The award-winning 9-megapixel Fujifilm FinePix S9600 features a 10.7x zoom and a low ISO of 80.
There’s a well-known saying that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ and that’s exactly the approach Fujifilm took when it upgraded the S9500 to create the FinePix S9600. But have they taken this sentiment a little too far? According to the manufacturer its ‘carefully chosen’ improvements seem to amount to little more than a larger LCD screen and a few tweaks to the processing algorithms. So has this been a fruitful exercise and what exactly does the S9600 have to offe?
Like the S9500 there’s a 1/1.6in 9mp Super CCD sensor at the back of the S9600 and a fixed, 10.7x zoom up front covering 28-300mm focal length equivalents with an f/2.8-4.9 maximum aperture. We’re slightly disappointed that some form of optical image stabilisation hasn’t appeared this time round, as a 300mm focal length could benefit from it, but Fuji has always preferred to utilise high ISO settings to give you a fast shutter speed for shake-free images. In this instance the range runs from ISO 80-1600.
In terms of photographic controls it’s hard to find fault, with the S9600 incorporating all the shooting modes you’re likely to find on an entry-level DSLR, so we get automatic, PASM and a selection of preset scene modes. These are backed up by 256-segment multi-area, centreweighted and spot metering patterns. Both Raw and JPEG capture is possible, with dual card slots allowing you to record to either CompactFlash or xD media.
Equally impressive are the ‘little things’, such as a PC sync socket to connect external flash units and a threaded shutter release button to accommodate an inexpensive cable release – try finding those on an entry-level DSLR. You are also able to compose your images on the rear LCD if you choose to, while the mirror-less bridge camera design also lets you record movies with a 640×480 pixel resolution at a rate of 30 frames per second – again not possible with a DSLR.
So, while it may not be a major advancement on the S9500, in terms of its photographic features the newcomer manages to offer the same functionality as an entry-level DSLR and, arguably, a little more besides.
With its compact, DSLR-style body the S9600 sits comfortably in the hand while the nicely proportioned grip provides a firm hold on the camera. The controls are also cast very firmly in the DSLR mould, with a topmounted mode dial, top / rear control wheel and a smattering of buttons on the back and left sides.
We do find that the interface isn’t as intuitive as it could be, though, and despite the number of buttons on the outside, useful parameters such as white balance and AF have been ‘hidden’ in the multi-layered menu system. While the ‘F’ (function) button quickly gets you to the ISO and image quality options I would say this should be where white balance is found too. It’s also rather odd that Raw capture is ‘buried’ on the second page of the set-up menu and not listed as an image quality option – but maybe that would be too obvious?
Yet once you’ve accepted that changing settings isn’t as straightforward as it could be, it isn’t all-bad and the flip-out LCD is a boon for low-level shooting or taking candid shots ‘from the hip’. However, the increase in the LCD size from 1.8in on the S9500 to 2.0in in the S9600 seems rather inconsequential and compared to the 2.5in screens used by most DSLRs it’s decidedly mediocre.
Improved low-light AF performance is one of the S9600’s key improvements, and remembering the S9500’s rather lacklustre capabilities in this area, the new camera is certainly better.
Near-to subjects are brought into focus with relative ease using the AF assist lamp, while subjects a few metres away can be brought into sharp relief given a moment or two – it’s not instantaneous, but certainly quick enough for posed low-light scenes.
In all other areas, though, we’re looking at the S9500 all over again, with positives including assured ‘good light’ focusing and a healthy shot-to-shot rate provided you’re shooting JPEGs.
When it comes to playback things are a little less satisfactory, with a noticeable delay scrolling between images and the battery life using regular AA cells is disappointing – a set of copper-top Duracells expired at around the 200 frame mark, which may be OK for a day’s shoot, but NiMH rechargeables or Energiser Lithium cells are preferable.
The S9600’s image quality largely comes down to two things – how big you want to see your pictures and what ISO setting you’ve used. With a low ISO (100-200, say) A4 prints are good and A3 enlargements are acceptable, but not exceptional. By ISO 400 an A4 print is really the limit, not because of image noise, but because overly aggressive in-camera noise reduction starts to blur and desaturate detail as effectively as it eliminates noise. As a result, the finest detail simply ‘disappears’, with areas of similar tonality blending together like a watercolour painting.
By the time you crank the camera up to its ISO 1600 maximum things get more than a little messy as even the aggressive NR can’t fully remove the colour noise. Instead it smears it, blending colours and obliterating detail in the process. Obvious edges seem to get increased sharpening to counter this, but everything in between just melts away, limiting the print size you’ll get at the maximum ISO to sub-A4.
The good news is the noise reduction is really the only problem, as the white balance and metering systems are both reliable. While there’s slight fringing and focus fall-off at the wide end of the zoom, it’s nothing too dramatic.
Value For Money
With the S9600 you get the feature-set, body-style and build of an entry-level DSLR coupled with an all-encompassing zoom range and some useful touches such as a flash sync socket and cable release. At less than £300 I’d say that’s not bad at all.
The S9600 isn’t a bad camera, but it doesn’t bring anything new to the bridge camera genre. The marginally larger LCD and tweaked algorithms don’t make enough of a difference to separate it from the S9500, and quite possibly the processing ‘upgrades’ could have been achieved via a firmware update rather than a ‘brand new’ camera. This appears to be an upgrade for upgrade’s sake rather than a camera with a distinct purpose.