Canon PowerShot S120 Review

October 8, 2013 | Mark Goldstein |


The Canon PowerShot S120 is a pocket-sized camera that offers a lot of professional features. Aimed at the serious photographer looking for a capable compact, the Canon S120 features a high-sensitivity 12.1 megapixel 1/1.7-type CMOS sensor, 5x zoom lens with a focal range of 24-120mm and fast maximum aperture of f/1,8, new DIGIC 6 processor, fast auto-focusing of 0.1 seconds, and a 3-inch touchscreen LCD display with an improved resolution of 922K dots. The S120 also offers a maximum ISO of 12,800 at full resolution, built-in wi-fi connectivity, GPS functionality via pairing with a smartphone, 1080p movie recording at 60fps, full range of manual shooting modes, RAW format support and faster 12.1fps burst shooting. Also present are the innovative lens Control Ring, which enables users to adjust the settings of various functions by twisting the selector at the base of the lens barrel to the left or right, a built-in Neutral Density Filter, a 4-stop optical Intelligent Image Stabilizer with five-axis Enhanced Dynamic IS mode during movie recording, two new Creative Filters and improved HDR mode capabilities. Available in black or silver, the Canon Powershot S120 officially retails for £449.99 / €529.99 / $449.99.

Ease of Use

The Canon PowerShot S120 is outwardly almost identicalto the S110 model that it succeeds, so a lot of the comments that we made in that review apply equally to the S120. It's an understated yet handsome camera that looks a lot simpler than its extensive feature list might suggest. It feels solid at a body-only weight of 217g and measures 100.2 x 59.0 x 29.0 mm, so ever so slightly bigger and heavier than its S110 predecessor, slipping readily into a trouser pocket or handbag. The S120 is completely covered in a tactile coating which helps to improve handling, although there's no useful hand-grip on the front, just a rubberised thumb-rest on the rear.

The Canon PowerShot S120 maintains the same 12 megapixel count as its predecssor and the same CMOS sensor type. It does have a slightly faster 5x zoom lens then the S110, offering f/1.8 at the 24mm wide-angle setting and f/5.7 at 120mm telephoto, which translates into an additional third stop of light. The new f/1.8 maximum aperture allows for faster shutter speeds and shallower depth of field, although note that it's only f/1.8 at full wide-angle. The optically stabilized 5x zoom provides a four stop advantage and works for both still images and movies, and there's no less than six different modes of stabilisation that are automatically detected and applied by the camera, including a special five-axis Enhanced Dynamic IS mode for video.

There's a new 3-inch, 922-dot resolution LCD touchscreen on the back, an HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface) port for easy hookup to a HDTV set, plus the new Digic 6 processor and exposure adjusting iContrast function which is now a standard feature across the Canon family. More surprisingly for a compact with a width not a great deal broader than your credit card, both RAW and JPEG capture are also offered.

Perhaps more predictably, point-and-shoot user friendliness on the Canon PowerShot S120 comes in the form of the fully automatic face detection, motion detection and Smart Auto scene detection technologies regularly found on Canon's snapshot compacts. There's also full 1080p movies at 1920x10800 pixels resolution available at 60/30fps complete with stereo sound, with full use of the optical zoom and thankfully continuous auto-focusing too, plus super slow-motion options (640x480 pixels at 120fps or 320x 240 pixels at 240fps) and a new Star Time-Lapse Movie mode for recording star trails.

Pared down to the essentials, which includes a quick start guide in the box and full manual on provided CD only, there's nothing initially about the Canon PowerShot S120 that feels extraneous or gimmicky. The most prominent feature of the S120's clean and rather serious looking faceplate is firstly the lens itself, and secondly the lens control ring that encircles it and turns with a series of satisfyingly audible clicks. Functions are attributed to a twist of the ring in conjunction with a press of the Ring Function button on camera's rear, with 8 available presets and a Custom option too.

In this way, to take one example, users can elect to adjust focus manually, a distance slider appearing on the right hand side of the LCD screen and the central portion of the image enlarged as a further aid to accuracy. Other options for the ring function include changing the aperture, selecting the ISO speed, tweaking of exposure (+/- 2EV), manual adjustment of white balance, as a stepped zoom providing the equivalent of 24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, 100mm and 120mm steps, changing the i-Contrast, or choosing one of the aspect ratios.

Canon PowerShot S120 Canon PowerShot S120
Front Rear

Apart from the enticingly tactile draw of the lens ring, the front plate of the Canon PowerShot S120 only houses an AF assist/self timer lamp window top left of the lens. The clever flash is housed within the top plate so that when it's raised it is at least a centimeter away from the lens in a cursory attempt to avoid the blight of red eye. There's also a very welcome dedicated button on the side of the camera for activating the pop up flash, rather than being done automatically via selection of the settings offered via the rear command pad/scroll wheel, as on the S110.

Moving to the top plate, we find at its foremost edge a shutter release button, encircled by a zoom rocker switch with front lip that has been squared off to fall into line with the width of the body and avoid distracting from the clean lines. There's just enough of it to achieve purchase with a fingertip, the lens traveling steadily and surely from maximum wide-angle setting to extreme telephoto in just under three seconds sound-tracked by a low operational whirr.

Also set into the Canon PowerShot S120's top plate is a tiny round on/off button, which proved annoyingly small in use. Press this with a fingernail and the S120 powers up for action in just under a second, rear LCD bursting into life soundtracked by a musical 'sting' and the lens barrel extending from its stacked hiding place within the camera's innards to its maximum wide angle setting.

Completing the top of the S120 is the Wi-Fi logo and tiny holes for the stereo sound and microphone. The wi-fi capabilities allow you to share images during playback via the Wireless button on the rear navigation pad. Simply enter a nickname for the camera and five more icons then appear, connecting the S120 to another camera, a smartphone, a computer, a printer and the internet respectively. Setup is relatively straight-forward for each scenario, although you'll need a basic understanding of the protocols involved. Note that you need to install the dedicated and free Canon CameraWindow app to connect the S120 to the world's most popular smartphone, or the Apple iPad, iPad 2 and fourth-generation iPod Touch), or an Android device.

The S120's wi-fi functionality is also employed to tag your images with GPS data recorded by your smartphone ( latitude, longitude, altitude and shooting time) via the Canon CameraWindow app, which effectively replaces a more coventional built-in GPS system. We actually prefer having GPS built-in to the camera rather than having to sync it with an additional device, so in this regard the S1200 doesn't compare well with rivals that offer this feature, although it does side-step the issue of negatively affecting battery life.

A half press of the shutter button and the Canon PowerShot S120 chooses a point of focus within a quarter of a second, AF point or points flashing in green accompanied by an affirmative 'beep'. Go on to take the shot and there's little if any discernible shutter delay, while full resolution JPEGS are written to inserted (optional) SD or SDHC card (there's no internal memory provided to fall back on) in just over a second, with RAW files - selectable in Program or one of the other four creative shooting modes - taking a mere fraction longer.

With the integral flash housed and hidden to the far left of the top plate (if gazing down on the camera), to the far right is a slightly raised shooting mode dial that's operated by the thumb. Rigid to the touch, it clicks into place at each of its ten mode settings with a definite clicking action. These comprise the creative grouping of Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, Manual and a single Custom mode, plus separate Smart Auto, Scene, Creative Filters and Movie modes.

Canon PowerShot S120 Canon PowerShot S120


The beefed-up continuous shooting mode offers a very impressive shooting rate of 12.1fps for the first 5 frames and then 9.4fps for approx. 635 JPEGs. Note that acompatible SDHC/SDXC UHS Speed Class 1 memory card is required to achieve these speeds. The Creative Filters shooting mode contains 10 different options, including High Dynamic Range, Miniature and Toy Camera. In the High Dynamic Range mode the S120 combines three separate images to greatly expand the dynamic range and can be safely used hand-held. The new Star Mode captures starry nightscapes, star trails and creates star time-lapse movies, while Background Defocus mode achieves DSLR-style background blur.

The Canon PowerShot S120's Smart Auto functionality goes further than some rivals in comparing common scenes or subjects with not just five or six options, but 58 variables to deliver (21 in movies) - in theory - the most appropriate and optimal results. Click the mode wheel around to each subsequent setting and the name and icons of said mode appears on the camera's LCD with, in some cases, a brief text description of the best application for the particular mode. This suggests that the S120 can be used as readily by beginners as more seasoned digital camera users, the variety of shooting options to be found on the mode dial allowing first timers to move beyond their initial comfort zone as familiarity with the camera's workings grows over time. More experienced users can turn this Hints & Tips feature off.

With the back of the S120 largely swallowed up by the high-resolution 922K-dot, 3 inch LCD screen, the visibility of which proves more than adequate both indoors and out, a familiar array of controls is found shunted to the right hand side. Familiar, in that they ape those found on the G-series cameras to a fair extent, including the love it or loathe it scroll wheel surrounding the thumb operated four-way control pad.

The Canon PowerShot S120 has a touch focus/shoot option which is on by default. To switch it off, change the Touch Shutter option in the main menu. This becomes a touch focus screen and will lock onto the subject where you touched. Calibration of the screen isn't all too impressive and it really needs a touch pen which unfortunately doesn't come in the box. You have to use your finger, so the touch focus tends to miss smaller subjects.

Also available via the touchscreen are a means of toggling between the ISO speed and the exposure (here -/+ 2EV) via a soft dial on the right-hand side, best activated with your right thumb, with the camera's control ring then used to select the value that you want. It's a bit awkward to use as you have to keep your thumb on the soft dial whilst spinning the control ring, otherwise it switches back to the control ring's default setting.

In playback the touchscreen can be used to change the magnification of an image by spreading and pinching two fingers, and switch between images by swiping from side to side, just like on a smartphone. You can also adjust the LCD's touch sensitivity to your liking.

Located to the right of the screen is the rubberised thumb-rest, below which we find a pairing of buttons for changing the lens control ring function and a dedicated one-touch movie record button respectively. The Ring Control button can be more usefully assigned a different function, with no less than 20 different options to choose from. In conjunction with the customisable lens control ring, this makes it easy to tailor the S120 to your own specific way of shooting.

Canon PowerShot S120 Canon PowerShot S120
Memory Card Slot Battery Compartment

Beneath this is the control pad and scroll wheel combination. At points north, east, south and west we get options, in capture modes, for adjusting exposure compensation, flash settings, display options, and macro or manual focus, if not already using the front lens ring for the latter. The Tracking AF mode focuses on the subject in the centre of the frame and tracks them if they move, useful for keeping up with fast-moving or unpredictable subjects like children. If the camera is in playback mode, points north and south allow a series of captured images to be leapfrogged if hunting down a particular shot saved to card in a hurry, or alternatively deleting a duff capture.

In the centre of the control pad is the Function/Set button. Press this, and as we're used to from recent Canon compacts a toolbar appears down the left hand side of the screen, options highlighted or de-selected dependant on whether the user is in auto capture or one of the more fully featured creative capture modes. In Program mode, for example, selecting the ISO icon provides a slide rule across the bottom of the screen with ISO speeds set out incrementall and the user simply utilizes the scroll wheel or tabs between them to select the desired setting.

The other selectable options on the tool bar comprise white balance (which can detect scenes with two different light sources and apply area-specific correction in the Smart Auto shooting mode), Canon's familiar 'My Colours' effects modes, an exposure or focus bracketing option - whereby three successive shots are taken - single or continuous shooting modes, self-timer options, switch between evaluative, centre weighted average or spot metering, turn the new neutral density filter on or off to allow for larger apertures in bright conditions, select one of the five aspect ratios, choose the various image capture formats including RAW and/or JPEG, and set the movie size. Finally, the DR Correction option allows you to manually select the DR strength - off, auto, 200% or 400% - and if you want to turn Shadow Correction on.

Returning to the camera back, and below the control pad we find a final pairing of buttons for the self-explanatory Playback and Menu. A press of Menu brings up a trio of folders, for Camera, Setup and My Menu settings, in that order. It's via the first folder that the user can enable such settings as noise reduction, wind filter and auto red eye reduction/removal, as well as blink detection and adjusting the image stabilization mode to come into effect only when taking a shot, when panning the camera, or have it on continuously.

While the left hand flank of the S120, viewed from the rear, just has the pop-up flash release button, the right hand side features a hard plastic covered port for both an HDMI cable (not supplied in the box) plus the more regular combined AV out/USB out port (for which two separate cables are provided).

The base of the camera features a metal screw thread for a tripod attachment just left of centre and a sliding door with catch protecting slots for the provided lithium ion rechargeable battery and optional SD/SDHC card, both of which slot relatively easily into place. A battery life lasting 230 shots without flash isn't particular generous however, and any less would be downright alarming at this price point. As it was, after one days' extensive use our battery was back in the provided charger, so you'll want to take this or a spare battery away with you on any extended trip or visit.