The Canon Powershot S95 is a small, compact camera with a large (for a compact) 1/1.7” CCD sensor - the same sensor that is in it’s larger brother, the G12. At only 3.93 x 2.30 x 1.16", it is really and truly “pocketable.” Offering a useful 28-105mm equivalent zoom range, capable of shooting RAW, the S95 offers a lot of power in a very small package.
Controls and Settings
The physical controls are few. Beside the 3 inch, 461,000 pixel LCD screen that dominates the back of the camera is the function ring surrounded by four buttons. On the function ring are 4 quick pick options - up for exposure compensation, right for flash options, down for self-timer and left for macro. Once chosen, the adjustments are made by turning the ring that surrounds the button. Pressing the actual “FUNC SET” button in the middle of the ring pulls up a menu with the other major options (ISO, AWB, etc.). All in all, considering that the number of physical controls is limited on a camera this size, this works very well. The four buttons that surround the ring access the main menu, change display options, allow review of pictures on the memory card, and there is one for direct printing that can customized to suit your preferences for other options.
On the top of the camera is the dial for choosing how you want to shoot with the customary Manual and Program choices, plus AV (Aperture Priority), TV (Shutter Priority), full Auto, Low Light, and numerous scene modes (from standards like “Portrait” and “Landscape” to “HDR” and “Miniature Effect” and “Nostalgic”). Additionally you can shoot 720P HD movies at 24 fps.
What am I forgetting? Oh yeah, there’s that ring on the front around the lens. It is as brilliant as everyone has said. It is customizable and can be used to adjust the ISO, or exposure compensation, or to zoom the lens to various standard equivalents (like 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, etc.), and can also be set to correspond to the program you are using. For example, I shot pretty much entirely in Aperture Priority so I left it to the default for that and just used it to adjust the f stop.
In the Field
This is, after all, a field report on this camera, so let’s get to the nitty gritty. First of all, I shot this camera like it was my own (note the pocket lint visible on it in the first picture), which is to say there are not a lot of “test” shots. I did try taking pictures of a brick wall to test for barrel and pincushion distortion, and I did see some on the screen at the wide end when I was making the pictures. But there is no evidence of it after opening them in Lightroom 3, which apparently has built-in correction for this camera.
Now to me the three reasons to own this camera are (1) it’s small size coupled with (2) it’s ability to shoot RAW and (3) it’s fast lens. And so, these are the advantages I used. I did no in-camera JPEGs, I can’t tell you how the in-camera HDR, Fisheye effect, Miniature Effect, or any other scene setting looks. I shot RAW and I used Aperture Priority.
This shot was at 1/320 sec. at f/5.6 & ISO 80 from a hotel room in Louisville, KY.
First, let’s get this straight - the lens is indeed pretty fast at f/2.0 at the wide end. But that speed is lost quickly when you zoom and ends up at f/4.9 at the long end. So in low light situations, you can shoot hand held (thanks to some very good Image Stabilization) at the wide end without ramping up the ISO too far. But you aren’t going to be able to zoom very far without increasing the ISO and resulting noise.
There are those who complain about the camera being too small and hard to grip, though I (with large hands since I’m 6’3”) didn’t really have a problem. It’s metal skin can be a tad slippery, but it does have a subtle texture, though it doesn’t have a grip - which in any event would cut into its pocket fitting size.
How pocketable is the S95? As it turns out, it lives up its hype on this as well. I could carry it comfortably in the pockets of my casual shirts. That is rather extraordinary, and does make this a true “take-anywhere” camera. If the best camera is the one you have with you, this one is more likely than most to always be with you. I took the camera to dinner with me and made the following pictures at ISO 400:
And this breakfast shot also at ISO 400:
Later I took the camera back to the same restaurant as the earlier pictures (Ramsi’s Cafe in Louisville, KY) and shot the following at ISO 800:
There was visible luminance noise when viewing these pictures at 1:1 in Lightroom 3, but a little work with the appropriate noise-reducing slider fixed it. The colors are nice and rich, yet natural (because that bar really was that colorful). Of course I had to push the slider more for the ISO 800 shots than the ISO 400 ones, but they turned out well I think - and especially make for good black and white conversions. Under decent light, this camera turns in a stellar performance, and can still deliver quality snap shots up to ISO 800. By ISO 3200 though, the noise is fairly intrusive, though small prints (I am happy with some I made on 8x11.5” paper) are still good enough for me.
Here is a crop from the same picture:
The auto white balance is pretty good - picking up on the tungsten lighting in my kitchen quite reliably, as seen here:
That bowl of apples was shot at ISO 200 and f/2.0 and 1/20 sec - a good sharp picture for hand-held. The colors are quite accurate too, both on the LCD screen while composing and reviewing, and probably even more so in the final picture I think.
Skin tones seem quite accurate to me, and the dynamic range is no slouch - as evidenced by the following picture of my friend Sarah, taken in her car as we were going to lunch one day:
Yes, the road outside the window is blown and details could not be retrieved even in Lightroom, but still not bad for a compact in my opinion, considering we were inside a car and that is bright, hot noon time sun out there.
With a little work, great detail can be drawn out of the RAW files, even when some noise reduction must be applied, as in this shot of a peonie made at ISO 200:
When shooting RAW, the color palette can be made quite subtle,
or quite bold.
Best of all, in my opinion as one with a blog dedicated to black and white photography, shots from this little camera can be transformed into beautiful monochrome pictures. All of the following were converted using Nik’s Silver Efex Pro 2.
Pros: small size; “large” sensor for a compact; bright, sharp LCD screen; intuitive controls (or at least they can be quickly learned); programmable selector ring around the lens; lens fairly fast at f/2 at the wide end; lens has good optical quality (though clearly there is some adjusting going on in software); good build quality with metal body; built-in flash with slow curtain and variable output options; tons of program options (though I didn’t use most of them); HD video capability (again, unimportant to me); ability to shoot RAW; effective image stabilization; a customizable setting that allows for pre-set focus, aperture, etc. - allowing very quick shooting without the dread auto-focus delay that is the bane of compacts including this one.
Cons: lens slow (f/4.9) at long end; in fact, it slows quickly when zooming from the widest 28mm equivalent; no flash/accessory shoe (though I didn’t miss it); slow auto-focus - I found nothing remarkable about it, except that given enough time and use of the built-in focus assist light, it will focus reliably, just not quickly; not many direct controls (though more buttons and dials would clearly interfere with the pocketable nature of the beast); high ISOs are fairly noisy (in keeping with the sensor size).
I think that ISO performance is a pretty personal thing, but I was very happy with results up to ISO 400, and wouldn’t hesitate to use ISO 800 if needed, with ISO 1600 for when I really need it. I never did try ISO 3200, but I’m sure if I were in a situation that needed a picture and this is the camera I had with me, I would use it. But neither this nor any other compact camera is going to deliver great results at high ISO.
Who is this camera for? It is for someone who understands that all cameras have their strengths and weaknesses, and for whom the pros above outweigh the cons above. I don’t think it is for someone wanting to shoot their kids at soccer, or really any type of sports. The auto focus is too slow, the lens doesn’t zoom far enough, is too slow when zoomed, and noise is not sufficiently controlled at high ISOs to compensate for the other weaknesses. I think sports photographers would be much more pleased with even a low end DSLR as it will be better in almost all of those regards with a decent tele-zoom lens. Street photographers could use this camera even with the slow auto-focus by choosing the custom setting and focusing that manually to say 7 or 10 feet with an f/4 aperture or so and an appropriate ISO (say 400 in daylight) - this would allow quick shooting that doesn’t depend on focusing and with the lens at its wide end the f/4 aperture should provide several feet of depth of field for the main subjects.
The Canon S95 is positioned to be a good choice for both those who have been bitten by the bug to upgrade from their cheaper compact that doesn’t offer all of these amenities, and to serious enthusiasts or pros who want the best camera they can get that will fit in their shirt pocket. It thus has a lot to offer to a lot of people, but no camera is perfect, and whether it is the best match for you is something that only you can decide. I would, of course, be happy to try to answer any questions anyone has.
In comparing the S95 to the only other compact I have used recently, the Sigma DP2s which I reviewed on my own site back in September of 2009, I would say that the APS-C sensor in the Sigma has better image quality, and a better lens, hands down. It isn’t even close! But that is as it should be considering the much larger sensor and what I believe to be a beautifully unique look from that Foveon sensor. However, the DP2s has many more user issues than this well-designed camera from Canon. The DP2s suffers from auto-focus that, depending on the lighting, ranges from slow to non-existent. Manual focus would be a valid option with the Sigma except that it’s LCD screen has about ½ the number of pixels as the S95 and is far dimmer and noisier. And the Sigma lens, while outstanding, is a prime and not a zoom, so you will shoot at about a 40mm equivalent all the time - though I didn’t find that a particular problem, many do. The Sigma is large and not as pocketable.
In short, the S95 if simply going to appeal to a lot more people than the DP2s. That said, those who want a small camera with amazing image quality, and who can’t find or can’t afford the new Fujifilm X100, and who don’t mind working to master a camera to maximize its strong points, may well find the DP2s more to their liking. Hopefully, you know if this sounds like you, because without some dedication you are likely to find the Sigma more trouble than it is worth.
I have had the Olympus XZ-1 to review at the same time as this Canon, but I will wait until I post the review of it to compare and contrast the two - mostly because I need to “think” my way through that review before addressing this topic. Sorry - but stay tuned.
Jeff Damron has been photographing since receiving a Minolta SLR and a basic darkroom setup in 1976. His favorite film camera is the Contax G1, which he considers his first "compact" camera. He writes about monochrome photography at his site, Better in Black and White. -Amin
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