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Canon Powershot S3 IS Digital Camera Review
by Howard Creech -  7/9/2006

The Canon PowerShot S3 IS Digital Camera puts the fun back in photography

The new Canon Powershot S3 IS is the successor to Canon's best selling Powershot S1 IS and S2 IS digital cameras. The S2 IS was last year's most popular ultra-zoom digital camera because its 12X image-stabilized USM zoom, excellent movie mode, compact SLR style body, and full manual controls nicely met the needs and expectations of the savvy consumers who make up the rapidly expanding prosumer digital camera market niche.

canon powershot S3 IS
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Like its predecessors, the Canon Powershot S3 IS was designed to provide most of the flexibility and control of a digital SLR without sacrificing any of the convenience and ease of use of a point and shoot digital camera. The S3 IS may be the ultimate realization of that concept; an almost perfect general use imaging tool that provides much of the creative potential of the Canon Rebel XT or Nikon D50 in a unit that's smaller, lighter, easier to use, and cheaper.

How does the S3 IS differ from the S2 IS?

The most noteworthy difference between the S2 IS and its successor is the S3's new 6 megapixel (the S2 IS was a five megapixel digital camera) image sensor, which extends sensitivity while noticeably reducing image noise.

Canon replaced the S2's 1.8 inch Vari-Angle LCD screen with an only marginally larger 2.0 inch Vari-angle LCD screen.

canon powershot S3 IS
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The S3 IS (unlike its predecessors) provides a live histogram display and a Sports Mode.

There's also a new pseudo widescreen mode with standard 4x3 aspect ratio (2816x2121) images automatically cropped (2816x1584) to 16x9 aspect ratio so they can be properly displayed on a wide screen TV or computer monitor.

The S2 IS's silver polycarbonate body has been very slightly re-designed and the color changed to a more professional looking slate gray.

NUTS & BOLTS

Viewfinder/LCD Screen

The S3 features a relatively high eye-point EVF (electronic viewfinder) that's essentially a much smaller version of the 2.0 inch LCD screen. Canon provides diopter correction adjustment for eyeglasses wearers.

The S3's camcorder style (flip-out, rotating) Vari-Angle LCD screen tilts/swivels 180 degrees horizontally and 270 degrees vertically (the screen nests into the camera's rear deck when not in use and folds out, like opening a book, when deployed). The screen can be nested into its well (facing out) for traditional LCD viewing, or tilted/swiveled through a variety of shooting angles including facing the front of the camera (good for self-portraits and allowing portrait subjects to fine-tune their poses in real time) or above the camera and facing toward the rear at a 45 degree angle (good for low level macro shots), or below the camera pointing backward (for over-the-heads of the crowd shots), or facing upward at a 90 degree angle to the back of the camera (for waist level viewing). When not in use the LCD screen can be flipped around and popped back into the monitor well (face-in) to protect it from scratches, smudges, and fingerprints.

The LCD screen is bright enough to be used outdoors, in good light, but a better anti-glare coating would have noticeably increased the LCD's usability. The S3 IS provides a very useful record mode (live) histogram display that converts the image area into a graphic representation of the composition -- making it easy for users to spot (and adjust for) under or over exposure. Both EVF and LCD automatically gain up (boost brightness) in dim/low light. Shooters can use the Display button to toggle back and forth between the EVF and the LCD screen (only one VF can be active at any time). The camera defaults to the EVF when the LCD screen is in the closed position.

Zoom

Prosumers buy ultra-zoom digital cameras because they want or need the extra reach provided by a long lens. The S3's f2.7-f3.5/ 6mm-72 mm (36mm-432 mm -- 35mm equivalent) 12X highly corrected EOS style zoom features 11 elements in 9 groups (including 1 ultra low dispersion element to reduce chromatic aberration and 1 aspherical element to improve sharpness and enhance color fidelity). Throughout its extensive range (moderate wide angle to super telephoto) this lens yields images that range from very good to excellent. That's very impressive optical performance since ultra-zooms are inherently complex and as complexity increases optical faults are magnified exponentially.

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Barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from the center of the frame) at the wide-angle end of the zoom is about average for ultra-zoom digital cameras. Pincushion distortion (straight lines bow in toward the center of the frame) at the telephoto end of the zoom is a bit better than average. Chromatic aberration (a slight violet colored fringe visible around the edges of some objects in high contrast color transition areas) is about average at the wide-angle end of the zoom range, but visibly above average at the telephoto end of the zoom. Corners are noticeably soft at the maximum aperture, but sharpen up somewhat as the aperture gets smaller. Minimum focusing distance (in Super Macro mode) is 0 cm/0 inches, which ought to be close enough to cover just about any imaginable eventuality.

canon powershot s3 is sample image
(view medium image) (view large image) This macro shot of a Red Admiral butterfly on a Purple Coneflower aptly demonstrates just how good the S3's zoom is up close.

Image Stabilization

Ultra-zoom cameras allow serious shooters to get much closer to the action, but it's virtually impossible to handhold a long zoom steadily enough to get a really sharp picture. There isn't much point in being able to get close enough to capture dramatic images if those images are blurred. Image Stabilization allows users to shoot at shutter speeds up to 3 f-stops slower than would have been possible without IS. For example, if a shutter speed of 1/500th of a second is required to avoid the effects of camera shake (without image stabilization) the S3 IS can capture a reasonably sharp image of the same subject (everything else being equal) at 1/60th of a second.

Does Image Stabilization actually work? Yes, users can consistently shoot sharper images at shutter speeds up to two (and occasionally 3) f/stops slower than would be possible using a camera without IS. S3 shooters have a fast, accurate, and very quiet ultra-zoom digital camera that's capable of capturing reasonably sharp handheld shots at shutter speeds that are beyond the ability of other (non IS) long zoom digital cameras. Image stabilization can also provide a significant benefit when shooting indoors (or in dim/low light) where a shutter speed of (for example) 1/125th of a second might be required to avoid camera shake (and the resultant image blurring). The higher shutter speed will prevent camera shake, but it may also result in dark images with poor shadow/highlight detail. S3 users can enable IS and shoot at 1/30th of a second (2 f/stops slower) which provides extra light for better contrast and more detailed shadows) and still get sharp images. IS also allows users to shoot at weddings and concerts (where flash is inappropriate or prohibited). Image Stabilization isn't a solution to all blurring problems, but it does make a noticeable difference.

The S3's Image Stabilization system functions beautifully, but it won't neutralize sharp camera movements or reduce the blur caused by moving subjects. S3 purchasers should also keep in mind that IS slightly increases shutter lag and shortens battery life. The S3 provides four IS options - Continuous (Image Stabilization is engaged full-time), Exposure (IS is engaged just prior to exposure), Panning (stabilizes horizontally panned shots), and off.

canon powershot S3 IS sample image
(view medium image) (view large image) Bear, like many cats whose owners are photographers, is a reluctant portrait subject. When he saw me point the S3 IS at him, he turned his back on me, but I knew he would eventually look back over his shoulder to see what I was doing. I framed the composition, locked exposure and focus (by pushing the shutter button half way) and waited him out. By the time he finally looked around, the camera (at close to the maximum telephoto setting) was getting a little shaky, but I was able (thanks to the S3's Image Stabilization) to capture a sharply focused image of my camera shy kitty.

Auto Focus (AF)

The S3 IS features the same TTL Contrast Detection, single AF point, Flexizone AF system (which permits users to shift a single focusing point almost anywhere in the image frame) as its predecessors. The S3's AF system delivers consistently sharp images in good lighting, and better than average AF in dim/low lighting. When Spot metering is enabled, the metering spot is linked to the AF point, allowing the photographer to align focus and metering on the single most important element in the composition (like the eyes in a formal head and shoulders portrait). Low light focusing is pretty good, but the S3 IS is a prosumer digital camera aimed at advanced shutterbugs -- not a bar/party camera. AF is consistently quick and accurate (virtually real time with pre-focusing and very fast from scratch) and thanks to Canon's USM technology, remarkably quiet.

Manual Focus (MF)

Shift from AF to the S3's Manual Focus mode (via the MF button on the lens barrel) and the LCD screen (or EVF) provides a distance scale and automatically enlarges the central portion of the LCD screen. The MF mode works fairly well, but those for whom MF is a really important consideration the S3 (along with the vast majority of digital cameras) may not be the best choice. It is sometimes difficult to determine precise focus using the distance scale and stepped electronic focusing system, especially given the small size of the LCD screen.

Flash

The S3's built-in multi-mode flash provides a useful range of lighting options including: off, on (fires full time), auto (fires when the camera determines that ambient light isn't sufficient), red-eye reduction, Slow Sync (balances flash output and a slower shutter speed with ambient light for a more natural look), first curtain synch effect (flash fires at the beginning of the exposure), and second curtain synch effect (flash fires at the end of the exposure). Flash compensation can be adjusted +/-2 EV in 1/3 EV increments. Flash output power can be adjusted through a three step range. Maximum flash range is about 14 feet.

The S3 doesn't provide a hot shoe for external flash units, but Canon's HF-DC1 auxiliary slave flash will nicely expand/extend (coverage to 28mm and maximum flash range to about 30 feet) lighting options.

Memory Media & Image File Format(s)

The S3 IS saves images in JPEG format and stores image files to SD/MMC memory media.

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Connectivity

USB 2.0HS, A/V out, and DC in

Power

Four AA batteries power the S3 IS. Canon includes four alkaline AAs, but most shooters will be much better off with 4 (or 8) high-capacity rechargeable NiMH AAs and a fast charger. Canon claims 550 exposures (with 2500 mAh rechargeables) but this number is derived via lab test/best case scenario - IRL (real life) numbers are likely to be lower. That said, the S3 IS provides excellent power management. Based on my shooting style - most composition via the EVF, exposure IS, occasional flash use, and heavy shoot, review, delete, and re-shoot - the S3 IS (with four high capacity NiMh AAs) is good for somewhere between 350 and 500 exposures.

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EXPOSURE

The S3 IS provides all the exposure flexibility most photographers are likely to need, including: Auto, Program AE, Scene (Portrait, Landscape, Night Scene, Sports, Stitch Assist, and Special Scenes -- Foliage, Snow, Beach, Fireworks, Indoor, Night Snapshot, Color Accent, and Color Swap), Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, and full Manual modes.

In Auto (point & shoot) mode, the S3 makes all exposure decisions. In Program AE mode, the camera automatically selects the aperture and shutter speed, but users can select all other exposure parameters. In all Scene modes the S3 IS matches the scene in front of the camera to an on-board database of known scene types and then compares that information with the specific scene's subject distance, white balance, contrast range, lighting, and color (just before the image is recorded) to determine the best exposure. Canon's ISAPS (Intelligent Scene Analysis based on Photographic Space) system works hand in hand with the S3's DIGIC processor and AiAF auto focus system to capture consistently exceptional images with accurate color, balanced contrast, and tack sharp focus. In Aperture Priority mode, shooters select the lens aperture and the camera selects the appropriate shutter speed. In Shutter Priority mode users select the shutter speed (high shutter speeds to freeze rapidly unfolding action or slow shutter speeds to blur motion) and the camera automatically selects the best corresponding aperture. In Manual mode users select all exposure parameters.

Movie Mode

The S3 has the most impressive movie capability of any digital camera in its class (including a nifty camcorder style video start/stop button). No matter what the mode dial setting (or whether the camera is in playback or record mode) -- punch the S3's movie button and video recording begins -- punch it again and recording ends. In Movie mode the S3 can record up to 1GB video clips (about 8 minutes at maximum resolution) at 640x480 @ 30 fps and record the soundtrack in stereo (Microphone levels are adjustable). The S3 also provides a 60fps high-speed frame rate and several lower resolution video capture options.

The S3's Movie Snap option allows users TO capture a full resolution still image while shooting video (video recording is temporarily interrupted while the camera captures the still image, but the break can be smoothed over via the edit option). Filmmakers can also lock AF or exposure, enable manual focus, or select Photo Effects and My Colors during video capture. Movies look really good, as if they were shot with a camcorder and here's the clincher -- shooters can (because its whisper quiet USM motor isn't picked up on the audio track) use the S3's 12X zoom during video capture.

Metering

The S3 provides three light metering options: Evaluative (default), Center-Weighted Averaging, and Spot. Evaluative metering assesses numerous individual points across the image frame and then selects the optimum aperture/shutter speed combination to capture the image. Center-weighted metering biases exposure on the central portion of frame (great for landscape and travel images where the subject is likely to be centered). Spot metering reads only a tiny portion of the image frame allowing users to bias exposure on the single most important element in the composition (like the eyes or face in a portrait). The S3's metering is consistently accurate and the range of metering options (especially the ability to couple Flexi-zone AF and Spot metering) should be more than adequate for the S3's target audience.

White Balance (WB)

The S3 provides a very broad range of White Balance options, including TTL Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent (warm white), Fluorescent H (for daylight-balanced fluorescents), Flash, and two Custom (manual) WB modes. The Custom settings permit users to manually set white balance with a white card (wall or ceiling). The ability to save and use two Custom WB settings interchangeably makes it easier for users to move back and forth between settings with radically different lighting (for example indoors and outdoors). Auto white balance is quite accurate in outdoor lighting, slightly less so in indoor venues.

Sensitivity

The S3 provides an excellent range of sensitivity/ISO speed settings including - Auto, High ISO Auto, and settings for 80, 100, 200, 400, and 800 ISO. The new ISO 800 setting provides photographers with the flexibility to shoot indoors without flash, shoot at faster shutter speeds outdoors (for example to freeze action), and to capture images in very low/dim lighting.

In-Camera Image Adjustment

The S3 IS provides serious shooters with a very useful range of creative photo tweaks that can be applied in-camera. Savvy photographers understand that the ability to make subtle color/contrast/sharpness/exposure adjustments in-camera (as opposed to post-exposure) is a very useful creative tool. A nice range of in-camera image adjustment options also provides a simple yet effective way to overcome minor exposure problems. The S3's Exposure Compensation mode allows users to incrementally adjust exposure parameters. Very light (beach/snow) or very dark (deep shade, lots of greenery, dark colors) subjects often trick light metering systems into underexposing or overexposing images. The S3's base exposure can be modified over a 4 EV range (+/-2 EV) in 1/3 EV steps to compensate for difficult lighting and subject/background reflectance/non-reflectance problems or to compensate for environmental exposure variables (by allowing users to easily lighten or darken exposures).

Canon's My Colors mode permits users to adjust color saturation, select Positive Film (mimics slide film color, saturation, and contrast), Lighter Skin Tone, Darker Skin Tone, Vivid Blue, Vivid Green, Vivid Red, custom color (users can adjust color balance for red, green, blue, and skin tones +/-2 arbitrary steps in 1 step increments), and Photo effects (vivid or neutral color saturation, low sharpening, sepia, and B&W), and touch up images in-camera (post exposure).

The S3's Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB) mode allows users to capture three images (each at a slightly different exposure) with one push of the shutter button, vastly improving the shooter's chances of getting at least one "right on the money" exposure.

The S3's AF Bracketing (AFB) function allows users to capture three exposures in rapid succession (with a single push of the shutter button) marginally shifting the focus for each (one just slightly in front of the optimum focus point, one at the optimum manual focus distance, and one just slightly behind the optimum focus point), virtually guaranteeing at least one sharply focused image even in rapidly unfolding action/sports situations. This is an especially useful feature when focusing is critical.

CONTROLS, DESIGN, ENGINEERING, & ERGONOMICS

The S3 IS is a stylish, fairly compact, and reasonably lightweight prosumer digital camera that looks and behaves like a compact dSLR. The tough polycarbonate body (over a metal alloy frame) is robust enough to go just about anywhere except combat zones and extreme climates. The built-in grip fits the hand beautifully and balances the long zoom nicely. The user interface is intuitive and uncomplicated with logical and easily accessed controls, especially the dedicated MOVIE and FUNC buttons. Touching the FUNC button instantly calls up an on-screen menu overlay that takes photographers directly to the most commonly changed/modified camera operations/functions (exposure compensation, focus bracketing, metering, white balance, drive mode, ISO settings, My Colors, image size and quality settings, and flash compensation) without the necessity for navigating through multiple standard menus. Punch the camcorder style MOVIE button and video recording begins (whatever the mode dial setting and whether the camera is in playback or record mode) punch it again and video recording ends.

The S3's second-generation DIGIC II (Digital Imaging Integrated Circuit) processor, the same processor used in Canon's entry level and professional grade dSLRs, efficiently combines image processing, power management, and most auto functions (Exposure, White Balance, Sensitivity, and JPEG compression) in one chip. DIGIC II image files are optimized for bright colors, tack sharp resolution, balanced contrast, and lower noise. Operationally, DIGIC II provides quicker startup, faster AF, near real time shutter response, and improved shot to shot and write to card times.

PERFORMANCE

Image Quality

One of the S3's major strengths is its ability to produce excellent images at the camera's default settings. Images are consistently well exposed and punchy right out of the camera, although there is a very slight tendency toward over exposure and occasional blown out highlights. Auto White balance is dependable even in challenging lighting; colors are hue accurate, but (like many digital cameras) red and blue saturation is noticeably boosted and native contrast is a bit hard. Images shot at ISO 80 and 100 (ISO 80 and ISO 100 are virtually indistinguishable) had extremely low noise levels - with good shadow/highlight detail and accurate skin tones. Noise levels start to pick up at ISO 200, but not unreasonably so. ISO 400 shots show some obvious loss of detail, but they are noticeably better than average (and they do appear to be slightly less noisy than ISO 400 images from the S2 IS). The S3's ISO 800 images are way too noisy, but they'll be OK for e-mail pics and 3x5 prints. Chroma/Luminance noise (blotching) is very well controlled - much better than with Panasonic's FZ series. Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is noticeably better than it was with the S2 IS, although very demanding shooters will notice some violet/red fringing in high contrast color transition areas and at the extremes of the 12X zoom. The S3 IS provides the best overall image quality in its class.

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(view medium image) (view large image) This colorfully painted pair of old doors in Louisville's Butchertown neighborhood perfectly illustrates just how good the S3's images actually are. The slightly tricky mixed lighting is perfectly rendered, colors are bold, bright, and contrasty, and resolution is tack sharp. Note the incredible detail in the flaking paint.

Timing/Shutter Lag

The S3's AF lag is less than half a second from scratch and virtually real time with pre-focus (see below). The 12X zoom (once extended) only needs about one second to travel from wide angle to telephoto. Shutter Lag is about average for 6 megapixel digital cameras (from scratch), but shutter fire is essentially real time with pre-focus. Shot to shot times are between 1 and 2 seconds, noticeably better than average. Write to card times are also a bit faster than average. The S3 IS is a very quick digital camera, faster than some more expensive units, however image stabilization very slightly lengthens the time between when the shooter pushes the shutter button and when the shutter actually fires.

canon powershot s3 is sample image
(view medium image) (view large image) BMX Vertical Biker - Note the bike's rear wheel appears to be touching the metal rim on the opposite side of the bowl. I watched (and shot) this kid for almost thirty minutes to synch my timing (shutter fire) with the peak of his jump. I wanted to capture this image with the biker still standing erect and the rear wheel clearly above the edge of the opposite side of the bowl. Image stabilization helped to ensure sharp focus and freeze the action, but about 1/10th of a second later than I expected.

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(view medium image) (view large image) The S3 IS is fast enough to freeze most action, easily. I had no trouble at all stopping the plastic frog in mid air at this Greek Festival Frog Pond game booth.

Technical Specifications

Included

16MB SD card, 4 AA Alkaline batteries, neck strap, lens cap, USB/AV cables, software CD-ROM, printed (software & users) manuals

Optional

Canon rechargeable NiMH AA batteries and charger, DC adapter, auxiliary telephoto and wide-angle converters, High Power Flash HF-DC1, Canon soft case.

A Few Concerns

I don't have any serious concerns with the S3 IS, it is easily my favorite ultra-zoom digital camera (at this point in time). I hope Canon boosts resolution to 8 megapixels and adds a TIFF/RAW mode and a hot shoe to the S4 IS.

Conclusion

The best in class S3 IS provides serious photographers with a no-nonsense mix of creative capability, technical versatility, and intuitive usability. Sports, action, and nature photographers will benefit most from the extra reach of the S3's long zoom and the Image Stabilization system, but serious shooters looking for a digital imaging tool that handles like an SLR and provides all the convenience of a P&S digital camera are also going to love the S3 IS. Earlier this year I did an exhaustive real world test of the Panasonic FZ7 (the S3's primary competition) and it's my opinion (based on 30 years experience as a photographer) that the S3 is a better camera, across the board. Some reviewers have touted the S3 as a good choice for both beginners and advanced photographers, but that's simply not the case. The S3 IS is MUCH MORE camera than the vast majority of casual photographers, snap-shooters, and novice shutterbugs are ever going to need (or use). The differences between the S3 IS and the S2 IS are minor when compared to the similarities, so the substantially cheaper S2 IS may be a better choice for some budget-restricted purchasers.

Pros

Excellent image quality, 12X USM Image Stabilized zoom, full manual controls.

Cons

No RAW mode, no hot shoe for external flash units, small LCD screen