Most frequently used functions are quick to access, and nearly all important buttons and controls are easy to reach while you're shooting. In the now familiar Fujifilm system, the camera's menus are split between two activation buttons, and you change settings with a four-way controller on the camera's back. The controller is slightly smaller than we'd prefer, but the menus are easy to understand and quick to navigate. Lamentably, one of the FinePix S5000's control flaws survives in the S5100: in manual mode, you use the four-way pad in conjunction with a top-mounted button to set the aperture in manual mode and to adjust exposure compensation, but the two controls are so far apart, they force even long-fingered photographers into awkward contortions.
The Fujifilm FinePix S5100's fairly advanced feature set begins with its 10X zoom lens, which covers the focal-length range from 37mm to 370mm (35mm-camera equivalent). The maximum aperture is a respectable f/2.8 at wide-angle and f/3.1 at full telephoto. A lens-adapter ring that ships with the camera lets you mount accessory wide-angle and telephoto converters as well as 55mm filters.
The camera's complete set of exposure modes includes full automatic, programmed auto with program shift, aperture priority, and shutter priority. There is also a very functional manual-exposure mode with 1/3-step control of aperture and shutter speed and a useful metering display. There are three light-metering modes--multi, average, and spot--and you can compensate your automatic exposures plus or minus 2EV or use the three-shot exposure-bracketing function. White-balance options include auto and six presets. Wisely, Fujifilm has also outfitted the FinePix S5100 with a custom white-balance function, which the S5000 lacked. The CCD's sensitivity can be set to ISO 64, ISO 100, ISO 200, or ISO 400. One useful exposure aid that is available on many competing cameras but missing on the S5100 is a live-image histogram. You can, however, view a histogram of any image during playback.
You can save 4-megapixel JPEG images at two different compression levels, but the three lower-resolution settings offer only one JPEG compression choice. The camera can also capture raw-format images, which you convert to TIFF files on your computer using an extremely rudimentary program called Raw File Converter LE (for both Windows and Mac), which Fujifilm ships with the camera. This application offers no raw-conversion adjustments, meaning you'll gain little or no advantage from shooting in this format unless you find a third-party converter that supports the FinePix S5100's raw files. As with the S5000 before it, you have to drill deep into the S5100's setup menu to select the raw-capture mode. This option should be available on the camera's standard-resolution menu. (Note also that ISO 400 is not available in raw mode.)
In its very capable movie mode, the FinePix S5100 can capture 640x480-pixel video clips with sound at 30fps in segments as long as your card's capacity will allow. It also works as a Webcam with Windows XP.The Fujifilm FinePix S5100 improves on the performance of the S5000, which was already fairly responsive. Start-up takes a slightly sluggish 4.7 seconds, but shutter delay, including autofocus time, is about 0.7 second in good light. That's a respectable figure, and it drops to about 0.2 second if you prefocus or use the continuous-autofocus mode, which constantly adjusts the focus even when you're not pressing the shutter release. The autofocus system overall is fairly quick and decisive, and an assist lamp helps it work very well in dim conditions. As a result, shutter delay with autofocus is only 0.8 second in low light.
Shot-to-shot time for JPEG pictures is about 1.1 seconds, or about 3 seconds with flash. With raw files, the pause between your first two shots is only 1.2 seconds, which is uncommon in a midrange consumer digicam and immensely welcome. Unfortunately, after the second raw frame, the buffer clogs and the interval stretches to about 4 or 5 seconds for the next shot. Nevertheless, this is one of the few midrange consumer cameras that has made its raw shooting mode even remotely usable.
We measured the camera's standard burst-shooting mode, which shoots three frames before pausing, at a fairly competitive 3fps. In the alternative Final three-frame burst mode, you hold down the shutter-release button, take up to 40 shots at the same 3fps rate, then save the final three images that are captured just before you lift your finger off the shutter. A slower burst mode, which is available only in the full-auto exposure mode, can save up to 40 consecutive full-resolution shots at a rate of 1.6fps.
Like the one on the FinePix S5000, the S5100's unimpressive electronic viewfinder (EVF) is fairly grainy and fuzzy. The 1.5-inch LCD, though small, is better, offering a reasonably sharp image and decent visibility in bright outdoor light. A significant drawback to the S5000 was that both the LCD and the EVF showed only about 88 to 90 percent of the actual image; on the S5100, both viewing methods now show 100 percent of the recorded image.
The camera's lens zooms smoothly, quickly, and quietly, and you can control its position with reasonable precision. The manual-focus system, on the other hand, is very slow. Judging proper focus was hard on the LCD and harder still on the EVF.
Fujifilm lists the maximum range of the built-in flash as 16.4 feet, but that is apparently at ISO 400. At ISO 100, the range should be about 8.5 feet.The Fujifilm FinePix S5000's biggest problem was subpar image quality. To its credit, Fujifilm has addressed this with the S5100. At all ISO sensitivities, our test images were comparatively low in noise and resolved fairly good detail. We also got consistently good exposures and relatively accurate white balance under varying outdoor light, although we did see a few more blown-out highlights than we'd like. The camera's default settings produced slightly flat colors and contrast, but you can switch to Chrome mode to punch up both of those parameters noticeably. We were also pleased with skin tones in images taken both with flash and without.
The lens produces modest barrel distortion at its wide-angle setting and very little pincushion distortion at the telephoto end. It also exhibits moderate amounts of lateral chromatic aberration in telephoto shots, which shows up as green and magenta fringes on some objects at the edges of the frame. In some of our shots, we noted a modest amount of purple and red fringing around dark subjects photographed against light skies.
All in all, the FinePix S5100's images are competitive with those of other cameras in its class, which was not true of the S5000.