The Fujifilm FinePix S3 Pro digital SLR (dSLR) replaces the S2 Pro, which enjoyed some modest success among photographers who prized its image quality. Like its predecessor, the S3 Pro uses Nikon F-mount SLR lenses and a (debatably) 6-megapixel Fujifilm sensor. But the sensor, called a Super CCD SR II, is an all-new design that uses two photodetectors per pixel to deliver the widest dynamic range we've seen in a dSLR. The camera's performance is mediocre, but if you hate blown-out highlights and love rich colors, the S3 Pro is worth a close look.
The Fujifilm FinePix S3 Pro's black, polycarbonate-plastic body is a bit bigger than most entry-level dSLR cameras', but not by much. At about 29 ounces without a lens, its weight is also middle-of-the-road for a dSLR. Both the grip and the camera back are contoured to give you a firm grasp, and the S3 Pro is very secure and comfortable to hold. It feels about as robust as midlevel dSLRs from other manufacturers.
You use thumb and forefinger wheels to control shutter speeds and apertures. They're also used in conjunction with other buttons to change various additional settings, including exposure compensation, bracketing, and flash mode. Many important digital settings are controlled by a button labeled Func and four associated buttons that run along the bottom of a small secondary LCD on the camera's back. The particular feature that each of these buttons controls varies as you cycle through the choices with the Func button, and we found the icons and labels that identify the feature settings to be modestly cryptic. Other less important functions are controlled by a standard menu system on the main LCD, which you navigate with a typical four-way thumb pad.
This all adds up to a system that was mildly confusing at first but was reasonably efficient once we got used to it. Menus respond quickly and operate sensibly. Our one major control complaint is the placement of the ISO setting on the camera's main exposure mode dial, which makes changing sensitivity clumsier than we'd like.
The Fujifilm FinePix S3 Pro is decked out with several features that indicate Fujifilm's admirable attention to image-quality issues other than simple pixel count. First among these, of course, is the extended dynamic range (DR) that the camera's Super CCD SR II delivers (more on this in the Image Quality section). The Wide DR mode is actually a parameter that you can turn on or off, and it can be used with either of the camera's two file-format choices, JPEG or raw. If used with raw images, it doubles your file size to a whopping 25MB per image. (Trust us, your CompactFlash cards and your hard drive will fill up frighteningly fast.)
For JPEGs, you can choose either of two compression levels at four different resolutions, including a 12-megapixel setting that isn't just simple interpolation, as we'll explain in the Image Quality section. You can save your images to either CompactFlash or xD-Picture Card media.
Other image parameters include a choice of Adobe RGB or sRGB color space and selectable levels of in-camera sharpening, tone curve (contrast), and color saturation. If you're shooting in sRGB with wide DR turned on, you can also select one of three film simulation modes: standard, F1, and F2. Speaking loosely, the F1 setting is intended to look similar to the low-contrast professional negative films typically used by portrait and wedding pros, while the F2 setting resembles highly saturated, high-contrast slide film such as Velvia. The standard setting fits somewhere in between the two.
The S3 Pro also has the unique capability of displaying a live LCD image such as those on non-SLR consumer digicams. The image is black-and-white and perhaps useful for fine focusing, but it displays for only 30 seconds at a time and requires several menu clicks to activate or deactivate, so it's not useful for composing and capturing everyday pictures.
A complete set of exposure controls is available on the S3 Pro, including all four main exposure modes; both flash and ambient exposure compensation to plus or minus 3EV; autoexposure bracketing; and matrix, center-weighted, and spot metering modes. One occasional hindrance is that shutter speeds, apertures, and exposure compensation can be set only in half-stop increments, rather than in third-stop increments as with most cameras. Sensitivity can be set to ISO 100, ISO 160, ISO 200, ISO 400, ISO 800, or ISO 1,600.
A nice image-preview mode will display just-captured pictures in about one second, and you can view a luminosity histogram, individual histograms for each color channel, or a highlight overexposure warning, then decide to save or discard the image. The same information displays are available in playback mode for saved images.