Canon's latest PowerShot S-series flagship, the 8-megapixel PowerShot S80, stands out just about every way you look at it. It's a fun little camera that packs a wallop in terms of features, performance and photo quality. Its automatic-exposure modes and intelligent processing will impress casual shooters who want good images without much fuss. Its manual controls and advanced features will provide enjoyment for fiddling amateurs. And its big 64mm (2.5-inch) LCD, elegant good looks and excellent build quality will please any shooter.
This camera is packed with useful photographic features, and it looks great, too. The Canon PowerShot S80 is attractive and sturdy, covered in glossy-black aluminium with a matte-silver trim and textured black-rubber accents that not only look classy but help improve your grip. The panels and the doors fit snugly, and the camera's density just screams quality. The S80 isn't as small as the ultrathin models out there, but it will easily fit in a jacket or a loose trouser pocket. Simultaneously justifying and belying the camera's size are a large 64mm LCD plus an optical viewfinder, which is a rare combination these days. While the ultrathins tend to have those big LCDs, they're usually too small to accommodate viewfinders as well.
The camera's controls are fairly easy to understand, though some icons may send you to the instruction manual. Useful touches include a four-way switch that also doubles as a scrollwheel, like the iPod, and a shortcut button that you can program to control image size, white balance, colour mode, metering mode or autoexposure lock, among other settings. For a photographer trying to work in a quickly changing situation, this button can help keep that once-in-a-lifetime shot from getting away. Other quick-access settings are drive mode, ISO sensitivity, autofocus point, flash mode, macro mode and manual-focus mode.
Unfortunately, switching the control wheel from aperture adjustment to shutter-speed adjustment in manual-exposure mode requires an extra button push. When you do need to invoke menus, Canon has made it as clear a process as possible. Captions accompany cryptic icons and the LCD's large size makes reading the menus easier.
Like its predecessors, the Canon PowerShot S80 is packed with features for both casual shooters and more advanced amateurs. It incorporates the same f/2.8-to-f/5.3, 28mm-to-100mm (35mm equivalent) lens as the PowerShot S70. The lens is on the slow side and doesn't offer a very high zoom range, but it provides a relatively wide-angle focal length.
We missed uncompressed image formats such as TIFF and raw on the S80, which would take advantage of the camera's 8-megapixel sensor. Other features, however, work to compensate. Three exposure modes include a spot mode for more precise control and a well-designed evaluative mode that handles backlighting and mixed lighting very well. A noise-reduction algorithm automatically kicks in for exposures longer than 1.3 seconds, but unfortunately the effect is subtle. It also doubles processing time and you can't disable it.
For tinkerers, the S80 offers some interesting colour tools. Though not entirely practical, they are fun without being too cheesy, and are certainly better than the hokey frames and the preset captions many other cameras offer. In Color Accent mode, every colour in the frame except one the user selects is converted to black and white, for that hand-painted look. Color Swap mode replaces one selected colour with another -- turn that green apple red or that red light green (not that we endorse insurance fraud!). Users can also customise the camera's colour palette by adjusting the individual red, green and blue channels or a special Skin Tone channel.
Those interested in shooting short movies with the S80 will appreciate the full-motion VGA mode, at 640x480 pixels and 30 frames per second (fps), and the less common 1,024x768-pixel mode, at 15fps.
The S80 caters to underwater photographers with a special white-balance setting and an optional waterproof housing. For creative enthusiasts, it also has an optional wireless external flash and optional wide and telephoto add-on lenses.