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First look: pricey Fujifilm S3 takes fine photos

New pixel technology is hard to quantify, but high-quality images speak for themselves

The FinePix S3 Pro is the latest in Fujifilm's line of digital SLR cameras. Only the most serious of photographers will consider spending $1,500 for just the body of a camera, but if you have an existing array of Nikon-compatible accessories, the S3 Pro can make a good addition to your collection.

At the heart of the S3 Pro is Fujifilm's new 12.3Mp Super CCD SR II sensor. Because it has equal numbers of small and large pixels, the company says, it can capture a wider dynamic range, much as fine and coarse grains in traditional films react to different levels of light.

In theory, this should yield more detail in the shadows and highlights of high-contrast photographs. Also, by emphasising one pixel size over the other as it processes the image, the camera can simulate the effect of different film types, where grain sizes occur in different proportions.

Unfortunately, in our tests of a shipping unit, we failed to see as dramatic an advantage as we'd expected from the extended dynamic range. We especially had hoped to see more detail in shadows. Still, the S3 Pro was a solid performer.

The S3 Pro scored lower than the best fixed-lens cameras, but that's largely because we test all cameras at their default automatic settings to give a level playing field. Since SLRs typically require more manual input by design (and often underexpose by default), they tend to score lower in our tests.

The camera performed better in informal testing. In bright sunlight, with the camera cranked up to its widest dynamic setting (as recommended by Fujifilm), we shot some excellent portraits at a local media event. Even though we hadn't used fill-in flash, there was still plenty of detail in facial shadows around the eyes, nose, and chin. Skin tones, razor burn and blemishes all came out looking natural.

In another test we shot the same architectural scene with both the S3 Pro and a similarly equipped 6.3Mp Canon EOS 10D, using several equivalent exposures for each camera. There, we saw only minimal differences in shadows, highlights, and colour range.

Like many professional-quality SLRs, the S3 Pro has a square body with plenty of rubber surfaces that make it easy to grip. Fujifilm has tried hard to make it easy to operate, too: Many of the controls will feel familiar to Nikon users, such as finger and thumb dials for setting aperture and shutter speed. There's also a secondary shutter release button for vertical shooting.

The S3 Pro exceeded the maximum 500 shots in battery tests on a single charge of its four AA-size nickel metal hydride cells. A compact charger with a fold-out power plug comes with the camera, and you can use regular alkaline batteries in an emergency.

You can store your shots on both XD-Picture Card and Compact Flash (including Microdrive) media cards, but if you're shooting in RAW mode, be prepared for images as large as 25MB. You get both USB 2.0 Hi-Speed and FireWire ports for downloading images to your PC; you can also use the latter port to control shooting from the computer interactively.

If you already shoot with your digital SLR heavily customised – with settings such as colour temperature, white balance and contrast – you'll enjoy using the Fujifilm FinePix S3 Pro. It offers professional-level photographers even more control over how the camera processes images. Of course, to buy this camera you'll need a professional photographer’s budget, too.

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