Fujifilm FinePix S1500 Zoom Review
By Mike Flacy
Fujifilm has updated their S1000fd from last year (2008), with the release of the new S1500. This new camera is almost identical to the S1000, with a few minor changes, like the addition of SR Auto (Scene Recognition Auto), Dual IS (sensor-shift + high ISO), and a slightly broader ISO range (up to 6400 @ 3M). Shared features include a FUJINON 12x f2.8 optical zoom lens, 10-megapixel image sensor, 2.7-inch LCD, 8 - 1/2000 sec. shutter speed range, AA power source, USB 2.0 (high-speed) connectivity, etc. Fuji has also removed the xD-Picture card compatibility on this model, sticking with strictly SD and SDHC type memory cards; kudos to Fuji for finally ditching that out dated memory format, it's about time.
The S1500 is what we consider an 'SLR' styled prosumer digicam, which offers a wealth of exposure options and control, along with the look and feel of a dSLR. This includes a nice large hand grip, pop-up flash unit, and large lens barrel. Fuji did a great job of designing the body and layout of the camera controls. I found the large hand-grip offers a nice firm hold on the camera, and the various camera controls are all within reach of your finger tips. Another change from the S1000 is Fuji replaced the Drive mode button on the top of the grip with a new Dual IS mode button. The Drive mode can now be accessed by pressing 'down' on the 4-wa controller. As with most super-zoom models, the S1500 is equipped with an Electronic Viewfinder or EVF. It is actually just a tiny 0.2-inch LCD that is magnified (no dioptric adjustment) in the eye piece.
Both the EVF and 2.7-inch LCD offer a live view with either a 30 or 60fps refresh rate. Like all EVFs, they have some advantages and disadvantages. While you can view all of the menus and exposure information, review images, and use the aids like Grid lines, you still have to battle with the fact that the live image blanks out during burst capture. I found that the eye piece on the S1500 was Very small, making it hard to block out ambient light. Like we saw on the S1000, the LCD works well both indoors and out, but does not feature an anti-reflective coating. While I was able to frame our outdoor shots without much problem, there are still many angles where the LCD reflects the sun, making it difficult to see what you are framing. Indoors, the live image gains up well to help you see the subject in lower lighting. I found the menu system was very easy to navigate, thanks to the logical organization, and the fact that is is almost identical to past models.
Like the S1000, the most significant feature on the S1500 is the Fujinon optical zoom lens. It offers a 35mm equivalent focal range of 33 - 396mm, and is pretty fast too, with a maximum aperture of 2.8 at wide or f5.0 at full telephoto. While the zoom is not continuous, I counted 16 steps from wide angle to telephoto. The 33mm end of the zoom range is not as wide as many of the S1500's competitors (who seem to start around 28mm), but it still offers a nice view for landscape and large group photos. The 396mm end of the zoom range will allow you to single out far off subjects without much problem. Overall I noticed moderate barrel distortion at the wide end as well as several traces of chromatic aberrations present around objects with extreme contrast.
Shooting performance hasn't improved much since the S1000. From power-on until the first image is captured takes between 3 and 4 seconds, depending on the shooting mode. Shutter delay, the elapsed time between pressing the shutter and capturing an image, was about 1/10 of a second when pre-focused, and 5/10 of a second including autofocus time. The Shot to shot delay averaged about 3.1 seconds between frames without flash, and between 3.4 - 4 seconds with flash. One annoyance I found was, the LCD/EVF blacks out in between shots with, with or without using the flash, which is a critical time for framing the next shot. Also, we noticed that when using the new SRAUTO mode, the camera really slows down, which we suspect is from the processing system taking its time trying to analyze the scene.
While the S1500 is a it sluggish in single exposure mode, it does offer robust burst settings. There are several continuous or burst capture modes to choose from: Top 3, Last 3, Long Period, Top 6 (5M) and Top 15 (2M). Top 3 allowed me to capture 3 frames in 1.3 seconds, about 2.3fps which surpassed Fuji's claim of 1.4fps. It then takes about 7 seconds for the camera to clear its buffer and shoot another set. Last 3 will continuously snap away at same frame rate, but only saves the last three images. Long-period continuous is limited only by available memory. It performed the same as Top 3 mode, capturing the first 3 images in just 1.3 seconds, then slowed to about one image every 7/10 of a second. While the capture times haven't improved much since Fuji got ride of the xD-Picture card memory cards, I did noticed that the camera writes to the SD card much faster with shorter buffer flush times. Top 6 lowers the resolution to 5-megapixels, and allowed me to capture 6 frames in just 1.4 seconds, about 4.2fps. This was actually impressive, and even thought it's at a lower image size, 5-megapixels still has plenty of resolution to create an 8x10-inch print. Top 15 drops to 2-megapixels, and captures 15 frames in just 2 seconds. When using either of these modes, both the EVF and LCD blacked out briefly, then displayed the last image captured, making it difficult to follow a moving subject. Our tests were done using a FujiFilm 1GB SD card, 10M Fine quality, Auto mode, flash off, ISO Auto, and all other settings at default. Times may vary depending on lighting conditions, camera settings, media used, etc.
Image quality from the S1500 was only average in my opinion when compared to similar models in this price range. Outdoors the camera can captures decent photos, but we did see quite a bit of edge softness as well as some over exposure; see out Canon photo. While sharpness and exposure are not up to par, color saturation was great. Image show nice vivid colors, especially blues and greens. Noise levels were also a bit higher than I would have liked to see, with traces present in open blue skies even at the lowest ISO 64 setting. I personally would lock the ISO at 400 or below, anything above this is not going to be able to create very nice prints, even 4x6s. Luckily the S1500 does allow you to 'cap' the Auto ISO setting to either 400 or 800 when using P/A/S/M/C modes. When shooting indoors, the camera didn't perform much better. Whether using SRAuto, or the dedicated Portrait scene mode, images were noisy, and there wasn't much facial detail. On the plus side, the flash did a good job of illuminating my subject from about 6 feet away using the telephoto end of the zoom range for tight framing.
The S1500 offers movie mode options of 640x480 or 320x240 @ 30fps with sound. The optical zoom can be used while you are recording, which is common among super-zoom models. Again, the S1500 only produces mediocre results. When using the zoom, we found that the metering system has troubling keeping up, which can lead to a very overexposed or underexposed image. You can see what I mean when viewing the last few seconds of our zoom movie sample.
Battery life was good for a model that uses AA type batteries. Using these batteries allows you to grab any type of 'off the shelf' cells like NiMH (Highly recommended), Alkaline, and one-use lithium cells. Unlike digicams equipped with an optical viewfinder, the S1500 is always powering either the large LCD or the eye-level EVF, so power usage can be a concern. At the time of this review, we have captured about 80 sample images, several short movie clips, and concluded all of our other tests with plenty of life left on our 2000 mAh NiMH cells. Always make sure you select what type of cells you are using via the Battery Type option in the Setup menu.
Bottom line - like we the S1000, FujiFilm's FinePix S1500 is a mixed bag. While offering some very appealing features, the below average shooting performance and just 'average' 10-megapixel image quality results lower its draw in this model rich category. While this is an affordable super-zoom model with a street price of US$249 or less, we highly recommend you take a good look at the competition before making your final decision.
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