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Finally: Two Affordable (?) Pro-Level Digital Cameras

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

For far too long the only option that a serious digital photographer had when he or she wanted to graduate from a fixed-lens digital point and shoot was to spend a gazillion dollars on a high-end, pro-level camera like the admittedly terrific Nikon D1-X or the Canon EOS 1D, or the Kodak DCS Pro 14n.

Happily, I never faced such a dilemma. I was ready to wait till hell froze over before I'd spend upwards of five or six grand on a, harrumph, digital system. Remember: I'm the troglodyte who loves his all-manual, all mechanical Leica M6, Hasselblad 500CM and Zone VI 4x5 field camera–all of which run on finger power and film. (You remember film, don't you?)

Also, I was pretty happy with the digital camera I already had – a Canon PowerShot G1, a 3.34 megapixel point-and-shoot that once was top-of-the-line in Canon's impressive stable of digital P&S cameras. The G1 featured some cool bells and whistles, was pleasantly sturdy to hold, and was remarkably easy to use. It also could fit into a shirt pocket, provided the pocket was one of those billowy kind found on safari shirts. [Note: Canon has since upgraded and improved this terrific camera twice, in the PowerShot G2 and the current PowerShot G3.]

But even as I carried the G1 around my neck all through every wedding and event I covered over the past two years – to supplement my "real" film work with electronic images that could quickly be put up on the web or downloaded to CD – I always was aware of this camera's two biggest shortcomings.

The first, of course, was shutter lag – that awful eternity that plagues any consumer-grade digital. I swear in some shooting modes a good quarter-second would pass between pressing the shutter release and actually making the shot – great fun when you are trying to capture action on the fly or a fleeting expression.

But the worst drawback to this or any other digital P&S was the fact that, sophisticated internally as these cameras might have been, they still were fixed-lens cameras. I was stuck with the G1's 7-21mm zoom (the equivalent of roughly a 35-105 lens in 35mm), just as I was stuck with waiting for this lens to make its way slowly and methodically up and down whenever I wanted to zoom in or out.

In retrospect, given the way digital has blanketed the photography market, I am surprised that manufacturers took so long to offer consumers a high-quality mid-level digital SLR that would take multiple lenses, offer an enticing array of features, not require a degree in rocket science to use, and, most important, not bankrupt the photographer – at least not too much.

Nikon's D-100 and Fuji's Finepix S2 Pro are each wonderful cameras that debuted at roughly the same time, each garnering its share of good reviews. A comparison of the two cameras is inevitable since each is made from a Nikon N80 body – a lightweight (I think too lightweight) polycarbonate shell that houses impressive electronics and similar, though by no means identical, features.

Each camera will set you back about two thousand dollars – the Fuji costs several hundred dollars more and, I think, is worth it. List on the D-100 is just under $2,000; street roughly $1700. List on the S2 about $2400; street about $2,000.

[Note: I am old enough to think two grand is a ridiculous amount of money to spend on any camera system, much less any camera body. But given the astronomical prices asked for the really high-end digitals these days, these two cameras are in their own way bargains. Both the D-100 and the S2 offer features that just a few years ago were not even found in cameras triple their price.]

Now, as to specifics...

My own non-scientific observations of picture quality, as well as numerous published comparisons between the D-100 and S2, give the nod for picture quality to Fuji. In fairness, you may find virtually no difference between the two; the differences in many cases are that small. Though both cameras contain CCDs offering images of 6 megapixel-plus, the S2 claims the ability to produce "an image file with ...12.1 million recorded pixels for pictures with stunning color and detail that are sure to please even the most discerning photographer..."

However, the 12 megapixel magic apparently is achieved through post-production interpolation of data – a kind of computer magic to supersize the file. That also means that the "discerning photographer" may find he or she is dealing with a file so large that it is simply too unwieldy to deal with in most practical cases.

Bottom line: each camera takes a hell of a picture.

Where the Nikon has only one media slot, for a CompactFlash card or a Microdrive, the S2 has the nifty advantage of taking two separate media at the same time, if desired: CF card or Microdrive as well as the new, ultra-slim Smartmedia cards. If you choose to load the S2 with both media, you can switch between them with the push of a button.

I should note, though, that the S2 seems to push you toward the sometimes dubious choice of huge-capacity IBM microdrives (think of a CF card on steroids), noting in its manual that "Some CompactFlash cards may not work properly..." I found this out the hard way when a 256mb CF card I had just bought for this very camera sat in my S2 like a thick wad of chewing gum stuck in my throat. When I exchanged this first CF card for another, by a different manufacturer, the replacement worked just fine. Make sure to check beforehand.

[As to why a microdrive is a dubious choice, especially since I've happily been using one for my commercial and personal work for a number of years, let me explain. First, a microdrive's huge capacity – upwards of 750 images on one "card" – can make retrieval of images take forever, especially if you want to review or search for an image quickly. No fun while working; even less fun while on vacation. More important, these media are more delicate than CF cards because they actually contain ultra-tiny moving hard disks. This means that a microdrive too easily can become micro-toast if it is dropped or jostled too hard. As you might guess, I treat mine with care. Oh, and another thing, they ain't cheap. Mine cost me $350.My advice with each camera – stick with CF cards.]

For longtime Nikon users like me, lens compatibility was a major attraction with both cameras. Each features the legendary Nikon F lens mount, though the cameras work full-function only with the newer D and G series Nikkor lenses.

Sensitivity range for both cameras is wide, 100-1600 for the S2; 200-1600 with the D-100. The differences, I feel are negligible. Nikon also offers the option of shooting in two "Hi" modes, equivalent to 3200 and 6400 film ISO, but warns up front that the images will be full of "noise," or electronic grain.

In both cameras, the dreaded shutter lag dragon has pretty much been slain. Though neither camera sounds or feels like a panther-like Leica, or a top-of-the-line D1x, there is blessedly little disconnect between button-push and image-making.

So, far, anyway, the S2 and the D-100 have been pretty much equal.

However, Fuji does pull away bigtime from the D-100 in two important areas.

First, the S2 again offers redundancy, this time in the means by which one can download data. It offers not only USB interface (as does the D-100) but also Firewire, which can be a boon when speed is important (as, frankly, it always is.)

Finally, the old studio and location shooter in me loves the fact that the S2 comes with a PC connector for external strobes. The D-100 does not, unless you buy an adapter, and this little bit of cost-cutting gets my goat. Granted, each camera comes with a TTL on-camera pop-up flash, but sooner or later a little bird will fly up to you and chirp in your ear: "You mean to tell me you paid nearly two grand for your camera and you can't connect it with your strobelights right out of the box?!"

A little thing, but as the song says, little things mean a lot.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

©Frank Van Riper
There's a reason the digital Fuji Finepix S2 Pro looks like a clone of the Nikon D-100 digital: each is made from the body of a Nikon N80, a film camera aimed at advanced amateurs. But not everything is identical.

©Frank Van Riper
Even if the S2 didn't have an edge over the D-100 in image quality, I'd probably give Fuji the nod just for something as mundane (yet awfully important) as a PC connector (shown here on the side of the S2) that allows for easy use of separate strobelights.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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