Magazine Article


The Fujifilm FinePix Pro S3: Rewriting the Pitch Once Again

Front of FinePix Pro S3 DSLR
Fuji claims its new FinePix Pro S3 DSLR has a dynamic range that's two stops broader than the competition's.
Back of FinePix Pro S3 DSLR
FinePix Pro S3 DSLR's back side.

An unexpected benefit of the RAW format, a bit of a surprising one and certainly counter-intuitive, is that this large uncompressed file can be passed from the sensor to the memory card in a shorter time than the same image compressed into a JPEG. The reason is that before the compression, the file is processed and that takes time. Not a long time, but time enough for the camera buffer to fill during burst shooting. In most DSLRs it empties more quickly with RAW files, because the processing is postponed for later on the computer.

There are plenty of days where the light’s going crazy, with all kinds of colors and strengths, and contrast between highlight and shadow all over the place. For these you definitely want to shoot RAW, so you can dig out material from each section of the picture. Conventional wisdom says that RAW formats are the best choice for tricky light, and most sources agree. Most but not all. For here comes Fujifilm again, those old rewriters of conventional wisdom.

Enter the S3

If we understand correctly, Fuji seems to assert that their processed JPEG file in the new FinePix Pro S3 exceeds the results of shooting in RAW. Why? Two principal factors. One is their superior processing again. The other is a new CCD design that one-ups polygons and diagonals. The SR II Super CCD imager has pixels of two sizes. The S pixels are larger, and work best in low light. The R pixels are smaller, and work best in bright light. There are about six million of each of them. Add ‘em up, and what do you get?

If we understand correctly, the in-camera processing takes the extended low-light capacity of the S pixels, and the extended highlight capacity of the R pixels, mushes them together, and comes out with a final pixel that includes the extensions of the two. The result? A broader dynamic range—the ability to peer into deeper shadows, and more dazzling highlights, and see detail in both.

This ability, being a product of in-camera processing, apparently disappears with the camera in RAW mode. So where RAW normally increases access to the dynamic range, providing more to work with, Fujifilm seems to be saying an equal or greater range can be achieved in JPEG, using their composite pixel. We don’t know how far Fujifilm will carry this philosophy into their promotional campaign, but the opening paragraph of the S3 reviewer’s guide seems to dismiss the RAW format as a not-altogether-necessary evil. “Photographers can obtain these brilliant images simply, by shooting in JPEG format—eliminating the need for manipulation of RAW files.”

Fuji seems to be saying that everything you’d want RAW for—optimum dynamic range being high on the list—you can get from their JPEGs. And since they worked so hard on the CCD and processing system for you, why don’t you just go ahead and use it?

The point Fuji makes about its wide dynamic range is that it too is turn-offable. In fact, it can be user-set to any of four modes: off, auto, Wide 1, and Wide 2. Fuji’s boast is not only that dynamic range is up to two stops broader, but that the extent of it is user-controllable.

Why would the user want to turn it off, even in those flat lighting conditions that don’t need it? Maybe because the pixel-splicing takes additional processing, and time to perform it. The burst rate of the S3 is about 2 fps with the wide dynamic range turned off, about one frame every 1.5 seconds with the wide dynamic range on.

During the flat, dull, gray, overcast wintry skies we’ve had in the time we’ve been testing the S3, the lighting itself has not had enough dynamic range to really test the S3. We can say that we can see a difference in the shadow areas of our pictures between “off” and “Wide 2” dynamic-range settings, but that it’s subtle—the system didn’t really have much to work with. Comes the sharper, more varied lighting of spring, we’ll have more to sink our teeth into.

If it turns out that the adjustable dynamic range is a really handy feature—and it easily could—it will become a type of exposure control which, like f/stop, shutter-speed, and ISO, may require swift readjustment from picture to picture. Toward this end, they should all be equally accessible to the user, through their exclusive control levers or knobs.

But to operate the dynamic-range control in the S3, you use controls on two separate menus on two different screens—sub-menus at that. On the main monitor screen, the color one that displays your pictures, a submenu listing turns the dynamic-range control on and off. To select between Auto, Wide 1 and Wide 2 dynamic range expansion, however, you use submenus of a monochrome LCD. Why wasn’t the whole bunch of settings collected together, and assigned to a button or switch on the top deck?

We don’t know for a fact, but our uneducated guess would be that the S3 is based on a stock Nikon design, which didn’t anticipate the need for such a control. If our guess needs correcting, we’ll be glad to hear about it. Until then, we might have to explain, along with everything else, that things we didn’t know we’d have to think about—polygons, diagonals, double pixels—are starting to overrun camera hardware. PTN