Words and images by J.W. Parker
Years before Fujifilm’s game changing cameras such as the X100 and the X-T1, Fujifilm made a little known – practically obscure -- camera called the S5100 (S5500 in Europe). And unlike many cameras which came out at that time, it was one of the few digital compact cameras specifically marketed at the street photographer.
Fujifilm even went as far as to recruit famed street photographer Matt Stuart to promote the camera using his signature clever shooting style. Check out the magazine ad below from 2005:
After extensive use of this camera over a several year period, I have to conclude that Fujifilm’s assertion in the above ad that the lens is nothing short of “phenomenal” is pretty accurate. The camera had a focal range from 37mm (at F2.8) to 370mm (at F3.1). It remains quite bright all the way to its maximum zoom range (this is practically a constant F2.8 lens from 37-370mm – very impressive). Sharpness and detail are excellent at every focal length.
By far, the most impressive feature of this camera is its image quality. Its’ color rendition is simply outstanding. The following is a list of why you would want to shoot with this camera – even now, 12 years after its release in 2004:
1. Compact size, very light weight. The S5100 will fit in a coat pocket nicely.
2. Decent focus and operation speeds.
3. Ability to shoot in total silence
4. “Decisive Moment Mode” (at least that’s what I call it). The camera will shoot 3.3 frames per second for 40 frames, but only record the final three frames when you release the shutter button. In other words, once you anticipate a decisive moment, you start shooting and release the shutter when that moment occurs. Once you get used to this, it’s hard to go back to the “pray and spray” approach of most cameras. It definitely conditions you to be a bit more thoughtful and disciplined in your shooting.
5. An excellent Black and White shooting mode. I know, I know – shoot color, convert to black and white later with more options….The black and white mode in this camera is so good that you won’t regret not doing this.
6. Impressive image quality even from a quite compact sensor. Details and color rendition really are outstanding.
The only potential issues are ISO range and the number of megapixels. It will shoot from 64 to 400 ISO (believe it or not, most cameras back in 2004 didn’t go to ISO 100,000)! Image quality is excellent across the entire ISO range though – impressive considering that 10 years ago most compact cameras choked at anything above ISO 100. The bright lens will allow you to take advantage of the modest ISO range. Don’t expect to shoot in a dark movie theater – but for most daylight street photography situations you should be ok – in fact, I took dozens of successful dimly lit shots and indoor shots where the only light was window light (see the shot of the little girl below).
Even though it’s only four megapixels, this camera punches above its weight nicely. DPReview tested its resolution as performing above some higher megapixel cameras. In fact, you can produce a decent 11X14 print from this camera if you print at 200 dpi or 180 dpi (Note: the eye cannot easily discern between 200 and 300 dpi in most situations). Let me put it this way -- I've done 10 professional jobs with this camera over the years from pretty demanding clients -- commercial jobs, studio portraits, even 5 weddings (due to its very natural looking flash performance -- flash photos look like they were done in natural light). I used to have it as a backup to my Nikon DSLR's -- let's just say that the Nikon and Fujifilm ended up switching places.
Most street photographers shoot at fairly wide to medium focal lengths (i.e. from 28mm to 50mm). This is great if I can position myself in relationship to my subject as needed. But there have been times when my movement options were extremely limited without disturbing the moment -- the ability to get up close and personal without physically having to do so was invaluable in those instances. And to be able to immediately return to a 37mm focal length in a matter of seconds without switching lenses was something I could get used to.
By the way, Fujifilm was right -- it is a very capable street camera. At an insane price of around $30 these days, find one if you can.