Camera Test: Canon PowerShot S100 Compact

Canon's advanced compact gets a make over in more ways than one

Canon S100 Main
Canon S100 Main
Canon S100Stan Horaczek

Canon's PowerShot S90 had a lot going for it when it was announced a few years ago. It was small, powerful, and provided a nice bridge between the flagship G-series and the rest of the PowerShot line. The S95 came a year later, bringing with it only minor updates, including HD video and a new body coating, which made it easier to hold. But now the S100 is upon us. It looks different than those that came before it, and the guts have gotten a serious overhaul. The result is an excellent little camera that is meant to live alongside the S95 in Canon's high-end compact lineup, rather than replace it.

What's new?

Like other S cameras that came before it, the S100 uses Canon's HS system, but the image processor has been bumped to Digic 5 and the High-Sensitivity CMOS sensor has been elevated to 12.1-megapixels. Maximum ISO jumps to 6400 (up from 3200 in the S95) and the lens now offers 5x optical zoom starting at a wider 24mm equivalent. The styling has been been tweaked, which I'll address later on, and there is a new GPS module inside.

On the video front, the biggest addition is that of a dedicated video button. Personally, I think that's an excellent feature for any compact, since having to swap modes to shoot video is clunky and counterintuitive. The S100 does 1080p video at 24 FPS. It also provides 120- and 240-fps slow-motion capture, but you're limited to 640 x 480 and 320 x 240 resolutions, respectively. Like its PowerShot brethren, it also has the Movie Digest mode, which combines short clips into one longer movie, which was adapted from a Camcorder feature Canon debuted several years ago. It's nifty if you hate editing video.

What stuck around?

One of the defining features of this camera is the rotating control ring surrounding the lens. It feels almost identical to the one found on the S90/S95, but it seems to have gotten a little louder. The 3-inch LCD is still bright and very usable even under harsh sunlight.

Design

The lack of a grip was one of the biggest gripes users had about the S95 -- some people went so far as to make their own to stick onto the body -- and Canon has tried to remedy that with the S100. The new grip does make it much easier to hold with one hand, but the Silver version I tested lacked the tacky coating found on the S95. Instead, it felt similar to the relatively slippery exterior of the S90. The thumb grip on the back is also bigger and better, though, so it still moves in the right direction ergonomically.

Another major complaint about the S90/S95 was that the scroll wheel on the back of the camera made it far too easy to accidentally change your exposure compensation settings. Out of the box, the S100's dial doesn't affect exposure compensation -- or anything for that matter -- if you're in a normal shooting mode, which is as it should be. As a result, I found myself using the control ring for exposure compensation. It's a simple and logical set-up, since ISO is easily accessed using the function button and zoom is handled by the rocker switch around the shutter. The Ring Function button is also customizable, so if you're willing to commit to a single function for the ring, you can create another shortcut on the back of the camera. Pretty handy.

The Lens

The S100's lens has gotten a bit of a revamp, ramping up the maximum zoom to 5x and shaving off 4mm at its widest setting, dropping all the way to 24mm. Both are welcome additions, but they don't come without cost. For example, there's a very noticeable amount of distortion at the edges of the frame when you're at 24mm. It's to be expected, but can be distracting, especially in large group shots.

Another big selling point is the maximum aperture of F/2, but that number quickly jumps when you start zooming. You can get to F/2 at 24mm, but by 28mm (which is where the S90/S95 started) you're already pushed to F/2.2. Jump to 35mm and you'll find yourself at F/3.5, 50mm hops to F/4. By the time you get to 120mm, you're restricted to F/5.9, which isn't uncommon for a compact, but is still a serious test of your hand steadiness.

Performance

When it comes to operating speeds, the S100 acts like you'd expect a compact of this level to act. It's certainly not as snappy as an ILC but its relatively high burst rate of 2.4 FPS helps to prevent missed shots. Shutter lag is also very slight, which is a definite plus on a camera meant for candid captures. Start-up time is average for a camera of this calibre. Same goes for focusing, but the overall experience is still very solid. The menus, while not new, are very easy to navigate, condensing all the tweaks into three different tabs.

Battery

Perhaps the most serious drawback of the S100 is its battery performance. The battery is only slightly larger than that of the S90/S95, but it has to provide juice to some much more powerful imaging components. There's also the matter of GPS. The battery is only rated to 200 shots per charge, and I found that to be about accurate depending on shooting conditions. If you're bad at remembering to charge your battery -- like I am -- it would probably pay off to get an extra. The same goes for using the GPS functionality. And remember, that 200 shot rating only takes shooting into account. If you plan on using that big 3-inch LCD screen a lot, you can expect to find yourself looking for an outlet soon after starting with a full charge.

GPS

The built-in GPS on the S100 is built pretty much solely for geotagging of photos and it does a good job of it. With the GPS function turned on, the S100 keeps track of your position even when the camera is powered off--a serious battery drain. With GPS enabled, you can expect less than a full 24 hours of use, even with periods of the camera being turned off. Really, I would only turn it on if I was on a trip and going out sight-seeing or something like that. It's nice to have as an option, but it likely won't get a ton of use.

Pop-up Flash

The flash hasn't changed much from S95 to S100, offering a similar amount of control and performance when set to auto. The pop-up mechanism is very elegant, though, and it's still fairly powerful for a compact. As you can see in this example, I was able to blast it into full-sun backlight and still get a decent exposure on the subject. Being close helps.

Subjective image quality

We all want RAW pretty much all the time and the S100 offers it. I shot mostly RAW + JPEG in my time with the camera, processing the RAW files using the Lightroom 3.6 Release Candidate software. When using auto ISO, you're capped at 1600 even with the camera's 6400 max, and that seems like the right call. I was even able to get a few shots at ISO 3200 that look just fine displayed on a screen. The bump up to 6400 does take noise levels a bit too far, but the images still look OK in an online gallery. And, for what it's worth, those results downright smash what you'd get out of a cell phone camera in those conditions.

If you're shooting RAW, you will notice a fair bit of fringing from the lens that the JPEG conversion process would otherwise help to eradicate. It's not photo-ruining and you can fix it in post, but it is noticeable. But, that's to be expected.

Likes most compacts, the S100 comes with a heap of shooting modes, but since it offers a fairly full suite of manual controls, most of them are unnecessary. I did try the built-in HDR mode, though. The resulting images actually look natural, and you don't end up with a tone mapped mess like with some other in-camera HDR modes. It is fairly slow, though, so a tripod is a must. Even bracing the camera on a fence, I still got a somewhat blurry final image.

Video quality has gotten a noticeable bump up to 1080p at 24 fps and the resulting footage looks great. The optical image stabilization does a very good job combatting jiggle and the audio, well, it's actually pretty good considering the size of the camera. Manual control of video exposure is a nice addition, as is optical zoom during capture.

IN THE LAB

In the Popular Photography Test Lab Canon's S100 outperformed its predecessor and scored a Very High rating in overall image quality from ISO 80-200. The main contributor to that rating was its score of Very High in our resolution test with 2100 lines per picture height at ISO 80, which dropped to 2000 lines at ISO 200. It maintained solid resolving power at ISO 800 with 1870 lines, but by ISO 3200 it softened to 1525 At its top sensitivity of ISO 6400 that eroded further to only 1300 lines.

While the S95 only managed an Extremely High rating in color accuracy, the S100 just barely achieved an Excellent rating in this area with an average Delta E of 8.0-- our cutoff for top honors in this test.

Despite its increase in megapixels over the S95, the S100 turned in better noise scores across the board. Though this seems odd, it looks like Canon was just more aggressive in its noise reduction, which probably explains why we didn't see more of a jump in resolution. The S100 kept noise to a Low or better rating from ISO 80 through ISO 800. That's quite impressive for a compact camera and keeps the S100 competitive with many ILCs in terms of image quality.

The results above were from RAW files converted to TIFFs using the Digital Photo Professional software that Canon includes with the camera. When we tested JPEG files we saw very similar results for resolution and color accuracy, but slightly more noise across the board. Still though, the S100's JPEGs kept noise to a Low or better rating up to ISO 800. It just did so with higher numbers at any given ISO. At ISO 3200, RAW files just barely kept noise to Acceptable levels, while JPEGs at that setting showed Unacceptable noise. --Phil Ryan

CONCLUSION

I liked the S95 a lot and the S100 is a more-than-worthy follow-up. The image quality is there, the design is still fairly slick, and it's actually small enough to carry around all the time.

It's not without its drawbacks. The short battery life is the worst offender, but if you're ready for it, it shouldn't be hard to nip that problem in the bud with an extra battery or just giving it some consideration when you're out shooting.

On the whole, the S100 is still one of the more enjoyable compact shooting experiences around at its price point, if only because it's willing to get out of your way when it comes to settings. The "creative" and "scene" modes are there should you want them, but if you put it on one of the manual modes and leave it there, you'll never see them. Plus, the control ring is still unique (though, the Olympus ZX-1 has something similar). So, if an interchangeabl-lens compact seems like overkill on your wallet and your pocket, the S100 should definitely be on your list to consider.

GOOD STUFF

  • The S-series reputation for excellent image quality is upheld
  • Maximum ISO of 6400 means you can get usable shots at 1600 or even 3200 if you're displaying them on the web
  • Compact body is understated and attractive
  • Excellent video capture with expanded functionality
  • 5x zoom is a big jump from its 3.8x predecessor
  • Fast F/2 lens helps in low-light situations

BAD STUFF

  • Short battery life will cut you off, sometimes before you get to 200 shots
  • Lens shows considerable distortion at 24mm
  • Maximum aperture drops quickly as you zoom
  • Added grip makes it easier to hold, but isn't very elegant to look at
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_These shots were all captured in RAW format and exported to full-resolution JPEGs using Adobe Lightroom 3.6 release candidate (at the time of wriring, 3.6 had not yet been made totally official). No edits have been made to the images, except where noted. _ **Tech specs: **F/4 at 1/10 second. 62mm equivalent. ISO 800 At first, I set the cap for auto ISO at 800, but when shooting RAW, i felt comfortable bumping it up to ISO 1600.Stan Horaczek
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**Tech Specs: **F/4.5 at 1/10 second. 68mm equivalent. ISO 800. I only got two shots of this scene becasue I was in a hurry to catch a train, but the S100 focused quickly and accurately. The 1/10th shutter speed didn't cause any unwanted camera shake thanks to the optical IS, but did add some appealing motion blur to some of the people in the train station.Stan Horaczek
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**Tech specs: **F/4 at 1/80 second. 24mm equivalent. ISO 80. Under an overcast sky, the S100 produced vivid and accurate colors that are really appealing. However, this image also shows off the distortion from the 24mm lens as well as the fringing on the border between the jacket and the driveway.Stan Horaczek
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**Tech Specs: **F/2 at 1/30 second. 24mm equivalent. ISO 125. In case you're curious, this photo depicts battings of fiberglass insulation like the stuff you'll find in most walls. Itchy stuff. But, with some nice window light, it gives the S100 a chance to show what it can do with a lot of very fine details at a relatively low ISO. The orange and pinks are also tough to reproduce for many cameras, but the S100 does a good job keeping things real and not making them look overly saturated or cartoonish.Stan Horaczek
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**Tech specs: **F/5.9 at 1/30 second. 120mm equivalent. ISO 800. In order to cut down on the amount of distortion, I wanted to shoot this wall of cans at the longest possible focal length. Because I was zoomed all the way out, I was limited to F/5.9 and a 1/30 shutter speed in order to combat camera shake. The result is an image that's under exposed by a full stop or more. Since I had a RAW file, it's a simple fix, but this image is a reminder not to get too taken in by that F/2 number.Stan Horaczek
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**Tech specs: **F/5.9 at 1/125 second. 120mm equivalent. ISO 125. Shot at the longest focal length in macro focus setting, this image of a lady bug shows that the S100 is capable of some nice depth of field effects under the right circumstances. You can see that the bug wasn't standing still, yet it still managed to capture a ton of detail.Stan Horaczek
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**Tech specs: **F/2.2 at 1/1250 sec. 24mm equivalent. ISO 80. In order to test the burliness of the flash, I positioned the sun just off to the side of the subjects face. This was shot in program mode with flash set to "always on." As you can see, the face is still well exposed despite the fireball in the center of the frame.Stan Horaczek
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**Tech specs: **F/4 at 1/40 second. 24mm equivalent. ISO 80. At this distance, the distortion isn't that bad becasue it's very much expected. The auto color balance had a little bit of trouble in the shade/full-sun mixed lighting combination, but a quick tweak in post would fix that.Stan Horaczek
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**Tech specs: **F/4.5 at 1/50 second. 63mm equivalent. ISO 100. This is the only image in the gallery for which I tweaked the exposure before uploading. The strong backlight caused the subject to be underexposed, so I added a stop of exposure using Lightroom 3.6 release candidate. You can see that, at ISO 100, the shadows still reamin pretty clean, even after having added a stop of exposure, something that is pretty common during post processing. You can also see the fringing in the edges around the bars.Stan Horaczek
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**Tech specs: **F/3.5 at 1/30 second. 24mm equivalent. ISO 80. In this case, the S100 did a good job exposing the main portion of the scene despite heavy backlighting. Looking at the histogram suggests it could've used maybe another 1/3-stop, but it's still very acceptable. The wide variety of highly-detailed surfaces in this image also makes it a good example of how good the S100 is in the low ISOs.Stan Horaczek
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**Tech specs: **F/2 at 1/30 second. 24mm equivalent. ISO 3200. If you don't click to see the full-resolution file, you might actually be a little surprised to see that this came out of a compact at ISO 3200. It helps that there are no large, solid fields of dark, but this image is totally fine for displaying on the web.Stan Horaczek
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**Tech specs: **F/3.2 at 1/30 second. 24mm equivalent. ISO 80. This donkey didn't stick around for long at the fence, so I fired off a few continuous shots. This kind of scene is where you really miss a DSLR, but it's a shot I would've missed trying to get with my phone.Stan Horaczek
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**Tech specs: **F/4 at 1/160 second. 37mm equivalent. ISO 80. I didn't adjust the exposure at all for this frame, but I did give it a very slight rotation to straighten up the lines. There was a wall just off to the left of the frame, so that darkening wasn't caused by the camera. This is one of the cases where the extra 2-megapixels (when compared to the S95) comes in handy. The low ISO lets you take full advantage of the resolution and preserves small details in the image, like the markings on the woman's coffee cup.Stan Horaczek
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**Tech specs: **F/5.9 at 1/320 second. 120mm equivalent. ISO 6400. As you can see, cranking the ISO up to its maximum setting brings considerable noise to the party, but for online display, it's actually still usable. There's still detail in the tiny, intricate candy wrappers and it still does a good job keeping bright areas from getting too blown out.Stan Horaczek