AF/Metering/White BalanceThe Canon Powershot S95 turns in an impressive performance overall, and its key systems are very reliable, as we'd expect given its provenance. In its 'standard' configuration, the S95's color rendition is fairly typical for a Canon compact - nice and punchy with fairly highly saturated reds. This is fine for general photography, but it can lead to portraits looking rather 'overcooked.' In this case, heading to the 'My Colors' line in the FUNC menu and applying the S95's 'Neutral' preset gives more pleasant, natural results. Something to watch out for with all of the cameras in this test, not just the S95, is their tendency to render particularly delicate light blue skies rather cyan (this is caused by the blue channel almost, but not quite clipping). This is hard to fix except by shooting in RAW mode (and even then only sometimes), and in our experience it is a particular feature of clear winter skies, close to the horizon (see example below).
Speaking of cyan though, the S95 appears to apply little or no in-camera correction to colored fringing (see above). Fringing is relatively easy to fix in RAW files, but impossible to get rid of in JPEGs except by laborious post-processing. Often unnoticeable, at its worst, fringing of roughly 5 pixels width is evident around high-contrast edges, especially leaves silhouetted against a bright sky, or shiny highlights on metallic furniture etc.
The S95's automatic white balance system can generally be relied upon to produce attractive results, and like metering, it is highly capable in daylight. In areas of shadow, or on particularly cloudy days the S95 can give a rather 'cool' rendition, but on the whole we prefer this to ramping up the saturation to add artificial warmth. Something to watch out for though is that if the camera's orientation is changed, depending on the composition of the scene, this can affect AWB response, and as a consequence, color rendition.
Artificial light is more of a challenge, but even under mixed lighting the S95 generally gets it right. As we've come to expect from Canon compact cameras, the S95 errs on the side of warmth when faced with tungsten lighting. This can be preferable to over-neutralisation since - apart from anything else - there is so little blue in tungsten light that getting rid of the warmth often results in unpleasant amplification of noise from the very under-exposed blue channel.
On to metering, and for the vast majority of shooting situations the S95's evaluative metering system is perfectly able, with perhaps a dash of exposure compensation required on occasion, to achieve the desired effect. Something that we really like about the S95 is its exposure preview live view, which, in combination with the live histogram, means that regardless of the conditions, we always felt that we had a pretty good idea of final exposure. Something that previous Powershot cameras (and the IXUS/Elph series) have been particularly good at is flash balance in poor light, making them ideal tools for social situations. The S95 is equally capable and with the flash set to 'slow syncro' it manages a very good balance between ambient and flash light.
Although it doesn't have the brightest lens of the cameras on test (that honor goes to the Panasonic LX5) the S95 achieves focus quickly and without fuss at all focal lengths, only becoming a little less positive in poor light. When lighting conditions get extremely low, the (white) AF assist lamp is on hand to make light of the darkness. If AF speed is the priority, the S95 is quickest with its AF frame set to 'center'. Arguably more useful in our opinion is 'Face AiAF' which focuses on faces (if detected) and reverts to conventional multi-pattern AiAF if no faces are present.
The third option, 'AF tracking' is fun, but of limited utility. Although it works well and can track a subject around the frame reliably, continuous (servo) AF is not the S95's strong point (nor any compact camera, for that matter). It can track accurately enough to maintain a sharp live view image but cannot keep up with fast-moving subjects. That said, it's a lot better than we expected, and easily capable enough to follow moderate movement in good light (where the shutter speed can be kept high enough to avoid motion blur).
It is worth noting that it is not possible to manually place S95's AF point - a disappointing limitation in a camera pitched at this level. That said, the S95's form factor alone makes it a more natural 'point and shoot' camera than - say - the Nikon Coolpix P7000, at which point fully automatic AF point selection might not be too much of an issue.
Continuous Shooting/Operational Speed
As we've come to expect from Canon's recent high-end compact models, the S95 is a fast, responsive camera. Switching between live view (shooting) mode and menus is almost instant, and both control dials respond positively and accurately to user input. The only control operation which takes longer than a heartbeat is switching to and from review mode, which takes roughly 1.5 seconds.
Continuous shooting performance is impressive too, and in JPEG (high quality) mode to the S95 can shoot at 1.9fps (approx) for as long as it takes to fill a memory card. Frame rate drops in raw mode to approximately 0.9fps, but with a fast card installed, burst depth remains unlimited. Impressively, with our Sandisk Extreme Ducati Edition card, we counted 78 RAW+JPEG frames at an average of 0.9fps, and the S95 showed no signs of slowing down. At this point it is safe to say that the buffer is to all intents and purposes unlimited - impressive performance for a compact camera.
Canon quotes a battery life of approximately 200 images per charge, but in our experience this represents the outer limit of the tiny 3.7Wh battery's abilities. In normal use we can squeeze between 150-200 images from the S95 before it gives up the ghost, which puts the camera firmly in the 'spare battery essential' category.
Whilst its battery life is - let's be honest - acceptable for this type of camera, the S95 does have an annoying habit of showing full charge right up until the point where it dies completely. This is something to bear in mind - a full battery symbol might mean you're good for another couple of hundred shots, or it might mean that you're a couple of pictures away from the S95 transforming into an expensive and finely machined paperweight.