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Retro Review: Shooting With a 20-Year-Old Fujifilm/Nikon Frankenstein Monster

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The early 2000s were a golden age for digital cameras. Companies like Olympus, Nikon, Sony, Canon, Ricoh, and others seemed to release an endless stream of unique, quirky, and often excellent cameras. I was lucky to work at a large camera store at the time, and almost every day, I remember unboxing some new gadget that was pushing the boundaries of design and resolution. The most fun days were when a new DSLR arrived.

Some of the strangest, and downright coolest, cameras from this era were joint Frankenstein-esque collaborations between Kodak, Fuji, Canon, and Nikon. Kodak merged digital backs to some of the best pro film cameras of the time, including the Nikon F5 and Canon EOS-1. In 2000, Fuji released the Finepix S1 Pro, which was based on the less-than-stellar Nikon N60 camera and looked like a Nikon with some sort of deformed grip attached (it was ugly). The camera received just criticism for being based on a low-end consumer model, as the N60 was not at all a pro body to begin with.

Two years later, Fuji released the Finepix S2 Pro, which was based on the more robust Nikon N80. Unlike the S1, the S2 had a much sleeker design, and the integrated grip and rear protrusion that housed all of the digital bits were part of the overall aesthetic and didn’t look like an afterthought, as with the previous model.

I remember when this camera was released, because it was surrounded by a  lot of hype. At the time, Fuji sensors used a unique interpolation that, we were told, effectively doubled the pixel count of the camera. So, although the S2 Pro was a 6-megapixel camera, it was said to give the effective look of 12 megapixels. If this makes no sense to you, don’t feel bad, because none of us understood it at the time, and I still don’t get it 20 years later. But I digress.

I chanced upon a Finepix S2 Pro fitted with a Nikon 50mm f/1.8 lens a few years back when a friend gifted me with a bunch of bins filled with old cameras. It immediately brought back fond memories, and since in 2002, we were only allowed to test the camera delicately before putting it back in the box (all with white glove service), I was thrilled to own one that actually worked perfectly.

I hope you enjoy my review of this DSLR relic that has brought me so much joy 20 years later.

Amazing Ergonomics and Design

The first thing you notice about the S2 Pro is that it feels great. The size, shape, and contoured grip of the camera make it a true joy to hold and lug around. And, since it was based on the N80 (a mid-level camera with a plethora of plastic), it’s not too heavy or bulky. It feels really, really good in the hands, even by today’s standards. One of the best parts is the thumb indent on the back of the camera, which makes for a nice user experience and grip.

The button and dial layout are also excellent. The basic functions are exactly like the typical Nikon camera of the era, with a front and rear command dial for shutter speed and aperture control, and a four-way toggle dial on the back that allows the user to choose from the five AF points.

But the best part of the menu system has to be the four unmarked buttons below the small dot matrix screen. They are not labeled, which was confusing at first until I realized that by pressing the Function button, the menu icons on the dot matrix screen will scroll through different options, so the unmarked buttons each can change a variety of settings. It’s actually very intuitive and easy to use.

Autofocus

For a 20-year-old camera, the autofocus is excellent. It’s fast and snappy and usually has no trouble locking on to the subject. Even in backlit situations, where the subject is in shadow, I have found the focus to be consistent and fast with my Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 lens.

I also love the simplicity of the focusing system. The round cluster of five AF points (which basically all cover the middle of the frame) can be adjusted with the rear toggle dial and light red when focus is achieved. Although I mainly keep the point in the middle and do the old school trick of half-pressing and recomposing, it is easy to select an alternate focus point when needed. In the era of hundreds of AF points, drag-and-focus LCD screens, and dozens of focus options, I can appreciate how straightforward this system is.

Two Sets of Batteries

One of the quirkiest parts of this camera (besides being a Nikon with a Fuji nameplate) is that it has two completely separate battery compartments, and although it looks like it should have a vertical shutter button, it does not. The grip houses four AA batteries and is accessed from the side, while the second battery compartment, located on the bottom of the camera, takes two CR123 lithium batteries.

At first, I thought the camera required both sets of batteries to work, but it turns out that it can work with either set, so I have used it exclusively with AA batteries instead of buying expensive and hard to find 123As. When the S2 Pro was released, most cameras used disposable lithium batteries, so this was standard for the time period. I think the idea was to have AA batteries as a backup just in case, which is actually a great idea. If you do use alkaline AA batteries, though, you will not be able to use the pop up flash, and they don’t last very long. The camera won’t die, but when the batteries are weak, it will beep and flash a battery icon in between each shot.

Other Odds and Ends

The camera uses either a Compact Flash card, or the now-defunct Smart Media card. Smart Media cards held very little data, and had exposed contacts, which meant they were corrupted easily. The S2 Pro also has pop-up flash, ISO capability from 100–1,600, and a whopping two frames per second burst mode, up to 7 frames. The camera has a 1.8-inch LCD screen, which really doesn’t tell you much about the final image since it’s such a low resolution, although it does add to the charm.

Sensor and Image Quality

The S2 Pro features an APS-C sized sensor and delivers 6.17 megapixels of resolution. As I mentioned above, Fuji used an interpolation method at the time and claimed their cameras delivered what was effectively double the stated resolution, but I never really put much stock in the claim, as the results looked to me like six megapixels.

I was really surprised by the images for a few reasons. Overall, they are sharp and have a very pleasing look, although there is a sort of haziness to them (which I think adds to the nostalgic effect). I was incredibly impressed by the in-camera black and white film simulation, which I used to capture the image of Jesse and his guitar. Check out the dynamic range and detail that is retained throughout. Not bad for 20 years old.

I attempted some photos at my studio as well. In auto white balance, everything tended towards cooler colors, so I was not as thrilled with the results. The color photo of Brandon is unedited, and the colors leave much to be desired, but I was happy with the black and white edit I created in Affinity Photo using Tone Mapping. If I try the camera in my studio again, I will set the white balance manually and see what results I get. My favorite way to use the camera is in natural light, and I think it really shines here, as in the image of my son reading a book.

Conclusions

The Finepix S2 Pro is a joy to use and holds up extremely well for such an old camera. Since it’s basically a Nikon with a Fujifilm nameplate, the functionality and build quality are what you would expect to find in a classic Nikon (I hate to say it, but an N80 probably can be considered a classic at this point). Since the camera uses AA batteries and CF cards, it is also easy to use it in 2022 without needing any expensive or hard to find accessories, and since it has a Nikon bayonet mount, it can be fitted with a virtually inexhaustible amount of inexpensive autofocus and manual focus lenses.

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