Canon PowerShot S95 Review

September 1, 2010 | Mark Goldstein |


The Canon PowerShot S95 is the successor to the popular S90, a pocket-sized camera that offers a lot of professional features. Aimed at the serious photographer looking for a capable compact, the new Canon S95 features improved handling and greater levels of manual control. 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, now offers more flexibility, while the image stabilisation system incorporates Hybrid IS technology for sharper macro shots. A new in-camera High Dynamic Range mode helps to capture high-contrast scenes, Multi-Aspect shooting with 3:2, 4:3, 1:1, 16:9 and 4:5 formats allows you to get creative, and there's 720p HD 24fps movie recording with stereo sound. Features retained from the previous model include the same 10 megapixel CMOS sensor, a 3.0 inch LCD display with a resolution of 461K dots, 3.8x, 28-105mm zoom lens with fast maximum aperture of f/2.0, full range of manual shooting modes and RAW format support. Available in black, the Canon Powershot S95 also gets a lower price tag than the S90, officially costing £399 / €479 / $399.99.

Ease of Use

The new Canon PowerShot S95 is outwardly almost identical to the S90 model that it replaces, so a lot of the comments that we made in that review apply equally to the S95.

The S95 feels like a point-and-shoot camera that, to use crass MTV parlance, has been 'pimped'. Interpreted another way, it's like a bulkier G-series camera that has been shrunk to more manageable proportions. It feels solid even at its body-only weight of 193g when gripped in the palm - if missing an actual grip - and measuring 99.8 x 58.4 x 29.5 mm is slightly slimmer than its predecessor, slipping readily into a trouser pocket or handbag. The S95 now features the same tactile coating as the EOS 7D DSLR, which helps to improve handling in the absence of a hand-grip.

Like the S90, the S95's identically 'modest' 10-megapixel sensor indicates that Canon is continuing to call a halt to the race for more megapixels in preference to improving said sensor's ability to perform better at higher ISO settings. Thus the S95 offers the ability to shoot at maximum ISO 3200 at full stills resolution, with, more unusually still, a plethora of incremental 1/3 stop adjustments available between the lowest ISO 80 setting and this top option. Canon suggests its f/2.0 lens has been fitted to allow in twice as much light as a more standard issue f/2.8 aperture optic, allowing for faster shutter speeds and shallower depth of field.

Other specifications of note on the S95 include a 28mm wide-angle setting, optically stabilized 3.8x zoom providing a four stop advantage claims its manufacturer, with the addition of Canon's Hybrid IS system which helps to prevent image-blur during macro shooting when any slight movement become more pronounced.

There's a 3-inch, 461-dot resolution LCD in the absence of the G11's additional optical viewfinder, an HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface) port for easy hookup to a HDTV set, plus Digic 4 processor and exposure adjusting iContrast function 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 S95 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. Something that was glaringly missing from the S90 - HD video capture - has been rectified on the S95, with 720p movies at 1280x720 pixels resolution available at 24fps complete with stereo sound. Unfortunately there is no optical zoom available during recording, only 4x digital, and no auto-focus either, which limits what can be achieved and doesn't compare well to some of the S95's main rivals.

Canon PowerShot S95 Canon PowerShot S95
Front Rear

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 S95 that feels extraneous or gimmicky. The most prominent feature of the S95's clean and rather serious looking faceplate is firstly the lens itself, and secondly the aforementioned 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 lozenge shaped 'ring function' button recessed into the camera's top plate (which has more logically switched places with the On/Off button).

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 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm and 105mm steps, changing the i-Contrast, or choosing one of the new aspect ratios. This expands on the S90's options and allows further customisation to suit your own shooting style.

Additionally if you opt for the Nostalgic mode hidden within the scene mode options, a continual twist of the lens ring in either direction will progressively de-saturate the colours in your image to give the effect of ageing, with a full twist rendering the shot relayed on screen as black and white.

Apart from the enticingly tactile draw of the lens ring, the flat front plate of the S95 houses a stereo microphone within two holes the size of a pinprick, either side of the lens, plus 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. Instead of a dedicated button for activating the pop up flash, this is done automatically via selection of the settings offered via the rear command pad/scroll wheel. Select the forced flash option and, technically, rather than popping up, the bulb instead rises majestically from the body with a low mechanical accompaniment… very cool.

Moving to the top plate, we find at its foremost edge a shutter release button, which is a little smaller than the S90's, 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 two seconds sound-tracked by a low operational whirr.

Also set into the top plate is the previously mentioned ring function button, plus next to it a smaller round on/off button. Press this with a fingernail and the S95 powers up for action in just over a second, rear LCD bursting into life soundtracked by a musical 'sting' and lens barrel extending from its stacked hiding place within the camera's innards to its maximum wide angle setting.

Canon PowerShot S95 Canon PowerShot S95

Pop-up Flash

A half press of the nearby shutter button and the camera chooses a point of focus within a second or so, 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 right is an inset shooting mode dial operated by the thumb. Rigid to the touch, it clicks into place at each of its nine mode settings, with a more definite action than the S90's dial. These comprise the creative grouping of Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, Manual and a single Custom mode, plus separate Smart Auto, Low Light, Scene and Movie modes.

The Low Light mode boosts the ISO speed up to an equivalent ISO 12800, with the trade off being that resolution drops to a relatively lowly 2.5 megapixels. The S95's Smart Auto functionality goes further than rivals in comparing common scenes or subjects with not just five or six options, but 28 variables to deliver - in theory - the most appropriate and optimal results. The new HDR mode works well, combining three separate images to greatly expand the dynamic range, although you need to mount the S95 on a tripod to prevent camera-shake and fast-moving subjects appear as ghost outlines.

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 S95 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 Canon S95 largely swallowed up by the 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 G11 to a fair extent, including the love it or loathe it scroll wheel surrounding the thumb operated four-way control pad.

Canon PowerShot S95 Canon PowerShot S95
Top Side

From the top then is a small piece of moulding extending from below where the mode dial sits on the top plate, a subtle protrusion provided under which rests the tip of the users thumb when gripping the camera for shooting handheld. This is still the only place on the camera affording much in the way of manually steadying the S95; as mentioned, while admittedly keeping things resolutely compact, there's no grip provided at the front or sides and is one of the few areas in which this model feels truly compromised.

With an indicator light to the left and a built-in speaker to the right of this thumb dip, below we find a pairing of buttons for earmarking images for direct print via a PictBridge enabled device and a dedicated playback/review button respectively. The Pictbridge 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 S95 to your own specific way of shooting.

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, self-timer options, and macro or manual focus, if not already using the front lens ring for the latter. The new 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 incrementally in the following order: Auto, 80, 100, 125, 160, 200, 250, 320, 400, 500, 640, 800, 1000, 1250, 1600, 2000, 2500, 3200. The user simply utilizes the scroll wheel or tabs between them to select the desired setting.

Canon PowerShot S95 Canon PowerShot S95
Memory Card Slot Battery Compartment

The other selectable options on the tool bar comprise white balance, Canon's familiar 'My Colours' effects modes, an exposure or focus bracketing option - whereby three successive shots are taken -single or continuous shooting modes, switch between evaluative, centre weighted average or spot metering, select one of the five aspect ratios, and choose the various image capture formats including RAW and/or JPEG. Finally, there's a new DR Correction option which 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 Display and the self-explanatory Menu. Press the former once and the user is rewarded with both a nine zone compositional grid and simultaneous RGB histogram being added to the on-screen info.

A press of Menu meanwhile brings up a trio of folders, for image capture, set up and My Menu settings, in that order. It's via the first folder that the user can enable such settings as iContrast 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 S95, viewed from the rear, is devoid of controls, 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 meanwhile features a 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 200 shots without flash or 300 minutes of video 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.