Apr 10 2005

Fuji S3 Pro review – the strengths and weaknesses of a pretty amazing camera

Fuji S3 Pro, also known as Fujifilm Finepix S3 Pro is currently one of the most controversial DSLRs on the market. A Fuji S3 Pro review is not an easy task for anyone because of the inherent complexity of the camera. Depending on the settings used, it can be considered as at least two cameras into one body and this review will show you why, and how it performs in different situations.

This is going to be a rather comprehensive user review, since there are already a number of high quality, classic style reviews published on the Net by: Phil Askey at dpreview, the Nikon guru Thom Hogan, Steve at Steves digicams, and more.

In this review I am not going to offer you the usual measurements to the third decimal but more the real feeling of the camera.

A bit of history

The Fuji S3 Pro was announced at the PMA 2004 and the debate started just after Fuji announced the specifications.

The Fuji S2 Pro users felt that this was a minor update over their current camera and in some department even a step back.

A new wave of bashing and complaints, usually from people which never used the camera followed the actual launch on the market of the Fuji S3 Pro, in December 2004, continued in the first months of 2005 and peaked just after the famous “Above Average” rating published by Phil Askey in March.

The first part of this review will deal with the most complained about “problems” of the camera. Some of them could be solved, or at least attenuated, so read on.

The next part will deal with the Fuji S3 Pro settings and the real life use of the camera exposed to different kinds of assignments.

Most mentioned Fuji S3 Pro weaknesses in different reviews:

  • Too expensive for what it does
  • Low resolution for 2005
  • What’s up with this DR anyway ?
  • Does it really offer any increase in Image Quality over my D70?
  • Slow 1/180 sec. flash sync
  • No commands on the vertical grip, the vertical shutter release does not wake-up the camera.
  • Slow display of captured images in Play mode
  • Small buffer, slow writing, huge RAW files
  • Low FPS
  • How to get maximum speed from the Fuji S3 Pro
  • Poor choice of AA batteries
  • Lousy software

A Fuji S3 review is quite a challenge because this camera has extremely different performance speed wise depending on some settings: jpeg vs. RAW and standard DR vs. wide DR, preview on or off.

I will mention the settings and the performance you can expect in all my comments during this review.

Too expensive for what it does

At $ 2500 and compared with the D70 at under $ 1000 and Canon 20D at $ 1600 this is quite right if you consider the Fuji S3 Pro as a general use camera.

If you just read the specs you will notice the slowness of the camera, the small buffer and other things so you can safely conclude that it is a “below average” offer for 2005 with a very high price tag attached.

But there are at least two other angles to look at the Fuji S3 Pro.

First, it is a niche camera, intended for portrait, wedding and event photographers which need very good jpegs out of the camera, ready to go to print.

As a former RAW only shooter (using Nikon D100 cameras) I can assure you that being able to shoot jpegs at events and avoid converting RAWs is a huge time and space saver. The proofs can be presented to the client very fast, since only a few images will need tweaking and only the ordered images will eventually be further processed.

More, the extended Dynamic Range featured by the Fuji S3 Pro really works and can be a life saver in at least two often encountered situations: shooting people outdoors in sunny weather and using direct flash indoors. Wedding photographers will add the benefit of very good rendering of the white wedding dresses in all situations.

The extended DR working in jpegs means no need to underexpose the images, at it is routinely done with other cameras even in RAW, so no need to do shadow recovery in post processing.

If those capabilities add to the $ 1500 price difference from the D7o it is up to you to decide.

Second, let’s consider an upgrade in the Nikon F mount camp from Nikon D100 or D70 or simply the desire for a new camera.

There is no doubt that the Nikon D70 is the most camera for the money for general use.

But if you intend to make money with your DSLR you may not want to show to the client with a camera which already sold in over 1 million over the last year, since there is a good chance to find out that your client’s cousin has one, not to mention his neighbors.

I am not going to contest the high capabilities of the Nikon D70 here, but its huge success may have an impact on your professional image.

What’s left: the D100 is already too old by digital cameras standards, the D2Hs is only 4 Mpx and you may want a bit more, the Kodak may be not so suitable for high ISO shooting and the dream camera, the D2x, is a bit out of the budget.

So, until Nikon releases a middle camera between the D70 and the D2x with more resolution than the D2Hs, Fuji S3 Pro could fit the bill only if you can live with its limitations and enjoy its strengths.

In my case that made me buy the Fuji S3 Pro, and at that time I wasn’t comfortable at all with the idea of shooting jpegs, even at events.

For your money you get a good looking camera and the ability to respond to the obsessive question: How many Megapixels ? with a whooping 12 !!!

We will discuss below the Fuji S3 resolution and resolving power, but at least nobody can deny that the S3 has 12 million pixels on the CCD.

Low resolution for 2005 – 6 Mpx vs. 12 Mpx.

One of the most discussed resolution topics in the past years was the resolution of the Fuji Super CCD cameras, mostly Fuji S1 and S2.

You can find my opinion on the Fuji Super CCD here but the Fuji S3 Pro has a Super CCD II which is a different beast altogether.

Everything revolves around the meaning of the term “resolution” which, to most people, is synonym with “resolving power” so they expect that if Fuji claims that the S3 Pro is a 12 Mpx camera it should have the same resolving power as the Nikon D2X.

The Fuji S3 Pro has indeed 12 million sensing elements on the CCD which, by Fuji language, “are reflected in the output” image.

Only 6 million of them are reflected in the famous wide Dynamic Range (if enabled) and not in an increased resolving power.

So Fuji is right about those 12 Mpx, the critics are right about the resolving power of a 6 Mpx Super CCD, similar to the Fuji S2 Pro.

In short, the resolving power of the Fuji S3 Pro is between the 6 Mpx Nikon D70 and the 12 Mpx Nikon D2X, right with its price.

Some Fuji S3 reviews will tell you that it out resolves the 8 Mpx Canon 20D, other reviews will tell you otherwise. let’s just say that the “resolution” as in resolving power lies between the 6 and 12 Mpx.

What’s up with this DR anyway ?

The extended Dynamic Range is the Unique Selling Proposition of the Fuji S3 Pro camera.

Fuji engineers were so convinced of the extended DR importance that, after putting 12 million pixels on the CCD they allocated 6 millions to extend the DR, resisting the temptation to go for a higher resolution instead.

Fact is the extended DR really works, and not only when shooting RAW, but in jpegs. The second set of sensors make a good job at preserving the highlights so the need to underexpose to prevent clipping is totally avoided.

I will elaborate further in the Settings discussion about the different modes of using the extended DR.

Does it really offer any increase in Image Quality over my D70?

This is the kind of question only you can answer. If you are a RAW shooter, by all means keep your D70 since the Fuji S3 can not be shot in RAW in any fast paced situation.

But if you have the slightest intention to shoot jpegs by all means try an S3 and see for yourself what it can do with its extended DR.

Slow 1/180 sec. flash sync

Quite right. This is a “feature” of the Nikon N80 shutter which syncs on film at 1/125. Because of the smaller CCD the sync speed goes up to 1/180, similar to the Nikon D100.

It is only 1/2 stops slower than the Nikon D2Hs and D2X but 1 1/2 stops slower than the Nikon D50 and D70s.

Do not jump to the conclusion that the D50 and D70s have faster shutters than the Nikon D2 series, just that the CCD used in them can also be used as a high speed shutter.

For some reason, the Fuji sensor could be not adapted to function as such, so we will have to wait for a better camera shutter for any increase of the flash sync.

If you need fast flash sync for DOF control you should remember that the D70 has 200 ISO as base sensitivity and the Fuji S3 Pro has 100 ISO which is more like 80 ISO and the huge 1 1/2 difference disappears in the process: in the same light outdoors you will have almost the same aperture with the D70 at 1/500 and Fuji S3 at 1/180.

The real problem is when you need the fast sync speed to increase the flash range or shorten the recycle time, where the D70 will win hands down, even compared to the Nikon D2X.

No commands on the vertical grip, the vertical shutter release does not wake-up the camera.

That is a pity, especially if you need to alter the aperture or shutter speed when shooting in fast changing light, but less in a studio setting.

I find the vertical release quite comfortable and well placed, except that it have to be locked when shooting horizontally to avoid accidental releases.

As for the wake-up function you will find out that the camera has a programmable sleep delay. Just put it on 5 min. or OFF and forget about that.

Slow display of captured images in Play mode

One of the widely perceived advantage of using a digital camera is being able to quickly review the images during the shooting and getting the opportunity to re shoot if anything went wrong.

The Fuji S3 Pro is again a dual machine: when shooting jpegs (6 Mpx or 12 Mpx – I never shoot in lower resolution) the review of a taken image takes about 3 sec. for the image to display.

This is due to the fact that the camera loads the entire image, not an embedded thumbnail. Pretty long, especially if you want to “navigate” to images taken earlier during the shooting.

The cure to a speedier navigation is to switch to the 9 thumbnails mode and you will be able to browse really quickly. When you arrive to the image you want, just switch back to single image.

The Fuji S3 Pro has a very good range of zoom on jpeg images, in fact I believe that the last two zoom steps (highest zoom) go beyond 100% which may lead you to the conclusion that the image is not sharp. This is not the case, jut zoom to the maximum and back off two steps to asses sharpness.

When shooting RAW the Fuji S3 Pro will display the embedded 1440×960 pixels jpeg so the process is really fast but you will not be able to zoom to 100% in the RAW file, only in the thumbnail.

This should not be a problem since a 1440×960 pixels jpeg is usually large enough to allow you to asses the sharpness and to check for reflections and closed eyes.

The solution: just enable the “Preview” mode and the image you just shot will pop up on the LCD monitor, allowing you to check the histogram(s), highlights, sharpness and so on.

The image will stay on until you press OK or you half press the shutter release.

Two caveats: you will loose 1/3 of the buffer (not important when shooting jpegs) and this setting only work in single shot mode.

If you shoot RAW you can check the images using the Play mode since the display time is very good anyway and the buffer penalty is too important so just disable the Preview mode.

Small buffer, slow writing, huge RAW files

Buffer: the number of images which can be stored by the Fuji S3 Pro buffer depends on several factors: RAW or jpeg, wide or standard DR, the resolution in case of jpeg images and if the preview function is activated or not, as follows:

Standard DR: 7 RAWs or 12 jpegs.

Wide DR: 3 RAWs or 9 jpegs at 12Mpx or 6 jpegs at 6Mpx.

If you activate the preview function you will loose 1/3 of the buffer. When shooting jpeg it is not really important but if you shoot wide DR Raws you will end up with a 2 images buffer – not good.

Buffer conclusion: acceptable in jpeg, incredible small in wide DR RAW. See below the considerations about writing times which can help with jpegs and hurt a lot with RAW.

Writing “speed” or lack of

Again, Fuji S3 Pro exhibits multiple personalities. It can write to CF cards, including Microdrives, to xD cards and directly to the computer when shooting tethered.

For the review, the Fuji S3 Pro file sizes are: ~3 MB jpegs at 6 Mpx, ~4.3 MB jpegs at 12 Mpx, ~13 MB standard DR RAW, ~25 MB wide DR RAW

The bad news: on CF cards the write speed is around 2 MB/sec. practically regardless of the CF card performance so do not spend any money to get faster cards because you will not see any serious improvement. Any card over 24x will do. This is 2001-2002 performance.

This means under 3 sec. write time for any jpeg but ~7 sec. for a standard DR RAW and ~14 sec. for a wide DR RAW.

The better news: on xD cards the speed goes up to ~4MB/sec which is a more contemporary performance. Pity you will have to buy some new cards. The 1 GB xD cards are just out and you can store about 40 wide DR RAW files on one.

Using xD cards the writing performance is almost double which is clearly visible in RAW, a wide DR RAW is written now in less than 8 sec.

It only makes sense to buy xD cards if you plan on shooting RAW, especially in wide DR or if you routinely fill the buffer in jpegs which is much harder to encounter.

Tethered the Fuji S3 Pro has similar performance as on xD cards on both platforms, PC and Mac. This is really good since my Nikon D100 is more than two times slower when shooting into a Mac vs. a PC.

Low FPS

The Fuji S3 Pro double personality strikes again: ~2.5 FPS in standard DR, ~1 FPS in wide DR. This is not a fast machine by any means so be warned.

How to get maximum speed from the Fuji S3 Pro

The Fuji S3 pro is anything but a fast machine so let’s have a look at the various setting to make it feel faster for various jobs:

FPS: no alternative than to switch to standard DR – a pity, but if you really need the FPS it’s the only way. It looks a bit faster in RAW than in jpeg but the buffer is smaller: 7 RAW vs. 12 jpeg

Play images – refer to the comments above.

Buffer and write times: shoot jpegs wide DR, 12 Mpx, you will get a 9 images buffer with reasonable write speed. You can switch to xD cards for ultimate writing speed, but I think that for jpegs this is not mandatory. If you have to shoot RAW fast, you can choose standard DR but I wouldn’t. Better nail the WB and exposure and shoot wide DR jpegs.

Poor choice of AA batteries

This is about personal preferences because a Li-Ion pack will add another charger and a (costly) spare battery to your gear when you already use rechargeable AA NiMh in your SB 800 flash and have at least a good charger at hand.

I was pleasantly surprised on the good number of images the Fuji S3 Pro can shoot on a single set of freshly charged 2300 mAh AAs.

The only downside I see to the AAs is that they discharged when unused, both in the camera or on the shelf so you should top off your batteries before real assignments.

If you routinely shoot hundreds of images in one assignment you should consider getting a second Fuji battery tray because changing the batteries is quite difficult and slow, especially in a crowd on in the dark.

Lousy software

I did not install Fuji Fine Pix Viewer so all my comment relate to the Hyper Utilities.

This software has several uses: to view both jpegs and RAW files, to rename them (including an interesting option of using a date/time format for the file names), two separate converters for RAW files, the ability to compare two files including at various zoom settings and a module which allow you to shoot tethered with both the Fuji S3 Pro and S2, S20.

The overall design is quite “special” and will require some adapting time with all the panels which can be hided/shown clicking on small arrows, but in the end it can be used.

If you shoot jpegs only you can find a better browser and file renaming utility and forget about it, even the file renaming by date/time can be handy as well as the “compare files” option.

For tethered shooting is the only option and it works very well. It shows the histogram to the captured images so you can make sure everything is well.

Now, RAW conversions. There are a lot of users which prefer the Photoshop ACR for Fuji S3 Pro conversions, others strongly favor the Hyper Utilities. Just test for yourself. The Hyper Utilities have in the Preferences some “Quality” settings you should try carefully, since the Highest setting will apply heavy noise reduction in the images taken at High ISO. This is a personal choice, so experiment with all settings.

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