A large-sensor compact that is simply designed and truly pocketable, the S100 has much of merit, finds Richard Kilpatrick.
Author: Richard Kilpatrick
13 Mar 2012 Tags: Canon powershot s100
There’s no doubt that 2012 is going to be a year for larger-sensor compact systems, be they interchangeable lens or fully integrated. And yet, with the bulk of a separate lens assembly seemingly unavoidable (despite past efforts, such as Pentax’s Auto 110, managing admirably in a manual era), the truly pocketable camera remains highly useful; when it can deliver results that would satisfy most entry-level DSLR users, even better.
Canon’s S100 is the third in a series of Powershot models aimed at bringing the G-series’ image quality to a lighter, more consumer-focused body, and the first to expand the optical range, now 24-120mm equivalent. The S100’s sensor is now a Backlit CMOS unit, offering advantages in noise performance and capture speed, and is not featured in a G-series equivalent. Given the S90 and 95’s popularity and reputation, messing with the optical formula may be a risky move, but for newcomers to the S100 it’s a welcome expansion into a true wide-angle field of vision. Reinforcing the little Canon’s credentials as a travel camera, GPS is integrated and acquires an initial location quickly, and a very effective 40m underwater housing is available, providing excellent access to the controls while using the large live-view screen to full effect.
Opting for a simple, thin, black, magnesium alloy chassis, the S100’s control interface is simple and immediately accessible. A substantial control ring around the lens provides positive adjustments for settings – most naturally, aperture or shutter speeds – while a second wheel around the four-way controller at the back now features positive click stops. Compact cameras are a mature and generally pleasing genre as it is – few throw up surprises or problems for the user – yet Canon’s metal control ring and responsive user interface bestow upon the S100 a depth that many lack.
The quality of images from the 12.1-megapixel sensor is impressive, bordering on stunning for the technology and form factor. Bearing in mind that this is a truly pocketable camera, resolution of the lens and sensor are well matched, and the program modes use the dynamic range effectively to deliver raw files with a reasonable amount of latitude for post-processing. A real diaphragm is used along with a switchable neutral density filter, so it’s possible to use wider apertures in bright light and retain some control over depth-of-field – and the pop-up flash has fully manual control for fill effects. Overall, the S100’s greatest strength is being able to cope with most creative impulses without trying to package them as “scenes” (although scene modes exist, including a high-speed video mode). It offers enough flexibility to let experienced users make appropriate tweaks without being frustrated.
One of the benefits of the S100 is the sheer simplicity of having a pocket camera that offers a quality of capture to allow a wide range of adjustments in post processing. The raw file of this beach-blown leaf - spotted purely because carrying such a small camera becomes second nature when a DSLR is simply too bulky - gave plenty of room for subtle adjustments and monochrome conversion in Lightroom. The S100 isn't short of appealing in camera effects, either, though these naturally apply to JPEG files. Image © Richard Kilpatrick.
Revisions to the optics have resulted in a slightly slower lens than previous models, where the minimum aperture very quickly deviates from the f/2 available at 24mm. Minimum aperture decreases sooner in the focal range, so in some situations it’s 2/3 of a stop slower than the S90/95 at the same focal length.
As a compact with image stabilisation, this is not a significant problem, but it does mean that your control is restricted to a couple of apertures at longer focal lengths. As is expected on a modern digital camera, HD movies are supported up to 1080p/24fps, with a high-speed capture mode for 240fps VGA-resolution video. The image pipeline also puts that power to good use delivering several burst options, including 10fps at full resolution in JPEG form for eight frames. HDR, night and other scene modes pad out the feature set in a useful fashion, but the real joy to be found is in the simple, rapid manual control that allows you to focus on making pictures.
Priced at around £220, the underwater housing is an exceptionally clever design, with geared controls for the ring and zoom. Canon has implemented a scene mode for underwater use, which gives the correct colour balance and quick preset focal lengths, but for most serious photographers simply setting the white balance in advance will be more effective. The housing is an evolution of the models provided for the S90 and S95 – the older version won’t fit the S100.
An accident meant my week in Tunisia in January was extended into a fortnight, which at least provided an excellent opportunity to put the S100 into the real world. A raw-capable compact that delivers appreciably better image quality than the mainstream, it’s also housed in a comfortable and pleasing body and exceptionally well equipped. The GPS system is quick to obtain a lock, and offers a tracking function that does, unfortunately, devour your battery life even when the camera is off (GPS is still a power-hungry function). As a robust compact, it was with me when other cameras had to be left behind; unlike most compacts, I found the images wholly usable, even when exploring the higher ISO ranges. Without the pressures of commercial needs, it would be entirely possible to use the S100 as the only camera for so many tasks. As such, Canon continues to produce a model that is more than the sum of its parts despite the risks introduced with minor changes to the formula.
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