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DCRP Review: Canon PowerShot S2 IS  

by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: June 11, 2005
Last Updated: December 31, 2011

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Last year's PowerShot S1 IS was one of the most popular ultra zoom cameras on the market. It was one of the first "hybrid" cameras to successfully combine the best features from digital cameras and camcorders. Earlier this year Canon introduced its replacement -- the PowerShot S2 IS ($499). The S2 isn't just a higher resolution sensor in the same old body -- you get a whole lot more. Some of the new features on the S2 include:

  • 5 Megapixel CCD (versus 3.2 on the S1)
  • 12X optical zoom lens (versus 10X)
  • DIGIC II image processor, which gives the S2 its robust performance
  • Larger LCD display (1.8" versus 1.5")
  • Stereo sound recording
  • New "Night Display" feature brightens the LCD and EVF in low light
  • More movie mode options: wind filter, selectable sound quality and mic level
  • My Colors feature lets you highlight and even swap colors right on the camera
  • Uses Secure Digital (SD) memory cards (instead of CompactFlash)
  • USB 2.0 High Speed support

The S2 keeps all of the S1's trademark features including optical image stabilization, a rotating LCD, an excellent movie mode, full manual controls, and support for conversion lenses.

Is the PowerShot S2 the ultimate ultra zoom camera? Find out now in our review!

What's in the Box?

The PowerShot S2 has an average bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 5.0 effective Megapixel Canon PowerShot S2 IS digital camera
  • 16MB Secure Digital card
  • Four AA alkaline batteries
  • Neck strap
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • CD-ROM featuring Canon Digital Camera Solutions
  • 185 page camera manual + software manual (both printed)

Canon includes a 16MB Secure Digital (SD) memory card with the S2 which is, shall we say, a little skimpy. If you shoot at the highest quality setting you'll fit just five photos on that card, and let's not even talk about movies. So you'll want to get a larger card right away, with 256MB or 512MB being my recommended starter sizes. High speed memory cards are highly desirable, especially if you want to use the nice movie and continuous shooting features. I'd suggest a speed rating of at least 60X if you buy one of those.

Like its predecessor, the PowerShot S2 uses four AA batteries. Unfortunately Canon gives you alkalines in the box which will quickly end up the trash, so consider it your mission to buy a set or two of NiMH rechargeable batteries (2300 mAh or higher, ideally). And don't forget a fast charger, either!

Once you get some NiMH batteries you'll get some great battery life numbers out of the S2:

Camera Battery life, LCD on
(CIPA standard)
Battery used for test
Canon PowerShot S2 IS 550 shots 2300 mAh NIMH
Fuji FinePix S5100 400 shots 2300 mAh NIMH
Kodak EasyShare Z750 300 shots KLIC-5001
Konica Minolta DiMAGE Z5 420 shots 2500 mAh NiMH
Nikon Coolpix 4800 240 shots EN-EL1
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ5 300 shots CGA-S002A
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ20 240 shots CGA-S002A
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H1 290 shots 2100 mAh NIMH

As you can see, the S2 stomps the competition in the battery life arena. Unfortunately, battery life information for the Olympus C-765 and C-770 Ultra Zoom was not available.

If this is the first of our camera reviews that you've read (and shame on you!) then you may not know why this reviewer prefers cameras that AA batteries. Simply put, they're cheap (you can easily get four for under $10) and you can always use alkalines when your rechargeables run out. Try that with your $50 lithium-ion battery!

Canon includes a lens cap and retaining strap with the camera so your lens is always protected. Well, at least in theory -- I found the lens cap to be pretty lousy, as it didn't like to stay on.

There are quite a few accessories available for the PowerShot S2, and I've compiled them into this handy list for you:

Accessory Model # Price Why you want it
Wide-angle lens WC-DC58A $160 Brings the wide end of the lens down by 0.75X to 27 mm; requires conversion lens adapter
Telephoto lens TC-DC58B $130 Boosts focal range by 1.5X to a whopping 648 mm; requires conversion lens adapter
Close-up lens 500D $87 Reduces the minimum distance to your subject at telephoto to 35 cm
Conversion lens adapter / lens hood LAH-DC20 $30 Required for conversion lenses; you can attach standard 58mm filters to it as well; a lens hood is also included
External slave flash HF-DC1 $110 Get better flash photos and less redeye; do note that this is a slave flash which means that it fires when the onboard flash does
AC adapter CA-PS700 $60 Power the camera without wasting your batteries
Battery/charger kit CBK4-200 $43 Includes four 2300 mAh NiMH batteries and a charger
Carrying case PSC-75 $23 Protect your camera when it's not in use.

Canon includes version 24 of their very good Digital Camera Solutions software with the S2. Included in this package are ZoomBrowser/ImageBrowser (for Windows and Mac respectively), PhotoStitch (for making panoramic photos), PhotoRecord (printing software, Windows only), plus TWAIN and WIA drivers for Windows.

When a camera is connected to your computer via the USB connection you'll see the Camera Window appear. This is where you'll choose what images to download (see below) and you can also do the things shown in the screenshot above. The "Set My Camera" option lets you change all the startup screens and sounds that the camera makes. Believe it or not, Canon offers a chimpanzee theme. I'm not joking.

Here's where you'll pick the images and stills to download. Once downloaded they end up in ImageBrowser/ZoomBrowser, seen below.

ImageBrowser (Mac OS X)

ImageBrowser/ZoomBrowser can do image viewing, slide shows, basic editing, printing, e-mailing, and more. Hidden inside it are a few more cool features: Remote Capture and Movie Edit.

The Remote Capture lets you control your camera over the USB connection. You can change any camera setting and even move the zoom lens using your mouse. When you take a picture the image goes directly onto your computer's hard drive. If I'm not mistaken this is the only ultra zoom camera with this ability.

The MovieEdit feature is surprisingly nice. You can arrange your movie clips in the order you want, add transitions and effects, and then create a new movie out of that. You can also add audio tracks and adjust the sound level of movies you've already recorded. Unfortunately you can't trim unwanted footage from your movie clips, though you can do this on the camera itself.

Another separate program in the Camera Solutions package is PhotoStitch, which hasn't changed much over the years. Regardless, it's still one of the easiest to use panorama makers out there. Just put your images in the right order and the software does the rest. You can tweak things a bit if you want, but most of the time you won't have to.

ArcSoft PhotoStudio 4.3 for Mac OS X

For whatever reason, Canon is no longer including the full ArcSoft PhotoSuite with their cameras. Now you just get PhotoStudio (v 4.3 for Mac, v5.5 for Windows), which is kind of like a "light" version of Adobe Photoshop. It's not bad, though I miss all the bells and whistles of PhotoImpression (though not its quirky interface).

Recent Canon camera manuals have been more complex than earlier ones, but they're still above average. You'll find what you're looking for, but it may require wading through lots of fine print and "notes".

Look and Feel

Where most new cameras tend to be smaller than their predecessor, the PowerShot S2 is larger and heavier than the S1. It's still made mostly of high grade plastic and it feels nice and solid. There's a large right hand grip and I found it very easy to hold with one hand or two. The important controls are all within easy reach of your fingers.

Like most ultra zooms, the S2 is not designed to go in your pockets -- it's just too big. Speaking of size, here's how the S2 compares with the other ultra zooms in terms of size and weight:

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
Canon PowerShot S2 IS 4.4 x 3.1 x 3.0 in. 40.9 cu in. 405 g
Fuji FinePix S5100 4.4 x 3.2 x 3.1 in. 43.6 cu in. 337 g
Kodak EasyShare Z7590 3.9 x 3.2 x 3.2 in. 39.9 cu in. 350 g
Konica Minolta DiMAGE Z5 4.3 x 3.1 x 3.3 in. 44.0 cu in. 340 g
Nikon Coolpix 4800 4.2 x 2.6 x 2.1 in. 22.9 cu in. 255 g
Olympus C-770 Ultra Zoom 4.1 x 2.4 x 2.7 in. 26.6 cu in. 300 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ5 4.3 x 2.7 x 3.3 in. 38.3 cu in. 290 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ20 5.0 x 3.4 x 4.2 in. 71.4 cu in. 520 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H1 4.3 x 3.3 x 3.7 in. 52.5 cu in. 438 g

As I said, the S2 is bigger, bulkier, and heavier than the camera it replaces. As ultra zooms go it's a little larger than average.

Enough about that, let's move on with the tour now!

The lens has been upgraded on the PowerShot S2 and now it's even better, though the Panasonic DMC-FZ20 still has the best lens in this class. The new lens is an F2.7-3.5, 12X optical zoom model with a focal length of 6 - 72 mm (equivalent to 36 - 432 mm). While the lens itself is not threaded you can remove the plastic ring around the lens barrel (by pressing the button to the lower-left) and attach a conversion lens adapter. From there you can attach one of the three conversion lenses I mentioned earlier or any 58 mm filter.

Something unique about the S2 (as well as the S1 before it) is the Ultrasonic Motor used for the zoom drive. This allows for variable speed zooming and very quiet operation. You'll see why this matters later when we discuss the movie mode.

Hidden deep inside the lens is something very helpful: Canon's optical image stabilization system. Image stabilizers help counteract the effects of "camera shake". You'll notice this mostly when the camera is at the telephoto end of the lens, where tiny movements of your hand turn into big movements in your photo, resulting in blurring. The OIS system can also help with indoor non-flash shots, letting you use a slower shutter speed than you could otherwise. Remember, these systems don't work miracles: they can't freeze a moving subject and they can only stabilize so much movement. They give you a few extra stops of shutter speed flexibility then you'd have otherwise.

How well does Canon's OIS system work? I've got two examples for you.

Both shots were taken at 1/6 sec at ISO 50. Can you guess which one used image stabilization and which did not? You don't need to be a rocket scientist or even a digital camera reviewer to figure out that the OIS system was turned on for the bottom shot.

If you want another example, how about this sample movie which was taken with OIS turned on and then off? Remember that image stabilization can be used for still shooting as well as movie recording!

Let's get back to the tour now. Directly above the lens is the S2's pop-up flash, which has a working range of 0.5 - 5.2 m at wide-angle and 0.9 - 4.0 m at telephoto -- about average. Both the Sony DSC-H1 and the Panasonic DMC-FZ20 do better in this department. For more flash power and possibly less redeye you can attach Canon's HF-DC1 external slave flash via the tripod mount. Being a slave flash, the DC1 fires when the camera's onboard flash does. There's no hot shoe or flash sync port on the PowerShot S2.

Between the lens and the flash is one of the S2's new features: a stereo microphone. I can't think of more than a small handful of cameras that has stereo sound recording, and I'm not surprised to see this feature on the S2, as it's kind of a camera/camcorder hybrid.

At the far right of the photo is the S2's AF-assist lamp feature. The original PowerShot S1 lacked this feature and its low light focusing suffered as a result. We'll find out later how the S2 performed in low light situations.

Just above the PowerShot logo toward the left side is the tally / self-timer / redeye reduction lamp. Just like on a camcorder, this lamp lights up when videos are being recorded.

This back-angled view of the PowerShot S2 shows its rotating LCD display. It can flip out to the side and rotate 270 degrees, from pointing at your subject to pointing at the ground. It can also be in the "traditional" position (see below) or closed altogether.

While it may look gimmicky the rotating LCD is actually quite handy. You can use it for self portraits, shooting over the heads of people in front of you, or doing "ground level" shots of kids and pets.

Here's the straight-on view of the back of the PowerShot S2. The LCD has grown in size since the PowerShot S1: it's now 1.8" instead of 1.5". At this new size the LCD is about average-sized, though the Minolta DiMAGE Z5, Panasonic DMC-FZ20 and especially the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H1 dwarf it. The S2's LCD has a modest 115,000 pixels which produces sharp images on the screen. Low light visibility has been dramatically improved since the S1, which was horrible in the dark. The S2's screen "gains up" for easy viewing of your subject in dimly lit rooms.

Directly about the LCD is the S2's electronic viewfinder, or EVF. The EVF is a small LCD that you view as if it was an optical viewfinder. Unfortunately the "real thing" is a lot better: it's easier to view and (obviously) much sharper. I'm not sure what the resolution of this particular EVF is, but based on my usage it could be a lot better. Since I've been knocking it so far, I should point out that EVFs show 100% of the frame and also display the same useful shooting information as the main LCD can. Low light visibility was just as good on the EVF as it was on the LCD. A diopter correction knob, located to the left of the EVF, will focus the image on the screen.

Directly to the right of the EVF is another one of the S2's unique features: a record button just for taking movies! You can be in any of the shooting modes to use it. Just press it once to start recording and a second time to stop. I'll have much more on the S2's amazing movie mode later in the review.

To the right of the LCD are four buttons:

  • Function / Delete Photo
  • Metering (Evaluative, center-weighted, spot) / Jump (for jumping ahead in playback mode)
  • Shortcut (customizable button) / Print/Share
  • Display (switches between the LCD and EVF and also toggles what is shown on them)

Function menu

Pressing the function button opens -- get ready -- the function menu! Here are the options in that menu:

  • Exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV in 1/3EV increments)
  • White balance (Auto, daylight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent, fluorescent H, flash, custom) - see below
  • ISO speed (Auto, 50, 100, 200, 400)
  • Photo effect (Off, vivid, neutral, low sharpening, sepia, black & white, custom) - see below
  • My Colors (Positive film, lighter skin tone, darker skin tone, vivid blue, vivid green, vivid red, color accent, color swap, custom color) - only shown when the mode dial is set to My Colors mode; see below for more
  • Bracket (Off, exposure, focus) - see below
  • Flash exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV in 1/3EV increments)
  • Flash output (1/3, 2/3, full)
  • Resolution (see chart later in review)
  • Compression (see chart later in review)

I suppose I should explain some of those. The custom white balance option lets you use a white or gray card as reference so you can get perfect color even under the most unusual lighting conditions.

The photo effect items are self-explanatory and can be used for still or movie recording. The custom effect option is where you can adjust the contrast, sharpness, and saturation, with low/normal/high being the choices for each.

Using the My Colors "Color Swap" feature

First seen on the PowerShot SD400 and SD500, the My Colors feature is another one of the new additions on the PowerShot S2. This feature is only available when the mode dial is set to the My Colors position, so it's more of a scene mode than anything else. Most of the options (skin tones, vivid colors, etc) are self-explanatory, but the last three options deserve some attention. Before we go on, I should mention a few things. First, you can choose to save the original, unaltered image if you desire (probably a good idea) via an option in the menu. Second, using the flash or changing the white balance or metering is may prevent this feature from working properly.

Color accent

The color accent feature will turn your image to black and white, except for the color which you've selected (which was red in the shot above). To select the color you point the camera at the color you want to sample and then press the four-way controller (see screenshot above). You can fine tune the selected color by pressing up/down on the four-way controller, though don't expect miracles there. For this option as well as the next two, the camera gives you a preview of what it's about to do before you take the photo.

Normal shot I took the blue from a lawn chair and used it to make some really odd-looking bougainvillea. As you can see, the trellis got it too, despite being a different color.

The color swap feature does just as it sounds: you can exchange one color for another. Want to see how your car looks in red? Well, select your car's color first and then find something red, and the rest is history.

The custom color feature lets you adjust the color balance for red, green, blue, and skin tones from -2 to +2 in 1-step increments.

Okay, enough about My Colors, let's talk about bracketing now. The S2 supports both exposure and focus bracketing, which helps you ensure properly exposed or focused shots. Exposure bracketing takes three shots in a row each with a different exposure. You can adjust the interval between shots in 1/3EV increments (the available range is -2EV to +2EV). Focus bracketing works in a similar way, with the camera taking three shots, each with a different focal distance. The first shot is at the automatically or manually selected focus position while the next two are focused a little closer and a little further away, respectively. You have a range of +1 to -1 in 1/3-step increments, though I have no idea how much distance these steps represent.

Finally we can get back to talking about the rest of the items on the back of the PowerShot S2. The shortcut button (the third one down) can be customized to your liking. You can register the following functions to this button: resolution, movie quality, ISO speed, photo effect, My Colors, AE lock, AF lock, white balance, image stabilizer (this is the one I chose), and display off.

Direct Transfer menu

The shortcut button turns into the Print/Share button when the camera is connected to a printer or computer over the USB connection. When connected to a PictBridge-enabled photo printer, you can make prints right from the camera. If you're connected to your Mac or PC, you'll be able to transfer photos and even select your computer's desktop picture, all right from the camera (this didn't work on the Mac until recently).

The top-right of the photo is where you'll find the four-way controller. This is used for menu navigation as well as choosing manual settings. Below that are the Set and Menu buttons, with the former also being used for activating the manual focus point selection feature. This lets you choose almost any area in the frame (save for a margin around the edges) using the four-way controller. This comes in handy when the camera is on a tripod and your subject is not in the center of the frame.

Please excuse the lens cap in this shot, I had to use it to keep the camera pointed the right way!

The first thing to see on the top of the PowerShot S2 is the flash/microphone button over on the left side. In record mode pressing this button toggles the flash between auto and forced on. To keep the flash from firing just lower the pop-up flash (which is raised manually, by the way). Redeye reduction and slow sync are turned on in the record menu. In playback mode this same button will attach voice memos (up to 60 seconds long) to a photo.

Skipping over to the right we find the S2's mode dial, which has the following options:

Option Function
Movie mode I'll have much more on this later
Stitch Assist Helps with the creation of panoramic shots; you can go left to right, right to left, top to bottom, bottom to top, or clockwise
My Colors I described this before; you must have the camera in this mode in order to use the My Colors feature, making it a kind of scene mode
Special scene mode If the scene modes below don't do it for you, here are six more: foliage, snow, beach, fireworks, indoor, and night snapshot
Night scene Three more scene modes
Auto record mode Fully automatic, most menu options locked up
Program mode Still automatic but with full menu access
Shutter Priority (Tv) mode You choose the shutter speed and the camera picks the correct aperture. You can choose from a range of 15 - 1/3200 sec; Do note that the fastest shutter speeds are only available at small apertures
Aperture Priority (Av) mode You pick the aperture, the camera picks the appropriate shutter speed; aperture range is F2.7 - F8.0
Full Manual (M) mode You pick the aperture and shutter speed. See above for values.
Custom mode Your favorite camera settings can be saved here for easy retrieval

As you can see, there are plenty of options on the S2's mode, including all the manual exposure modes one could ask for (save for a bulb mode). The custom mode let's you save your favorite camera settings right on the mode dial -- a handy feature.

To the right of the mode dial is the power switch, which also moves the S2 between record and playback mode. Above that is the drive button, which switches between single-shot, continuous, and self-timer mode. The S2's continuous modes are excellent, though you'll need a high speed memory card to take full advantage of it. There are two continuous speeds to choose from: normal and high speed. In normal mode you can take shots at 1.5 frames/second until the memory card is full (tested using a 1GB Sandisk Extreme III SD card). Move up to high speed mode and the frame rate jumps to 2.4 frames/second, again with unlimited shooting until you run out of memory. The only downside to the continuous modes is the brief "freeze" on the LCD/EVF between each shot. It's more noticeable at the normal speed setting, but in either case you may want to check it out in person before you buy if you plan on doing a lot of continuous shooting.

The last item to see here on the top of the camera is the zoom controller with the shutter release button inside it. The zoom controller is variable speed, so you can either race from wide-angle to telephoto in one second or take it slow for more precision. I think the controller (at least on my camera) could be a little stiffer, but that's just my opinion.

On this side of the PowerShot S2 you'll find two buttons, the speaker, and the A/V out port.

Manual focus (center-frame enlargement not shown)

Pressing the manual focus button lets you use the four-way controller to set the focus distance (Canon, can we please have a focus ring on the S3?). A guide showing the focus distance is shown on the LCD/EVF and the center of the frame is enlarged as well.

The button below that activates the macro and super macro features, and I'll have more on those later in the review.

On the other side of the camera you'll find two more I/O ports plus the SD/MMC card slot. The ports include DC-in (for the optional AC adapter) as well as USB. The S2 supports the USB 2.0 High Speed protocol for fast data transfer to your Mac or PC. The door covering the memory card slot is fairly sturdy.

By the way, the lens is at the full telephoto position here.

We end our tour with a look at the bottom of the camera. Down here you'll find a plastic tripod mount (it was metal on the S1) and the battery compartment. As you can see, the S2 uses four AA-sized batteries. The plastic door covering the battery compartment is of average quality.

Using the Canon PowerShot S2

Record Mode

The PowerShot S2 starts up remarkably quickly for an ultra zoom camera, taking just 1.2 seconds to extend its lens and "warm up" before you can start taking pictures.

No live histogram to be found

Autofocus speeds are good, though not as fast as the Panasonic FZ5 or Sony DSC-H1. Typically the camera takes 0.3 - 0.5 seconds to focus and longer at the telephoto end or if the camera needs to "hunt" a bit. One of the weak points on the original PowerShot S1 was its low light focusing abilities and I'm pleased to report that the S2 does much better in that regard. You can thank the AF-assist lamp for that!

Shutter lag was not a problem, even at slower shutter speeds where it can sometimes occur.

Shot-to-shot speed was also excellent on the S2, with a delay of about a second before you can take another picture (assuming you've turned the post-shot review feature off).

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

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

Resolution Quality Approx. file size # Images on 16MB card
2592 x 1944
Superfine 2.4 MB 5
Fine 1.4 MB 9
Normal 695 KB 19
Medium 1
2048 x 1536
Superfine 1.6 MB 8
Fine 893 KB 15
Normal 445 KB 30
Medium 2
1600 x 1200
Superfine 1002 KB 13
Fine 558 KB 24
Normal 278 KB 46
640 x 480
Superfine 249 KB 52
Fine 150 KB 80
Normal 84 KB 127

See why you need a larger memory card? The S2 does not support the RAW or TIFF formats. Some of the competition does, but most do not.

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 S2 uses the same refined menu system as the cameras in Canon's SD series. Everything is really snappy and easy-to-use. Note that some menu options are not available while in the automatic shooting modes. With that in mind, here's what's in the full record menu:

  • Flash sync (1st-curtain, 2nd-curtain)
  • Slow synchro (on/off)
  • Redeye reduction (on/off)
  • Continuous shooting (Standard, high speed) - described earlier
  • Self-timer (2, 10 secs, custom timer) - see below
  • Spot AE point (Center, AF point) - what the camera uses for metering
  • MF-point zoom (on/off) - center frame enlargement in manual focus
  • Safety shift (on/off) - whether camera automatically adjusts exposure settings in aperture or shutter priority mode if chosen settings will not properly expose image
  • AF mode (Single, continuous) - see below
  • AF-assist beam (on/off)
  • Tally lamp (on/off)
  • Digital zoom (on/off) - it's best to keep this turned off
  • Review (Off, 2-10 sec, hold) - post-shot review; the hold feature will keep the image on the LCD until you press a button
  • Save original (on/off) - whether an unaltered image is also saved while using the My Colors feature
  • Reverse display (on/off) - whether the LCD image is flipped when the screen is rotated around
  • IS mode (Off, continuous, shooting only, panning) - see below
  • Converter (Off, wide, telephoto) - for using the optional conversion lenses
  • Intervalometer - see below
  • Set shortcut button - described earlier
  • Save settings - saves current settings to the C spot on the mode dial

Time to explain a few of those options, starting with the self-timer function. The custom self-timer option is new to the PowerShot S2. Instead of counting down for 2 or 10 seconds, you can have the camera take up to 10 shots automatically with a delay ranging from 1 to 30 seconds before the photo is taken.

Single AF mode is what most people are used to on a digital camera: press the shutter release halfway and the camera will focus. In continuous AF mode the camera will always be focusing, which can reduce the amount of time needed to focus when you finally press the shutter release.

The S2's three image stabilization settings are worth noting. The continuous mode has the OIS system running at all times, so the image will be stable when you're framing the shot. Shooting only mode doesn't turn on the OIS system until the photo is actually taken, and this results in better stabilization than in continuous mode. The panning mode only stabilizes up and down motion, so you can use it while panning the camera from side to side, like when you're following a moving subject.

The Intervalometer is a silly name for the S2's time lapse photography feature. The camera can take anywhere from 2 to 100 images at the interval of your choosing (between 1 and 60 minutes). The optional AC adapter is strongly recommended for time lapse photos.

There is also a setup menu on the S2, so let's take a look at that now. Here's what you'll find in the setup menu:

  • Mute (on/off) - turn off those annoying beep sounds!
  • Audio
    • Mic level (1-5)
    • Wind filter (on/off)
    • Sampling rate (11.025, 22.050, 44.100 kHz)
  • Volume
    • Startup volume (Off, 1-5)
    • Operation volume (Off, 1-5)
    • Self-timer volume (Off, 1-5)
    • Shutter volume (Off, 1-5)
    • Playback volume (Off, 1-5)
  • LCD brightness (Normal, bright)
  • Power saving
    • Auto power down (on/off)
    • Display off (10, 20, 30 sec, 1-3 min)
  • Date/time
  • Card format
  • File number reset (on/off) - maintain file numbering
  • Distance units (m/cm, ft/in)
  • Auto rotate (on/off) - camera will automatically rotate portrait photos on the LCD
  • Language (English, German, French, Dutch, Danish, Finnish, Italian, Norwegian, Swedish, Spanish, Simplified Chinese, Russian, Portuguese, Greek, Polish, Czech, Hungarian, Turkish, Traditional Chinese, Korean, Japanese)
  • Video system (NTSC, PAL)

The audio items are new to the S2 and they're not found on any other digital camera. You can adjust the microphone sensitivity, turn on a wind screen (just like on a camcorder), and you can adjust the sound quality level. The higher the kHz, the better the sound quality, and the larger your movie file will be.

An additional "My Camera'" menu allows you to customize the startup screen, beeps, and phony shutter sounds that your camera makes. The software included with the camera lets you use your own photos and sounds as well, if you desire. If these bother you, you can also turn them off.

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

The PowerShot S2 did a fine job with our usual macro test subject. The colors are accurate and nicely saturated, and everything has a "smooth" look to it.

In normal macro mode the minimum distance to the subject is 10 - 50 cm, which is about average. You can get an object 118 x 87 mm in size to fill the frame. Do note that macro mode is limited to focal lengths near the wide end of the lens. Turn on the super macro mode and the minimum distance drops to 0 - 10 cm from the end of the lens. That's right, 0 cm! You can then fit an object 22 x 16 mm in size in the frame. The lens is locked at the wide-angle position in super macro mode.

The crop above was taken in super macro mode. The subject (a CompactFlash card) was so close that it was practically touching the lens!

The PowerShot S2 also did a great job with our night test shot. Thanks to the manual shutter speed control the camera was able to take in plenty of light. The buildings are quite sharp, as well. Noise levels, while a little higher than I would've liked, are comparable to other cameras in this class. Purple fringing was not a major problem.

Now let's use that same scene to see how the S2 did at higher ISO sensitivities:

ISO 50
View Full Size Image

ISO 100
View Full Size Image

ISO 200
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ISO 400
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As you can see, ISO 100 is just a little worse than ISO 50. Details start getting destroyed at ISO 200 and by ISO 400 things are looking pretty bad. I was able to clean up the ISO 400 shot using NeatImage and I think it's totally usable (at least for smaller prints) after doing so.

There's fairly mild barrel distortion at the wide end of the S2's lens. There's no evidence of vignetting or blurry corners in this or any of my real world shots.

The PowerShot S2 has a bit of a redeye problem, just like its predecessor. It's not horrible by any means, and it should clean up nicely in software, but it's still annoying. Remember that your results may vary and that this test is not scientific.

Overall I was very happy with the photos that I took with the PowerShot S2. They were generally well-exposed (though a few shots were slightly overexposed) with good color and reasonable purple fringing levels (for an ultra zoom). Everything was very sharp -- perhaps too much so. If you agree with my assessment then you can soften things up by using the Low Sharpening photo effect. The S2 captures a lot of detail without any of the "muddiness" sometimes seen on digital cameras. Noise levels were about average for a camera in this class.

Don't just take my word for all this, though. Have a look at our photo gallery, and print the photos as if they were your own. For more photos don't miss our PowerShot S2 vs Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H1 shootout. After you've looked at all that you can decide if the S2's photo quality meets your expectations.

Movie Mode

Canon took one of the best movie modes on the planet (from the S1) and made it even better on the S2. You've still got that great 640 x 480 / 30 frames/second capability, but now there's stereo sound recording (and higher quality at that), a wind screen, and the ability to take still shots while filming!

There are two resolutions to choose from in movie mode -- 640 x 480 and 320 x 240 -- and for each of those you can select between 15 and 30 frames/second. No matter which mode you choose, you're up against the same limit: you can keep recording until the memory card fills up or the file size reaches 1GB, whichever comes first. Now 1GB sounds like hours of video, but it takes just under nine minutes at the highest quality setting to reach the limit. And forget that included 16MB SD card, it holds 6 seconds worth!

This chart should put things into perspective for you:

Resolution Frame rate Bit rate Total recording time (approx)
640 x 480 30 frames/sec 1980 kb/sec 8.8 mins
15 frames/sec 990 kb/sec 17.6 mins
320 x 240 30 frames/sec 660 kb/sec 26.5 mins
15 frames/sec 330 kb/sec 53.0 mins

I should point out a few things about all this. First, these are the lengths for a single movie. If you have a 2GB SD card you can record as many movies as you want but each one will be cut off at 1GB. So in theory you could have two 8.8 minute movies (at the highest quality setting) on one 2GB card. Secondly, don't forget that memory cards format to less than their "official" size. For example, the 1GB card I tested with the camera actually formats to 968MB, which holds less than 8 minutes of high quality video. And finally, don't forget that a high speed SD card is required if you plan on using the highest quality setting!

One of the great things about the S2's movie mode is that you can use the zoom lens during filming. It moves slowly and silently, just like on a camcorder, so the zoom motor noise is not picked up. Speaking of sound, the S2 records in stereo at sampling rates ranging from 11 to 44 kHz. Lowering the sampling rate can shrink the file size of your movie, but not by very much since it's the video that takes up most of the room. If you're recording outdoors like I did for the sample below you can turn on the wind filter to keep wind noise from overpowering the audio in your movie.

Like the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-M1 and the Casio Exilim EX-P505, the PowerShot S2 can take a still shot in the middle of recording a movie. The still is saved at the highest resolution which is pretty cool. The downside is that the movie pauses briefly when the still is taken. Can't have everything, I guess.

One last thing worth mentioning (again): the image stabilizer can be used in movie mode.

Movies are saved in AVI format, using the M-JPEG codec. It would've been nice if Canon used something like MPEG4 instead which delivers high quality video with much smaller file sizes than M-JPEG.

Here's a sample movie for you, recorded at the high quality 640 x 480 setting. Enjoy!

Click to play movie (14.3 MB, 640 x 480, 30 fps, AVI format)
Can't view it? Download QuickTime

Playback Mode

The S2 has the same, excellent playback mode as seen on other Canon cameras. Everything's nice and fast and we have the DIGIC II chip to thank for that.

The camera has all the basic playback features that you'd expect. That includes slide shows, DPOF print marking, image protection, thumbnail mode, voice annotations (60 secs), image rotation, and zoom and scroll. The S2 supports the PictBridge system for direct printing to a compatible photo printer.

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

Two other handy features include sound recording and movie editing. The sound recording feature lets you record up to 2 hours of audio to the memory card, while the movie editing feature lets you cut unwanted footage from the beginning or end of your videos.

By default, the S2 doesn't give you much info about your photos. But press the display button and you'll get plenty of details, including a histogram.

The camera rockets through photos in playback mode. It moves from one to the next instantly.

How Does it Compare?

The original PowerShot S1 was a great ultra zoom camera, but it had several flaws that kept it out of the top spot. Those flaws included poor low light focusing (due to the lack of an AF-assist lamp), a small LCD display, above average noise and purple fringing, a 1GB movie limit, and the lack of a histogram in record mode. The good news is that Canon has fixed most of those things on the new PowerShot S2 IS, earning it a spot at the top of my "best ultra zoom" list along with the Panasonic FZ20.

The PowerShot S2 is a midsize ultra zoom camera that's actually larger and heavier than the camera it replaces. The body is made almost entirely of plastic and, despite that, it feels solid. A large right hand grip makes it easy to hold, and all the controls are well placed. The camera features a larger 1.8" LCD that can flip to the side and rotate -- the S2 is the only camera in its class with this ability. In addition, the LCD (and the EVF as well) now gain up in low light, a feature sorely needed on the original S1.

The S2 features a 12X optical zoom lens (versus 10X on the S1) that, while not quite as fast as the one on the FZ20, is still very nice. The lens' ultrasonic motor allows for quiet, variable speed zooming that comes in especially handy when it's time for movie recording. Ultra zooms need image stabilizers and the one on the S2 works quite well, as I've (hopefully) shown in this review.

Camera performance is superb thanks mostly to the DIGIC II image processor. The S2 starts up quickly, there's no shutter lag, and shot-to-shot and playback times are super quick. Focusing speeds aren't quite as speedy -- the S2 is surpassed by the Panasonic FZ5 and the Sony H1 in this area. Low light focusing has been dramatically improved since the S1 and there's no longer a need to put the camera away when it gets dark. With the right memory card the S2's continuous shooting mode screams, shooting at 2.4 frames/second until the memory card is full. Battery life is best-in-class, as well.

In terms of photo quality, the PowerShot S2 delivers, though you might want to tweak the sharpness setting a bit, as the images are a little too sharp at default settings. Noise and purple fringing levels were comparable to other cameras in this class. Redeye was a bit of a problem, as it was on the PowerShot S1.

If you like recording movies on your digital camera, it doesn't get any better than this. Imagine being able to record VGA-sized video at 30 frames/second with stereo sound, image stabilization, and the ability to zoom while filming. Heck there's even a wind screen feature! You'll find a dedicated movie recording button on the back of the camera, and you can take stills while filming at the same time (though the movie will pause briefly). The only real downside to the otherwise excellent movie mode is how quickly you'll reach the 1GB file size limit. It takes a little over eight minutes to reach that point at the highest quality setting, so don't be putting that camcorder away just yet.

There are plenty of photo-related features on the S2 worth mentioning. The camera offers full manual controls ranging from exposure to focus to white balance. You can bracket for exposure or focus, which helps insure that your shots turn out as planned. The camera has the same My Colors feature as the SD400 and SD500, but it's more a gimmick than anything. Other nice features include a 0 cm macro mode (that's no typo), the ability to store your favorite camera settings to a spot on the mode dial, and a custom button that can control many commonly used functions. If you need even more zoom or perhaps plan on taking some wide-angle shots, Canon has a number of conversion lenses available for you. And finally, the software bundle included with the camera is really quite good compared to what other companies give you.

There are a few complaints that I have about the S2, but most of them are just nitpicking. While I love the movie mode on the S2, Canon needs to consider using a more efficient video codec so that 1GB limit doesn't arrive so quickly. The tripod mount, which was metal on the S1, is plastic on the S2. The camera could also use a manual focus ring, as using the four-way controller just isn't as nice. Support for the RAW image format and perhaps a live histogram in record mode would also make nice additions. And while I'm at it, rechargeable batteries and a larger memory card would've been nice, too. Oh, and the included lens cap stinks -- it doesn't like to stay on.

All-in-all I really like the PowerShot S2 and it gets my highest recommendation. I think the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ20 is more of a "photographers" camera with its sturdier construction, manual focus ring, and hot shoe, with the S2 being more of an all-around tool for still and video shooting. Close behind are the Panasonic FZ5 and Sony DSC-H1, and neither of these cameras should be overlooked. The best thing to do is get yourself to a camera store and try them all out to see which you prefer. Whichever of those four you choose you'll still end up with a great ultra zoom camera.

What I liked:

  • Very good photo quality (though see issues below)
  • 12X zoom lens with optical image stabilization
  • Blazing performance (except for focusing speeds, which are just average)
  • Full manual controls
  • Awesome movie mode: VGA resolution (30 fps), stereo sound, zoom ability, wind screen, selectable audio quality/level
  • Great continuous shooting mode
  • Flip-out, rotating 1.8" LCD display; LCD (and EVF too) is visible in low light
  • AF-assist lamp; good low light focusing
  • 0 cm macro mode for ultra close-ups
  • Handy shortcut button and custom spot on mode dial
  • Time lapse photography feature
  • Unique My Colors feature (though it's only available in one automatic shooting mode)
  • Excellent battery life
  • USB 2.0 High Speed support
  • Optional conversion lenses and external slave flash
  • Impressive software bundle; camera can be controlled from your Mac or PC

What I didn't care for:

  • Images a little too sharp; a few were a tad overexposed
  • Movie mode file size limit arrives quickly
  • Some redeye
  • No live histogram in record mode (still!)
  • Plastic tripod mount (hey I'm only complaining because it used to be metal)
  • RAW support, manual focus ring would've been nice
  • Tiny memory card, crappy lens cap, and throwaway batteries included with camera

Some other ultra zoom cameras to consider include the Fuji FinePix S5100, Kodak EasyShare Z7590, Konica Minolta DiMAGE Z5, Nikon Coolpix 4800, Olympus C-770 Ultra Zoom, Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ5 and DMC-FZ20, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H1. Of those, only the Minolta, Panasonic, and Sony cameras offer image stabilization.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the PowerShot S2 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

See how the photos turned out in our gallery. For more photos don't miss our PowerShot S2 vs. Cyber-shot DSC-H1 shootout!

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.

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