Fujifilm FinePix S9100|
Impressive digital SLR-style camera with 10.7X optical zoom
(by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer)
The Fuji S9100 is one of those cameras constantly mistaken for a single lens reflex model. It's as big as a SLR and looks like a SLR, but it's not a SLR. It's what could be called a fixed-lens SLR-style camera. The primary difference between a SLR and a non-SLR is that SLRs use a movable mirror that allows the photographer to look through the lens and see exactly what the lens sees and exactly what the camera will capture. Another distinguishing feature is that SLRs have replaceable lenses, thus giving the advanced amateur and professional photographer the ability to select just the optics he or she needs. All this greatly sets them apart from your run-of-the-mill digital camera that comes with whatever lens the manufacturer decided was right and where you see the picture, sort of, on a LCD and sometimes also in an optical viewfinder, though they are becoming rare.
SLR-style cameras like the FinePix S9100 and its predecessors are somewhere in-between. They look like SLRs because they usually include a long-zoom lens, but it's not one you can exchange or replace. You can also see through the lens, but it's via an electronic viewfinder that cannot replace the clarity and resolution of a real mirror. There are definitely some advantages to this approach. SLRs are notorious for collecting dust while lenses are being replaced. That is never an issue with an integrated lens camera.
Another advantage is that SLR-style cameras are generally a lot less expensive than true SLRs. The Fujifilm S9100, for example, comes with an impressive zoom lens that is equivalent to 28-300mm on a 35mm film camera, for a 10.7X optical magnification. Such a lens alone can cost quite a bit if you buy it for a SLR; with the S9100, with a list price of US$599, it's part of the deal.
A look at the S9100's spec sheet reveals some impressive stats. This is a 9-megapixel camera, yielding images with a resolution up to 3,488 x 2,616 pixels. You can record in RAW format and use special RAW software that comes with the camera to make the best of it. You're not limited to the somewhat controversial xD-Picture card (controversial because it is harder to find and usually costs more), but also use a CF card or even a Microdrive. Sensitivity goes all the way up to ISO 1600.
The low-temperature LCD now measures 2.0 inches diagonally and has a resolution of 235k pixels, a good step up from the predecessor F9000 with its 1.8-inch screen with a dinky 118k pixel res. Another nice feature is that the LCD is not fixed. You can swivel it vertically by a full 135 degrees. This means you can fold the LCD out 90 degrees, facing up, and then look down on it while you hold the camera at hip level. Or you can turn it so that it faces down at 45 degrees so you can hold the camera high up and take pictures above the heads of the crowd. You can take VGA movies with full zoom and sound at 30 frames per second.
And a slew of improvements here and there have made the camera speedier and more responsive than its predecessor.
There is also the usual plethora of tech buzzwords. Fuji long ago convinced us of the benefits of its Super CCD HR technology that uses a diagonally mapped, octagonal sensor arrangement where primary and secondary photodiodes operate separately at lower and higher sensitivity on the same area and then combine the output for extra sensitivity and excellent image quality.
There's also the RP "Real Photo" Processor that aims to capture high quality pictures without the need of a tripod or flash by using a set of "intelligent" filters that boost weak signals and thus can use short shutter speeds to eliminate blurriness while also minimizing noise.
Another buzzword is HS-V2 and that refers to the Hyper Utility Software that makes sophisticated editing of the Fuji's above mentioned RAW format images possible. It comes on a CD for both Windows and the Mac OS. The camera also comes with FinePixViewer software for both platforms as well as ImageMixer VCDE LE for the Mac.
A new buzzword, compared to the camera's predecessor, is the i-Flash Intelligent Flash that can recognize conditions and determine best possible flash output. That works very well, but comes at the cost of the subject being scanned and analyzed by a very bright green light pattern. Cats don't seem to mind, but people tend to shy away from it.
A large camera
As stated, the S9100 is not a small or light camera. In fact, it's big and bulky and would be so even without its massive lens. We're talking about 5 x 5 x 3.5 inches even if you leave the aggressive-looking lens shader off. The S9100 also weighs a good 1.4 pounds, and that is without its four AA batteries.
Part of what makes the S9100's body so large is that it uses four standard AA batteries. We like that as AAs are available almost anywhere, and you can use inexpensive NiMH rechargeables. Fuji says that a set of good alkalines should last 120 pictures and a set of 2,500mAH NiMHs 320 pictures. We didn't see quite that much, but then again, we're known to play with settings a lot.
Plenty of controls
In terms of operation, there's a bit of a learning curve. While most consumer digicams seem to have settled on a fairly standard button layout, such is rarely the case with SLRs, and it is not with the S9100 that mimics SLRs in many ways. As a result, just like SLRs tend to, the big Fuji has buttons and controls all over the place:
On the top you find hardware controls for exposure compensation, flash mode selection, and continuous shooting modes; shutter, a power switch that also sets the camera either to recording or playback mode, a large mode dial, and a command dial.
On the backside is a focus check button that greatly enlarges the center of the image so you can focus precisely, the famous Fuji "F" button that selects image quality and sensitivity, one that toggles between the LCD and the electronic view finder, a display/back button a dial that lets you select photometry modes and also surrounds an AE lock button, and finally a 4-way directional navigation ring with a Menu/OK button inside of it. That ring has a bag of tricks up its sleeves, both in recording (push up to switch into 2X digital mode) and in playback mode (sort of unusual arrangement to zoom in and pan around). To the left of the electronic viewfinder sits a diopter adjustment control wheel.
The fun continues on the left side of the camera where you find a macro button (toggles between normal, 4-inch macro and 0.4-inch super-macro), a focus mode selector switch (select from continuous autofocus, single autofocus and manual), the flash pop-up, an information check button (shows current settings and histogram) and the speaker.
What you won't find -- this being a SLR-style camera - is a zoom toggle. Zooming is done the old-fashioned way, by turning a zoom ring by hand. Likewise, a large focus ring adjusts manual focus if that mode is selected.
Hit the books!
If all this sounds like using the big Fuji requires a bit of practice, you'd be right. You can simply set the mode dial on "auto" and autofocus on "single" and then shoot away. You get great pictures that way, but then you'd only use a fraction of this remarkable camera's capabilities.
The mode dial, as mentioned, is large and fairly clearly marked. Auto, P, S, A, M are all self-explanatory (program, shutter-priority, aperture-priority, manual). There are also modes for picture stabilization, natural light, portrait, landscape, night and movie. This follows a recent trend to add the most common "scenes" to the mode dial.
The large "command dial" on the upper right edge of the camera is not marked. It serves, depending on what button you hold down, to select exposure compensation, flash modes, and continuous shooting modes.
All of those many modes and functions can be monitored on either the LCD or on the electronic viewfinder, over 20 in all.
Unlike some "serious" cameras, the S9100 offers a number of useful and entertaining tricks. A multi-exposure function lets you superimpose as many pictures as you ant onto a single frame. Auto-exposure bracketing captures the same image in three exposure increments. You can record voice menus.
Fortunately, the S9100's 157-page manual is excellent both in content as in explaining everything clearly and in some detail. It is among the best we've seen.
A minor annoyance
Every camera has its annoying angle, or at least things that you need to get used to and never quite seem to be able to. With the Fuji S9100, for me it was the way you zoom and pan in playback mode. To zoom in and out you push the navigation ring up and down. To pan, you press either left or right, and that gets you into 4-way panning mode. If you want to zoom again, you first need to press the Disp/Back button to get back into zoom mode, and so on. Not the best-ever solution, but Fuji had to come up with some work-around since there is no conventional zoom toggle.
The Fuji 9100 in daily use
In daily use, the Fujifilm, S9100 packs considerable firepower. The 28-300 mm lens handles everything from interesting wide-angle shots to "normal" shots all the way to getting upfront and personal. The 2X digital magnification actually works very well, much better than we expected, and it does so even without using the special anti-shake mode. We easily managed to get razor-sharp full-zoom snaps without a tripod. What's really amazing is the super-macro mode that lets you get as close as a fraction of an inch. That means you can get so close you at times touch the subject! The lens is superb for one found in such a comparatively inexpensive camera, providing wonderful detail. When you take VGA movies, you can use the entire zoom range of the camera, greatly enhancing its utility.
There's a bit of confusion in the naming of the camera. Even on Fuji's website the camera is listed as the S9600, an upgrade to the S9500. In the US it is called the S9100, a minor but much welcome and useful upgrade over the earlier S9000. The new model has the same resolution and same zoom, but a larger and much higher resolution LCD, is quicker thanks to software optimization, uses the i-Flash intelligent flash system, and the price has come down to boot. You can find the S9100 for well under USS$500.
Digital SLRs have come down in price a lot and are becoming serious competition to the Fuji S-class cameras. And even some of those new and impossibly slim point & shooters now come with 5X optical zooms and impressive image quality. But there remains room for a camera like the Fujifilm FinePix S9100. To those seeking more than just a snapshot camera, much more, the S9100 offers an awful lot for not that much money.
Not so much:
- Superb 9.0 megapixel Super CCD HR makes for excellent image quality
- Excellent 28-300 mm provides wide angle to big zoom
- Uses standard AA batteries
- Awesome macro performance
- Very quick
- VGA video with sound and full zoom
- LCD rotates 135 degrees for above and below shots
- Fixed lens system eliminates SLR "dust problem"
- Supports RAW format and comes with RAW utility
- 10.7X optical zoom no longer seems that much
- Flash should pop up automatically when needed
- Scattered controls and buttons require learning curve
- 2-inch LCD still small and electronic viewfinder a bit grainy
- Digital, but no optical image stabilization