Camera Test: Canon PowerShot S5 IS

In a market driven by superlatives, is a functional compact EVF that's not the "most something" worth a second look?



It seems like every other week here at, we're hearing of a new digicam that boasts some superlative: the slimmest ultra-compact, the longest zoom, the most megapixels, fastest burst rate and so on. Then there's the recently released Canon PowerShot S5 IS ($470, street), a compact, optically image stabilized Electronic Viewfinder model that sports a respectable 12x zoom with reach from 36-432mm and an 8.3-megapixel Canon 1/2.5 inch CCD sensor, which replaces the S3 IS in the Canon stable.

Oh, but it also has a Canon EX-series hotshoe, stereo recording for VGA video at 30fps (or 60fps at 320x240), a dedicated "instant on" video button, along with full-resolution still capture during video, Average, Center-weighted, Spot or Face Detection metering; full manual controls, and an undeniable cuteness factor.

This is a good-looking camera. It's got a chunky, satisfying shutter button bulging grip, an undersized prism-style topknot holding a compact but powerful pop-up strobe, and a lens-centered design in the style of its EOS siblings. Canon utilizes the extra real estate on the S5 IS to make a lot of functions button-based, unlike its ultracompact digital Elph cohorts.

Like the PowerShot G7, the S5 IS isn't really an Elph or EOS. But the G7 and S5 IS, despite a ton of similar features and functions, are two distinct variations on a theme. And like the G7, the S5 IS eschews RAW capture, an oversight in a camera that is built for the discerning photographer.

The S5 IS really feels good in the hand, and the bright, crisp 115,000 pixel .33 inch EVF with diopter adjustments feels very natural when shooting SLR-style. The fully articulated, 207,000 pixel LCD is also bright and crisp, and can be flipped and reversed for safe keeping during transit or if you're going to be shooting with the EVF for extended periods.

It's a composite body, which saves on weight, but it feels sturdy. Fit and finish, and button and toggle feel is first-rate. The only exception is the battery and card cover. Inside that chunky hand grip live 4 AA batteries and the SDHC (or SD) card slot, and it feels a little scary to have to put a lot of pressure on the cover to force it shut when changing the batteries.

So it's cute and well-built. How does it perform?

The Canon PowerShot S5 IS feels good in the hand, whether shooting with the EVF or using the LCD viewfinder. For long-reach photography, we strongly recommend using the EVF and a two-handed grip to ensure stability, even with Optical Image Stabilization activated. We were able to achieve acceptably sharp images at full telephoto just over three full stops below the reciprocal focal length when shooting in this style -- 1/50 second on a 435mm lens.

The EVF and LCD redraw quickly, and keep up with all but the speediest panning. Optical Image Stabilization keeps the scene crisp, if a little swimmy, when there's camera movement on either screen. The swiveling LCD helps frame challenging angles for those of us who aren't contortionists.

The PowerShot S5 IS isn't a sprinter when it comes to burst rate, capturing just about 1 frame a second without strobe. But on the plus side, it will keep shooting around 1 frame per second until you run out of card space! It will do the same with strobe, although it will only fire off a frame once the flash is recycled, so your flash burst rate is totally dependent on distance to subject, flash output, and amount of charge left in the batteries.

We've determined that the Canon PowerShot S5 IS is a great-looking, solidly built camera with a good feature set, but what really matters most for us is image quality, and in a couple of significant ways, the S5 IS is lacking where it counts.

We can make generalized statements like "High ISO performance is less of an issue on optically image stabilized cameras because you gain some stops to keep shooting at lower ISOs." But while that might be true, we expect more from a camera that will cost close to half a grand after shipping and taxes.

At ISO 80, image quality is Extremely High, bordering on Excellent, but it goes downhill pretty quickly, as resolution drops and noise increases as the ISOs climb.

Noise is Low (1.9) at ISO 80, Moderate at ISO 100 (2.4) and 200 (2.5), but High/Unacceptable at ISO 400 (3.2), 800 (4.1) and 1600 (6.3).

Resolution is Excellent at ISO 80 (1725), Extremely High at ISO 800 (1590), and High at ISO 1600 (1315).

Color Accuracy is Extremely High with an Average Delta E of 8.2 at ISO 80, with Auto White Balance. The 12x zoom shows visible barrel distortion at 36mm (.44%), but distortion is well contained at both 216mm (Imperceptible Pincushion: .00%) and 432mm (Imperceptible Pincushion: .03%)

In short, we're not pleased at all with the noise and resolution performance of this camera at ISO 400 and up. ISOs 100 and 200 are usable, but a camera of this class and at this price should produce better quality images at low ISOs. Our advice: never use the Canon PowerShot S5 IS above ISO 200 unless it is absolutely necessary. Use the lower ISOs, preferably ISO 80, and hope that the two to three stop gain in Image Stabilization will keep the image sharp, and keep the camera in its lower, higher-image-quality ISO range whenever possible.


This is a great-looking EVF that is solidly built, fun to use, and has unique stereo recording for video capture. Dedicated buttons for image quality adjustments are a great touch, as is the articulated LCD screen. Optical Image stabilization allows for sharp shots even when the lighting isn't perfect, and overall the ergonomics and design of this camera are top-shelf. Unfortunately, image quality at ISO 400 and up isn't up to snuff, and it is a shame that such a well-designed camera from a major player suffers where it matters most.


Noise: Low (1.9) at ISO 80, Moderate at ISO 100 (2.4) and 200 (2.5), High/Unacceptable at ISO 400 (3.2), 800 (4.1) and 1600 (6.3)

Resolution:Excellent at ISO 80 (1725), Extremely High at ISO 800 (1590), and High at ISO 1600 (1315).

Color Accuracy:Extremely High (Average Delta E:8.2. ISO 80 AWB.)

Distortion:Visible barrel distortion at 36mm (.44%), Imperceptible Pincushion at 216mm (.00%) and 432mm (.03%)

IN THE BOXPowerShot S5 IS Body
AA-size Alkaline Battery (x4)
SD Memory Card SDC-32M
Lens cap
Neck Strap NS-D4
Digital Camera Solution CD-ROM
USB Interface Cable IFC-400PCU
Stereo Video Cable STV-250N

Vital Statistics:Compact digital still camera with built-in flash, 12x Optical/4x Digital/48x Combined Zoom with Optical Image Stabilizer (IS) System
8.0 Megapixel, 1/2.5 inch type Charge Coupled Device (CCD)

Total Pixels:Approx. 8.3 Megapixels

Effective Pixels:Approx. 8.0 Megapixels

Lens Focal Length:6.0-72.0mm f/2.7-3.5 (35mm film equivalent: 36-432mm)

Digital Zoom: 4x


Normal: 1.6 ft./50cm-infinity (WIDE), 3.0 ft./90cm-infinity (TELE)

Macro: 3.9 in.-1.6 ft./10-50cm (W)
Super Macro: 0-3.9 in./0-10cm (W)

Autofocus System:TTL Autofocus

Viewfinder:0.33-inch low-temperature polycrystalline silicon TFT color LCD electronic viewfinder

LCD Monitor: 2.5-inch low-temperature polycrystalline silicon TFT color LCD screen, Vari-angle type with wide viewing angle

LCD Pixels:Approx. 207,000 pixels

LCD Coverage:100%

Maximum Aperture:f/2.7 (W) - f/3.5 (T)

Shutter Speed 15-1/3200 sec. (settable in Tv and M)

ISO Sensitivity:Auto, High ISO Auto, ISO 80/100/200/400/800/1600 (Standard Output Sensitivity. Recommended Exposure Index)

Light Metering Method: Evaluative*, Center-weighted average, Spot**
* Control to incorporate facial brightness in Face Detection AF
** Metering frame is fixed to the center

Exposure Control Method: Program AE, Shutter Speed-Priority AE, Aperture-Priority AE, Manual; AE Lock available

Exposure Compensation:+/-2 stops in 1/3-stop increments

White Balance Control: Auto, Preset (Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Fluorescent H, Flash), Custom

Built-in Flash: Auto, Auto w/ Red-eye Reduction, Flash On, Flash On w/Red-eye Reduction, Flash Off; FE lock, Safety FE available

Flash Range
Normal: 1.6-17 ft./50cm-5.2m (W), 3.0-13 ft./90cm-4.0m (T)
Macro: 1-1.6 ft./30-50cm (W) (when sensitivity is set to ISO Auto)

Flash Recycling Time:12 sec. or less (battery voltage=6.0V)

Flash Exposure Compensation: +/-2 stops in 1/3-stop increments

Shooting Modes: Auto; Creative: P, Av, Tv, M, C; Image: Portrait, Landscape, Sports, Special Scene (Foliage, Snow, Beach, Fireworks, Aquarium, Indoor, Night Scene, Color Accent, Color Swap), Night Snapshot, Super Macro, Stitch Assist, Movie

Self-Timer:Activates shutter after an approx. 2-sec./10-sec. delay, Custom

Wireless Control: Not available

Continuous Shooting: Approx. 1.5 fps; AF/LV: approx. 0.9 fps

Storage Media: SD Memory Card, SDHC Memory Card, MultiMediaCard

File Format
Design rule for camera file system, DPOF Version 1.1
JPEG Compression Mode

Still Image: Exif 2.2 (JPEG)

Movie: AVI (Image: Motion JPEG; Audio: WAVE (Stereo))

Number of Recording Pixels

Still Image: 640 x 480 (Small), 1,600 x 1,200 (Medium 3), 2,048 x 1,536 (Medium 2), 2,592 x 1,944 (Medium 1), 3,264 x 2,448 (Large), 3,264 x 1,832 (Widescreen)

Movie: 640 x 480 (30 fps/30 fps LP), 320 x 240 (60 fps/30 fps) available up to 4GB or 60 minutes

Power Source
1. AA-size Alkaline Battery (x4)
2. Rechargeable AA-size NiMH Battery (x4)
3. Compact Power Adapter CA-PS700

Shooting Capacity: Still Image: approx. 170 shots (AA-size Alkaline Battery); approx. 450 shots (AA-size NiMH Battery)*

Playback Time: Approx. 12 hours (AA-size Alkaline Battery); approx. 15 hours (AA-size NiMH Battery)*

* LCD screen on. The above figures comply with CIPA testing standards and apply when fully-charged batteries are used.
****Dimensions (W x H x D):** 4.60 x 3.15 x 3.06 in./117.0 x 80.0 x 77.7mm**
****Weight:** Approx. 15.9 oz./450g (camera body only)**



This image is very sharp though colors have a bluish atmospheric tint. The image was underexposed but corrected using auto levels in Photoshop. 1/160 f/3.5 @ ISO 100Photo By Zach Honig


This image shows shallow depth of field and good exposure. Shadows detail is good at a low ISO and image appears sharp with good color balance considering very hazy conditions. 1/60 f/3.5 @ ISO 100Photo By Zach Honig


This image was underexposed using the camera's meter without exposure bias and correcting exposure in Photoshop results in a visible increase in noise. The image was soft as well and mild sharpening was applied. 1/400 f/3.5 @ ISO 200Photo By Zach Honig


This twilight image shows visible barrel distortion at the camera's widest focal length -- those skyscrapers don't tilt like that! 1/100 f/3.5 @ ISO 80Photo By Zach Honig


The image is sharp despite the slow shutter speed and long focal length used. Contrast was increased in Photoshop. Noise is Moderate on the S5 IS at ISO 200. 1/80 f/3.5 @ ISO 200Photo By Zach Honig


This image shows good depth of field even at the camera's widest aperture -- details in the foreground and background as well appear tack sharp. 1/80 f/3.5 @ ISO 80Photo By Zach Honig


Colors and exposure are accurate for the subtle tones of the scene. Notice the slight edge vignetting at maximum aperture at mid-zoom. 1/250 f/3.5 @ ISO 80Photo By Zach Honig


This is a good exposure of a subtle scene in hot, hazy conditions at long reach. 1/250 f/3.5 @ ISO 80Photo By Zach Honig


Colors and exposure are accurate in this water action scene. There's a bit of noise at ISO 200 with the S5 IS, especially when viewed at 100%. Details are sharp even before slight sharpening was applied. 1/200 f/3.5 @ ISO 200Photo By Zach Honig


Exposure is accurate in this multi-layered image. The element towards the bottom right is sharp in the original file while sharpening was applied to enhance detail in the image's other elements. 1/160 f/3.5 @ ISO 200Photo By Zach Honig


This image shows good color and proper exposure with the camera metering off the sky. Shadow detail is good on Miss Liberty, but the darker boat elements are a bit blocked up. 1/250 F/3.5 @ ISO 80Photo By Zach Honig


The image was muddy before contrast was increased using Photoshop but now there's nice, if noisy shadow details on the statue and nice pink hues in the twilight sky. 1/400 f/3.5 @ ISO 200Photo By Zach Honig


Vignetting is visible in this image as well, though most prominent in the upper left hand corner. The meter-fooling sails resulted in a slightly underexposed capture that was corrected in Photoshop. 1/200 f/3.5 @ ISO 200Photo By Zach Honig


This image shows good exposure and colors are accurate in this low-key scene. 1/100 f/3.5 @ ISO 200Photo By Zach Honig