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Buying your next digital camera at the thrift shop

The $10 street camera

If you follow modern photography discussions, you’ll eventually come across an idea or desire to find a digital camera that is “film like”. Usually, it’s a Shangri-La idea that refers to the images themselves. Yes, that mystical phenomenon of a digital file that looks like a film print. Particularly with how it deals with noise (digital) or grain (film).

Sometimes it refers to the camera itself, as a mechanical device. The most obvious candidates in this field of the discussion are the Leica M cameras, with their manual controls and rangefinder focusing system. The latest M10 appears a very close match to earlier film Ms, for instance, and the M10-D with its vestigial advance lever and lacking a screen is perhaps the most notable faux film design.

The Olympus OM-D series cameras are reminiscent of their OM film ancestors and, in many cases, it’s possible to reverse the screen and caress a satisfyingly blank rear. Fuji, also, has carved out its own niche with retro styling and plenty of manual controls to grace its current digital bodies.

But perhaps there is a third aspect to this idea, one I hadn’t even contemplated until it was inadvertently thrust upon me.

Wandering eye

I had wandered into a local thrift shop here in Melbourne last week. And there I did espy an old, silver digital camera. All-silver cameras are now definitely old hat, but this one belonged to an era where silver was the last word in chic.

Six-time oprixal zoom and fast aperture, all down to the small sensor's advantages of miniaturisation
Six-time optical zoom and fast aperture, both possible because of the small sensor

Advertised as “working” and bearing the princely price tag of $10, it was a fixed lens zoom camera by Fuji known – at least in this part of the world – as the S3000. Knowing absolutely nothing of this camera, I took a chance and handed over my tenner. Soon I discovered that my new toy was released in 2003, not long into the emergence of digital photography as a viable medium.

Bearing the styling cues of a miniature SLR, the S3000 felt incredibly light and fragile. Not surprising, perhaps, as it appeared to be made almost entirely of plastic. And this isn’t the modern, rugged plastic used in today’s premium cameras either. It flexed and squeaked under pressure. But the trade off, I decided, was that it weighed virtually nothing. The S3000 sports a (by today’s standards) tiny sensor of 1/2.7 inch, on to which Fuji crammed 3.2 million tiny pixels of the CCD variety.

The $10 street camera
The $10 street camera

Now, such small sensors have inherent properties both of themselves, and also in terms of the resultant flow-on effects. The first, of course, is that the lenses can be substantially smaller, but also relatively longer when compared to the those made for the “full-frame” 35mm film camera. These lenses can also offer a surprisingly fast aperture for the size. Thus it is with the S3000. In true terms, the focal length of this little Fujinon zoom is 6mm-36mm at the surprisingly fast F/2.8-3.0. That’s right, you read that correctly. This plastic contraption from early in the century sports a near-constant focal zoom. Then factor in the 35mm equivalence and you may, as did I, scratch your head in wonder at a zoom that ranges from 38mm at f/2.8 all the way to 228mm at f/3. Eat your pixels out, Sony RX100.

More quirks

Another quirk to the small sensor, especially of the CCD type, was poor ISO performance. Even on my much later Pentax K10D, with its dramatically larger APS-C CCD sensor, the ISO output at 800 and beyond was, at best, err, terrible. So I wasn’t expecting great results from the S3000, to say the least. But Fuji equipped this early digital camera with an ISO secret weapon. Namely, poor high ISO performance was rendered irrelevant simply by not offering high ISO at all.

Tramstop pondering
Tramstop pondering

Actually, you can have any ISO you want as long as it is ISO100. There are simply no other options. Which brings me back to the opening premise of this article. If you hit the streets with the Fuji S3000, you’ve effectively loaded in a roll of ISO100 film, and you just have to deal with it. Find good light, a stable rest, or both if you want to dabble in any form of moderate-light photography. In that sense, this is a film camera sporting a digital output.

Power walker
Power walker

Teensy weensy screen

There is a small LCD screen on the back for reviewing images and making (limited) changes to the parameters. Its pretty ordinary viewing, to be fair. There is also, to my astonishment, an EVF built into the camera. I had simply assumed that 2003 was far too early for an EVF. Sure, it’s pretty terrible. I can frame on it – sort of. Coverage is 95% of the final FOV. But it’s muddy, laggy and you won’t have the foggiest idea of the colour output of this sensor by judging it on either the EVF or LCD.

Rear magnificence. Neither the screen not the EVF areinspiring, but then this is 2003
Rear magnificence. Neither the screen not the EVF areinspiring, but then this is 2003

There are some manual controls. I found that, in good light, outdoors, I usually set the aperture to f/4.8 as a rather limited shutter speed range was often exceeded at f/2.8. Changing the aperture is a somewhat tedious affair and if I could leave it set at f/2.8 I would, given such a small sensor has a wide depth of field anyway. AF is sluggish and rudimentary, as you’d expect. In a hint of future Fuji developments, you can choose a macro mode that shifts the elements and allows focusing to less than half a foot, but I found the focus positioning somewhat problematic up close.

RAW shooters need not apply

Are you a RAW shooter? If so, look away now because it’s not an option here. It’s Jpegs or nothing. No fancy editing after the fact for you, sir. You can choose the quality though. Oh, the luxury of opting for 3MP output. Why would you not?

Well, this raised another totally unsought problem. You see, this camera shipped with a 16 meg XD memory card. Note that I said meg. Not gig. The significance of this was entirely lost on me at first. Until I inserted some AA batteries (yea, verily does this olde camera run on olde world power), inserted the XD card and was greeted with the shocking news that I had enough storage for — wait for it — all of 19 images. I kid you not, I stood in a park in the middle of Melbourne with a ten dollar camera anchored at ISO100 and just 19 frames available! Surely this is film shooting in everything but literal truth?

16MP card = 19 stored photos at full resolution
16MP card = 19 stored photos at full resolution

So, challenge accepted. I shot sparingly. I ceased worrying about reviewing the images, I couldn’t tell what the results would be anyway. I tried to find several varying shooting scenarios and subject matter. I came to accept the shutter lag. Sneaking in some shots throughout my working day, I filled the card, laughed at the absurdity of it all and headed for home to see how rubbish my efforts had been.

But even that wasn’t straightforward. I discovered that I didn’t have a cable that would fit this camera. My laptop certainly didn’t have a slot for anything as archaic as an original XD and I threw out my card readers long ago. So, I had to wait, unaware of what images I’d actually captured.

Sound familiar? Even the next day at a store, I struck out. It wasn’t until I later called into my local Teds Cameras that I found a multifunction card reader with XD slot. It cost me as much as the S3000 had done. The salesgirl also wagged an admonishing finger at me and declared that I needed to guard my 16MP XD card with my life. Apparently, these days you can buy only 2GB XD cards and most of the early cameras cannot read the latest cards. Oh, the joy!

Tree avenue. Good light is the key to success with small sensors
Tree avenue. Good light is the key to success with older small sensors

I rushed home, by this time well and truly impatient to get at my nineteen precious images and see what we had. And there, lo and behold, they finally were. And, I have to say, I was quite taken with them.

Surprising results

On a 17-inch screen, “view at full size” didn’t exactly zoom in too much on the 3MP jpegs And they were a tad flat in colour. Some were misfocused. Highlights were quickly blown. But, by and large, for a 16-year-old camera sporting a minute sensor and very limited controls, I would never have suspected what camera these emerged from. I added a little contrast to the files and that was about all.

Having already decided this was basically a film camera with a sensor, I decided to go the whole way and imported one of the jpegs into Silver Efex Pro. I applied the FujiFilm Acros 100 preset to the file and exported the monochrome result. I actually really liked it.

Two 10x8in prints look good in real life
Two 10x8in prints look good in real life

Going even further, I then opted to print two images – the monochrome and a colour street portrait – at 10x8in size. Frankly, I was blown away. At a size that few of us ever bother to print at, the results from this ancient warrior look damn good. The wisdom of restricting things to ISO100 is probably best displayed here because the prints are smooth and free of digital artefacts. Of course, it falls back on us as users to beware of slow shutter speeds and shaky hands. As always, the camera is just the tool and my pursuit of skills is the limiting factor to what I can do with it.

What to do with 60 million dots?

This did get me wondering though. If we can get lovely 10x8s with a few million pixels, why in the world are we seemingly chasing inexorably larger and larger files? What can I possibly do with a 60 megapixel file if I never print beyond A4?

Zoom lens isolation
Zoom lens isolation

The truth of the matter with the S3000 is that while it will probably never get a lot of use in my hands, its failings are more around the layout and controls rather than its basic sensor limitations. It can’t fail under high ISO because it simply won’t do it. If I forgot a tripod, well, more fool me. It’s a bit cheap, it’s even a bit nasty. But it’s not a “pretend” camera in any way. It forces you to slow down and think about your priorities.

The only thing you cannot do with the S3000 is to load it with a roll of film. However, it does its best to convince you otherwise. It’s my digital film bargain for $10. And that’s $10 Aussie, even more of a bargain. This all serves to remind us that while compromise is always part and parcel of photography, those very compromises can be fun and challenging if we accept them.

Click here to read more from Jason Hannigan

Another contemporary digital relic, this time the Leica Digilux 2


  1. Mmm, I bought a ‘Fujifilm Refurbished’ SLR-alike, AA-cell something or other years ago, and it gave (probably still gives, but I haven’t used it for a while) astonishingly sharp pictures.

    Looking at others in my iPhoto Library, I found my favourite pic of my Beloved ..it’s also my ‘wallpaper’ and screensaver on my Mac.. which I took long ago with her then-current Fujifilm 40i ..a fixed-lens 2400 x 1800 2 megapixel camera which doubles as a digital music player! ..it came complete with headphones and a wired remote control! ..from the year 2000.

    I loved the results so much that last year I bought one (used, of course) for myself on eBay. (Then I had to buy a 64MB ‘SmartMedia’ card to put in it!)

    I -L-O-V-E- the results ..and you can see plenty of pics at DPReview’s (nineteen-year-old!) review of this pocket camera.

    What’s that expression again.. “Less is more”..?

  2. Just this weekend I sold a 50cm on the long side print made with a 7.1 MP Canon point and shoot from 2005. It looks amazing, if I do say so myself. It’s not so surprising that they can do it, but really pleasing that they can do it so well, and with so much character.

  3. I came by my Leica X typ 113 looking for a film type experience, albeit without the locked to ISO 100.

    However one of my best shots hung up at home, was taken through Blackpool Pleasure Beach, half way up a mountain of stairs in a low light sunset, with a Nikon Coolpix (small pocketable jobbie). Even today the image looks decent – no idea how the camera pulled it off, it was a like a for one night only type event. It never repeated the trick, and I moved on to a D3000, and then the D300s. I have other images from the camera, but nothing that came out like that one at Blackpool did.

    I still have it, perhaps if I get excited one day I will warm up my rechargeable AA batteries and see what happens.

    • That definitely is a beautiful shot Dave, halo around the sun and all. Early on in my photographic adventures I have a few similar experiences with an Instamatic type film camera. Very rarely everything would just come together and produce a wonderful image, no thanks to my efforts as there were no adjustments of any kind available.

  4. Great article Jason. An enjoyable read, and images from that digitally antique technology are quite good as I see them on the iPad. Fun how you’ve pitched it as a “digital film camera”.
    And congratulations are due, you beat me to it. It was about two weeks ago that I retrieved my 2003 Olympus 3mp C-740 camera from the hardware archive, with the intention of using it to remind myself of the joy of my first digital camera. I even sent a message to John Shingleton at that time, asking whether he had a functional xD card, since mine had apparently gone to god while sitting in the camera. I’ve subsequently found that a good cleaning of the contacts on the xD card resurrected it, and I discovered three more xD cards in a plastic holder in an old camera bag as I continued my archeological dig.

  5. Scroll down to the very last picture here: http://edituk.com/Photos.html

    Fujifilm 40i, 1.23 megapixels, 1280×960, 8mm lens, f2.8, on teeny 1/1.7″ (7.44 x 5.58 mm) ISO 200 CCD sensor, 5th January 2001, breakfast, Thailand.

    It’s the lens (and all the brilliant electronics) ..not the number of megapixels.

    • The lenses that really count are the ones in the photographer’s eyes as they see the image before the camera does. My left eye is an upgraded one after a lens replacement for cataracts about 10 years ago and several other tweaks. I usually take my best photos early on in a day’s shooting before my eyes get tired.


      • For me, William, it’s the ‘virtual lens’ in my mind’s eye which envisages (‘envisions’ in the States, I think) the scene, and then my actual eyes in my head look for that scene! ..So a photograph is a copy of what was in my mind ..and not necessarily just what was in front of my actual, physical eyes.

        I have an intention, before I check the scene in front of my eyes.

      • I used to take photos in black & white, and was never very fond of, I dunno, the ‘texture’ of colour prints ..either too shiny and contrasty (like Cibachromes) or slightly muted or ‘brownish’ somehow ..but maybe some of them had been processed in exhausted chemicals ..I just don’t know, or maybe it was the settings on the printing machinery.

        But with the advent of digital cameras, it’s the ‘punch’ of their colours which really pleases me, so there aren’t any b&w photos on that page ..although there is one which was shot on, and is scanned from, film (“Couple B”) whose colours look really ‘natural’ ..to me, anyway. (Old Leica M3, with a modern 50mm f1.4 to blur away the background, and ISO 800 ‘Lomography’ film – rebranded Kodak 800, I think.)

        They’re taken with a huge variety of cameras ..and the picture of the dog crossing the street – in Mexico – was weird ..I felt this COMPULSION to take a photo, while in Mexico, of a dog crossing a street. I didn’t know why. Then two years later I saw an exhibition of Sergio Larrain’s photos, and there was a (b&w) photo of a dog crossing a street in Mexico!

        I must have been profoundly affected by it when I first saw – but had, long ago, forgotten – it, and needed to take that shot myself! ..they’re like mirror images of each other, except that where the car is on the left of mine, there’s a child sitting at the street corner in his.

        Weird, but true.

        Same distant view of hills, same cobbled road in the foreground.


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