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The Fujifilm S3 Pro UVIR camera

Fuji is about to offer a variant of its Finepix S3 Pro digital SLR, the Finepix S3 PRO UVIR, designed to enhance image capture of infrared and ultraviolet images. This represents the first step in the right direction—expanding the coverage of digital photography from color alone to other speciality areas, such as infrared and ultraviolet and monochrome (no monochrome digital SLR yet exists).

Fuji is targeting this camera at the forensic and crime markets, but it will likely make a terrific camera for those of us who enjoy shooting in ultraviolet and infrared, at least for landscape and similar shooting. It won’t be very interesting for any shooting involving moving subjects.

It’s not clear whether simply modifying a regular S3 Pro and installing clear glass over the sensor would achieve essentially the same results, albeit without the Live CCD Preview Mode. (Such conversions are performed by MaxMax and LifePixel). Fuji doesn’t mention anything about different autofocus, sensor design, etc. If this is the case, then the *only* advantage to the UVIR model would be the live preview. However, the S3 Pro UVIR is still a good deal, since converting a conventional camera costs somewhere in the $350-$500 range, plus the loss of warranty coverage.

Here’s my take on the good and bad points of the Fuji Finepix S3 PRO UVIR

  • GoodLive CCD preview mode. This means locking the mirror up, and perhaps a tripod also.

  • Good—use of clear glass over the sensor so that the full spectrum is transmitted to the spectrum. Bad—special filters will be needed to block visible light and/or other undesired areas of the spectrum.

  • Goodlow noise. Or so Fuji claims, but I’m inclined to accept their claim.

  • Badno autofocus support for ultraviolet or infrared; manual focus is required. This is probably why Fuji chose to offer the “live CCD preview mode”, though it had better allow a high zoom level, or getting sharp images is going to be difficult. It is possible (possibly through internal filtration over the focus sensor), to autofocus accurately in UV or IR. Perhaps we’ll see this someday.

  • Bad—manual exposure. Fuji made no attempt to offer a UV or IR mode, which would properly meter for that spectral band. This is not a big deal, but it does slow working speed down.

  • Badthe 25MB image size for a “full range” image is simply too large, squandering storage precious space on the in-camera card as well as on a computer hard disk once downloaded, not to mention the increased demands on card speed and disk speed. Even the 16.7 megapixel Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II manages to keep its files around 16MB most of the time—and the Fuji is only a 6 + 6 megapixel camera.

  • Bad—apparently the sensor is still a color sensor. Shooting in infrared or ultraviolet is inherently monochromatic. Though a color sensor has some advantages for “false color” shooting (eg mixing visible light with infrared or manipulating red/green/blue color channels, which vary in their response to UV and IR), the dyes used over the photosites not only require interpolation to produce the “color” but degrade the potential ISO sensitivity by as much as 2 stops.

  • Bad—I don’t want to fiddle around with 4 AA batteries. I want a dedicated lithium ion battery pack such as used in the Nikon D200 or Canon EOS 5D.

Do all the “bad” points mean that the S3 Pro UVIR camera isn’t a contender? Of course not! I’m delighted to see steps in the direction of specialized digital photography, and Fuji deserves praise for heading that way. Incidentally, Canon offered a specialized 20D for astrophotography about 18 months ago, but it was never available for purchase in the USA (to my knowledge). Nor was it necessarily superior for infrared or ultraviolet shooting.

I might buy an S3 Pro if the image quality is really as superior as Fuji claims, though I’m already getting outstanding results with my Canon EOS 5D, which I converted for pure infrared use. I will be testing (at least informally) the S3 Pro UVIR as soon as I can lay my hands on one.

So what would be the ideal infrared and/or UV camera? Here’s what I hope Nikon or Canon will offer sometime soon (since those are the lens lines I own):

  • a spectrum-specific body: pure infrared or pure ultraviolet, with autofocus and exposure systems adjusted for a defined spectral band (eg infrared from 750-900 nanometers). If this means buying one body for infrared, and one for ultraviolet, it’s worth it if exposure and autofocus work well. An swappable internal filter would also do the trick nicely, with appropriate settings to switch “modes”.

  • a high-resolution monochrome sensor sensitive from 300-1200 nanometers so that monochromatic images could be taken with any section of the spectral band. A monochrome sensor would likely allow a base ISO of 400 or 800, and probably allow ISO 12,800. File sizes would be much smaller, true 16-bit data would be possible, interpolation would not be needed, aliasing would be reduced, etc. Image quality could be phenomenal.

Let’s hope Canon and/or Nikon also have something up their sleeves.


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