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Fuji FinePix S1 Pro

A 3.5 megapixel "SuperCCD" gives superb color and amazing low-light capability in an under-$4,000 SLR digicam!

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Page 3:Design

Review First Posted: 8/1/2000


With a body based on the Nikon N60 film camera, Fujifilm's new FinePix S1 Pro digital SLR looks a lot like a traditional 35mm SLR camera. The camera doesn't ship with any lenses, but features a lens mount that accepts Nikon F-mount compatible lenses, offering arguably the broadest range of lens optics in the world. (The manual provides a very detailed listing of compatible lenses.) Size-wise, the S1 body weighs in at 28.2 ounces (800 g) without a lens or batteries, and measures 5.8 x 4.9 x 3.1 inches (149 x 125 x 80 mm). While compact portability isn't much of a factor with this camera, the S1 does come with a neck strap for added support. We were surprised by how compact the S1 actually was: The specs above will seem bulky to our readers accustomed to seeing numbers for typical consumer digicams, but compared to other "Pro" digital SLRs, it's positively svelte: It really isn't much larger or heavier than many film-based SLRs.



The front of the camera mainly features the lens mount, auto/manual focus switch, the AF assist lamp (amazingly bright for its tiny size) which helps the camera focus in low light situations), the front of the pop-up flash and its release button, and the lens release button. There's also a rather hefty handgrip on the left side, courtesy of the lithium-cell battery compartment, which provides a firm hold on the camera with natural resting places for your fingers. (A very comfortable grip.) The video, DC and mini-USB output jacks are hidden beneath a flexible rubber cover just below the lens mount.



The right side of the camera (when viewed from the rear) consists solely of a beefy handgrip, courtesy of the CR123A battery compartment takes.



The left side of the camera sports the AA battery compartment, with a secure and easily-operated latching door.



From the back panel of the S1, the majority of the camera's control features are visible. Both the optical viewfinder and the LCD monitor are located in the rear, the former with a dioptric adjustment dial for adjusting the focus of the viewfinder for eyeglass wearers. Aside from the control buttons, there's a small, monochrome LCD data readout (directly over the main LCD monitor) which provides an easily-navigated menu system, allowing you to change some camera settings, great for saving battery power. This smaller LCD display also illuminates during use, good for shooting in dark situations situations. Also present on the rear panel are the media slots, which host CompactFlash Type I or II (including the IBM MicroDrives) and SmartMedia cards. The card bay is protected by a hinged plastic door that snaps firmly into place.



More exposure controls are located on the top panel of the camera. The mode dial and self-timer button are on the left side of the camera, while the power switch, shutter button, exposure compensation button, aperture button, flash button and another black and white data readout lie on the right side. The pop-up flash compartment takes up the center of the panel above the viewfinder prism, as well as the hot shoe for mounting an external flash.



The S1 features a nice, flat bottom, with a metal tripod socket and the lithium battery compartment door sharing the space. The lithium battery compartment door is sufficiently distant from the tripod mount to allow you to change batteries while working with a tripod, although in practice the lithium batteries will very rarely need to be changed.

Design: Who's it for?

One point that's come up repeatedly in online discussions of the S1 is the "consumer" heritage of its camera body: The Nikon N60 it's based on is really an entry-level consumer film camera. This means it will lack the cast-metal ruggedness of professional bodies, as well as some of the environmental seals around key controls (to keep out dust and moisture). The consumer-level body also doesn't support the latest "S-series" ("silent wave" focus motor) Nikkor lenses, and will generally operate more slowly, both in terms of autofocus speed and continuous-mode frame rates. These factors will rule out the S1 for professional applications involving extreme environmental conditions (shooting in a driving rain storm, for instance), or situations in which high frame rates are needed (sports and action shooting).

The "consumer" body of the S1 has lead many on the Internet to write it off, calling it a camera without a constituency, too expensive for the amateur, but too limited for the professional. While we wouldn't pretend to being pros ourselves, after working with the camera for a few days we feel that it does indeed have a place in the market, and in fact is a very strong entry in the SLR digicam field. While it may not be your first camera choice for that next jungle expedition you were planning, the build quality of the S1 is excellent, and should prove very reliable in any sort of reasonably careful usage. It has a pleasant heft and conveys a comfortable sense of solidity, with no taint of cheapness anywhere in its construction, that we could see. As for it's shooting speed, its tempting to simply divide the world into two camps, as many pundits have done: "Pros" and "everyone else". This division maintains that anyone shooting pictures professionally absolutely needs a 5 frame per second motor drive, and that anyone else will be perfectly content with a camera that cycles in 5-10 seconds. Examined more closely, this is obviously ludicrous. The fact is that there are a vast number of 35mm photographers who routinely shoot without high-speed motor drives, but for whom the leisurely pace of consumer-level digicams is simply unworkable. There's an enormous amount of commercial photography done every day that fits this range of performance. Categories include product photography, portraiture, general corporate work, and doubtless many others as well. For photographers in these categories, the S1 Pro represents an excellent photographic tool: While slower than some more expensive digital SLRs, the S1 is so much faster than any consumer digicam we've tested that it's really in an entirely separate class. It may not be usable in a hurricane or sandstorm, but for any normal human environment, it should work just fine. Its exposure versatility, range of color and tone controls, and absolutely superlative color (really the best we've found in a digicam to date) make it a powerful photographic tool, at a price thousands less than most competing models.

The "SuperCCD"
We first reported on Fuji's patented "SuperCCD" technology almost a year ago, when it was announce to the public at Fall Comdex '99. Since then, SuperCCD technology has been the source of some controversy, not the least of which is due to Fuji's claims that it's unique sensor geometry permits more image interpolation than does the rectilinear layout of conventional CCDs. (And, just to be clear, all single-sensor/single-shot color digicams use some degree of interpolation to produce their pictures.) There are two major differences between Fuji's SuperCCD technology and conventional configurations: 1) SuperCCD uses an octagonal cell layout that increases the amount of light-sensitive surface area in every cell, and 2) The SuperCCD rows and columns overlap slightly and are rotated 45 degrees. This theoretically improves resolution (at least somewhat) over a conventional sensor with a rectilinear layout.

For clarification on the Super CCD technology, here's a repeat of the information we published as part of our Fall '99 Comdex coverage (where the Super CCD was first announced).

According to Fuji, the SuperCCD's layout offers an effective resolution some 60% better than a standard CCD, as well as 130% better sensitivity, dynamic range and signal/noise ratio, 50% better color reproduction and significantly better power consumption (assuming that a SuperCCD with 40% fewer pixels can match the resolution of a standard CCD). The logical question is - how can simply changing the shape and orientation of the photodiodes in a SuperCCD produce such a dramatic improvement in image quality? Borrowing heavily from Fuji's own explanation, here's a quick summary of the reasons:

  • Higher horizontal/vertical resolution: According to Fuji's research, due to gravity the usual characteristics of natural scenes tend towards more spatial frequency power in the horizontal and vertical planes, and analysis shows that the human eye makes use of this tendency, being more sensitive to high frequency information on these axes. A look at the layout of a conventional CCD shows that it has an exactly opposite tendency, offering a higher capture resolution on the 45 degree diagonals. The SuperCCD's layout reverses this, matching the human eye in capturing its highest resolution horizontally and vertically. (Note that the images below with borders can be clicked on to see larger versions.)

    Click here for a larger version!

  • Increased sensitivity, signal/noise ratio and dynamic range: The SuperCCD does away with the need for a control signal path as required in normal CCDs, allowing the photodiode to increase in size (and hence increasing the area of light that it can capture). At the same time, the shape of the photodiode is changed from rectangular to octagonal, which more closely matches the circular form of the microlens over it, again allowing for an increase in the effectiveness of light capture. This increased light capture allows for the gains in sensitivity (Fuji predicts an ISO rating of 800 in its brochure), signal/noise ratio and dynamic range.

    Click here for a larger version!

    At the same time, Fuji claims two further enhancements with the SuperCCD - both the video frame rate and the ability to use an electronic shutter (i.e.. turn the CCD on/off) rather than using a mechanical shutter, much more simply than is possible with a conventional CCD. Since the color layout of the SuperCCD features the R, G and B pixels on every horizontal line, it becomes simple to skip horizontal lines when reading from the CCD for video. With a conventional CCD, each horizontal line contains only the R and G or G and B pixels, necessitating that consecutive lines must be read to recapture the full RGB color information, and slowing down video capture. Fuji's SuperCCD can offer skipped readout at ratios of 1/2, 1/3 and more, offering video frame rates of 30 frames per second at 1/3 of the sensor resolution. The SuperCCD also takes a different approach to how it transfers charge through the transmission path, adding an extra packet to the standard three packets required to eliminate the mechanical shutter with a conventional CCD, at the same time as increasing the width of the transmission path to accommodate this. The result is the ability to control shutter speed completely from the CCD itself.

    Click here for a larger version!


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