Text and photos by Edward Taylor
I thought that when the Micro 4/3 systems came out, small-sensor cameras would no longer be of interest to serious photographers. I haven’t taken a photo with my Canon Powershot G10 since I purchased my Panasonic GF1. But recently, some of my photographer friends have been carrying around a Canon S90 or S95. Why?
Although I have been an avid and sometimes professional photographer since the age of 11, my sons have always taken a much more utilitarian approach to photography. They took pictures not as a form of art, but to save memories and for posting on Facebook. So you can imagine how thrilled I was when my younger son called me and said that he was ready for a better, more versatile camera. (His birthday was coming up.) The tiny little Sony he had been using for years just wasn’t cutting it for him anymore.
I immediately thought about handing over my Canon 5D to him. I also started gathering information for him about the latest sub-$1000 DSLRs. When he got to my house, before breaking out the 5D, I showed him my Panasonic GF1 and started to explain that it was my carry-around camera.
He said, "that looks like a great camera, but it's way too big."
"Too big?" I asked with a puzzled look. "This is my small camera. I thought you wanted a really good camera."
"I do. What do they make that I can put in my pocket so I won't even know it's there?"
I was completely unprepared for that question, but after thinking for a moment I said that Canon had recently produced a small camera called the S90. He asked how big it was, as though that was all that mattered. I thought about telling him about pixel density and sensor size and depth of field, but figured what's the use, and just said, "It's small, but not as small as your little Sony."
"Well, as long as it can fit in my pocket so I won't notice it," was his reply.
I didn't want to get an S90, because the S95 had been announced but was not available yet. So I preordered it, hoping it would come before my son and his wife left for a trip to Barcelona. A few days before they were to leave, I received an email from Amazon telling me that the camera should arrive in a few weeks. I was disappointed for only a minute or two, because just then the doorbell rang—it was UPS, with the camera. I think I must have used up some of my good Karma that day.
Anyway, my son returned from Barcelona and came by to show me his photos. He actually brought the SD card from the camera and I transferred all 1000 or so photos to my computer. As we flipped through them on a 30" monitor, I was amazed at the quality. Even at that size, the photos looked like they could have been taken with a DSLR. I told my son I was impressed, and he said that the camera was just set to Program as he snapped away—all JPEGs too, no RAW. Deep down, I knew my 5D could have done even better, but I was genuinely surprised at his images.
My son transferred his images to his iPad and made a little slide show. One of the people he showed it to is a museum curator and an accomplished photographer who is shown himself. He was so impressed with the photos that he went out and bought an S95 for himself.
I can’t remember anyone ever buying the same camera I used because they were so impressed with my images, but that’s another story.
So anyway, I called this photographer on the phone. He and I had the following conversation:
Me: I hear you carry around a little S95 instead of your 5D now. Why?
He: Because it's small and I can carry it anywhere and I barely even know it's there. It also doesn’t freak people out when I point it at them. Let me put it this way, if you compare the ease of carrying the Canon S95 to, say, a Panasonic GF1, the difference is at least as big as the difference between a DSLR and the GF1. There are things that are difficult to carry (like DSLRs); things that are pretty easy to carry (like Micro 4/3); and then things you are truly not aware you are carrying. The S95 falls into the last category. That is a huge advantage. It's also why I wouldn't consider a G11.
Me: Well, what about that tiny little sensor with all those pixels crammed in there like sardines, doesn't that bother you?
He: Actually, for about 90% of the photography I do, this little camera produces perfectly good images. In fact, in prints to about 11x14 from uncropped image files, not very many people could tell the results of this little camera from a DSLR.”
Me: But you’re stuck with infinite depth of field, doesn't that make it impossible to take a "professional looking" photo? What about Bokeh? [I was playing Devil’s advocate.]
He: I admit that narrow depth of field is a nice option to have, but it isn’t the only important thing. Sharp focus is important too, and you’re more likely to have it with more depth of field. One should always know his tools well and then work toward their strengths. By paying attention to the composition with depth of field in mind, I can still get great shots. I should mention macro too. The greater depth of field of a small sensor is a real advantage for macro, and I can switch to macro mode with the touch of a button—no need to change lenses. That means that when a macro opportunity comes along, I’m more likely to jump on it.
Me: Well what about low light? How do you handle all that noise?
He: Lighting is important in any photograph and for any camera. I find that the S95's images are very good till about ISO 800, which is good enough for me. I am actually satisfied much of the time at ISO 1600.
He: Actually, image quality isn't the biggest problem with these small cameras.
Me: What? [I was humoring him.]
He: It’s true. Image quality is good enough for all but the most ardent pixel peepers. Even if the image quality weren’t as good, it would still be attractive to some very good photographers that care way more about content and don’t care so much about image quality. Remember, photographers do good work with Polaroids, "throw away" film cameras, Holgas, lens babies, and pinhole cameras. They don’t worry about what the pixels look like or about making 40x60 inch museum quality prints. They just take what they’ve got and they go ahead and make art. You just have to know your tools and their limitations and strengths.
Me: Then what is the real problem with small cameras?
He: The real problem is responsiveness. Far more photographers care about responsiveness or shutter lag. Very few point and shoots react quickly when the shutter is pressed. These small cameras don’t have the processing power to take rapid sequences either. DSLRs are the gold standard in the speed department. Very few Micro 4/3 cameras measure up either. This is important because the camera you carry is the one you’ll pull out when something happens. That means that at some point you’ll need relatively good response time from the time you grab the camera to actually taking the shot. If you need to change some settings, that needs to be pretty quick too. There should be more buttons and wheels, and less menu choices. (Especially since you can’t even read the menus in the sun.) The Canon S95 has some buttons and wheels. It is not as fast as a DSLR but it's fast enough that it is not annoying all the time. Its response time feels similar to the Panasonic GF1—not as good as a DSLR, but not terrible.
I had heard enough. I decided to buy one for myself.
Ergonomics and Handling
When I unwrapped the camera, naturally, the first thing I noticed was its small size. It weighs only 193g and measures 99.8 x 58.4 x 29.5 mm.
The Canon Powershot S95 is an attractive camera. Carrying it is no harder than carrying an iPhone. It is easily pocketable. It has a flat black, kind of rough surface that lets you get a good grip. I have large hands, but had no problem managing the controls. This camera has a full auto mode, but also allows for full manual control as well as the usual options of shutter speed priority, aperture priority, and program and custom modes.
One of its more unique features is a large wheel around the lens that can be set to do a number of things, including: focusing (with automatic magnification of the image), setting a stepped zoom at 35mm-equivalent 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm and 105mm steps, setting the aperture, selecting the ISO, setting exposure compensation (+/– 2EV), manually setting the white balance, changing the i-Contrast, or setting a different aspect ratio (3:2, 4:3, 1:1, 16:9 and 4:5 formats). This wheel has not received high praise from everyone, but I found it to be incredibly useful and it certainly fits with the idea of more wheels and buttons and fewer menu selections. It has a flash that pops up automatically when needed or when the flash is set to on. The back of the camera houses a pretty high resolution 460,000 dot 3-inch LCD screen that is very nice to look at even in daylight. There is also a live histogram view on the LCD. Overall, I like the look and feel of this camera.
The lens zooms from 28mm to 105mm (35mm equivalent), which is 3.8x. It has an aperture of ƒ/2 at the wide-angle end and ƒ/4.9 at its 105mm-e telephoto position. Neither distortion nor chromatic aberration is objectionable, though I don't know how much of that is managed in the camera rather than with the lens. There is just a little purple fringing at times and a bit of barrel distortion can be seen when the lens is set to wide angle. The lens has image stabilization which is described as a hybrid system that supposedly helps with macro shots as well as regular ones. It seems to work quite well. I am able to routinely get sharp shots at shutter speeds below 1/30th sec. The lens can take macro shots as close as 5 cm. Auto focus is fairly quick and there is a focus-assist lamp.
As I’ve already indicated, the images from the S95 look great. Do they really measure up to images from a Micro 4/3 camera or a DSLR? Well, no—not if you look at them at 400% on your computer monitor or enlarge prints to 16x20 or bigger. But, if you make smaller prints or view them on a monitor even at full screen, they really look almost the same. When magnified, the pixels still exhibit that small sensor, mushy look, but not like earlier small sensors. I am pretty picky, and I am generally happy with the image quality.
Of course, the better the lighting, the better the image. The camera struggles a bit with low light, but generally does a good job there as well. ISO 800 looks very good and ISO 1600 is often quite usable. Exposures of up to 15 seconds look reasonably clean. There is a low light mode that uses an ISO of 12,800, but resolution drops to 2.5 megapixels. Images are normally 10 megapixels and the highest quality jpegs make a 3MB file. RAW is available and has the usual advantages, but the JPEGs are quite pleasing in their own right.
I take a combination of factors into account when I consider responsiveness. They include time to power up, time to set exposure, speed of auto focus, shutter lag (often dependent on the aforementioned), as well as how quickly I can make adjustments to the camera to get the best photo. If adjusting the exposure for a backlit subject takes twelve button presses and four menus, then the camera is not responsive in my view. Likewise, if I press the shutter button and wait, that’s not responsive. I have dumped a lot of cameras for poor responsiveness, and as has been mentioned, this is a weak area for most point and shoots. DSLRs are king with respect to responsiveness and the Canon S95 is no DSLR. But it is fairly responsive. It handles well and doesn’t have too much shutter lag. The big wheel around the lens and the other controls make adjustments rather speedy. I find the camera pleasant enough to use and, I have some measure of confidence that I will be able to get most of the shots I want.
I know we don’t care here on TOP, but, unlike the Canon S90, this camera has 720, 24p video capability. I won’t say any more about it, but HD video is a must on any modern point-and-shoot.
Other bells and whistles
I won’t go into it here, but all the usual things you find on small cameras these days are included, if you are inclined to use them. Some are actually useful. There is face detection, an HDR option, movement detection, and multiple scene modes.
The S95 has three things which make it attractive to serious photographers—acceptable image quality, acceptable responsiveness, and very small size. Being truly pocketable, unobtrusive and light are definite advantages over the Micro 4/3 systems, especially if you opt for a zoom capability on a Micro 4/3. Since getting the S95, I haven’t carried much else unless I was heading out for a specific photo session.
So what have I learned? I have always carried a camera with me, and the question I have always asked myself was, "What camera can I carry around without sacrificing much in the way of image quality compared to my big DSLRs?" Maybe that is the wrong question. The right question might be, "What is the smallest camera I can carry around and still get serviceable photos most of the time?" To be honest, even carrying a Micro 4/3 camera or a large point and shoot like a G11 is cumbersome. So, until phone cameras get a whole lot better, I think there will be a niche for diminutive small-sensor cameras among serious photographers. The Canon S95 may be the best of the bunch right now.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Steve Rosenblum: "I just returned from a 9-day vacation in Italy. I brought two cameras: an Olympus E-620 with a 14–54mm ƒ/2.8–3.5 lens, and a newly purchased Canon S95. I started the trip shooting exclusively with the E-620, which is a light and very capable DSLR system that is great for travel. By the end of the trip I was leaving the Oly in the hotel safe and happily walking around with the S95 in my pocket everywhere I went.
"The image quality is quite good. The ergonomics, especially the function ring and assignable buttons, are also quite good. I will be happy when they add the S95 to Camera RAW, but, the JPEGs weren't too shabby either. The LCD is bright enough to use in bright sunlight, and since the camera is small it is unobtrusive. I still prefer viewing the world through an optical viewfinder and find the holding the camera out in front of me thing to be not as effective ergonomically. But, honestly. this camera is a lot of fun and records nice photographs. It's now always available in my pocket, something that I could never say about my SLR. By adding the LensMate adapter you can even use filters with this thing.
"I am surprised by how much I enjoy using this camera."
Featured Comment by Bob Rogers: "I just bought an S95 and used it for the first time this weekend. So far—it's fantastic; reminds me the beloved Olympus 35 RC I owned in the '70s.
"I have my 'C' (custom) mode set to 28mm, ƒ/2.8, 5 ft. hyperfocal, ISO 800, so it's ready to go as soon as I turn it on.
"The 'clicky wheel' on the lens is a great feature. I have it set to 'step zoom.' My shots are better when I choose a focal length and them move to compose instead of standing like a post and zooming lazily in and out.
"Another feature I like: you can select 1:1 (square) shots. People will read this and talk about 'cropped sensors,' but a) 'cropping' is what you do after you shoot, and b) you're better off composing when you shoot, so being able to previsualize the square composition beats cropping later.
"Regarding the lack of an optical viewfinder. The screen is usable in bright light and it shows you 100% of what you'll get in the shot. The approximate (to be generous) nature of most compacts' optical finders renders them useless and as to DSLRs, why we need a big flopping mechanical mirror on an electronic device I'll never understand."