DCRP Review: Canon PowerShot S50
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: February 26, 2003
Last Updated: June 28, 2003

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Following closely on the footsteps of the successful PowerShot S45 (see our review), Canon has introduced the PowerShot S50 ($699), their first 5 Megapixel camera.

Like the S45, the S50 is a "light" version of Canon's flagship PowerShot G3 (except for the higher resolution). It offers most of the G3's features, including the DIGIC image processor, FlexiZone AF, improved movie mode, and the light guide flash. What it lacks is a hot shoe, flip-out LCD, and neutral density filter. And of course, the body and lens are different. For more info on some of these features, be sure to glance over our G3 review.

The S50 is the exact same camera as the S45, except for:

  • Resolution
  • Color of body (note: the S50 will be silver in countries other than the U.S.)
  • 4.1X digital zoom (vs 3.6X on S45)
  • Compatible with FAT32 file format on cards > 2GB

With that in mind, this review will be very similar to the S45 review (and I mean it). Of course, all sample photos and test shots are original.

What's in the Box?

The PowerShot S50 has an excellent bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 5.0 Mpixel Canon PowerShot S50 camera
  • 32MB CompactFlash card
  • NB-2L Li-ion rechargeable battery
  • Battery charger
  • Wrist strap
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • CD-ROM featuring Canon Digital Camera Solutions, ArcSoft Camera Suite, and drivers
  • 181 page camera manual + software manual (both printed)

The S50 doesn't have as nice of a bundle as the G3, but it's still excellent (the remote control and AC adapter are exclusive to the G3).

The included 32MB CompactFlash card is a good place to start, but you'll definitely need a larger card. The S50 works with Type I or Type II CompactFlash cards, so the IBM Microdrive is an option (and a good one at that).

The S50 uses a smaller battery than the G3. The NB-2L battery has a respectable 4.2 Watt/hours of power. Canon estimates that you can get about 335 photos per charge with 50% LCD use, or 3 hours in playback mode. The battery on the G3 lasts about twice as long.

Canon includes an external battery charger with the S50. You plug it directly into the wall -- no cords needed. I like that. Charging the battery takes about 80 minutes.

The downside with proprietary batteries like the NB-2L is the cost ($70) and the fact that you can't use standard batteries (as you can with AA-based cameras) if you're in a bind. That's why I usually prefer cameras that use AA batteries.


The S50 has a built-in lens cover

The PowerShot S50 doesn't have nearly as many accessories as the G3, such as add-on lenses or an external flash. But there are still some good ones, including an AC adapter, soft case, and car battery adapter.


WP-DC300 waterproof case

My favorite accessory has to be the WP-DC300 waterproof case ($240), which lets you take your S50 up to 100 feet underwater.

Canon includes their excellent Digital Camera Solutions software, as well as ArcSoft's Camera Suite, with the S50. The main programs in the DCS software package are ImageBrowser/ZoomBrowser (Mac/PC names), PhotoStitch (a great panorama creation product), and Remote Capture (which lets your Mac or PC control the camera over the USB connection). Canon's software continues to be head and shoulders over the competition, in my opinion. Best of all (for us Mac users, at least), the main programs (ImageBrowser, PhotoStitch, Remote Capture) are Mac OS X native!

Canon is also one of the best at creating camera manuals. Unlike the "VCR manuals" produced by some other manufacturers, Canon's manuals are well laid-out and easy to read. There are thick, printed manuals for both the camera and the software.

Look and Feel

The S50 is a mid-sized, all metal camera, now with a professional black finish. It's not a whole lot smaller than the G3, and is a little large to be called "pocket size". It's very sturdy, as you'd expect with a metal camera. One negative about metal cameras is that they can scratch easily (though the black body covers it up a bit).

The dimensions of the S50 are 4.4 x 2.3 x 1.7 inches (WxHxD), and it weighs 260 grams empty. The G3 weighs about 150 grams more.

The S50 has the now familiar F2.8, 3X optical zoom lens that was on the S30, S40, and S45. The focal range of this lens is 7.1 - 21.3 mm, which is equivalent to 35 - 105 mm. If the 3X zoom isn't enough, you can turn on a 4.1X digital zoom, though image quality will be noticeably reduced.

Just above the lens is the autofocus (AF) illuminator. This bright light helps the camera focus in low light situations. It should be on every camera, in my opinion.

To the right of that is the new "light guide" flash, also found on the S45 and G3. This design prevents the wasting of flash power that is common on "regular" flashes -- it is much more focused than a normal flash. The working range of the flash is 0.35 - 4.8 m at wide-angle, and 0.35 - 3.0 m at telephoto. The S50 does not support external flashes.

As you saw earlier in the review, the camera has a sliding cover which protects the lens. It is also used as the power switch for the camera. If you want to just enter playback mode, you can use the button on the back of the camera.

Speaking of which, here is the back of the S50 now. The 1.8" LCD is very good, with a bright, sharp, and fluid image. It is tough to see outdoors in bright light, though, which is "how it is" with digital cameras. It's nice to see that Canon hasn't compromised on LCD size on their high end cameras, unlike some other manufacturers.

Above the LCD is the optical viewfinder, which is good-sized. It shows 82% of the frame, according to Canon. There is no diopter adjustment for those of us with less than perfect vision though.

To the left of the viewfinder are three buttons. They have different functions depending on which mode you're in, record or playback. From top to bottom:

Record Mode Function Playback Mode Function

Function:

  • Exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV, 1/3EV increments)
  • White Balance - see below
  • Drive - see below
  • ISO (Auto, 50, 100, 200, 400)
  • Photo effect (Off, vivid color, neutral color, low sharpening, sepia, black & white, custom effect)
  • Bracketing (AE, focus) - more below
  • Flash exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV, 1/3EV increments) / flash output (1 - 3)
  • Image Size/Quality
N/A
Manual Focus - see below Delete photo
Metering (Evaluative, center-weighted, spot) Voice annotation

I need to do some major explanation for some of those items in the Function Menu.


Function Menu

Like the G3, the S50 has numerous white balance options, including two custom slots:

  • Auto
  • Daylight
  • Cloudy
  • Tungsten
  • Fluorescent
  • Fluorescent H
  • Flash
  • Custom 1
  • Custom 2

Using the custom modes, you can shoot a piece of white or gray paper, so you can get perfect white balance in any lighting.

There are five drive modes available:

  • Single-shot
  • Normal continuous - 1.5 frames/sec
  • High speed continuous - 2 frames/sec, no preview between shots
  • Self-timer (2, 10 sec)
Normal Color Vivid Color Neutral Color

Photo effects let you quickly change the color of your photos -- you can see some of them above (full-size images are in the gallery). There is also a new photo effect on the G3 and S50: custom effect. Here you can save brightness, contrast, and saturation into this spot, for easy retrieval. You can use photo effects in any mode, including movie mode.

The S50 can do two types of bracketing: exposure and focus. In exposure bracketing, you pick a median value and choose the range. For example, I could do -1/3EV, 0EV, and +1/3EV. It's done graphically on the LCD and it makes sense. AE bracketing is a good way to ensure that your photos are properly exposed. Focus bracketing is the same idea: you choose a median value and the camera focuses a littler further away and a little closer. It makes more sense if you try it yourself.


Flash Output, in manual mode

The flash exposure compensation feature varies, depending on what mode you're in. Normally, it'll be just like regular exposure compensation. In manual (M) mode, you can adjust the flash power in three steps: 1/3, 2/3 or full strength.


Manual focus

Like some other higher end cameras, the S50 can enlarge the center of the frame in manual focus mode, so you can make sure you're subject is in focus. A little gauge on the LCD shows you the current focus distance. You use the four-way switch to focus.

Back to our tour now -- to the right of the LCD are buttons for menu and display. Pressing the display button will toggle the LCD on and off, as well as the information shown on it.

To the left of the optical viewfinder are buttons for flash mode (auto w/redeye reduction, auto, forced w/redeye reduction, forced, off) and macro mode. In playback mode, those buttons are used for thumbnail mode and "jumping" through photos quickly.

On the opposite site of the viewfinder is a switch which enters playback mode. If you don't plan on taking any pictures, you can use this button to turn on the camera, instead of opening the lens cover.

To the right of that is the four-way switch, which I still think is difficult to operate. Moving up/down/left/right isn't the problem -- getting it to press inwards for the "enter" function isn't easy. I'd rather have a more traditional four-way switch, like on the G3.

In the automatic and scene modes, pressing the switch inwards also activates the 9-point AiAF focusing system. The camera will choose one of 9 points in the frame to focus on. In manual modes, this will activate the FlexiZone AF system, which lets you move the focusing box to nearly any point on the LCD (except for the edges), so you can really target the focusing system. It's strange that the 9-point mode is only available in auto mode!

Up on top of the camera you'll find the speaker, microphone, mode wheel, zoom controller, and shutter release button.

The options on the mode wheel include:

Option Function
Movie Mode More on this later
Stitch Assist For help making panoramic shots
Slow Shutter Self explanatory
Fast Shutter
Night Scene For night shots
Landscape For landscapes
Portrait For portraits, believe it or not
Fully Auto Point-and-shoot mode, many options are locked
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 correct aperture. You can choose from a number of speeds ranging from 15 sec - 1/1500 sec. The 1/1500 shutter speed is only available above F4.0 at wide-angle and F7.1 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 focal range used.
Full Manual You pick the aperture and shutter speed. See above for values.
Custom Settings Your saved settings, easy to access.

As you can see, you can have one set of custom settings (versus two on the G3) right on the mode wheel. You do so via an option in the menu.

The zoom controller moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in under two seconds. The zoom moves at one speed only, so it's hard to be precise.

Here is the side of the PowerShot S50. Under that plastic cover, you'll find the USB and A/V out ports.

Nothing to see here except for some smudged fingerprints.

Finally, here is the bottom of the camera. You can see the metal tripod mount as well as the battery compartment and CompactFlash slot. This is a Type II slot, so Microdrives work just fine.

One thing to note is that since the CF slot is on the bottom, you'll have to take the camera off a tripod to remove the card.

If you buy the AC adapter, you stick a DC coupler in where the battery sits, and feed the power cable out through a little hole.

The included battery and CF card are shown at right.

Using the Canon PowerShot S50

Record Mode

The S50 takes about 3.5 seconds to extend the lens and "warm up" before you can start taking pictures. If you desire, you can change the startup screen and sounds, via the menu system. Or better yet, turn them off.

The same things I wrote about autofocus lag on the S45 apply here. Press the shutter release button halfway and the camera generally focuses in a second or a little less. It will take a little longer if the AF-assist lamp is used (about 1.4 sec in my test). The AF illuminator helped the S50 focus well in low light.

In terms of shutter lag, the S50 has very little when the shutter speed is fast. When it has to use a slower speed, there is a noticeable (but still brief) lag. But you probably shouldn't be hand-holding the camera at those speeds anyway

Shot-to-shot speed is excellent. You will wait for just under 2 seconds before you can take another shot, even in RAW mode -- the same as the S45.

After a picture is taken, you have two options. Press the Delete button, and you can delete the photo as it is being written to memory. Press the Func. button, and you'll be able to save the image in RAW format instead of JPEG.

Like the G3, the S50 doesn't show a live histogram as you're composing a shot. You can see one after you take a picture by pressing Display while the image is shown on the LCD.

Now, here's a look at the image size and quality choices available on the S50:

Resolution Quality # Images on 32MB card
Large
(2592 x 1944)
RAW 5
Superfine 11
Fine 21
Normal 43
Medium 1
(1600 x 1200)
Superfine 30
Fine 54
Normal 108
Medium 2
(1024 x 768)
Superfine 53
Fine 94
Normal 174
Small
(640 x 480)
Superfine 120
Fine 196
Normal 337

RAW mode, by the way, is a format where the image is stored as uncompressed data from the CCD. The files are larger than normal JPEGs, but smaller than TIFF files (which no Canon camera supports). Information about exposure and white balance are stored in the file, so you can tweak them later on the computer. That's also the point where you can save RAW files in other formats, such as TIFF.

Images are named IMG_xxxx.JPG, where x = 0001 - 9900. The file numbering is maintained even if you replace and/or format memory cards.

Now, onto the menus!

The S50 has the same easy-to-use menu system as the S45 and G3. Here's a look at the record mode menu:

  • Flash sync (1st, 2nd-curtain)
  • Slow synchro (on/off)
  • Redeye reduction (on/off)
  • Spot AE point (Center, AF point) - what part of the frame is used to judge exposure while in spot metering mode
  • MF-Point zoom (on/off) - turns on zoom feature in manual focus mode
  • AF-assist beam (on/off)
  • Digital zoom (on/off) - using this will reduce photo quality
  • Review (Off, 2-10 sec)
  • Intervalometer - see below
  • Save settings (to "C" on mode wheel)

There are fewer options on the S50 than the G3, in case you were wondering.

The Intervalometer (gotta love that word) tool will let you set up the camera for time lapse photography. You choose the interval between shots (1-60 minutes) and the total number of shots to be taken (2-100). Using the AC adapter is strongly recommended.

There is also a setup menu on the S50, so let's take a look at that. Here are the interesting items:

  • Beep (on/off)
  • LCD brightness (Normal, bright)
  • Beep volumes (for shutter, playback, startup, operation, self-timer)
  • File number reset (on/off)
  • Auto rotate (on/off) - rotate your images automatically in playback mode
  • Distance units (metric, imperial)
  • Language (English, Deutsch, Français, Nederlands, Dansk, Suomi, Italiano, Norsk, Svenska, Español, Chinese, Japanese)
  • Video system (NTSC, PAL)

If you so desire, you can customize the startup screen, beeps, and phony shutter sounds that your S50 makes. If these bother you, you can also turn them off.

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

The S50 turned in a good performance in our macro test -- no complaints from me. The colors on our famous 3" tall figurine look perfect. The camera has a focal range of 10 - 50 cm at wide-angle, and 30 - 50 cm at telephoto. The recordable area is 110 x 80 mm at wide-angle and 113 x 83 mm at telephoto.

The S50 did a really amazing job with this night shot (the location didn't hurt either). I took the same shot with my EOS-D60, and the S50's photo comes pretty close. It is a little noisier than my D60, even though the D60's exposure was 30 sec, versus 10 sec here. Nevertheless, the S50's full manual controls will you pull off amazing night shots, as long as you use a tripod!

Redeye is sort of a mixed bag with the S50, as well as the S45 and G3, and I think the new light guide flash has something to do with it. I found that if you're able to get perfectly inline with the flash (both horizontally and vertically), redeye will be pretty minor, as you can see above. However, if you're not in the right spot, the redeye is very noticeable. For two additional redeye tests that show this, check out the S45 review.

Our new (and completely unscientific) distortion test illustrates the barrel distortion evident at wide-angle, as well as a tiny bit of vignetting (darkened corners).

The S50's overall photo quality was excellent in my opinion. The colors were always accurate and the exposures were good in most cases, even in challenging situations (you'll find two in the gallery). Purple fringing was rarely seen. The corners of the images seem a little blurry sometimes, but the older models had this issue as well. And maybe it's just me, but the S50's photos seem just a little bit sharper than the "smooth" look of the S45.

Don't just take my word for it though -- have a look at the photo gallery and let your own eyes be the judge!

Movie Mode

The S50 has the same, improved movie mode as the G3/S45. The resolution is 320 x 240 or 160 x 120, and you can now record for up to 3 minutes per movie (regardless of resolution). Of course, the included 32MB card only holds about 91 seconds worth, but if you had a larger card, you could do 3 mins.

Sound is recorded with the movie, which is saved in AVI format using the M-JPEG codec. You can use the photo effect feature in movie mode, so you can make black and white or sepia movies if you desire.

Not surprisingly, you cannot use the zoom lens during filming. This is the norm for cameras that record sound with movies (okay, except for this HP camera).

Movies can be edited in playback mode. You can delete unwanted frames from the first or second half of the movie, and either save it as a new movie, or overwrite the current one.

Here's a sample movie for you:


Click to play movie (2.8MB, AVI format)

Can't view it? Download QuickTime.

Playback Mode

The playback mode on the S50 is just like that of the S45/G3. There aren't a lot of gimmicks, and the basic features are implemented very well. That includes slide shows, image protection, thumbnail mode, image rotation, and DPOF print marking.

The zoom & scroll feature is the best on Canon cameras, and it's even faster on the S50 thanks to the new DIGIC image processor. You can zoom into your images up to 10X, with many steps in between. Scrolling around in the enlarged area is very snappy.

Moving between images is very quick as well -- a little over a second between high res thumbnails.

You can find out almost everything about your photo, including a histogram, by pressing the display button.

The S50 is one of those "always ready to shoot" cameras. In playback mode, you can just half-press the shutter release button to get back to record mode, assuming that the lens cover is open.

How Does it Compare?

Like the PowerShot S45, the S50 is an excellent camera in a small (but not too small) package. As I mentioned at the beginning of the review, they are virtually identical exception for the CCD. The S50 offers superb photo quality, full manual controls, an AF assist lamp, fast performance, and nice movie and playback modes. The downsides are few: redeye can be a problem, there's no diopter correction feature or a live histogram. And I'm still not a fan of the four-way switch. The S50 definitely gets my recommendation.

For the next question: S45 or S50? For the average person, the S45 is plenty. If you're printing large size prints (and by that I don't mean 8 x 10), the S50 is worth the extra dough. I suppose some people will be drawn to the S50 by the high Megapixel count and/or professional black body, but you don't need to go overboard. Either camera is an excellent choice, though.

What I liked:

  • Excellent photo quality
  • Robust performance
  • Has an AF illuminator lamp
  • Lots of manual controls (not as many as the G3, but plenty for most)
  • FlexiZone focusing system lets you focus on any area of frame; 9 point AiAF for automatic modes too.
  • Impressive movie, playback modes
  • Great software bundle

What I didn't care for:

  • Redeye noticeable if not directly inline with flash
  • No diopter correction knob
  • No live histogram in record mode
  • Four-way switch poorly designed
  • Proprietary battery

Other small, full-featured 5 Megapixel cameras to check out include the Fuji FinePix F601Z (I suppose), Konica KD-500Z, Kyocera Finecam S5, Minolta DiMAGE F300, Nikon Coolpix 5000, Olympus C-50Z, Pentax Optio 550, and the Sony DSC-P92, -P10, and -V1.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the PowerShot S50 and it's competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

Want to see how the photo quality turned out? Check out our PowerShot S50 gallery!

Want a second opinion?

None yet.

Feedback

Jeff welcomes your comments or questions. Send them to jakeller@pair.com. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.

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