Canon PowerShot S95 Review

Look and Feel

With really only two exceptions, the design of the PowerShot S95 is identical to that of the S90 that it replaces. The more noticeable of the two changes is that the body has a matte (rather than glossy) finish. While the S95 is a bit easier to hold than the S90 was, the surface is still a bit slippery, and the lack of a grip doesn't make it feel any more secure in your hands. Another change on the S95 is a more "notchy" control dial on the back of the camera. The tactile feedback makes using dial much less frustrating than it was on the S90.

The S95 is a small camera -- about the size of a deck of cards -- and while it can be used with one hand, you'll probably need to use your other hand when operating the control dial around the lens. Some annoyances from the S90 that carried over here include the Ring Func and power buttons on the top of the camera (they feel the same and right next to each other), the lack of a thumb rest (the little "ledge" on the back doesn't do it for me), and the fact that the pop-up flash takes the majority of the finger-space on the top of the camera. The S95 is definitely a camera you want to try before you buy it!

Now let's take a look at how the PowerShot S95 compares to the few other cameras in its class in terms of size and weight:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon PowerShot S90 3.9 x 2.3 x 1.2 in. 10.8 cu in. 175 g
Canon PowerShot S95 3.9 x 2.3 x 1.2 in. 10.8 cu in. 170 g
Fuji FinePix F300EXR 4.1 x 2.3 x 1.3 in. 12.3 cu in. 195 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 4.3 x 2.6 x 1.7 in. 19 cu in. 233 g
Samsung TL500 4.5 x 2.5 x 1.2 in. 13.5 cu in. 356 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX5 3.6 x 2.1 x 0.9 in. 6.8 cu in. 130 g

As you can see, the PowerShot S95 has the same dimensions as the S90, though it's slightly lighter (why, I do not know). In the group as a whole, it's the second smallest and lightest camera in the group, after the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX5 (though it has a smaller LCD, which accounts for most of the difference).

Okay, let's start our tour of the PowerShot S95, beginning with the front.

Front of the Canon PowerShot S95

The lens on the PowerShot S95 is the same one that came on its predecessor. That makes it a fast F2.0-4.9, 3.8X optical zoom lens, with a focal range of 6.0 - 22.5 mm (equivalent to 28 - 105 mm). What makes this lens "fast" is the maximum aperture rating -- the S95 lets in at least a full stop more light than typical compact cameras. That means faster shutter speeds and sharper photos! I do wish that the aperture at the telephoto end was a bit quicker, but I guess you can't have it all. The lens isn't threaded, so conversion lenses and filters are not supported.

Behind that lens is the second part of the camera's "High Sensitivity System" (the lens being the first), and that's its 10 Megapixel CCD. Typical compact cameras use a 1/2.3 (0.43) inch sensor, while the one here is 1/1.7 (0.58) inches in size. That, combined with the lower overall pixel count, means more surface area to capture light with, which allows for higher sensitivity! The third part of the High Sensitivity System is the camera's DIGIC 4 processor, which was also present on the S90.

The PowerShot S95 has an enhanced "Hybrid" optical image stabilization system. I like Canon's explanation of this feature, so I'm just going to copy it for you:

Hybrid IS employs both an angular sensor and an accelerometer, enabling it to suppress both the blur caused by the angle of the camera and the "shift blur" that happens when your subject moves parallel to the camera, a problem that is especially noticeable at large zoom factors.

Sounds good to me! Image stabilization systems can't do it all, though. They can't freeze a moving subject, nor will they allow for multi-second, handheld exposures. But it's way better than having at all! Here's an example of the S95's IS system in action:

Image stabilization off

Image stabilization on

Both of the above photos were taken at a shutter speed of 1/5 of a second, which is normally where you'd be reaching for your tripod. The S95's image stabilizer lets you keep the tripod in the closet, as it was able to produce a sharp photo. As you'd expect, you can use the image stabilization system in movie mode as well, and you can see how well it works in this brief video clip.

To the upper-right of the lens is the S95's pop-up flash. This flash rises automatically when you activate the flash, and when you disable it, it goes back down. The flash is quite powerful at wide-angle, and just okay at telephoto (where it's slightly better than the S90). The flash range is 0.5 - 6.5 m at wide-angle and 0.9 - 3.0 m at telephoto with the ISO set to Auto. While Canon does offer an external flash for the S95, do note that it's a slave flash that does not integrate with the camera in any way.

Those two pin holes below the lens are the camera's stereo microphones. Stereo sound in movie mode is one of the S95's new features.

The last thing to see on the front of the camera is the AF-assist lamp, which is just to the right of the Canon logo. The camera uses this lamp as a focusing aid in low light situations, and it also serves as a visual countdown for the self-timer.

The PowerShot S95 retains the same 3-inch, 461,000 pixel LCD display as its predecessor. This is one of the best screens that you'll find on a compact camera, with excellent sharpness and top-notch outdoor visibility. The screen is easy to see in low light too, as it "gains up" automatically in those situations.

Now let's talk about the stuff to the right of the LCD. That little ledge between the mode dial and the buttons is a thumb rest, though I found that my thumb sat on the four-way controller and shortcut button, as well. Speaking of which, that Shortcut button is customizable, and by default it does nothing (I'll tell you what it can do later in the review). When you're connected to a photo printer, this button will print the photo you're currently viewing. The Playback button next door does exactly as it sounds.

Under those is the combination four-way controller and control dial. The dial is used for many things, including navigating menus, quickly skimming through photos you've taken, and adjusting exposure settings. While it's still pretty easy to accidentally turn the dial, Canon did give it a more "notchy" feel, which makes a huge difference when changing settings. The four-way controller that sits inside of the dial can be used for many of the same things, and it also does the following:

  • Up - Exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV, 1/3EV increments) + Jump (playback option)
  • Down - Self-timer (Off, custom) + Delete photo
  • Left - Focus (Normal, macro, manual) + AF lock (hold down shutter release halfway and press left to activate)
  • Right - Flash (Auto, on, slow synchro, off)
  • Center - Function menu (see below) + Set

Customizable self-timer

The PowerShot S95 has a fully customizable self-timer feature. Using the control ring around the lens (which I'll tell you more about in a bit) and the control dial, you can select both the countdown delay and the number of shots the camera will take. There are smile and wink self-timer features that I'll get to in a moment.

Manual focus mode (center-frame enlargement not shown)

As you'd expect on this full-featured compact camera, the PowerShot S95 has a manual focus option. This feature lets you use the control dial to set the focus distance yourself (you can also use the ring around the lens, if you change some settings). A guide showing the focus distance is displayed on the right side of the LCD, and the center of the frame is enlarged, as well.

Function menu

Pressing the center button on the four-way controller options up the Function menu, which has these options:

  • DR correction (Off, auto, 200%, 400%) - see below
  • Shadow correction (Off, auto) - see below
  • ISO speed (80 - 3200, 1/3-stop increments) - ISO goes to 12,800 in low light mode, at 2.5 MP
  • White balance (Auto, daylight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent, fluorescent H, flash, underwater, custom) - see below
  • My Colors (Off, vivid, neutral, sepia, black & white, positive film, lighter skin tone, darker skin tone, vivid blue, vivid green, vivid red, custom color) - see below
  • Bracketing (Off, exposure, focus) - see below
  • Drive mode (Single-shot, continuous, continuous AF) - see below
  • Flash compensation/output (-2EV to +2EV or 1/3, 2/3, Full) - choices depend on shooting mode
  • Metering (Evaluative, center-weighted, spot)
  • Aspect ratio (16:9, 3:2, 4:3, 1:1, 4:5) - these are new to the S95
  • Image size/quality (see chart later in review)

Two of the new features on the PowerShot S95 are related to dynamic range and shadow correction. Dynamic Range correction attempts to reduce highlight clipping. The first thing you need to know about this is that the ISO needs to go up in order to take advantage of DR correction. To use the Auto DR option, the ISO must be set to Auto. For 200% DR, the ISO must be 160, and for 400% it must go to 320. Thus, images may get noisier when you use this feature. Does it reduce highlight clipping? Let's take a look.

DR Correct off
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Auto DR Correct
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200% DR Correct
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400% DR Correct
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The original photo is loaded with highlight clipping. The Auto DR Correct setting does a really nice job of restoring highlight detail, and that's the setting I'd recommend using. If you compare the 200% and 400% examples, you'll see that the Auto option used something in-between those two. Since the S95 already does pretty well at ISO 400 and below, the increase in noise is negligible.

The Shadow Correction feature seems to be the replacement for the i-Contrast feature that was on the PowerShot S90, at least in record mode. The feature does exactly as it sounds -- it brightens the underexposed areas of your photos. There are just two settings: off and auto. Unlike with the DR correct feature, the ISO does not need too be increased when using shadow correction. Here's an example of the Shadow Correction feature:

Shadow correction off
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Shadow correction on
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Not only does the Shadow Correction feature brighten the dark areas of your photos, it even makes people suddenly appear! Okay, that last part is a joke, but as you can see, this feature works as advertised. It will increase noise levels a bit, but not to the point where it really degrades the image quality.

Fine-tuning white balance

The S95 has a pretty nice set of white balance controls. In addition to the usual presets, there's also a custom spot, which allow to use a white or gray card to get accurate color in unusual lighting conditions. You can fine-tune any of the white balance items, in the amber-blue and/or green-magenta directions. Two things you can't do on the PowerShot S95: bracket for white balance or manually set the color temperature.

The My Colors feature are unchanged since the S90, and require little explanation. The one item that I should mention is the custom color setting, where you can manually adjust contrast, sharpness, saturation, as well as red/green/blue/skin tone levels. There are two other My Colors options (Color Accent and Color Swap) that I'll tell you about in a bit.

The S95 has the ability to bracket for both exposure and focus. For exposure, the camera takes three photos in a row, each with a different exposure value. The interval between each shot can be as little as 1/3EV or as much as 2EV. Focus bracketing is something that you can use in manual focus mode. The camera also takes three shots in a row: one at the manual focus position, a second a little closer, and a third a little further away. You can adjust how large the interval between each shot is, though it's not specific (just small, medium, or large).

Now let's get into the continuous shooting mode on the PowerShot S95. There are three continuous modes on the camera: regular (which locks the focus on the first shot), AF (which refocuses before each shot), and LV (locks focus on first shot -- for use with manual focus, AF lock, and fireworks mode only). Here's what kind of performance you can expect from the S95's continuous modes:

Quality Continuous Continuous AF *
RAW + JPEG (Large/Fine) Unlimited @ 0.9 fps Unlimited @ 0.6 fps
RAW Unlimited @ 1.0 fps Unlimited @ 0.6 fps
JPEG (Large/ Fine) Unlimited @ 1.9 fps Unlimited @ 0.7 fps

* Continuous LV mode was not tested, but should be approximately 0.1 fps faster, according to Canon

Tested with a Panasonic Class 10 SDHC card

The burst mode has been improved on the PowerShot S95, especially when taking JPEGs. Where the PowerShot S90 took JPEGs at 0.9 fps and RAW images at 0.7 fps, the S95 does those at 1.9 and 1.0 fps, respectively. It's not blazing fast by any means, but you should be able to capture action fairly well, at least when you're using the JPEG format. If your memory card is fast enough, the camera will just keep on shooting, too.

Returning to the tour now: the last two items on the back of the camera are the Display and Menu buttons. The Display button toggles the information shown on the LCD, while the Menu button does exactly as you'd expect.

Top of the Canon PowerShot S95

There's plenty more to see on the top of the camera. I mentioned earlier how the flash takes up valuable finger space when it's popped up, and you can see what I'm talking about in the above photo.

The various functions that can be adjusted with the control ring Further customization can be had via the custom option

I suppose now's a good a time as any to talk about the control ring around the lens. The ring has a default function in each shooting mode, and you can change it easily by pressing the Ring Function button that you can see above (and further tweak things using the custom option, shown above). In Auto mode, the ring will "step" the zoom to common focal lengths (28, 35, 50, 85, 105), and in the P/A/S/M modes it will adjust the ISO, exposure compensation, shutter speed, or aperture. You can also set the ring to fine-tune the white balance, manually focus, adjust the DR/Shadow correction, or change the aspect ratio. By choosing the custom option, you can select what function the ring will control for each of the P/A/S/M modes.

At the center of the photo are the Ring Function and power buttons which, as I mentioned earlier, are easy to mix up.

Next up we have the shutter release button, which has the zoom controller wrapped around it. As I said in my review of the PowerShot S90, both of these items are a bit smaller than I would've liked. The zoom controller moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in about 1.7 seconds. I counted ten steps in the S95's 3.8X zoom range. Canon has addressed two complaints that I had with the S90. For one, the current zoom setting is now shown on the LCD. Second, the lens seems to respond a bit quicker when the zoom controller is pressed.

The last thing to see on the top of the PowerShot S95 is its mode dial, which has these options:

Option Function
Movie mode More on this later
Special Scene mode Pick the situation and the camera uses the appropriate settings. Choose from portrait, landscape, kids & pets, Smart Shutter, super vivid, poster effect, Color Accent, Color Swap, HDR, nostalgic, fisheye, miniature, beach, underwater, foliage, snow, fireworks, and Stitch Assist.
Low light mode Lowers the resolution to medium size (1824 x 1368) and uses an ISO range of 320 - 12,800 for a blur-free (but noisy) photo in low light conditions.
Smart Auto mode Point-and-shoot, with automatic scene selection. Some menu items are locked up.
Program mode Automatic shooting, but with access to all menu options. A Program Shift feature can be activated by pressing up on the four-way controller (which locks the exposure) and using the camera's two dials to select from various shutter speed/aperture combos.
Shutter priority (Tv) mode You choose shutter speed and the camera picks the aperture. Shutter speed range is 15 - 1/1600 sec.
Aperture priority (Av) mode You choose the aperture and the camera picks an appropriate shutter speed. Range is F2.0 - F8.0.
Full manual (M) mode Choose both the shutter speed and aperture yourself, with the same ranges as above. An exposure meter is shown on the right side of the LCD.
Custom mode Your favorite camera settings, easy to access

As you can see, the PowerShot S95 offers a full set of manual controls (the same ones that were on the S90), and you can also save your favorite camera settings to a spot on the mode dial. If you don't want to bother with those, you can switch to Smart Auto mode, where the camera will select one of twenty-eight scene modes for you, even detecting when you're using a tripod. If you want to select a scene mode yourself, there are plenty to choose from. Here are the most interesting of the scene modes, at least in my opinion:

Smart Shutter takes advantage of the camera's face and smile detection system, and can do some pretty neat tricks. The first is smile detection, which will take a photo of your subject or subjects as soon as one of them smiles. You can select how many photos are taken before the smile detection feature is turned off. Next up is the wink self-timer, which I believe is a Canon exclusive. Compose the shot, turn on the self-timer, and when someone "winks" at the camera, it'll take a photo two seconds later. The last Smart Shutter feature is face self-timer, which will wait until a new face appears in the scene (presumably that of the photographer) and then takes a picture.

The Color Accent and Color Swap features have been around for several years, but they're still worth a mention. Color accent lets you select a color in the image that you want to "keep", while the rest of the photo is changed to black and white. Color swap does just as it sounds-- you swap one color for another.

The HDR feature is new and welcome addition to the PowerShot S95. HDR photography isn't new, but having a "one-touch" option on a camera is. In this mode, the S95 takes three photos, each at a different exposure. These photos are combined into a single exposure, with dramatically improved contrast. Unlike some of the "high speed" cameras that can take handheld HDR photos, you absolutely need a tripod when using this feature on the S95.

Regular exposure
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HDR mode on
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Above you can see the benefits of HDR photography. The shadows are brighter and the highlight clipping is greatly reduced (look at the floor and the columns on the right), though not eliminated completely. In the full size images you'll see that the lights are blurry, as they were blowing in the breeze -- this is not for moving subjects, obviously.

The next group of scene modes are all special effects. The nostalgic mode lets you use the control ring to select how "old" a photo looks. The fisheye effect should be self-explanatory, while the miniature effect blurs the image, except for a selected area (which can be horizontal or vertical), making things like cars look like toys.

The final scene mode is Stitch Assist, which lets you overlap photos side-by-side for later stitching into a single panoramic image (on your Mac or PC).

The S95 retains the low light mode of its predecessor. This lowers the resolution to 2.5 Megapixel and expands the ISO range all the way to 12,800. I don't think you actually want to use that setting, but there you have it. At a slightly more reasonable setting of ISO 3200, you'll get photos that have quite a bit of detail smudging (see example), making for a fairly soft 4 x 6 inch print.

And that does it for the top of the PowerShot S95!

Side of the Canon PowerShot S95

Nothing much to see here. The flash is (obviously) popped up, and the lens is at full wide-angle in this photo.

Side of the Canon PowerShot S95

On the opposite side of the camera you'll find it's I/O ports, which are kept behind a plastic cover. The ports here include HDMI and USB + A/V output. In case you're wondering where the optional AC adapter goes, it's essentially a battery with a power cord attached. The cord is fed through a port on the bottom of the the battery compartment door.

The lens is at the full telephoto position in this photo.

Bottom of the Canon PowerShot S95

On the bottom of the S95 you'll find a metal tripod mount (hidden from view here), plus the battery/memory card compartment. The door that covers this compartment is reinforced with metal and feels pretty sturdy. As you can probably tell, you won't be able to get at what's inside this compartment while the camera is on a tripod.

The included NB-6L battery can be seen at right.

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