We all appreciate professional-looking photographs, but hate the bulk associated with both digital SLRs and hybrid models. Ideally, we want something that will fit in our pockets. Enter Canon's much-anticipated, 10-megapixel PowerShot S95, updating the well-received S90. Like its forebear, the £400 S95 is a thing of beauty. This diminutive fixed-lens camera puts the 'power' in PowerShot, promising serious performance at a pocket-friendly size.
Size it up
The new S95 premium compact is slimmer than its predecessor, at 29.5mm deep. It packs a 3.8x optical zoom and purports to offer improved handling and optical image stabilisation, more manual control, plus high-definition movie and raw capture capability. Impressively, the writing speed of shooting raw and JPEG in tandem isn't noticeably longer than that for stand-alone JPEG. Those wanting to maintain both highlight and shadow detail when taking trickier shots will also appreciate the high-dynamic-range shooting option, which combines different exposures into one evenly exposed image. As is the case with any of its rival models, the camera must be held rock-steady while this feature is in use to avoid a distinctly jittery-looking result.
The one immediate bugbear with this PowerShot is the same as that which haunted the S90. The cost of the S95 is around £400, a similar price to what you'd pay for an entry-level dSLR, which feels expensive. At the time of writing, street prices were still almost as high, given its newness.
Power in the palm of your hand
In the pocket-rocket stakes, the S95 goes up against the likes of Panasonic's LX5 and, to an extent, Nikon's P7000. To be fair, Canon's rugged G12 is a closer match for the latter. Keeping matters streamlined, the S95 features a pop-up flash that sinks within the body when inactive. It sits well in the palm, feeling solid yet portably lightweight. It weighs 193g, including the battery and SD/SDHC/SDXC memory card. Support for Eye-Fi wireless transfer is also offered, but not guaranteed.
Since there's nothing resembling a handgrip on the camera, the flat surface of the S95 has been given a rougher feel to stop it slipping from your fingers. It's the same coating used on its EOS 7D dSLR, claims Canon. The top-mounted mode dial juts out slightly at the right-hand edge of the back plate, meaning your thumb automatically presses up against it when shooting. It's quite stiff, each setting slotting into place with a definite click. These design features mean the S95 has a limited degree of support. Something obviously had to be sacrificed in order to bring a serious camera of snapshot proportions to the market and, unfortunately, it was a decent grip.
The shooting mode dial features program, aperture priority, shutter priority, manual and user-definable settings, plus smart auto (reliably comparing the subject against 28 pre-programmed variables), low-light mode, scene modes and movie mode. Video is not quite 1080p resolution, with just 1280x720 pixels at a standard frame rate of 24 frames per second, alongside stereo audio recording. Commendably, Canon has found space for an HDMI output alongside the standard AV port.
With this ring…
The S95 incorporates the funky function ring/multi-control dial of its predecessor, which handily encircles the lens barrel. With a press of the top-mounted 'ring func' button and a twist of said ring, you can manually set the focal length. The zoom buzzes and adjusts as warranted, its 35mm equivalent range of 28-105mm offered in incremental steps. For those preferring a smoother continuous zoom action, a conventional zoom lever encircles the shutter release button on the top plate. Hit this lever and the camera powers through its focal range in all of two seconds. Unfortunately, because of the optical zoom's operational buzz, you only have access to the alternate digital zoom when recording movie clips.
In the absence of an optical viewfinder, pictures are composed using the 3-inch, high-contrast, 461k-dot resolution LCD screen, which is crisp and clear. Thankfully, the display doesn't suffer in adverse lighting conditions, either indoors or out. Consequently, we weren't bothered about the omission of an optical viewfinder, especially since it allows the camera to maintain its compact proportions.
New digital cameras always boast a 'first' of some sort, and on the S95, it's a hybrid image stabilisation system. This system boosts the camera's performance during macro, close-up photography. It also aids low-light performance, in conjunction with the camera's bright f/2.0 lens, by allowing more light in. At full resolution, the S95 offers light sensitivity up to ISO 3,200. Usually, this falls to ISO 1,600 to minimise the appearance of image noise. The low-light mode found on the S95's shooting dial allows adjustment of ISO and white balance for dimmer conditions, and if you want to go for shorter exposures to reduce blur, 3.9 shots per second can still be captured in this mode. Furthermore, the ISO range can be boosted up to a mid-range dSLR level of ISO 12,800 in low-light mode, albeit at a resolution drop of 2.5 megapixels. As you'd expect, shots at this top ISO setting are decidedly fuzzy in appearance, with detail breaking up and the images beginning to resemble watercolours rather than photographs.
On the right track
Tracking autofocus is big in the digital camera world right now, so it's no surprise that it makes an appearance on the S95. This function helps to keep the focus locked on the subject, no matter where they may wander in the frame.
Whether shooting in the camera's default setting of smart auto or dipping into one of the creative shooting modes, we found the S95 to be a reliable tool, delivering even exposures and colours that erred on the side of natural, with minimal barrel distortion at the maximum, 28mm-equivalent, wide-angle setting. Image noise is kept to a minimum right up to ISO 1,600. Even at ISO 3,200, where noise starts to become more invasive, images are usable. Shooting indoors, we did get a fair share of blurred results from camera shake. The S95 would benefit greatly from a larger lens and a larger sensor. The image results we got from the S95 simply don't compare to the sharp, crisp and altogether rich quality of shots we got from the Nikon P7000.
Along with Panasonic's LX5, the Canon PowerShot S95 is a sound option for photo enthusiasts wanting a little more functionality from a smaller form factor. Those upgrading from a humble snapper might want to bear in mind that, while it can't claim to replace an entry-level dSLR, the PowerShot S95 certainly costs as much.
Edited by Emma Bayly