Canon PowerShot S100 Review

Design & Features

The PowerShot S100 has a refined version of the design used by the PowerShot S90 and S95. That makes it compact and made mostly of metal, with a matte black body that likes to scratch very easily (thankfully you can just rub the scratches away with your finger in most cases). The camera is sturdy (heck, my S95 is still working after a 5 foot fall onto asphalt) and the important controls can be reached with ease.

Here are some comparison photos of the S95 and S100:

The old PowerShot S95 on the left, new PowerShot S100 on the right

As you can see, the bodies are mostly the same, but there are a few important changes. On the front you've got a small grip, which makes the camera a lot less slippery. On the back there's now a thumb rest, as well as a dedicated button for movie recording. The ring function button that was on the top of the S95 has been relocated to the back of the S100.

Canon PowerShot S100 colors
Images courtesy of Canon USA

While the S90 and S95 only came in black, you can now get the S100 in silver, as well.

Canon PowerShot S100 in the hand

The photo above shows you how compact the S100 is in the hand. Now let's see how it compares against 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 S100 3.9 x 2.3 x 1.1 in. 9.9 cu in. 173 g
Fujifilm FinePix X10 4.6 x 2.7 x 2.2 in. 27.3 cu in. 330 g
Nikon Coolpix P300 4.1 x 2.3 x 1.3 in. 12.3 cu in. 189 g
Olympus XZ-1 4.4 x 2.6 x 1.7 in. 19.4 cu in. 244 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 4.3 x 2.6 x 1.7 in. 19 cu in. 233 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX10 3.9 x 2.1 x 0.9 in. 7.4 cu in. 132 g

The PowerShot S100 is the second smallest "high sensitivity" camera in the bunch, though that Sony has a slower lens and no GPS. Despite coming in second, the S100 is still very compact, and can fit in your jeans pocket with ease.

It's tour time! Please use the tabs to flip through the different views of the PowerShot S100.

Front of the Canon PowerShot S100

Here you can see one of the biggest changes on the PowerShot S100: its new 5X optical zoom lens. This F2.0-5.9 lens is quite fast at the wide end of things, but the opposite is true at the telephoto position. In other words, while the camera lets in more light than most compact cameras at wide-angle, it's average (at best) as you use more of the zoom. The focal range is 5.2 - 26.0 mm, which is equivalent to 24 - 120 mm (up from 28 - 105 mm on the S90/S95).

As with nearly all of Canon's cameras, the PowerShot S100 has lens-shift image stabilization built right in. This must-have feature reduces the risk of blurry photos, and can smooth out your movies, as well. Two new features on the S100 are Intelligent and Powered IS. The former, used in Auto mode, will select an IS mode (standard, dynamic, panning, etc) based on the scene. Powered IS is for shooting movies at full telephoto, and provides extra shake reduction.

Behind that lens is an 1/1.7", 12.1 Megapixel CMOS sensor. Canon has done two things here: switched from CCD to CMOS, and boosted the resolution (the S90 and S95 were 10MP cameras). The sensor used by all of the recent S-series models is a bit larger than what you'd find on a typical compact camera (0.59 vs. 0.43 inches), which allows it to capture more light, and thus have better performance at high sensitivities (at least in theory).

Around the lens is a customizable ring, which can adjust the ISO, zoom, aperture, shutter speed, and more. This feature has been around since the S90, and while I don't use it very often myself, some folks really like it.

At the top-right of the photo is the camera's pop-up flash, which is released electronically. The working range of the flash is 0.5 - 7.0 m at wide-angle and 0.5 - 2.3 m at telephoto (both at auto ISO). If you want more flash power (and a reduced likelihood of redeye), then you can attach the external slave flash that I mentioned earlier.

The last thing to see here is the S100's AF-assist lamp, which is located just to the right of the Canon logo.

Back of the Canon PowerShot S100

On the back of the camera you're first greeted by the S100's 3-inch LCD display, which is the same as on the S90 and S95 (as far as I know). The screen has 461,000 pixels -- so it's nice and sharp -- and I found it easy to see both outdoors and in low light situations.

Over at the upper-right of the photo you can see the new thumb rest, which is much appreciated. Under that we have buttons for setting the Ring Function (more on that later) or deleting a photo, and for recording a video.

Beneath those we have the combination scroll wheel / four-way controller, which is used for adjusting manual settings, flipping through photos, navigating menus, and more. The dial is nice and "notchy", which makes adjustments a snap. The four-way controller is also used for adjusting exposure compensation, flash and focus settings, and toggling the information shown on the LCD.

Under the four-way controller are buttons for entering playback mode or the menu system.

Top of the Canon PowerShot S100

The first things to see on the top of the camera are the flash (closed here), the probable location of the GPS receiver (more on that after the tour), and the power button.

Right next door to those is the zoom controller / shutter release button and the mode dial (details below). The zoom controller moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in just 1.2 seconds. I counted fourteen steps in the camera's 5X zoom range -- I would've preferred a bit more precision.

Left side of the Canon PowerShot S100

There's nothing to see here, aside from the popped-up flash. The lens is at the full wide-angle position here.

You'll find the PowerShot S100's I/O ports on its right side. The ports, which are kept behind a plastic cover, are for USB + A/V output and HDMI. Do note that Canon does not include any kind of A/V output cable with the camera -- even a composite one.

The S100's 24 - 120 mm lens is at its full telephoto position in this photo.

On the bottom of the PowerShot S100 you'll find a metal tripod mount and the battery/memory card compartment. The door that covers this compartment is of average quality, though it could really use a lock, as it's easy to open accidentally when you remove it from your pocket.

The included NB-5L lithium-ion battery can be seen at right.

Selecting a ring function Use the custom option to set the dial function in the P/A/S/M modes

Before I talk about the S100's mode dial, I want to tell you more about the unique Function Ring that's around the the lens. The ring has several default functions, which will vary depending on the shooting mode you're in. In Auto mode, it controls the zoom (in steps: 24, 28, 35, 50, 85, 100, 120 mm). In Program mode it handles ISO, while in the "priority" modes it will adjust the aperture or shutter speed. By using the Ring Function on the back of the camera, you can have the Ring do something else entirely, like fine-tune white balance, manually focus, or change the aspect ratio.

Okay, now we can talk about the mode dial, which has these options:

Option Function
Movie mode More on this later
Creative Filters mode Take photos with special effects, which include high dynamic range (HDR), nostalgic, fisheye, miniature effect, toy camera, monochrome, super vivid, poster effect, Color Accent (selective color), and Color Swap.
Special Scene mode Pick the situation and the camera uses the appropriate settings. Choose from Movie Digest, portrait, landscape, kids & pets, Smart Shutter, high-speed burst HQ, handheld night scene, beach, underwater, foliage, snow, fireworks, and Stitch Assist.
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 halfway-pressing the shutter release button and then pressing "up" on the four-way controller (AE lock). After that you can use the rear dial to move through various shutter speed/aperture combinations.
Shutter priority (Tv) mode You choose shutter speed and the camera picks the aperture. Shutter speed range is 15 - 1/2000 sec. Note that the ISO sensitivity is locked at 80 when the shutter speed goes below 1 second.
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 and restrictions as above.
Custom mode Your favorite camera settings, easy to access

As you can see, the PowerShot S100 has a large collection of point-and-shoot features, as well as the manual exposure controls that you'd come to expect on a camera in this class. If you want a true point-and-shoot experience, just pop the camera into Smart Auto mode, and it'll take care of the rest.

I want to talk about a few of the Creative Filters and Scene Modes, and will begin with HDR, which stands for high dynamic range. In this mode, the S100 will take three shots in a row, each with a different exposure value (which you cannot set). Those three shots are combined into one, with the end result being a photo with better shadow detail and fewer clipped highlights. Here's a real world example:

HDR off HDR on

What a difference some HDR makes! I don't think anyone would argue that the regular photo looks better. Do note that you'll probably need to use a tripod for best results, as the delay between each shot may cause the image to be a bit blurry.

Here's a quick rundown of the other point-and-shoot features that don't need examples:

  • Movie Digest: in this mode, the camera will record 2-4 seconds worth of video before every still; the results are compiled into a single video comprised of the days "events"; to be honest, I don't see the point of this feature.
  • Smart Shutter: choose from smile detection, or cool wink and face self-timers; smile detection waits until someone in your photo smiles, and then it'll start taking photos; the wink self-timer takes a photo two seconds after someone in the frame winks at the camera; face self-timer takes a photo 2 seconds after a new person (presumably the photographer) enters the frame
  • High-speed Burst HQ: the camera takes eight photos in a row at 9.6 frames/second (Canon's numbers -- mine were a bit lower); do note that the LCD goes black while shooting is in-progress
  • Handheld Night Scene: the camera takes several exposures and combines them into a single photo, which is hopefully sharp
  • Stitch Assist: helps you line up photos side-by-side for later stitching into a single panorama (using the bundled software)

White balance fine-tuning

Manual controls include those for shutter speed and aperture, as well as white balance and focus. The S100 can bracket for both exposure and focus, but not for white balance (you can fine-tune it, though). Something that bugged me about the S100 is that the ISO is fixed at 80 as soon as the shutter speed drops below 1 second. While that makes sense from a certain point-of-view (as it minimizes noise), it seems overly restrictive on an enthusiast camera. This restriction also prevented me from completing my night test shots, as you'll see later.

Function menu

Moving onto menus now, I want to start with the S100's function (shortcut) menu, which is activated by pressing the center button on the four-way controller. Here are the most interesting options you'll find there:

  • DR correction: improves overall dynamic range (contrast); choose from off (default), auto, 200%, or 400%; ISO will be boosted as high as 320 in order to make this feature work
  • Shadow correction: brighten the dark areas of a photo, with off or auto being the options here
  • My Colors: enhance colors or skin tones, take B&W or sepia photos, or manually adjust contrast/sharpness/saturation
  • Self-timer: choose from the usual 2 or 10 second times, or use the custom setting and choose the number of shots and delay that you want
  • AF frame: choose from face detection (9 faces max), tracking AF, FlexiZone, or center; the FlexiZone feature lets you pick any area in the frame on which you'd like to focus; you can adjust the size of the AF point in the shooting menu
  • ND (neutral density) filter: reduces the amount of light coming through the lens by three stops, allowing you to use slower shutter speeds or larger apertures than you could otherwise
  • Still image aspect ratio: choose from 4:3, 16:9, 3:2, 1:1, or 4:5

I'd like to show you the DR Correction feature in action. There are four settings: off (default), auto, 200%, and 400%. As I mentioned, the camera needs to boost the sensitivity in order for this feature to work, so you'll want to have Auto ISO on if you use this feature. Here's what you can expect from this feature, using our purple fringing tunnel as the subject:

DR correction off
View Full Size
Auto DR correction
View Full Size
200% DR correction
View Full Size
400% DR correction
View Full Size

Looking at the photo taken at the default settings, you can see lots of clipped highlights, especially on the left and right sides. Going to the "auto" setting dramatically improves things. As you can see, the camera is using something closer to 400% when set to Auto, as the 200% option isn't that great. I'd say this is a feature well worth using when highlight clipping might be an issue -- even with the slight increase in noise.

Shooting menu, with help info at bottom

The rest of the shooting-related options that I want to talk about can be found in the PowerShot S100's main menu. The menus are attractive, easy-to-navigate, and feature "hints & tips" that describe each option. The notable features here are:

  • Digital zoom: normally I tell people to turn this off, but if you're willing to lower the resolution, you can use it without a reduction in image quality; for example, dropping down to 6 Megapixel gives you 6.1X of total zoom power
  • Servo AF: the camera keeps focusing with the shutter release halfway-pressed, which is helpful for moving subjects
  • Redeye correction: buried in the flash settings submenu, this option will digitally remove redeye from photos, as they are taken; look for the redeye test later in the review
  • ISO auto settings: choose the highest sensitivity that you want the camera to use, as well as how quickly it'll boost it (rate of change = how slow of a shutter speed you it'll use)
  • Hg lamp correction: here's a new one -- this removes a greenish tint that may occur when shooting scenes lit by mercury lamps
  • Blink detection: the camera will warn you if someone in the frame had their eyes closed
  • IS settings: choose from continuous or "shoot only" stabilization, or turn it off entirely; a Powered IS mode is for shooting at full telephoto, and should be turned off when panning or walking
  • Set Ring Func button: don't want this button to let you choose what the lens ring does? Then assign it another camera function here!

Something else that needs mentioning is one of the S100's biggest feature: its GPS. It's a simple implementation, recording your location and altitude -- no maps or database of landmarks here! The GPS did not locate satellites while I was in downtown San Francisco, but in more open spaces it did so in about thirty seconds, which isn't bad by camera standards. The only other GPS option (aside from on/off) is logging, which lets you see the path that you took while out shooting (and it may reduce satellite acquisition times, as well). The problem with GPS logging is that it puts a major strain on your battery.

Now I'd like to tell you about the PowerShot S100's movie mode, which is now capable of Full HD recording. You can record video at 1920 x 1080 at 24 frames/second with stereo sound, until the file size reaches 4GB (which takes about 14 minutes). While filmmakers like the 24 fps frame rate, regular folks may find it a bit choppy. If you don't mind dropping down to 1280 x 720, you can record at 30 frames/second for about 20 minutes. A VGA resolution is also available, with a recording time limit of 30 minutes.

The S100 also supports Apple's poorly marketed iFrame codec, which is supposed to be easier to edit on Apple computers (not that H.264 is that challenging to work with).

The camera lets you use the optical zoom while you're recording a movie, though it moves very slowly. The camera focuses continuously, so everything stays in focus. The image stabilizer is also available, which keeps things shake-free.

Most of the camera's special effects are available while recording movies, including miniature effect. There's also a "super slow motion" mode which records at 120 or 240 fps (though the resolution is lowered to 640 x 120 and 320 x 240, respectively) and plays them back at 30 fps, creating a slow motion effect. Manual controls are not available in movie mode, though a wind filter is available for recording outdoors.

Here's a sample movie for you, taken at the highest quality setting:

Click to play movie (1920 x 1080, 24 fps, 35.1 MB, QuickTime/H.264 format)

Aside from the choppiness, the video quality is pretty good!

The PowerShot S100 has a pretty nice playback mode. Some of the notable features here include:

  • Movie Digest playback: I told you about this feature earlier; here's how you view the day's events
  • Smart Shuffle: a bizarre feature which shows four photos similar to the one you're viewing
  • My Category: assign a category to a photo, which is then transferred over to the "Browser" software; in some cases, the camera has done this automatically
  • i-Contrast: brightens dark areas of your photo
  • Redeye correction: digitally remove this annoyance from a photo
  • Jump: move through photos by date, category, file type, whether they're tagged as a favorite, or in groups of 10 or 100
  • Erase range of photos: I normally don't mention image deletion features, but the ability to select a range of photos without having to click your way through thumbnails is very handy

Photo editing functions include the ability to rotate, resize, and crop. Movies can have unwanted footage trimmed off of the beginning or end of a clip.

The PowerShot S100 shows just basic information about your photo by default. Pressing "up" on the four-way controller reveals more (including location data), and if you press "up" again, you'll get an RGB histogram.

The S100 moves through photos without delay, even with the fancy transitions between each image. If you want to really go fast, just spin the dial on the back of the camera. Using the dial also allows you to jump to photos taken on a certain date.