Thursday, November 11, 2010

Canon S95 - It's a miracle!

UPDATE on 9/19/2011:  Since I originally wrote the post below, Canon has now announced the successor to the venerable S95, which is called the S100.  You can read about it at this link.  From what I've read so far about the S100, everything that I wrote about the S95 below is still accurate, except the S100 is better in many regards.

Original post:

OK, maybe not a miracle, but this is one darn good camera!  Read on below to see why...

There are many reviews of the S95 on the internet, so it's not my goal to provide detailed technical analysis of image quality at 100% viewing or an exhaustive feature breakdown of the camera.  All of that information about the S95 is already available at the great links/reviews that I've added at the bottom of this post so there's no need to repeat it here.  I'm all about efficiency!  :-)

My goal here is to present some real-world feedback on how this camera works, how the images look, and why it's such a great pocket camera.


I primarily shoot with a Canon 7D and a variety of lenses.  The 7D is a big camera, and there are certainly times when I can't (or don't want to) lug my SLR rig around with me and that's when a good pocket camera is an essential thing to have.

My problem is that not shooting with my 7D has always been a disappointment for me because my old pocket camera simply doesn't have anywhere near the image quality of the 7D.  So when I would go out shooting with my old pocket camera, I always regretted it.  Therefore...   

I've been in the market for a new pocket camera for a long time.  I've been shooting with a Canon SD850 for several years, but the photo quality just isn't 't good enough for me (especially in low light), so I've been on the hunt looking at all of the current options available in this very rapidly changing (and improving!) segment of the camera market.

What I Wanted

Camera manufacturers have taken many divergent paths trying to satisfy the different needs of the compact camera market.  Many people want many different things out of small cameras.  We have true pocket cameras, Micro 4/3 cameras, large compact cameras (Canon G12, Nikon P7000, etc), and so on.  

What was most important to me in my shopping for a new pocket camera were the following:
  1. Very high image quality.  I wouldn't accept the poor low light and poor high ISO images from the old pocket cameras...

  2. Small size.  I wanted a true pocket camera, meaning one that I can easily slide into a shirt or pants pocket without me having to rip the seams on my pants to do it!

  3. Manual control and good user design.  I have to be able to take control of the camera when I want to and it has to be easy to do it.  This is something from the SLR-world that I wouldn't be willing to completely give up when using a pocket camera.
Everything else on top of these three main goals is icing on the cake, but these three were must-haves.

After doing exhaustive research about possible cameras, my decision seemed to be quickly coming down to the Canon S95 and the Panasonic LX5.  The older Canon S90 and Panasonic LX3 were direct competitors as well.

Both of these cameras are supposed to be fairly close in image quality, so I immediately kicked the LX5 off my list because of its slightly larger size.  It's just a little too big to slide into a pants or shirt pocket and as I mentioned above this is one of my key criteria, so the LX5 was out.  That satisfied the goal of small size.

I went to the store and shot some test images with the S95 at all ISO's and started to review them.  I was very pleasantly surprised.  The quality of the images looked great, and the noise levels at higher ISO's were low, especially in low light if properly exposed, and especially compared to my old Canon pocket camera from three years ago.  Seeing this, the goal of very high image quality was satisfied.

Then I started pressing buttons and finding my way around the most important and often used features of the camera.  This is where the S95 truly shines.  This camera is EXTREMELY well designed and easy to use.  Along with the standard "My Menu" option now available on most Canon cameras, the user has several ways to change the user interface to work more effectively and efficiently for them.  It's easy to get to and use the features that you need most often.

Most important and unique to the S95 is the control ring around the lens.  This ring can be set up to control a variety of functions within each shooting mode and this goes a long way toward making the control of the S95 a little bit more SLR-like.  You don't realize the true usability of this little ring until you try it.  Having it there keeps me out of the menu system for basic changes in any of the shooting modes because I can adjust key camera parameters with a spin of the ring.  Combining this with the control ring on the back of the S95 gives the camera a mini SLR-like feel.  Spin this, spin that, the adjustments are made.  No need to dive into menus for basic adjustments.  Fantastic!

The S95 has a mode dial on top that has all of the typical SLR shooting modes (Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Program, Auto, Manual, one Custom mode, etc).  This was key for me.  I need to have the capability to manually control the camera because in certain situations (e.g., tricky or difficult lighting) I want to make the decisions about what the camera is doing to have better control over the creative aspects of my photography....I don't want the camera to do it.  Having all of these controls at my fingertips (and relatively easy to use considering the small size of this camera) satisfied the goal of manual control and good user design.

Beyond me mentioning these key control aspects of the S95, if you want to get a true understanding of all the useful features that truly make it a pleasure to use, I recommend downloading the manual from this link and reading it.  It clearly outlines every feature of the S95 better than I can do (i.e., Hybrid Image Stabilization, Auto Exposure Bracketing, Focusing modes, High def movies, stereo sound, shooting in Raw, etc).  There is no reason for me to re-state it all here.  Read it from the source....Canon.

What's Not Right

Of course, no camera is perfect.  As much as I like the S95, there are three minor things that I want to mention here but they're ultimately not big issues.
  1. Battery life seems short.  It's probably best to get a spare battery to carry with you if you're going to be out all day doing a lot of shooting.  This isn't a big deal since a spare NB-6L battery is only about $25.

  2. I don't like where Canon put the hook loop for the neck/wrist strap on the S95.  They put one strap hook loop on each corner of the top of the camera.  The problem is that this puts the strap in your way a little bit if you're making certain adjustments while shooting.  This is not the biggest deal in the world because you quickly get the hang of keeping it out of your way, but I don't see why Canon didn't just leave the strap hook on the side of the camera body like they do with their SD line of compacts.  This would keep the strap out of your way completely.

  3. The control ring on the back of the camera turns much too easily.  It should have a more definitive and resistant 'click' to it to avoid accidentally changing your exposure compensation setting when the camera is left turned on and hanging around your neck.  This is probably the most significant of these three flaws listed here because this has the potential to impact your photos if you don't happen to notice that you've changed your settings accidentally.

    UPDATE on 11/13/10:  After I posted this #3 comment the other day, I happened to be back in BestBuy shopping for something else today.  I tried the control rings on the back of some Nikon and Olympus pocket cameras and they all do this same thing.  They're all much too easy to change by accident, so it's not just the Canon S95 that has this issue.  All of the manufacturers need to make their back control rings a little more resistant to accidental turning...   

In Summary 

There's no doubt about the fact that the price of the S95 is high for a pocket camera, but high end compacts from all the manufacturers are pricey.  At the end of the day the reality of the situation is that if you want the highest quality images possible in a truly pocketable camera, then you have to pay to play and the manufacturers know it.  This being said, in my opinion the S95 is the camera to get for the purposes that I've outlined above. 

It's important to close this review echoing a comment that I made above.  I have never been a true fan of pocket cameras.  Using pocket cameras has traditionally involved too much sacrifice in the area of image quality for me to consider them as a serious option to my SLR.  This is not the case with the Canon S95.  This is a pocket camera that I'm comfortable recommending to anyone who wants a small camera with great image quality. 

Is the S95 a replacement for the high image quality and performance that you'll get with a Canon 7D or any other DSLR?  No, and it's not meant to be.  It's meant to be a great compact camera, and in the end that's what it is.  The S95 meets my three criteria of high image quality, it can easily fit into a pocket, and it offers the right amount of manual control and good user design.  What more could I ask for?!  It was time to buy!

Here are some links to some other great reviews and information on the Canon S95.  I'm posting them here because they quite frankly go into more detail than I do and they're all worthy of a read:
  1. Canon USA S95 site
  2. Canon Professional Network S95 information 
  3. DPReview overview of the S95 
  4. DPReview comparison review of S95, Panasonic LX5, and Nikon P7000
  5. InfoSync World S95 review 
  6. The Online Photographer S95 review
  7. Imaging Resource S95 review
  8. The Photography Blog S95 review
  9. Ken Rockwell Canon S95 review


  1. Hello John. This is a nice little review. When you write short posts like this I like how you focus on every day thoughts and then reference the more complete and technical reviews at the end. Best of both worlds! Keep up the nice writing. Your blog has gotten big since I first viewed it this summer.

  2. Hi John,
    Would it be better to wait for an upgrade of the S95? Thanks

  3. Hi Anonymous...

    The S95 came out in August 2010, and the S90 came out a year before that in August 2009. It seems that Canon is probably on roughly a one year refresh cycle with this camera model.

    That being said, the new model will probably come out this summer (although nothing is certain) and for sure there have been some advancements in Canon's systems that will make it into the S95 successor.

    In my opinion, if you're not dying to get a new compact right now, it might pay to wait until this summer to see how Canon upgrades the S95. That would be my opinion... It's always a guessing game as to whether to buy now or wait another few months for the next model when you know a refresh is coming.

    Whatever you decide, enjoy your new camera!


  4. very informative. thank you!

  5. Great S95 Black Friday. I like s95 camera. Thanks