Then there's the issue of the S9100's lens. Many manufacturers have moved up to 12X-optical zoom lenses in their superzooms, but they shy away from saying that those lenses start at an equivalent of 35mm. This Fuji starts at an equivalent of 28mm, which gives you more leeway when shooting group portraits and should come in handy more often than the 420mm telephoto end of most 12X lenses. Also, since this camera has a 9-megapixel sensor, you should have plenty of extra pixels to crop away if you want to mimic the close-up view of a longer lens, unless you plan to make prints much larger than 11x17 inches.
Controlling the zoom is simple, thanks to the big zoom ring on the lens barrel. Precise zooming is much easier with a ring than trying to zero in with the rocker switches on many non-SLRs. Behind the zoom ring is another ring for manual focus. We found manual focus a little frustrating, though, since you have to hold down a button on the camera back to get a magnified portion of the image. Since it's nearly impossible to get really accurate focus without it, it seems odd that Fuji didn't make this automatic. Fuji did include a nifty indicator, which tells you which way to turn the ring to achieve focus and also turns yellow when it thinks you're properly focused. Fuji puts the focus controls and macro and info buttons on the left side of the camera body, which is convenient, since your left hand should already be in the vicinity to operate the zoom ring.
All other controls are on the right-hand side of the camera, split fairly evenly between the top and back of the body. All the buttons are placed logically according to function--exposure compensation finds its home next to the shutter release, for example--and are within reach of either your thumb or forefinger. As usual, Fuji splits its menus in two: one, accessed through the F button, provides access to ISO, resolution, and color settings, the other, accessed through the regular menu button provides access to all other settings. By splitting them, Fuji can keep the most often adjusted settings up top where you need them in each of the main menus. We'd like to see white balance make its way into the F-button menu, but that's a minor gripe.
There's a hot shoe on top, so you can add a third-party flash, though you can't expect the same fancy capabilities offered in the hot-shoe flashes offered by the likes of Canon, Pentax, Nikon, and Olympus. However, there is a sync terminal (sometimes referred to as a PC connection) next to the lens barrel on the camera front. This lets you trigger studio strobes, or some fancy flash systems, such as Quantum's QFlash. Of course, since the S9100's aperture tops out at f/11, which is still more than the minimum of f/8 offered by most non-SLRs, certain types of studio work still may be difficult. We should note, though, that in aperture-priority, shutter-priority, and program modes, the minimum aperture is f/8.
While the LCD is only 2 inches, it does flip up, so you can view it from above, and also angles downward about 45 degrees, so you can hold the camera above your head and still compose your shot. This isn't as versatile as the flip-out screens that also swivel, such as those found on the Panasonic's Lumix DMC-FZ50 and Canon's PowerShot S3 IS, but is certainly more useful than standard stationary LCDs.
Similar to most cameras in this class, the S9100 can record video clips at up to 640x480-pixel resolution and up to 30 frames per second with mono sound. It also has three continuous shooting modes: Top 4, Final 4, and Long Period. Top 4 captures the first four images after you press the shutter button. Final 4 continues to capture and buffer images until you release the shutter button, and then keeps only the last four. Long Period continues to capture and store images until your Compact Flash or xD Picture card is full.
Fuji also includes a multiple exposure option that you can turn on through the menu. When enabled, each shot you take is automatically layered on top of the last one you shot. Since it lets you layer as many as you like, you're left to figure out the proper exposure. As a rule of thumb, every time you double the number of exposures, you should halve your shutter speed. So, if you were to shoot one frame at 1/200 second, you'd halve it to 1/400 second each for a two-frame multiple exposure, or 1/800 second each for a four-frame multiple exposure.
We are impressed with the S9100's quick shutter lag, which measured 0.4 second in our high contrast test meant to mimic bright shooting conditions, and 1.1 seconds in our low contrast test, which mimics dim conditions. Its time to first shot was also nice, clocking in at 1 second from pressing the power button to capturing its first image. The time between images after that was 1.5 seconds without flash and a slightly sluggish 2.8 seconds with the flash turned on. The time between capturing raw images was 9.3 seconds, which isn't that great, but considering that most non-SLRs, even many superzooms, don't capture raw images at all, we were happy just to see that raw is an option. In the Long Period continuous shooting mode, we were able to capture VGA-sized JPEGs at an average of 2.23 frames per second (fps) and 9 megapixel fine-quality JPEGs at an average of 2.13 fps.
We were surprised with the images from the FinePix S9100. While they were plenty sharp and the lens was obviously capable of capturing lots of detail, we also saw more artifacts, such as off-color dots and jaggy edges, than we would expect to see from a camera of this class. Also, even at its lowest ISOs, we saw some minor noise. While not noticeable in prints, we did see small amounts of noise when viewing images shot at ISO 100 and ISO 200 on our monitors. At ISO 400 that noise grew, mixing unpleasantly with image artifacts, eroding some finer details, and detracting from prints. At ISO 800 large amounts of detail were lost to noise and the images' overall dynamic range suffered, with darker portions of the images plunging to muddy black. You could get passable 4x6-inch prints at ISO 800, but you'd be better served to stick with lower ISOs. At ISO 1600 our images were awash with gritty noise and even more fine detail and shadow detail was obliterated. We'd suggest steering clear of SIO 1600 with this camera. It seems as though Fuji's normal noise reduction algorithms aren't in use on the S9100.
The Fuijfilm FinePix S9100 has nifty features, a nice lens, and all the controls most advanced, and even beginner, photographers would want in a non-SLR camera. Unfortunately, the camera's lack of optical or mechanical image stabilization and less-than-promising image quality, make it hard to recommend. Unless you need a sync terminal in a superzoom, you'll likely want to check out Panasonic's Lumix DMC-FZ50, Sony's CyberShot DSC-H5, or Canon's PowerShot S3 IS.