Camera review: FujiFilm FinePix S9100

Bottom line: love the camera body and the user interface, good lens, good grip, but the CCD sensor is not as good as it should be. Read on for the details.

I won’t bore you with the specs, which you can check out for yourselves. I’m going to focus on real-world use. I purchased the FinePix S9100 because I wanted a good camera that would tide me over until I purchase a great DSLR (I’m eyeing the EOS 5D). I had no DSLR expectations from the S9100. I just wanted a decent digital camera with a good grip. I don’t like smallish cameras made for a woman’s hand, because they’re too light and don’t feel right in my hand. The S9100 was pretty close in dimensions to medium-sized DSLRs, and that was a strong selling point for me. I also liked the FinePix S line’s reputation. People kept saying these cameras take really good photos, and I wanted to see for myself. There were other selling points, such as the much-touted low light sensitivity, the 9 megapixel resolution, the 10x manual optical zoom, and the fact that it used AA batteries. I have a whole slew of rechargeable AA NiMH batteries at home, and I looked forward to the day when I could use them properly.

So, I got the camera this past Tuesday afternoon, and went out immediately to shoot with it. The menus of the S9100 were arranged very well, and I was able to find and set all of the options I wanted within minutes. Within 15 minutes of opening the box, I had the camera configured and the strap and lens cap attached. That made me pretty happy. I like cameras that are easy to use.

I started taking photos before getting out of the house, and that curbed my enthusiasm. The focus time was longer than I expected, comparable to and even longer than the focus on my Kodak EasyShare v610, which is a compact point and shoot. That didn’t bode well. At any rate, I pushed forward, and made it outside. The plan was to get sushi at a local restaurant with my wife, then go out into one of the local parks and take photos as the dark set in. This would give me a chance to shoot across the whole ISO range.

At the sushi place, I took more shots, and found two things that were pretty annoying. First, there was some serious lag time between shots. I shoot in RAW format, and the S9100 apparently takes a really long time to write the photo to the card. There’s no burst mode in RAW mode. You can only take one picture at a time, then wait until it gets processed and written to the card before you can take another one. I had to sit there counting second after second while the write light was on, unable to do anything else. And no, it wasn’t my card’s fault. I’ve used that card (120x CFII) with competent DSLRs like the Canon 30D and Olympus E-500, and it works beautifully. Second, when shooting at ISO 1600 inside the restaurant, there was a whole lot of noise in the shots. That really annoyed me, but I wanted to get out and take plenty of photos in the forest before I made a judgment call.

Once we got outside and I got more or less used to the long write times, using the camera was kind of nice. The flip screen was great. It allowed me to use some really interesting angles. I’d have had to guesstimate some of the shots if I only had a viewfinder to look through, since there was no way I could have craned my neck into those positions. I also liked the zoom lens. I like to twist lens barrels, I can’t help it. It gives me that tactile feel I need from my camera. The nice rubberized grip worked very well. Holding the camera in my hand, it was easy to forget that it wasn’t a DSLR. It feels very good, it’s balanced, and the buttons are just where they need to be. I had no problems using them. I loved their placement. I also loved the camera’s two Macro modes, one for closeup shots and one for really close shots of insects or other such tiny things. That’s a great feature!

As it got darker and darker, I switched to a higher ISO, and the camera worked decently up to 800 ISO in the twilight. Every time I’d switch to 1600 ISO, the noise was unbearable. But I figured, hey, I’m in the middle of a forest with no ambient light, and I’m also shooting handheld. Maybe this is to be expected. So I wrapped things up and we went back home. As we pulled into our garage, I looked at the lights in the parking lot and realized there was plenty of ambient light there to test out the 1600 ISO. I ran out, camera in hand, ready to test things, only to be disappointed once more. Every time I switched to 1600 ISO, the noise was too much, and there was serious pixel streaking going on. At the highest aperture (f2.8) and shutter speeds of 1/30 and above, there were no decent images to be gotten with the S9100, even if I stood right underneath a lamp post.

Finally, I switched it back to 100 ISO to try out some long exposure shots. I set it to a shutter speed of 4 seconds, and snuck it between the branches of a tree to stabilize it. The sky was filled with beautiful shades of blue that begged to be captured. After taking each photo, the preview screen, which is supposed to compensate for the shutter speed and show me what the photo will look like given my settings, showed me the sky exactly as I wanted it to look. I took a few shots, trying different angles, and according to the camera’s display, each photo looked fantastic. I couldn’t wait to get back inside and have a look at the photos on my computer.

After the shots were all loaded into Lightroom, Ligia and I sat at my laptop to have a look. What we noticed made us very unhappy. A lot of the shots were out of focus, even though they had seemed to be in focus on the camera’s screen. When we viewed the good shots at 100%, all of them were trashed. I have no better way of putting it. It looks like the sensor isn’t really meant for 9 megapixels. But that results in some really cheap-looking shots at full-size. Most of the detail is lost, and a whole lot of white pixels are seen instead. Really, the photos are that bad! To put things in perspective, the photos from my Kodak v610, which is a 6.1 megapixel camera released last summer, and my Panasonic Lumix FZ20K, which is a 5 megapixel camera that’s about three years old, are better than the photos from the S9100! Both of those cameras are less expensive than the S9100.

But wait, it gets better! I remembered that a cheap camera from Fuji, the FinePix A700, also uses the same 1.6-inch Super CCD HR sensor. Click on that link and see for yourselves. So what we’ve got here is a sensor from a $157 camera, being used in a camera that originally retailed for over $600. (Now it goes for about $420). That hardly seems appropriate to me, and as the say, the photos tell the truth. Have a look at a crop from one of the photos taken with the S9100 below. It’s a detail from a portrait, and it’s cropped directly in Photoshop, at 100%, with no other editing whatsoever.

Do you see what I mean? That photo’s no good, and every single one of the photos looks like this at 100%. All of the detail is gone because of that overworked sensor. Fuji might as well not have released the S9100. The inadequate sensor ruins it.

Oh, and remember those gorgeous long-exposure shots of the sky? They were all completely dark when I viewed them on my laptop. I mean pitch dark! And yet they appeared beautifully exposed on the camera’s screen. What happened? I’ll tell you: the camera can’t adjust the live preview accurately when composing the shot, and what’s worse, instead of reading the real image from the card and displaying it on the screen after taking it, it re-displays the stored live preview image instead. So I had no real way of knowing what those photos looked like when I took them. I suppose I could have switched to playback mode, but who’d have thought that the camera’s display would be this inaccurate?

After we saw all this, Ligia and I looked at each other, and we knew what had to be done. Even though I prefer to test out cameras for a month so I can get a really good feel for their usability, given the S9100’s shortcomings, there was nothing else to do but to wrap it back up and sit it nicely in its box. It’s going back. I was so disappointed. I loved the body, loved the grip, loved the zoom and ease of use, but when it came to its most important feature, the sensor, I just couldn’t live with it.

Here’s hoping Fuji sticks a good sensor in this camera at some point in the near future. Until then, my advice to you is to stay away from it.


A lot of good things are happening

I’m pretty excited, because Canon confirmed today that they’ll be shipping out an EOS 30D to me for review. It’ll come with an 18-55mm zoom lens, which is actually going to act like a 28-88mm lens because of the 30D’s 1.6x focal length conversion factor which, being an EF-S lens, won’t be affected by the 30D’s 1.6x focal length conversion factor (thanks Erik!). So I’ll have that gorgeous camera for 30 days, and I’ll be sure to take lots of photos with it. Meanwhile, I’m saving up for an EOS 5D, and may be able to purchase one in a few months.

My blog readership is growing as well, and I don’t know yet if it has to do with my use of Twitter. At any rate, my thanks to all of the new subscribers!

Finally, I’ve just finished a review of the Fuji FinePix S9100, and I’ll likely submit it to BlogCritics tomorrow. After that, I’ll publish it here as well. While the review’s good (tooting my own horn, I know), the camera isn’t. Stay tuned for the details.