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.
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.
- Full control
- 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.
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.
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.