Updated: August 18, 2003

  Fujifilm S2 Pro Review

A viable alternative to a Nikon digital SLR that's still Nikon.

  Add a comment or send Thom feedback on this article.

Disclosure: My usual source for equipment is my checkbook. I buy equipment just like you do, and from the same sources (local dealers, B&H Photo, Adorama, etc.). However, in the case of the Fujifilm S2 Pro, both the pre-production and production bodies I used in forming my opinions were part of remuneration I received from FujiFilm USA for work that I did. That work included writing the Quick Start document that now accompanies all US shipments, and materials used to train Fuji reps. In addition, I made a deal that has Fujifilm USA providing copies of my Complete Guide to the Fujifilm S2 Pro as a registration premium to US purchasers of the camera (see column at right). Thus, unlike my other reviews, I have a small conflict of interest here, and I always report and acknowledge such situations, as I'm doing here. However, that conflict won't keep me from stating my findings the way I see them. No camera is perfect; the S2 Pro isn't perfect, either. I've pulled no punches here, nor has Fuji seen or had any say in this review.

Is this the color you're looking for? Despite the nasty things that Save As JPEG does to an AdobeRGB managed color image, you should still see that the image at left has a lot of yellow and green punch to it. This is an undoctored S2 image with only a bit of Photoshop sharpening added (and since I always work in AdobeRGB in Photoshop, I've lost just a bit of the color punch through the sRGB to AdobeRGB conversion). Fujifilm officials talk about making a camera that is equivalent to Digital Velvia. Guess what? They might have done just that.

Fujifilm was one of the early players in the digital SLR game, with the Fujifilm S1 announced shortly after the launch of the Nikon D1. The appeal of the S1 was simple: at a time when the D1 was selling for US$5000 or more, Fujifilm promised the same resolution (or better) and a price almost US$2000 less. Moreover, most S1s were sold in a package that included an IBM Microdrive, making the price disparity even greater.

Thus, the Fujifilm S1 became the choice of the digital-ready-but-price-conscious crowd. A typical reaction for many early S1 users was to praise the color saturation and sharpness of the S1 as compared to, say, the D1 or Canon D30, but to damn the camera controls. The N60 body upon which the S1 was based wasn't a particularly good choice (the N60 body has a host of issues that we won't go into here--let's just say that getting full control of what the camera is doing isn't always possible with an N60). Some users noted that the promised 6-megapixel mode didn't really seem to give you any advantage over shooting at 3-megapixels and up sizing in Photoshop to 6-megapixels. The base ISO of 320 also made for some interesting issues, especially if you wanted to use flash. Still, the Fujifilm S1 produced very good results if you could get around a few foibles.

The Nikon D1x and D1h, and the Canon 1D all seemed to pass the S1 by in the latter half of 2001. The D1x offered more resolution and fixed most of the known D1 problems and issues. The D1h was a sports-shooter's dream. The 1D split the middle. [Yes, the 1D shoots a faster frame rate than the D1h, but I'll contend that a bigger buffer is more useful in almost every sport I've ever shot.] And that N60 body on the S1 looked more and more like a very lame choice compared to the buffed and robust bodies Nikon and Canon produced.

The 2002 PMA (Photo Marketing Association) trade show changed all that. Fujifilm announced the S2 Pro (based on the N80 body) and claimed the first "12-megapixel" SLR. The initial pricing indicated that it would sell in the US$3000 range. But Canon and then Nikon both went into price war mode shortly thereafter with their introductions of the D60 and D100, respectively. As Canon and Nikon began shipping their products, Fujifilm slowly regrouped and announced a price point of US$2400 (street). By summer 2002, we had three SLRs priced within a few hundred dollars of each other that represented three different imaging systems. Canon's D60 used Canon's proprietary CMOS. Nikon's D100 used an exclusive Sony chip. And the Fujifilm S2 used a new generation Fujifilm SuperCCD.

[Note: after the 2003 PMA introduction of the US$1499 Canon 10D, price pressure was put to bear on both the Nikon D100 and the Fujifilm S2 Pro. The former now has a street price of US$1699 and the S2 Pro can also be found for under US$2000.]

Since the body features of all three cameras are remarkably similar, as are the prices, we're finally looking at our first real "sensor war." Was Fujifilm's unique approach (see my article on how CCDs work for more on that) better than the others? Could Fujifilm compete with Nikon using the same body as a basis for a camera? Was Fujifilm still in the digital SLR game?

The answer to those questions are maybe, yes, and yes. But there are plenty of other questions to be asked and answered, and this review will try to address them.

 

From the front, the N80 (left) and S2 (right) look nearly identical, with only the extra bulk at the bottom of the camera to give the S2 away (well, the model name on the prism is an important clue, too ;~).


Fujifilm's approach to creating a digital SLR from the Nikon N80 body differs a bit from Nikon's design for the D100 (also based on the N80). Where Nikon did a lot of subtle body work and tweaked many small things, Fujifilm essentially left the "camera side" of the S2 Pro unaltered from the N80. Curiously, Fujifilm got some things right that Nikon got wrong, and got very few things wrong that Nikon got right. Indeed, I've now had the chance to share the D100 and S2 bodies with a number of workshop students, and it's interesting to see the varied reactions to the two bodies. Some like the S2 and some like the D100. In almost every case, the aspect that wins over the student is something that one company got right that the other didn't (and is obviously noticed and important to the student). I'll try to point some of those things out as I go, but do go read my D100 review if you haven't already done so.

From the front, there's not a lot to distinguish the Fujifilm S2 Pro and Nikon D100. After all, they're based upon the same body, and the digital aspects of the product generally don't show up on the front of the camera. The Fujifilm is a little taller than the D100, and the plastic looks a little more plastic than the Nikon. But that, the logo, and camera name are about the only differences.

Flip the cameras around, however, and the differences are dramatic. Fujifilm's controls for the digital side of the camera are quite different from Nikon's, as are the positioning of the color LCD, the card slot, and a host of other bits and pieces. I'll get to those differences soon, but for the most part, you interact with the back of the cameras, so I'll simply point out that whichever one you pick, you'd better like the back control layout.

As already noted, the main DNA for the Fujifilm S2 comes from the film-based Nikon N80. The shutter is the N80's, the viewfinder technology is the N80's, the autofocus and metering system is the N80's, the camera control interface is mostly the N80's (with some modest changes we'll get to), the internal flash is the N80's, and yes, the general build quality is much like the N80 (more-so on the S2 Pro than the D100, by the way). [If you're not familiar with the N80, my review will get you up to speed quickly.]

I have a separate page on the site that lists the primary differences between the D100 and the S2, so if you're interested in a direct comparison, please go there. For those of you who are thinking about upgrading from the S1 to the S2, then these differences will be important to you:

  • The S2 can operate without the CR123a battery in the camera and without a dummy in the CR123a slot. As with the S1, the internal flash is inoperative if you run the camera only from AA battery power.
  • The S2 has a new generation SuperCCD, with 6-megapixels instead of 3-megapixels. The physical size of the CCD is the same (1.5x angle of view), and there's still an option for generating double the number of pixels in-camera (i.e., produce 12-megapixel JPEGs).
  • The change in bodies from the N60 to the N80 produces a host of differences, all of them beneficial: no features are "embedded" in exposure modes, you now get five-sensor AF and spot metering, the top shutter speed is a stop faster, many camera functions can be modified with custom settings, the viewfinder can display grid lines (which consumes power, though), AF-S and VR lenses now work as advertised, and flash operation is vastly improved. Virtually every body gripe S1 users has been addressed by the change to the N80.
  • The base ISO value drops from ISO 320 (on the S1) to ISO 100 (on the S2 Pro). This helps with flash use, plus you still have high ISO values available if you need them.

Plus there's one important thing that doesn't change:

  • If you know how to make digital settings on the S1, you'll find that the S2 Pro uses the same second LCD and four-button interface you already know and love.

Table of Contents

Need a book on the S2 Pro?
Thom's written the definitive reference. Order your copy by
clicking on the cover, below*

* Note: If you purchase an Fujifilm S2 Pro that was officially imported into the United States and register online, you will receive a FREE copy of Thom Hogan's Complete Guide to the Fujifilm FinePix S2 Pro directly from Fujifilm. If you own a US imported S2 Pro, please don't order the book from me unless you want a copy immediately or want an extra copy. I will not refund your money when you get your book from Fujifilm, nor can I tell you how long it will take to get it. Also, because I won't have your name in my data files, and because I receive so little money per copy from Fujifilm, I won't be able to offer updates or replacement disks.

 

The Basics

The Fujifilm S2 Pro has a feature set that sounds almost identical to the D100 (or any other serious digital or film SLR, for that matter). Indeed, most of the "camera" features of both are derived from the N80 body. In appearance the S2 Pro closely resembles the N80, though careful observation shows that the curves and lines on the back and bottom of the camera have been tweaked. The digital controls look and feel just like the S1 controls, a benefit to those upgrading from that body.

The autofocus system is fast, and features five sensors (CAM 900) that can track rapidly moving objects, or direct autofocus to a specific area of the frame. Autofocus detection works from EV –1 to EV 19 (specified at ISO 100). The metering range extends from EV 0 to EV 21, plenty wide for virtually any shooting you might do. Note that the spot metering range is slightly lower, from EV 3 to EV 21. Unless you make a habit of spot metering in unlit situations at night, you're not likely to encounter that limit.

Shutter speeds can be controlled in 1/2 stop increments from 30 seconds to 1/4000. All shutter speeds are handled mechanically on the S2. Indeed, the shutter sounds pretty much like the N80's in action (a very quiet "clunk" sound). Single shot and continuous firing at 3 fps is supported, though I have not found any condition that allows my S2 to achieve the stated maximum frame rate. The best I've been able to obtain is 2 fps. And it's relatively easy to (inadvertently) turn on features that would make motor drive even more leisurely in pace.

The S2 manages matrix metering the old-fashioned way, with a 10-segment metering pattern. The matrix metering also incorporates information about the focus point you’re using if you’ve mounted a “D-type” lens. Nikon also lists “subject positioning,” “overall scene brightness,” and “scene contrast” as factors in the matrix metering calculations. In short, it’s hard to second guess the camera as there are so many factors being considered. If simplicity suits you, the spot meter option is a better choice. (Centerweight is 60/40 and sees outside the CCD frame size, making it not overly useful.)

As befitting a serious camera, Fujifilm [Nikon] keeps the mode selection simple: Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, and Manual are the full lineup. Program mode is easily adjusted by spinning one of the control dials. There's also an automatic adjustment of the program due to focal length of the lens used; thus there is no “Program High” or other special automatic modes as there are in some other Nikon bodies. Like all Nikon bodies, you can override the programming using the rear command dial, something Nikon calls "Flexible Program."

An exposure compensation button gives you a +/- 3-stop range in 1/2-stop steps. A built-in bracketing system allows two or three shots at half-stop values up to 2 EV apart. Exposure (as well as autofocus) can be locked by on-camera controls (though this takes some reading of the custom functions to understand completely). ISO values can be set to 100, 160, 200, 400, 800 or 1600.

Flash sync works to 1/125 of second. Flash metering uses five TTL sensors and can be balanced, slow-synced, and synchronized with the rear curtain. Unlike the Nikon digital SLRs, Fujifilm seems to have made Nikon's regular TTL system work just fine with the SuperCCD. In other words, the Fujifilm S2 Pro can read TTL values by reflections off the CCD during exposure. The drawback to this is that TTL is only supported to ISO 400 (I suspect this has something to do with the changes Fuji made to the TTL meter reflection readings, as the N80 body supports higher ISO TTL). Thus, all your old Nikon Speedlights (e.g., SB-24, SB-25, SB-26, SB-28) work just fine with the S2--you don't need a DX-type Speedlight. Indeed, it's a joy to be able to use a wireless SB-26 with TTL on the S2, something that simply blows away the Nikon digital flash system.

In the viewfinder, you'll see 95% of the full frame, which means you're not seeing between 50 and 75 pixels worth of information at every edge (more if you set 12-megapixels as the size). Shutter speed, aperture, exposure mode, metering method, focus indicator, exposure compensation, and flash ready are all visible in the viewfinder, even to eyeglass wearers like me. Unfortunately, frame counter and/or buffer remaining indicators, as the D100 has, are not present. One annoying aspect of the S2's viewfinder is that it is simply a masked N80 viewfinder (the D100's was altered slightly). That means that the camera information appears quite far from the image area (i.e., there's a large space between the two). This takes a bit of adjustment, and it's impossible for me to pay attention to framing while looking at camera settings (or vice versa), even though they're both visible at the same time, even with my glasses on.

On the color LCD on the back of the camera, you'll see 100% of the image. Probably of most use on the color LCD is the ability to see a histogram of any picture you take, allowing you to tinker with exposure to get every last bit of dynamic range out of the sensor (like slide film, always expose so that the brightest highlight doesn't blow out--you can usually recover shadow detail that blocks up, but blown highlights are obnoxious to the eye and not easily fixable). Fujifilm's color LCD has a few foibles to note:

  • Colors are off. On five different S2 Pro bodies I've seen, I've seen five slightly different color interpretations. Some were off subtly, one was quite blue, another quite reddish in tint. You can't judge color by the color LCD.
  • The protective cover has to be removed to see well. Get one of Hoodman's solutions if you don't want to be jerking the cover on and off.
  • Histograms are hard to read. First, they're small in size and stuffed into the right corner of the already small display. Second, there is no differentiation of color between histogram points and the histogram frame, making it almost impossible to tell whether you've got a spike at the highlight end. On the plus side, you can look at histograms for individual colors.

The color LCD on the back doesn't display a preview of image before you take the shot (the S2's CCD is blocked by a shutter curtain and mirror, after all). Frankly, I don't find this to be a drawback at all, and a bit of a plus (the power-hungry color LCD is only on when you're reviewing pictures or making camera adjustments). The regular viewfinder is just fine for determining composition and focus, though the image is a bit smaller and darker than the N80's. But...the choices for review of images are problematic. You can Preview (wrongly named--it should be called Review and Accept) or Postview (or do it all manually). In Preview mode, you'd better make sure you hit the Save button for images you want to keep, else you'll be lamenting using the setting. In Postview mode, the image briefly flashes on the display, then disappears while it is being written to the storage card, then reappears after the write. Compared to the Nikon D1 and D100, this is annoying, to say the least, especially if your goal is to examine the histogram (yes, you can do that in Histogram Preview mode, but, like Preview mode, you must make sure to save images you want, something that takes a bit of getting used to, and which can be easily forgotten when shooting in haste).

And while we're on the subject of the color LCD, one other niggling detail bothers me: if the camera has gone inactive, you may have to reactivate the camera to get the color LCD to display something. Pressing any button should reactivate the camera (Nikon bodies do this, though I've noted a couple of times when the D100 didn't for reasons I can't explain).

The Fujifilm S2 takes any Nikon F mount lens (well, lenses earlier than the AI manual focus Nikkors damage the mount if you try to put them on the S2, and a few specific lenses won't work on the S2, usually because they have elements that stick into the mirror box and require mirror lock-up). Non-CPU lenses don't allow metering and must be used in Manual exposure mode. When you mount a lens on the S2, the effective focal length is increased by about 1.5x (e.g., a 20mm lens shows roughly the same angle of view as a 30mm lens would on a 35mm body [Note: the actual magnification impact is closer to 1.56x, which is somewhat higher than the D100, enough so to be visibly apparent with very wide angle lenses.]). Apertures aren't really affected by this change. Because only the central portion of the lens is used, if you've been making any exposure adjustments at maximum aperture to account for light falloff, you should not do that on an S2. The focal length change has several good points, and a couple of bad ones:

  • Free teleconverter. Your 300mm f/4 lens just started producing the angle of view of a 450mm f/4 lens! Wildlife and bird photographers love the extra "oomph" the S2 gives to their lenses.
  • Better optical quality. The fact that only the central area of any lens is used means that chromatic aberration is lessened, light falloff is reduced, corners are sharper, and even consumer-oriented lenses (such as the 18-35mm Nikkor) produce professional-looking results.
  • Wide angle options are limited. The widest rectilinear lens made is 14mm (though the 12-24mm DX Nikkor now gets you a bit wider), which produces basically the same results as a 22mm lens when you mount it on a S2. Also problematic is that all the 14mm lenses have a significant tendency towards flare and contrast reduction when light hits their pronounced front elements.
  • Depth of field judgment isn't quite right. The real key here is that you're likely to blow up the original image by a greater magnification than you would with 35mm, so you shouldn't use the 35mm standards, despite the fact that it may appear that you should (Fujifilm doesn't address this issue in their documentation or marketing materials; I do in my book).

The SuperCCD sensor the S2 Pro uses is currently unique to the S2. It consists of a 3024 x 2016 array, and it has massive (compared to the consumer cameras) photosites. That's just one reason why the S2 can produce 12-bit RGB images with rich color and low noise. Like virtually all digital cameras, a filter array is placed over the S2's CCD. This filter has three purposes:

  1. Provides the Bayer pattern. The Bayer pattern is named after the Kodak engineer who invented it. On the Fujifilm SuperCCD, this pattern is actually rotated 45 degrees to produce a set of color filters with an alternating pattern of GGGG... (on even-numbered rows) and offset RBRB... (on odd-numbered rows) pixels. The final image is rebuilt by interpolating the actual pixel values at each position. Fujifilm's odd pattern has a tendency to produce more horizontal and vertical detail than traditional patterns of the same size, but this comes at the expense of diagonal resolution. Some third-party RAW converters have trouble getting the S2's files rendered without patterns that are obviously CCD layout induced.
  2. Filters out some infrared. CCDs are sensitive to infrared light, and to keep infrared energy from biasing colors and exposure, some (but not all) of this light is filtered out. Near infrared response on the S2 Pro is still quite good.
  3. Provides a low-pass anti-aliasing filter. Digital sampling is subject to color fringing (artifacts) when high frequency detail in a scene approaches that of the sensor pitch.

The S2 Pro produces several different types of files: JPEG, TIFF, and RAF. The JPEG options work as you'd expect, but you pay a small penalty for using that format: the files are compressed and lose a bit of detail, plus they are converted to 8-bit format, losing some of the S2's tonal range in the process. Fujifilm's JPEG engine tends to produce very sharp-looking images, much more so than the Nikon D100. TIFF formats are available to prevent the compression loss, but they, too, produce only 8-bit RGB. The RAF format is the only one that retains the full data the S2 is capable of acquiring. Indeed, the RAF format contains exactly the data that came from the CCD, with no interpolation or camera processing! Unfortunately, you need an extra software program to fully use this format. The camera comes with an LE version that lets you get files from RAF into your editor, but the EX converter (also called Hyper Utility Software [yuck!]) gives you more control over post-exposure manipulations. As I write this, QImage, Bibble, Adobe RAW Converter, and at least one additional software interpolation program all understand RAF files, and I'm pretty sure we'll see others. But each seems to render images quite differently, as I noted in the 4th issue of my D1 Report (now Nikon Digital SLR Report). Only Fujifilm's converter seems to consistently produce excellent detail and color. Adobe RAW, for example, doesn't know how to find the S2 Pro's black point and sometimes produces incorrect results from a RAF file.

In the US, the S2 Pro comes with an initial set of batteries (4 heavy duty alkaline AA, 2 CR123a lithium). You'll want to get at least 1800 mAh Nimh rechargeable AA batteries and the charger for them. Battery life is quite dependent upon a number of factors, and can range from a couple of hundred shots to a thousand, at least in my observation so far. Note that IBM Microdrives use more power than Compact Flash cards, and thus, exhaust the batteries faster.

But everything isn't hunky dory in the battery realm. CR123 batteries seem to have a fairly limited life span in the S2, with 500-1000 exposures being about average, in my experience (and they discharge even when the camera is on AC power and even when the camera is OFF!). When they die the camera goes into what I call a "moping about" mode. The battery indicators may both indicate low, but the viewfinder display won't stay lit, and other features start to work sporadically (such as DOF preview). The camera will continue to mope until you either replace the CR123a, take the CR123a out and shoot just with the AA, or your AA go dead. If you shoot without the CR123a in, the battery indicators no longer are accurate (they'll read low even with fully charged AA's most of the time) and you lose use of the internal flash.

My recommendation: go to a warehouse store such as Costco and stock up on CR123a. The minute the top LCD shows a battery low indicator, pop the CR123a out and put fresh ones in.

The camera weighs in at 26.8 ounces, and that's without a lens or the battery, so it's a lot lighter than the D1, a bit heavier than the D100, but significantly heavier than the N80.

 

Handling

The S1 was often dubbed a man-made monster, and even called a "Frankencamera" [actually, the Germanic spelling and pronunciation seems more appropriate: Frankenkamera (FRONK en kom uh rah)]. The S2 still has that separation of digital and camera shooting controls, but I think now we're learning that most of the objection to that original S1 design really had something to do with the body upon which it was built. Frankly [FRONKLY ;-] I like the separation, and the only issue I see in the separate nature is that of the battery system.

In my review of the D100 I called it's aesthetics and build quality that of a Dodge RAM pickup. The S2 is in that same realm, I think: rugged and reliable, a bit tough looking, but not overly sophisticated or luxurious (I'm sure I'll be hearing from the DaimlerChrysler folk with that characterization ;~). The plastic color LCD cover, a few controls, and the door over the Compact Flash slot all seem a bit "cheap" relative to the rest of the camera. Little design touches aren't polished: the orange back light on the digital LCD mismatches the green back light on the top LCD.

Compared to the D100, the S2's right hand position is more refined and well thought out. You can actually hold the camera and shoot with only your right hand, should the desire strike you (the technique I've memorialized now as the Galen-Rowell-hanging-off-cliff-while-shooting position); the D100 doesn't have that feel to it.

Most camera controls with multiple settings (flash mode, metering mode, exposure compensation, etc.) are set by holding down the appropriate button and rotating one of the knurled command dials. Unlike the Nikon digital cameras, the unique digital controls aren't buried, but appear as a four-button/LCD combo on the back of the camera. Press the FUNC button, then press one of the four buttons (the LCD immediately above each shows the function and current setting) to change a setting. Press the FUNC button again and you get a different set of digital controls. White balance, focus area mode, image size, image quality, color, tone, sharpness and function level are all set this way. ISO, image quality and white balance use the Mode dial and command dials, and this seems pretty natural and straightforward. Better still, you can "lock" these settings so they aren't accidentally changed. The four button + LCD interface is also used for other things, such as previewing and browsing functions, while the LCD itself shows camera settings, date and time when not being used elsewise.

From a functional standpoint, the four button + LCD interface works flawlessly and gives you fast access to a number of useful functions. The Fuji S2 and the Nikon D100 have the same number of "extra" buttons on their back, but I like the Fuji's layout, consistency, and usability better. It'll take you all of a few minutes to get used to it, then it'll become second nature. With the D100, you have to look at the labels to remember which button does what (and sometimes you'll still scratch your head in puzzlement).

The color LCD position is less vulnerable to scratching and nose prints than the D1, but it's still quite vulnerable, what with it's sticking out the backside of the camera at a corner. The cheap cover Fuji supplies is easily scratched, and not completely transparent.

A lot has been written about the issue of CCD cleaning. Unlike a film camera, where the photosensitive surface is replaced every image, the CCD just sits there, shot after shot. In dusty and dirty environments, you'll end up with some of that ending up on your CCD (heck, the sealed F5 prism eventually gets dust and grime in it). The question is, what can you do about it? Well, Fujifilm endorses the Sensor Swab method. Moreover, the design of the Fujifilm CCD chamber is better for moving dust off the CCD imaging area (Nikon's has a frame around the CCD that restricts swab movement). The S2, thus, is the easiest of my current three digital bodies (D100, D1x, and S2) to clean.

The PC Sync, video out, Firewire, USB, and DC in connectors are all on the left side of the camera, with most behind a rubber door at the bottom.

Changing custom settings on the Fujifilm S2 is a breeze. Move the mode dial to CSM, then use the rear command dial to change between CSM numbers and the front dial to change values. Text for the the current CSM you're working on is shown on the color LCD. Getting to a CSM and changing it takes mere seconds, and has none of that repeated button pressing you find on the Nikon digital bodies. Bravo, Fujifilm.

The menus on the S2 aren't quite as well done, though. First there's that annoying camera-has-to-be-active problem I noted earlier. But playback menu design leaves a lot to be desired. The menus are identified by very cryptic icons at the bottom of the color LCD. And the items on each menu are isolated up in the middle of the display, use few words, and use a style completely different than the Setup menu (which is much better implemented). At least two of the Fujifilm engineers weren't talking to each other when they should have been.

 


 

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What About Image Quality?

Showing image quality on the Web is problematic. Either we suffer the degradation of JPEG, or we need lots of bandwidth to allow users to download and evaluate TIFF images (and that's assuming that you've color calibrated your monitor and maintain proper color spaces). Since I'm already running near capacity on bandwidth, I choose not to show high resolution images and will simply describe what I see. I suggest that if you want to see specific images, you should hop on over to DPReview and look at Phil Askey's very thorough image quality sections in his reviews (which also allow you to get to the original file should you want to examine more closely). One word of caution: Phil only tests at default settings, so his tests almost never show the best possible image quality a camera is capable of. Nevertheless, they do show what the out-of-box quality is likely to be. Care with settings will get you better quality every time, though.

So, that said, what about image quality, Thom?

JPEG Compared to the Nikon D100 at the same size, the S2 Pro's output is very sharp, and the colors tend to have a bit of Fujifilm exaggeration to them (think a mild Velvia effect). Greens have more yellow in them than the slightly magenta-ish Nikon rendering, but skin tones tend to be too warm. With proper setting of the Color and Tone controls, you can get close to a neutral rendering, but Nikon's AdobeRGB setting on the D100 is better if you want fully neutral and accurate color. Moiré is something you have to watch for in fine detail on the S2 Pro, but not nearly as out of hand as some seem to suggest. The JPEG engine generates more compression artifacts in aggressive settings than does the D100, but still far fewer than you'd find on consumer cameras. The 12-megapixel resizing done in camera is quite good--slightly better than doing a straight 2x enlargement in Photoshop--but artifacts are a bit more of a problem, too.

RAF You have a bit more ability to generate color neutral results with RAF files (the Fuji Hyper Utility Software allows you to save out to AdobeRGB, for example), though you still need to watch those Color and Tone settings carefully lest you sneak in some unwanted saturation and drift. Image quality was slightly disappointing, but that was probably my raised expectations (if JPEG looks better out of camera than on a D100, shouldn't RAF look better than NEF rather than merely equal?). Still, the 12-bit data and full post-exposure control over important variables gives you much subtler results than JPEG, and some may find Fujifilm's white balance wheel in their converter easier to understand than Nikon's pop-up and slider interface. All in all, pulling up RAF and NEF files shot side by side at recent workshops, I'd be really nit-picking if I were to try to describe any differences between the two. In short, you get 6-megapixel files that are state-of-the-art; if you can't produce superb 11x17" prints from a RAF file, you're doing something wrong. Like JPEG, the Fujifilm software allows for 12-megapixel images produced directly from the RAF file. I've been continually surprised at how much detail can be pulled out of a RAF file, indeed, a bit more than out of a D1x or D100.

NOISE Wow it's low (I can generate gray ramp files from the camera with most standard deviations near 1). Assuming you've avoided moiré and got your exposure correct, the S2 produces about the same low level of noise in detail-less areas of JPEGs as the D100, and visibly less noise in RAF files than the D100 produces in NEF files. But...get the exposure a bit wrong (or use too much Curve correction after the fact) and you might see a bit of obnoxiously patterned noise in the shadow areas. Noise on the S2 Pro is also significantly higher on long exposures than it is on the D100 with noise reduction ON, though my body does not seem at all prone to hot pixels on long exposures (I've taken 5 minute exposures that haven't had more than a half dozen hot pixels that needed fixing).

DYNAMIC RANGE I see 7 stops of dynamic range on a perfectly executed RAF file; anything more and you'll start to bring up noise in the shadows. Fujifilm's histogram implementation and half-stop settings unfortunately don't help you get your highlight detail slammed against the white ceiling. Moreover, Fuji's 252,252,252 maximum value clips an eensy bit of range, though does tend to protect you from highlight color shift when you color correct after the fact. Still, a very good performance.

OVERALL In a word: excellent. Color accuracy is probably the weakest point, but even there it's possible to get neutral color out of the camera. You have to work to get it though, as Fujifilm's default preferences seem to be for the type of color saturation we've seen in their films over the years.


Dynamic range on the S2 is as good as any CCD-based camera. Here I couldn't really use a graduated neutral density filter because it would show up as lines in the Snake River morning fog, so this is a real stretch of what the camera can do. The telling part is the detail in the shadow area at the far edge of the river--it's there, yet highlight detail has been held in both the fog and the snow on the Tetons. But note how the sky is a bit too cyan, a typical problem (I find myself adding +2 red +2 yellow on almost every S2 Pro sky rendering).

 

 

Exposure

While S2 users don't seem to be complaining about "underexposure" as much as D100 users, exposure is still a fairly common complaint amongst S2 users. A lot of this is user misunderstanding, but some is the way the Nikon matrix and center-weight metering systems work.

The matrix system tends to produce underexposure in high contrast situations, period, though the Fujifilm S2 seems to have a slight tendency towards a hotter exposure than the N80 and D100 in the same high contrast scene. When you shoot print film, you don't see the matrix "miss," as it's usually minor and the automated print equipment at your lab simply "fixes" it. With slide film and digital, what you get is what the meter sees, which is often an average of a dynamic range outside the ability of the film or CCD. And on both the D100 and S2, it seems as if the averaging tends to be a little low (probably to preserve highlight detail).

Centerweighted metering is also problematic on the S2, in my opinion. First, there's the fact that it is a 60/40 ratio (the pro Nikon bodies use 75/25, which is a better choice). But that 40% portion also sees some area outside the CCD frame! Thus, if you're not paying attention, white walls or black tuxedos just outside the CCD frame can really play havoc on the exposure values the camera sets.

But my biggest problem with the Fujifilm S2 falls back on those histograms. Curiously, the manual uses black and gray to distinguish histogram information from the histogram frame! If only Fujifilm had done the same on the color LCD. It's nearly impossible to tell how close you've pushed the highlight detail up towards the maximum, meaning that you tend to back the exposure off a bit just to be sure.

Ironically, the spot meters in both S2 bodies I've used tended to be about one-third stop off on the overexposure side. That's within the ANSI tolerance for meters, but it does go to show you need to run tests on your equipment to make sure you know what it thinks middle gray is.

One of the things I like about the S2 is its ability to do very good in-camera black and white. Note I said very good, not excellent. The S2's black and white isn't perfect, just good enough to use in a pinch with no post-production. Since Ansel Adams was the ultimate B&W nature shooter, I decided to mimic him at one of his famous spots. The trees have grown since Ansel was there, making the S bend in the river no longer visible, but fortunately the morning fog filled in for me here. This small version doesn't do the original file justice, though, since I've had to bump up the sharpening to see the detail at this size. And despite the contrast, the exposure meter was spot on.

I should note that when my S2 Pro came back from repair (see below), it was exposing differently. I now find that the camera routinely wants to expose a stop more than it did before (yes, I have a standard set up to measure this). Personally, I liked it the way it was, though adjusting to this new exposure level hasn't been a big issue for me, since I simply set the exposure compensation value to -1EV, something I tend to do with my D100 and D1x, as well. I've heard from others who've had the same repair as I did (PC board swap), and they've had similar stories. This doesn't speak highly of quality control, but I will say that Fujifilm handled the repair quickly, efficiently, and professionally. Moreover, the camera had clearly been well cleaned after repair, something that doesn't always happen at Nikon.

 

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Autofocus

I've seen posts that claim the S2 and D100 have faster autofocus than the N80. They don't. The D100 does have different default settings, which affects performance, but the S2 defaults are the same as the N80, and, as far as I can tell, the autofocus action is exactly the same. If you use dynamic autofocus, turn off Closest Subject Priority to get better autofocus in low light.

Using the central autofocus sensor only, the S2 is as fast at autofocus as any Nikon body. AF-S lenses "snap" to focus using the central sensor. The only times you'll see a difference between the S2 and the D1 series is in low light and off center subjects.

Fuji uses a slightly different autofocus sensor pad than the N80 (feels a bit more like the F5 pad than the N80 pad). It's nowhere near as stiff as the Nintendo pad the D100 uses, and the location is not burdened by nearby ridges or controls.

S1 users will be happy to know that AF-S lenses work as designed on the S2, with blindingly fast and silent autofocus.

 

 

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Drawbacks

  • It's not a D1. If you need fast flash sync, fast motor drive, brick-like durability, or a larger buffer size, a D1h or D1x is what you want.
  • Battery madness. The dual-battery nature of the S2 is a bit of a drag. Yes, you can operate the camera from Nimh AA's only. But if you do, you lose use of the internal flash. If you add CR123s in the grip to power the flash, you have to watch carefully for the point where the CR123s no longer power the camera--the battery displays aren't unequivocal in telling you when they are exhausted.
  • Manual lenses don't meter. AI and AI-S lenses and accessories can only be used in Manual exposure mode, and the meter is inoperative.
  • Minor quibbles abound. 1/2 stop exposure setting, TTL flash only up to ISO 400, restricted ISO values, not enough white balance settings, poor histogram implementation, cheap color LCD protector, no switchable NTSC/PAL output for those of us who travel, and questionable quality control come to mind.
  • Shot review issues. In the preferred Postview mode, the image flashes on the screen for only a second or two, then disappears while it is being written to the card, only to reappear again. An amateurish implementation, at best. And the critical histogram information can't be distinguished due to the width and color of the histogram box. One only has to compare Nikon's clear histogram view against Fujifilm's smaller, unclear view to understand the difference. (Fujifilm does get a bonus point for allowing us to look at individual channels, but that bonus point doesn't go far when you can't always tell whether the highlight is blown out or you're looking at the right-hand edge of the box. Tsk, tsk.)
  • Software immaturity and design. Finepix Viewer is adequate, but not particularly well featured. The Raw interpreters are slow and somewhat crude compared to, say, Nikon Capture (though they do a fine job of interpolating raw images). In particular, the inability to pick a file name and location for saving is a big, big liability. Tethered camera control is also a bit immature compared to the competitors. And all of the supplied software could use a better grounding in Mac and Windows interface standards.

Positives

While I wouldn't take my drawbacks lightly, they are minor compared to the pluses. The S2 takes beautiful, color-saturated photos and when used correctly can give any digital SLR on the market (as of August 2003) a run for the money. Yes, that means the Canon 1Ds and Kodak Pro 14n, as well. The S2 Pro loses a small bit in the resolution race, but not nearly as much as you might think. We may quibble about slight differences in color, or noise, or aliasing between these the 1Ds, Pro 14n, and S2 Pro, but these discussions are not a lot different than the Provia versus Ektachrome type of debate we used to have with film. In short, expect to produce darn good results out of this camera.

  • State-of-the-art image quality. Yes, I'm sure there are cameras with more resolution headed our way. But until they arrive, the S2 Pro can give anything on the market a run for the money. If you shoot JPEGs and need to avoid post-production workflow, I'm confident that the S2 is the best choice currently available, though you need to watch for moiré. If you shoot raw formats, the S2 Pro holds its own with the D100 and D1x, though the Fujifilm software is a bit more ragged than Nikon Capture. Indeed, the S2 holds up just as well against the Kodak Pro 14n and Canon 1Ds, both full-frame, high-resolution digital bodies.
  • Built-in film stocks. The color controls on the Fujifilm give you the option of shooting with very saturated color (ala Velvia), slightly exaggerated color (Provia), or neutral color (Aptia). While Nikon's models also give you color control, they do so in a graphic artist type of way (changing hue through the color wheel), Fujifilm's design gives you more of what you're probably looking for. If you want to make reds and greens pop, you can press a button on the S2 Pro and get it.
  • Well sized, very comfortable, fast in operation. The S2 Pro is a bit bigger than the D100, but it's easier to hold steady with one hand due to the plastic molding on the right side of the camera back. And the four-button control center lets you change (and lock!) the digital controls very, very rapidly.
  • The return of Nikon's normal TTL. Since the S2 Pro measures TTL flash during exposure, the results are generally more reliable than those on a D1 or D100. Moreover, wireless flash works with Standard TTL!
  • Custom Settings done the right way. Nikon, are you listening? This is the way custom settings should be implemented. Fast. Consistent with the rest of the interface design. Plenty of words to indicate what you're setting.
  • Easier to clean CCD. Not only does Fujifilm endorse use of the Sensor Swab method of cleaning, but the CCD isn't buried inside a restrictive bracket like the Nikon models are. That means you can actually get a swab off the CCD area and don't leave little dust bunnies on the frame edge, as sometimes happens with a D1 or D100.

S2 Summary

A big step forward from the S1 model, and a very competitive digital SLR.

Features:

Reliability:

In the field:

Value:

Bottom line: If you want a 6-megapixel, Nikon-based SLR, you'll have a tough time choosing between the Fuji S2 and the Nikon D100. Look very carefully at the differences. There may be one that pushes you towards one camera or the other. If you're coming form an S1, don't even think: run out and get the S2.

 

 

 
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Update

I've gone back and again made many subtle changes to the review to bring it up to date, but a couple of things needed more highlighting than would have been noticed within the body of the review:

  • My S2 died. Well, perhaps "died" is too strong a word, but it stopped taking usable pictures. In the middle of one workshop the camera suddenly began writing strange green lines across high resolution images (the lines seemed to disappear when the camera was set to render low resolution JPEG files [see image at right]). Fujifilm fixed the camera quickly, replacing the main digital PC board (the part that does all the hard work with the data from the sensor). One immediately noticed change was that the camera now exposed more like my D100 and D1x and typically needed to be set to -1EV to keep highlights from blowing out (which, of course, then necessitates using a Curve in Photoshop to bring the shadows back up). Noise, if anything, seems even lower than the original! Indeed, until about ISO 800 noise levels stay very low on this camera. Color also seems a bit more accurate, though I still see the dreaded cyan in skies and still run a Photoshop Action to correct that on almost every outdoor image I shoot with the camera. I'm still amazed at the image quality you can wring out of this camera, though I'm now concerned about its reliability (and that's reflected in my ratings, above).
  • Fujifilm needs a software guru and complete re-do. Even with the welcome new features of the 2.0 update to the EX Raw converter, Fujifilm's software lags so far behind the current state of the art that it is embarrassing. Finepix Viewer barely holds its own against trivial shareware products. Macintosh users, in particular, suffer, though at least OS-X is now supported. Software performance (rendering speed, etc.) is noticeably slower than the alternatives. Still, underneath the ugly surface, Fujifilm's raw converter does a much better job than any of the other available tools. I suspect we have engineers slapping some code on base routines to create the software, not user interface designers polishing user procedures and UI.
  • Workflow suffers. Partly because the Fujifilm software is so poorly designed, and partly because Fujifilm apparently hasn't shared enough RAW format and EXIF details with third parties, workflow for an S2 user isn't anywhere near what we have for the D1/D100 (or even the Canon models, which also come with somewhat poor software but at least have better alternatives available due to Canon's widespread distribution of a SDKs). Adobe RAW Converter is fast and makes for nice workflow with the S2 Pro, but it often renders detail poorly and gets color temperature, and thus colors, wrong more often than not. QImage renders beautifully, but is a pain in the butt to figure out how to use. Bibble isn't accurate in color, detail, or white balance. But don't laugh because you're shooting JPEG images. Getting moire out of your JPEG image is going to take a third-party tool that might not get it all (if we knew how Fujifilm was rendering the JPEG, we could code an S2-aware tool to automate the process or removing moire).

If you've read my review and update, you're probably thinking that I'm not as positive about the S2 Pro as I was before. Yes and no. While it is true that I use my S2 Pro less than my workhorse D1x, for the right image (hint: think skin tone or greens) the S2 Pro is my camera of choice. What bothers me more as time goes on is the software side of the equation. I've watched Nikon iterate View and Capture into relatively mature, fully color managed, useful applications that accommodate reasonable workflow and have decent performance (even on the Macintosh, which was Nikon's liability before). I've seen third-party software, such as DigitalPro and Capture One DSLR show up even Nikon's now respectable workflow. Meanwhile, Fujifilm's software is not only not iterating as quickly, but it still gets too much in the way of a smooth workflow. It's time for Fujifilm to make a decision: whip the software into shape or give out the proprietary details so that others can do so.

And, of course, I'm now concerned about reliability. Astute readers will have noticed that I had a question mark next to my reliability rating in the original review. That question mark is gone now. My experience with the S2 Pro as compared to my multiple Nikon bodies (none of which have failed me yet, knock wood) forces me to give the S2 Pro a lower rating here than the D100 or D1x I also use regularly. And I don't think I'm alone. I hear more from S2 Pro users about camera failures than I do from D100 users (given unit volume and the fact that I've sold more D100 books than S2 Pro books, I'd expect the opposite).

Still, every time I pick the S2 Pro up and shoot, I produce very nice images, with detail and color (with a bit of extra processing) that is excellent. If you shoot JPEG, the S2 Pro is a better camera than the D100 for only a few extra dollars. If you shoot RAW, the Nikon D1x and Kodak Pro 14n are other cameras you should consider, but the S2 Pro holds its own quite well and costs considerably less. The price you pay for using an S2 Pro over a D1x or Pro 14n comes in the post-processing software. It's slower and more difficult to use.



 

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Yep, that's my usual (white background) resolution chart I supply with the eBook shot right after my S2 Pro started acting up. Apparently the camera thought it was the Incredible Hulk, as it decided to puff up green.


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