Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/01/30/review_fujifilm_s9500/

Fujifilm FinePix S9500 Zoom nine-megapixel camera

Can it compete with budget SLRs?

By Gordon Laing

Posted in Hardware, 30th January 2006 15:22 GMT

Review Fujifilm's FinePix S9500 Zoom is a nine megapixel all-in-one 'bridge' camera with a long 10.7x optical zoom lens and SLR-like styling. With its design and features, Fujifilm is clearly targeting buyers of budget digital SLRs, quoting LCD-based composition, a tilting monitor, movie mode and no concerns over dust getting on the sensor as key advantages. It's also comfortably cheaper than most budget digital SLRs...

Fujifilm S9500 digital camera

Of course, if you can't remove the lens you'll want some decent glass up-front, and the S9500 certainly delivers the goods in terms of focal range at least. Where most compacts and all-in-ones start at a modest wide angle equivalent to around 35mm, the S9500 boasts a considerably more useful 28mm. It then optically zooms right into a powerful telephoto equivalent to 300mm and even offers a ridiculously close Super Macro mode of just 1cm. Try doing all of that with the bundled 3x zoom you get with a digital SLR.

Combine this with the tilting screen, movie mode and respectably high sensitivity of 1600 ISO for an all-in-one, and you've got quite a compelling package. Of course, in their favour, digital SLRs should deliver lower noise levels, superior manual focusing and the ability to swap lenses should you want to. Can the S9500 really compete with a budget digital SLR, or will it end up appealing to a different market?

We've used Fujifilm Europe's product naming convention in this review. The S9500 is known as the S9000 in the US, but it's exactly the same camera as reviewed here.

Measuring 12.8 x 9.3 x 1.3cm, the S9500 is virtually the same size as the Canon EOS-350D/Digital Rebel XT equipped with its 18-55mm kit lens - although the S9500 has a much longer zoom range. Unlike most SLRs, which have their lens mounts roughly in the middle of the body, the S9500 has it's lens barrel shifted to one side. This leaves plenty of room for a decent sized grip and your fingers to hold onto it without them being pinched by the lens barrel. Overall, build quality is to a very high standard, although not quite up to the feel of Panasonic's FZ30.

Review by
Camera Labs

The S9500 is packed with buttons and controls, with most located on the upper right surface and to the right of the main display. The main Command dial offers Auto, Program, Manual, Shutter and Aperture Priority modes, along with five scene presets and a movie mode. Shutter speeds range from 1/4000 to 30 seconds.

Fujifilm S9500 digital camera

The Command dial's joined by exposure compensation, flash and continuous shooting buttons with a thumb-wheel to adjust their options. The shutter-release button sits inside the main power switch which selects between Record, Play and off. Following Fujifilm's tradition on its higher-end cameras, the shutter release button is threaded for an old-fashioned cheap cable release - a welcome touch in an age where pricey electronic cable releases are the norm.

The rear of the camera is home to many more controls including the usual four-way joypad, the main menu button, a metering mode dial with exposure lock, and buttons to switch between the screen and EVF along with their display options.

There's also Fujifilm's 'F' button which brings up quality, ISO and colour tone options, although for white balance settings you'll need to enter the main menu system. It seems odd not to have white balance included on the F menu, or for that matter not to have dedicated buttons for both white balance and ISO for use with the thumb-wheel. This would give the S9500 much more of the SLR feel Fujifilm is clearly aiming for.

A button to the left of the flash pops it open, upon which you can change its settings by pressing the dedicated button and turning the thumb-wheel; there's red-eye reduction and slow synchro options, along with modest flash compensation settings of ±2/3 EV via the main menu. There's also a basic hotshoe and a PC-Sync port.

Fujifilm S9500 digital camera

The camera's powered by four AA batteries, and Fujifilm supplies a set of disposable Alkalines to get you started. We managed to go through these in just a couple of days testing though (albeit mostly using the 60 fps display mode, so the sooner you replace them with a set of rechargeables and a charger, the better. Some people prefer AAs for their wide availability, but personally we'd sooner have a rechargeable Lithium Ion pack every time. They're smaller, lighter and generally last longer.

Composition and screen

Like other all-in-one cameras with long zooms, the S9500 offers the choice of composing with either a colour LCD screen or electronic viewfinder (EVF). The 0.44in, 230,000-pixel EVF is large and detailed, matching that on the Panasonic FZ30. The S9500's main screen is smaller and less detailed than its rival though, measuring a fairly modest 1.8in with 118,000 pixels. A button to the right of the viewfinder switches between the EVF and main screen.

Fujifilm S9500 digital camera

The main screen is hinged at the top and bottom, allowing it to be flipped 90 degrees upwards for waist-level shooting, or tilted back by about 40 degrees. Sadly, it can't be twisted sideways, nor flipped back on itself to protect the screen's surface. In this respect it's nowhere as flexible as the fully-flippable screens of the Panasonic FZ30, Sony DSC-R1 or a number of Canon compacts, but it is at least more flexible than a conventional digital SLR.

The display button allows you to compose with three by three grid lines or view a shrunken image with thumbnails of the previous three shots running down the left side. An info button on the side of the camera fires up the live histogram or shows further shooting information.

There's an option to switch the refresh rate of the screen from the standard 30 fps to a 'High Speed' 60 fps mode. This is far preferable in use, delivering both a smoother image on the screen and greatly reducing the clicking sound as the camera adjusts the exposure for different conditions. It does however seem to eat through your batteries more quickly, again illustrating the need to get a set of decent rechargeables ASAP.

Lens

The S9500 is equipped with a long 10.7x optical zoom with a 35mm-equivalent range of 28-300mm and a focal ratio of f2.8˜4.9; the actual focal length is 6.2-66.7mm. Like most high-end all-in-ones these days, the zoom is operated by a tactile mechanically-linked ring; this extends the barrel by 33mm when fully zoomed-in. A lens hood is supplied, and the front lens element doesn't rotate during focussing, allowing the easy use of polarising filters.

Fujifilm S9500 digital camera

A dial on the side of the camera switches between continuous, single and manual focussing modes, with a separate macro button below it which selects between normal and Super Macro mode. Like most all-in-ones, the S9500 employs an electrically assisted manual focussing ring, although again like most all-in-ones, it's not a patch on manually focussing with a genuine optical SLR.

The Super Macro mode can focus as close as 1cm, which while impressive, is virtually impossible to exploit without casting shadows on your subject. That said, even if you retreat to around two or three cm, you can still enjoy excellent close-up capabilities.

The S9500's long optical zoom range is very useful, particularly the 28mm wide angle end when most manufacturers settle for starting at 35mm. This gives you the flexibility of capturing decent wide views, while also being able to zoom-in on distant detail. Sony's R1 gets a little wider still at 24mm, but only zooms into 120mm. Panasonic's FZ30 starts at a relatively modest 35mm, but extends to a whopping 420mm; it's all a case of weighing up which range suits you best. One thing's for certain though: all are far more flexible than the typical 3X optical range you get with budget digital SLR kit lenses.

To illustrate the S9500's coverage, we took the same photo from the same position on a tripod using it and Panasonic's DMC-FZ30 which offers a 12x optical range equivalent to 35-420mm. The photos below were taken moments apart.

Zoomed-out to wide-angle, the S9500 captures a visibly wider field than the 35mm equivalent focal length of the Panasonic DMC-FZ30, although not as wide as the 24mm equivalent of Sony's Cyber-shot DSC-R1.

Fujifilm S9500 digital camera
Fujifilm FinePix S9500 Zoom - 6.2-66.7mm at 6.2mm, f8 (28mm equivalent)

Fujifilm S9500 digital camera
Panasonic DMC-FZ30 - 7.4-88.8mm at 7.4mm, f8 (35mm equivalent)

Below are examples of both cameras zoomed all the way in, again taken from exactly the same position and moments apart. Here the massive 300 and 420mm equivalent focal lengths of each camera demonstrate their impressive reach over both the Sony R1's 120mm equivalent, and the relatively paltry capabilities of a typical 3x lens bundled with a digital SLR. Note, there are similar lens coverage examples taken with the Sony R1 and Canon 350D/Digital Rebel XT from exactly the same spot, although on a different day in our Sony R1 review here.

The Panasonic unsurprisingly wins in this respect, although whether it's offers a greater benefit than the wider angle of the Fujifilm S9500 is entirely down to personal preference and your style of photography.

Fujifilm S9500 digital camera
Fujifilm FinePix S9500 Zoom - 6.2-66.7mm at 66.7mm, f8 (300mm equivalent)

Fujifilm S9500 digital camera
Panasonic DMC-FZ30 - 7.4-88.8mm at 88.8mm, f8 (420mm equivalent)

Long focal lengths are all very well, but they increase the risk of camera shake. While many manufacturers counter this with optical image stabilisation, Fujifilm has opted for a simpler electronic solution: simply increase the ISO to allow faster shutter speeds. So where most all-in-ones peak between 400 and 640 ISO, the S9500 offers sensitivity from 80 right up to 1600 ISO. This will certainly let you achieve the kind of shutter speeds required to avoid camera shake under most conditions.

By increasing sensitivity, you also suffer from higher noise levels. Later, we'll compare the S9500 with the Panasonic FZ30, along with the Sony R1 and Canon EOS-350D which both feature physically larger sensors. While optical stabilisation may seem the technically preferable solution though, it must be said it won't freeze any subject in motion. In contrast, while higher ISOs increase the noise levels, they do allow faster shutter speeds both freezing action and reducing the risk of camera shake.

To illustrate this we took handheld photos of the same subject with both the S9500 and the Panasonic FZ30 zoomed-in to their maximum focal lengths; the photos were taken within moments of each other. We've taken 1410x1060 pixel crops from each image to show similar areas, then reduced them by five times for 20 per cent reproduction below. Each crop represents approximately 2/5 of the original image coverage. The FZ30 shows a smaller area because its focal length was longer and the resolution slightly lower. Despite slightly different resolutions, the reproduction of both crops from the original images is roughly equivalent and adequate to illustrate this example.

Fujifilm S9500 digital camera
Fujifilm FinePix S9500 Zoom - 6.2-66.7mm at 66.7mm, f8 (300mm equivalent)
1600 ISO, 1/350th

Fujifilm S9500 digital camera
Panasonic DMC-FZ30 - 7.4-88.8mm at 88.8mm, f8 (420mm equivalent)
80 ISO, 1/13th

At 80 ISO, the S9500 required a shutter speed of 1/13th, which for a focal length equivalent to 300mm was far too slow to handhold without considerable camera shake. Fujifilm's answer is of course to increase the sensitivity, and once we'd set the camera to 1600 ISO, the exposure had shortened to 1/350th, allowing a sharp handheld result.

Set to 80 ISO, the FZ30 also required a shutter speed of 1/13th, but amazingly its optical image stabilisation allowed us to handhold the shot without any camera shake - and this was at a longer equivalent focal length of 420mm.

As explained earlier though, both approaches have their pros and cons. The high sensitivity demanded by the S9500 may have resulted in high noise levels and also some smearing of detail, but any motion has been frozen. In contrast, the stabilisation of the Panasonic may have allowed us to handhold at 80 ISO and enjoy a noise-free image, but the long zoom and slow shutter speed have resulted in blurring of motion. Which is better depends on your style of photography. If you shoot moving subjects, the S9500's higher sensitivity has the edge. Conversely, if you shoot mostly static subjects the FZ30 will be more suitable. Either way, you can't help but be impressed by the stabilisation of the Panasonic FZ30.

Sensor and drive

The S9500 employs a nine megapixel SuperCCD HR sensor measuring 1/1.6in and delivering 4:3 aspect ratio images with a maximum of 3488 x 2616 pixels. Unlike many SuperCCD sensors in the past, the S9500's doesn't employ any scaling - it really is a genuine nine megapixel sensor.

In total, six different resolution modes are available, including one with 3:2 aspect ratio images measuring 3696 x 2464 pixels. The largest nine megapixel images can be recorded with the choice of two JPEG compression levels or as RAW files; best quality JPEGs measure around 4.5MB each. Very basic RAW software is supplied, so for a more practical approach to processing you'll really need third-party software.

The S9500 sports slots for both xD and Compact Flash (Type I and II) memory cards. The UK package tested included a modest 16MB xD card to get you started, although this may vary depending on your region and the supplier's offer.

Video recording

With the command dial set to video, you have the choice of recording in either VGA 640 x 480 resolution or QVGA 320 x 240, both at 30fps with sound. In VGA mode, the video was smooth and detailed, and consumed just over 1MB per second.

Handling

The S9500 starts up and is ready for action in about one second, which makes it noticeably slower than the 0.2s startup of the latest budget digital SLRs. That said during our test period we rarely found it limiting. Switching to Play mode takes just over two seconds to display the first image, and there's about a one second delay to go from one to the next (using best quality JPEGs). Thumbnails in playback appear almost instantly.

There are three continuous shooting options, one recording the first four images in sequence, the second recording the last four images in a sequence, and the third recording as many images as you have space for on the card.

Using the supplied xD card and the best quality JPEG mode we found the first two modes could take their four images in around 2.5s, giving a rate of 1.6fps. Switching to unlimited mode though reduced the speed to around 1fps, and strangely is only available in fully Auto mode.

To compare real-life performance we shot the same scene with all three cameras within a few minutes of each other using their best quality JPEG settings and an aperture of f8 in Aperture Priority mode. The crops are taken from the originals and presented here at 100 per cent.

The first image below was taken with the Fujifilm S9500 at 12mm f8 (54mm equivalent); the original JPEG measured 4.28MB. Sporting an additional megapixel over its rivals here, the S9500's 100 per cent crops show a slightly smaller area, although the actual resolved detail remains very similar across all three models.

Fujifilm S9500 digital camera

Fujifilm S9500 digital camera
Fujifilm FinePix S9500 Zoom - 1/250, f8, 80 ISO

Fujifilm S9500 digital camera
Panasonic DMC-FZ30 - 1/320, f8, 80 ISO

Fujifilm S9500 digital camera
Canon EOS-350D with 18-55mm EF-S - 1/320, f8, 100 ISO

For further, in-depth tests covering the test camera's resolution, CCD noise levels, chromatic aberration, purple fringing, corner sharpness, wideangle and telephoto geometry, wideangle and telephoto uniformity, and macro performance, visit Camera Labs here.

The following images were taken with the Fujifilm FinePix S9500. The recording mode was set to 9M F mode, thereby using the full nine-megapixel resolution and the least-compressed JPEG setting; unless otherwise stated, the pictures were taken in Program mode with the default settings. The individual file sizes, shutter speeds, aperture, ISO and lens focal length are listed for each image.

The crops are taken from the original files, reproduced at 100 per cent and saved in Adobe Photoshop CS2 as JPEGs with the default Very High quality preset, while the resized images were made in Photoshop CS2 and saved with the default High quality preset. The three crops are typically taken from far left, central and far right portions of each image.

Church: 4.32MB, Program, 1/170, f8, ISO 100, 6.2-66.7mm at 6.2mm (equivalent to 28mm)

Fujifilm S9500 digital camera

This shot of a city-center church demonstrates the S9500's wide-angle capability. The image was taken at quite close range, but the 28mm equivalent wide-angle allowed us to capture a larger field of view than most all-in-ones. The crops are sharp and detailed, although at 28mm, the S9500 performs best with its aperture closed.

Fujifilm S9500 digital camera

Fujifilm S9500 digital camera

Fujifilm S9500 digital camera

Market: 4.20MB, Aperture Priority, 1/15, f8, ISO 400, 6.2-66.7mm at 6.2mm (equivalent to 28mm)

Fujifilm S9500 digital camera

This photo of a market stall was taken under dim lighting conditions. We wanted a large depth-of-field so set the aperture to f8. In order to achieve a hand-holdable shutter speed under these conditions we had to increase the ISO to 400. The crops show a higher level of noise than the earlier examples and reduced detail, although it's acceptable for all but the largest reproductions.

Fujifilm S9500 digital camera

Fujifilm S9500 digital camera

Fujifilm S9500 digital camera

For many more sample images, visit Camera Labs here.

Verdict

On paper, the Fujifilm S9500 promises a great deal: it features higher resolution than current budget digital SLRs and a much longer optical zoom than their typical 3x bundles. Fujifilm additionally lists the many reasons why you'd want the S9500 over a digital SLR, including composition with a live, tiltable screen and a movie mode. The big question then is whether it's really a viable alternative to an SLR.

Starting with resolution, the S9500's sensor and lens combination certainly out-resolved the current crop of budget six- and eight-megapixel digital SLRs in our studio tests, although in real life you'd be hard pushed to spot much difference between it and the Canon 350D/Digital Rebel XT or Panasonic's DMC-FZ30. That's still a good result though.

As far as the lens is concerned, there's softness in the corners at wide angle, but no more than you'd get with most 3x lenses bundled with digital SLRs. In terms of geometry and vignetting, the S9500's lens, like the Panasonic FZ30 and Sony R1, out-performs most digital SLR bundles.

As you'd expect, the S9500's long optical range and macro facility was also far more flexible than the bundled lenses of digital SLRs, and while it didn't zoom-in as far as, say, Panasonic's FZ30, we ultimately preferred it's wider angle option. Shame it didn't have the Panasonic's image stabilisation though.

Of course, Fujifilm's answer to image stabilisation is high sensitivity, and this was one area where we expected to find compromised noise levels. In practice, though, noise levels on the S9500 were surprisingly low, delivering good results up to 400 ISO and respectable performance at 800 ISO. At 1600 ISO, artefacts had become clearly visible but all-in-all it's a useful facility to have and an impressive result for a camera with a physically small sensor and high resolution.

The S9500 certainly feels quite responsive, but was not as quick as most budget digital SLRs for startup or continuous shooting. Manual focusing also remains easier with a proper SLR, although there are of course compositional benefits to a tilting screen with a live view, not to mention having a movie mode. It's a pity the S9500's screen wasn't fully-twistable like several of its rivals though.

Ultimately, there are several key things you have to weigh-up when choosing between an all-in-one like the S9500 and a budget digital SLR. A good budget digital SLR should deliver lower noise at high sensitivities, easy manual focusing, superior continuous shooting and of course the ability to swap lenses. In contrast, the S9500 offers a much broader zoom range as standard, a tilting screen with live composition, a movie mode and no concerns of dust getting on the sensor. Only you can personally decide if these outweigh the benefits of a true SLR.

Compared to other all-in-ones the S9500 holds its own, delivering similar quality in real-life conditions to Panasonic's DMC-FZ30 and Sony's Cyber-shot DSC-R1. While there are differences in their designs and overall feature-sets, the choice between the three ultimately boils down to which optical zoom range best suits your requirements.

One thing's for certain though: should you decide an all-in-one 'bridge' camera is better suited to your personal preferences and style of photography than a digital SLR, the Fujifilm S9500 Zoom is an excellent choice. It delivers great quality images with a highly versatile lens range at a decent price, and as such comes highly recommended.

Review by
Camera Labs