Canon S100 field test: The best point and shoot you can fit in your shirt pocket

Canon PowerShot S100 point and shoot cameraDespite being crazy addicted to Nikon DSLRs, I usually find myself carrying a Canon point and shoot. Canon has consistently shipped small, usable, models that take great images. Sometimes it has gotten it wrong and packed too many pixels or too much zoom into too small a package, but year in and year out there have always been a few standout models.

Right now is no exception. Having just finished writing about the Canon G1 X, perhaps the most feature-packed -- and largest -- point and shoot of the last decade, it was tempting to declare "game over." But pound for pound and inch for inch, the new Canon PowerShot S100 is my new favorite. The S100 builds on the highly successful PowerShot S90 and PowerShot 95, so it is no surprise that it is a winner.

The small size of the S100 makes the Canon a natural for candid photographs, and easy to manuveur to odd angles. In sunlight it is hard to tell its images apart from those taken with much larger and more expensive cameras. Photo by Annie Cardinal.

In the S100, Canon remade the S95 with some substantial upgrades. First, the zoom lens is now both wider and longer (24-120 vs. 28-105) at the cost of being slower at the long end (f/5.9 instead of the previous f/4.9), although it is still a solid f/2 at the wide end. The S100 also features Canon's new DIGIC 5 chip, six times faster than the previous version, which allows for more and better noise reduction and image processing in camera. The sensor is also new, and by incorporating technology from Canon's EOS DSLR line, allows for improved low-light shooting at ISOs up to 6400 despite also featuring a slightly improved resolution of 12MP (vs. 10MP in the S95).

Night shots, like this scene from the Strip in Las Vegas, are easy to render even in Automatic mode on the S100.

In addition to all the changes to the optics and image pipeline, Canon has added a dedicated mode dial on top of the camera -- like that found on many SLRs. This makes it dead simple to switch between popular shooting modes including Aperture priority, Time/Shutter priority, Program, Auto, Movie, Scenes, Creative Filters, and even a Custom settings mode where you can choose your own favorite options.

Of course the S100 also does all the great things we've come to expect from high-end point and shoots. Full 1080p video with stereo audio, both exposure and focus bracketing (a nice touch), macro capability, zillions of customized scene modes, image stabilization (IS), face-detection autofocus, etc. It also offers slow synchro, flash exposure compensation, flexible autofocus options, and a number of other features usually only found on DSLRs or larger mirrorless models.

The Achilles heel of point and shoots is a lack of speed, and unfortunately that is still true of the S100. The woman in the foreground wasn't in the frame when I pressed the shutter, but she ruined the image by the time the camera fired.

Just about the only really solid knock on the S100 -- just like every other point and shoot that fits in your shirt pocket -- is limited speed. In full autofocus mode it only fires off .8 fps (frames per second), although by allowing it to lock focus on the first shot you can increase that to 2.3 fps. This makes it tough to capture any type of action, of course. [NOTE: The Canon website & manual are a little confusing on this, sometimes stating that the camera can capture 2.3fps in "P" mode -- but in my tests that is only true in the non-AF version of continuous shooting, where the focus is locked after the first shot]. The S100 does offer a high-speed burst mode which rips off 8 frames in under a second, once you've taken the time to set the camera to that mode. It can also capture "super slow motion" movies at 120fps using VGA resolution.

Canon has also added a GPS to the S100 -- providing automatic location tagging of your images, an increasingly useful feature now that many photo sharing sites support the resulting geotags. Ergonomically, the only real drawbacks I found were the lack of an optical viewfinder (unfortunately, the overwhelming trend these days) and the awkward "reach" to the shutter button across the now-raised mode dial. Neither problem is serious for this type of camera -- as it isn't going to be used for intense action or high-speed photojournalism in any case.

Flexible settings and usable controls made it easy to set the S100 to Aperture mode and dial in exposure compensation as needed to make difficult night scenes easy to capture.

In short, I really like the Canon PowerShot S100. If you want all the camera you can get that still fits in a shirt pocket, this camera fills the bill. It is not as light or small as the tiny but amazing Canon PowerShot Elph 310 HS, though, so if you really want the smallest camera that still takes excellent pictures in most situations, the 310 is a great deal at $196 with rebate from B&H. And it isn't nearly as quick as the newly announced Canon G1 X, but at half the size and price, that may not matter to you.

Joined: 2012-11-12
Small But Powerful
I took an S100 on a trip to Bermuda, where there is no shortage of colorful buildings. Excellent results. My only quibble: Canon could easily afford to provide a small, comprehensive, printed guide with such a good camera. There is an incredible amount of power in such a small unit. If you buy one, watch for a sale on the battery and always carry a back up with you.
Joined: 2009-03-12
A small manual would be nice

A small manual would be nice (I always take the big one in PDF form on my phone & PC in any case), as would a sturdier front lens shield. Mine keeps getting dented.


--David Cardinal Cardinal Photo

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