When Digitals Collide--We Win

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works
Thursday, August 24, 2006; 5:06 PM

There is a quiet little rumble going on out there, out of sight of the digital gearheads searching for the latest and greatest point and shoot camera, the numbers of which seem to increase in the marketplace with every passing week -- with precious little real improvement, or even change, in these tiny cameras' basic operation.

The rumble also is going on below the radar, as it were, of many professional photographers whose camera bodies routinely start at $3-4,000 and who likely would view the two cameras I'm about to discuss as fine for what they are, but not really worth their attention.

Which is their loss.

Over the past year and a half, Nikon and Fuji have done a great job of updating and improving their two very popular mid-level digital SLRs to produce the Fuji Finepix S3 Pro (replacing its predecessor Finepix S2) and the Nikon D200 (replacing its predecessor D100).

The improvements, to be sure, were prompted by the head-to-head competition between these two excellent, nearly evenly-matched, digital cameras.

And when digitals collide like this in the marketplace, everybody wins. In fact, as of this writing, both Fuji and Nikon also have significantly cut the prices of these two bodies, with each now have a suggested list of around $1700. (Street price up to $200 less.)

I was drawn to the earlier incarnation of both these cameras for a number of reasons, not all of them having to do with any love I might have for digital photography. In fact, it's probably true that I looked to these cameras as a way for me to do pro-level digital shooting without: 1. having to abandon my first love, which is film photography, and 2. without having to go into hock to outfit myself digitally.

A little background.

The first digital camera I owned and actually worked with professionally was a Canon PowerShot G1 point and shoot. At the time it was the top of the line P&S for Canon -- which still commands, though no longer dominates, the amateur point-and-shoot market. When I say "professionally," what I mean is this: I used the camera to make my digital "executive summary" photos during our wedding coverage. I would hang the little camera around my neck while my wife Judy and I blazed away with our pro-level 35mm film cameras -- with Lumedyne (now Q-Flash) strobe heads on flash brackets, powered by high-voltage battery packs. Every so often, I would bring the little camera to my eye and snap a quick shot so that I would be able to digitally record the highlights of the wedding for our client on a quick-turnaround CD.

As inevitably happens, the better you get with one piece of equipment, the more you want to do. I wished I weren't tethered to the PowerShot's pokey fixed zoom lens. I wished I could use our far better flash system. And I absolutely hated the shutter-lag I had to suffer through almost every time I made a picture. In fact, it was the shutter-lag problem -- rather than any real beef I had with the PowerShot's images -- that drew me to the Finepix S2 when it first came out.

I reviewed both the Fuji S2 and the Nikon D100 three years ago and, though I liked both cameras, favored the S2 for a number of minor and not-so-minor reasons. (see review: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/photo/essays/vanRiper/030228.htm )

This time around, the choice is even harder to make, but, yet again, the S3 seems the better camera -- at least in terms of how I personally use it in my professional and personal work. Please note: among my colleagues who use these mid-level, yet still pro-grade, cameras, I am bound to say that I see more D200's in the camera bags that S3's, but this may be more a factor of Nikon's aggressive marketing of this great camera. As with anything, it's all a matter of personal preference, and one always should try out and field test any camera before buying it. [For the record, I have no personal or commercial ties with any camera maker, so I am basing my preference on a camera that I actually have bought and use constantly.]

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