S3 Pro, EOS 350D, D2X

Introduction

S3 Pro
Unlike Canon and Nikon, who have a range of digital SLRs to suit the varying wants and requirements of both consumers and pros (with tailored pricing), the S3 Pro, which replaces the three-year-old S2, follows its predecessor’s ethos in being Fuji’s one-and-only D-SLR. Interestingly though, it doesn’t offer all-things-to-all-men as you’d expect. Though it offers support for Nikon F-mount lenses, making the transition from film SLR to digital an easy one for Nikon owners, the S3’s target market is arguably niche: wedding and landscape photographers. So what’s so special about Fuji’s latest that it doesn’t need to pander to the masses?

First of all there’s the revolutionary fourth-generation Super CCD SR II chip at the camera’s heart, boasting a 12.34 million pixel resolution by uniquely combining the output from 6.17 million high-sensitivity ‘S’ pixels with that of the same number of low sensitivity ‘R’ pixels (hence ‘SR’), arranged in the same location. The upshot of this mix is the capture of a greater array of tones and a dynamic range four times wider than conventional CCDs; particularly useful if you’re attempting to pick up subtle highlight detail on an all-white bridal dress, nuances that would otherwise appear ‘burnt out’ on lesser cameras.

In a further attempt to digitally replicate the behaviour of film negative, the S3 additionally boasts film-simulation modes named F1 and F2. The former is intended to give a more-natural result for people portraits, while the latter - apeing Fuji’s much-lauded Velvia film stock - is intended for giving extra zing to colours in landscapes. Standard mode is the default option, giving a perfectly acceptable result somewhere between the two. Another new feature is a Live Image mode whereby a black-&-white viewfinder image pops up on the LCD, allowing you to check focus on enlarged sections of an image before firing the shutter. This proved too much of a gimmick for me, and I fell back on the bright and clear optical alternative of the optical viewfinder itself.

Although the camera is powered by four readily available AAs, rather than the additional CR123A cells needed by the S2, the S3 has a bulk that’s still fairly gargantuan. Some may relish this - it’ll certainly withstand a few clumsy knocks in the heat of the action - but with lens attached, neck and shoulders start to feel the punishment after a day’s transport.

So this is certainly a camera requiring two-handed operation; luckily the much improved rounded rubber grip prevents slippage, while a second shutter button located near the base aids those who prefer to turn the SLR on its side and shoot portrait fashion. Now for a nit-pick: I found writing maximum-resolution images to card noticeably slow, and auto focus was a bit hit and miss. The latter is not especially worrisome, however: most of this camera’s target audience will prefer the hands-on control of the manual setting anyway. Images displayed little in the way of noise in shadow areas while highlights retained their detail commendably.

EOS 350D
Canon’s EOS 300D, which this new model replaces, seemed to be the consumer digital SLR everyone had been waiting for; that is until Nikon’s equally affordable, yet better built D70 stole the 300D’s thunder by making it appear plasticy and literally lightweight in comparison. The 350D is Canon’s counter attack, boasting a tougher-feel finish and altogether more professional look in black - although a silver version is also available - while the body itself remains as portable and lightweight as some mid-range compacts. In fact it’s 10 per cent lighter and 25 per cent smaller than the 300D, and while it doesn’t feel as durable as the likes of the Fuji S3 or Nikon D2X, all is forgiven when you discover the price: just £749, body only, or £799 with an 18-55mm lens (prices include VAT).

Offering compatibility with over 60 Canon EF mount lenses, improved features include an 8-megapixel CMOS sensor (a hike up from its predecessor’s 6mp) powered by the same DIGIC II image processor found in the company’s pro SLRs, plus the ability to capture three frames per second (an improvement on the 300D’s 2.5fps) in a 14-frame burst. It’s generally very responsive. There’s also simultaneous unadulterated RAW and JPEG image file capture, USB 2.0 connectivity, while the start-up is near instantaneous - with the official blurb quoting 0.2 seconds. Users can also select from one of three focus modes: One Shot AF, AI Servo and AI Focus, and shoot in monochrome as well as colour.

One of the claims of the second generation sensor employed by the EOS 350D is low noise (meaning the ‘speckles’ that occasionally appear in the shadow areas of a digital image, similar to film grain). To test this out I selected a relatively high sensitivity of ISO800, which, when used without flash, didn’t reveal any visible degradation. Upping this to the maximum ISO1,600, noise becomes apparent, making human subjects appear especially freckly. Happily, though, this isn’t to such a degree that it can’t be lived with, and the effect would probably add some pertinent grit and rawness to shooting a rock concert without flash for example.

If you need extra punch there’s a built-in pop-up flash, plus a hot shoe for supplementary external flash, should you be thinking of investing in a portable or home studio set up. The speed of writing images to memory has also been ramped up, Canon claiming this is more than three times as fast as the 300D. Sure enough, I was shooting full-resolution images without any noticeable delay to a 256MB Lexar 12x speed CompactFlash.

Since this SLR is aimed at consumers, there’s also a degree of hand holding: witness the inclusion of self-explanatory ‘programmed image modes’ such as Night Portrait, Sports, Close up, Landscape, Portrait and Flash Off. When it comes to making hard copies, the 350D is PictBridge compatible, meaning that you can link it directly via USB to any compliant printer for instant prints.

D2X
The D2X doesn’t quite suffer from an identity crisis, but it does boast something of a split personality: in effect you’re getting two cameras in one - delivering high-resolution 12-megapixel stills and a fast shooting speed. Up to five frames per second is achievable at full resolution, with a drop to a (still respectable) 6.8 megapixels - the camera cropping a central portion of the image - if you crank it up to 8fps. Both options are selectable in-camera. The only downside looks to be the D2X’s price tag: £3,500 is beyond the budget of the average guy in the street. Not surprisingly, sports and reportage photographers will get the most out of its ability to deliver that perfectly detailed spur-of-the-moment shot, and in a blink of an eye.

With its plethora of buttons and dials, first impressions of the D2X are rather overwhelming - especially if you’re not familiar with its D1X, D1H or D2H predecessors. It also weighs a lot - 1kg without lens, card or battery - the body seemingly fashioned to withstand a war.

Happily the main controls, such as the shutter button and twin command dials allowing you to adjust settings on the fly, have been ergonomically positioned and are mirrored at the base for portrait-style shooting. The larger-than-average 2.5-inch LCD monitor proves a real boon for reviewing shots, with much technical image data displayed on screen. A second LCD control panel provides info on ISO-equivalent sensitivity to light, white balance, image quality and file size, while ranged alongside is a microphone for adding voice memos. Above right of this is a ‘multi selector’ button for not only tabbing through the on-screen menus, but also selecting one of the available 11 focus areas across the frame - for when you want a subject that isn’t dead centre to still appear pin-sharp.

Despite the complexity of its features - and its relative bulk - familiarity means that the D2X soon becomes an extension of your own eye, reacting just as fast. Start-up is instantaneous and there’s no shutter lag - the delay between pressing the button and the camera actually taking the shot, typically found on digital compacts - to moan about here.

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