A 50x zoom is no longer unheard of, in fact, 50x is becoming the norm in the realm of super zoom cameras. But what's much harder to find is a camera that can take images at the long end of that big zoom that are quite similar in quality to the ones taken from a wide angle view.
That's why I was surprised by the Fujfilm S1—I could see detail from little hairs on a baby goose at the very end of the zoom length, not to mention the fact that I could actually focus fast enough to capture them. The S1 is certainly not without its flaws, but with the image quality at 50x, the brightest lens for this class and price point, a weather-sealed body and DSLR-like features like RAW and a hot shoe accessory slot, this super zoom is my favorite out of the handful that I've reviewed this year. Here's why.
Body and Design
Right out of the box, I could tell the S1 is fully weather sealed. The exterior doesn't have a cheap, plastic feel—it's sturdy and has a nice sort of texture. The S1 isn't designed to be submerged, but it certainly looks like it can handle a day on the beach or a rainy day shoot. The S1's size is comporable to others in the category—it's certainly not tiny, but hey, its pretty small considering the powerful lens and feature set. The lens to viewfinder measures about 4.5 inches.
The S1 has a very user-friendly set of controls, with enough shortcuts for the most frequently used settings. At the top, of course is the shutter release with a zoom toggle, the mode dial and the on/off button, but in between those are shortcuts for burst mode and exposure compensation. There's a second option for adjusting zoom at the side of the lens. Next to that is a zoom out button—hold that, and the camera will highlight the area you were looking at before so you can adjust your composition. When you release the button, the zoom will go back to how it was before. Using a 50x zoom can make it hard to find the right spot to shoot what you are looking for, so it's a nice feature.
The back of the S1 is dominated by an excellent tilting LCD screen. The screen uses a hinge-style design, so you can flip it 180 degrees (for selfies) and everything in between. The S1 also uses an electronic viewfinder, but switching in between the two is not automatic like on some models, a button does the trick, but it's not quite as nice as those that switch automatically. A control wheel sits right at the thumb, underneath that the S1 has a dedicated record button, menu and playback options and the wi-fi function. The menu arrows double as shortcuts for macro, flash and a user customizable option (I set it to ISO).
Adjusting settings in full manual mode is quite simple. The control wheel adjusts aperture and shutter speed (the exposure compensation button will switch which one). I set the function button to ISO to have all the elements of the exposure triangle as a shortcut. I did find myself going into the menu a few times for white balance, focus mode and metering, but I didn't run into any issues navigating the camera's features.
The Fujifilm S1 is comfortable and easy to use. I preferred the Sony HX400's control wheel around the lens and automatic switch from LCD to viewfinder, but the S1 has better shortcuts and navigation then the Nikon P600. And of course, it is the only super zoom to date with weather sealing and that in itself will makes it more enticing for outdoor shooters that don't stay home for a rainy day.
User Experience & Performance
Along with including the advanced manual modes and a spot for saving custom settings, the Fujifilm S1 has an excellent variety of modes and options for the not-so-advanced. The scene modes include all the basics like party, sport and night that are fun and easy to use. But perhaps even more entertaining is the S1's set of advanced options or digital filters. There's the common ones like toy camera and selective color, but there's also a few that are harder to find, including a fisheye that's fun to play with and high dynamic range for capturing more details in the shadows and highlights. All of these modes and filters are also available for shooting video.
The panorama function has a dedicated spot on the mode dial. This feature has three options—120, 180 or 360 degrees, making it more customizable than most. The 360 degree panorama results in kind of goofy photos, but it's fun to use.
But perhaps the best feature of the Fujfilm S1 performance-wise is speed. Shutter lag was minimal with images in manual focus taken at just .75 seconds apart (The Nikon P600 by comparison was at about 1.5 seconds). With autofocus on, images were still just 1 second apart (Nikon P600: 2.5 seconds, Sony HX400: 2.5) at the widest angle. And while autofocus tends to get much slower at the long end of a 50x zoom, the S1 was still at about 1 to 1.5 seconds between shots.
The Fujfilm S1 has an excellent burst speed at 10 fps, but limits the shots to nine at a time at that speed. Processing those nine shots however only took six seconds before I could take another photo (Nikon P600: 30 seconds, Sony HX400: 12). If you take another set of burst shots as soon as the camera allows, you can't get nine frames at a time (I got about 4), but if you wait just ten seconds you can shoot at that maximum nine photo capacity again. Burst shooting is not available while shooting RAW files, but considering the S1 is one of very few super zooms that include RAW, it's certainly no deal breaker.
At full zoom, the Fujifilm S1 continues to offer impressive performance. While a lot of cameras will have trouble with autofocus here (take a look at the photo of the bird in the P600 review), the autofocus is only marginally slower and I didn't end up with a bunch of out-of-focus images at full zoom.
The S1 offers a handful of advanced features that you don't find on every super zoom, like RAW shooting, high dynamic range and a slot for adding an external hot shoe flash. And while models like the Sony HX400 are missing features like continuous focus, the S1 has six focus modes (plus macro and super macro) including continuous and tracking.
With the ability to focus as close as 1 cm from the front of the lens, the S1 is a very versatile shooter. There were just a few times when the autofocus didn't quite get it right in some macro shots, but overall the macro mode was easy to use. When you switch modes or settings though, the macro setting automatically switches to off. A little annoying if you weren't done with the close-ups yet, but you also won't run into focus issues from a user error of forgetting macro is on.
The design of any super zoom lens tends to make image quality significantly degraded at the long end of the zoom, but the difference is not nearly as noticeable on the S1. The maximum aperture is a much slower f5.6 at full zoom, but detail and sharpness is still solid. Just take a look at this baby goose shot at 50x optical zoom:
Here's what the little guy looked like from a wider perspective:
Color and saturation is pretty solid throughout the zoom range. Auto white balance performed well most of the time, though there's plenty of other settings when the need arises.
Detail, again, was excellent even at full zoom. In our sharpness test, the S1 performed well for the super zoom category.
The image stabilization was quite impressive for both images and video. The images snapped at 50x zoom are probably as sharp as they are because of the five axis image stabilization. In video, my wide angle shots look almost like I used a tripod. At the higher end of the zoom range, shake is certainly there in video, but not as much as you would expect.
The only disappointing element in the images from the S1 was that they seem to suffer from a little more noise at higher ISOs than the other models we've tested in this category. The difference is small, but expect to see some noticeable noise at ISO 800. The S1 captured ambient lighting well, and the wide aperture when not using any zoom combined with the excellent image stabilization means you don't have to climb into the higher ISOs quite as soon as with some other models.
In video, the excellent detail, sharpness and color from the images applies. Footage is detailed and it's pretty cool that you can use the digital filters here too. Image stabilization is excellent for a camera and not a dedicated camcorder. There is some detectable noise in the video when zooming, but I've heard louder, more distracting noises coming from camera zooms before. Adjusting the focus and exposure once zoomed in takes a little time, but it does adjust.
While the noise reduction at high ISOs was disappointing, the Fujifilm S1 had better image quality and performance at full zoom than the other models we've tested this year. And since consumers buy super zooms for, well, their zooms—that's a pretty big deal. Now there's a few highly ranked super zooms that we haven't been able to review yet at this point, like the Olympus SP-100, but at least spec wise, the S1 seems to beat those models as well.
I preferred the controls scheme of the Sony HX400, but the HX400 was significantly slower and is missing the more advanced features like RAW and continuous autofocus. The Nikon P600 has a big 60x zoom, but the autofocus and image quality is much more degraded at that point than on the S1. With a similar price of just under $500 (under $400 when it's on sale), the S1 is an excellent value for all the features it includes.
If you wanted to step up the quality some, you could look at the Sony RX10—but you're also looking at doubling the price of the S1. The RX10 shot some of the best images from this category and has an f2.8 aperture even at full zoom, but with a price sitting right around a grand, it's really in a category all by itself.
While there were a few things like noise reduction that aren't the best in class, the image quality at the end of the 50x zoom along with the speed and advanced features make the S1 our top pick so far for the 2014 super zooms.