Canon PowerShot S95 Review

Using the Canon PowerShot S95

Record Mode

The PowerShot S95 takes just one second to extend its lens and prepare for shooting -- that's pretty darn quick.

There's a live histogram on the S95

Autofocus speeds were about the same as they were on the PowerShot S90, meaning good, but not spectacular. Typically it'll take between 0.3 - 0.5 seconds to lock focus at the wide end of the lens, and around twice that at full telephoto. The camera focuses accurately in low light situations, taking around a second to lock in most cases.

I did not find shutter lag to be an issue here, even at the slower shutter speeds where it sometimes occurs.

Shot-to-shot delays range from about 1.5 seconds for JPEG, 2.5 seconds for RAW, and 3 seconds for RAW+JPEG. If you're using the flash, expect to wait for around three seconds before you can take another photo, regardless of the image quality setting.

You can delete a picture after you've taken it by pressing the down button on the four-way controller.

Now, here's a look at the image size and quality choices available on the camera. These are only for the standard 4:3 aspect ratio -- things will be different for the other four ratios.

Resolution Quality Approx. file size # images on 4GB card (optional)
3648 x 2736
RAW + Large/Fine JPEG 16.5 MB 242
RAW 14.0 MB 285
Fine 2.5 MB 1471
Normal 1.2 MB 3017
Medium 1
2816 x 2112
Fine 1.6 MB 2320
Normal 780 KB 4641
Medium 2
1600 x 1200
Fine 558 KB 6352
Normal 278 KB 12069
640 x 480
Fine 150 KB 20116
Normal 84 KB 30174

As the table illustrates, the PowerShot S95 can take a RAW image alone, or along with a Large/Fine JPEG. Do note that RAW images can only be taken at the 4:3 aspect ratio.

Update 10/1/10: Reader Paul R. pointed out that if you put the camera into RAW+JPEG mode you can select a different aspect ratio, and the RAW image will be cropped appropriately. This whole image area is still recorded, so you can change the aspect ratio if you'd like.

Alright, let's move onto the menu system now!

When "Hints & Tips" is turned on in the setup menu, the S95 will show a brief description of the highlighted menu option

The menu system on the PowerShot S95 looks exactly like that of its predecessor. It's attractive, easy to navigate, and features "hints & tips" that describe each option. When you're taking pictures, the menu is divided into three tabs, covering shooting, setup, and "My Menu" options. Keeping in mind that not all of these are available in each shooting mode, here's the full list:

Shooting Menu

  • AF frame (Center, Face AiAF, tracking AF) - see below
  • AF frame size (Normal, small) - see below
  • Digital zoom (Standard, off, 1.4X, 2.3X) - see below
  • AF-point zoom (on/off) - enlarges the focus point or the detected faces when you halfway press the shutter release
  • Servo AF (on/off) - camera focuses even with shutter release halfway-pressed, useful for tracking a moving subject
  • AF-assist beam (on/off)
  • MF-point zoom (on/off) - enlarges the center of the frame in manual focus mode
  • Safety MF (on/off) - activate autofocus momentarily when using manual focus by halfway-pressing the shutter release button
  • Flash settings
    • Flash mode (Auto, manual) - the latter lets you adjust the flash strength; only available in the manual shooting modes
    • Flash exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV, in 1/3EV increments)
    • Flash output (Minimum, medium, maximum) - only available with flash mode set to manual
    • Shutter sync (1st-curtain, 2nd-curtain)
    • Redeye correction (on/off) - digital redeye removal, as the photo is taken
    • Redeye reduction lamp (on/off) - uses the AF-assist lamp to shrink your subject's pupils to reduce the risk of redeye
    • Safety FE (on/off) - whether the camera adjusts the shutter speed or aperture to avoid overexposure when using the flash
  • ISO Auto settings - adjust how this feature works
    • Max ISO speed (400 - 1600) - how high you want the sensitivity to go
    • Rate of change (Slow, standard, fast) - how quickly the camera increases the sensitivity, probably based on minimum shutter speed
  • Safety shift (on/off) - camera will adjust the shutter speed or aperture as needed to obtain a proper exposure when in the priority modes
  • Wind filter (on/off) - reduces wind noise when recording movies outdoors
  • Review (Off, 2-10 seconds, hold) - post-shot review
  • Review info (Off, detailed, focus check) - detailed shows you shooting data and a histogram; focus check enlarges the focus point or faces
  • Blink detection (on/off) - puts up a warning screen if someone in your photo had their eyes closed
  • Custom display settings - you can have two sets of these, which you toggle by pressing the Display button
    • Shooting info (on/off)
    • Grid lines (on/off)
    • Histogram (on/off)
  • IS mode (Continuous, shoot only, panning, off) - see below
  • Date stamp (Off, date, date & time)
  • Set Shortcut button (Not assigned, face select, i-Contrast [DR/shadow correction], ISO, white balance, custom WB, servo AF, My Colors, bracketing, drive mode, metering, aspect ratio, RAW+JPEG, image size/quality, movie quality, servo AF, redeye correction, AF lock, AE lock, digital teleconverter, LCD off) - define what this button does
  • Save settings - save your favorite camera settings to the custom spot on the mode dial

Setup Menu

  • Mute (on/off) - quickly turn off the camera's beeps and blips
  • Volume
    • Startup volume (Off, 1-5)
    • Operation volume (Off, 1-5)
    • Self-timer volume (Off, 1-5)
    • Shutter volume (Off, 1-5)
  • Sound options
    • Startup sound (1-3)
    • Operation sound (1-3)
    • Self-timer sound (1-3)
    • Shutter sound (1-3)
  • Hints & Tips (on/off) - gives you a description of menu items, as shown above
  • LCD brightness (1-5)
  • Startup image (Off, 1-3)
  • Card format
  • File numbering (Continuous, auto reset)
  • Create folder (Monthly, daily)
  • Lens retract (0 sec, 1 min) - how quickly the lens retracts when you enter playback mode
  • Power saving
    • Auto power down (on/off)
    • Display off (10, 20, 30 sec, 1-3 min)
  • Time zone (Home, world)
  • Date/time
  • Distance units (m/cm, ft/in)
  • Video system (NTSC, PAL)
  • Control via HDMI (Enable/disable) - whether you can control the camera from the remote of a compatible HDTV
  • Language
  • Reset all - back to defaults

My Menu

You can put up to five of your favorite shooting menu items here

The S95's jumpy face detection system located three faces here

There are three AF modes on the PowerShot S95 (up from two on the S90). Face AiAF combines multi-point autofocus with face detection. If the camera detects any faces, it will give them focus priority, making sure white balance and exposure are accurate. If there aren't any faces, it'll switch to 9-point autofocus. The camera's face detection system can locate up to nine faces in the frame, and you can select one of them to track as they move around the scene (note that you must assign this function to the shortcut button first). Recent Canon cameras haven't fared well with my test scene -- it seems to jump from person-to-person, usually locking onto three or maybe four faces at one time. There's also a blink detection feature that warns you if one of your subjects had their eyes closed in the photo you just took.

The second AF mode simply focuses on the center of the frame. You can select from a normal or small focus point. The third AF mode -- and new to the S95 -- is Tracking AF. Point the camera at your subject, press the four-way controller to the left, and the camera will follow that subject as they move around. One feature I would've liked to have seen here is Canon's FlexiZone AF system, which allows you to pick a point in the frame on which to focus. You'll have to step up to the PowerShot G12 for that.

The camera has a number of digital zoom options, all of which can reduce the quality of your photo if you use too much of it. However, if you're willing to lower the resolution a bit, you can safely use the standard digital zoom setting without reducing image quality, as long as you stop at the right time (the zoom position indicator becomes yellow). At the Medium 2 (2 Megapixel) setting you can get 8.7X of total zoom without a loss of quality.

What are those three IS modes all about? Continuous mode activates the OIS system as soon as you halfway press the shutter release, which helps you compose the photo without camera shake. The "shoot only" option doesn't turn it on until the photo is actually taken, which improves the performance of the OIS system. The panning mode only stabilizes up and down motion, and you'll want to use this while tracking a moving subject horizontally. You can also turn the whole thing off, which is advisable if you're using a tripod.

Okay, that does it for menus, let's talk about photo quality now.

The PowerShot S95 did a superb job with our macro test subject. Colors are nice and saturated, with the camera having no problems with our studio lamps. The figurine has a "smooth" look to it, which is a trademark feature of Canon cameras. I don't see any noise or noise reduction artifacts here, nor would I expect to.

The minimum focus distance in macro mode is 5 cm at wide-angle, and 30 cm at telephoto.

Since the S95's lens tops out at 105 mm, the night test shot is a bit more "wide" than you may be used to. To take long exposures like this you can use Smart Auto mode (which can detect if you're using a tripod and adjust the settings accordingly), or set the shutter speed manually. I did the latter, and brought in a good amount of light, though I might go a little slower if I did it all over again. The buildings are sharp, with just a bit of noise visible. There's some highlight clipping here, and I think closing down the aperture a bit more would help with some of that. As for chromatic aberrations, the only thing I see is some mild cyan-colored fringing in places.

Now, let's use the same scene to see how the PowerShot S95 performed at higher sensitivities in low light:

ISO 80

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

There's just a slight increase in noise as you go from ISO 80 to 100 to 200. At ISO 400, things start to get a little bit smudged, though not enough to keep you from making a midsize or large print. The photo gets considerably softer at ISO 800, so this is where you'll want to stop if you're shooting JPEGs, or switch over to RAW and do some post-processing. There's pretty substantial detail loss at ISO 1600 and 3200, so I'd pass on those.

Let's see if we can't clean up that ISO 800 shot a bit by using the RAW format and doing some basic post-processing:

ISO 800

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion (Digital Photo Professional)

RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask

While it's not super clean, the retouched photo does have better sharpness and detail than the original JPEG. Look for additional examples of this in a moment.

There's fairly mild barrel distortion at the wide end of the PowerShot S95's lens. You can see the effect of this by looking at the building on the right side of this photo. The lens does not have issues with corner blurring (normally a common problem on compact cameras) or vignetting (dark corners), which is good news.

Something that's not quite so positive is the redeye test performance. Those of you who read the PowerShot S90 review might recall my surprise that it didn't show any redeye in my tests. Well, the complete opposite happened with the S95, using the exact same methodology. I can't explain it, but if anything, this illustrates that your results may vary!

The S95 uses both the AF-assist lamp to shrink your subject's pupils, plus a digital removal system to try to get rid of this annoyance. There's a redeye removal tool in playback mode as well, though that couldn't fix my test shots either.

Now it's time for the studio ISO test. Since the lighting is always the same, you can compare these results with those from other cameras I've reviewed over the years. Keep in mind that you'll want to view the full size images as well as the crops in order to get the most out of this test!

ISO 80

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

The first three crops are all very clean. At ISO 400 there's a slight increase in noise, but it doesn't concern me. There's a drop in color saturation and a bit more noise at ISO 800, but it's still very clean for a compact camera. Even ISO 1600 is usable for small prints, and perhaps larger if you shoot RAW. Speaking of which, I'd probably pass on ISO 3200 for JPEGs, but look below to see if we can clean things up by shooting RAW and post-processing.

ISO 1600

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion (Digital Photo Professional)

RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask
ISO 3200

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion

RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask

As you can see, the 30 seconds I spent cleaning up those two high ISO photos made a pretty significant difference. There's not a huge gain in image quality from RAW at lower sensitivities, but at high ISOs, it's worth using.

For those of you comparing the PowerShot S95 to the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5, head on over to the LX5 review to see who came out on top (short version: the S95 wins, by a nose).

Overall, I was very pleased with the image quality on the PowerShot S95. Exposure was generally spot-on. While the camera has a larger-than-average sensor, that doesn't meant that it never clips highlights. Thankfully, both the HDR and DR Correction features helped reduce that (though the former really requires a tripod). Colors were nice and vivid, and as you saw above, the camera had no trouble with artificial lighting (at least my artificial lighting). Sharpness was just about right: smooth, but not soft. Noise isn't a problem until you pass ISO 400, and Canon goes fairly light on the noise reduction, so you don't see much in the line of smudged details. Purple fringing levels were low.

Now, I invite you to have a look at our PowerShot S95 photo gallery. View the full size images, maybe print a few of the photos if you can, and then decide if the S95's photo quality meets your needs!

Movie Mode

One of the areas in which the PowerShot S95 was enhanced was in the movie department. While the S90 had a VGA movie mode, the PowerShot S95 can record 720p video with stereo sound, albeit at 24 frames/second. You can keep recording until the file size reaches 4GB, which takes just over 25 minutes. The resolution can also be lowered to 640 x 480 or 320 x 240 (both at 30 fps), though recording will stop just before the timer hits 30 minutes.

Despite what the manual says, you cannot use the optical zoom while you're recording a video. Digital zoom is available, however. You can use the image stabilizer without issue. There aren't any manual controls in movie mode, though the wind filter comes in handy when you're shooting outdoors.

There are three special effect movie modes: miniature, Color Swap, and Color Accent. The former works in the same way as it does for stills, except that 1) movies are silent and 2) you can select a playback speed of 5X, 10X, or 20X. The Color Swap and Color Accent features were explained earlier.

Movies are saved in QuickTime format, using the efficient H.264 codec.

Here's a sample movie for you, taken at the 720p24 setting. Yeah, it's a little choppy -- too bad Canon didn't go for 30 fps recording on the S95.

Click to play movie (29.8 MB, 1280 x 720, 24 fps, QuickTime/H.264 format)

Playback Mode

The PowerShot S95 has a new and improved playback mode. Basic features include slideshows (complete with transitions), image protection, favorite-tagging, DPOF print marking, thumbnail view, and playback zoom. This last feature will enlarge the image by as much as ten times, and let you move around. You can use the scroll wheel on the back of the camera to move from image to image, while keeping the zoom and scroll setting intact. You can also use the Focus Check feature by pressing the Display button, which will enlarge the focus point or the faces that were detected in the photo.

Photos can be rotated, resized, and cropped right on the camera. You can apply most of the My Colors feature to your photos, as well. If there's any redeye in your photos, you'll find a tool to remove it here. You can also use the i-Contrast feature to brighten up the dark areas of your photos, with a choice of Auto, Low, Medium, or High settings. The S95 has the ability to assign a category to a photo, and in many cases, it's done automatically, based on the scene mode that was used.

The only video editing feature is a useful one -- a trimming tool to remove unwanted footage from the beginning or end of a clip.

Filtering photos by date using the Jump feature Smart Shuffle

There are several ways to move through photos on the camera. Naturally, you can just press left or right on the four-way controller. You can also turn the scroll wheel, which lets you move through your photos a lot quicker. Another option is to use the filtered playback (jump) feature, which lets you show photos by date, category, file type, whether they're a favorite, and you can move forward or backward by 10 or 100 photos, as well. New to the S95 is the Smart Shuffle feature, which shows four photos related to the one currently selected (see screenshot).

By default, you won't get much information about your photo while in playback mode. But press the Display button and you'll get a lot more, including a histogram. On the info screen you can press "up" on the four-way controller to reveal an RGB histogram.

The PowerShot S95 moves from one photo to another without delay.