Wednesday, November 30, 2011

REVIEW: Canon PowerShot s100


Canon PowerShot s100

Thanks for joining me from my article entitled COMPARISON: Nikon 1 V1, Fuji x10, & Canon s100 (plus Fuji x100 and Canon G12 & s95)! In this article I’ll review the Canon PowerShot s100 on its own merits using the methodology described in the intro article. I reviewed the s95 in the past and came pretty close to buying it when I decided to go with the G12 instead. On paper all of the improvements to the s100 made it seem so good that I thought I might be giving up my G12 to get one, but after extensive use I didn’t find it to live up to my expectations based on its specs.

Please note that excluding the two s100 product shots (courtesy of Canon USA), all of the photos in this article are unedited in-camera JPEG’s).

What’s New

  • Longer lens range (equivalent to 24-120mm) at a range of f/2.0 to f/5.9
  • 12.1 megapixel 1/1.7" Canon sensor (CMOS)
  • ISO 80-6400
  • DIGIC V image processor
  • 2.3 fps continuous shooting (and up to 8 frames in High-Speed burst scene mode – JPEG Full Auto only)
  • Full HD 1080p video recording with support for both  H.264 compression and the MOV file format
  • Optical zoom in movie mode
  • Super slow motion movie recording (640 x 480 @ 120fps, 320 x 240 @ 240 fps)
  • Direct movie record button
  • Built-in GPS unit with image tagging and logger functions

Living with the s100

Canon has packed the s100 full of great features like built-in GPS tracking, a huge LCD on the rear for its size, amazingly good high ISO performance up to 6400, and an innovative ring selector on the front that is programmable so you can have your favorite feature readily accessible without going into menus. Its slender size and these are the things that made me excited about this camera.

Now that I’ve said what I like, it’s time to be blunt. I’ve been very unimpressed with the build quality and reliability of both the s95 and s100 I’ve tested. The s95 quickly developed a dead row of pixels on the sensor and this s100 suffers from obscenely short battery life (sometimes as little as 30 minutes of normal use (i.e., not video or continuous on), despite coming off a full charge. I also find that despite how great it seems in the tech specs when you compare it to the G12, the reality is that when you are out shooting kids in the real world it just can’t keep up as well as the G12 can (in Av/Tv/P modes).

Despite its faster Digic V processor and its f/2 lens, The s100 seems to have a longer delay from the time you push the shutter release until it actually takes the shot, which for kids means you’ve missed the shot. While you can use the High-Speed Burst HQ scene mode to get a fast burst of 8 shots, or the “Kids & Pets” mode, RAW is not supported and frequently the subject is out of focus.

Mouse over to see the typical blurry result, and mouse out to see the best I could get in "real world" conditions
f/5.9 for 1/125 sec at ISO 6400 (26mm)
Aperture Priority / Tungsten White Balance
Unedited from In-Camera JPEG
Mouse Out for In-Focus (
original) and
Hover for Typical Out of Focus (
original)

I also found myself getting a large number of out of focus shots in real world indoor shooting. In the shot above I was in my studio under reasonably decent Solux lights with my model on a bright white studio paper background. I also put a reflector under face, so she’s the best indoor lighting situation you are going to find. While I could have shot this at f/2, the reality is that when I’m shooting a person and want to create a flattering shot I’ll typically back off and zoom in to make the body features appear a bit slimmer. This model has a wider face, so shooting at f/2 or f/2.2 would get me down to ISO 500 (this creating a sharper image) at the expense of distortion and a more full body framing (unless I got obnoxiously close when shooting) as shown here: 

Click to see the original
f/2.2 for 1/60 sec at ISO 500
Shooting wide open isn’t always desirable
when indoors due to distortion and working distance
Unedited from In-Camera JPEG

I really want to love this camera because its form factor is brilliant. I love the size and weight – especially when it is closed up. It seems to be significantly better than the s95 based on my unscientific analysis of everyday real world shots I was able to get from the s95 vs the s100. The s100 images appear to have more dynamic range and the high ISO performance, even in RAW, is excellent (much better than the G12 in fact). That said, it’s not even close to the quality found in the x10, but its about half the price and size so that’s forgivable.


f/2 for 1/30 sec (handheld) at ISO 250 (5.2mm) Macro Mode
Full Auto HDR Creative Filters Mode
Lens was about 1 inch from the flower
Unedited from In-Camera JPEG

I was very happy with the macro mode on this camera as the minimum focus distance when you are in macro mode is quite good. I was able to get within an inch at min zoom and about 6 inches at max zoom (in macro mode) and acquire clear focus to get the shot. This makes it a great tool for the amateur macro photographer and teens.

Built-In Intelligence is Very Good

The Auto mode as well as the Special Scene (SCN) and Creative Filters modes are technology marvels. While some modes are downright cheesy (Super Vivid) or useless (Color Swap), many are brilliant for the amateur photographer that doesn’t own a DSLR or Photoshop. As I mentioned in my G12 review, modes like Miniature Effect, Fisheye and HDR will are very fun to play with and the results are respectable. There’s a brilliant Smart Shutter mode that will wait for the subject to smile and then automatically take 3 photos (including raising the flash automatically if required). It works well under the right conditions, and nearly always gets a clear shot (even if the shot looks like crap due to direct flash or poor lighting conditions that are beyond the camera’s control).

I was very happy with the built-in image stabilization – it really works quite well on static subjects. Naturally no image stabilization will help you when your subject moves – that’s still a shutter speed issue – so indoors you still need to find the light or God forbid use the flash to avoid the typical point and shoot motion blur.

The built-in stitching mode for panoramas hasn’t changed, and in my mind is the most useless and unfriendly design on the market. I rarely get a usable result, but if you’ve used it and mastered it then this may not be an issue for me. I do wish Canon would see what Fujifilm has done for their panorama modes on the x100 and x10 – it’s the most brilliant and idiot proof design that just works flawlessly 90% of the time (on static subjects).

Night Shooting & HDR Mode

Using a Gitzo GT1541 tripod (with no head for extra stability), and the 2 second timer mode (to reduce interference from hand induced camera shake), I experimented with taking a shot using the full auto mode, the HDR Creative Filter mode (which takes 4 shots and merges), and the Handheld Night Scene mode. It was after midnight and it was raining lightly, but no wind. There was ambient light from the porches of two houses, but cloud cover made it a pretty dark night. Here’s what I ended up getting in these three modes (visit the gallery here for full-size originals):


HDR Creative Filter Mode on a Tripod with 2 second Timer
Great dynamic range, but disappointingly blurry
(note: default IS mode was used – not tripod IS mode)


Handheld NightScene Mode
f/2 for 1/15 sec at ISO 3200 (auto best of 4)
Impressive, but a touch dark and blurry


Full Auto Mode – Night Scene Detected  (Tripod with 2 second timer)
Very sharp and clear, but less dynamic range than HDR
f/2 for 1 second @ ISO 400
(note: default IS mode was used – not tripod IS mode)

Personally I like the last one best which proves that the old tried and true method of using a tripod for a long exposure isn’t a bad way to go even in these days with technical gadgetry. It’s cool that all three modes are offered though, and at the end of the day there may be times where the auto modes could make the difference between getting the shot and not. After all, how many people will really have tripods (or natural support in the exact right space) when your out with your point and shoot?

Color Accent Mode

Mouse over to see before, mouse out to see after
With solid colors in isolation, the Sin City look is instantly possible in-camera

Even though this feature has been around for a while, I haven’t discussed it on my blog before. The way this works is you turn the mode dial to Creative Filters mode, and isolate a color via the LCD and the control dial. The color you choose remains in color and everything else goes to black and white. As shown above you get the typical “Sin City” look, but it works best on solid colors. When trying to apply it to flowers it doesn’t work as well (although the LCD view will fool you into thinking its perfect):

Mouse over to see before, mouse out to see after
It’s a bit of a fail when there’s more than one tone though

Image Quality

For a point and shoot camera, the image quality of this camera is actually quite good. When using in-camera JPEG’s, images up to ISO 6400 are usable even if they are a tad soft. Using noise reduction software on the RAW’s can leave you with an outstanding result for a sensor this small. Part of the improvement comes from a new sensor and in-camera processing that does a much better job of reducing the noise at the RAW level before creating the in-camera JPEG. The net result is that more detail is preserved over the s95 when those JPEG’s are created.


Click to view the original to see that detail in the shadows and bright areas is respectable
f/2 for 1/30 sec (handheld) at ISO 500 (5.2mm) Full Auto Mode

The dynamic range appears to have been improved in this over the s95 or even the G12, but the images seem to be lacking something that is hard to quantify in scientific terms. They just frequently fail to please me – especially when viewing them in Lightroom. DPP does a great job of making the images look their best (both RAW and JPEG) and printing direct from DPP to a professional Canon printer (like the Canon ipf6300) from a RAW image can often create astonishingly good results with no photo editing at all (go to any Canon trade show event to see this in action to see what I mean).

Overall this camera has the typically good in-camera color that Canon is known for, but when pushed the reality of its small sensor become apparent (2nd shot below).


Under the right conditions, the color rendition was excellent


When pushed, the limited dynamic range became apparent

Features

The s100 offers the standard modes of Program (P), Shutter Speed Priority (Tv), Aperture Priority (Av) , Manual, Custom (user-defined variant of the previously mentioned), and full auto (JPEG) only. There’s also a movie mode which can now be accessed directly via the new record button shown above.

Two of the most useful point and shoot modes (JPEG only) are Creative Filters and Special Scene (SCN) modes because that’s where all of the engineering intelligence in this camera lives. I’ve discussed some of the features already, but these modes are great for times when you don’t want to think – you just want to take pictures. You give the camera a little more input about what you want to do (i.e., beach, underwater, sunset, kids & pets, etc…) and it uses all its power to give you the best result for that scenario. Using these modes I got significantly more in-focus and usable shots than I did when I tried to use Aperture Priority (Av) or even Program (P) mode. You don’t get an option to save RAW images when you do this, so what you get is pretty much what you get, but the camera does everything in its power to give you a sharp shot with a balanced histogram. As a result these images are typically salvageable for post-processing and in-focus.

The controls of this camera are excellent, and the addition of the record button and better focusing options have made this iteration more friendly in daily real world use over its predecessor. I found myself programming the ring dial in the front to exposure compensation really helps a lot, and the auto ISO seems to do a good job of making the right tradeoffs of ISO versus the appropriate shutter speed.

The built-in GPS support was useless indoors as it would never acquire a satellite signal, but if you went outdoors and had a clear signal then it would pick up after a few minutes. This is typical GPS behavior for devices that can’t do triangulation so don’t expect the GPS to record all the places you’ve been on your trip if you’ll be shooting a lot indoors. You can leave GPS logging on to help with that scenario, but bring about 30 batteries because you’ll need it.

Beware – you need LOTS of batteries

Speaking of batteries, the biggest gripe I have about this camera is its battery. While it is nice and compact, it seems that all of the technical hoo ha of this camera drains the battery very quickly. It’s pointless to disable all of those features, so you’ll need multiple spare batteries with this camera. The best performance I got on a battery was about 3 hours of usage (at a car show), and the camera was only turned on when needed. I didn’t have GPS turned on (especially logging which would get you down to about 30 minutes), so the rest was in what I’d call normal out of the box settings.

Factor this into your cost as the batteries were $43.95 EACH at the time this article was written, so you may not be saving much over more expensive cameras when you add the batteries required to get an equivalent shooting time.

For a full feature list, visit Canon USA.

s95 & G12 Owners – Upgrade Advice

If you own a s95 and love it, I think this camera is worth the upgrade based on image quality and performance alone. The 1080p video is a big plus as well. The GPS feature is a battery sucking vampire on a camera that already drains the battery faster than a frat house keg on graduation night, so consider that issue (and cost) when upgrading.

If you own a G12, this camera does offer some nice new features and performance (especially in the dynamic range and higher ISO’s), but fundamentally the G12 is the better camera for those who won’t be shooting in the full auto – jpeg only modes. It also lacks the durability, reliability and pivoting LCD of the G12 so I’d advise against replacing a G12 with a s100.

Sample Photos

To see a gallery of test images (including original in-camera JPEG download), click here. Here’s a few medium size samples that show off what this camera can do:

Sample Video

Click here to see my video comparison article. Here's a funny one to enjoy that shows off the super slow motion movie mode which does 240 fps at a very low resolution:

Conclusion

All of the technical wizardy of this camera is impressive and is sure to please the average consumer who doesn’t have a DSLR. If you don’t care about RAW images and just want to capture memento photos, the special scene and creative filter modes will help you get the shot that is suitable for posting on your favorite social networking sites.

If you are a DSLR owner looking for a pocketable alternative to the beast, I suspect you’ll be disappointed with this camera. While the images aren’t bad, the dynamic range just isn’t there and is sure to dissapoint. While the price might suggest that its is good enough, when you’ve seen other alternatives like the more expensive Fujifilm X10, you realize that small doesn’t have to mean poor quality.

This isn’t a bad camera and the form factor is excellent, but it’s just not one that I think my average reader is really going to be happy with. Do you want your trip to Disney, or that birthday celebration to have shots that are blurry and bleached out looking? I don’t, so I’d rather see Canon do something like Fujifilm’s EXR mode to useless megapixels, but create a significantly better image (in terms of quality and dynamic range). Few people will be printing massive posters using images from their point and shoot, and even a 4 megapixel image is sufficient for a nice letter size print these days (or greater, depending on viewing distance).

I also hated the fact that the battery just doesn’t last very long so you’ll need a bunch of them. I’d seriously have about 4 of them pre-charged if I were going out to Disney all day, so that adds nearly $200 to the cost of this camera. For that price you can get the superior Fujifilm X10 which offers significantly better image quality and performance.

I’d rather have a 3 megapixel version of this camera that had much better dynamic range and faster performance. Despite its great stats on paper, a car analogy is in order – it’s much like comparing a Ford Mustang GT to a Porsche Cayman S. While the Mustang might fare well on paper, and looks are subjective, when you actually use both you realize there is no comparison.

My wife liked the s95 when she compared it to the G12, but we ultimately went with the G12, Now that she’s a seasoned G12 owner, she lasted 10 minutes with this camera before she handed it back to me in disgust and resumed using the G12. She said she still loved the compact size, but we made the right decision getting the G12.

I couldn’t agree more.

See what I think about other cameras in my article entitled COMPARISON: Nikon 1 V1, Fuji x10, & Canon s100 (plus Fuji x100 and Canon G12 & s95).

Where to Buy

Click here to buy a s100 at B&H. If it is out of stock, you can also consider Adorama or Amazon, but I prefer B&H when possible.

Disclosure

While most popular blogs have mechanisms for generating revenue, few disclose it. I believe in transparency so I will disclose that B&H has given me an extended return period to review these cameras, but I will return them when I am done.

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6 comments:

~ The Stenbakken Family ~ said...

One thing that I discovered (and IMMENSELY DISLIKE) about the s100 is that on any exposure over 1" Canon has DISABLED ALL ISO's ABOVE 80. Yep. You simply cannot put it on a tripod and shoot at f/2 ISO 400 for 4". Nope. Can't even do ISO 100 for 8", or 2". I used to do really fun night shots with my s90 and s95 this way, even up to ISO 1600. But Canon went backwards on this one (on purpose, it seems). This really, really kills long exposure options. ISO 80 only, folks.

Anonymous said...

So let me get this straight.. You were using a tripod with Image Stability ON? If that's the case then you were shooting WRONG. Why would you use IS on with a tripod? You were supposed to shoot with IS off as most manuals would tell you this.

So therefore, your review is suspect...

Ron Martinsen said...

Anonymous,

When doing a long exposure (generally at least a 1/2 second before it becomes a real impact) any movement in the camera will cause vibration which will soften the image. The length of the exposure and the actual presence of vibration determine the full impact on the exposure.

This will never happen in video because the shutter speed will lock at a minimum of 1/ sec)

Where the IS can cause problems is if there's vibration (i.e., someone walking nearby, wind, etc... - all of which will impact the long exposure anyway) because it can trigger the IS to engage which will negatively impact the long exposure.

While I agree that I should have disengaged IS for the long exposure shots (accident on my part), it should have had minimal impact here as there was no other movement or outside influence which should have triggered IS.

Canon's IS for years has had "tripod aware" support to minimize its impact during long exposures.

The primary use of an s100 isn't for long exposures so that's actually where I emphasized my energy during my review.

Thank you for your comment.

Ron Martinsen said...

The above comment should say (1 / [frame rate] sec, but I used the greater than and less than symbols originally so it got stripped out.

Anonymous said...

Ron,

My S95 just died.

I am debating whether to get another S95, the S100 or the Fuji X10. I think on all accounts the X10 is favorable, except on one; the dimensions. You have used both, so I wanted to get your thoughts. Did you think the portability of the X10 was a limiting factor?

With phone cameras getting better would it make sense to accept a larger P&S and then use the phone when ultraportability was required?

Just curious what you think relative to portability.

Peter

Ron Martinsen said...

Peter,

If you contact Canon they have a special loyalty program for people like you where they will give you an excellent deal on a replacement camera (and usually it's the latest model, so in this case it would be an S100).

With that said, what I hate about the s90 and up is that they aren't very well built. All the review units I've tested had something go wrong with them while I was testing them. It's near impossible to beat the portabilty of the s100, but I put a higher weight on image quality and reliablty than portabilty. The X10 usually ends up in the diaper bag, my wife's purse, the center console of the car or in a jacket pocket. Worst case it ends up in a SNAPR case over the shoulder.

My advice is to get the X10 - I've drastically reduced my DSLR usage on casual outings due to my satisfiaction with the X10 in EXR mode. And despite being a huge proponet of RAW, I don't shoot in RAW on the X10 because it simply isn't needed. EXR gives HDR caliber results without the hassle.

My iPhone 4S serves as my portable pocket camera and it's very good. See my personal facebook site for examples.

Ron