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DCRP Review: Canon PowerShot S3 IS  

by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: April 28, 2006
Last updated: December 31, 2011

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The Canon PowerShot S3 IS ($499) is an update to last year's very popular PowerShot S2 ultra zoom camera. The S3 isn't a revolution compared to the S2 -- in fact, the upgrades are fairly minor for the most part. New features on the S3 include:

  • Uses a 6 Megapixel CCD (instead of 5MP)
  • New ISO range of 80 - 800 (instead of 50 - 400); lower noise than previous sensor
  • 2" LCD display (versus 1.8")
  • Live histogram in record mode
  • New widescreen (16:9) still image mode
  • New Sports scene mode
  • Black-colored body; slightly larger and heavier than S2

Everything else is the same as on the PowerShot S2. That means that the S3 has a 12X optical zoom lens, optical image stabilizer, rotating LCD, full manual controls, and enhanced movie mode.

The S2 was one of my favorite ultra zoom cameras of 2005. Will the new S3 follow in its footsteps? Find out now in our review!

Since the two cameras are so similar, I will be reusing portions of the PowerShot S2 review here.

What's in the Box?

The PowerShot S3 has an average bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 6.0 effective Megapixel Canon PowerShot S3 IS digital camera
  • 16MB Secure Digital card
  • Four AA alkaline batteries
  • Lens cap w/retaining strap
  • Neck strap
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • CD-ROM featuring Canon Digital Camera Solutions
  • 25 page basic manual + 169 page advanced camera, direct printing, and software manuals (all printed)

Canon includes a 16MB memory card with the PowerShot S3, which holds a grand total of four photos at the highest quality setting. That means that you'll want to buy a memory card right away, which brings up the initial price of the camera bit. The S3 uses Secure Digital and MultiMedia memory cards, though I'd stick with the former. I'd recommend 512MB as a good starter size -- and be sure to get a high speed card (60X or higher), as the S3 takes advantage of them.

[Update 1/17/07: As it turns out, the S3 supports the new, high capacity SDHC memory card format. Even some Canon folks didn't know!]

Like its predecessor, the PowerShot S3 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 (2500 mAh, 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 S3:

Camera Battery life, LCD on
(CIPA standard)
Battery used for test
Canon PowerShot S2 IS 550 shots 2300 mAh NiMH
Canon PowerShot S3 IS 550 shots 2500 mAh NiMH
Fuji FinePix S5200 500 shots 2500 mAh NiMH
Fuji FinePix S9000 340 shots 2500 mAh NiMH
Kodak EasyShare P850 290 shots KLIC-5001
Kodak EasyShare Z612 262 shots KLIC-8000
Konica Minolta DiMAGE Z6 420 shots 2500 mAh NiMH
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7 320 shots CGR-S006
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ30 280 shots CGR-S006
Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ1 250 shots CGA-S007
Samsung Digimax Pro815 450 shots SLB-1974
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H2 400 shots 2500 mAh NiMH
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H5 340 shots 2500 mAh NiMH
Battery life numbers are provided by the manufacturer

As you can see, the PowerShot S3 has the best battery life in its class. Battery life numbers for the Olympus SP-500UZ were not available.

If you've been here for long enough then you're well aware of my love for cameras that use AA batteries. These batteries cost much less than proprietary lithium-ion batteries (which are $20-$50 each) and you can use off-the-shelf alkalines when your rechargeables die.

Canon includes a lens cap and retaining strap with the camera so your lens is always protected. However, just like on the S2, the S3's lens cap seems to come off pretty easily.

There are quite a few accessories available for the PowerShot S3, and I've compiled them into this handy list for you:

Accessory Model # Price * Why you want it
Wide-angle lens WC-DC58A From $137 Brings the wide end of the lens down by 0.75X to 27 mm; requires conversion lens adapter
Telephoto lens TC-DC58B From $93 Boosts focal range by 1.5X to a whopping 648 mm; requires conversion lens adapter
Close-up lens 500D (58 mm) From $81 Lets you use the telephoto end of the lens for macro shooting; minimum focus distance at telephoto is 35 cm; requires conversion lens adapter
Conversion lens adapter / lens hood LAH-DC20 From $25 Required for conversion lenses; you can attach standard 58 mm filters to it as well; a lens hood is also included
External slave flash HF-DC1 From $86 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 From $44 Power the camera without wasting your batteries
Battery/charger kit CBK4-300 From $37 Includes four 2500 mAh NiMH batteries and a charger
* Prices were accurate as of 12/7/06

That's not too shabby, eh?

ImageBrowser (Mac OS X)

Canon includes several software products with the S3, the first being the usual ImageBrowser/ZoomBrowser applications that come with all of their PowerShot models. ImageBrowser is for the Mac, while ZoomBrowser is for Windows PCs.

The "Browser twins" can be used for downloading images from a camera, and then viewing, editing, and printing them. Editing functions include trimming, redeye removal, and the ability to adjust levels, color, brightness, sharpness, and the tone curve. There's also an auto adjustment feature available.

You can also use the MovieEdit task to enhance your movie clips. You can arrange and edit clips, add special effects and transitions, and more. It's not Final Cut Pro, but it's not bad considering its price (free).

The Remote Capture feature lets you control the camera from your Mac or PC over the USB connection. You can adjust all the settings on the camera, and photos are saved directly to your computer's hard drive. If I'm not mistaken, the S-series cameras are the only ultra zoom cameras which offer this feature.

ArcSoft PhotoStudio 4.3 for Mac OS X

Also included is ArcSoft 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 the newer PhotoImpression software that's available these days.

This year Canon changed their documentation a bit. There's now a "basic manual" for getting you up and running, with an advanced manual for more in-depth information. There are also manuals for the bundled software and for direct printing (e.g. PictBridge). While the manuals are very detailed, they could be a little more user friendly.

Look and Feel

The PowerShot S3 is more or less identical to its predecessor. The main physical differences are its larger LCD display and black-colored body. Otherwise, if you've used the S2 then you've used the S3.

The camera fits well in your hand, with a substantial grip your right hand. While the controls are well-placed, the S3 definitely suffers a bit from "button clutter". The camera is made of a mixture of metal and plastic, and it feels very solid.

Now here's a look at how the S3 compares in terms of size and weight to other ultra zoom cameras:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon PowerShot S2 IS 4.4 x 3.1 x 3.0 in. 40.9 cu in. 405 g
Canon PowerShot S3 IS 4.6 x 3.1 x 3.0 in. 42.8 cu in. 410 g
Fuji FinePix S5200 4.5 x 3.3 x 4.4 in. 65.3 cu in. 371 g
Fuji FinePix S9000 5.0 x 3.7 x 5.1 in. 94.4 cu in. 646 g
Kodak EasyShare P850 4.3 x 3.3 x 2.8 in. 39.7 cu in. 403 g
Kodak EasyShare Z612 4.1 x 2.9 x 2.7 in. 32.1 cu in. 300 g
Konica Minolta DiMAGE Z6 4.3 x 3.1 x 3.3 in. 44.0 cu in. 340 g
Olympus SP-500 Ultra Zoom 4.2 x 2.9 x 2.8 in. 34.1 cu in. 285 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7 4.4 x 2.8 x 3.1 in. 38.2 cu in. 310 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ30 5.5 x 3.4 x 5.4 in. 101.1 cu in. 674 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ1 4.4 x 2.3 x 1.6 in. 16.2 cu in. 234 g
Samsung Digimax Pro815 5.2 x 3.4 x 5.7 in. 100.8 cu in. 850 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H2/H5 4.5 x 3.3 x 3.7 in. 55.0 cu in. 389 g / 406 g

When it comes to size and weight, the PowerShot S3 is about average for an ultra zoom camera.

And with that we can now begin our tour of the camera, beginning as always with the front.

The PowerShot S3 has the exact same F2.7-3.5, 12X optical zoom lens as its predecessor. This lens has a focal length of 6 - 72 mm, which is 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 the optional conversion lens adapter. From there you can attach one of the three conversion lenses I mentioned earlier, or any 58 mm filter.

All three of the PowerShot S-series cameras use an ultrasonic motor (USM) for the zoom lens. This allows for smooth and nearly silent zooming, which comes in handy when you're recording movies.

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, OIS systems don't work miracles: they can't freeze a moving subject and they can only stabilize so much camera movement.

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

Image stabilization off (1/5 sec, ISO 80)
Image stabilization on (1/5 sec, ISO 80)

As you can see, the difference is obvious -- and no, this isn't a Photoshop trick. If you need more evidence, check out this sample movie, which illustrates how the OIS system reduces camera shake.

Directly above the lens is the S3's pop-up flash, which is raised manually. The flash has a working range of 0.5 - 5.2 m at wide-angle and 0.9 - 4.0 m at telephoto, which is good, but not outstanding (and the same as on the S2). For more flash power and 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. That's your only external flash option, as the S3 lacks a hot shoe or flash sync port.

Between the lens and the flash is the PowerShot S3's stereo microphone. This is a very rare feature -- only a small handful of cameras have it -- which comes into play when you're using that fancy movie mode.

At the far right of the photo is the S3's AF-assist lamp, which is used by the camera as a low light focusing aid. Above the PowerShot logo toward the left side is the tally / self-timer / redeye reduction lamp. In case you're wondering, the tally lamp is a visual indicator of video recording (you can turn it off if you want).

This back-angled view of the PowerShot S3 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. The PowerShot S-series cameras are the only ultra zooms to offer a rotating LCD (now that the Coolpix 8800 has been retired).

Here's the straight-on view of the back of the PowerShot S3. The LCD display gets bigger on each review of the PowerShot S-series, with the S3's screen weighing in at 2 inches. While that's an improvement over the 1.8" screen on the S2 (I won't even mention how small the screen was on the original S1), most ultra zooms on the market now have 2.5" screens (or even larger). Then again, none of those can flip to the side and rotate, and a 2.5" rotating screen would be pretty ungainly. With 115,000 pixels, the S3's screen is plenty sharp. Outdoor visibility was decent, and low light viewing was very good, as the screen brightens automatically in those situations.

Directly about the LCD is the S3'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 (especially in bright or low light) and much sharper. Canon doesn't publish the resolution of the EVF, and probably for good reason: it's not great. Images are on the grainy side, for sure.

Since I've been knocking it so far, I should point out that EVFs show 100% of the frame (unlike most optical viewfinders) 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 S3'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 S3's amazing movie mode later in the review.

To the right of the LCD are four buttons:

  • Function + Delete Photo
  • ISO (Auto, Auto Hi ISO, 80, 100, 200, 400, 800) + Jump (move through images quickly)
  • Shortcut (customizable button) + Print/Share
  • Display (switches between the LCD and EVF and also toggles what is shown on them)

The ISO options have changed since the PowerShot S2. Instead of a range of 50 - 400, the S3 has an ISO range of 80 - 800. There are also two Auto ISO modes, with the Auto Hi ISO mode using higher sensitivities than the regular Auto mode. Be warned, though: higher sensitivities mean more noise, so you'll probably want to avoid using this mode if you plan on making larger-sized prints. I'll have more on this subject later in the review.

Function menu

Not surprisingly, if you press the Function button the function menu opens up. It has the following options:

  • Exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV in 1/3EV increments)
  • White balance (Auto, daylight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent, fluorescent H, flash, 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
  • Bracket (Off, exposure, focus) - see below
  • Flash exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV in 1/3EV increments) or flash output (1/3, 2/3, full) - which option you get depends on your shooting mode
  • Metering mode (Evaluative, center-weighted, spot)
  • Resolution (see chart later in review)
  • Compression (see chart later in review)

Many of those options require further explanation. 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. Every camera should have this.

The Photo Effects and My Colors menus from the PowerShot S2 have been combined on the S3 (two of the My Colors options have relocated to the scene menu, and I'll get to them in a bit). Most of the options should be self-explanatory, but I do want to mention the Custom Color feature. This lets you adjust the contrast, sharpness, saturation, reds, greens, blues, and skin tones in your photos. Each of those options can be adjusted from -2 to +2 in 1-step increments.

Like its predecessor, the S3 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 uses 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.

Getting back to our tour now: the Shortcut button lets you put your favorite menu option close at hand. The available shortcuts include resolution, metering, My Colors, AE lock, display off, white balance, image stabilization, AF lock, and new folder creation.

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.

To the right of those four buttons are the set / focus point and menu buttons. In record mode, pressing the set button activates the camera's FlexiZone focusing system. You can then use the four-way controller to select one of 273 possible focus points. The menu button does just as it sounds.

Speaking of the four-way controller, it's at the top-right of the photo (which is probably way up the page by now). You'll use this for menu navigation and adjusting manual exposure settings.

The first thing to see on the top of the PowerShot S3 is the flash setting / microphone button over on the left side. In record mode, pressing this button toggles the flash between automatic and forced mode (redeye reduction and slow sync are turned on in the menu). In playback mode, a press of this button will allow you to attach a 60 second audio clip to an image.

Jumping over the flash we find the S3'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
Special scene mode If the scene modes below don't do it for you, here are eight more: foliage, snow, beach, fireworks, color accent, color swap, night snapshot, and indoor; more below
Sports Four commonly used scene modes
Night scene
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, the PowerShot S3 has a full suite of manual exposure controls, and plenty of auto modes too. The custom mode is handy -- here you can store your favorite camera settings for easy retrieval.

Color accent (highlighting red)

A rather extreme example of Color Swap (green for red)

Two of of the items from the My Colors menu on the S2 are now in the Scene menu on the S3. What are they? The Color Accent feature lets you select a color to highlight, and then all the other colors are turned to black and white. Color Swap does just as it sounds -- it swaps one color for another.

To the right of the mode dial is the power switch, which also moves the S3 between record and playback mode.

Like all of Canon's DIGIC II-based cameras, the PowerShot S3 has an excellent continuous shooting mode. There are two speeds to choose from here: standard and high speed, and both allow you to keep shooting until the memory card is full (high speed card required). In standard mode the camera takes photos at 1.5 frames/second, while the high speed mode fires off photos at 2.1 frames/second. The LCD and EVF do a good job of keeping up with the action, so following a movie subject should not be a problem.

The last item to see here on the top of the camera is the zoom controller, which has 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 do think that the controller is a little too sensitive, though -- it's easy to blow right past the desired zoom setting.

On this side of the PowerShot S3 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. 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.

The A/V out port is protected by a rubber cover. The S3 outputs sound in stereo -- unlike most cameras.

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 S3 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 (boo!) and the battery compartment. As you can see, the S3 uses four AA-sized batteries. The plastic door covering the battery compartment is of average quality.

Using the Canon PowerShot S3 IS

Record Mode

Like its predecessor, the S3 starts up quickly, taking just 1.4 seconds it extend its lens and "warm up" before you can start taking pictures.

The S3 is only the second Canon camera to offer a live histogram <wiping tears>

Autofocus speeds were very good on the S3. Typically it took between 0.2 and 0.4 seconds for the camera to lock focus, with slightly longer waits at the telephoto end. In low light situations the camera uses its AF-assist lamp as a focusing aid and it works well, though focus times can exceed one second.

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 S3, 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
# images on 512MB card (optional)
2816 x 2112
Superfine 2.7 MB 4 176
Fine 1.6 MB 8 292
Normal 780 KB 17 603
Wide (16:9)
2816 x 1584
Superfine 2.0 MB 6 235
Fine 1.2 MB 11 392
Normal 585 KB 23 794
Medium 1
2272 x 1704
Superfine 2.0 MB 6 237
Fine 1.1 MB 12 425
Normal 556 KB 24 839
Medium 2
1600 x 1200
Superfine 1002 KB 13 471
Fine 558 KB 24 839
Normal 278 KB 46 1590
640 x 480
Superfine 249 KB 52 1777
Fine 150 KB 80 2747
Normal 84 KB 127 4317

See why you need a larger memory card? The S3 does not support the RAW or TIFF formats.

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 S3 has the same easy-to-use and responsive menu system as Canon's other recent cameras. Here's what items you'll find in the full record menu (keep in mind that some options may not be available in all shooting modes):

  • Flash sync (1st-curtain, 2nd-curtain)
  • Slow synchro (Auto, manual)
  • Flash adjust (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
  • Safety shift (on/off) - whether camera automatically adjusts exposure settings in aperture or shutter priority mode if chosen settings will not properly expose image
  • MF-point zoom (on/off) - center frame enlargement in manual focus
  • 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
  • Custom display settings - you can have two sets of display settings for both the LCD and the EVF
    • Shooting info (on/off)
    • Gridlines (on/off)
    • Histogram (on/off)
  • 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 lets you 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. This does put extra strain on your batteries, though.

The S3'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. You can also turn the IS system off entirely, which you may want to do if you have the camera on a tripod.

The Intervalometer is a silly name for the S3'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 S3, so let's take a look at that now. Here's what you'll find in the setup menu:

  • Mute (on/off)
  • 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)
  • Audio
    • Mic level (1-5)
    • Wind filter (on/off)
    • Sampling rate (11.025, 22.050, 44.100 kHz)
  • LCD brightness (Normal, bright)
  • Power saving
    • Auto power down (on/off)
    • Display off (10, 20, 30 sec, 1-3 min)
  • Time zone (Home, world)
  • Date/time
  • Card format
  • File number (Continuous, auto reset)
  • Create folder (New, auto create) - you can create folders on a daily/weekly/monthly basis
  • Auto rotate (on/off) - camera will automatically rotate portrait photos on the LCD
  • Distance units (m/cm, ft/in) - for manual focus
  • Language (too many to list)
  • Video system (NTSC, PAL)
  • Print method (Auto, PictBridge)
  • Reset all

Those three audio items are 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 (there's even a chimpanzee theme!). If these bother you, you can also turn them off.

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

The PowerShot S3 did a great job with our macro test shot. The colors are nice and saturated, and the subject has Canon's trademark "smooth" appearance.
[Photo was reshot on 4/30/06]

In normal macro mode the minimum distance to the subject is 10 - 50 cm, which is about average. 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.

If you want to do some telemacro shooting then you'll need the optional close-up lens that I mentioned way back at the beginning of the review.

The S3 did a good job with the night shot as well, though I overexposed the photo a bit. The camera took in plenty of light thanks to its manual shutter speed control, and noise levels are reasonable for a 6MP camera. Purple fringing levels were moderate, and can be reduced by using a smaller aperture.

I have two ISO tests in this review: one in low light and another in normal light. The low light ISO test uses the night scene above. Have a look:

ISO 80

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

The ISO 80 and 100 shots are fairly similar, and noise levels start to pick up at ISO 200. The ISO 400 shot has noticeable loss of detail, though you could still squeeze a 4 x 6 inch print out of it if you use noise reduction software. The ISO 800 shot is not usable, in my opinion.

There's mild barrel distortion at the wide end of the PowerShot S3's 12X zoom lens. I didn't see any problems with vignetting (dark corners) or blurry edges in this test shot or my real world photos.

Like the S2 before it, the PowerShot S3 has a redeye problem. While your results may vary, odds are that you'll experience this annoyance at least part of the time.

Here's the other ISO test, this one taken in my studio under a pair of 600W quartz studio lamps. Since there's more light than in the night test shots, noise levels will be lower. I've cropped out an area of the test scene for easy comparison, but you should look at the full-size images if you want to really see the differences.

ISO 80

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

You'd be hard-pressed to see a difference in the noise levels of the first three shots. You should be able to make large prints of the ISO 80, 100, and 200 shots without issue. Noise levels start to pick up at ISO 400, but you can still get a midsize print out of that shot, and maybe larger if you use noise reduction software. For the ISO 800 shot you're stuck with 4 x 6 inch prints, and noise reduction software helps a lot here as well.

Overall, the PowerShot S3's photo quality is very good. The camera took well-exposed photos with accurate color, low purple fringing levels, pleasing sharpness, and Canon's trademark "smooth" look. Noise levels were low through ISO 200, and even ISO 400 is usable for small and midsized prints. This new 6MP sensor that Canon is using on many of their 2006 cameras has really impressed me in this area.

Don't just take my word for all this, though. Have a look at the photo gallery, printing the photos if you can, and then decide if the S3's photo quality meets your expectations.

Movie Mode

The PowerShot S3 has one of the best movie modes on the market, kept from Hall of Fame status only by its 1GB file size limit.

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. At the highest quality setting it takes under nine minutes to reach that limit, so you probably won't be throwing away that camcorder just yet. Just to be clear, I'm talking about SINGLE movies here: you can have multiple 1GB movies on that 4GB SD card.

If you want longer movies, you have several options. You can reduce the frame rate to 15 fps, but that just makes things choppier. You can also lower the resolution, which is probably your best bet. Another option is to reduce the audio quality, though this won't affect the file size as much as changing the resolution or frame rate. If Canon would just switch to MPEG-4, we could have much longer movies...

The S3 also has a "fast frame rate" mode, which records at 320 x 240, 60 frames/second.

For all of these movie modes you'll want to have a high speed memory card. If you don't have one, movie recording may stop unexpectedly.

Two great things about the S3's movie mode are its stereo sound recording and the fact that you can zoom during filming. That ultrasonic motor allows you to zoom in and out silently, just like on a camcorder. As I mentioned in the previous section, you can adjust the microphone sensitivity and sound recording quality. A wind filter helps cut out annoying wind noise in your movies. And while I shouldn't have to say this, the image stabilization system is active during filming.

One more cool feature: the S3 can take a full resolution still photo while recording a movie. The catch is that the movie recording pauses very briefly while this happens.

Here's a sample movie for you, recorded at the high quality 640 x 480 setting. Be warned, it's a very large file.

Click to play movie (22.1 MB, 640 x 480, 30 fps, AVI format)
Can't view it? Download QuickTime

Playback Mode

The PowerShot S3 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 (via a new print menu), image protection, thumbnail mode, voice annotations (60 secs), image rotation, and zoom and scroll. This last feature lets you enlarge the photo by as much as 10X and then move around in the zoomed-in area. The S3 supports the PictBridge system for direct printing to a compatible photo printer.

The S3 also has the same (and somewhat silly) "rotate the camera and the photo on the LCD rotates as well" feature that I first saw on the PowerShot SD550.

Three other interesting features include sound recording, movie editing, and My Colors. The Sound Recorder 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. You can overwrite your existing movie or just create a new one. You can also apply most of the My Colors features (save for Custom Color, Color Swap, and Color Accent) to still photos that you've taken.

By default, the S3 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, now with your choice of two fancy transitions!

How Does it Compare?

While not exactly an exciting upgrade over its predecessor, the Canon PowerShot S3 is still an excellent ultra zoom camera that earns my recommendation. It offers just about everything you want in a camera, from a big zoom lens to optical image stabilization to manual controls to a fancy movie mode.

The PowerShot S3 IS looks almost identical to the S2, save for its slightly larger LCD display and black-colored body. The camera is made of a mix of plastic and metal, and it feels pretty solid for the most part. It's easy to hold thanks to a large right hand grip, and the important controls are easy to reach. I do think that there are a few too many buttons though, and the zoom controller is on the sensitive side. Like the S2 before it, the PowerShot S3 features a powerful 12X optical zoom lens with optical image stabilization. If the 36 - 432 mm focal length isn't enough for you then you can attach a wide-angle or telephoto conversion lens (after shelling out some cash, of course). The S3 is the only ultra zoom out there with a flip-out, rotating LCD display, though it's a little small these days (2.0").

The S3 is feature-packed. If you're a beginner then you'll appreciate the automatic and scene modes on the camera, and when you're ready, the S3 has manual controls too. The manual controls include exposure, white balance, and focus, and bracket for the first and third options. I also like the custom spot on the mode dial and the handy shortcut button on the back of the camera. If you like taking close-up pictures then you'll like the S3, as it lets you basically put the subject up against the lens in its super macro mode. For telemacro shooting you will need to pony up for the optional close-up lens, though. The S3 also has a great continuous shooting mode that can fill your memory card with photos taken as fast as 2.1 frames/second.

And then there's the movie mode, which is one of the S3's trademark features. You can record video at 640 x 480 (30 frames/second) with stereo sound until you hit the 1GB file size limit. Unfortunately, that takes about eight or nine minutes (earth to Canon: time to switch codecs). You can, however, take several clips and combine them later on your Mac or PC (and Canon includes software to do so) to make a longer movie. You can use the zoom lens during filming, and you won't have to listen to the zoom motor either, as it's ultrasonic. You can also take full resolution still photos while simultaneously filming.

Camera performance was very good. The S3 starts up remarkably quickly for an ultra zoom, taking just 1.4 seconds. Focus speeds were very good (though Panasonic's cameras are faster), shutter lag was not a problem, and the camera can take another picture in about a second. Low light focusing was very good thanks to the S3's AF-assist lamp. Battery life is best-in-class.

Photo quality was also very good. The PowerShot took well-exposed photos with Canon's signature smoothness. Purple fringing levels were low for an ultra zoom camera, and noise was well-controlled, even at ISO 200. The ISO 400 setting is still very usable, though at ISO 800 you'll probably want to clean things up a bit using noise reduction software. Redeye was a problem, unfortunately.

While I mentioned most of the S3's negatives in the previous paragraphs, I have a few more for you now. I'm not a big fan of the plastic tripod mount on this $500 camera. On a related note, I was disappointed that Canon includes a tiny memory card and throwaway batteries on the S3. And finally, it would've been nice to have RAW image support and a higher resolution electronic viewfinder.

Overall, I really like the PowerShot S3, and it earns my enthusiastic recommendation. Yes, it has a few flaws, but doesn't everything? For people wanting a solid and capable ultra zoom camera, this one should be high on your list. If you yearn for a few more controls, external flash support, and manual zoom and focus rings then you'll want to look at the Panasonic FZ30 or the Fuji S9000.

What I liked:

  • Very good photo quality; low noise levels for a 6MP camera
  • 12X zoom lens with optical image stabilization
  • Full manual controls
  • Excellent movie mode: VGA resolution (30 fps), stereo sound, zoom ability, wind screen, selectable audio quality/level (though see issue below)
  • Snappy performance; great continuous shooting mode
  • Live histogram in record mode (and it's about time, too)
  • Flip-out, rotating 2-inch LCD display; LCD (and EVF as well) viewable in low light
  • AF-assist lamp; good low light focusing
  • Super macro mode lets you get "0 cm" away from subject
  • Handy shortcut button and custom spot on mode dial
  • Optional conversion lenses and external slave flash
  • Class-leading battery life
  • Camera can be controller from a computer
  • USB 2.0 High Speed support

What I didn't care for:

  • Redeye
  • Movie mode file size limit arrives quickly
  • Electronic viewfinder resolution could be better
  • Plastic tripod mount
  • RAW format support would've been nice
  • Tiny memory card and throwaway batteries included; lens cap isn't great

Some other ultra zoom cameras to consider include the Fuji FinePix S5200 and S9000, Kodak EasyShare P850 and Z612, Olympus SP-500UZ, Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7, DMC-FZ30, and DMC-TZ1, Samsung Digimax Pro815, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H2 and DSC-H5.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the PowerShot S3 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

See how the S3's photos turned out in our gallery!

Feedback & Discussion

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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 or technical support.