We've been on an ultrazoom kick lately at DCR, having hit just about everyone's latest model in rapid succession over the last month. Not to be left out of the mix is the continuation of Fujifilm's 18x zoom wonder, the Fujifilm FinePix S8100fd.
Building heavily on Fuji's last entry into this category, the lightly updated S8100fd brings 10 megapixels of long-zoom fun to this party. But with everyone else rushing to throw their latest technology into flagship ultrazooms, can the largely "old news" S8100fd possibly compete? If you've been shopping for an ultrazoom, prepare yourself for a bit of a surprise: one of the best ones of the year in our book isn't really that new at all.
Mild update to the popular Fujifilm FinePix S8000fd, the FinePix S8100fd adds more resolution and a few key firmware/features updates to a package that looks like a carbon copy of its predecessor. Given that the S8000fd has been on the market less than a year, seeing a relatively light visual and functional update was hardly surprising. Still, we were impressed with the S8000fd, and with a few refinements and some crucial carry-overs, the new model looks to be an even more impressive camera from a features standpoint.
As noted, the biggest change in the update is the move to a 10.0 megapixel, 1/2.3-inch CCD sensor. Sitting in front of this is the familiar wide-angle 18x zoom lens that made such an impression with the S8000fd. A true advanced point-and-shoot, the S8100fd packs the full range of manual exposure modes in addition to a bevy of auto shooting features.
In total, the S8100fd offers six basic shooting modes via its mode dial:
Fuji's "Natural Light" modes, which optimize for shooting in ambient light (and, in the flash mode, also take multiple pictures to allow the shooter to pick the best from among them) are here, as is a somewhat less useful "Zoom Bracket" mode: essentially, the feature creates three progressively tighter crops of a shot, allowing the user to pick the "zoom" level that works best for the subject. Of course, simply cropping down a shot is nothing that can't be just as easily accomplished out of camera or even in the S8100fd's playback menu.
Video options with the FinePix are limited to the basics, and the fact that zoom (and focus as well, it seems) are locked from the first frame negates one of the primary benefits of having that huge zoom lens where shooting video is concerned. Audio performance is only average as well, meaning that if you're looking for a camcorder replacement, this probably isn't it.
In a tacit admission to the dominance of SD memory these days among consumer cameras, the S8100fd is the latest Fuji to support dual memory card types - either SD/SDHC or the Fuji/Olympus proprietary xD-Picture Card format - from its single slot. In testing, both types worked equally well, though as noted throughout the review some speed benefits can be realized from the more fleet-footed SD format.
For a detailed listing of specifications and features, please refer to the specifications table found at the bottom of the review.
Styling and Build Quality
The all-plastic S8100fd strikes a nice balance between solid feel and light weight. Lightly textured, apparently high-quality plastic is used throughout, with rubber inserts providing additional grip in key areas. Visually identical to the S8000fd, the updated model retains the mini-DSLR appeal of its predecessor.
The zoom toggle is large, well-placed, and well-made, as is the slide-style power switch (though the slide-and-return motion to power on the camera can be a bit clumsy).
Buttons and doors are a bit flimsy feeling by comparison, and I especially wish the d-pad felt nicer, but on the whole there's very little to complain about where build quality is concerned.
Finally, Fujifilm's lens cap design works better than expected. It's a simple slide-over arrangement that doesn't have any kind of latch to secure it, making it seem like it might be prone to falling off and exposing the lens to damage. For the most part, however, the cap stays put, and the lack of a locking tab means that the lens can easily push the cap out of the way when the camera is powered on. Just remember to tether the cap to the strap lug!
Ergonomics and Interface
I'm coming around to the idea that Fujifilm on-screen interfaces are something of an acquired taste. The menu structure tends to be different from just about anything else out there, but once where things are housed clicks for you, the system begins to make a little more sense than initial impressions would suggest. The most bewildering part of the design is undoubtedly the relocation of a few parameters (ISO, image quality, etc.) to the “F” menu, while all other camera controls are called up from the similar but separate main shooting menu (quite logically, via the “MENU” button).
Quirks aside, menu bloat is at a minimum with the Fuji, making using the S8100fd a much more pleasant experience than what I've come to expect from feature-heavy ultrazooms.
Ergonomically, the S8100fd has a nice feel that should work well for a broad cross-section of shooters. The deep, rubber-coated grip and thumb rest provide a logical, comfortable setup for one-handed shooting. The wide lens barrel provides an ideal position for the left hand to help stabilize the S8100fd when needed. All in all, the mini-DSLR design works on the relatively lightweight S8100fd for the same reasons that it works on larger, heavier cameras: neutral balance and easy access to controls are both covered.
As I observed in my First Thoughts piece on the S8100fd, I would gladly trade the face detection and image stabilization dedicated buttons on the top deck for white balance and ISO controls, but otherwise the button layout works well. Buttons fall naturally under finger and provide a reassuring but slight level of resistance when pressed. The much-used exposure compensation control (which also accesses shutter and aperture adjustments and focus settings, depending on the shooting mode) is in an appropriately prominent position that makes grabbing it quickly with a thumb easy.
Otherwise, the S8100fd's button layout is fairly standard. One interesting exception is the inclusion of an auto crop button that takes the functional place of the delete key (up on the d-pad) when in shooting mode: tap the button and a blue frame appears within the larger viewfinder space.
Cycling through one of four
possible crop boxes (including two portrait-orientation boxes
superimposed on the camera's default landscape orientation, like the one seen above) allows shooters to compose lower-res images that are
already trimmed to the correct framing without having to crop
them post-shot. Again, nothing that couldn't be accomplished easily otherwise, but a unique function just the same.
A 230,000 dot, 2.5-inch LCD graces the back panel of the S8100fd. Although it's not huge and it doesn't provide any swivel/rotation features, basic functionality is generally impressive. Fluidity is excellent in good light and remains surprisingly smooth in low light. Color and contrast are good, though the screen does appear to be somewhat prone to wide-area washout around blown highlights in a composition. This minor annoyance is more than balanced out in my opinion by the addition of everything that makes on-screen composition so nice: live histograms, a composition grid, as much shooting information as anyone could ever need.
Eleven levels of manual screen gain on the S8100fd provide a range of options for bumping up (or down) LCD power as needed, but shooting outdoors still left me wishing for more punch and wider viewing angles from the screen at times. Having an electronic viewfinder mostly mollifies this concern, however.
The S8100fd's EVF is a high-res, 230,000 dot unit with manual diopter correction. Colors appear to be a little softer through the viewfinder, and in spite of lots of resolution there's still some typical EVF graininess. Nonetheless, all shooting information that appears on the main screen, including histograms and composition grids, can be replicated on the EVF. Note that the electronic viewfinder is used for shot composition only; all image review is diverted to the main LCD.
One interesting image review feature on the S8100fd is the ability to display the last three images taken along the sidebar next to the live composition view.
It may not change your shooting life, but being able to see the last few shots taken is a nice tool for fine-tuning shot composition or getting multiples of the same shot. Being able to pull it up with a few cycles of the "DISP" button makes it that much more convenient.
Timings and Shutter Lag
Long shutter and AF lag are the bane of many an ultrazoom, and proved to be the Achilles’ heel of the S8100fd’s smaller sibling, the S1000fd. Those interested in the S8100fd, however, need not fear what they’ll uncover lurking with this camera: when it comes to quick acquisition times, as a rule the S8100fd has it covered.
Most impressive about the camera is just how quickly it responds when pre-focused: we were unable to get accurate numbers using our standard testing methodology (which is accurate down to around 0.03 seconds). For all practical purposes, capture is truly real time with this camera when focus is locked.
AF acquisition proved to be good enough to hold its own as well, with consistent times in our standard wide-angle studio test hitting 0.5 seconds from press to capture. That’s great, you might say, but how does it perform at the telephoto end? Though it’s not part of our standard timings test battery (and thus we don’t have many numbers to compare it to), it’s known that long-zoom cameras tend to perform poorly the further out you go on the zoom. Yet in good light the S8100fd was able to turn in consistent 0.6 times at the long end of the zoom. Not too shabby!
In low light, it’s hardly surprising that things get a little less solid. The S8100fd wanted to do some time-eating back and forth hunting at even moderate zooms indoors in darker rooms or against low-contrast subjects. A related issue for all kinds of shooting involves focusing distances: with what feels like a fairly long minimum focusing distance (stated at 2.3 feet) without macro focus engaged, the camera can be a little frustrating to use for even close-in shots. Of course, it’s easy enough just to kick on the basic macro mode, but be aware that this addition will add somewhere in the neighborhood of 0.1 seconds to your focusing time on average.
If the S8100fd has a speed weakness, it’s in continuous shooting performance that doesn’t exactly live up to expectations. The camera has several continuous shooting modes (including ones that allow lower-res high-speed capture of up to 33 frames), but the two of most interest for full-res shooting are the "Top 3" continuous mode – which takes three shots in rapid succession – and the conventional infinite continuous (Fuji calls it "Long Period") shooting mode.
In Top 3 mode, the camera snaps three full-res frames in 1.78 seconds (for a frame rate around 1.6 fps). However, it then takes more than ten seconds (11.4, to be exact) to flush the buffer and prepare to shoot again when working with an xD-Picture Card. A high-speed SD card pulls the number below ten seconds, but only just. Either way, it feels like a long time if you’re trying to shoot action as it’s happening.
The infinite continuous mode is even less amenable to high-speed shooting, taking a considerable 11.3 seconds to capture a mere five frames (for a frame rate of 0.4 fps) with the S8100fd’s "High Speed Shooting" functions enabled. This uninspiring performance is an unquestionable weak spot for a camera that seems so well-suited to action shooting otherwise.
Lens and Zoom
Admit it: you were halfway sold on the S8100fd before learning anything else about it by that "18x Optical Zoom" marking on the lens barrel. It’s not vying to be the longest optic in a fixed-lens camera anymore, but Fuji’s zoom is still its dominant feature and impresses in both its focal and aperture ranges. With a maximum aperture of f/4.5 at a 35mm-equivalent focal length of 486mm, there’s little to gripe about on the specs sheet. A 27mm f/2.8 wide end doesn’t hurt Fuji’s cause in this regard either.
Even with all of that lens to move, I was able to power the camera on, focus, and grab a shot in right at 2.5 seconds – not blazing fast by any means, but not painfully slow either, all things considered. Better still, lens motion from wide to tele is nice and quick: grab the zoom toggle and the camera seems to respond instantly. There’s some jumpiness working back down from telephoto, but once you get a feel for the toggle there seem to be an infinite number of stops on the zoom’s travel. I rarely found myself unable to zero in on the exact focal length I needed to get a shot.
Although balance remains excellent even with the lens fully extended, effectively stabilizing a nearly 500mm lens is a task best left to some kind of external support. The same rules as for long DSLR glass apply: if you’re working beyond the equivalent of 300mm or so, a monopod, beanbag, or fencepost to brace the camera and minimize the effects of shake is almost a requirement for sharp shots.
By way of example, even bracing against the top of my car and shooting at 1/450, the above shot at full telephoto isn't tack sharp.
The S8100fd strikes a nice balance on focusing modes and options, providing enough tools to keep serious shooters happy without clogging up the menus. AF area modes include a default center setting (from which the timing numbers above were gathered), an automatic multi-area mode, and a manually controlled multi-area mode that allows use of the d-pad to select the focusing point.
I grew particularly fond of the user-selected multi-area setting. The system’s seven-by-seven position grid yields an SLR-like 49 focusing points that are easy to switch between and lock in. It’s a fairly advanced, appropriately intuitive interface that suits this higher-end device nicely.
On the focus drive side of things, the S8100fd features the default single-lock mode as well as a continuous AF setting. Though continuous drive is great for keeping shots of moving subjects in focus, the control arrangement is a bit different from what many cameras do by default: rather than half-pressing the shutter release to engage AF drive, the S8100fd continuously focuses until the shutter release is pressed, at which point it locks AF and exposure and (if fully pressed) fires. The system takes a little mental reprogramming to adjust to, and given the strain that continuous AF puts on batteries, it seems like this "backwards" implementation could have been handled better. All the same, having these DSLR-style focusing options in a fixed-lens camera is further proof that the S8100fd came to the "serious camera" game ready to play.
Speaking of serious, the S8100fd’s two macro modes – regular macro and “Super Macro” – allow shooters to get close and seriously close, respectively, to their subjects. As noted, macro mode on this camera is useful for more than just traditional super-close-up shooting, given the default AF system’s fairly long minimum focusing distance, but for real close-up work, Super Macro is where it’s at.
Enter Super Macro mode, which allows tested close-focusing at distances as near in as 0.3 inches, and the camera extends the lens slightly beyond full wide-angle (to a focal length equivalent to roughly 35mm) and locks it. Although there’s no zooming in Super Macro mode, the ability to nearly touch the lens to objects and get focus lock is pretty impressive.
Focus is expectedly slowed somewhat in Super Macro mode, but never takes more than around 0.8 seconds to grab a lock in good light and is impressively consistent right up to its minimum distance. In fact, the only issue we routinely experienced with the S8100fd’s macro performance is that the slightly large lens can cast an intrusive shadow depending on scene lighting.
It's not an "auto focus" option (just the opposite, in fact), but it should also be noted that the S8100fd provides a manual focus mode. It works about as well as these sorts of modes on these sorts of cameras usually work – which is to say it's a little clunky and probably too slow to be of much use in actual shooting. What's noteworthy about Fuji's system in this case is its interface: in MF mode, holding the exposure compensation button while toggling the zoom lets you adjust the focus.
Difficulties arise not so much from this unique interface (which actually works better than the vast majority of manual focus modes on point-and-shoots), but rather from the outrageously slow speed with which the camera focuses. When you activate the toggle for focusing, there's a 2.5 second lag before the camera actually begins moving lens elements, and then moving from minimum focusing distance to infinity takes another 5.5 seconds. It might be a nice addition for carefully composed scenes, but for any kind of "live" shooting, MF simply takes too long (unless you're looking to lock the camera at infinity and go, that is).
Continuing the S8100fd's "DSLR replacement" theme, the camera's flash unit looks like a DSLR pop-up flash, deploys like a DSLR pop-up flash, and offers performance that rivals that seen from some DSLR units in some areas.
With a range of 29 feet at ISO 800 power isn't bad at all. The S8100fd proves to have enough kick to fill a dark room if you let auto ISO do its thing.
Fuji's spilled pages of ink about the i-Flash system (the brand name for the company's flash technology, which claims to provide more tightly controlled metering with flash shots), but the results have largely proved their point: the S8100fd is just the latest example of a Fuji camera that's particularly resistant to blowing out highlights in flash photos – even when working with difficult subjects or shooting reflective surfaces. Fill and slow synchro modes provide additional flexibility for using what the flash offers, and with the linked face detection and red-eye removal functions engaged, I found no such issues in portraits.
For all it does well, using the pop-up flash at or near full power while powering the camera with alkaline AAs caused expected difficulties with recycle times. A full-power recharge on alkaline power took just over ten seconds. Jumping up to NiMHs sped things up slightly, but times with a freshly recharged set of cells were still running in the high seven-second range. Obviously, there's a price to be paid for having a little more kick with the flash than your standard point-and-shoot provides.
In my dream world a camera like the S8100fd would always sport
a hot shoe and preferably i-TTL metering support as well, making the
device fully compatible with Nikon flashguns – just like Fuji's
Nikon-derivative DSLRs. No doubt Fuji's banking that this camera will
appeal at least as much to soccer moms as to photo enthusiasts, but a concession or
two to the advanced-amateur crowd might be a good move for future
mid-level Fuji ultrazooms. Though it seems like a long shot, I guess it never hurts to dream.
Mysteriously absent from the S1000fd, mechanical (sensor-shifting) image stabilization returns to the S8100fd in conjunction with a digital ISO/shutter boosting "Dual Image Stabilization" approach. Toggling the image stabilization system on or off via its dedicated button (again, with only two options, could a better use have been found for that key?) is an all-or-nothing affair: either both forms of stabilization are engaged or neither one is, though from all indications a selected fixed ISO value overrides any ISO boost enacted by the stabilization system.
As noted previously, a phenomenally long lens can spell trouble in the sharpness department, and even with IS enabled it was hard at times to get crisp pictures at full telephoto in even moderate light. Although the S8100fd's IS technology works just as well as just about any other we've tested (providing a consistent two stops or so of stabilization improvement on average), when shooting beyond 300mm there's no replacement for a fast shutter speed and good support for the camera.
The last few AA-powered ultrazooms we've tested around here have turned in battery life numbers on alkaline juice that ranged from merely bad to downright abysmal. In a world where less than 100 shots from a set of alkaline AAs in an ultrazoom (yes, I'm talking to you, Olympus) has become increasingly common, the fact that I was able to pull more than 250 shots from our S8100fd test unit – not quite up to the claimed 350, but better than the S8000fd we looked at late last year – doesn't bother me at all.
With bigger screens, a big lens, image stabilization, and lots of other power-hungry features to drive, Fuji's numbers seem very reasonable in this regard, and from all indications, a set of high-power NiMHs should yield appreciably better results.
In general, the S8100fd is capable of some really nice shots, with accurate, vibrant colors and subtle gradations in middle tones.
At the same time, the camera has a tendency to clip highlights and mute shadows, suggesting that dynamic range is really starting to show the effects of all those pixels in such a small space. This, in fact, is perhaps the most serious strike against the S8100fd as a camera for advanced shooters: as a DSLR replacement, it works quite well save in this one area. On the one hand, the S8100fd is still perfectly capable of pleasant pictures (and judicious metering control helps in this regard), but on the other, a camera's ability to reproduce a wide spectrum of tonal values is a significant, first-order consideration.
Exposure, Processing, and Color
The S8100fd provides three metering options - multi-area, center-weighted, and average - with multi-area serving as the default setting. Given the S8100fd's tendency to lose detail at the top end of the spectrum, at times a full stop or more of exposure compensation was needed when shooting in the default metering mode.
Though the lack of a spot metering mode can ocassionally be a hindrance, the S8100fd's average mode that sits in its place tends to provide results that are a little more consistent than the multi-area setting.
The FinePix produces rich colors that maintain a surprising amount of neutrality in light of how agressive the recently tested FinePix S1000fd's color processing choices were. Overall, images from the S8100fd have a look that should suit advanced shooters: slightly soft default sharpening (that can be pushed to decidedly oversharp by using the "Hard Sharpness" setting) and middle-of-the-road saturation at default settings.
Of course, a Fuji wouldn't be a Fuji without offering the company's signature F-Chrome high-saturation film emulator.
F-Chrome color modes seem to be somewhat inconsistent from model to model, but in this particular application Fuji provides a great vivid color option that does a fairly decent (if not perfect) impersonation of the deep blues and reds of the maker's Velvia film.
There's also a run-of-the-mill monochrome mode for working direclty in black and white; note, however, that no other color mode options (not even a sepia mode) are available.
The fact that most digicam white balance systems perform so poorly under incandescent light makes the S8100fd's average to good responsiveness in this area seem that much better.
While the camera doesn't completely neutralize the warming effects of incandescent light, it does a nice job of softening the yellow cast down to manageable levels and correctly presenting lighter tones.
Of course, the standard range of presets, including a custom set mode, are available if you need them.
It's hardly surprising that the S8100fd's huge zoom range leads to some optical concerns. Most pressing is the S8100fd's poor chromatic aberration control: blue/purple fringe shows up in to some degree in almost every high-contrast boundary area.
While the problem is present across the lens range, our testing suggests that the issue seems to get more pronounced the further down the zoom you go. Taken near full telephoto, the following shot shows the S8100fd at its worst:
As before, both barrel distortion at wide-angle and pincushioning at telephoto are also visible.
Though apparent pincushion distortion seems confined mostly to extreme telephoto, barrel distortion persists for several steps down the zoom range, and is pronounced enough to intrude on compositions with straight lines.
Likewise, note the slight wide-angle vignetting that shows up in the above shot.
Sensitivity and Noise
What can we say other than there's never a SuperCCD around when you need one. Fuji has achieve near-mythic status in the world of sensor design for its low noise SuperCCD technology that graces the likes of the F100fd, but no such imager makes an appearance here. Instead, S8100fd users go armed to the low-light battle with a standard CCD, and with 10 million pixels crammed onto a 1/2.3-inch space, those blades are looking a little duller than they might once have been.
ISO 64, 100% crop
ISO 100, 100% crop
ISO 200, 100% crop
ISO 400, 100% crop
ISO 800, 100% crop
ISO 1600, 100% crop
It's hardly a surprise that the S8100fd loses a step compared to its predecessor, though better processing and more noise reduction seem to offer an apparently cleaner image at the expense of some detail. As is often the case, noise reduction intrudes too much too early, and there's no way to dial it back on this camera - an oversight, in our opinion, given the S8100fd's price and market position.
Shots through ISO 400 show roughly the same level of detail, though even at ISO 400 noise reduction begins to intrude. Things get progressively messier from there on up, but ISO 1600 remains usable.
Compared to similarly speced cameras (in this case, the 10 megapixel Olympus SP-570 UZ), it's interesting to note the differences in noise reduction processing approach.
Fujifilm FinePix S8100fd, ISO 1600, 100% crop
Olympus SP-570 UZ, ISO 1600, 100% crop
Side by side with the Olympus, the Fuji clearly captures more detail at ISO 1600. With a finer, grainer look, the Fuji's shots retain more color information as well. While it's not a DSLR-level performance for sure and I still would like to see better, compared to its primary competition, the S8100fd holds up fine.
In addition to the full-res ISO range shown above, the S8100fd can take five-megapixel images at ISO 3200 and 6400.
ISO 6400, 100% crop
Although you're only getting half the image data, the edge detail at 100% between ISO 1600 and ISO 6400 is roughly the same.
Additional Sample Images
As with the model it replaces, the S8100fd really does hit just about all of the right notes. Limitations of and problems with this camera show themselves to be minor as a rule: in terms of basic performance, the S8100fd is a solid package that's capable of quite a lot.
So what's left to wish for in a possible forthcoming S8200fd? A bigger sensor would really make a difference here, bringing the S8100fd's merely acceptable noise performance back up to the level of some of Fuji's more hallowed offerings and helping with the camera's slightly compressed dynamic range as well. More than anything else, these two hurdles separate the image quality and use experience of the FinePix from that of an entry-level DSLR.
This twofold concern about the imager aside, there's very little else not to like about the Fuji, and for this price the camera offers easily portable photographic power in spades. Even with strong competition from several other makers, refinements to the basic FinePix formula help keep the S8100fd right at the top of our list of current ultrazooms.
|Sensor||10.0 megapixel, 1/2.3" CCD|
|Zoom||18x (27-486mm) Fujinon zoom, f/2.8-4.5|
|LCD/Viewfinder||2.5", 230K-pixel TFT LCD; Electronic Viewfinder
|Shutter Speed||4-1/2000 seconds
|Shooting Modes||Auto, Picture Stabilization, Natural Light, Natural Light with Flash, Zoom Bracketing, Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, Manual, Scene, Movie|
|Scene Presets||Portrait, Landscape, Sport, Night, Fireworks, Sunset, Snow, Beach, Museum, Party, Flower, Text, Auction
|White Balance Settings||Auto, Fine, Shade, Fluorescent 1, Fluorescent 2, Fluorescent 3, Incandescent, Custom
|Metering Modes||Not Specified|
|Focus Modes||Center AF, Multi AF, Area AF, Continuous AF, Manual, Macro, Super Macro
|Drive Modes||Normal, Top 3, Top 33, Top 33 (Ultra High Speed), Continuous|
|Flash Modes||Auto, Forced On, Slow Synchro, Forced Off, Red-Eye Reduction, Slow Syncrho with Red-Eye Reduction|
|Self Timer Settings
||10 seconds, 2 seconds, Off
|Memory Formats||xD-Picture Card, SD, SDHC
|File Formats||JPEG, AVI, WAV
|Max. Image Size||3648x2736
|Max. Video Size
||640x480, 30 fps
|Zoom During Video||No|
|Battery||4 AA batteries
|Connections||USB 2.0, AV output, DC input|
|Additional Features||Face Detection, i-Flash, Super Macro Mode|
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