At certain points, the Fuji booth at PMA was absolutely jam-packed with photographers struggling to get a glimpse of Fuji's upcoming entry into the pro digital SLR arena, the S1 Pro. It's not hard to understand why: US$4000 or less for an 18MB camera is pretty sexy, especially when weighed against a Kodak DCS 660 for 5-6 times the cost. The S1 Pro also won the under $5000 category in the DIMA digital camera shootout, an event in which similar cameras shoot similar carefully-lit scenes, then the printed results are voted on. And while I'm not sure I would have picked it as the best, the S1 Pro's DIMA shootout results were indeed very good.
Fuji folks clearly felt they were on a roll, and were talking excitedly about the camera's many possible uses. Some are obvious: table top photography, studio portraiture. During a demo, one Fuji rep went so far as to say that one potential use was photojournalism. When challenged on this point, his response was "Why not?" During another demo, a different rep, who was aware I was a news photographer, pointed at the Nikon D1 hanging around my neck and said "you won't need one of those anymore." Egads. The S1 Pro may be a good camera, but lest you have any doubts, let me assure you that this is not a camera built for pro photojournalists. Why? Let me list the ways:
- It shoots at 1.5 fps for 5 frames before pausing to offload images from its internal buffer to the storage media. This will be reason enough for many to rule it out for day to day news assignments. But wait, there's more...
- It's built around a Nikon N60 body. This body is not sealed or otherwise made rugged for pro use, and has a shutter that's rated for far fewer cycles than an F5 or F100. If you were among the group of hapless N90/N90s pro shooters whose camera broke down a lot, then you may have heard from Nikon that that camera was never intended for heavy, heavy pro use. The same is true of the N60, only moreso. The decision to build a US$4000 digital camera for pros around a US$300 amateur camera body is puzzling to me. While some pro uses don't require a camera to be built like a tank, most require a level of ruggedness and reliability that exceeds what the N60 was designed to deliver.
- It has a top flash sync speed of 1/125/sec, limiting the use of fill-flash in anything other than slow-moving situations or for special effect.
- While the S1 Pro is said to work with any TTL flash compatible with the N60, my previous negative experience with some other hybrid digicam TTL flash systems makes me naturally wary of this claim.
- It runs off two sets of batteries, one set being a plain old pack of AA's. Unless Fuji's SuperCCD and LCD screen draw a lot less power than similar components in other digital cameras, battery life could be poor. And having to carry around two different types of batteries while on assignment seems odd.
- The build quality of the prototypes on display was only so-so. After a few minutes with the S1 Pro, I picked up the Nikon D1 again. What a difference. The D1 looks and feels like a pro camera. It's the got the right controls in the right place, and a solidness that the N60-based S1 Pro doesn't have.
- Its lowest ISO is 320. The ISO 200 baseline of the D1 and Kodak/Canon pro digital cameras is already too high when shooting on sunny days when the goal is to choose a large aperture and throw the background out of focus. An ISO of 320 is marginally worse, then, in this scenario.
When I first learned of the S1 Pro, I was intrigued by the potential of a US$4000 SLR that delivers an 18MB file. After seeing it, holding it, shooting it briefly and looking at the slightly-fuzzy 8 x 10 sample prints Fuji was passing about at PMA, I came away feeling like the camera may not deliver on what it promises. It's not for the trenches of photojournalism, definitely. Whether it's even up to the rigours of a newspaper photo studio is now in question. That's because the only really good photos I saw from it were in the DIMA shootout; otherwise, the sample prints lacked the crisp but unpixelated edges that I associate with large file size cameras.
Perhaps when the camera ships all will be right with both image quality and build quality, though there's no getting away from the fact the camera is built around an N60.