Fujifilm FinePix S3 Pro SLR Review

Steve's Digicams

Fujifilm FinePix S3 Pro

Steve's Conclusion

The FinePix S3 Pro is Fujifilm's upgrade to the 2002-vintage FinePix S2 Pro. While we've become accustomed to new digicams offering greater resolution than their predecessors, the S3 retained the S2's 6-megapixel native/12-megapixel interpolated image size; Fuji instead improved image quality by incorporating their Super CCD SR II image sensor, and added image processing functions that offer increased dynamic range and simulation of film characteristics. The Pro in "S3 Pro" means exactly that; this camera is intended for professional use, primarily wedding and portrait photography.

The S3 Pro retains the Nikon heritage of the S2. That's good news if you own a lot of Nikon glass, and it also assures compatibility with Nikon speedlights. Fuji made several improvements in the S3's body, including the provision of a vertical (portrait orientation) grip and shutter release, elimination of the hybrid AA/CR123A battery system in favor of AA batteries only, and provision of a larger and more resolute LCD display. Battery life was surprisingly long, capturing up to 290 images on a single set of 2500mAh NiMH rechargables. With the exception of its vertical shutter release, the S3's body is well designed, and its various controls and switches well-placed for both comfort and ease-of use. Its grips are rubberized and comfortable to hold, providing a secure felling that the camera will not slip out of your fingers.

The S3's vertical shutter button, however, seems an afterthought. It failed to wake the camera from sleep mode, and the AE-lock button and main and sub command dials have no vertical counterpart. As a result, making camera adjustments while shooting in portrait orientation is awkward at best. When shooting single-handed in landscape orientation, the vertical shutter button is too easily half-depressed by the heel of your right hand; while in this state, the top-mounted shutter button can't be used, causing missed shots. The vertical shutter button's inadvertent activation will also pop the camera out of review mode into shooting mode. These issues caused me to disable the vertical shutter button except for times when I intended to shoot in portrait orientation. Another annoyance was the S3's failure to maintain shooting priority at all times. While it maintains shooting priority in most of its operations, setting Custom Functions or ISO requires turning the exposure mode dial out of shooting position.

The S3 is unique among cameras designed for professional use. Most limit in-camera image processing options to sharpness, contrast, saturation, color tone and color space, expecting that post-processing will be used to manipulate the image for its intended use. While the S3 provides those options, it offers enhanced in-camera image processing functions that interpolate its native 6-megapixel (3024x2016) images to 12-megapixels (4256x2848), combine the imager's S and R pixels to produce images with greater dynamic range, and simulate the characteristics of film.

In terms of performance and image processing, the S3 has two personalities. The "switch" is accomplished with the menu setting for D-RANGE; in the Standard setting, the S3 is a good all-around imager with average performance. Set D-RANGE to Wide and you transform the S3 into a special-purpose imager whose performance I found to be leisurely at best.

The quality of the S3's uninterpolated 6-megapixel Fine images with standard settings was excellent, almost calling into question the need for its extra features. Exposures were spot on, and the standard sharpness, contrast and saturation settings produced usable JPEG's right out of the camera. Use the FUNC menu to step up to 12-megapixel images and quality remains very good, with artifacts from interpolation only visible in areas of fine detail. Noise was not an issue up to ISO 400. Image noise becomes detectable in shadow areas at ISO 800; at ISO 1600 it is noticeable in shadow areas, but highlights remain largely noise-free and the images are quite usable.

In Standard D-RANGE, the S3 is a good performer when capturing single images. It can be used almost instantly after being powered on, imposing a delay of only 1/2 second. Shutter lag when pre-focussed or when using continuous AF was 1/10 second, while lag including single autofocus delay ranged from .2 to .4 seconds. Rapid shooting in single-frame mode captured 12 images at about 3/10 second intervals, with subsequent shots at about 1.5 second intervals. Using the internal flash slowed the capture rate to intervals of between 1.2 and 6.5 seconds depending on subject distance.

The S3's continuous shooting performance in Standard D-RANGE mode lags the competition. It turned in an average performance while capturing 6-megapixel Fine images, 12 shots in 4 seconds with subsequent captures at 1.2 second intervals and buffer clearing in 18 seconds. Increasing the image size to 12-megapixels captured the same 12 images in 4 seconds, but the capture rate for subsequent images slowed to 1.7 second intervals, and it took a whopping 29 seconds to clear the camera's buffer. Shooting RAW slowed the S3 even further; it could capture only 7 images in 2.3 seconds, with subsequent images at 5 second intervals and buffer clearing in 40 seconds. These performance figures were obtained using a fast Lexar 80x 1-GB CF memory card; the buffer clearing times improved by about 30% when a Fuji 256MB xD memory card was used.

The S3's Film Simulation modes are unique in the digicam market. They are enabled by the camera's menu system by setting D-RANGE to WIDE. Film Simulation mode F1's effect was subtle, producing smooth natural skin tones by desaturating colors throughout the image. There's nothing subtle about Film Simulation mode F2, producing eye-popping color saturation that will find limited use for scenic shots.

The S3's Wide Dynamic range feature is also enabled by setting D-RANGE to WIDE in the camera's menu system. Fuji claims that the Wide 1 setting increases dynamic range by about 1 f-stop, and Wide 2 by 2 f-stops. Either mode was a significant improvement over the S3's normal setting, yielding detail in areas that were otherwise over exposed. I could not, however, find much of a difference between Wide 1 and Wide 2, both seeming equally effective when dealing with difficult lighting. Fuji suggested that over exposing the subject by 2 stops would reveal a difference, but I found little if any improvement at Wide 2. If in fact a 2-stop overexposure is necessary to experience the benefits of Wide 2, its effectiveness would be limited to only the most extraordinary of lighting circumstances. Perhaps its greatest value is in producing usable images from accidental overexposures, an image rescue function that most pros will appreciate. Be aware that the S3's Film Simulation and Wide Dynamic Range are mutually exclusive modes of operation; they can not be used concurrently.

If the S3's Film Simulation or Wide Dynamic Range modes meet your qualitative needs, you may find that there's little need to post-process your images before printing. If you're running a high-volume portrait operation, this could both increase the quality of your product and improve your productivity, a double benefit that could by itself justify the purchase of an S3.

But there's a price to be paid for the S3's in-camera processing, and it's not just the cost of the camera; while the power-on, shutter lag and AF times are unaffected in Film Simulation or Wide Dynamic Range modes, responsiveness suffers when shooting continuously. In normal mode, the S3 is capable of 2.5 frames per second for 12 shots at any image size or quality; this slows to 1 fps in Wide mode and depth decreases to 6 images at 6-MP, and 9 images at 12-MP (yes 9, that's not a mistake). In RAW mode, the capture rate slows to 1.4 fps for a depth of only 3 images. The interval between subsequent images with a full buffer also suffers, extending to 1.5 seconds at 6MP, 2 seconds at 12MP and 10 seconds shooting RAW. JPEG image sizes in Wide mode are roughly equivalent to their Standard mode counterparts, roughly 3-megabytes for a fine 6-MP image and 5-megabytes for a fine 12MP. But RAW images double in size, growing from 12.8-megabytes in Normal to 25.1 megabytes in Wide mode.

There's more to responsiveness than just continuous shooting, and other aspects of the S3 feel sluggish as well. Neither the camera menu system nor the function menu can be accessed while the S3 is writing images to its memory card. While this delay is only a second or two for a single JPEG image, the 12 second wait after taking a single RAW image in Wide mode seems like an eternity. Playback mode is also frustratingly slow, taking 2 seconds to display each 6MP JPEG and 3 seconds for each 12MP JPEG. It takes only 1 second to display the embedded 1440x960 thumbnail of a RAW image, but it can not be magnified to the same degree as a full size JPEG, limiting your ability to field-check your results.

Fuji provides adequate software support for the S3's RAW images. The FinePix Viewer simply allows you to view RAW images, while the Hyper Utility allows you to extract a 1.4-megapixel JPEG preview or save a full-size TIFF image; Hyper Utility also allows you to edit the RAW file, allowing you to override the camera settings for color space/film simulation, white balance, color, sharpness etc. The conversion process even permits specification of dynamic range parameters ranging from 100% to 400%, allowing you to manually adjust the mix of S and R pixels used to form the final image. The conversion process defaults to Camera Setting, and if you use that your image editor will have an already-processed image to work with.

The Photoshop CS Camera RAW plugin does not yet support the S3's RAW images. Version 2.4 of the plugin was able to open an S3 .RAF file, and it was absent the in-camera processing options for sharpness etc. in effect at the time of capture, truly a RAW image. The 2.4 plugin recognized the .RAF file as a 3024x2016 6-megapixel image, not the 4256x2848 12-megapixel size claimed by FinePix Viewer; hopefully the S3's RAW images will be fully supported soon.

The bottom line: The FinePix S3 Pro is a camera with two personalities. In Standard D-Range it produces excellent results both at 6 and 12 megapixel image sizes, but doesn't justify its $2,500 price versus the competiting dSLRs. Set D-Range to Wide and the S3 is transformed into an amazing portrait-taking image processor. Although a bit sluggish in this mode, its results may better satisfy the needs of your portrait business than anything else available today, more than justifying its price. Please have a look at our sample photos, where examples of each of its advanced modes have been provided.

Fujifilm Announces Software Upgrade For Finepix S3 Pro Digital Camera & HS-V2 Software

VALHALLA, NY, April 5, 2005 - Fuji Photo Film U.S.A., Inc. recently released the first firmware upgrade for the FinePix S3 Pro professional digital camera as well as a Macintosh OS X updater for the Hyper-Utility Software HS-V2.

The firmware upgrade for the FinePix S3 Pro (Version 2.12) updates several functions including auto rotate, acceptance of higher capacity storage mediums and lens compatibility. The firmware upgrade also adds computer workstation control functions, a very useful tool for wedding, studio and portrait photographers. (An upgrade to Hyper- Utility Software HS-V2 Ver.3.1 is necessary for this function). The new upgrade can be downloaded to a computer and then saved to an xD card for launching/installation.

The Macintosh OS X updater brings new functionality to the Hyper-Utility Software HS-V2 in versions 2.0, 3.0, 3.1a and 3.1b. Updates include RAW file converter EX for the FinePix S3 Pro, FinePix S2 Pro and FinePix S20 digital cameras as well as capture software for the same Fujifilm models. Users must have their original Hyper-Utility Software HS-V2 disc for proper updater installation.

In addition to the updates Fujifilm is also offering a free 256MB xD Picture Card to FinePix S3 Pro owners for registering their camera. Links to FinePix S3 Pro online registration, as well as to Fujifilm's Support and Contact Center for the firmware and software upgrades, can be found at www.fujifilm.com/finepixS3pro.

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Sample Photos

Want a second opinion?

LetsGoDigital's S3 Review

Imaging-Resource's S3 Review

Luminous Landscape's S3 Review

Thom Hogan's S3 Review

No End Press' S3 Review

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