The Fuji Finepix A403 could be an elusive little devil. Back in the camera's 'heyday' of 2003, many photographers had never heard of it. Professional reviews were strangely absent, and the UK's photographic press showed no evidence of the device's existence. Making this near-silence even more remarkable was the fact that the camera housed a Fuji Super CCD, no less, and gave an output resolution of 4 megapixels. In 2003, that was something to shout about. So, what was the big secret, and is the Fuji Finepix A403 a good find on the secondhand market?
The story started in autumn 2001, with the Fuji Finepix A101 – a 1.3 megapixel camera using exactly the same body design as the later A403, but housing a standard (as opposed to Super) CCD chip, and storing its captures to a Smartmedia card. Costing £159 upon introduction in the UK, the A101 was a bottom-of-the-range device which was never meant as anything more than a cheap snapper. At the same time, Fuji also bestowed upon the world the more expensive A201 (£179), which was an A101 with a 2 megapixel standard CCD. These cameras roughly replaced the 1300 and the 2300 in the Finepix range, and they featured the same combination of cheap construction, a grim, fixed focal length lens, and a very basic design. The ‘A’ prefix, which first appeared with the A101 and A201, was specific to entry level cameras.
Fuji's next progression, in late summer 2002, was to dump the A101 altogether, and replace the A201 with the A202, which was essentially the same 2 megapixel camera as the A201, but with XD card storage rather than the outdated Smartmedia. The price of the A202 on the UK market was £139 – interestingly, less than the A101’s intro price.
By spring 2003, this camera design was well and truly ready for the dustbin of digicam history, but Fuji had other ideas… Lo and behold, once again that distinctive A101 body was on its way out to select retailers’ shelves, now ‘upgraded’ with a Third Generation Super CCD, and an interpolated 4 megapixel output. The A403 was born.
THE A403 AS A PRODUCT
The A403 was designed to sound impressive in the retail environment... "Yes Sir/Madam, it's got a Super CCD, it produces 4 megapixel photos, it's made by Fuji, and it costs just £199!" In early 2003, that sounded much too good to be true.
And to all intents and purposes, it was too good to be true. Whilst the on-paper spec was arguably legitimate, issues such as poor lens quality, tiny CCD size, sensitivity and compression compromises, and overblown interpolation, meant that at 4 megapixels, the definition of the A403's images bordered on a joke. In fact, it was debatable whether the A403 could even justify a 1.3 megapixel output file size. In truth, it was irresponsible to sell this camera to anyone with a genuine need for 4 megapixels. Those needing 2 megapixels may have accepted the images after umming and ahhing a bit (although I suspect they'd probably switch down to the 1.3 megapixel setting in the end to gain a reasonable sense of smoothness), but those needing 4MP were purely and simply being conned. In no shape or form could the A403 ever be considered a viable 4 megapixel device. Its sensor chip was the same size as the one in the 1.3 megapixel A101 - a 1/2.7. That pretty much explains why the A403 struggles to perform as anything more than a 1.3 megapixel camera.
The '403s's Images showed noticeable vignetting around the edges of the frame, and because the ISO speed was set at 200 rather than the 100 of the A201/A202, noise levels were actually worse from the Super CCD model than from the standards. Interpolating the images up to almost double their original size was just a stupid, pointless exercise, taking an already flawed image and merely magnifying the flaws. The images were not very 'clean', even at their natural sensor size of 2 megapixels, and upsized further they were riddled with supersized noise, JPEG artifacts and major losses of texture. All you'd achieve by trying to sharpen the shots was to exaggerate the mess.
Adding insult to injury, in order to keep the file size down so that larger numbers of images could be squeezed onto a limited capacity xD card, all JPEGs produced by the A403 were heavily compressed, and that reduced the image quality even further.
To put the icing on the cake, so to speak, complaints about component failures in the A403 seem to have been pretty rife. It looks, upon researching the issue, like Fuji acknowledged a major problem with faulty components and undertook to address a high volume of faulty devices en masse.
Like the slightly later Fuji A405, the A403 wasn’t a camera that showed full market availability in the UK. Its manual was signed off on 1st April 2003, but in the dedicated UK photography magazines I’ve retained from the rest of the year, there’s no mention of the model whatsoever in retailers’ listings or editorial blurb. The A403 wasn't even featured on Fuji's website as far as I'm aware. The reason? Well, the A403 was in fact specifically produced for resale by the Dixons / Curry's / PC World group, rather than being a standard Fuji product. Dixons frequently offered exclusive models from various camera brands - usually minor revisions on standard models in the range. Previously, for example, the Fuji Finepix 2200 was supplied exclusively to the Dixons group, shortly before it went to the rest of the market branded as the 2300.
Dixons were less mitigating with their hype than the dedicated photographic stores, and that probably appealed to the likes of Fuji, who themselves weren't particularly keen to have all the facts laid bare. With Fuji's pixel-interpolating Super CCDs, for instance, dedicated photographic stores like Jessops would categorise the cameras under their true megapixel ratings. Dixons, meanwhile, would promote them using their 'fake', interpolated ratings, and only reveal the real ratings in tiny print, away from the camera's listing, at the bottom of the catalogue page.
Dixons were intially listing the A403 at £199, but they began to offer drastic reductions, and this culminated in the camera being offered for a quarter of its original price before it finally left the shelves. But even priced at £50 brand new, the A403 still couldn't be considered a bargain. That was about its value as a new camera at that time. I wouldn't recommend anyone pays more than £5 for an A403 today. Its only value now is as a historical curio.
Indeed, the camera's real value was quickly demonstrated by its very low secondhand return back in the days when it was retailing for £199. Even as early as the summer of 2003, the A403 was selling in secondhand shops for less than £40. Taking into account the likely markup involved in that, some owners were evidently letting the product go, just weeks after purchase, for about a tenth of what they'd paid. That says it all.
The Fuji Finepix A403 had very little to do with the reality of producing great photos, and everything to do with looking good on paper so that plenty of unwitting consumers would buy it. The marketing plan of putting it into known 'novice' outlets like Dixons and PC World and keeping away from the pro reviewers, suggested that Fuji knew perfectly well how the more knowledgeable individuals would react to the A403. This was the kind of product which could easily elicit the review from Hell and completely trash the manufacturer's reputation. The A403 was an object lesson in exploiting consumer ignorance (particularly in the megapixel stakes), and the only way Fuji would get away with it, was to keep the camera out of the expert's sight.
This is one camera you can probably drop down the toilet without experiencing the remotest tinge of regret. In comparison to some of the very low-end stuff by Digital Dream and Jenoptik back in the early noughties, the A403 was an obvious superior, but consumers should not have needed to descend to that sort of level to find a comparison which would make a 4 megapixel Fuji camera look good.