Magazine Article


Fujifilm DSLRs: S2 and Counting

While the S2 is known and liked for its rich saturation, it also deals well with subtler tones such as the glinting sun on pale blue waters. (Photos by Don Sutherland)

The Fujifilm FinePix Pro S3 should be coming to a store near you soon. Not that anyone's in such a hurry to replace the FinePix Pro S2, one of the more pleasing of the DSLRs from the standpoint of output—such a pretty picture it takes. Fujifilm pulled quite a few rabbits from quite a few hats to create the S2, proving eminently successful, for example, with an imager whose design defied certain conventions of arch-rival Kodak, and the rest of the imaging-chip establishment too. The Bayer pattern upheld by Kodak was turned sideways by Fuji's Super CCD, amid much discourse on how diagonal arrays make sharper pictures. And one thing irrefutable about the S2 is that it makes sharp pictures.

The S3 reinvents the chip all over again, or at least adapts their "fourth generation" Super CCD SR, with two separate sets of pixels in pursuit of extended dynamic range. What an interesting idea, though how it works, exactly, is about as obvious as why diagonal imagers are sharp. That is, ask again in a couple years, when everybody's figured out how to translate high mathematics into English.

The last time we were at this point, which was the first time Fuji announced the Super CCD, they had to say, pretty much, "trust us." The Fujifilm FinePix Pro S1 was the expression of that trust which, after an initial period of debate, was declared to have been well earned. The S2's as pleasing or more, with twice the picture size. The forthcoming S3, more scratch-built than its predecessors, is something history suggests we can trust in, too.

The parallels between Fujifilm and Kodak must be burrs under both saddles. Although they've both operated extensively in all forms of photographic products, they're both thought of first as imaging media companies. That is to say, film. In that tradition, they both were pioneers in CCD imaging as well. This shouldn't be surprising, yet some people seem to expect "an electronics company"—a Sony, say—to be further along in electronic imaging than a "film company."

Both Fujifilm and Kodak have long résumés in the digital-imager business. Along with upstarts like Foveon, they're redefining expectations for sharpness. A lot of the cameras using Sony-made chips all of a sudden seem mushy compared to cameras using chips from "film companies."

Résumé and Pedigree
When the first Fuji CCD appeared in a DSLR, eyebrows went up all over the place. For starters, the camera was a collaboration between Fuji and Nikon, bore both names and was marketed by both. Up to that point, Nikon's presence in the DSLR field was strictly through film cameras modified by Kodak. Fuji's contribution in the new camera was the imager, a trendy one-megapixel in those antediluvian times one decade ago. The body was a Nikon construction, and was likened to the F3. It was on the same level as that 35mm camera, and shared some of the assemblies, but it was not an actual F3. It was a completely original form, heavy and large, built especially to be digital. It was, in fact, the first purpose-built digital SLR. Everything that had come before in DSLRs—which, by 1994, included products from only Kodak and Minolta—had been 35mm cameras modified with an integrated "digital back."

A million pixels was a lot in those days, decidedly professional-strength for the era. But you could pay fifteen grand for that camera and, cutting-edge notwithstanding, a one-megapixel picture can be printed only so large. The combination provided a very sturdy, sophisticated camera with state-of-the-art output, which cost a fortune and had limited uses. We haven't seen the figures, but we don't imagine too many such cameras were sold.

How many needed to be sold, to be profitable in the long run? In 1994, we weren't selling just DSLRs, we were still selling the very premise of digital tech. A one-megapixel picture was about as much as computers in those days could handle. Probably the Cadillac of digital retouch stations that year was the Quadra 950, with its blazing clockspeed of 33 MHz and massive 32-bit systemboard. We never dismantled ours.

ust set up its successor on a nearby table, and rolled the chair over. That 950 sits as it sat when last used, a time capsule, a shrine to a belief system being willed into existence. We met a lot of guys at computer tradeshows whose title, according to their business cards, was "evangelist." Yup, it's not just a job, it's a calling. Not all that many people could actually buy that Fuji/Nikon for digital photography, but plenty of people could believe in digital photography because of it. The overt pitch was to photographers, but there were investors to persuade, too. Fuji and Nikon had built it—the market would come.

Rapture is terrific, but someone's got to pay for lunch. The economic message was not lost on Fujifilm, and they responded in a way unlike anyone else in the pro-camera game: they introduced a lower-priced line. The DS-300 (and its successor, the DS-330—we're predisposed to kindness toward anything whose initials are DS) made a proactive reach for the practicing pro, who just might have three grand for a camera. The look and feel of the DS-300 were that of a professional rollfilm camera, not entirely an unexplored realm around the hallowed halls of Fuji. It was a rangefinder-style camera, not an SLR, with a permanent 3x zoom lens, so most of its specs read like those of consumer cameras. But it used the same imager as found in the Nikon-built DSLR at five times the price.

These early Fuji procams, like the Kodak DCS series that kicked the movement off, all were capable of agreeable, often spectacular handling characteristics, and very handsome output. But still only one megapixel. There's still only so much you can do with only one megapixel.
The FinePix Pro S1 was another re-entry from a different direction. By the time of its arrival, 3MP cameras were common even in the consumer market. Fuji made its claims for its new Super CCD, and everyone held their breath.

Rather than using the massive Nikon body of the earlier effort, or an all-new design like the DS-300, Fuji elected to do what Kodak had been doing from the outset—modifying Nikon 35mm bodies. In the case of the S1 and the S2, it's a Nikon N80.

The FinePix Pro S3 has a body perhaps reminiscent of the N80, and it is made by Nikon. But it's a newly designed product made to be a digital camera, rather than a film camera conversion. It looks a little more like a D1—or maybe even an SLR/n —than an N80. As of this writing, we know of no other camera that will share this Nikon body, so it seems fitting to call it "the Fuji." Likewise, it seems fitting to call the SLR/n "the Kodak," though it, too, uses a Nikon-made body which is used nowhere else (excepting the SLR/n's predecessor, the Kodak 14n). Including Nikon's own products, that brings to three the total of major brands with "Nikon outside." Fujifilm and Kodak, those loveable mutual burrs, are both using their own private Nikons as platforms for their respective digital imaging technologies.

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