Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: I never say "Highly Recommended"…
The Long Version: I've never been a stickler for image quality from a compact camera. I simply categorize them as acceptable or unacceptable, and to a large extent that also takes their other abilities into consideration. Everything in photography is a compromise. It's normally enough that a little camera is small, because it's easy to find bigger cameras that are significantly better.
The Canon S100 has challenged that. Its image quality is genuinely good.
Photos are generally detailed and well-exposed, and Canon has clearly targeted sensor noise as a priority. At iso400 artifacts are non-existent and grain is trivial; iso1600 and 3200 are surprisingly usable, and iso6400 isn't appalling. Unusually low light can cause some blotchiness, and shadows can appear as simply denser areas of grain, but at the end of the day I wish my GH1 was this good.
Now, there's no reason to be overly excitable; TANSTAAFL always applies. The tiny sensor that enables the camera to be so small still has its price to pay, and the S100 has modest dynamic range and can suffer some blooming from high-contrast subjects. But its jpegs are good, and its raw files are better: there might be some point to this whole "advanced compact camera" idea after all.
I never thought I'd say this about a little camera, but the S100 is actually a viable choice for low-light photography. The photo above is a quarter of the original frame, although still massively downsized; here is a version that's about 50%. It clearly has some issues, but it was taken at iso6400. That's ridiculous. I'll also admit that this had a 1/200 shutter speed at f/4.5, the maximum at the 15mm (70mm-e) focal length. I could have dropped to iso3200 without any problem, but I was specifically pushing to see what the little beast could do.
But all is not perfect: I've been surprised by how much difficulty the S100 has in autofocusing at night. I would have thought that the car headlights would be enough of a target, but the camera only locked on for the third attempt. Other night-time outings have borne this out, and I actually think that my Panasonic TS3 is better at focusing in low light. That's pretty embarrassing, even though the S100 stomps it in every other photographic comparison.
It's not commonly known – because it's trivial and irrelevant – but Canon compacts were both my first film and first digital cameras. So having another pocketable Canon feels a little like coming home, which wasn't the case when I had a short-lived fling with an SX20 superzoom. Canon makes good cameras, and compacts are something that they just do right. It continues to amaze me that every new generation of Elph has the same basic menu structure and controls. They haven't fundamentally changed from my Powershot S400, which I bought in 2003 for $675, and they were already well established back then.
Canon may release new models with clockwork punctuality, but there's a core maturity to their compact cameras that upstarts like Panasonic or Samsung lack. The divergent little nightmares that Nikon calls Coolpix just emphasize how successful Canon has been at creating a consistent user experience and aesthetic. The SLR wars are occasionally characterized as "Coke and Pepsi", but for their compact cameras it's more like Coke versus fourteen different store-brand colas.
On that theme, it's refreshing that the S100 comes in two different flavours. The black model has a grippy texture to it, which adds a functional element to the finish. But despite being an enduring fan of that treatment on Canon's Elph line, ultimately I had to choose the silver. It's almost a pewter colour, which looks very handsome, and the Canon logo is more subtle than it is with the white lettering of the black model. Believe it or not, picking the colour was the hardest part of the purchasing decision.
The "ring func" button is a highlight of the S100. The S90/95 had it in a bad position on the top deck, where it was hard to reach and mimicked the power button. Canon has solved that problem with the S100 by assigning it to the top-left position on the rear control panel. This is the easiest button position to press, and it's well chosen because it can be reassigned to do other functions. What stops this from being a complete win for the S100 is that the S9x already had a customizable button in that spot.
My cameras live in aperture priority whenever possible, so I'm using the custom ring configuration to make the front ring control the exposure compensation and the back dial control the aperture. Initially I wanted those roles to be switched, but apparently that's still asking too much; with a little more experience I've actually come to prefer the mandatory arrangement.
Since I have no need to change what the control ring does, I've assigned its function button to select the iso value, which works out brilliantly. Pressing the ring button a second time puts the camera into auto-iso mode, and a third time dismisses the control. Alternatively, from the auto position it's just one button-press (left) to reach iso6400 or iso80 (right), which are the two specific values that I'm most likely to want. No more than four button presses to call up the control, select any of the three most likely positions, and then clear the menu. That's excellent.
The display button has been moved to the four-way controller to make room for a movie record button. This is buzzword-compliant, and saves the need to change the mode dial for impromptu acts of citizen journalism. If I ever want to record a movie this could be an advantage, but sometimes I activate it accidentally even though the button is protected by a raised surround. Sure, memory cards are cheap these days, but batteries aren't.
Moving the Display button to the four-way demotes the self timer to the function menu. This is absolutely a loss. The only saving grace is that the func/set button usually returns to the last item used, so switching the timer off again is easy. And unlike my Panasonic TS3, the self timer remains active after the shutter fires. This is the way it should be.
The S100 also has Canon's customizable self timer. The delay can be set from nothing to thirty seconds, and it can take up to ten photos. Setting a quicker eight-second delay and taking three shots instead of one is an excellent way to take family photos – less time for the smiles to freeze, and then two follow-up shots of everyone looking relieved and happy.
The S100 is a little long exposure monster. One significant new feature is a built-in optical three-stop neutral density filter, which was formerly reserved for the G-series. This is an awesome inclusion for a camera that can't accept screw-on filters. The S100 can be persuaded to take as much as fifteen seconds for an exposure, but it gets even better than that.
Enabling the "Safety Shift" menu option gives the camera permission to over-ride the user's settings in Aperture Value or Time Value – shutter-speed priority – modes for under/over-exposure protection that still respects the exposure compensation settings. Using it at night guarantees the longest possible exposure without photographer intervention as conditions change. That's exceptional for night-time city photos, among other things.
Set the Tv exposure for its maximum of fifteen seconds, and the camera will work its little heart out to make it last that long. Sensitivity will be reduced to iso 80, the aperture will close down, and only if that's not enough will the shutter speed be increased to create an exposure that's not a blown-out white mess. Of course, if you like blown-out white messes, the camera can still do that manually even when Safety Shift is turned on.
The S100's lens has moved to a 24-120mm equivalent; it's f/2.0 at its best and hits a mighty f/5.9 at the telephoto end. But with all of the numbers that are used to market cameras, it's easy to forget that a lens aperture is an actual thing that takes up room. An f/number is a ratio where "f" is the focal length in millimetres, so math is our friend.
The physical aperture in the S100 is about 1mm across throughout the room range, while something like the Olympus XZ-1 is 3.3mm at its wide angle and 9.6mm at the telephoto end. A similar f/2.5 aperture at the S100's 120mm-e setting would need to be about the same size as the front element.
The lens specifications on the S100 are about right for a standard point-and-shoot. That's obviously not the price point or feature set that the S100 wants to play with, but it's not unreasonable to judge the lens based on cameras of similar size. In exchange, the S100 doesn't need a lens cap and is considerably more 'pocketable' than the other raw-capturing compacts. Life's a barter.
Cushioning the lens design somewhat is in-camera distortion and shading correction for jpegs, and Adobe has a profile for the S100 in its latest Lightroom / Camera Raw software. It's not quite perfect, but this is something that I'm very picky about, so saying that I'm satisfied with the S100 goes far beyond the level that even fairly hard-core photographers will care about.
The lens has six aperture blades, which hardly matters because the whole issue of background defocus is essentially moot. From photographic tests I'll say that the same depth of field from the S100 at 24mm-e and f/2.0 looks like my GH1 at 24mm-e and f/5.6. Extrapolating, that's the same as a 1.5 crop at f/8, or a 35mm camera at f/11. The S100's f/2 aperture lets in a lot of light, but it's not much of a creative control.
It's nice that the camera has fully manual over-rides, but my advice is to just leave the camera in Av mode with the aperture wide open. The S100 is still basically a point-and-shoot, just one that can be guided in its decisions.
The S100's user interface still has some quirks; the one that I keep tripping over is how the exposure bracketing is enabled. When working in the Function menu any additional choices – like setting up exposure bracketing – is done by pressing the Menu botton. But adjusting the exposure compensation while taking photos also brings up the option to set up exposure bracketing, and this time it's selected by pressing the Display button.
Pressing the four-way controller's button for the flash also brings up the option for a submenu to adjust its settings. This one is activated by pressing the Menu botton.
The exposure compensation can be set to plus or minus three stops. The camera takes three shots, with a compensation range that's plus and minus from one third to two full stops. Using them in combination can make the camera under or over-expose by five stops, which is pretty nifty. I'm sure someone out there will find a great use for it – after all, who would predict that the S100's Safety Shift and ND filter would be perfect for my passion of taking long exposure photos on escalators?
Something that disappoints me with the generally-snappy S100 is the need to wait for the on-screen menus to appear. It's not possible to stack commands – to press buttons in the right sequence and let the camera to catch up. That's a pity. Instead of using the camera transparently, I find myself interrupted by the need to look at it and think about what it's doing.
There's also a certain inconsistency in how selections are remembered. When the camera is turned on it will remember if the neutral density filter was enabled, but not the self timer. Also, using different scene modes will change what the ring function does and otherwise alters the behaviour of the camera. While that's a blessing with my TS3, it's a distraction with the S100. I just don't see the need to choose landscape or portrait modes with the S100; I know what the aperture control does (not much in this case, admittedly) and I'm happy to use it. While the handheld night mode uses the cool blend-three-photos trick, it takes time to process, creates a jpeg file, and hardly seems necessary when the auto iso runs up to 1600. The Night Shot mode does produce a good-looking file, but it's smoother and with less detail than a single raw capture.
It's no surprise that the S100's battery life is pretty bad. Why should it be any different from other small cameras? The S100 has switched to the older but slightly higher capacity NB-5L battery from the 6L model that the S9x used, which might be a reason for S95 owners to stay away. I have to assume Canon had a good reason for the change.
(But it could be worse: the Canon SD4500, which is the Powershot equivalent of a Zeiss lens cap – inexplicably lousy from a company that should know better – has a battery that no other camera uses. You might as well just leave that baby in a bassinet on someone's doorstep now, because it's going to be orphaned in record time.)
A second battery is always a good idea, which I know because I don't have one. I've been using the S100 fairly intensively, and with the eye-fi SD card also taking its toll, sometimes I'll recharge it in the middle of the day just to make sure that the camera's ready to go at night. I appreciate that the S100 is aware of the eye-fi card and won't automatically turn itself off while the card is transmitting, but sending more than a couple of 10-20MB raw files over such a flaky connection is unreasonably masochistic.
But that's a story for another day.
With the announcement of the G1 X Canon seems intent on driving the G-series seriously up-market. That's a nice change, but it opens a huge gap between it and the S-series. Time will tell if there will be an "G13" to fill that gap, but until that happens, it makes the S100 an even clearer choice. Half the price, half the size; I'm sure the G1X will have excellent image quality, but the S100 will be good enough for a lot of uses that don't need interchangeable lenses.
Currently the newest raw-capable compact on the market, the S100 also has a generational advantage over the LX5 and XZ-1; naturally that won't last, but even when Panasonic and/or Olympus update their lines size and lens speed will still serve to divide the market. Nikon's last effort, the P300, targets the same form-factor as the S-series, but the Coolpix is Samsung to the Powershot's Apple, and isn't worth serious consideration.
The number of digital cameras on the market is completely ridiculous, but there are still two basic questions: how big and how much money. That does a wonderful job of narrowing down the options. After that it's a question of features, which includes image quality, which is what the S100 emphasizes. Cameras that have image quality better than the S100 are going to be bigger; cameras that offer features like waterproofing or long zoom lenses aren't going to be as good.
The theme for the S100 seems to be that little fixes add up to a much better camera. Looked at in isolation, none of the changes from earlier models, or differences from other cameras, are all that significant. But Canon has made a camera where things just work better. It's hard not to recommend – at least not for anyone who wants the best photos that a camera of its size and price can produce.
Added November 2012: don't miss my Lens Error Update to this review.
last updated 3 nov 2012