Canon PowerShot S95 Review

Posted by on Jan 26, 2011 in Photos | 15 Comments

A note about this review: This is not going to be a technical analysis of the S95’s inner workings or an in-depth look at its features (for that, click here). Rather, this review will be done in the context of why I bought the camera in the first place: As a high-quality, portable substitute/companion for my DSLR in the backcountry. In other words, I bought this camera to carry with me on ski and bike trips. That said, I will spend a little time on the basic functionality of the unit. Also see my S95 Flickr Gallery.

I love cameras. And I love the outdoors.

Cameras—photography—and the outdoors are natural bedfellows. But photography is not always compatible with backcountry skiing or mountain biking. That is, there has always been a compromise between weight and image quality. Want great images? Bring a heavy DSLR/lens. Don’t want to carry the weight? Use a pocket sized point and shoot (P&S), and sacrifice image quality and manual control. Performance vs. weight. That eternal backcountry conundrum. Cameras have been especially susceptible to this dilemma, as there have been few options for lightweight, high-performance lenses and bodies.

Until now.

The explosive technological progress of prosumer point and shoot and micro four-thirds cameras has changed the way that the outdoors can be photographed. Or, more accurately, have changed the photographic accessibility of the outdoors. Of course, the basic rules of photography and outdoor travel still apply. But the necessity of lugging heavy camera equipment is now optional, rather than mandatory, for the aspiring landscape or action photographer.

Which is not to claim that the gap between DSLR bodies and high quality glass has been completely bridged. But it has been narrowed. Dramatically.

For more on the high-end of the P&S market, I suggest reading here.

Quick Assessment

Strengths

  • Small
  • Light
  • RAW
  • Full control

Weakness

  • Small buttons
  • Short zoom
  • Learning curve

Why the Canon S95?

I looked long and hard at several P&S cameras. I read reviews, forum threads, and scoured Flickr for sample images. I had fairly specific demands for what I wanted, which eventually narrowed my search. But initially I looked at as many cameras as I could. I was, in effect, catching myself up on several years of camera technology and design. And frankly, it was fascinating research. Cameras today are doing more, and costing, less than ever before. Which means that photographers are doing more (and spending less) than ever before.

Ultimately my specific demands boiled down to this: Get the best image, in the smallest package.

I ruled out any camera that did not shoot in RAW—I wanted something that would compliment and compare to my DSLR—and any camera that would not fit into a jersey or coat pocket. Other features like zoom length, megapixel count*, or lens speed were secondary. In the words of Photo John, “I either want changeable lenses and a big sensor or it needs to fit in my pocket.” I have a DSLR with interchangeable lenses. And I’ve carried that into the backcountry with good results. But doing so on every ride or ski tour is cumbersome. Especially so when weather or other conditions are not exactly photogenic. Carrying a pocket-sized camera even when the weather is inclement, or the lighting flat, is a small, insignificant commitment.

The Canon Powershot S95 was the only camera I found that met both requirements.

Is there a compromise? Of course. There always is in that ongoing struggle of performance and weight. But it’s one that I’m happy to make—after all, it’s minimal.

*Megapixel count is mostly marketing jingoism. More MP doesn’t necessarily mean better imagery. For more on that, click here.

But It’s Not Just Small.

The S95 is a feature rich camera. It boasts 5 conventional shooting modes: Av, Tv, P, M, and Auto, in addition to a custom mode and 18 effects, stuff like HDR, posterize, sepia, ect. The camera also will record 720p HD video. ISO range starts at 80, and can be cranked up all the way to 3200. Shutter speeds range from 15 seconds, to 1/1600th of a second. Zoom is 28mm-105mm, and the aperture range is 2.0 to 8.0. For more specifications, click here.

The different shooting modes (Tv is my current favorite) mean easy and quick adjustments for those trailside captures. Anyone who has tried to shoot riding buddies knows that most of the time we are trying to pedal (or skin) ahead of the group in a flurry of speed and planning. We toss our bikes aside, grab the camera out of our jersey pocket, turn it on, frame the shot, and hope to heaven that our partners don’t come roaring by before we are ready. Of course, a friendly request to hold off for a few moments can help, but we also know that mountain bikers and skiers can be an impatient lot. Bothering with photo-ops is not exactly a priority when the trails or the snow are calling.

The S95 has proven so far to be a worthy trailside companion. It boots up quickly, is easily switched from mode to mode, focuses fast, and has minimal shutter lag. However, like any P&S, there is some shutter lag. It’s limited, and can be nearly eliminated with a little anticipation and planning. But I blew more than a few shots when I was learning the nuances and quirks of this camera. I’m still working out some of those kinks, but I attribute those more to my own abilities, than to the camera itself. Practice, practice, practice.

Is it Outdoorsy?

I purchased a small case for the S95 which fits snugly in my jersey and coat pocket. The case keeps the camera dry, and if kept close to the body, warm. A dry, warm camera is a happy, working camera. The camera body itself is smooth—no rubber or textured grips—which makes for an attractive looking body, but one that can feel slippery in your hand. Especially with winter gloves. I find myself removing ski gloves to shoot. Bike gloves are fine. But even after a month of use, the camera can still feel slick, even in my bare hands. However, it does have some heft and that helps. The power and the shutter buttons are too small for my taste. But I am adapting.

One of my favorite features is the LCD preview. When the shutter button is pressed half way, or when changes to shutter speed or aperture are made the camera will preview the shot on the LCD screen in real time. This is especially useful for testing different exposure and shutter options for different lighting conditions.

The lag between shooting and being ready to shoot again is minimal. That means you can grab a shot of both of your buddies as they ride by. I do find that lag to be somewhat longer when shooting in RAW, and RAW + JPG modes.

If there is a built-in weakness for sports photography, it is the relatively short zoom. 105mm is fine for most situations. But if you find yourself on an iconic, gigantic line, like Bonkers, for example, you’d sorely miss a longer zoom. However, for most ski tours, bike rides, and landscape needs, the zoom is long enough to grab a little detail on the adjacent ridge, while being wide enough (28mm) to frame up those tight switchbacks.

In the hand, despite the slippery surface, the camera feels solidly built and durable. And so far the zoom and other moving parts have operated without incident in some very cold temperatures.

The S95 has been up to challenge of outdoor use.

saint george utah

Image Quality

I’m really impressed at the images this little camera produces. The colors are rich, the frame crisp, and detail preserved. It really thrives in low-light situations, finding colors when other cameras would find only noise. I’m especially impressed with the S95s long exposure performance. The combination of large sensor and bright lens create an ideal combination for night photography. In fact, it out performs my DSLR in that regard—but primarily because I don’t have a particular bright lens for that camera. But nonetheless, the quality is superb. And overall, this pocket sized miracle produces images that are print worthy at any size.

Bottom Line

The Canon Powershot S95 is a great camera. There is a small learning curve, but the digital manual is detailed. The camera is small, light, and powerful. The battery lasts a long time, and recharges fairly quickly. The price tag is steep (MSRP: $399), when compared to other cameras in it’s size range, but the performance and feature set make this camera a market winner. There are other cameras that are as feature-rich, but none this small, and none this light.

If you are looking for near DSLR performance in a P&S size, the S95 is your camera.

15 Comments

  1. jay
    January 26, 2011

    if this thing did hd video I would be on it like stink on a hobo.

    It is CLOSE to hd video, but not full hd… and since I already have a SD940, which DOES do full hd, I will stick with it for now.

    But I have still been having my eye on this camera anyway, and thanks for the review.

    • Grizzly Adam
      January 26, 2011

      I consider video on still cameras icing on the cake. I don’t use the video feature much on the S95 (or my iphone for that matter) but video picture quality is making leaps and bounds of improvement on these small cameras. “HD” is a bit like megapixels – mostly marketing hype. But 720p is still very nice.

  2. Jason
    January 26, 2011

    Adam, great review. It sounds a ton like what I have done. Scouring Flickr, looking at your images, and others. As well as some video on YouTube and Vimeo. I decided on the s95 a week ago and it then took me a week to find one in stock! eBay has a ton and folks are just asking some obscene amounts of cash. FINALLY found one online for MSRPP and it will be here tomorrow! JOY!

    Funny story- when I was looking I stopped at an appliance store and asked about it. None in stock and the guy never heard of it. He looked it up on the computer and says “are you sure you want this one, it doesn’t have a lot of magapixels.” I then had to have the conversation about sensors, etc., etc.,

    As far as the video, I saw some movies on Vimeo filmed with the s95 (many in low light) and I was super impressed. 99.999% of my video goes online, and I don’t own an HD TV, so 720p will be fine.

    Thanks again for the review, I look forward to learning more about the camera in the coming weeks.

    Jason

  3. Errin
    January 26, 2011

    The S95 looks like a great camera. I’m currently using the Lumix LX3, which is great, but it doesn’t have an integrated lens cap so it makes shooting on the bike tricky. Like you say, all of these cameras are a series of compromises. I was using the G10 prior to the LX3, and while it’s built like a tank, it’s heavy and bulky.

    I bought my wife the S90 last year and I think I’m going to “borrow” it for the Tour Divide this year. Right now I can’t think of a better camera for the situation. Well, the S95 maybe, but the S90 will do.

    • Grizzly Adam
      January 26, 2011

      The LX3/5 really had my attention. I could not find an LX5 to play with anywhere in the SLC area. But it looks like a very solid camera. And its not THAT much bigger than the s95. I’m looking forward to seeing your pics from the Tour!

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    January 26, 2011

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  5. Steve Dalton
    January 26, 2011

    Amen. I picked up the S95 for Christmas (thanks in large part to your recommendation and photos), and I’ve loved it thus far. I’m at the bottom of the learning curve, so I look forward to finding out all it can do.

  6. Jon Sharp
    January 27, 2011

    I bought an S90 before the S95 was released and have loved it. One thing I like, which you didn’t mention, is that there’s the adjustment ring on the front as well as the back for super quick adjustments–compared to most point-and-shoots, though.

    Also, a note about holding on to the camera with gloves and such. I bought this for my S90:

    http://www.kleptography.com/rf/#camera_s90

    It’s machined and fits super well on the camera. Anyone with either of these cameras should get this as it really adds to the usability of it. It makes the camera super comfortable to hold and is much more reminiscent of holding an SLR. (Still not the same, but closer.) Once installed, you cannot really tell that it was a 3rd-party add-on. Go buy it. Now.

    (No, I don’t work for them. I’m not being paid by them, etc.)

    Great write-up, by the way.

  7. Grizzly Adam
    January 27, 2011

    Thanks Jon! That grip looks great. And yes, the lens ring is a very nice feature.

  8. mark
    January 29, 2011

    i am just beginning and learning photography, do you all think s95 is the one for me being a beginner… do you have any recommended cameras for me… it would be great to learn and read what you all can say about this… thanks in advance:)

    • Grizzly Adam
      January 30, 2011

      This might be a good place to start. Camera Buying Guide.

      The S95 is beginner friendly, and is a camera that can be grown into as your skills increase.

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  10. rick
    March 6, 2011

    Thanks for taking the time to review the S95. Any issues seeing the screen on a bright ski day? Lag time in raw only mode not a major issue? My main use would be back country skiing. Thanks again.

    • Grizzly Adam
      March 6, 2011

      So far the screen has worked really well on bright days. In fact, the screen is one of the best I’ve used.

      • Rick
        March 8, 2011

        Bright screen – very good news. Thanks. What about the lag time when shooting action shots. I guess there is a little to contend with – especially raw. Can I assume you shoot in burst mode?