Fujifilm FinePix S9100 Zoom Review
Replacing the S9000
at the top of Fuji's consumer digicam product line, the FinePix S9100
offers improved performance and refinements in image processing, while retaining the SLR-like
form factor, 9-megapixel resolution, 28-300mm mechanically-operated zoom lens,
advanced features and VGA movie mode of its predecessor.
While it can be used as a simple point-n-shoot in Auto and Scene modes,
the S9100 will appeal most to experienced photographers who will benefit
from its advanced exposure control and optics.
The large diameter f/2.8-4.9 10.7x optical zoom lens is a versatile piece of glass. As with the S9000, Fuji went both wider and longer, providing a generous field of view for landscapes and interiors at the 28mm wide angle extreme, and a distance-reducing 300mm at the telephoto end. The lens produces a moderate amount of chromatic aberration (purple fringing in high contrast areas), an average amount of barrel distortion at wide angle, and little-to-no pin cushioning in the moderate to telephoto range. From wide angle to moderate telephoto focal lengths, images were sharp corner-to corner at moderate apertures, but suffered a bit of corner softness at its smallest and largest apertures. At full 300mm telephoto, corner softness was present throughout the available aperture range. Fuji has produced a high quality lens for the S9100, one that complements its 9-megapixel imager nicely.
As with the S9000, the zoom is controlled by a mechanical ring on the lens barrel rather than a switch-activated motor. A motorized zoom simply can not compare to the speed and accuracy of the S9100's zoom ring; it makes a huge difference when shooting a sporting event and adds an SLR-like degree of precision and responsiveness to this prosumer digicam.
The S9100's shooting performance is quite good. From power-on to the capture of your first image takes about 1.5 seconds. Shutter delay, the elapsed time between releasing the shutter and capturing the image, measured a very good 1/10 second when pre-focused, or 5/10 second including autofocus time. The S9100's viewfinder contributed a bit less than 1/10 second to the measured delay; because it has no optical viewfinder, you'll have to adjust your timing for the slight delay while the S9100 presents the live electronic image on either the LCD or EVF. Shot-to-shot delay averaged about 1.2 second without flash, and between 2.5 and 8 seconds with flash depending on subject distance.
Sports shooters will enjoy 2 modes of continuous shooting, Top 4-Frame which is a standard burst capture mode, and Final 4-Frame which releases the shutter up to 40 times but records only the last 4 frames captured before the shutter button is released; both modes captured 4 frames within 1.7 seconds, followed by a 9 second delay to clear the buffer before the next shot could be taken. The S9100 also has a Long-period continuous shooting mode that is available only in AUTO and scene modes; it captured images at 1.2 second intervals for as long as I cared to hold the shutter button down. The S9100 is responsive enough for you to capture many unposed moments and images of your children's sports activities. These above times are based on 9-megapixel Fine 3488 x 2616 JPEG images, flash off, and a fast Sandisk Extreme IV 2GB CF memory card installed, and include viewfinder delay, photographer response time and image capture - these are numbers you can reproduce in everyday shooting conditions. The S9100 also supports xD media, but we did not test it; we recommend the use of CF because of its low cost and available sizes and speeds.
The S9100 can also capture RAW images, but its performance suffers. In single shot mode, the S9100 could capture RAW shots at lethargic 6 second intervals, while continuous shooting mode can not shoot RAW at all. Fuji's software support of RAW images is also disappointing. The supplied Fuji FinePixViewer software only allows you to view RAF image files and save them as TIFF files for later processing by an image editor. In addition the RAF files are enormous at just under 19 megabytes each, exceeded in size only by the 52 megabyte TIFF files saved by FinePixViewer. The combination of sluggish camera performance and ineffective software support discourages shooting RAW images. Turning on RAW image capture is hidden deep in the S9100's setup menu; you'll rarely, if ever, use it.
The S9100's sensitivity has the same versatile ISO 80 to ISO 1600 range as the S9000. All users will enjoy the smooth essentially noise-free images shot at ISO 80, while sports shooters will appreciate the ability to shoot full-resolution images at ISO 800 and 1600. Image noise is usually present in consumer digicams at high sensitivities, and the S9100 is no exception. Noise can be detected in shadows at ISO 200, in highlight areas at ISO 400, and is noticeable throughout the image at settings of ISO 800 and 1600. There's also a sizable loss of image detail at ISO 800 and 1600, the result of in-camera noise reduction. While image quality suffers at high ISO settings, sports shooters will be happy to have sensitivity settings that may make the difference between getting the shot and not. Sports shooters will also appreciate the ability to select shutter speeds as high as 1/4000 second in both shutter-priority and manual modes.
The S9100's body is SLR-like, with a deep rubberized hand grip that was very comfortable to hold. Its controls are well organized and professional in feel. As with all consumer digicams with a broad zoom range, the S9100 is equipped with an Electronic Viewfinder; although small, the EVF was very effective, providing a nearly SLR-like view with its 60fps refresh rate, and introducing less delay in the live image than EVF-equipped cameras we've tested in the past. The S9100 provides the typical EVF advantages of overlaid shooting information and menu access, brightening in dim light, and the ability to playback images. It also retains the typical EVF disadvantages, including blanking between image captures both in single and continuous shooting modes, and introducing a small delay in the live image. The LCD monitor has the ability to tilt, enabling waist-level and over head shooting. In these days of 2 1/2-inch and greater LCD's, the S9100's seems small, but it is bright enough to be visible in bright outdoor conditions. I found myself using the EVF as a viewfinder and the LCD to navigate the S9100's menu system and to playback images; switching between the two takes a single depression of the EVF/LCD button. The only disadvantage I want to note is the S9100's body design looks as capable as it performs, attracting the attention of the security staff at sporting events that prohibit advanced cameras.
It's good to see Fuji continuing to use AA-size batteries. Proprietary batteries exclude the ability to use of any type of "off the shelf" battery when the primary is dead and AC power or your charger isn't handy. For the same price of a proprietary battery you can get a rapid charger and two sets of the high power AA type NiMH batteries. Unlike digicams equipped with an optical viewfinder, the S9100 is always powering either the large LCD or the eye level EVF, so power usage can be a concern; we captured an average of over 200 images per charge using four 2500mAh NiMH batteries, and this included extensive use of the LCD for reviewing images and testing the S9100's menu system.
We were pleased with the S9100's outdoor results. Images were consistently sharp and well saturated. Controls for sharpness, saturation and contrast are provided to achieve the results you want, and there's a Chrome color mode that emulates the higher contrast and saturation of slide films. The S9100's AF modes were effective, complementing the high-quality Fujinon 28-300mm lens in producing sharp results.
The S9100 also performed well indoors. Fuji claims a flash range of almost 19 feet in wide-angle, and our results were in agreement. The combination of a 28mm focal length at the wide end of the zoom range and the powerful flash will allow you to capture large groups in a banquet room, yet the S9100 squelches its flash nicely to produce pleasing individual portraits and images of small objects for online auction listings. Flash coverage is also very good, illuminating shots taken at full wide angle with almost no light fall off at the edges. The S9100's low light AF performance was very good, aided by a focus assist lamp that projects a pattern that helps the camera achieve focus even on low contrast subjects in complete darkness.
The S9100 is a very capable prosumer digicam. With its 9-megapixel imager, 28-300mm mechanically controlled zoom lens, extensive exposure and in-camera processing controls, automatic and advanced shooting modes, there's little that you can't do with this camera. And if you're looking for a digicam that can also capture high quality video, you'll love the S9100's VGA resolution 30fps movies. With an MSRP of $599 and a street price of under $400, the S9100 is priced lower than its predecessor and is a very good value.
High-end digicams and low-end dSLR's have a great deal of overlap both in terms of price and functions. You'll find many similarities, including standard zoom range, mechanical zoom ring, sensitivity range and extensive exposure and processing controls. But the dSLR's tend to offer better image quality (especially at high sensitivity settings), the flexibility of interchangeable lenses, more robust continuous shooting, superior support for RAW images, faster AF, and the benefit of an eye-level optical viewfinder. The S9100 has its advantages, including high-quality VGA-sized movies, overhead and waist-level shooting courtesy of its tilting LCD, intensified viewfinder image in dim lighting, menu operation and image playback on its eye-level EVF, built-in macro/super macro modes and freedom from dust on the image sensor. Only you can place a value on each camera's advantages; please have a look at our sample images to help your decision making process.
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