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Fuji S1

by Philip Greenspun, 1997


Fuji's S1 offers many of the things that one takes for granted with a film camera. It is a single-lens reflex. What you see in the viewfinder is an accurate representation of what will be recorded on film. If you take a picture of your friend and, a split second later, his expression changes to be just right, you can release the shutter again and capture another image immediately. The user interface is sufficiently simple that you could use the camera without reading the manual. Why are these things remarkable? The Fuji S1 is a digital camera. If you've been using a point-and-shoot style digital camera, e.g., Nikon 9xx series, you'll find the Fuji S1 to be an enormously more capable picture-taking machine.

The Fuji S1 is a sub-$3000 3-megapixel camera built on a Nikon N60 body, i.e., the cheapest and most plasticy Nikon film body circa 1998. As such, the S1 accepts more or less the full range of Nikon F-mount lenses. This makes the camera highly suitable for specialized tasks such as macro or wildlife photography.

Operation

Eyeglass wearers will find the eye relief of the viewfinder adequate to see the entire frame plus the LCD display underneath. The in-finder LCD shows aperture and shutter speed plus a bar-graph scale for exposure compensation or metering suggestions in metered-manual mode.

The camera operates fast and modelessly. There is no "playback mode" in which you cannot hold the camera up to your eye and take a picture. The camera is always ready to expose a photo.

Instead of a deep menu system, Fuji puts the functions that you really need on a set of four push-buttons on the back. These are right underneath what I'll call the "rear LCD control display", just above the LCD monitor. Normally the display shows date and time, camera ISO setting (320, 400, 800, 1600)--thank you, Fuji, for keeping this in front of the photographer at all times--AA battery level, type of storage media in use, and number of exposures remaining. Press the adjacent "Func" button however and you can use the four buttons underneath to set white balance, ISO, compression level, and image size. Press Func again and the four buttons switch to control color saturation, contrast, sharpening, and multiple exposure mode. You will only very rarely be using the main-screen menu with the Fuji S1. This is a very welcome change from competitive digital SLRs.

The camera retains the Nikon N60s simple on/off switch around the shutter release and mode dial on the top left of the camera. The mode dial offers the usual M, A, S, and P settings plus things like "sports" and "portrait" modes. Once you're in a mode, this is a "one dial camera". For example, if you're in metered-manual mode, the main control dial adjusts shutter speed. To adjust aperture, you press a (clearly labelled with an aperture icon) shift button and simultaneously turn the dial. If you're in aperture-priority mode, the main control dial adjusts aperture. To adjust exposure compensation, you press a shift button and simultaneously turn the dial. I hate this. I like the Canon film and digital bodies: one dial next to the shutter release for your finger; one dial on the camera back for your thumb. It is much faster to work with two dials than one.

After you've taken a picture, press the "Play" button to reivew your work on the LCD monitor. The four magic buttons change to offer Histogram, Erase, Lock, and Mark for Printing. The histogram feature is the best that we've seen on any digital camera. The histogram is an unobtrusive and transparent overlay on top of the still-visible photograph. If you keep pressing the button you can get histograms for individual colors.

Bottom line: Fuji sensibly makes the owners manual available online but you won't be needing it.

ISO 320 ISO 800 ISO 1600
Digital photo titled alex-iso-320 Digital photo titled alex-iso-800 Digital photo titled alex-iso-1600

Image Quality

Fuji proffers some mumbo-jumbo about pulling 6 megapixels out of their 3.2 megapixel sensor. But unless you want to waste a lot of space on your Microdrive, set the camera to capture at 2304x1536 pixels. According to people who've carefully compared, e.g., Phil Askey's review referenced below, there is no image quality advantage to be had in capturing at 6 megapixels and reducing later.

Working photographers rave about this machine's color fidelity. It seems to be an ideal machine for studio catalog photography. One serious limitation for photojournalism and landscape, however, is that the camera captures only 8 bits per color. You can create 24-bit JPEGs or 24-bit TIFFs in the camera. But there is no RAW mode where a full 10 or 12 bits per color are saved onto the flashcard for subsequent processing. In the studio where lighting is carefully controlled, this isn't a problem. But in the natural world it means that you risk losing highlight and shadow detail at the moment of image capture, never to be recovered again. Below, for example, are a couple of images taken on a sunny day. The S1 has done remarkably well by digital camera standards, even at the standard contrast setting.

Standard Contrast Low Contrast
Digital photo titled little-john-std-contrast Digital photo titled little-john-low-contrast

(Also check out the image at the very top of this review; the white brick wall behind the shaded subject would typically be completely washed out. But the Fuji was smart enough to preserve some detail in the wall.)

Bottom line: for most purposes, this camera offers image quality similar to that of a Canon D30 or Nikon D1.

Lenses

You can use the modern Nikon AF-S lenses with this camera but they won't autofocus. The standard Nikon AF-D lenses, where autofocus is achieved via a screwdriver blade turning in the lensmount, work perfectly. Keep in mind that the Fuji S1's imaging sensor is smaller than the 24x36mm frame of 35mm film. So the effective focal length of a lens is multiplied by 1.5. A dramatic 20mm wide angle turns into a boring 30mm semi-wide. A 300mm zoo photography lens turns into a 450mm wildlife photography lens.

When changing lenses, remember that there is a risk of dust falling onto the sensor. Once on the sensor, it will not come off by itself. Pressing a combination of buttons on the S1 results in the mirror locking up so that you can blow dust off the sensor. Keep in mind that some tenacious dirt will require a trip to the professional camera repair shop for cleaning. Don't change lenses in dusty environments (read our Nikon D1 review for a dust-on-sensor story).

Bundled Software

Fuji includes some very interesting software with the camera. First and foremost, you can drive the camera from a PC or Macintosh. This is good fun. Click "shoot" with the mouse and you hear a satisfying clunk from the camera. A few seconds later, the image shows up on your computer screen for review. The computer can also drive the camera for time-lapse photography.

Fuji also bundles something called "Exif Viewer". This is for transferring and arranging exposures. I prefer the Zoom Browser EX software bundled with Canon digital cameras. The lack of a mercury switch in nearly all digital cameras (see below) means that roughly half of one's images need to be manually rotated. In the Canon software this can be done by clicking the right mouse button on a thumbnail. With the Fuji software you double-click to open the image. Then you move the mouse precisely over the "rotate left" icon. Then you Save As. Very painful after a few hundred images.

Flash photography

The top-deck contains a weak built-in flash as well as a hot shoe that can drive any Nikon-dedicated flash or a trigger for studio strobes.

Power

The Fuji S1 requires three battery sources: four AAs to run the digital back, two lithiums to run the camera, and a tiny battery to run the clock. The camera is typically packaged with an AC adaptor for studio use.

Storage

You can use a CompactFlash card, a SmartMedia card, or an IBM Microdrive in the S1. Oftentimes the camera is sold bundled with a 1 GB Microdrive. One really horrific user interface item: the camera functions perfectly without any storage media loaded. You look through the viewfinder and release the shutter. There is no warning in the viewfinder LCD. You look at the top-deck LCD. There is no warning that the camera is not going to record anything. You look at the rear LCD monitor. There is no warning that the camera is not going to record anything, despite the fact that this LCD is capable of displaying arbitrary text menus. The only indication is a tiny exclamation point in the upper right hand corner of the rear LCD control display and the fact that the number of remaining exposures is "0".

[Note that the Canon D30 has a similar problem. I watched a friend of mine spend 20 minutes photographing his child at the beach before noticing that there was no flash card in the camera.]

Warts

The Kodak DCS cameras contain a mercury switch so that JPEGs are correctly oriented when the camera is held vertically. The Minolta Maxxum 7 contains a mercury switch so that it displays correctly oriented text on its rear LCD when the camera is held vertically. The Fuji S1 Pro has no idea whether or not it is being held vertically. Consequently, all of the images that you take vertically will have to be manually rotated in software post-exposure.

Alternatives

If you've got a big Canon lens system, consider the Canon D30. If you need to use Nikon AF-S lenses, go for something in the D1 series (warning: the Nikon user interface is terrible compared to the Fuji). If you don't want to worry about multiple batteries, multiple lenses, a multi-thousand dollar price tag, and cleaning dirt off the sensor, look at the Olympus E10.

Conclusion

Digital photo titled melissa The Fuji S1 is a very nice picture-taking tool from a group of engineers that obviously understands the needs of real photographers. It was introduced in the summer of 2000 and therefore we can probably expect an improved digital SLR from Fuji soon. This should be highly competitive unit.

At right: an example of the high quality metering system in the Fuji S1. The default automatic exposure settings dealt just fine with this backlit subject.

More


Text and photos copyright 2001 Philip Greenspun.
All of the images on this page were taken with the 17-35 Nikon AF-S lens (manually focussed due to the S1's limitations with AF-S lenses). To download the full-size image from the camera to your browser, click on a thumbnail, remove the ".half" from the URL, then grab the full-size image. All images were captured at 2304 pixels wide (3 megapixels).

Article created 1997

Readers' Comments


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John Haugaard , August 25, 2001; 01:53 P.M.

Regarding the removal of persistent dirt from the CCD, Fuji describes, and at least implicitly sanctions, an "at home" cleaning method described at

http://www.fujifilmsupport.com/faq/tech/ccd_clean/accept.htm

Martin Wong , August 26, 2001; 10:39 A.M.

My mentor uses a Fuji S1, but only on manual mode. He tried using it on aperature priority, but it consistently overexposed by more than 2 stops. The meter on this camera is not very accurate.

John Haugaard , August 26, 2001; 01:59 P.M.

Perhaps it would be better to say that the meter on HIS camera is not very accurate. Or better yet, the aperature priority setting on his camera is faulty. If the meter were that bad, I'm certain it would affect the use of the manual mode as well. I use an S1 with a very accurate meter in both aperature priority and manual modes.

Jay J. Pulli , August 26, 2001; 02:23 P.M.

The color saturation and image quality as shown in these examples are a large step above what I have seen produced by the Nikon Coolpix 7-8-9xx series cameras. Much more "film-like".

Andrew Grant , August 27, 2001; 11:34 P.M.

I am not sure why Philip likes the Canon Zoombrowser software. Most D30 and G1 users hate it and find alternatives for their RAW conversion needs (e.g. Breeze Browser). Cameras like the S1 which do not shoot RAW can use any JPEG image browser such as Thumbs+.

I am also not sure why Philip keeps comparing the E-10 to these 35mm lens mount SLRs. It is not in the same class either price or performance wise. It is very well built and has an optical TTL viewfinder but it uses a very small and noisy (by the standards of the S1/D30/D1) sensor.

Conventional wisdom is that the S1 produces great images particularly at high ISOs but is let down by the poor camera body it is built on. Lower ISOs and a RAW mode would be additions to a follow up model.

If you have non AFS/VR Nikon lenses and can't afford the D1x or D1h this camera is a good choice. If you don't already own a set of lenses then, for about the same money, the D30 is IMHO a better choice. It works with all Canon lenses, has a much better flash system than the S1, more and better camera body controls and a higher framerate. It also has a RAW mode, lower ISOs and one battery type. The batteries last forever BTW, with the portrait grip loaded with two batteries, it is good for around 1000 frames.

Philip Greenspun , August 28, 2001; 02:03 A.M.

Andrew: I like the Zoom Browser software because it is the best that I've used. I haven't tried the alternatives that you mentioned but I may well start now that you've educated me. At first I thought Zoom Browser was sort of lame but after trying the software provided with Fuji and Nikon cameras, Zoom Browser seemed tolerable.

I guess you're probably right about the image quality on the E10 not being comparable to the S1/D1/D30. But the E10 remains for me one of the best-executed digital cameras. The lens is the right size and coverage for the sensor. You can't get dirt on the sensor. You can leave the camera on the shelf for a few months and the batteries will still be ready to go (because they're Lithiums, baby!). And the price is down to around $1000 now, less than the cost of an f/2.8 zoom to fit onto the S1/D1/D30.

I think I'll buy whatever the next version of the E10 is (and probably also the next version of the D30, if only to photograph wildlife).

Rich Shelton , August 29, 2001; 06:12 A.M.

I have recently written a user review of the S1. There is also an important article on removing a very slight "green cast" from S1 images. Have a look at http://www.sheltons.net/rich.htm . Click on "equipment Reviews" to see the articles. Hope this helps!

Rich Shelton

Andrew Grant , August 29, 2001; 06:13 P.M.

Philip: You are probably correct in saying that Zoombrowser is better than some or most of the bundled software out there. Unfortunately, all the bundled software pretty much sucks. If you are shooting JPEG Zoombrowser's major problem is lossy rotation of images (very lossy). For RAW processing, it is so horrible that at least 3 or 4 third party alternatives exist. Iis very slow to convert RAW files, requires the THM file which it then deletes and puts the info in a database which it eventually corrupts.

Most Olympus digicam users do not regularly use the lithium batteries. They are far too expensive. AA Metal Hydride rechargeables are popular and for the E-10 there is always the LIPO grip for the affluent (it costs about $600). E-10 owners tend to use their cameras quite frequently as do almost all owners of expensive digital cameras. You have to be quite keen to spend that kind of money and with no film processing costs the camera can pay for itself quite quickly. The instant feedback and frequent use make digital cameras great learning tools. The lack of exposure lattitude helps too.

Although the digital SLRs are very expensive and do not use the whole lens, they are far more flexible. e.g indoor/low light available light photography with fast prime lenses, macro photography, portraits with a shallow DOF. The E-10 has the same limitaions as a very slow Zoom lens on a film SLR. The E-10 lens may be fast, but the sensor isn't. Above ISO 80 it is far too noisy.

Finally only using the center part of the lens has one major advantage, it compensates for lens defects. The Sigma 14 doesn't look to good on an EOS film body (vignetting, loss of resoultion at the images edges), but on a D30 it actually looks pretty good (it is a 22mm lens on that camera though).

Paul Fowler , September 04, 2001; 10:58 P.M.

Andrew,

I don't think you can rightly compare a 14mm lens on a film camera to the same lens on a digital body. As you say, the 14mm on digital equates to a 22mm equivalent, highlighting one of the major flaws of digital bodies - if you are into wide - forget it.

A fairer comparision would be the 14mm/digital combo compared to a 20 or 24 mm lens on a film body. The image quality of either a good 20mm or 24mm would surpass that of a 14mm (and at a fraction of the cost).

John Haugaard , September 05, 2001; 09:14 A.M.

I believe that the point Andrew was driving at was that, in order to get a 22mm equivalent on an S1 or D30 you needn’t spend relatively large amounts on a Nikon or Canon ultra-wide. Rather, a “bargain-priced” Sigma, Tamron or Tokina might do just as well.

I didn’t read it as “a 14mm on a film camera is better or worse than on a digital.” Instead, a 14mm Sigma on an digital might be nearly as good as a much more expensive name brand ultra-wide on a digital.

Mark Wilkins , November 11, 2001; 05:09 P.M.

Given the extent of the preprocessing this camera does to the image through its white balance setting, contrast, sharpness, etc. before it gets converted to 8-bits-per-channel, if you can get the results you need in-camera the color depth isn't such a big problem. It's obvious most of that processing is happening before the 8-bit conversion.

Resolution on this camera is highly comparable to what I've seen from 2K by 1.5K film scans from motion picture film (where the image frame is about half that of a 35mm film frame.) That's pretty good, but it's not quite the fidelity of 35mm film. I suspect I'll be using my S1 to test exposures for shooting on film (sometimes 35, sometimes 6x7) when I'm really interested in getting that last 3% of image quality I can manage... but those cases will be pretty rare.

The flash metering issue isn't such a big deal unless you like to use daylight fill flash. Regular TTL metering, even on my F100, is the best mode to use when flash is the main illumination or you're taking the flash off camera or bouncing it.

Things I miss with this camera having used an F100 for a few years:

* No DOF preview

* No spot metering mode

* No AF Start button

* I wouldn't have called the F100 efficient with battery power until now.

Things I don't miss about the F100:

* Dust control (except when changing lenses)

* Changing film (750 shots or so on a 1GB microdrive, yeesh!)

* Changing filters (white balance takes care of it and doesn't require more exposure.)

* Scanning slides myself, especially when they're just snapshots I took to throw on the web.

Things that the S1 has on my friend's D30:

* Plug it in via USB and it mounts as a disk drive, if you have USB storage drivers installed. (At least, if the D30 does this he hasn't figured out how.)

-- Mark

Ginger Baker , May 12, 2002; 09:45 P.M.

While I have been thrilled with the Fuji S1 price tag and performance, its sturdiness leaves much to be desired. In 18 months of use in the field, I have had to have the housing body replaced twice. The service center was neither quick, or helpful. The New Jersey center not only never sent estimates or any communications, but returned the unrepaired camera back due to "lack of response". In a studio setting it would most likely be a great tool. In the field, in normal use and circumstance, it seems overly delicate. After 10 years of Nikon F series bodies, using the S1 is like wearing glass slippers rock climb.

Ray Rupnow , April 25, 2006; 09:18 P.M.

I have never tried the S1 but I have the Fuji S2, as a matter a fact 2 of them...and so far I like them alot...not sure yet if they compare in all situations to film,let alone stand up to my sturdy ol Nikon F4's... they never will do that. I do love the convienience of digital... that's for sure.

I don't notice very many photographers on Photo.net using any Fuji Digitals ...anyone know why? I think the color is very good...the cameras are well laid out as far as controls... and the main plus for me... they use Nikon lenses...

Image Attachment: Sunrise Picture 521.jpg


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