I have an ongoing relationship with all-in-one cameras. The basic rule of cameras is that the camera I have with me makes much better photographs than the one I left at home. I'm much more likely to put my Fujica GA645 in my shoulder bag than my Pentax 67, let alone the latter's bevy of accessories and lenses. Still, quality counts: if the photos don't make me happy, then they're just not good enough. The main reason I have a GA645 is that mere 35mm film quality doesn't curl my toes.
My carry-'round digital's been a 6 MP Fujifilm Finepix S6000fd, the best camera I could find under $400 that had decent low-light performance (I never use flash) and RAW mode. The average image quality (especially in low light) is better than I could get from 35mm film point-and-shoots, adequate for 8x10's. Exposure range in RAW mode is a useful (not stellar) eight stops. I'm not delirious, but I'm satisfied.
The Fujifilm Finepix S100FS is a clear descendant of the S6000, but, with a $700 street price, it's in DSLR turf. Should an all-in-one camera even try to compete with an SLR? Fuji claimed it was the best "consumer" digital camera they'd ever made. Okay, how could I resist checking that out?
I wound up making something like 1000 photos and spending a full month figuring out whether I loved or hated this beast. Just why it proved so difficult makes for a tale.
Specifications won't tell you if a camera makes good photographs, only if it has the features you want. Recitations are boring, so I'll mention just a handful. For an exhaustive list check out dpreview.
The bulky S100FS weighs a kilogram and measures 14 x 10 x 15 cm. Its 28–400mm (equivalent) ƒ/2.8–5.3 zoom lens has a minimum aperture of ƒ/11 and focuses down to 1 cm in macro or super-macro mode (unfortunately only at 28mm). It has multiple-zone, average, and spot metering (about 1% of the field) and shutter speeds from 1/4000 second up to 30 sec plus bulb. There's a hot shoe and a PC-style flash connector, so you can tether this camera to an external flash or studio rig.
The 75,000 (full-color) pixel display LCD on the camera back is readable in sunlight. It pulls out and tilts, so I can use the camera at chest level (the most comfortable and stable position for me), waist level and even upside-down overhead for "Hail Mary" photos.
The S100's novel eye-level viewfinder displays sequential RGB color at 65,000 full-color pixels. I liked the clear, relatively detailed image that was usable in sunlight. Quick movements produce momentary rainbow fringing, but I didn't find it bothersome. While not remotely as good as an optical finder, it's functional.
Pixel counts and sensor sizes provide only the very crudest guide to image quality. Honestly, price correlates better! But if you must know, there are 11 megapixels in a Bayer sensor approximately one fourth of 35mm size (the S6000 has 6 megapixels in a 1/5th scale sensor). By comparison, a 10 MP Nikon D200 has a sensor 2.5X larger.
I used Adobe Camera RAW for importing all test images. I loved the "look" of the photographs this camera produced (see top picture). The tonality and color looked very nice and natural to me, and I'm considered to have a pretty good eye for these things (he said immodestly). But, as I'll explain later, loving this camera proved more difficult than I expected.
I decided to compare the S100FS image quality to the Nikon D200. The price of a used D200 (or a new D80) body is roughly the same as the S100, so I think they're plausible competition when deciding whether to go system or all-in-one. Besides, my friend David Dyer-Bennett conveniently owns a D200.
3. Full-frame image from the Fuji S100. Compare this to the picture below, made with a Nikon D200. Allowing for about 1/3 stop difference in exposure, they've got identical exposure ranges. In RAW, both cameras can capture 11 stops at ISO 100!
We made RAW exposure series that compared the exposure ranges and overall image quality at ISO 100 and noise performance at ISO 1600. I imported everything using identical ACR settings that would reasonably maximize tonal range while producing a pleasing image. With a modest recovery of highlight detail in ACR, both cameras were capable of conveying an identical and surprising 11 stops of subject luminance range.
Overall ISO 100 image quality was comparable, though not identical (see 3. and 4., above). In matched 7" x 10" prints, the differences were just about invisible. They were evident in close viewing of 14 x 20" prints. Fuji did a better job of holding fine, low-contrast detail, especially in the highlights; certain kinds of repeating structures that confused the D200 were rendered well by the S100. On the other hand, fine detail in the shadows was better in the D200 (picture 6). Overall, the Nikon image looked noiseless, while the Fuji showed fine noise, even in highlights.
But, here's a twist! I ran the Fuji photo through Neat Image to suppress midtone and highlight noise to match the Nikon (picture 7). When I did that, it lost just enough fine, low-contrast detail to make the D200 and S100FS photographs nearly indentical, except in the deep shadows. I conclude the differences have more to do with an aesthetic "design philosophy" than sensor quality: Nikon emphasizes suppression of noise, while Fuji emphasizes retention of fine detail.
This from a sensor only 40% as big. Take that, you size-queens, you!
Next time, low light, and some warts.