Operation and controls

The S9000's buttons and switches cover its body like a rash, adding to the 'SLR-like' handling, and meaning you'll make far fewer trips to the menu system in everyday photography. I'd have been a lot happier if white balance wasn't hidden in a menu (or even if it was put in the underutilized 'F" menu), and I'd much rather see an external control for ISO. This is especially true given the wide ISO range on offer, and the rather unsatisfactory auto ISO mode (which seems a little too happy to move right up the scale when using flash, and a little hesitant to when you really need it - at the long end of the zoom on overcast days).

Of course all those buttons can seem a little daunting at first glance, but the more you use the S9000 the more you appreciate the control layout, though there are elements of the user-interface (particularly the menu system) that are frankly frustrating, so near to being 'just right', but not quite there. That said, it's more of a photographic tool than 99% of the fixed-lens cameras on the market, and does offer about as close an experience as possible to using a DSLR without actually being one.

Rear of camera

The rear of the S9000 is home to a plethora of control buttons and switches. To the left of the viewfinder is a circular metering mode switch, surrounding an Auto Exposure Lock button. Below this are toggle switches for the electronic viewfinder and LCD screen and a 'Focus Check' button (to enlarge the central portion of the frame in manual focus mode). Next down is Fuji's now-standard 'F' (that's F for Photo Mode...) button, which, like a cut-down version of Canon's FUNC menu, offers fast access to image size / quality, ISO and color mode. Below this are the standard four-way menu controller (with a menu / OK button in the middle) and DISP/BACK button (used to change the record and playback display modes, and to act as a 'cancel' button in menus).

Top of camera

Viewed from above you can see just how 'SLR-like' the S9000 is, and - as the animation shows, just how far the zoom extends as you move through the range (around 32mm). The inner (extending) lens barrel is plastic, but the external barrel (the bit you turn) is made of metal, with a nice rubberized grip. Behind the zoom ring is a 'focus by wire' manual focus ring.

Display and menus

In the past I've criticized Fujifilm for 'refining' (i.e. completely redesigning) it's user interface with each new generation of cameras, something that's probably more of a problem for camera reviewers than normal users (save for those hoping for a seamless upgrade from a previous FinePix). When it comes to the S9000's menu system (which is almost identical to the FinePix F10's), I'd have to say a wholesale redesign would be more than welcome, because it is frustratingly difficult to master. The rest of the user-interface is fine - there's lots of information to hand, and - though by no means the prettiest on the market - it does its job well in almost all shooting situations, and rarely - if ever - gives cause for complaint.

At its most basic, in Auto mode, the record display shows only the preview image and a camera shake warning if the light is too low to get a high enough shutter speed. Pressing the 'DISP' button adds exposure information, focus brackets and other information. A nice touch is the live updating of exposure values, something many cameras only show you with a half-press of the shutter. In program mode turning the command dial puts the S9000 into 'program shift' mode, and the exposure figures turn yellow. Half-press the shutter release and the camera will set the exposure (AE) and focus (AF), indicating the focus point chosen (in Multi focus mode) and giving a warning of any focus problems.
Another press of the DISP button brings up a 'rule of thirds' grid, useful not only for composition, but also to ensure your horizontals and verticals are straight. You can also switch to a Post Shot Assist view, which shows the last three frames shot as thumbnails down the side of the main preview. Pressing the INFO button allows you to bring up an overlay of shooting information, including white balance and image parameters (contrast, saturation, sharpness).
Press the DISP button again and you get a live histogram. Press the 'drive' button and use the arrow keys to choose from one of the four options (top 4, last 4, long time continuous and AE bracketing). The AE compensation button works in exactly the same way.
Manual exposure mode; the command dial changes shutter speeds; hold down the +/- button and turn the dial to change apertures. The scale at the bottom right of the screen shows how far you are from the correct metered exposure. Although you can use manual focus without magnifying the center of the frame (activated by pressing the dedicated button), there's not much point as it's very hard to see what's in focus. You can switch back to AF mode temporarily by pressing the Quick AF button.
Pressing the 'F' button brings up the 'Photo Mode' menu ,which offers control over image size/quality, sensitivity (auto, 64,100,200,400,800,1600) and color mode. Please, please Fuji, put white balance in the F menu. Please? The record menu contains two pages of menus covering self timer, white balance, focus mode, metering mode, bracketing, flash output control, sharpness setting and image parameters. It's not the easiest, or most intuitive system we've ever seen (to say the least), but you do - in a manner - get used to it.