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Canon PowerShot S95 Review

How Does it Compare?

The Canon PowerShot S90 was already an impressive camera, and the S95 is a nice (but not major) upgrade that adds some useful new features. The basics haven't changed; the S95 still has a 10 Megapixel, high sensitivity CCD, fast 3.8X optical zoom lens, and customizable controls of its predecessor. The new features include an improved image stabilization system, useful HDR and shadow/highlight correction options, and a 720p movie mode. The S95 also retains many of the annoyances of the PowerShot S90, which include so-so ergonomic and below average battery life. Even with a few flaws, I like the PowerShot S95, and think that it's a great choice for those who want a capable low light camera that can go anywhere you do.

The PowerShot S95 is a compact camera (about the size of a deck of cards) with a professional-looking matte black finish. The body won't win any awards for durability, but it's solid enough for most purposes. I wasn't a fan of the ergonomics of the PowerShot S90, and not a lot has changed here. The buttons on the top of the camera can easily be confused, the flash takes up valuable finger space when it's popped up, and the zoom controller / shutter release combo is on the small side. Canon did improve the rear control dial, which now gives tactile feedback when you rotate it. Speaking of rotation, one of the unique features on the S95 is the customizable control ring that sits around its lens. You can adjust the zoom, the ISO, the shutter speed or aperture, fine-tune white balance, jump through photos you've taken, and more. In the middle of that ring is the S95's F2.0-4.9, 3.8X optical zoom lens, which is equivalent to 28 - 105 mm. At wide-angle, this lens allows more than a full stop worth of light to hit the sensor than your typical compact camera. The S95 also sports a new "hybrid" image stabilization system that can correct for both shift and angular camera shake. On the back of the camera is one of the best LCDs you'll find these days. The screen is 3 inches in size, with 461,000 pixels and excellent visibility outdoors and in low light. The S95 does not have an optical viewfinder, nor does it support adding one, like the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 does (though it's a considerably larger camera).

The S95 packs a lot of features into its compact body. On the point-and-shoot size, you have a newly enhanced Smart Auto mode, which selects one of 28 scene modes automatically, even detecting when a tripod is in use. There are plenty of other scene modes, plus some new special effect options like "miniature". Another scene mode is HDR, which combines three different exposures into a single image, allowing for greatly improved dynamic range. Do note that you'll need to use a tripod in order to get the most out of the HDR feature. Also available are shadow and dynamic range correction options, both of which work quite well (and you don't need a tripod). Naturally, the S95 has face detection, but it also has cool face, smile, and "wink" self-timers, too. Beginners will also appreciate the Hints & Tips feature that describes each of the menu options. The PowerShot S95 has plenty of manual controls, as well, ranging from shutter speed and aperture to focus to white balance. The camera is highly customizable, with the ability to set the function of buttons, dials, and menus. The camera also supports the RAW image format, and Canon includes some pretty powerful editing software in the box. The movie mode has been improved since the S90, with the new ability to record 720p video with stereo sound. The bad news is that the frame rate is 24 fps (so video looks a bit choppy) and that the optical zoom cannot be used while you're recording.

Camera performance was generally good. The PowerShot S95 is ready to start taking photos after just one second. The camera focuses fairly quickly, with wide-angle times between 0.3 and 0.5 seconds, and telephoto delays about twice as long. The S95 focuses well in low light, courtesy of its AF-assist lamp. I didn't find shutter lag to be a problem, and shot-to-shot speeds ranged from 1.5 to 3 seconds, depending on the image quality and flash settings. The PowerShot S95's burst mode got a speed bump, now with the ability to take an unlimited number of photos at 1 frame/sec for RAW and just under 2 frames/sec for JPEGs. Unfortunately, battery life went in the opposite direction, dropping from 220 to 200 shots per charge, which is below average for this class.

There's not much to complain about in the photo quality department. The S95 takes photos which are well-exposed, with bright, vivid color. It doesn't escape from the (common) problem of highlight clipping, though the HDR and DR correction features can help ameliorate that issue. The S95 is about one full stop more sensitive than your typical compact camera. The camera keeps noise well under control through ISO 400, with higher sensitivities remaining quite usable, especially if you shoot RAW and do some easy post-processing. Canon goes pretty easy on the noise reduction too, so there isn't a lot of detail smudging in photos. Purple fringing levels were low, but unfortunately, redeye was a problem (why it wasn't on the S90 is beyond me).

There are a couple of other things to mention before I wrap things up. The full camera manual is now in PDF format on an included CD-ROM, which is a downgrade from the S90 as far as I'm concerned. As with that camera, there's no memory card supplied in the box, nor does the S95 have any onboard memory. Finally, you won't be able to access the memory card slot while the camera is on a tripod.

Despite a few issues, the PowerShot S95 is one of the best compact cameras on the market, as was its predecessor. Combine the better-than-average photo quality with a fast lens, beautiful LCD, boatload of auto and manual controls, and HD movie recording, and you've got yourself a camera that's easy for me to recommend.

What I liked:

  • Very good photo quality, with a full stop advantage over typical compact cameras at high sensitivities
  • Fast F2.0-4.9, 28 - 105 mm zoom lens
  • New and improved "hybrid" optical image stabilization
  • High resolution 3-inch LCD with outstanding outdoor and low light visibility
  • Fast start-up time
  • Full manual controls, including RAW support
  • Smart Auto mode picks one of 28 scene modes for you
  • Handy HDR, shadow, and dynamic range correction features
  • Lots of customizable stuff: control ring and shortcut button, self-timer, My Menu, custom spot on mode dial
  • Cool face, smile, and wink self-timers
  • Records 720p24 video with stereo sound
  • Optional underwater case
  • HDMI output

What I didn't care for:

  • Redeye a problem; some highlight clipping
  • Videos are a bit choppy due to 24 fps frame rate; optical zoom cannot be used while recording a movie
  • Ergonomic annoyances: ring function / power buttons easy to confuse, small zoom controller / shutter release button, flash takes up finger space when raised
  • Below average battery life
  • No optical viewfinder
  • Full manual on CD-ROM
  • No memory card included; can't access memory card slot while using a tripod

Some other cameras worth considering include the Fuji FinePix F300EXR, Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5, Samsung TL500, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX5.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local camera or electronics store to try out the PowerShot S95 and its competitors before you buy.

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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.