You know how that story goes: the little guy never quite succeeds, but looks so cute trying.
That may be said of Fuji's remarkable and new little Finepix S20. (Why is the bigger, better camera only called the S2? I have no idea). Fuji absolutely, positively, wants you to think of the new S20 as a professional camera, especially suitable for wedding and event photographers, as well as for portrait shooters who specialize in high volume work like senior graduation shots.
Hell, even the full name of the camera is Fuji Finepix S20 "Pro"
But, to be blunt, a professional camera it ain't. I cannot think of any instance in which a fulltime working professional photographer would choose this camera over, say, his or her D1x, S2, or Leica M7 for on an important job.
But, hey, life is not all work. I certainly could see that same professional taking this camera just about anywhere else and having a ball with it.
There are any number of things right about this camera and my reservations are not about things that are "wrong" with it, only about features that I personally find gratuitously complicated, too slow, or otherwise not to my own individual taste. The best seat-of-the-pants endorsement I can give the S20 is that when I showed it to a friend who owns a camera shop and who previously had touted to me Fuji's predecessor S5000 and S7000 amateur-market cameras he immediately made plans to stock the S20 as a perfect step up from these terrific machines.
[Note: as of this writing, the fixed-lens S20 lists for $999, but I already am seeing it offered for a third less. My suspicion is that Fuji wants to lend this camera a "professional" panache to justify its price, especially since the supposedly amateur level S5000 and S7000 list for $599 and $799 respectively. My further suspicion is that this won't work; that this excellent little pro wannabe will tumble in price and make it even more appealing to a certain kind of digital shooter. And for the record, the Finepix S2 lists for roughly two grand.]
First off, the S20 feels terrific in the hand. In fact, though it is appreciably smaller and lighter than the pro-grade Finepix S2, it is much larger than the S5000 and similar in size to the S7000. [One of my gripes about the S5000 was that it seemed too small for a non-point & shoot camera and I don't have especially large hands.]
Arguably the biggest thing going for the S20 is Fuji's excellent Super CCD SR digital sensor (the same family as that on the S2). This technology certainly seems to live up to all Fuji's hype about being able to render digital images accurately and very sharply. (See my examples at right.) The idea behind this 4th generation sensor is that, like hi-fi speakers in which woofers handle low notes and tweeters high ones, different sensors handle light and dark areas of an image to create a photograph that is richer than ever in detail at all ranges. Fuji puts the S20's pixel power at more than 6 megapixels.
In addition, the S20 is comfortable with two separate storage media: tiny xD picture cards, as well as Type 2 Compact Flash cards (microdrives) and many of the faster conventional CF cards.
Continuing the parade of professional-level features, the S20 also offers a nifty thing called "Program shift" a kind of fine-tuning of the amateur's friend: Program Mode. Go into "P" and, by turning the command dial with your right thumb, you can change aperture and shutter speed in tandem to give you the speed or depth of field you desire.
The fixed zoom lens on the S20 is another big plus: a Fujinon f. 2.8-3.1 optical zoom that gives the equivalent of a conventional 35mm-210mm zoom. This lens (the same as on the S7000) is not to be sneezed at. It is virtually a straight (and very fast) f. 2.8 throughout its zoom range.
Another plus though perhaps not as sexy as a fast, sharp and very long zoom is the on-command framing guide built into the viewfinder. Press the display button and two horizontal and two vertical white lines show up on the viewing screen, making it a cinch to straighten horizons or the sides of buildings. The last time I saw such a feature was on the Nikon N80.
Still, to a location shooter like me, one of the best features of the S20 is its built-in PC connector that allows you to use external flash, and not the direct, albeit powerful, little pop-up strobe built into the camera. I should note that Fuji (as well as other camera makers) has an annoying tendency to give and take away vital features like a PC connector when it comes out with new models of its so-called "prosumer" cameras cameras supposedly designed for the professional as well as amateur (consumer) market.
For example, Fuji came out with its S602 Pro Zoom model digital in November, 2002 and this camera, very similar to the S7000 that succeeded it eight months later, had a PC terminal. But guess what? The S7000 did not. Now the S20 the S7000's successor does have the PC connector.
It makes no sense.
With all these great features, one might be tempted to buy Fuji's contention that the S20 is, in fact, a pro-level machine.
In fact, some technical reviews I've read parrot this view. But I have the misfortune of being a working professional photographer, and I'd go nuts if I had to rely on this camera during a job.
One key reason is not shutter lag the old bugaboo of low-end digitals but focus lag. The damn thing simply takes too long to achieve sharp autofocus. My friend the camera shop owner noticed this, too, but he still liked the camera overall as, frankly, do I.
A far more damning drawback is the curious (and curiously maddening) habit of the camera to freeze frame once a shot is made. That is to say: the S20, like a cat proudly showing off the mouse it has killed, displays a just-made shot in the viewfinder.
Great, you say. You can be sure if you've got the picture.
Oh yeah, I say, what happens if you are trying to track action like at a wedding, or at an event? It's all but impossible to do with this camera.
Even during portrait shoots the other case for which Fuji touts this camera for professional use this can be a significant drawback.
Unless you have done them yourself, you might think portrait shoots are fairly static affairs "OK, give me a smile, on the count of three...." But, in fact, the most successful portrait sessions are those in which the subject can react spontaneously to you and in which you can do the same making shots on the fly, with no damn freeze-frame to slow things down.
In contractual terms, this would be called a deal-breaker. And for me, it's the reason that this wonderful little camera is and always will remain a consumer-level product, and the Finepix S2's cute, but not quite equal, little brother.
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.