Fujifilm FinePix S20 Pro Review
The S20 Pro is Fujifilm's "top of the line" fixed-lens, SLR-like model in its FinePix family and represents the third iteration for this body and lens combination. First seen as the FinePix S602 Zoom in 2002 with a 3.1-megapixel Fuji SuperCCD that recorded up to 6.03 million pixels. In 2003 it became the FinePix S7000 Zoom and used a 6-megapixel SuperCCD HR sensor that recorded up to 12 million pixels. In my opinion both of these cameras created better looking images at their native resolutions than the higher, interpolated resolution. Fuji's SuperCCD technology has been at the center of many controversial discussions on forums around the net since its introduction. There are as many proponents as skeptics of this sensor design and its unique pixel layout and image interpolation routines.
For 2004 Fuji has decided to use their SuperCCD SR (Super Dynamic Range) sensor which will undoubtedly generate even more pro and con discussions in the forums. The S20's SuperCCD SR sensor incorporates 3.1 million large high-sensitivity "S" pixels and 3.1 million smaller "R" pixels for expanded dynamic range to create images with up to 6.03 million recorded pixels. The SuperCCD processor takes the optimum amount of data from each pixel to create a finished image with a greater dynamic range than is possible from conventional sensors. Each pixel position incorporates both an S-pixel and an R-pixel so one can argue that it isn't a true 6-megapixel sensor in the normal sense, but rather a 3.1- megapixel sensor with the possibility of wider dynamic range.
Does the S20 Pro deliver on its promise of wider dynamic range? The answer is yes, although you really need a side-by-side comparison of results from the S20 and a non-SuperCCD SR-equipped camera to appreciate the improvement. To create a basis for comparison, I took the Fuji S20 Pro and Fuji S7000 to the site of one of our sample shots, and captured images with each having identical exposure settings and within seconds of each other. While there is a bit more shadow detail in the S20 shots, it's in the highlight areas that the greatest improvement could be seen; the areas that the S7000 overexposed were better-exposed by the S20 Pro. The following 2 shots are side-by-side comparisons of crops from the same image area from the S20 Pro and S7000; click on the thumbnail to see the entire image.
As with the S602Z and S7000, I feel that the S20's 3-megapixel images are superior to its higher resolution 6-megapixel images. You be the judge, examine the sample pictures on the next page, especially the red brick building which we shot in 6M, 3M JPEG and 6M CCD-Raw image mode. The 6M images are not sharp and clear, they have a decided "fuzzy" look to them, see the 100% 320x240 clip from the converted raw image below. I have also provided similar 100% clips from other cameras that we have recently reviewed. Click any of these thumbnails to see the full-size images.
Fuji S20 Pro 6M RAW
As with the previous FinePix cameras, I have the same complaint (and suggestion; hint, hint Mr Fuji) about the lesser resolution (3M, 2M and 1M) modes having no selectable quality levels. The users would be better served if they could choose Fine or Normal quality with -any- image size selection. Currently the only choice available is a quality 83 JPEG. The 6M Fine images are saved as quality 95 which makes for dramatically better quality with less compression artifacts and much larger file sizes. And while I'm asking for Fuji to add things - please add a 3:2 aspect ratio image format for those who wish to print uncropped 4x6-inch prints. This is the most common and popular print size with today's digital camera and photo printer users and it's ludicrous that ALL digital cameras don't have a 3:2 image mode.
Performance-wise, the S20 is ready to capture the first shot in about 3.5 - 4 seconds from flipping the power switch, most of which is required to extend the lens. The shot to shot time in normal single-frame capture mode is approx. 1.5 - 2.0 seconds. The shutter lag in average lighting conditions at wide angle is about 0.2 - 0.4 seconds. This time can extend to 1.0 - 2.0 seconds in lower light levels and at longer focal lengths. The S20 lacks an AF-assist lamp and will fail to lock auto focus when the light gets too low. You'll have trouble taking pictures in these conditions anyway because neither the LCD or EVF gains up (brightens), your viewfinders are simply blacked out. There are two full-resolution continuous capture modes, Top-10 captures up to 10 shots in a little over 2 seconds. The Final-10 mode lets you keep the shutter pressed and records the last ten frames after you release the shutter. The framerate for Final-10 is the same as Top-10 at about 4.5fps. The Long-period continuous mode is available only in AUTO exposure mode and only at 1M resolution and captures up to 40 frames. (All times were with the Review option disabled and no flash, using a Fuji 256MB xD-Picture Card)
Ergonomically, I like the S20, its big, fat handgrip gives you a steady and secure grip. The zoom lens can be activated by either turning the ring at the end of the lens barrel or by pushing the dedicated "W" and "T" buttons on the back of the camera. Physically, the camera is on the large side when compared to most of today's digicams, it isn't "huge" or heavy but it certainly won't fit in your pocket. The control layout is very logical and quickly becomes second nature with enough use. In normal handling the only unintentional camera setting change that I made was enabling macro focus mode from time to time. Many will find that the index finger of their left hand rests dangerously close to the Macro button most of the time. The large Mode Dial is conveniently located on the top edge alongside the Command Dial and both can be operated with your thumb without losing your grip on the camera. The EVF (electronic viewfinder) provides approx. 92% frame coverage and is effective for eye-level shooting outdoors and indoors except in dim to dark environments. Neither the EVF or the LCD "gains up" in low-light to aid in framing and the camera lacks an AF-assist lamp so this is not the right camera for shooting in dark places. Even in good lighting you can expect about a 0.10 second delay in the update of the EVF or LCD when the camera is auto focusing. You can easily switch between the EVF and LCD by depressing the EVF/LCD button.
The large diameter f/2.8 6x optical zoom lens will get you close to the action and admits plenty of light for hand-held shooting. This all-glass Fujinon zoom lens is a quality optic that exhibits an average amount of wide-angle "barrel distortion" and telephoto pin cushioning yet captures images whose quality is equal to its competitors in the marketplace. The lens moves smoothly and quietly through its zoom range but is not continuous; it has 20 distinct steps in its 35-210mm (35mm equivalent) range, more than enough for carefully composing your shots. Fuji offers both a wide angle and a telephoto converter lens to extend the focal coverage of the S20's lens. There is a sample photo from each of these conversion lenses on the sample pictures page, we found them to be high-quality optics with minimal distortion.
The S20 is powered by four standard AA type batteries. Use of the highest capacity NiMH rechargeable batteries is highly recommended. For our testing we used 2300mAh Maha/PowerEX batteries and were able to capture well over 100 frames with a good bit of in-field reviewing and menu accesses. Alkaline type batteries can be used but don't expect much runtime from them. The best "emergency" batteries to keep in your camera bag are the one-use Photo Lithium AA type, they have a very long shelf life.
For those who like to capture motion video with audio, the S20 offers 640 x 480 VGA resolution as well as 320 x 240 size at an incredibly smooth 30 frames per second. This high quality framerate comes at the price of a little over a Megabyte per second so if you plan on using this often, be sure you have a large xD Card or Microdrive. Note that Fuji guarantees only xD cards or Microdrives for video recording because of the high data rate. We have also successfully used very fast (Ridata 52x and Sandisk UltraII) CF cards but cannot guarantee the performance of other brands. The video at 30fps is very good but it won't replace your camcorder. As with most digicams, the optical zoom can't be used once you start recording. The zoom mechanism makes too much noise and would be picked up by the microphone. The auto focus isn't designed for the requirements of rapidly changing scene content or focal lengths. We've seen the quality of the motion video recording improve dramatically but today's digital still cameras are not the equal of even an average Mini-DV camcorder in terms of zoom lens and AF technology.
I was pleased with the S20's color balance, it was an improvement over the S7000 which was biased too heavily on blues and greens. The flesh tones were more natural looking and our outdoor test shots by the beach were not overly affected by the color of the nearby water or the blue sky above. The exposure system works well, both our indoor and outdoor shots were properly exposed with minimal highlight loss even in very bright sunlight. Image noise, especially in open blue sky areas, is still higher than most other cameras in this resolution class. This is very noticeable in the lesser 3M, 2M and 1M modes as they are quite heavily compressed with no options for less compression. The SuperCCD SR showed only a marginal increase in dynamic range when compared to other conventional-CCD cameras that we used in the same shooting conditions.
Performance features not found on any other camera in its class include both a high- speed USB 2.0 and IEEE 1394 FireWire data interface. This allows the camera to transfer image data to the host computer very quickly and eliminates the need for an external card reader. The ultra-fast FireWire interface is ideal when using the tethered Camera Control feature of the included Hyper-Utility software . It's worth noting that not even the Nikon D70 or D100 or Canon Digital Rebel or 10D dSLR cameras offers these types of high-speed data interfaces. The S20 Pro is also equipped with an standard PC sync port for connecting to external flash equipment in addition to its ISO standard flash hot shoe. We also liked having a choice between xD-Picture Card and CompactFlash media for storage - or using both.
The bottom line for most digital camera buyers today is image quality and price. The FinePix S20 Pro in my opinion does not deliver the level of image quality that we expect from a "top of the line" digicam. Other than its 6M mode it does not offer any choices in image quality other than basic, this is a standard feature on every other manufacturer's cameras. According to the S20 press release, the SuperCCD SR sensor is supposed to deliver a much broader dynamic range; while we did notice a marginal improvement in dynamic range, it was not great enough to justify the S20's lofty price. With a suggested list price of $999 it is clearly out performed by the similarly priced 8-megapixel cameras such as the Olympus C-8080, Canon Pro1 and Nikon 8700.
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