Canon PowerShot S1 IS full review

Canon, amateur picture takers should never forget, is the company that transformed enthusiast photography from the 1970s onwards with models such as the A1, the all-electronic T70, and the EOS range – all now classic 35mm film cameras. Oddly though, and despite coming close in the much-admired G2, it hasn’t yet managed to pull off the same trick in the digital era. Poked into action by the worrisome rise of that other populist champion, Sony, Canon has been trying a bit harder with its cameras recently, starting with February’s PMA tradeshow in Las Vegas. It was here, amid a number of minor updates to existing designs and a lot of fuss around the 8-megapixel PowerShot Pro1, that the world got its first glimpse of the curious PowerShot S1 IS. Despite its modest 3.2-megapixel resolution and resemblance to current models such as the PowerShot A80, appearances are deceptive. The S1 is more like the start of something new – a camera that behaves more like a cross between a compact SLR (for want of a better term) and the solid-state equivalent of a mini-DV player – at least you get the impression that this was the ambition of its designers. Zoom lens
At the heart of the S1 is a 10x zoom lens, equivalent to 38-380mm on a 35mm camera. Rated at f2.8-f3.1 (depending on focal length), this is the longest zoom ever used by Canon on its digital cameras. In this respect, the S1 is similar to Fujifilm’s S5000 and a number of new models from Olympus, but where it scores over the competition is that Canon has coupled the zoom to an image stabilization system (IS) as a way of reducing camera shake. If not a new technology, IS remains surprisingly rare. It adds weight, takes up space, drains batteries and of course bumps up the price. Yet every mainstream mini-DV camcorder comes with it as standard, so why shouldn’t cameras use it? In the field, with the PowerShot S1’s IS turned on (it can be turned off to save power – the S1 uses four AA batteries) it becomes possible to hand-hold long zoom shots where a tripod would normally be needed, as well as take wider-angle shots at shutter speeds as low as 1/30th of a second and get away with it. Overall, IS makes you want to use the zoom in ways you’d never previously have thought worthwhile. The ultrasonic zoom moves smoothly, quietly and unusually rapidly, while write speeds are snappy thanks to Canon’s inclusion of a high-speed 32MB CompactFlash card and, possibly, an internal data cache; shooting up to the claimed 1.7 frames per second sounds plausible. Flash cycles and image reviews are also noticeably quick. Canon has opted for a 114,000 pixel electronic viewfinder, which complements the rather small flip-out LCD screen. These get mixed reviews – all-optical viewfinders let you view the scene in natural colour and exert no drain on batteries – but the electronic approach has its advantages. You get to see all camera settings as you compose shots, and exposure can be adjusted without taking an eye off the subject. On the downside, the S1’s viewfinder was stressful to use in bright conditions. Happily, both the viewfinder and the LCD show close to 100 per cent of the picture area – so what you see is what you get. Focus and movie mode
One aspect of the S1’s performance the designers should look at is its focusing system. This is fine in normal light conditions, but starts to hunt rather desperately in low light when using the upper end of the zoom range. The obvious solution would be a focus-assist light, though not all photographers like these as they can be distracting for human subjects. Movie mode on today’s digital cameras tends to be a joke. Resolutions are way below the 720-x-480 pixels of the ubiquitous MiniDV format, frame rates of 25 frames per second (fps) or lower are common, and most cameras can save less than 30 seconds of video anyway. With the S1, Canon has been more ambitious. You get a dedicated movie- record button right by the viewfinder, the ability to zoom while recording video, 16-bit sound recording at 22Khz, and a resolution of 640-x-480 pixels at 30fps. This isn’t quite as good as a MiniDV, but is not bad. The problem is that even a 1GB CompactFlash card will hold less than ten minutes of video at this resolution, and buying it would set you back a couple of hundred pounds. Meanwhile a 60-minute MiniDV tape can be bought for well under a fiver. The day of the multi-function video and still camera is drawing nearer, but don’t throw away the camcorder just yet. Image quality was decent for a 3.2-megapixel camera, if slightly noisy at higher ISO settings, matched by accurate light metering and good colour balance. This reinforces the new truism of digital photography – resolution is only part of the quality battle. Chromatic Abberation was apparent on some pictures, but this was only very slight at 50 ISO. Being fussy, we’d have liked single-button access to the exposure-compensation function.
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