Fujifilm FinePix S100fs digital camera review

3.5 out of 5
£499

For

Lens, flip/tilt screen, specification and features, Film Simulation modes, noise performance, CCD RAW shooting

Against

Price, performance, handling foibles, dynamic range issues

I’m a little worried. The FinePix S100fs is a significant piece of kit from a manufacturer that produces some ace kit and on paper; the S100fs certainly looks the biz. The DSLR-styled bridge compact is actually not very compact at all weighing in at almost a kilo and actually physically bigger than most of the budget DSLR system cameras on the market.

The camera sports the eighth iteration of Fujifilm’s SuperCCD HR technology and provides boosted dynamic range capabilities that allow 100, 200 and 400% settings to help grab detail out of shadows and highlights.

The “fs” in the camera’s title indicates the Film Simulation modes that are a key part of this camera’s components, mimicking the company’s professional Provia and Velvia slide films alongside a “Soft” and “Portrait” settings.

These all work well with the Provia setting providing a more neutral and detailed image, Velvia a colour rich punchy image; Portrait provides a more muted softer look while Soft is particularly soft in sharpness colour and contrast.

Handling is actually very nice and if you’ve handled a DSLR of almost any type, you’ll be right at home here. Big differences are of course the massive integrated zoom lens that reaches from a good 28mm wide end to a remarkable 400mm end. Optical image stabilisation and sensitivity settings that get to ISO 6400 (and ISO 10,000 with a reduced 3-megapixel resolution) to help control subject blur as well.

There are quite a few buttons scattered around the body but not all are well placed. For example, the ISO and exposure compensation buttons are used together with a control wheel on the back edge of the top plate (or the four-way jog buttons on the back). But they’re so close to the dial you need to use two hands to change the settings as releasing the button removes the control menu for that option from the screen and doing the finger gymnastics needed to use other fingers on the same hand is awkward – though not impossible.

The metering mode control on the back plate uses a small knurled dial that’s so difficult to turn it quickly makes your fingers tender or can break your fingernails – so watch out, ladies. Drive modes and the image stabilisation can be quickly accessed from two buttons on the left side of the body while the camera’s otherwise tough build is let down by a flimsy memory card port. Here, incidentally, you can use either xD-Picture cards or SD/SDHC storage.

Face AF is quickly set using a dedicated back plate button, sat next to the 2.5-inch 230,000-dot LCD which can flip out and up 90% just like a waist level finder from a medium format camera or tilt out and down 45% for shooting at awkward, overhead angles for example.

The colour screen is backed up by a new electronic viewfinder (EVF), which is one of the better ones I’ve encountered, but still it’s nothing like as good as a “proper” optical finder. The EVF has a nice sized dioptre adjustment, but no matter what I did, I could not get the view in the EVF satisfactorily sharp. This was a big disappointment as it helps conserve battery power and is also a bit of a waste of all the work put in by Fuji, to make the new Field Sequential Drive EVF system a success.

The benefit of a bridge camera (so called as they bridge the gap between traditional pocketable compact to the larger DSLR system cameras) is two-fold: You get an integrated lens that means there is never any chance of external dust or dirt getting on the sensor and you don’t need to spend any more hard earned cash on other optics; well, in theory.

But disadvantages include a physically smaller (here a 2/3rd-inch) sensor (compared to DSLRs) that means the pixels are more densely packed and so can contribute to excessive image noise problems and, the lack of expandability in terms of additional lens choices.

Fuji has done rather well on both counts here though, the lens has a reasonably fast F/2.8 to F/5.3 maximum aperture range, so getting plenty of light onto the sensor and its Real Photo Technology and good noise processing systems, plus the optical image stabilisation, combine to keep images looking clean and sharp.

As for lens choices, most users are likely to find the S100fs’ lens more than capable, particularly as it has an impressive 1cm macro mode – even close up work is catered to. However, the sheer size of the lens means it can shade your subjects frustratingly shading light from the subject, an issue particularly as the lens can almost touch the subject in macro mode.

But, most of my worries about the S100fs revolve around the image performance and dynamic range. The auto dynamic range simply fails to pull out shadow detail leaving images I took using it looking rather dark and muted. Play around a bit or use generally brighter subjects and things improve but I was not given the out of the box experience I wanted.

It took quite some fiddling to get things right and even then I was under-whelmed as the dynamic range was simply not as good as I’d hoped even boosting it 400%. I think part of the problem is the metering system, which seemed to habitually underexpose and certainly did not help.

However, detail is excellent and noise is well controlled too and once you’ve got used to the slight underexposure and allowed for it and then tweaked the dynamic range settings things start to get a lot better.

Shooting modes are comprehensive and include the full P, A, S and M array plus 13-scene modes that include enhanced portrait and landscape modes each of which can be further customised. You also get two custom positions on that large, knurled mode dial that allow you to set up the camera two completely different ways for shooting in two oft-used shooting styles without completely resetting the camera systems each time you want to change things around.

Because you can tailor other things such as the ISO sensitivity range that can be limited in Auto to stop at ISO 400, 800 or 1600 you can fine tune behaviours of image noise and the like. The full ISO range is impressive from ISO 100 to ISO 10,000 but to get to ISO 6400 the resolution is limited to 6-megapixels and at ISO 10,000 it’s limited to 3-megapixels or lower.

Shooting RAW allows you to dig a lot deeper into your photos on PC later and extract an impressive amount of detail too but RAW shooting is slow and can only be got at via menus, so is slow to switch to from “normal” JPEG snapping. Other slow performance issues arise around the continuous shooting rate, which is around 3fps for seven JPEGs or just three RAWs and then the camera clams up as it shuttles shot detail out of the buffer to memory.

Also the AF’s not as fast as some I’ve played with and while the Face Detection AF is very clever, picking out faces even when they’re quite small in the frame, there’s too much hunting going on and that, combined with the overall slowness of the system as it tries to get things sharp, means it’s nothing like as responsive as a similarly priced DSLR.

As mentioned earlier, colour is good and reflected the film simulation modes well. However, as a keen Velvia and Provia user of old, I’m not sure the digital equivalents can compete but it’s certainly a clever way to leverage film “feel” into the digital imaging world.

White balance control (WB) is very good and you do get a custom setting for fine-tuning the WB when needed and although detail is good overall, there are some issues around chromatic aberration evident around high contrast areas, where purple fringing becomes particularly obvious.

And so, the Fujifilm FinePix S100fs is a bit of a mixed bag: it’s bigger than budget DSLRs it is priced to, and undoubtedly will, compete against. While it has a superb zoom lens, it has a small sensor compared with DSLRs and it has some exposure and dynamic range issues that force you to really get the whip out and tame, before you get anything like what the Fuji blurb claims you’ll be able to achieve. However, that patience is rewarded in the end.

Verdict

The superb specification level is slightly marred by the way controls are implemented but there’s so much neat stuff crammed into the camera, that it really can take on almost any photography challenge thrown at it, it’s just that the results might not be what you expect, at least at first.

The Fujifilm FinePix S100fs is undoubtedly an ensemble of high specification camera features and some clever and reliable Fuji digital camera wizardry. But it’s an ensemble that is not the complete sum of its parts and ultimately might disappoint you, as it did me.