offer this capability.

Because the S2 Pro, like the Kodak 14n, is based on the Nikon N80 body, it does not have mirror lock-up capability. Whether or not this is an issue for any particular photographer will depend on the type of shooting one does. I use mirror lock-up extensively when doing landscape work , either with long lenses or at slow shutter speeds and always with both together. Most photographers do. You may find this most problematic at slow to intermediate shutter speeds, from about 1 second to 1/30 sec.

One anomaly that I noted is that when the camera falls into battery saving stand-by mode only pressing the shutter release will turn the camera back on. On the Nikon D100, for example, pressing any other button will also bring the camera back to life. But the Canon 10D similarly will only wake up with a shutter press.

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We've Got Features

The Fuji S2 Pro is a feature rich camera and I can't explore them all here. If you want to understand every nut and bolt you may wish to read on of Phil Askey's comprehensive review. Two that are worth noting are that in addition to CompartFlash cards (Type 1 and Type II, including Microdrives) the S2 can simultaneously accept a SmartMedia card. The user can select which of the two cards is written to.

Usually found only in higher-end DSRLs, (and curiously some digicams) the S2 has audio note recording capability when a file is being reviewed. I find this to be very useful for making memos about a particular shooting situation. Another pro level features is that the camera can connect to a computer via IEEE 1394 (Firewire) as well as the much slower USB 1. Both the high speed and dual connection capability will be appreciated by many users. Neither of these capabilities is available on the competitive, but less expensive Canon 10D. On the negative side, and unlike the Canon 10D, settings and exposure compensation are only possible in 1/2 stop increments rather than 1/3 stops. I find this to be simply too coarse a gradation for serious work.

The rear panel LCD is a mixed bag. It is very bight. Bright enough to give a good reproduction in bright daylight. But curiously, highlight areas can appear burned out, when they're not. Displaying the onscreen histogram will sometimes be necessary to satisfy yourself that the exposure is appropriate. Speaking of which (the histogram), it is able to separately display all three channels. Nice. But, I noted that the histogram is small and can be difficult to see.

Like with all digital cameras becoming familiar with the menu structure and functions takes a while, and if it's different from what one is used to, can seem awkward. That aside, I was concerned at what I regard as an inappropriate placement of the "delete" function. It is accessed by putting the camera in Play mode and then pressing Menu. So far so good, and similar to most other cameras. But, it's the first item that appears in Menu mode and the highlighted selection is Erase All Frames. The default selection is then Cancel (fortunately) but then one has to press the 4-way selector button in a downward direction to move pointer upward to highlight OK, if this is indeed what you want to do. Neither very safe, nor intuitive.

I do like the standard position of the camera turn-on switch, surrounding the shutter release button — as on all Nikon-based cameras. This is easy to access and intuitive. Much better than Canon's rear switch.

Fuji S2 Pro with Nikon 35-70mm f/2.8 D lens at ISO 160

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Image Quality

I am not in a position to provide a comprehensive report on the S2 Pro's image quality. But I used the camera at all ISO settings and found uniformly excellent results, though I didn't have enough time to run exhaustive tests. With what I did shoot, and critical examination on-screen and on prints up to 11 X 17" (A3) I was very pleased, and wouldn't hesitate to use the Fuji for exacting applications at all ISO settings, either in terms of colour rendition or resolution.

What I see from the S2 are lovely, clean images that up to ISO 400 are comparable to those from the Canon 10D, but at higher ISOs and very long exposure times the newer Canon has a slight the edge because of lower noise.

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Software

The S2 Pro comes with the usual assortment of image processing and handling software. One disappointment noted was that the standard RAW file conversion software will only handle 8 bit files. One has to pay some serious $$ for Fuji's Hyper-Utility Software to be able to convert RAW files in 16 bit mode. My recommendation is to forget either version of Fuji conversion software and simply pick up a copy of Adobe's Camera RAW Photoshop plug-in. (Regrettably, Phase One's excellent Capture One LE software does not support Fuji DSLRs at this time).

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Price

Since the introduction of Canon's 10D in early spring 2003, with a street price of under $1,500, the DSLR price landscape has been in a state of rapid flux. As this is being written street prices for both the Nikon D100 and Fuji S2 have dropped, and now the Nikon is just $100-$200 more than the Canon and the Fuji just another $100 or so more than the Nikon. As I have written elsewhere on these pages, I fully expect the Canon 10D to retail in the U.S. by mail order for under $1,000 by late 2003, and Nikon and Fuji will be forced to follow suit.

Fuji S2 Pro with Nikon 35-70mm f/2.8 D lens at ISO 160

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Conclusion

There's a lot to like about the Fuji S2 Pro. Image quality is at the top of the list. It takes a back seat to no other DSLR in its price range. I also liked the fact that the camera takes AA batteries, and appears to get a lot of life from them. The ability to do multiple exposures is unique to the S2 and much appreciated. The relatively light weight of the camera is also a plus. Firewire connectivity in a camera in this price range is also not seen anywhere else. Fuji is to be commeded for this.

On the negative side of the balance sheet is the fact that the camera's body is based on Nikon's F80/N80 mid-range consumer film camera. This adaptation, though better done by Fuji than by Kodak with their 14n, still leaves things to be desired. Things like autofocus and metering are competitive with the Canon 10D, but the Canon has raised the bar a notch when it comes to build quality and ergonomics. Nikon and Fuji are going to have to come up with a similar upgrade to remain competitive in this area.

All in all anyone who currently owns Nikon mount lenses and who is looking to make the move to a 6MP digital SLR will be well served by looking at the Fuji S2 Pro.


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Tags: camera, S2 Pro, Canon 10D, Nikon, Fuji S2, Fuji S2 Pro, AA batteries, Kodak, shutter release, digital, film camera, Nikon N80 body, Nikon mount lenses, rear panel, Nikon body, Nikon D100, mode, DSLR, image, digital additions fuji, Canon EOS 10D, Nikon lens owners, lithium batteries, Fuji conversion software, digital components, feature rich camera, shutter speeds, film camera body, Canon lens owners, panel lcd, Fuji DSLRs, multiple exposures, digital slr, built-in flash, Camera RAW Photoshop, camera turn-on switch, Nikon bodies, mirror lock-up, camera guts, menu