Product Reviews: Canon PowerShot S95

November 15, 2010

By Dan Havlik

Though it may look like a consumer-style camera, the Canon Powershot S95 boasts an f/2.0 lens, RAW and HD shooting, and a built-in HDR mode.

While the Nikon Coolpix P7000—reviewed here—is a compact camera with top-shelf features, it’s not really small enough to fit in your pocket and take anywhere. (Unless you have big pockets.) The super sleek Canon S95, on the other hand, is seriously pocket-worthy. Even better, it has features that may make some pros sit up and take notice.

A follow-up to the well-reviewed Canon S90 from a year ago, the S95 keeps the 10-megapixel resolution of that model—thank the stars—allowing it to shoot at high ISOs while keeping noise relatively low. (The S95 uses a 1/1.7-inch CCD sensor that’s the same size as the one in the P7000.)

The S95, like its predecessor, also boasts a lens with a maximum f/2.0 aperture, letting you shoot at faster shutter speeds in low light to reduce blur from camera shake. And, oh yeah, it can still shoot RAW.

So what’s new with the S95? For one, the camera adds a very welcome 720p HD video mode with stereo sound and a mini HDMI port for playing back your high-def flicks directly on an HDTV. (As with most cameras, an HDMI cable is not included in the kit.) There’s also Hybrid Image Stabilization, a technology that has only appeared on Canon’s pro lenses so far. Hybrid IS is designed to compensate for hand shake when you shift your camera from side to side or tilt it up and down. The S95 also adds an HDR (High Dynamic Range) scene mode which takes three shots and then combines them to even out the exposure. Zoom range has also been improved to 3.8x (28-105mm equivalent). There are a few other odds and ends that have been added to the S95 but it really hasn’t changed much from the previous model and that’s a good thing. If you’re looking for a true “pocket” camera for pros, there’s not much else out there right now aside from the S90, which will be discontinued once supplies run out, and the new S95. So what’s the trade-off in a camera that’s so small yet so feature rich? Well, there are a few things.

Instead of taking a digital SLR and a bunch of lenses to the Photokina Imaging show in Cologne, Germany this year, I decided to opt for the S95 to see if it could be used in a range of shooting situations: product shots in terrible lighting on the show floor; event photography at press conferences; and travel candids. While it performed admirably under most conditions and a lot better than any camera that fits into a pair of pressed khaki Dockers should realistically be expected to perform, it also showed its limitations.

In terms of design, the S95’s rectangular, all-black, compact but tough metal body looks almost exactly like its predecessor and that’s a good thing if you’re bouncing around on planes, trains, and automobiles. I could fit the S95 into the coat pocket of my sports jacket or my laptop bag without being weighed down.

I’m often doing ten things at once during trade shows and the S95 was a great multi-tasker, allowing me to take notes with my left hand and snap off a few quick shots or record an HD movie with my right. Because it’s so small and has no handgrip, it’s easy to drop this camera—I did once but it survived—so I highly advise you to use the wrist strap at all times.

While Canon has improved the button and dial layout on the S95 from its predecessor, it’s still easy to accidentally change settings. I was constantly hitting the command dial on the back by mistake which I had programmed to adjust exposure compensation so some of my photos were off. (You can set the command dial or the knurled ring around the lenses to adjust your most used functions.) The set-up was worse on the previous model, which positioned the command dial dead center on the back of the camera where it was prone to errant thumb presses.

Conversely, the top mode dial on the S95 is stiff and hard to turn if you’re in a rush to change settings. Unlike the S95’s big brother, the Canon G12, and the P7000, there is only limited external control so many of your adjustments are going to be made via the menus which slows you down. (This is one of major downside of a camera this small.)

As with the P7000, I found the operational speed of the S95 to be slow overall and unless I pre-focused, it tended to lag behind the action. The bright f/2.0 lens, the S95’s crown jewel, performed better than expected for a pocket camera and I was able to maintain fast shutter speeds even in awful show floor lighting. I was also pleasantly surprised at how well the S95 did at high ISOs in low light, with good results all the way to 3200.

Some of this must be credited, in part, to Canon’s tried-and-true image processors including the new Digic 4 chip in the S95. Image quality in decent light rivaled what I’ve achieved with some of the best advanced compact cameras on the market right now but it was a step below the Panasonic Lumix LX5 (reviewed in this issue, below).

I liked the S95’s HDR mode but you’re really going to have to use a tripod to get good results. I was also thrilled with the S95’s extra crisp 3-inch, 460,000-dot LCD screen which was great for reviewing images and showing off candids to fellow travelers and show-goers.

While I liked the upgrade to 720p HD, you can’t use the optical zoom while recording movies with the S95 which limits its functionality. Consequently, the Photokina press conference I tried to record from the tenth row was a complete wash.

Canon’s added some upgrades to the pocket-friendly S95 from its predecessor including a 720p HD mode, a wider zoom range, Hybrid Image Stabilization, and a couple other fancy features (HDR anyone?) but it’s what hasn’t changed that’s so great about this petite shooter. The classic-looking tuxedo-black S95 doesn’t foolishly pump up the pixels or change the bright aperture of the f/2.0 lens. It’s the same camera we all knew and loved from a year ago with a couple of the same limitations, mostly resulting from its small size. If you’re looking for true pocket power, however, the S95 is your camera.

Canon PowerShot S95

Pros: The best true pocket camera on the market; bright f/2.0 lens; 720p HD video mode with stereo sound; effective Hybrid Image Stabilization; great for low light shooting; classic discreet design.

Cons: Slow overall performance; easy to accidentally change settings via the command dial; no optical zoom in HD movie mode; limited external control.

Price: $399