Canon PowerShot S95 impressions

posted by Jeff | Monday, September 13, 2010, 12:05 AM | comments: 0

The week before last, I bought a Canon PowerShot S95. This was not something I needed at all, but I wanted it for a couple of reasons.

As you might guess, it's not entirely practical to be carrying around one of the big SLR's and the lenses, especially on vacation, so I've always had a little digital to compliment the big cameras. About three and a half years ago, I bought the Canon A710 to replace an even older Canon S400 that was starting to fail after having to replace the screen I broke, and several drops (and parts left over when I replaced the screen). The A710 was bigger, but the motivation for that specific model was the manual controls. Manual makes it easier to shoot stuff at night, and I tend to do it at virtually every amusement park, and at concerts. It's bigger because it uses standard AA batteries, and has a pretty long zoom.

The camera has been awesome for me, and particularly with the dents, I'm really impressed with how well it has held up. I've always been a little unhappy with the size though. Since it often lives in the lower pocket of cargo shorts, it's bulky and heavy to be hanging out that low (although more props to it considering how many objects it has been banged up against). The other negative is that it only records images as JPEG's. Raw files are the saving grace of over/under exposure and poor white balance on the part of the camera. Sure, they're five times the size, but it's totally worth it.

The Canon Sxx-series of cameras has been that middle ground between the high-end G-series and the A-series for a long time. They've also had remarkable cameras in the Sxxx and SD series, but those were strictly point-and-shoot affairs. The G's just seem like too much given that I have "serious" SLR's, and they're slightly larger, so the S-series seemed like the place to look. The S95 satisfied both of my "upgrade" needs: It was smaller and it recorded raw image files.

It does neat things in full auto mode like tracking faces for focus and exposure, but I use it in P mode. The controls just keep getting more and more refined on Canons, yet they use similar conventions and menus on every generation of camera. They aren't that different from the menus on the S400 I bought seven years ago. The trickiest part is that the screens keep getting bigger while the cameras get smaller, so the room for controls keeps shrinking. This model has a dial on the back, and a big ring around the lens that you can assign to a number of functions (I'm using it for ISO setting). It's just on the edge above being too small for average male hands, and I bet someone with bigger hands than me wouldn't like it. The flash rises out of the body in a mechanical fashion, and feels surprisingly sturdy. The body is the same finish as the SLR's, which feels great in the hand.

The S95 has a 10 megapixel sensor, which is overkill for most things, but very welcome when you want to crop. It uses an optical image stabilizer, with a 3.8x zoom (the only real "loss" compared to the A710). The screen is positively giant on the back, bigger than 3" I think. It also shoots 720p/24 video, compressing (with audio) at around 18 mbit/sec., a little too crunchy for my tastes.

So let me get that comment out of the way... the video is definitely a nice to have, but as best I can tell offers no manual control (I haven't actually opened the plastic bag with the manual in it). At 720p, I rather it shot at 30 fps. Since the lens can only stop down so far outside, and there's no neutral density filter, it jacks up the shutter into action movie rates, which looks completely unnatural. Indoors, it's not as bad, but even a little noise looks bad at the low bit rate. We'll probably stick to using our 7D and Panasonic video cameras for video most of the time. Recording video also sucks the life out of the battery in an enormous way.

Image quality is just outstanding. So far I've shot indoors at a gathering of our new parent friends and their babies, and outdoors on an overcast day at the zoo (photos of the latter here). The flash works remarkably well in interior spaces, and despite being so close to the lens, doesn't seem to generate a lot of red eye. The only odd thing I've noticed is that it tends to over-expose by about a third or half-stop almost all of the time, so I've rolled the exposure adjustment back to compensate. I'd like to back off all sharpening as well, but not sure if I can (I know, RTFM), even though I can always adjust the raw files. White balance indoors is probably the best I've seen on any small camera I've had, and maybe even better than the SLR's in some cases.

So while the video performance is slightly disappointing, the still image performance is top notch. A longer zoom would've been nice (shooting animals at the zoo with a short lens isn't productive), but for the kinds of social situations and big landscape opportunities I typically use it for, it's awesome. I love being able to adjust the ISO with the big ring on the front too, as that seems to be the setting I change most often in changing lighting conditions. What a great design.

One small complaint: Apple is too damn slow supporting new raw file formats. This one is particularly annoying, because the S95 uses the same format as the S90, just with the different name in the metadata. So once again, early adoption means having to wait to use Aperture, and that sucks.

Still wondering if I'll bring just the little camera or the 7D to Holiday World. I think getting some nice HD out of the 7D would be nice, and I can get some Timberliner porn with Mike if I ask nicely.


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