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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.
The camera accepts Nikon F-mount lenses. Because its sensor is APS-C size (23mm by 15.5mm), any lens mounted to it will capture the same field of view that a lens of 1.5X greater focal length would capture on 35mm film. Autofocus optics are required to enable the S3 Pro's full range of exposure and metering modes.
Despite the word pro in its name, the Fujifilm FinePix S3 Pro's overall performance is decidedly entry- to midlevel. Start-up time is 0.9 second, and we got the same figure for shot-to-shot time shooting both JPEG and raw. Shutter delay, using autofocus with a Nikon AF-S lens, is 0.4 second with a bright target and falls to 0.6 second with a darker, lower-contrast target.
In continuous-drive mode when shooting standard dynamic range images, we measured the capture rate at 2.7fps; the framing rate fell to 1.1fps in Wide DR mode. In standard DR mode, buffer depth is a respectable 12 JPEGs or 7 raw images. But if you choose wide DR, buffer depth falls to 6 JPEGs or a skimpy 3 raw pictures. This would worry us in event or wedding shoots, and we think Fujifilm made a mistake imposing this heavy performance penalty on the camera's main distinguishing feature, its wide dynamic-range capability.
The camera's autofocus system has five focus patches, or zones. You can pick the active zone with the four-way pad or select dynamic AF mode, which makes all five zones active and relies on the camera to pick the best one for each shot. The AF system is only adequately fast, but it's fairly good at acquiring targets in low light, in part because it has an AF-assist light built into the body.
The viewfinder is clear and bright, and it shows about 95 percent of the actual image area. As with other dSLRs with APS-C size sensors and consequently smallish viewfinders, the S3 Pro is harder to focus manually than a 35mm film SLR. The camera's very good 2-inch main LCD is sharp and easier to see either in outdoor light or from an angle than most others. It shows 100 percent of the actual image.
The S3 Pro incorporates Nikon's D-TTL flash exposure system for dSLR cameras, which works with any DX-series Nikon shoe-mount flash. This is a substantial benefit for shooters such as wedding photographers who do lots of flash work, but unlike Nikon's own recent dSLRs, this camera does not support the more powerful i-TTL system. Non-DX Nikon flashes can be used in standard autoflash exposure mode, but Fujifilm warns against using non-Nikon flashes. The built-in flash's guide number is 39 (in feet at ISO 100), and flash-sync speed is 1/180 of a second. There is also a standard PC terminal for connecting studio flashes.
The Fujifilm FinePix S3 Pro's images are excellent. They are also the product of some very complex math and geometry, and we recommend checking out Fujifilm's explanation here if you're curious about such things. The short version of the story is that the sensor uses two photodetectors in each of its 6 million photosites, what Fujifilm refers to as a dual-pixel system. One of the detectors in each photosite--which Fujifilm calls an S-pixel--is large and has high sensitivity to light, but the other--the R-pixel--is much smaller, and its low-light sensitivity is good for recording highlights. Data from both types of photodetectors is combined during image processing to extend dynamic range, which is the range of brightness values in your scene--from the brightest highlight to the darkest shadow--that you can capture with discernible detail in your image.
In practice, what we found is that the S3 Pro gave us about one to two photographic stops, or EV steps, more dynamic range than other dSLRs we've tested, and it does this by retaining highlight detail that those other cameras can't. Blown highlights are one of digital photography's big bugaboos (film handles overexposure much better), so Fujifilm deserves credit for tackling the problem. If you turn the Wide DR mode off, the camera turns the R-pixels off and produces a tonal range similar to that of other dSLRs.
As with previous Super CCDs, the S3 Pro's sensor processes the data from its 6 million photosites (though now each of these has two photodetectors) into 12 million pixel images. Fujifilm says that, by virtue of the Super CCD's honeycomb pixel arrangement, this renders better detail than a standard, 6-megapixel checkerboard-pattern sensor produces. In our tests, the S3 Pro did indeed capture somewhat better detail, overall, than other 6-megapixel dSLRs we've tested.
As expected, our test images are clean and relatively noise free from ISO 100 through ISO 800. At ISO 1,600, noise has a significant impact on images. To keep it in check, Fujifilm applies relatively heavy detail-smearing noise reduction to JPEGs. You can bypass this by shooting raw, but then your images will be fairly noisy. All in all, we'd rate the S3 Pro's high-ISO image quality to be middle-of-the-pack among current dSLRs.
Fujifilm's dSLRs are known for their pleasing, saturated colors, and the S3 Pro is no exception. At default settings, whether shooting JPEG or raw, its images are vibrant and juicy. For portraits, we also liked the pleasing skin tones and more subtle tonality we got when using the F1 film-simulation mode. If you're looking for a medium-resolution dSLR that produces high image quality in a variety of situations with minimal postprocessing required, the S3 Pro is hard to beat.