Canon PowerShot S100 GPS compact camera
The pocket professional
Review As the latest incarnation of Canon’s highly-regarded PowerShot S range of enthusiast-grade compact cameras, the new PowerShot S100 has a lot to live up to.
More than point and shoot: Canon's PowerShot S100
Where the S95 was a relatively minor upgrade to the very popular S90 reviewed previously, the S100 is a more significant upgrade, bringing with it a (mostly) improved lens specification, faster processing, GPS functionality and an all-new 12Mp CMOS sensor, replacing the 10Mp CCD of the previous versions. More on these features later.
First, a quick recap for those of you who aren’t familiar with the PowerShot S concept. With the release of the PowerShot S90 in 2009, Canon re-introduced its highly-regarded S series of PowerShot-branded compact cameras aimed squarely at keen enthusiasts and even professionals who want to shoot when a full-sized SLR simply isn’t practical.
Definitely a compact...
Unlike many of the vast number of non-SLR enthusiast cameras recently released to market, the PowerShot doesn’t appeal to your sense of nostalgia with retro styling that harks back to the iconic Leica rangefinders, nor does it attempt to shoehorn an interchangeable lens mount onto an inappropriately small body. No, the PowerShot S100 is a proper traditional compact, with a proper retractable lens which actually fits properly into a trouser pocket – and a skinny front trouser pocket at that.
As such, it belongs to a different class of camera – one you really can take anywhere and yet with this camera Canon is attempting to woo those with the most exacting standards of image quality, flexibility and usability – and the willingness to pay for it. This is a compact camera which will cost you more than a Canon EOS 1100D SLR kit.
The bright f2 lens certainly has enthusiast appeal
However, it’s most certainly not for the point-and-shoot brigade. It may have the same physical dimensions as a standard ultra-compact, but it’s blessed with a feature set and control layout aimed squarely at the enthusiast photographer who doesn’t see why shrinking down from an SLR should also see a reduction in functionality.
As such the S100 comes with expert features such as AE lock, Manual focus, focus bracketing, RAW format support and fine control over advanced parameters such as noise reduction. Many such features are also available on more consumer-focused cameras too, but tend to be hidden away deep in the darkest recesses of the menu system.
Retractable 5x zoom lens delivers a 35mm equivalent of a 24mm,f2 wide-angle
The key difference with the PowerShot S100 is that these functions are presented much as they would be on an SLR and if you’re familiar with an of Canon’s own EOS models you’ll recognise the sparse, textual menu system which eschews the spinning animated graphics and attention-grabbing flourishes of standard consumer models.
You get quick, customisable access to all functions, meaning you can make adjustments quickly and easily without having to resort to the menus or take your eye off the subject.
The ring at the front offers easy control of a variety of manual functions
A clicky thumbwheel mode dial sits at the top right above a new rubberised thumb grip. There's also the usual four-way cursor controller-cum-input dial sitting at the rear. Individual buttons are provided to enter playback mode or the menu system and a new dedicated movie record button is also included.
A fourth button is used to select the function of the camera’s lens-mounted control ring which is one of the PowerShot S100’s most important features: By grabbing and twisting the ring you can adjust any of a selection nine functions. These include obvious candidates such as zoom or manual focus and also control over the aperture setting – something you can’t adjust in this way even on the top of the range Canon SLRs.
Familiar functions, but now the S100 features improved grip adornments
None of these control options would matter one jot without some serious specifications to back them up, and here the PowerShot S100 does not disappoint.
Top-notch optics are a given, and Canon has extended the zoom range of the PowerShot S95 at both the wide and telephoto ends to give us a range of 5.2mm to 26mm which translates to 24mm to 120mm in 35mm terms. This works out at a 5x zoom range – a significant increase on the 3.8x zoom of its predecessor but still relatively narrow in today’s market.
5.2-26mm lens (35mm equivalent: 24-150mm)
However, this camera is designed to deliver the ultimate in compact quality – something which always suffers in any super-zoom configuration. At the wide-angle end, the lens opens up to a wide f2 aperture, allowing for some great low-light opportunities. This is assisted further by a maximum ISO speed of 6400 – up from 3200 in previous models. Unfortunately, things aren’t quite so impressive at the telephoto end of the zoom where the widest aperture has been reduced from f4.9 to f5.9.
A good low light performer with its own flash and compatible with the HF-DC2 wireless external flashgun
Armed with an all-new CMOS sensor the S100 promises better low-light performance and a reduction in image noise. Indeed, I was generally pleased with the night-time test shots: Pull out a normal compact camera at night without flash and you’re asking for trouble, but the S100 delivers impressive performance.
Yes, at ISO 6400 images are rather ‘dreamy’, but they’re still usable pictures, proving that the new increased ISO range is a worthy addition to the specification, rather than a mere gimmick. A ‘Handheld NightScene’ mode aims to help by combining multiple shots into a single image, but the camera’s low-light performance was generally good enough to allow better results by simply keeping the camera as steady as possible and configuring the settings manually.
Appearances can be deceptive
Conversely, the lens’s smallest aperture size of only f8.0 can sometimes be a limiting factor if you want to capture a sense of motion with a long exposure. Here the S100’s new neutral density filter can be enabled, darkening the exposure by three stops. This also gives you the ability to use wider apertures in bright sunlight.
Impressive as it is, the PowerShot S100 is not a replacement for a DSLR, despite its excellent handling. Although it’s one of the best I’ve seen, a sensor this small is never going to match the quality of APS-C sized version. Despite the new DIGIC 5 image processor, the S100 does at times feel a little slow.
You’re bound to encounter, and probably curse at, the ‘Busy’ screen at some point while shooting especially when shooting RAW. In JPEG mode, you can snap continuously at up to 2.3 shots per second. This can be boosted to a more impressive 9.6 shots per second (up to 8 shots) if you take advantage of the dedicated Burst HQ mode.
For when your DSLR is just too big
The S100’s tiny 32Wh battery lasts for only around 200 shots which I feel is a serious limitation for the photo enthusiast. If you take an S100 out with you in the morning, you can expect to run out of charge well before your day is over. And if you're wondering if the GPS is the cause, I turned it off for most of my testing. Incidentally, Canon includes a map application to display GPS logging positions.
GPS gimmickry aside, the S100 does, however, make an excellent second camera for the DSLR owner. It offers the freedom to leave their serious clobber at home, but use a compact that allows them to think in exactly the same way they do with their main camera.
Furthermore, DSLRs will always draw attention; marking you out as the photographer in the room. On the other hand, many of the newest interchangeable-lens compacts are often simply too sexy to be ignored. But, pull out a PowerShot S100 and nobody will bat an eyelid. You’ll be able to shoot entirely incognito.
Although it’s certainly not aimed at the beginner, you don’t have to be an expert to take advantage of the S100’s excellent image quality. The ubiquitous ‘Auto’ mode is always available for decision-free snapping, as is a selection of scene modes designed to help you make the best of common shooting situations such as portraits, landscapes and fireworks.
You can also select from a range of special digital filters, adding features such as retro-style aging effects, various monochrome modes and high dynamic range composites although most of these features aren’t as advanced as what you might find on a ‘fun’ point-and-shoot camera.
Movie recording is available at 1080p resolution with a ‘filmy’ 24fps frame rate. Silent slow motion modes are also available at reduced resolution and frame rates of up to 240 fps. You can also apply most of the creative filters in movie mode for some fun effects.
The PowerShot S100 is an excellent camera delivering image quality which exceeded my expectations. This, combined with superb handing, control and features justifies the S100 as a serious shooter, despite its size. It’s certainly expensive, but in the right hands it’s money well spent. ®
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