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DCRP Review: Canon PowerShot S1 IS
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: February 27, 2004
Last Updated: September 6, 2011

At first glance, the PowerShot S1 IS ($499) may look like just another ultra zoom camera, but it's more than that. First, it's Canon's first ultra zoom camera since the Pro90 IS. Along those lines, it's also their first camera (since the Pro90) with a stabilized lens. This feature alone makes it one of only a handful of cameras with image stabilization (the others are from Minolta and Panasonic).

That's nice and all, but what really makes the S1 unique is that it blurs the lines between a digital still camera and a digital video camcorder. You can record video at 640 x 480 and 30 frames/second, with sound -- but just a few minutes worth. At lower resolutions, you can record up to one hour. The top resolution of 640 x 480 is a little lower than it would be on a MiniDV camcorder (720 x 480), but it's still darn good for a digital camera. The S1 even has the same standby/record button (for recording video) as a camcorder would have.

Is the S1 a good ultra zoom camera? Can it really take video that will make you put the camcorder back on the shelf? Find out in our review!

What's in the Box?

The PowerShot S1 has a good bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

The S1 comes with a 32MB high speed CompactFlash card -- a good starting point. On most consumer cameras, a fast CF card like this doesn't really make a difference. But if you're planning on recording 640 x 480 video, a high speed card is a necessity. The S1 can take both Type I and fatter Type II CF cards, including the Microdrive. To record a full hour of 640 x 480, 30 frame/sec video, you'll need a card at least 1GB in size.

Something you'll need to buy right away are rechargeable batteries, as Canon includes four AA alkalines that will quickly find their way into the recycling bin (not the trash, if possible). I'd recommend picking up two sets of NiMH rechargeables, 2000 mAh or greater, and a fast charger. With NiMHs in the camera, Canon estimates that you can take a very respectable 550 photos (with the LCD), or spend 7.5 hours in playback mode.

The S1 includes a lens cap and retaining strap to protect your 10X zoom lens. As you can see, this is a fairly compact camera (for an ultra zoom).

Now, let's talk accessories. For those who like conversion lenses, Canon has two. First is the WC-DC52A wide-angle adapter ($199), which brings the wide end of the S1 down to 26.6 mm. For those who want even more, the TC-DC52B tele adapter ($149) boosts the zoom up to 608 mm. To use either of these lenses, you'll first need to buy the LAH-DC10 lens adapter / lens hood set ($39), which also lets you attach 52 mm filters.

Another cool option is the WP-DC20 waterproof case ($240), which lets you take your S1 up to 40 m (130 feet) underwater. For wireless operation, you can purchase the WL-DC100 remote control ($30), which allows you to take pictures, control the zoom, and playback photos. Other accessories included a NiMH battery/charger kit (a whopping $58), an AC adapter ($85), and a soft case.


ImageBrowser (Mac OS X)


ZoomBrowser (Windows XP)

Canon is now up to version 16 of their excellent Digital Camera Solutions software. Included in this package are ZoomBrowser (for Windows) or ImageBrowser (for Mac), PhotoStitch (for making panoramic photos), plus TWAIN and WIA drivers for Windows. Zoom/ImageBrowser can be used for downloading images from your camera, basic editing of your photos, and photo printing.


RemoteCapture (Mac OS X)

Also built-in to the "Browser" software is RemoteCapture, which you can use to control your camera over the USB connection. Images are saved directly to your computer.

For some reason, the bundled ArcSoft Camera Suite is different than the one that came with the PowerShot S410 and S500 -- which were introduced at the same time as the S1. Windows users can use PhotoStudio 5.5 and VideoImpression 2, while Mac users get the old PhotoStudio 4.3 (the S410/500 came with PhotoImpression 5) and VideoImpression 1.6.

While Canon's manuals are still better than average, they seem a little more complex than they used to be. Either that or I'm getting dumber.

Look and Feel

The PowerShot S1 has a compact body (for an ultra zoom), made of metal and high grade plastic. There's a nice grip for your right hand, though you may have trouble finding a good spot for your left. The important controls are within easy reach.

Let's take a look at the dimensions and weight of the S1 and its competitors:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon PowerShot S1 IS 4.4 x 3.1 x 2.6 in. 35.5 cu. in. 370 g
Fuji FinePix S5000 4.4 x 3.2 x 3.1 in. 43.6 cu in. 337 g
Kodak EasyShare DX6490 3.9 x 3.2 x 3.2 in. 39.9 cu in. 310 g
HP Photosmart 945 4.8 x 3.4 x 3.4 in. 55.5 cu in. 389 g
Minolta DiMAGE Z1/Z2 4.3 x 3.1 x 3.2 in. 42.7 cu in. 305 g
Olympus C-750 Ultra Zoom 4.2 x 2.6 x 2.7 in. 29.5 cu in. 305 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ10 5.5 x 3.4 x 4.2 in. 78.5 cu in. 518 g
Toshiba PDR-M700 4.3 x 2.7 x 2.6 in. 30.2 cu in. 298 g

As you can see, the S1 is one of the smaller/lighter models out there. The only other camera on that list with image stabilization is the Panasonic FZ10, which is a quite a bit larger.

Let's start our tour of this camera now!

One of the most appealing features of the S1 is its F2.8-3.1, 10X optical zoom with image stabilization. The focal range of the lens is 5.8 - 58 mm, which is equivalent to 38 - 380 mm. The lens also has an ultrasonic motor (USM), which keeps the noise way down during zooming -- important when you're using it as a camcorder.

Why do you want an image stabilizer? I can name two situations in which it becomes very useful. First is in indoors (or in low light in general), where the camera wants to use a slow shutter speed like 1/30 second. While some people are steady enough to hold the camera without shaking it at that shutter speed, most of us move too much, which results in a blurry picture. The stabilizer on the S1 will compensate for that motion, allowing you to take a sharp picture at 1/30 sec -- and probably at slower speeds, too. Another time it comes in handy is when the lens is at the full telephoto position, where the slightest movement can blur your photos. All things considered, this is a very useful feature on a digital camera -- especially one with a big lens like this.

The movie below was updated on 3/3/04

How well does the IS system work? I've created a movie that shows the difference image stabilization makes. I took two movies, simply by zooming the camera to the telephoto end and trying to stay fixed on my subject. I did this once with IS, and the other time without it. Click here to view the comparison (1.2MB).

When you want to attach a conversion lenses, just press that button to the lower-left of the lens, and remove the ring around the lens. You then just attach and twist the conversion lens adapter until it locks in place.

Straight about the lens is the S1's pop-up flash. This flash has a working range of 1.0 - 4.2 m at wide-angle, and 1.0 - 3.8 m at telephoto. You cannot attach an external flash to the PowerShot S1 (unlike some of the competition). Also found on the flash is a redeye reduction lamp.

To the left of the flash is the self-timer lamp, which is also lit up during filming (that would also make it a tally lamp).

The S1 isn't just unique for its stabilized lens and VGA video mode. It's also the only Canon camera in recent memory to lack an AF-assist lamp! (The Pro1 doesn't have one either, but it has a hybrid AF system instead). AF-assist lamps help the camera focus in dim lighting situations -- and I was very surprised to see that there wasn't one on the S1.

The S1 has a 1.5" LCD display which can flip-out and rotate, just like the A80, G3/G5, and Pro1. You can see three of the available positions in the photos above and below. The screen seemed a little small to me, especially compared to the monster LCDs on some of the other ultra zooms, but I don't see how they could've fit a larger one on the S1.

The screen itself has 114k pixels, which makes for a sharp image. The refresh rate on the screen is excellent, as is the brightness (which can be adjusted in two steps in the setup menu).

Here's the back of the S1 with the LCD in a more traditional position. Since I've mentioned the LCD already, let's move on to the electronic viewfinder. The EVF (as I'll call it) is like a small LCD screen that you look at as if it were an optical viewfinder. It has the same resolution as the main LCD -- 114k pixels -- and there's a diopter correction knob, which focuses the image on the EVF (useful if your vision isn't so hot).

These are nice because you can see the same thing as the camera sees, plus all the menus normally found on the LCD. The downsides are increased battery consumption, and resolution that doesn't compare to a real optical viewfinder. In bright and dim light, viewing he EVF can be difficult. Unlike some other cameras, the S1 doesn't brighten the image on the screen in dim light, making it very hard to see what you're looking at.

To the right of the EVF is the movie button -- what I'd call the standby/record button on a camcorder. This is solely used for recording movies. Press it once to start, and press it again when you're finished. I'll have much more on movies later in this review.

To the right of the LCD are four buttons. Top to bottom, these buttons are for:

Record Mode Function Playback Mode Function

Function Menu:

  • Exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV, 1/3EV increments)

  • White balance (Auto, daylight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent, fluorescent H, flash, custom)

  • ISO speed (Auto, 50, 100, 200, 400)

  • Photo effect (Off, vivid, neutral, low sharpening, sepia, black & white, custom effect)

  • Bracketing (AE, focus)

  • Flash adjust (-2EV to +2EV, 1/3EV increments)

  • Flash strength (1 - 3) - only shown in manual mode

  • Resolution / quality (see chart later in review)

Delete photo
Metering (Evaluative, center-weighted, spot) Voice memo - add a 60 second sound clip to an image
Shortcut button - you can set these to change virtually any option Jump - quickly move forward or backward in playback mode
Display - switches between EVF and LCD; also toggles info shown on LCD

 


Function menu

I wanted to touch on some of those items in the function menu. First I wanted to mention that the S1, like all Canon cameras, has a manual white balance setting. By shooting a white or gray card, you can get perfect color in any lighting.

The photo effect feature lets you quickly change the color of your image, or turn down the sharpness. For more control choose the custom effect option, which lets you adjust the contrast, sharpness, and saturation in three steps.

The shortcut button can do (almost) whatever you like. By default, it changes the image resolution, but you can also use it for adjusting image quality, ISO, frame rate (for movies), photo effect, AE/AF lock, white balance, and display off.

Back to the tour, now. Below the LCD, under a plastic cover, is where you'll find the S1's I/O ports. These include DC-in (for optional AC adapter), USB, and A/V out.

Over on the far right of the camera is the four-way controller, as as well as the set and menu buttons. The four way controller is used for menu navigation and changing manual settings. In addition to its menu navigation duties, the set button also lets you adjust the focus point, using Canon's FlexiZone system. This lets you move the focus point virtually anywhere in the frame, save for a margin around the edges.

Up on top of the PowerShot S1, you'll find more buttons and dials. On the far left are two buttons. The top one adjusts the flash (auto w/redeye reduction, auto, flash on w/redeye reduction, flash on, flash off), while the bottom one is the drive button (single shot, continuous shooting, self-timer/remote control).

I suppose this is as good a place as any to talk about the S1's continuous shooting abilities. The S1 shoots as fast as 1.7 frames/second, and I was able to take about 7 shots in a row before the frame rate slowed down. One thing to note about continuous shooting on cameras with electronic viewfinders is that tracking a moving subject can be difficult. Each time the picture is taken, the LCD/EVF freezes for a moment. In many cases, the subject has already moved out of the frame, and you've lost them. If you had an optical viewfinder, you could continue to follow the subject -- but all of these ultra zoom cameras have EVFs.

The next item over is the S1's microphone, which is placed about as far away from the lens as possible. That's good, since the camera lets you use the zoom during movie recording.

Continuing to the right, the next thing to talk about is the S1's mode dial. It has the following options:

Option Function
Movie Mode More on this later
Stitch Assist For help making panoramic shots
Slow shutter For blurring action
Fast shutter For freezing action
Night Scene For night shots
Landscape For landscapes
Portrait For portraits
Fully Auto Point-and-shoot mode, most settings locked up
Programmed Auto Camera chooses shutter speed and aperture. All menu options are unlocked.
Shutter Priority (Tv) You choose the shutter speed and the camera picks the proper aperture. You can choose from a number of speeds ranging from 15 sec - 1/2000 sec. The 1/2000 shutter speed is only available above F5.6 at wide-angle and F6.3 at telephoto.
Aperture Priority (Av) You pick the aperture, the camera picks the appropriate shutter speed. The choices range from F2.8 - F8 and will vary, depending on the current focal range.
Full Manual You pick the aperture and shutter speed. See above for values.
Custom Settings Your favorite camera settings, easily accessible

As you can see, you can store a sets of custom settings right on the mode dial. Once you've found the settings you like, just go to the menu and save them!

To the right of the mode dial is the power switch, which is also used to move between record and playback mode.

Above that is the zoom controller, with the shutter release button inside it. The lens moves from wide-angle to telephoto faster than any ultra zoom camera I've tested, taking just 0.9 seconds. If you use less pressure on the controller, you can make much more precise movements of the lens. The USM lens motor means that the lens moves very quietly.

On this side of the S1, you'll find a few buttons, as well as the speaker.


Manual focus

The top button (MF) turns on manual focus. By holding this button down, and using the up/down buttons on the four-way controller, you can set the focus to whatever you desire. A guide showing the current focus distance is shown on the LCD/EVF, and the center of the frame is enlarged (not shown in above picture), so you can make sure that the focus is accurate. You can also use the S1's autofocus system in MF mode, by pressing the "set" button.

The other button turns the image stabilizer on and off.

On this side of the S1 is the CompactFlash slot, which is kept behind a plastic door. This is a Type II slot, which allows you to use thicker cards, such as the Microdrive, in addition to regular CF cards.

The included 32MB "high speed" memory card is also shown.

Finally, here is the bottom of the camera. You can see the metal tripod mount as well as the battery compartment. The tripod mount is neither centered, nor inline with the lens. The battery compartment takes four AA batteries.

Using the Canon PowerShot S1 IS

Record Mode

It takes the PowerShot S1 about four seconds to extend the lens and "warm up" before you can start taking pictures.


No live histogram on the S1

Once you're up and running, you'll find autofocus speeds to be about average. Press the shutter release button halfway, and the camera usually locks focus in a bit under one second. At the telephoto end, or if the AF system needs to "hunt", expect a slightly longer wait. I was not impressed with the S1's low light focusing abilities -- the lack of an AF-assist lamp definitely hurts.

Shutter lag was not a major problem, even at near-tripod speeds (1/30 sec). The only time I noticed it was on long exposures (1 sec).

Shot-to-shot speed is very good on the S1. You will wait for just 1.5 seconds before you can take another shot, assuming that you've turned off the post-shot review feature.

You can delete a picture as it's been saved to the memory card by pressing the func/delete photo button.

Now, here's a look at the image size and quality choices available on the S1:

Resolution Quality Approx. file size # Images on 32MB card
(included)
Large
(2048 x 1536)
Superfine 1.6 MB 18
Fine 893 KB 33
Normal 445 KB 67
Medium 1
(1600 x 1200)
Superfine 1.0 MB 30
Fine 558 KB 54
Normal 278 KB 108
Medium 2
(1024 x 768)
Superfine 570 KB 53
Fine 320 KB 94
Normal 170 KB 174
Small
(640 x 480)
Superfine 249 KB 120
Fine 150 KB 196
Normal 84 KB 337

Images are named IMG_xxxx.JPG, where x = 0001 - 9999. The file numbering is maintained even if you replace and/or format memory cards.

Now, onto the menus!

The PowerShot S1 has the same menu system as the other PowerShot models. The items found here include:

The only thing that really needs explanation is the Intervalometer feature. This tool will let you use the S1 for time lapse photography. You select the interval between shots (1-60 minutes) and the total number of shots to be taken (2-100). Use of the optional AC adapter is strongly recommended.

There is also a setup menu on the S1, so let's take a look at that. Here's what you'll find in that menu:

The "My Camera'" menu allows you to customize the startup screen, beeps, and phony shutter sounds that your camera makes. If these bother you, you can also turn them off.

Well enough about menus, let's do photo tests now.

The PowerShot S1 is somewhat unique, in that it doesn't have a macro mode that you can turn on and off. Even so, you can still take closeup shots, with a minimum distance to the subject of 10 cm at wide-angle, and 93 cm at telephoto.

The S1 was able to produce a beautiful photo of our usual macro test subject, seen above. The image is sharp, and colors are accurate -- all-in-all, a very nice shot.

The night shot is detailed and well-exposed, but it's plagued by purple fringing (chromatic aberrations). An easy way to get rid of that problem is to close down the aperture a bit (by using a higher F-number). You can see the same photo at F5.0 by clicking here -- much better!

How does the S1 perform at higher ISO sensitivities? Have a look:


ISO 50

ISO 100

ISO 200


ISO 400

As you can probably tell, things start to get pretty noisy above ISO 200.

For an ultra zoom camera, the S1 doesn't have a lot of barrel distortion at the wide end of things. While this shot shows some vignetting (dark corners), I did not see this in any of my real world photos.

With a pop-up flash, I wasn't expecting to see much redeye on the S1. Unfortunately, I guessed wrong. Do remember that your mileage may vary -- it's different for everyone. You can remove redeye pretty well in software.

Overall, the PowerShot S1's photo quality was good. Images were usually well-exposed, colors were accurate, and subjects were sharp. Noise levels seemed a little higher than what I was used to seeing on a Canon camera, which ate away at some detail, but it wasn't a dealbreaker in my opinion. One thing that is more of a problem is purple fringing, which is common on ultra zoom cameras like this. You'll find it in most of the pictures in the gallery. You probably won't notice it if you make small prints of your photos, but for larger prints and computer viewing, you'll see it. Something you can try on the camera to reduce this phenomenon is to close the aperture down (as shown in the night shot section), but don't expect miracles. If you're skilled with Photoshop, you can get rid of it that way too. Purple fringing is -- unfortunately -- something you have to live with on big zoom cameras like this.

I've got a huge gallery of photos that I took with the PowerShot S1. Please, have a look at them, and decide if the quality meets your expectations. You are encouraged to print them, as well.

Movie Mode

This section has been updated since the review was originally posted.

As I mentioned at the start of the review, the S1 is designed to be both a digital still camera as well as a DV camcorder. Canon's PowerShot S1 features page makes some big claims about the S1's movie recording abilities. While the S1 lives up to most of those claims, it falls short in one pretty important area. Quoting from that page:

The PowerShot S1 IS has a greatly enhanced Movie Mode that lets you shoot up to sixty minutes* of DV-Quality VGA video with superior sound quality. Plus, you can zoom in the Movie Mode — and even edit your movies — right on the camera's LCD screen.
* Depends upon CF card size, speed and movie mode.

Here's what's true in that sentence:

So what's wrong with that sentence? It's the "up to sixty minutes of DV-quality VGA video" that's misleading (I guess that's why there's an asterisk there). Unless you consider 320 x 240 at 15 frames/seconds "DV quality", there's no coming close to the "up to sixty minutes" claim. In fact, at what I'd call "DV quality" (640 x 480 at 30 frames/sec), you can only record a little over eight minutes per clip!

That's because the S1 cannot store movies larger than 1GB in size (or one hour in length) -- regardless of how large your memory card is. This isn't an issue if you're just recording a few minutes of video. But if you wanted to record your child's performance in a play, you couldn't do so without starting a new clip every 8-9 minutes. And that assumes that you've got a monster (read: 8GB) memory card to work with.

This chart should put things into perspective:

Resolution Frame Rate Total recording time
(min:sec, per clip)
640 x 480 Fine 30 frames/sec 8:20
15 frames/sec 16:38
640 x 480 30 frames/sec 11:28
15 frames/sec 22:52
320 x 240 30 frames/sec 24:46
15 frames/sec 48:46

I must emphasize that those recording times are approximate. I was able to record a little over 9 minutes of the highest quality video using a 1GB CompactFlash card. The S1 just doesn't compare to a MiniDV camcorder which can store one hour of continuous 720 x 480 video @ 30 frames/sec on a single tape.

Now don't get me wrong, the S1's movie mode is still the best one I've seen on a digital camera. I'm just trying to make sure people understand that it's not a camcorder replacement. Both the video and sound quality is excellent. You can use the zoom during filming, though the microphone may pick up some of the motor noise. You need to make sure that you keep your fingers away from the microphone, as well. The image stabilizer can be used in movie mode, where it is just as useful as it is for taking still photos.

Another important note: you may need a "fast" CompactFlash card in order to record video at the highest quality setting. Movies are saved in AVI format.

Here's a sample movie for you, recorded at the 640 x 480 Fine setting. This clip is not for modem users, it's huge!


Click to play movie (22.7MB, 640 x 480 Fine, 30 fps, AVI format)
Can't view it? Download QuickTime.

Playback Mode

The S1 has the same, excellent playback mode as seen on other Canon cameras. Everything is very snappy.

The S1 has all the basic playback features that you'd expect. That includes slide shows, DPOF print marking, image protection, thumbnail mode, and zoom and scroll. Playback mode is also the place to print photos, when connected to a compatible Canon or PictBridge-enabled photo printer.

The zoom and scroll feature (my term) lets you blow up the picture up to 10X, and then scroll around in the zoomed-in area. It's nice and fast!

By pressing the metering/sound recording button on the back of the camera, you can add voice clips of up to 60 seconds per photo. Another nice feature is the ability to rotate photos. You can also mark photos for transfer to your e-mail program, assuming that you use Canon's software.

If you've recorded a movie, an editing function lets you trim unwanted frames from the beginning or end of it.

By default, the S1 doesn't give you much info about your photos. But press the display button and you'll get plenty of details, as well as a histogram.

The camera moves through photos quickly in playback mode, with a one second delay between each.

How Does it Compare?

While it's not the perfect ultra zoom camera, the Canon PowerShot S1 IS comes close. Even with a few flaws, it's still one of the best ultra zoom cameras, along with the Olympus C-740/750 (both replaced by the C-765/770), Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ10, and the Kodak EasyShare DX6490. Along with the Panasonic, the PowerShot S1 is the only camera in the bunch with an image stabilizer function, which counteracts the blurring effect of "camera shake". The S1 also features full manual controls, a swiveling (but small) LCD display, support for conversion lenses, and a compact body. Photo quality is good, though noisy for a Canon camera. Purple fringing, which plagues ultra zoom cameras, is above average on the S1.

And did I mention its movie mode? Without a doubt, the S1's movie mode is the finest you'll find on a digital camera. You can record high quality movies at 640 x 480, 30 frames/second, with sound -- and they look great. Should you be replacing your DV camcorder? Probably not. While the S1's movie mode is excellent, you can only record about nine minutes worth of video at the highest quality setting, compared to an hour on a MiniDV camcorder. You can stuff the biggest CompactFlash card on earth into the S1, and you'll still have the limit of 1GB (file size) or 1 hour, whichever comes first. For short clips, it's great -- but I don't think the camcorder is dead just yet.

Beside the two image quality issues above, the only other real complaints I have with the PowerShot S1 have to do with low light shooting. For one, the S1 lacks an AF-assist lamp -- something almost every other Canon camera has -- which made low light focusing frustrating. Secondly, the electronic viewfinder was too dark to see in dim lighting. Some cameras boost the signal on the EVF in low light, but the S1 isn't one of them. And finally, some rechargeable batteries in the box and a live histogram in record mode would've been a nice touch.

All things considered, the PowerShot S1 is a great -- but not quite perfect -- ultra zoom digital camera.

What I liked:

What I didn't care for:

Other ultra zoom cameras to consider include the Fuji FinePix S5000, HP Photosmart 945, Kodak EasyShare DX6490, Kyocera Finecam M410R, Minolta DiMAGE Z1 and Z2, Olympus C-740 and C-750 Ultra Zooms (which are about to be replaced by the C-765 and C-770), Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ10, and the Toshiba PDR-M700.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the PowerShot S1 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

Want to see some pictures? Check out the photo gallery!

Want another opinion?

Read more reviews at Steve's Digicams and Digital Photography Review.

Feedback & Discussion

If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.

To discuss this review with other DCRP readers, please visit our forums.

 

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