Many people ask me what digital camera to get and why, so finally, here’s my advice in words. The one sentence reply is “The Canon Digital Elph” The longer answer is here as my review of the Canon S100 and S110, A newer model, the S200, should be in stores as you are reading this.
Several years ago I decided I wanted a digital camera, but nothing on the market at the time met my minimum requirements: (1) $500 or less price point, (2) small form factor about the same size as my current camera (I had a Canon Film Elph and was perfectly happy shooting film and scanning the images), (3) minimum of 2.1 Megapixels, and (4) simple and elegant.
I’ve been using the S100 for a year now and I’m very pleased with it. No regrets. My two Canon AE-1s, many FD lenses, and Mamiya C330 are feeling neglected and getting a tad jealous. Film is still the medium of choice for critical applications, but 98% of my photography is casual snapshots and artistic exploration. Digital is just fine for these uses. I can take S100 everywhere I go and it’s a joy to shoot with. I’ve yet to see another camera in its price category that surpasses it in overall price/performance except for its successor, the S110.
I’m still considering what to replace my two Canon AE-1s and collection of Canon FD lenses with, but I’ve not settled on anything. The Mamiya will be the last to go, because it will take a little longer for digital to kill off medium format. “Rumors of film’s death are still greatly exaggerated,” to borrow a phrase, but with developments in digital imaging moving at a rapid pace, who knows when it will be time to replace my 35mm system, but I suspect an eBay auction is just around the corner.
The new S110 keeps all of the basic S100 features and adds improved image processing performance and the ability to capture short movie clips. The clips can be played back in the camera (without audio). If uploaded to a PC or connected to a TV via the A/V cable, you’ll get sound and picture. This is a delightful feature and is reminiscent of the joy of shooting with a Pixelvision camera.
Camera settings allow you to choose the image size and quality: 640×480 Fine (moderate JPEG compression); 1600×1200 Fine; 1600×1200 Super Fine (less severe JPEG compression). Exposure compensation and white balance settings are provided. The optics are a 5.4mm – 10.8mm F/2.8-4.0 zoom, which is the equivalent of a 35-70mm zoom on a 35mm camera. There’s also a digital zoom, but I would avoid it. Images can be previewed on the LCD display or with the real-image optical viewfinder with zoom. The camera has a light-assisted autofocus system that kicks in when the normal contrast focusing system is unable to focus due to low light conditions. If needed it projects light in the center of the field of view in order to determine the focus. This allows the camera to focus in complete darkness.
This excellent focus system is also a source of a problem. This camera seems to take more than its share of flash pictures with people’s eyes closed. Since the system uses white light to project the pattern, the flash of light appears so bright in dark settings that subjects often blink just in time for the actual exposure. I’ve snapped more flash pictures of people’s eyes closed that I care to think about, however, there is a workaround: you can depress the shutter button half way, this triggers the auto focus light, wait a second for people to blink, then take the flash photo. You can also lock the focus at infinity or switch to macro for close-ups, the actual closest focus distance varies depending on the focal length.
The camera is elegant. It holds it’s own against classic beauties of form and function like the Minox 35mm and Minox spy cameras. The design is not only skin deep: the function of its controls is very well thought out. For example, sliding the zoom switch while in Play Mode displays the thumbnail index where you can quickly search through the stored images. When a picture is displayed on the LCD screen you can slide the zoom switch to see as portion of the photo magnified and scroll through the image to see more details. The designers really thought through the usability of this product. Another example is the ability to rotate photos in the camera so both vertical and horizontal shots are displayed properly during playback. Once you become familiar with it’s controls, things become second nature quickly as you internalize the logic of it’s design.
My favorite feature of the camera is the night flash mode, this gives you the ability to shoot a flash photo while keeping the shutter open for a longer than normal exposure time. This was designed to allow backgrounds to come out better exposed when shooting with flash at night. I use it along with shaking the camera for taking all those blurry photos in my photo albums. This camera (like all snapshot cameras) is at it’s best when you’re not taking ordinary full-frontal flash photos.
The S-110 comes with one rechargeable lithium battery and a rapid charger. If you buy this camera you will immediately find you need buy a second battery. It is extremely hard to estimate battery life in terms of solid numbers, but I can tell you I use the second battery all of the time. You can extend battery life by not using the LCD display and refrain from flash photos, but I’d rather carry an extra battery at all times. This way when you are shooting lots of photos one battery can be in the camera and the second on the charger.
The Image Browser software supplied by Canon for the Macintosh is pretty nice ( I can’t say anything about the Windows offering). The Image Browser allows you to organize all of your photos. The actual photos and folders are just files and folders in the finder, but the image browser provides a nice interface for reviewing photos, putting on slide shows, and launching your favorite image editing application, all from one interface. The camera is also supplied with a photo stitching application for combining multiple images into one large photos, the results are acceptable, but I prefer to do this in Photoshop.
Check out my gallery of S100 photos (index in the margin, disclosure: most have been post-processed in Photoshop) and I think you will agree that the S100 and S110 are impressive performers, especially among digital cameras in this price category. Combined with Photoshop the creative potential of this little camera is astonishing: a small imaging device that fits in the palm of your hand backup up by a complete photo laboratory on your desktop. Photography has never been so much fun. No more waiting for film to be developed. No more long hours dodging and burning prints. I held out a long time to go digital, and I’m glad I waited. For me, the S100 with it’s small form-factor was the catalyst that has changed the way I shoot photographs.