Pros: Great image quality (300 dpi), full manual control, great lens, actually looks like a camera
Cons: Unintuitive menu layout, finicky autofocus, finicky exposure, noise noticeable at ISO 400+
The s9100 is for anybody who wants a digital SLR but either can't afford one or, like me, can't do without the convenience of full-on digital, such as LCD previewing and video capabilities. I give it five stars because, though the image quality is not as good as a dSLR, it excels as an SLR-like. Image quality was my primary reason for choosing this camera over others in its class. (I did a LOT of research before purchasing.)
To know what makes good image quality, you need to know what makes poor image quality, namely: artifacts, chromatic aberrations, banding, fringing, and image noise are all common flaws found in most digital cameras. Barring the typical noise at higher ISOs (which all cameras have, digital or not, to varying degrees), the s9100 consistently produces very clean, detailed, true-to-life shots. I certainly noticed that noise at high ISO was the only image problem ever cited in reviews.
On that issue: For purity's sake I never go over ISO 200, instead relying on manual controls and a tripod to get the necessary light. I have taken nice shots at ISO 400, but if you ever intend to enter a photo contest it's probably best to play it safe. Also be aware that this camera loves to increase ISO in auto mode.
Most professional reviews for the s9100 were favourable, the only exception I'm aware of being CNet's. Having read comments to that review, and having used the camera for a month now, I can say that frustration and poor reception usually comes from not reading the manual or over-reliance upon auto mode. I can come up with an in-camera solution to every negative point written in other reviews. This is NOT an intuitive, great-photos-out-of-the-box camera, and certain fundamental settings will require you to handle more than one button simultaneously. (For example, exposure is adjusted by holding down the exposure button while rotating the adjustment dial.) Practice is essential.
The auto exposure tends to overexpose and needs close attention to prevent washing out detail in bright areas; fortunately the playback/review mode offers a warning feature wherein overexposed (white) areas flash red, and underexposed (black) areas flash blue. This tells you where you've lost detail so you can try again. Auto-focus has a habit of going back and forth before finally deciding on proper focus, which may cost a precious second or two each time you half-depress the shutter. Personally, I almost always set manual focus and then press the one-touch auto-focus button on the camera's left side; this conveniently focuses once so that subsequent shutter lag is about equal to my reflexes.
While the camera can take RAW pictures, the RAW setting is buried too deep in the menus. They take about 5 seconds to record, during which the camera is virtually disabled; not ideal for quick-trigger situations, but better than nothing. Even with these issues I almost always shoot in RAW, if only to adjust brightness in post-production. Fujifilm's proprietary .RAF format by all accounts is among the best in quality. On a 2GB card you can store 106 .RAF files (each about 18 MBs).
The camera's menu system is not very intuitive and rightly should deduct half a star. Specifically, there are two menu buttons, one labelled "Menu" and one labelled "F" (for Finepix). "F" handles ISO, JPEG quality, and film (Standard, Chrome, or B&W); "Menu" handles everything else. It would have made better sense to put only camera functions/settings under "Menu," and move all quality/image adjustments (including white balance, saturation, sharpness, etc) to "F."
While the s9100 is technically a point-and-shoot, it's capable of much more. To use this camera in fully automatic mode all the time would be a shame, since auto mode consistently aims for mediocrity (which of course is the point). With the proper settings, it takes exceptional photos. I would recommend this camera for beginners, but only if they were enthusiastic about learning photography and not easily intimidated.
Ergonomics are comfortable, with quality construction, fine balance, and easy to reach buttons. Subjectively, what some may consider too many buttons, others may find a wonderful opportunity for control over the shot. Though the zoom length is great, the s9100 is also great at super macro photography, easily focusing on objects as close as... well, let's just say that when you get that close, your lens will probably ruin the shot by blocking the light. Be sure to get a protective filter in case you find something tiny, fascinating, and gooey.
Some neat little things I didn't learn until I had the camera in my hands:
- Viewfinder (EVF) comes with a diopter dial for those with minor vision problems.
- Grid overlay option for those who adhere to the Rule of Thirds, as well as a live histogram.
- Focal point (the crosshair used for auto focusing) can be moved around the screen with the nav buttons for easy off-center focusing.
- A 30 second voice memo can be recorded to each photo.
Overall an excellent camera for those who want more than just snapshots. If you're serious about amateur photography but not ready for a dSLR, seriously consider this camera.