Before they were discontinued in 2005, Canon's elegant little prosumer "S" series cameras were very popular with photo enthusiasts because they were designed especially for more advanced shooters and shared lots of features with Canon's top-of-the-line "G" series.
Last year Canon resurrected their venerable "S" series with the introduction of the PowerShot S90. Late last month Canon introduced the PowerShot S95, which is visually identical to the S90 and differs only slightly under the hood. According to Canon, the S95 is an updated "sibling" of the S90 and not its replacement, which seems to indicate that the S90 will (at least for the foreseeable future) remain in Canon's product catalog.
BUILD AND DESIGN
The PowerShot S95 is a thoughtfully designed, precision built and robustly constructed imaging tool that was obviously designed for serious shooters. The S95, unlike the auto-everything point-and-shoot digital cameras inundating the high tech marketplace these days, permits lots of individual input into the image making process via an enhanced feature set, plenty of creative flexibility and manual control of exposure.
The S95 re-utilizes the same 10 megapixel sensor as the S90, which indicates that the megapixel wars may finally be drawing to a close - at least in the advanced category. Most recent OEM updates would have kicked the resolution up to 12 megapixels. Canon seems committed instead to improving performance at higher ISO settings for better low light and indoor pictures.
The megapixel wars have finally gotten us to the point of diminishing returns - continually crowding more pixels onto tiny sensors reliably results in higher levels of image degrading noise. P&S digicams with 12 or 14 megapixel resolution don't produce better pictures than digicams with 10 megapixel resolution - they just generate larger (and usually noisier) image files.
In general, the S95's styling is similar to earlier "S" series digicams; its rectangular metal alloy body is stylish in an understated way and eminently durable. The S95's handling and operation quickly become intuitive. The predecessor of the S90 and S95 (the S80) featured an optical viewfinder and a rudimentary handgrip; the newest "S" series PowerShots eschew both.
Ergonomics and Controls
The Canon S95 looks and feels like a point-and-shoot digicam, but it performs much like Canon's top of the line "G" models. Even though the S95 is small (3.9x2.29x1.16-inches) and very light in the weight (6.8oz) department it feels solid and stable in your hands. The S95 features the same easy grip, non-reflective body surface coating as the EOS 7D DSLR and that provides some extra protection since there's no handgrip - users should deploy and religiously use the included wrist strap.
The S95'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 S95's compass switch (four-way controller) 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 S95 makes it easy to compare and assess a series of similar shots and winnow them down to the best image in the sequence.
The S95 also features a nifty manual control ring. The control ring surrounds the base of the zoom lens and enables shooters to select from 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 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm and 105mm. It can also be enabled to adjust ISO (in 1/3 stop increments), WB, shutter and aperture, or exposure compensation - I used the control ring to provide direct access to the exposure compensation function to quickly and easily lighten or darken images incrementally.
Menus and Modes
The PowerShot S95 features a three tab version of Canon's classic digicam menu. The S95's menu system, accessed via a dedicated button beneath the compass switch, is simple, logical and easy to navigate.
The S95 provides a complete selection of shooting modes including:
*Canon's High Dynamic Range function (unique to the S95) captures 3 images (bracketed at different EV) with one push of the shutter button and then merges those three separate pictures into one enhanced image.
The S80 (predecessor of the S90 and S95) featured an optical viewfinder, but the S95 doesn't. Users must rely instead on the LCD for all framing/composition, captured image review and menu navigation chores. Most modern shooters rarely use optical viewfinders anyway and in many shooting scenarios (macro and portraits, for example), it is usually quicker and easier to watch the decisive moment come together on the LCD screen than it is through an optical viewfinder.
The S95 may lack a viewfinder, but makes up for it by providing a noticeably better than average 3.0 inch wide-viewing angle PureColor II LCD with 461k-dot resolution. The S95's TFT LCD screen is bright, hue accurate, relatively fluid (not jerky), automatically boosts gain in dim/low light, and covers 100% of the image frame. The user-enabled grid display combined with an exposure histogram is a very useful option for serious shooters. The S95's LCD, like all LCD monitors is subject to fading and glare/reflections in bright outdoor lighting.
The S95 is a first rate general purpose digicam and it will dependably produce beautiful images not only for photo enthusiasts, but also for travelers, hikers, backpackers and casual shooters. The S95's strongest appeal may be to straight-shooters (documentarians, street photographers, and environmental portraitists) because it is almost perfectly designed for reactive photography. The elegant little S95 is seriously compact (not intimidating to subjects), very responsive, unobtrusive (flat black with an easy grip non-reflective body surface), and dependably generates first rate images.
I took the S95 to a zombie walk, a local farmer's market, and the first art show of the fall season. Here's a selection of street/documentary shots and environmental portraits that show just how capable the little S95 is in "street" mode.
Timing and speed are some of the most important considerations when assessing digital camera performance. The S95 isn't the quickest digicam in its class, but it is more than quick enough for its intended audience as a general purpose digital camera.
Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)
|Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX7||0.01|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX75||0.01|
|Canon PowerShot S95||0.02|
|Nikon Coolpix S8000||0.05|
AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
|Nikon Coolpix S8000||0.26|
|Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX7||0.27|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX75||0.28|
|Canon PowerShot S95||0.36|
|Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX7||10||11.2 fps
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX75||3||2.6 fps
|Nikon Coolpix S8000||10||1.2 fps
|Canon PowerShot S95||∞||0.9 fps
*Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.
The S95 features the same TTL Contrast Detection 9-point AF system as its predecessor. It has three AF modes: Face AF, Tracking AF, and Center AF. 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. The S95's default face detection AF mode is linked to the camera's exposure and WB systems. The S95 automatically finds, locks focus on, tracks and then optimizes exposure for up to nine faces or shooters can lock on a single face and track it through a crowd. The S95's Center AF option is good for traditional landscapes and even better for street shooting, because serious shooters don't want the camera deciding which face in the crowd to focus on. AF is dependably quick.
The S95's super tiny multi mode pop-up flash provides an acceptable selection of artificial lighting options, including auto, flash on (fill flash), flash off, and slow synchro plus menu flash options including flash exposure compensation (+/- 2EV in 1/3 EV increments), first and second curtain synch, red-eye correction, red-eye lamp, and Safety FE. According to Canon, the maximum flash range is about 16 feet, which seems insanely optimistic given the miniscule size of the flash. Based on my very limited flash use, the S95's flash recycle time is between 3 and 4 seconds.
The S95's optical image stabilization system reduces blur by quickly and precisely shifting a lens element in the zoom lens to compensate for minor camera movement. Image stabilization allows users to shoot at shutter speeds up to three f-stops slower than would have been possible without it. Image stabilization can also be useful when shooting dimly lit indoor venues where flash is inappropriate. The S95 is the first Canon digicam to feature Hybrid Image Stabilization which corrects for both angle and shift shake for sharper images at slower shutter speeds and in dim light.
According to Canon, the S95 is good for about 200 exposures (without flash) or 300 minutes of video on a freshly charged Lithium-ion power pack. That's noticeably fewer exposures than average for cameras of this type.
The Canon PowerShot S95 supports SD, SDHC, MMC, MMC+, HC MMC+ and the SDXC format (for memory cards larger than 32GB), but provides no internal memory for back-up.
Like its predecessor, the svelte S95 is built around a fast f/2.0-4.9, 6.0-22.5mm (28-105mm equivalent) 3.8x zoom lens. Most point-and-shoots offer zooms with maximum apertures of f/2.8 or slower, and the S95's f/2.0 maximum aperture lets in twice as much light. This allows for faster shutter speeds (in dim light) and shallower depth of field for less distracting backgrounds.
When the S95 is powered up, the zoom extends from the camera body automatically, and when the camera is powered down, the lens retracts into the camera body and a built-in iris-style lens cover closes to protect the front element. Zooming is smooth and relatively quiet. Minimum focusing distance (in macro mode) is just shy of two inches (5 centimeters). The S95 needs about 3 seconds to move the zoom lens from the wide angle end of the range to the telephoto end of the range.
The S95's zoom is surprisingly good even though it displays some very minor corner softness, but there's no vignetting (dark corners). Barrel distortion (straight lines bow in toward the center of the frame) at the wide-angle end of the zoom range is noticeably above average. The S95's lens rendered this colorful mural beautifully, but the lamp post didn't fare quite as well - there is an obvious inward tilt.
Pincushion distortion (straight lines bow outward from the center of the frame) is virtually invisible at the telephoto end of the zoom. Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is remarkably well controlled - essentially absent at both ends of the zoom range.
One of the biggest complaints consumers leveled at the S90 was its lack of an HD movie mode. Canon listened to those complaints. The S95's 1280x720 at 30fps HD movie mode produces sharply focused, properly exposed, color correct videos clips. I shot the video that accompanies this review at dusk. The light was pretty poor, but the video capture is fluid even though it can't always keep up completely - see the male drummer's flourish at the end of the clip. Like most digicams, the S95 can't be zoomed while in video capture mode.
The S95's image files are clearly optimized for bold bright hues and hard-edged but slightly flat contrast. Viewed on my monitor S95 images look a lot like the slides I shot during an earlier photographic era - 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, though purples are bluish. The S95's images are highly-detailed and surprisingly sharp, although I did have some problems (the AF system couldn't lock focus) 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 very impressive interpolation and exposure engineering. Comparatively, the S95's image quality is noticeably better than average.
The S95 provides users with a very good selection of White Balance options, including auto, daylight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent, fluorescent H, flash, underwater, and custom. The S95's auto WB system does a very good job in most lighting, but like all of Canon's consumer cameras, the auto WB setting produces colors that are noticeably warmer than real world colors under incandescent light and slightly cooler than real world colors under fluorescent lighting.
The S95 provides a very impressive range of sensitivity options, including auto and user-set options for ISO 80 to 3200. ISO 80 and ISO 100 images are virtually indistinguishable. Both show bright colors, slightly hard edged native contrast and very low noise levels. ISO 200 images were also very good, but with a tiny bit less pop. At the ISO 400 setting, noise levels are noticeably higher and there's a (barely) perceptible loss of minor detail.
ISO 80, 100% crop
ISO 100, 100% crop
ISO 200, 100% crop
ISO 400, 100% crop
ISO 800, 100% crop
ISO 1600, 100% crop
ISO 3200, 100% crop
ISO 800 images are noisy, but not as noisy as expected - due in large part to Canon's Dual Anti-Noise System (also found on the PowerShot G11). ISO 1600 and ISO 3200 show flat colors, reduced contrast and lots of noise, but once again less noise than expected.
Additional Sample Images
The Canon PowerShot S95 is an almost ideal general purpose digital camera and an excellent "street" camera for straight shooters. I carried the S95 with me (just about everywhere I went) for two and a half weeks and I was consistently impressed - just like I have been with every "S" series Canon camera I've ever used.
The bottom line is that you really can't do much better than the S95 unless you buy a G11 or a G12 - this snazzy little digicam was clearly designed by photographers for photographers. If I was buying a digital camera today - I would buy an S95.