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The Canon Powershot S100 - The best "S" yet?
Written: Nov 22, 2011 (Updated Nov 23, 2011)
a Very Helpful Review
by the Epinions community
I have been a photographer for more than forty years and I’ve been reviewing cameras since 1994. I wrote my first digital camera review in 2000. Since then I’ve written more than 250 digital camera reviews for epinions and two other websites. I’ve managed to meet a lot of people in the digital imaging industry over that dozen years and when one of them contacted me recently and asked if I’d like to review the new Canon Powershot S100 I jumped at the chance. I’ve always liked Canon nifty little “S” series prosumer digicams. I reviewed the S80 for epinions in 2005 and the S95 for digitalcamerareview.com in 2010.
Before they were discontinued in 2005, Canon’s elegant little “S” series digicams were very popular with photo enthusiasts because they were marketed specifically to more advanced shooters and shared features with Canon's top-of-the-line “G” series. Last year Canon resurrected their venerable “S” series with the introduction of the S90 and just a few months later added the S95, which was visually identical to the S90 and differed only slightly under the hood. Canon introduced the new Canon Powershot S100 (the S95’s replacement) just in time for the Holiday gifting season.
How does the S100 differ from its predecessor? The S100 is only the second Canon P&S digicam to feature the DIGIC V processor, the same processor used in the new Canon 1DX professional DSLR. Canon claims the DIGIC V processor is six times faster than the DIGIC IV processor it replaces. The S95 featured a 10 megapixel CCD sensor while the S100 features a 12 megapixel CMOS sensor that incorporates Canon’s new HS (high sensitivity) technology for reduced noise and better low light performance. Other significant differences include a 1080p HD video mode (the S95 topped out at 720p), a GPS receiver, and a new slightly wider and slightly longer zoom.
NUTS & BOLTS
The S80 (predecessor of the S90 and S95) featured an optical viewfinder, but like the S90 and the S95, the S100 doesn't. Users must rely instead on the LCD for all framing/composition, GPS receiver, captured image review and menu navigation chores. Many modern shooters don't like optical viewfinders anyway and in lots of shooting scenarios (macro shots and portraits for example) it is actually quicker and easier to watch the decisive moment come together on the LCD screen than it is through an optical viewfinder.
The S100 may lack an optical viewfinder, but makes up for that omission somewhat by providing a better monitor than its long-zoom sibling, the SX40 HS. The S100’s wide-viewing angle PureColor II LCD with 461K resolution is twice as sharp as the 230K LCD of the SX40 HS I reviewed recently for epinions, but only half as sharp as the Nikon S9100’s (which I reviewed for another website) 920K LCD. The S100’s TFT LCD screen is bright, hue accurate, fluid, automatically boosts gain in dim/low light, and covers approximately 100% of the image frame. The user-enabled grid display combined with the exposure histogram is a very useful option for serious shooters. The S100's LCD (like all LCD monitors) is subject to fading and glare/reflections in bright outdoor lighting, but users can adjust brightness.
Geo-tagging has been growing in popularity with shutterbugs, as they seek unique new ways to share their images. Some folks may already have a GPS device in their car, but the S100 provides a portable (in the field) system to track position against map data stored in the camera's on-board memory. For travelers who visit London, Paris, NYC, L.A., Chicago, Beijing, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, Rio and other world capitals the S100’sGPSsystem will locate the user precisely and then display a map with the quickest routes to major tourist attractions in those cities. I would have loved a camera like this when I was living in Germany and Japan – it would have allowed me to occasionally leave my heavy camera bag at home and find my way back easily to nifty new shooting locations. I could have used the S100 to capture some sample shots and then returned, at a later date, with a couple of SLRs, my sturdy Leitz Tilt-All tripod, and bag full of lenses
The S100’s GPS system won't work indoors and it is slow to find and lock onto a satellite signal outdoors, but this is only the second Canon P&S digicam to feature GPS capabilities – the first was the SX230 HS. The built-in Maps program tracks every GPS-tagged image or video and then displays the picture’s coordinates on a Google map - allowing users to see all the locations they’ve visited recently. I discovered the hard way that users who forget to turn off GPS Logging when they put the S100 away will soon discover that this function continues to drain the camera's battery, even when the camera is turned off.
Like its predecessor, the S100 is built around a relatively short (5X) zoom with a fast f2.0 maximum aperture. the S95 featured an f/2.0-4.9, 6.0-22.5mm (28-105mm – 35mm equivalent) zoom lens, but the S100 improves on that range marginally with an f2.0-f5.9/5.2mm-26.0mm (24mm-120mm - 35mm equivalent) zoom lens. Most P&S digicams offer zooms with maximum apertures of between f/2.8 and f3.5. The S100's f/2.0 maximum aperture lets in twice as much light as an f2.8 aperture, which allows for faster shutter speeds in low light and slightly shallower depth of field.
The S100’s super-stabilized wide-angle to short telephoto zoom covers the focal length range most often used by “Straight Shooters” who usually tend to work in pretty close. The S100's zoom will obviously come up a bit short for those who wish to shoot team sports or wildlife.
When the S100 is powered up the zoom extends from the camera body automatically, and when the camera is powered down, the lens retracts and a built in iris-style lens cover closes to protect the front element. Zooming is fairly smooth and lens operation is impressively quiet. The S100 needs between 2 and 3 seconds to move the lens from the wide angle end of the zoom range to the maximum telephoto setting. Construction consists of seven elements in six groups with two double-sided asherical elements and one single-sided aspherical element.
The S100's zoom is surprisingly good and even though the lens displays some minimal light fall-off and very minor corner softness, there's no vignetting (dark corners). Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is visible in some high contrast shots, especially when shooting dark objects against a bright background. Barrel distortion (at the wide-angle end of the zoom range) is present, but very well controlled and that’s impressive optical engineering since well above average barrel distortion is a common fault with small optically complex P&S digicam zooms. Pincushion distortion is essentially invisible at the telephoto end of the zoom. The S100’s zoom, like the zoom on its upscale sibling the G12, features a built-in Neutral Density (ND) filter to allow for maximum aperture shooting – even in bright outdoor lighting. Minimum focusing distance (in macro mode) is 1.2 inches.
Image Stabilization (IS)
The S100's optical image stabilization system reduces blur by rapidly and precisely shifting a lens element in the zoom to compensate for involuntary camera movement. Typically, Image Stabilization systems allow users to shoot at shutter speeds up to three EV (exposure values) slower than would have been possible without Image stabilization. Canon has equipped the S100 with what they claim is the most advanced and effective optical Image Stabilization system ever used in a P&S camera (it measures camera shake approximately 8,000 times per second) which provides up to 4.5 EV of compensation.
Canon’s new Intelligent IS technology assesses the shooting situation and automatically applies the most appropriate image stabilization settings from seven possible options. Continuous IS works full time and includes an automatic Dynamic IS function adapted from Canon camcorders, however Continuous IS consumes substantially more power than the other IS modes. Shoot Only IS kicks the IS system in just before the shutter fires. Panning IS is designed to factor out involuntary vertical camera movement during lateral panning. Macro IS with Hybrid IS technology is used for shooting sharply focused close-ups with the camera hand-held. Powered IS uses Canon camcorder technology to make it easy to film distant subjects with the zoom at full telephoto, and Tripod mode automatically switches off IS when the camera is placed on a stable surface or attached to a tripod. The S100’s Hybrid Image Stabilization technology corrects for both angle and shift shake for sharper images at slower shutter speeds and in dim light which is especially useful when shooting in poorly lit indoor venues where flash use is inappropriate or prohibited. IS can also be switched off.
Auto Focus (AF)
The S100 features the same 9 AF point TTL (through the lens) Contrast Detection AF system as its predecessor - with four AF modes - single, continuous, servo AF/AE, and Tracking AF, plus manual focus, Macro AF, and Focus Bracketing. In all exposure modes, the camera analyzes the scene in front of the lens and then calculates camera to subject distance to determine which AF point is closest to the primary subject (closest subject priority) and then locks focus on that AF point. Users can also opt for single AF point Auto Focus and shift that single AF point to any spot in the composition. The S100's default face detection AF mode is linked to the camera's exposure and WB systems and automatically finds, locks focus on, and then optimizes exposure for up to nine faces. AF is very quick and consistently accurate.
The S100's super tiny multi-mode pop-up flash provides an impressive selection of artificial lighting options, including auto, flash on (fill flash), flash off, and slow synch - plus menu flash options including flash exposure compensation ( /- 2EV in 1/3 EV increments), first and second curtain synch, red-eye correction, Face Detection FE, and Safety FE. According to Canon, the S100’s maximum flash range is about 7 meters/23 feet, which seems ludicrously optimistic given the miniscule size of the flash. Based on my very limited flash use, the S100's flash recycle time is between 3 and 4 seconds.
The Canon PowerShot S100 supports SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory cards, but provides no internal memory.
The Canon PowerShot S100 draws its power from a Canon NB-5L Litjium-ion rechargeable battery pack. According to Canon, the S100 is good for about 200 exposures (without flash) or 240 minutes of video playback on a freshly charged power pack. That's slightly below average for cameras of this type, so profligate shooters and long-distance travelers might want to consider purchasing a back-up battery. The included CB-2L charger needs about 2 hours to fully charge the battery pack.
White Balance (WB)
The S100 provides users with a very good selection of White Balance options, including auto (with Face Detection WB and Multi-area WB), daylight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent, fluorescent H, flash, underwater, and custom. The S100's auto WB system does an excellent good job in all outdoor lighting, but indoors like all of Canon's P&S digicams the auto WB setting produces colors that are slightly warmer than real world colors under incandescent light and slightly cooler than real world colors under fluorescent lighting.
The S100 provides a very impressive range of sensitivity options, including auto ISO and user-set options for ISO 80 to ISO 6400 – the S95 topped out at ISO 3200. ISO 80 and ISO 100 images are indistinguishable. Both settings show bright colors, slightly hard edged native contrast, very low noise levels, and excellent detail capture. ISO 200 images are also very good, but with a tiny bit less pop. At the ISO 400 setting, noise levels are perceptibly higher and there's a (barely) perceptible loss of minor detail. At sensitivity settings higher than ISO 400 noise levels rise exponentially as the sensitivity increases. Loss of fine detail also rises as sensitivity increases. ISO 800 images are pretty noisy, but not as noisy as I expected - due in large part to Canon's Dual Anti-Noise System (also found on the PowerShot G12). ISO 1600 and ISO 3200 images show flat colors, reduced contrast, poor detail capture, and lots of noise, but once again less noise than expected. I didn’t get to try the ISO 6400 sensitivity setting.
The S100 provides users with three light metering options including the default Evaluative (linked to Face Detection AF frame) mode, plus a Center-weighted averaging mode and a Spot metering (center-spot or shiftable spot - linked to Face Detection AF or FlexiZone AF frame) mode. Default metering is dependably accurate in all but the most extreme lighting situations. Metering accuracy in the Center-Weighted Averaging and Spot modes is more dependent on the skill of the photographer.
DESIGN, BUILD QUALITY, CONTROLS & ERGONOMICS
Visually, the new Canon PowerShot S100 is almost identical to its predecessor and at first glance, the S100 may look like a typical compact P&S digicam since it is pocket-sized and will function nicely in P&S mode. Unlike the flood of compact auto-exposure only P&S digicams currently inundating the marketplace the S100 is an enthusiast’s camera that permits lots of personal input into the image making process. The S100 feels solid and stable in your hands, features a robustly constructed all metal body with first-rate dust/moisture seals, captures still images in either RAW or Jpeg format, and allows full manual control of exposure.
The S100 is a traditional looking precision built imaging tool that was obviously designed for photography enthusiasts. The S100 is small, thin, and sort of oblongish digicam that will function nicely as a general purpose camera, but its strongest appeal may be that it is an almost perfect camera for candid/street photography. Street photographers focus on the urban environments where people live and work. Street shooting is primarily concerned with capturing images of people (naturally lit and unposed) that evocatively depict or dramatically reveal some aspect of the human condition. Street shooting is reactive (spontaneous) and the subjects are often unaware that they are being photographed.
Traditional straight shooters (documentary photographers, street/candid shooters, and environmental portraitists) used Leica rangefinders and compact 35mm cameras like the Rollei 35S, the Contax T, the Olympus Stylus 35, and the Minnox 35EL to capture images of real life as it happened. Today’s “straight shooters” might substitute one of Olympus’ new Pen models, the Panasonic GF3, or the nifty little Pentax Q for those legendary cameras of yore. Those who want to keep it even simpler might opt instead for Canon’s new S100 or the Samsung TL500.
Quintessential street shooter Henri Cartier-Bresson developed the formula for successful street shooting – the photographer surreptitiously inserts himself/herself into the area where the action is likely to occur, follows the action, and then trips the shutter when the “decisive moment” arrives. The straight shooter’s goal is to hold a mirror up to society – to provide a literal and sometimes visceral visual experience of who we are, where we live, and how we react to the world we live in. The S100 is small and non-threatening to subjects, it is a dependably competent picture maker, it is easy to use, it responds almost intuitively to the photographer, and it is fast enough to capture the decisive moment - making it almost perfect for reactive photography.
Ergonomics and Controls
The S100's user interface is logical and uncomplicated - all buttons and controls are a bit small, but they are all clearly marked, sensibly placed and easily accessed. The compass switch (4-way control pad) provides direct access to the exposure compensation function, flash settings, and macro mode. Canon’s “func” button offers direct access to WB, ISO, image size, etc. The compass switch is surrounded by a rotary jog dial. Press the review button and use your right thumb on the rotary jog dial to quickly and easily scroll back and forth through your saved images – the S100 makes it easy to compare a series of similar shots and quickly winnow them down to the best image in the sequence.
The S100 also features a nifty manual control ring. The control ring surrounds the base of the zoom lens and enables users to choose from a variety of functions by turning the click-stopped ring either right or left. The control ring can be used as a manual zoom ring with steps at the equivalent of 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm and 120mm. It can also be enabled to adjust ISO (in 1/3 stop increments), modify WB settings, select shutter and aperture, or for direct access to the exposure compensation function.
The S100 features new two buttons that weren’t on the S95. A lens ring button to make it easier to change lens ring function and a direct start/stop video button. With the S95, users had to go to the menu to change control ring functions and they were obliged to select video mode via the mode dial and then utilize the shutter button to start/stop video capture. The S100’s operation quickly becomes intuitive for anyone who has ever used a Canon digicam.
The S80 featured an optical viewfinder and a rudimentary handgrip. The S100 eschews both, but it does feature a right-side finger rail which marinally improves stability.
Menus and Modes
The Canon PowerShot S100 features a three tab version of Canon's classic digicam menu. The menu system, accessed via a dedicated button beneath the compass switch, is simple, logical and easy to navigate.
The S100 provides a complete selection of shooting modes including:
Auto (Smart Auto): Automatic scene recognition mode that instantly compares what's in front of the lens with an on-board image database and then matches that information with the specific scene's subject distance, white balance, contrast, dynamic range, lighting and color (just before the image is recorded) to determine the best exposure.
Program: Auto exposure with limited user input (sensitivity, white balance, exposure compensation, etc.).
Aperture priority: Users select the aperture and the camera selects an appropriate shutter speed.
Shutter priority: Users select shutter speed and the camera selects an appropriate aperture.
Manual: Users select all exposure parameters.
Custom: Permits users to pre-program personal shooting preferences for quick access via the mode dial.
Low Light: Captures images in dim/low light - limited to 2.5 megapixel resolution.
Scene: Portrait, landscape, smart shutter, kids & pets, super vivid, power effect, color accent, color swap,HDR* (high dynamic range), nostalgic, fish-eye effect, miniature effect, beach, underwater, foliage, snow, fireworks, stitch assist, indoor, face/self-timer, low-light, super vivid, poster effect, beach, foliage, snow, fireworks and long shutter.
Movie: The S100 records HD video at a maximum resolution of 1920x1080 (1080p) at 24 fps for up to 4GB or one hour.
In the Field/Handling & Operation
I live in the Ohio Valleyand like most local photographers benefit greatly from living in North Central Kentucky. Three seasons of the year here are absolutely beautiful. We have a lovely spring (usually beginning in early March) with lots of flowering trees like Dogwood, Bradford Pear, and Redbud. During our hot and humid summers we host a stunning collection of wildflowers including Appalachian varieties like Lady’s Slipper and Dog’s Tooth Violet, Prairie species like Giant Purple Cone Flowers and Black-eyed Susans, and deep-south exotics like Passion Flowers and Dwarf Iris.
Kentucky is where the Southern (coniferous and softwood) forests meet the Northern (hardwood) forests, so we have a very impressive Autumn color season that draws leaf peepers from as far away as Chicago, Memphis, and St. Louis. During the winter North Central Kentucky is pretty ugly. Gray skies, lots of rain, and cold windy days. We get very little snow, so we don’t have much opportunity to do winter wonderland shots. But most of the year Louisville is very photographer friendly – we have lots of green space, dozens of small neighborhood festivals, the best preserved collection of Cast-Iron facade buildings in the world, Old Louisville (a huge neighborhood filled with Victorian Mansions that rivals New Orlean’s Garden District), and Cave Hill Cemetery - an almost two hundred year old urban graveyard that is the final resting place for Revolutionary War Veterans, Civil War Veterans (from both sides), and some of Kentucky’s most prominent historical and cultural figures. Cave Hill became Louisville's first urban cemetery in the mid 1830's. Cave Hill is also Louisville's unofficial arboretum, and one of the best remaining examples of 19th century landscape architecture left in the U.S.
Cave Hill’s 300 acres are home to an amazing variety of exotic and native trees, shrubs, and bushes – making it an almost perfect photo venue for local shooters because it is free, centrally located, and there is almost always something interesting to photograph. Cave Hill is filled with thousands of weather worn old headstones, dozens of ornate mausoleums, a rustic old groundskeeper’s cabin, and a small lake with flocks of semi-tame ducks, geese, and swans.
Late Autumn is here and it has been cold, windy, and very rainy, but we’ve had a few nice days when the light was good and the sky was blue. I got the S100 just in time for the peak of our fall color season and spent a quiet afternoon in the oldest part of Cave Hill cemetery shooting some old lichen encrusted hand-carved early 19th century native limestone grave markers surrounded by ankle deep fallen leaves and the largest Ginko tree I’ve ever seen. A local missionary brought the tree back from China, as a sapling, in the early 1840’s and presented it to the owners of Cave Hill. That magnificent old Ginko was Cave Hill’s first non-native tree. On pretty days, after its leaves haved turned to a bright canary yellow, that huge old tree seems to glow, almost magically.
My next outing with the S100 took me to the Louisville Extreme Park. The Extreme Park is the go to place for local photographers looking to capture action. Rollerbladers, Skateboarders, and BMX bikers are drawn to the park 24-7 to perfect their moves in the industrial sized full pipe, 5 interconnected bowls, assorted ramps, and the twelve-foot half pipe. We have some very talented young athletes and a few of them can usually be found at the extreme park. I spent the better part of an afternoon shooting environmental portraits of skateboarders and BMX bikers. I also shot several short HD video clips of the kids doing their routines – some of which were quite impressive. I did capture a few decent action shots of skateboarders, but framing/timing (centering the boarders in the picture and stopping the action in mid air) is actually pretty tough when you only have a 5X zoom - you have to move in pretty close to get frame filling shots and that can be dangerous.
For my third outing with the S100 I took it to the corner of Bardstown Road and Eastern Parkway to shoot the Occupy Louisville March from Downtown through the Highlands. The S100 handled the phalanx of massed marchers nicely and captured the all the chaotic shapes, messages, and colors of the hand-made signs carried by the protestors. A post-march trip to a nearby restaurant for a barbecue sandwich allowed me to surreptitiously shoot indoors with the easily concealed little S100. Other than a barely noticeable warmness (from the old restaurant’s overhead incandescent lighting) the S100 performed nicely during my single indoor shooting test.
The S100's image files are (like those from all Canon P&S digicams) optimized for bold bright colors and hard-edged but slightly flat contrast. Viewed on my monitor - S100 (like the S95’s) images look a lot like the slides I shot during an earlier photographic era - the look is somewhere midway between Velvia and Sensia transparencies.
Overall, reds are a bit warm, blues are a little brighter than they are in real life, and greens are impressively vibrant, but purples (Canon color interpolation) are always a bit bluish. The S100's images are highly-detailed and surprisingly sharp, although I did have some minor problems (the AF system couldn't seem to lock focus a couple of times) in macro mode and a small percentage of my close-up shots came out blurry. In bright outdoor lighting, highlight detail was only rarely blown-out, which is some very impressive exposure engineering.
Compared to a couple other digicams I’ve tested recently – the upscale Samsung TL500 (with a Schneider-Kreuznach badged zoom) and the Panasonic FH7 (with a Leica badged Zoom) the S100's image quality is impressive even when compared to digicams with lenses designed by iconic German lensmakers. The 100’s image quality is noticeably better than average.
One of the biggest complaints consumers leveled at the S95 was its 720p @30 fps HD movie mode. Canon listened to those complaints. The S100's 1920x1080p @ 24fps HD movie mode produces sharply focused, properly exposed, color correct HD videos clips. The video clips I shot at the Extreme Park were consistently fluid with no jerkiness and sharply focused, with no blur even when my subjects were frozen in mid air. Colors were dependably accurate and exposure was reliably spot on. Like many P&S digicams, the S100’s zoom can't be used while in video capture mode.
Shutter lag is one of the most important considerations when assessing digital camera performance. If the camera isn’t quick enough to capture the decisive moment then it is really only good for shooting posed shots of static subjects. The S95 wasn’t the quickest digicam in its class, but it was more than quick enough to capture the decisive moment in all but the most extreme scenarios. The S100 with its much faster DIGIC V processor may actually be the fastest camera in its class – it is noticeably faster than its predecessor and in my opinion more than fast enough for anything its intended audience might throw its way.
While the S100 may be a dead ringer for the S95 it replaces, under the hood it is essentially a completely different camera. The three most important components in the image quality equation are all new. The S100’s new zoom is both wider and longer than the zoom on the S95, but the fast f2.0 maximum aperture was retained. The S100 is only the second Canon digicam to feature Canon’s new DIGIC V processor, which Canon claims is six times faster than the previous version, allowing for faster image processing and improved noise reduction. Last, but certainly not least, is the S100's new 12.1 MP High Sensitivity 1/1.7"CMOS sensor which provides greater dynamic range and improved low light performance over the 10 megapixel CCD sensor that drove the S95.
The S100’s strongest appeal may be to straight-shooters (photojournalists, documentary photographers, street/candid shooters, available/natural light enthusiasts, and environmental portraitists) because it was clearly designed for reactive photography. The S100 (like the S95) is an almost perfect straight shooter’s camera. Old school straight-shooters like Henry Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, and Eugene Smith used Leica rangefinders because they were small, fast, inconspicuous cameras that were capable of reliably capturing the decisive moment. Modern-day straight shooters generally use prosumer P&S digital cameras (or CSC’s) because they’re small and unintimidating to subjects, very responsive, produce dependably excellent images, and can reliably capture the decisive moment. There have been a lot of technological changes over the last ninety years, but some things never REALLY change.
I have been a photographer my entire adult life and a straight shooter almost as long. I never do anything to my images, post exposure, except some occasional minor cropping. I love documentary style images, available light photography, shooting street/candid images, macro photography, and making environmental portraits. I was impressed with the S30, I liked the S45, and I loved the S70. I really liked the S80 and I liked the S95 even more, so it was almost preordained that I would like the S100. Actually after two weeks of carrying the S100 with me everywhere I went I really hated to return it. In my opinion the S100 is the best “S” yet.
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