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First Impressions: Using the Canon PowerShot S100

Barney Britton | Product Reviews & Previews | Published Dec 7, 2011

Sometimes reviews get delayed. It can happen for all manner of reasons, and I'm sorry to report that our review of the Canon PowerShot S100 is taking a lot longer than I had hoped. We're not sitting on our hands though - we've used three S100s, and the delay has been caused by concerns over optical issues displayed by the cameras that we've seen. Testing, retesting and analyzing results from multiple cameras takes time, and the worst thing we could do in my opinion is to rush a review out before we have the full picture (for a more complete explanation of the issues that we've encountered, turn to page 2 of this article).

This article is not meant to replace a full review, but rather to augment our detailed preview of the S100, published when the camera was first announced. Since we published our preview we've been able to do a lot of shooting with the S100 and although we are not yet able to pull this experience into a full review, I would like to share some of it with you as we work towards that goal. As always, all content published prior to the completion of a full review should be regarded as preview content, including image quality samples. Here then, is my take on how the S100 operates, what it is like to use, and some tentative first impressions of the image quality from its 12MP CMOS sensor. 

Successor to the popular PowerShot S95 (itself a relatively minor refresh of the the S90, released in 2009) the Canon PowerShot S100 features the same basic form factor as its predecessors, including the multi-functional control dial around its lens. Despite outward similarities though, the S100 is a significantly different camera to the S95. At 24-120mm (equivalent) its lens is both longer and wider, and resolution has been upped from 10MP to 12MP. More significant than the bump in resolution though is a change in the imaging technology itself, from a CCD sensor to a Canon-made CMOS. The S100 is only Canon's second compact camera to feature a homegrown CMOS sensor, and its first attempt - the Powershot SX1 of 2008 - was far from an unmitigated success.

Other headline features include raw capture, a maximum ISO sensitivity setting of 6400, and a new DIGIC 5 processor. Unlike its CCD-equipped predecessors, the S100 can record movie footage in full HD, and the new sensor also makes it possible to shoot still images at a maximum frame-rate of 2.3fps - a significant boost compared to the S95's 0.9fps. The S100 also boasts a built-in GPS. 

Key features 

Using the S100

As we've come to expect from its predecessors, the S100 is a well-designed little camera that is by and large a pleasure to use. Operationally, I have few significant complaints about either the S100's design or its responsiveness at this point, and I'm pleased to see that the aspects of the S90 and S95 that we praised in our reviews of those cameras are still present in this updated model.

Operationally very similar to its predecessor the S95, the Canon PowerShot S100, which boasts a more versatile 24-120mm (equivalent) lens is the most 'compact' of its raw-shooting enthusiast peers. 

It's good to see though that Canon has addressed one of our few frustrations with the S95's ergonomics too - its lack of a hand grip. The S100 still doesn't offer a 'grip' as such, but a thin vertical strip on the front of the camera, and a shallow 'scoop' in the body shell does make a difference to handling, allowing for a much firmer hold when the camera is used one-handed. 

The S100's 24-120mm (equivalent) lens is impressively fast at the wide end (if not at its maximum telephoto setting) and includes optical image stabilization. It's not much, but it's better than nothing: the S100 sports a hand grip of sorts, in the form of a shallow 'scoop' in the front of the camera which incorporates a thick rubber accent, for grip. 

Chief among my favorite things about the S100 is the multi-function Control Ring around its lens throat. This ring is key to the S100's ergonomics. Well-placed for operation with the left hand, this highly-customizable ring has many potential uses. In its default configuration it controls whatever parameter Canon's engineers think is most useful for the mode that you're in: aperture in aperture priority and manual modes, shutter speed in shutter priority mode, and ISO in program exposure mode. If you prefer, you can assign exposure compensation, ISO control, or even manual focus to the Control Dial, as well as more esoteric options like stepped zoom and aspect ratio.

Thanks to the Control Ring, in my opinion the S100 is among the most user-friendly enthusiast compact cameras around, and one of the easiest to get to grips with. Like its predecessors, whose handling we praised in their respective reviews, the S100 is easy to use without sacrificing manual control, and accommodates both point-and-shoot and fully manual operation (and switching between them) very comfortably. 

The S100's Control Ring is positioned around the lens throat and can be customized to fulfill a wide range of functions including aperture/shutter adjustment, ISO and exposure compensation. The ring's function can be changed via a dedicated menu accessed via the 'RING FUNC' menu on the right hand side of the S100's rear. This button can be reassigned though if you wish. To its right you can see the direct movie recording button which is conveniently located for operation with the thumb. 

The S100's menu system is similarly streamlined, but to be honest, I don't find myself accessing it all that often. The 'FUNC/SET' button brings up a filleted menu of key shooting parameters which is easy to navigate using the 4-way controller and integrated control dial. As far as its operational ergonomics are concerned, the only thing I really wish the S100 had, which it does not, is a dedicated ISO button. If, like me, you tend to like to keep exposure compensation assigned to the Control Ring, it is a little annoying to have to dive into a menu (however efficiently presented) to change ISO sensitivity.

The S100 has actually lost a button compared to the S95 (which had a dedicated 'RING FUNC' button on the top of the camera and an assignable custom 'shortcut' button on the rear). There is a workaround though. If you don't feel the need to change the Control Ring function all that often, it is possible to reassign the RING FUNC button to perform one of 20 possible functions, including ISO. 

As far as shooting speed is concerned, the S100 acquits itself very well. I like shooting simultaneous RAW+JPEGs (old camera-reviewing habits die hard) and unlike many of its peers, the S100 remains pleasantly fast and responsive in this mode. In fact, the delay after capturing a simultaneous JPEG and raw file before the camera is ready to shoot again is only 1.5 seconds (approx.) with an inexpensive class 6 SDHC card. This compares extremely well to the Nikon Coolpix P7100, for example, which with the same card installed, takes roughly three seconds longer. 

One of the few missteps that I think Canon has made with the S100 is its HDR mode, which really doesn't work as well as it should. In this mode, which sits alongside a miniature effect, fisheye filter and posterization filters (among others) in a dedicated position on the main exposure mode dial, the S100 takes three photographs at different exposures, then blends and saves them as a single image.

You'll need a tripod if you want to shoot in the S100's HDR mode and this shot, taken hand-held, shows why. When it captures the three images for an HDR frame, the S100 does not align them, so even slight subject or camera movement creates 'ghosting' in the final image. 
A built-in GPS system appends geolocation data to the metadata of captured images, and an (optional) GPS logger records GPS data continuously, regardless of whether or not you're taking pictures. This data can then be displayed using Google Maps, allowing you to plot your route on a picture-taking expedition, as well as to see where you were when you got the shots.

It is a 'dumb' HDR mode though, in the sense that the camera makes no effort to automatically align the three frames. As indicated on the screen when you select this function, you must use a tripod to avoid ghosting, but if any element of your scene is moving, there's nothing you can do. Unlike Sony's Auto HDR mode, the S100 does not clone out 'ghost' scene elements which appear in more than one frame, and since capture is comparatively slow (at the S100's maximum frame-rate of 2.3fps) even relatively slow-moving scene elements can cause problems.  

The S100's video mode is improved over its predecessor, and now offers full HD (1920 x 1080p) resolution and both AF and optical zoom during recording. I haven't shot a lot of video with the S100 yet, but what I have shot looks good. The S100 wouldn't be anyone's first choice for 'serious' video work (exposure control is limited to exposure compensation only for instance) but it is a better, and more versatile video camera than its predecessor. Footage is nice and detailed, and the inbuilt stereo microphone does a decent, if not outstanding job of capturing audio. Handling sounds are very noticeable though, and although its action is slowed, the sound of the lens zooming in and out can still be heard in footage as a soft buzzing on the soundtrack. 

Click here to turn to page 2 of our article, First Impressions: Using the Canon PowerShot S100

Image Quality (tentative first impressions)

It is too early to make any definitive statements about the S100's image quality, partly because we have a lot more testing still to do ahead of a full review, but also because the camera sitting on my desk in front of me is the third sample that I have looked at, and the third with what appears to be a slightly decentered lens. Quality control issues can affect cameras from early production batches (and inevitably, review samples tend to fall into this category) and I hope that we have simply have been unlucky with the samples that we have received so far.

This isn't simply blind optimism (nor is it brand bias). No man is an island, nor any website. I am reserving judgement on the S100's optics for another reason: I have seen images from the S100 posted by owners and trusted competitors which appear better than those that we have been able to capture. At the time of writing, we are expecting another sample from Canon and we will rush it into the studio and out into the real world as quickly as possible. If necessary, our previously-published studio samples will be replaced, a fresh samples gallery created, and progress on a full review resumed (containing, of course, a full account of our experience). 

Despite what I hope is only a temporary setback, I am able to make some judgements about the S100's image quality - specifically as regards its resolution and high-ISO performance. The lens issues that we've experienced with our early S100 samples are noticeable in the critical environment of our studio, but as usual are less problematic in 'real world' day-to-day shooting at a range of different focal lengths and distances. That said, pending further testing, the images on this page should be regarded as preview samples for now. 

This shot, taken at ISO 100, demonstrates the resolving power of the S100's 12MP CMOS sensor. It also shows how well the S100's metering system copes in difficult, high-contrast lighting.  Blue skies are a tough test for any camera because blue is the noisiest channel, so if there is noise in your camera's files, the chances are you'll notice it here. At ISO 125, some noise can be seen in the sky in this shot, but it is a subtle grittiness, only visible when inspected very closely. 
At ISO 800, in flat lighting the S100's sensor is still capable of resolving a lot of detail. Noise reduction is taking the edge off the finest detail here, but resolution is high and  the final image is impressively clean.  At ISO 6400, noise, and the effects of noise-reduction are much more noticeable. Crucially though, colors are natural and well-saturated, making this image perfectly suitable for a medium-sized print. Naturally, better results can be coaxed from raw files. 

Looking at samples from the S100 next to those from its predecessor the S95, and cameras like the Canon PowerShot G12 and Nikon Coolpix P7100 it is clear that the S100's 12MP CMOS sensor does genuinely deliver more detail. Across its entire ISO span, the S100 out-resolves the S95 at equivalent settings - not by much, but it is noticeable. At their respective highest ISO settings the gap is narrower, but the S100 is certainly no worse than its predecessor at ISO 1600 and 3200 and - crucially - its files are captured faster, and the camera is ready to shoot again more quickly. The S100 is fairly noisy at ISO 6400 but like the S95, the S100's noise reduction treads a sensible line between noise smoothing and detail retention, and in a pinch I'd be perfectly confident making postcard or letter-sized prints at this setting. 

As we've seen noise is pretty hard to miss at ISO 6400, but ISO 3200 is much more useable. At ISO 3200, the S100 is clearly applying a considerable amount of noise-reduction to its JPEG files, but edges are well-defined and in general, the S100 delivers a good compromise between detail capture and noise smoothing. 100% Crop
This image was created from a raw file, run through Adobe Camera Raw. As you can see, adjusting the sharpness and NR sliders can deliver more detail, but this is at the expense of a noticeable 'grittiness'. Personally, I would take a noisier but more detailed image, but it really is a matter of taste.  100% Crop

Although we have to reserve final judgement for now, I'm encouraged by what we've seen from the S100's homegrown CMOS sensor in our preliminary shooting. 

Thoughts so far...

With the S100, Canon has updated a popular design without apparently meddling too much with the ingredients that made the S90 and S95 so popular. Owners of either camera will have no trouble picking up and using the S100, and even first-time buyers should find the S100 easy to get to grips with. There are raw-shooting enthusiast compact cameras on that the market that offer finer-grained control over their settings and operational ergonomics, but those custom functions that are offered (like Control Ring and RING FUNC button customization) are sensible and well thought-out. I'm not sure whether the addition of GPS or an uprated video capture mode will tempt many photographers to trade in their S90 or S95, but if they do, they'll find that they've upgraded to a camera that at the end of the day produces slightly better critical image quality, slightly faster than they're used to. 

My only concern about the S100 at this point (and remember I'm writing this before we have been able to carry out our full gamut of studio and real-world tests) is the camera's lens. The three cameras that we have used have exhibited optical characteristics consistent with slight decentering of their lenses. Naturally, as I've already noted, this is much more noticeable in our studio image samples than in most 'real world' shooting (can you spot it in the images on this page? I doubt it). Depending on the focal length, focussing distance and scene though, it can be detrimental to critical image quality. I hope that we've simply been unlucky with the samples that we've been sent so far. Watch this space. 

Further Reading: