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You are hereHome > Digital Camera Reviews > Canon PowerShot S1

Canon Digital Cameras


Canon PowerShot S1 IS Review

Review Date: Dec 4, 2004

Category: Beginner to Serious Amateur

Canon PowerShot S1 IS 


The Canon PowerShot S1 IS is a digital camera targeted to beginner (to serious) amateur photographers. It has 3.2 megapixel resolution on a 1/2.7 in. CCD image sensor.

It has an excellent lens which is image stabilized; this allows the use a slower shutter speed hand held than would normally be possible (from 2 to 3 stops gain). The image stabilization works really well in both still and movie shooting mode. At full telephoto focal length of 58mm (380mm, 35mm equivalent), the rule of thumb says that the slowest shutter speed you can use to hand hold the camera without encurring camera shake is the reciprocal of the focal length, i.e. 1/380 sec.; I can hand hold it at 1/60 sec., but not slower, with image stabilization.

Because of the low megapixel and tiny image sensor, I was expecting image quality to be somewhat disappointing (as some reviewers mentioned), but I was quite surprised to find the images to be very pleasant straight out of the camera. Image detail may measure low in some of the reviewers' studio tests, but actual field images show plenty enough detail even at full telephoto. I guess once you get used to 5MP and 8MP image detail, 3MP seems somewhat low. However, we find the overall image quality of the Canon PowerShot S1 to be very good, with good image detail and low noise at ISO 50.

10x Optical Zoom Range
38mm 380mm
5.8mm [38mm] 58mm [380mm]

In the above pictures, we show the coverage for 38mm (35mm equivalent), and then the coverage for 380mm (35mm equivalent). Being able to use a long focal length hand held (thanks to the Canon S1's image stabilized lens) is a luxury that you may easily get used to -- and find hard to do without.

The auto focus (AF) works well and is very fast when there's enough light. The Ultrasonic Motor (USM) is whisper quiet so at first you may wonder if the focusing mechanism is working at all.

Some reviewers have reported that in low-light and at the long end of the telephoto, the AF will hunt or may be unable to lock focus. After experimenting, this is what I found:

  • Since the AF works on contrast detection, the AF needs an object of enough contrast to lock on. In low-light, the lack of an AF-Assist Illuminator (on a Canon digital camera???) does not help, so yes, the AF will hunt. The AF performs much better in Continuous AF Mode. The images below for the ISO and Long Shutter Speed sections are taken indoors, the first under normal room lighting (in my case, 2 compact fluorescent bulbs); and the second one, under my desk so it's dark enough to require an 8 sec. exposure.
  • At first, what I thought to be the inability to lock focus at the long end of the telephoto was simply that I was too close to my subject. You need to be at least 93 cm (3 feet) away from your subject at the full 380mm telephoto focal length. The camera will simply not be able to lock focus on anything closer than 3 feet.

Outdoors, where there is enough light, my review Canon S1 always locked focus even at full telephoto. There is, however, a noticeable AF lag, and this means that the S1 may not be the best choice for telephoto action photography. However, if you prefocus and use Continuous Shooting Mode (not to be confused with Continuous AF Mode), the Canon S1 lets you shoot at 1.7fps and you should be able to capture nice action shots.

A word about Continuous Shooting Mode. The best way to use Continuous Shooting Mode is to fix the camera on a point and pre-focus. Then when you trip the shutter release button, it will fire continuously and capture the action within the frame. If you move the camera (say you're trying to follow a subject) you will most probably get blurred shots since you are introducing camera shake (unless the shutter speed is fast enough to freeze action).

The one niggle that every reviewer has mentioned, and that I agree with, is that the EVF freezes when the shutter fires. If you are taking one shot after another, or panning, it is very difficult to compose properly.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Canon has included the FlexiZone AF/AE system into the Canon S1. Normally the AF frame is positioned at the center of the viewfinder, but in the Canon S1, you can move it to almost any section of the picture area (except the very edges). This is invaluable for macro and any work requiring precise focus. For the ISO shots below, I composed the scene with the camera set on a tripod. Since Allegra's eye was not in the middle of the scene, I simply moved the AF frame (press the SET button and use the arrow keys) to her eye, and voila! the Canon S1 focuses and sets exposure based on where the AF frame is pointed to. To return the AF frame to its center position, I just press and hold the SET button.

Another nifty feature on the Canon S1 that is usually available on more expensive digital cameras is Focus Bracketing. This allows you to focus on one point and the camera will automatically take two more pictures, changing the focus slightly depending on a narrow or wide range you specify beforehand. For shooting non-moving objects where the focus is critical, the use of focus bracketing increases your chance that you will obtain a properly focused shot.

When all else fails, the Canon S1 allows you to switch to Manual Focus Mode. FlexiZone AF is active in Manual Focus Mode: the portion of the image in the selected AF frame will appear magnified to allow precise focusing.

Macro (10 cm / 3.9 in.)
Macro (10 cm / 3.9 in.)

The Canon S1 lens allows you to focus as close as 10 cm (3.9 in.) at wide-angle and 93 cm (3 ft) at max. telephoto. FlexiZone AF plus the swivel LCD monitor makes taking close up shots a delight. I usually also use the 2 sec. self-timer so as to avoid camera shake. A nifty gadget available for purchase for those who take lots of macro pictures is the optional Remote Controller.

Auto White Balance
AWB WB = Fluorescent WB = Custom

As the above pictures show, the auto white balance sometimes tends toward the warm colours indoors under fluorescent light. Using the preset WB for Fluorescent helped a bit, but the best result is obtained with Custom WB. Outdoors, under natural light, the AWB works well.

ISO Comparisons
ISO 50
ISO 50
ISO 100 ISO 200 ISO 400
ISO 100 ISO 200 ISO 400

The 100% crops above (area delimited by the white square) demonstrate the noise at the available ISO Speeds of 50, 100, 200 and 400. At ISO 50, as we would expect, noise is under control and not apparent. At ISO 100 noise becomes visible but is still acceptable. Upward, noise is noticeably present. I have two night shots, one taken at ISO 50 and the other at ISO 400, in the Photo Gallery.

I have also taken the ISO samples above in low-light to demonstrate the capability of the AF. The room ambient light from two energy-saving fluorescent bulbs was not enough for quick focus or hand held shots. So, I set the camera on a tripod and at first had a hard time getting focus. Then I realized I may be too close. A quick check in the User Guide told me I was too close for the focus to work properly at full telephoto. Once I moved back to 93cm (3+ feet), the AF snapped. I used the 2 sec. self-timer to avoid camera shake. The AF frame was positioned on Allegra's (of Galidor fame) left eye.

Chromatic Aberrations
CA (Purple Fringing)

You will find CA wherever there is a strongly lit background, like in the picture above. There is CA at the corner delimited by the red square at top left (reproduced at 100% crop at bottom left).

Long Shutter Speed
Long Shutter Speed
5.8mm, Manual, Evaluative, 8 sec., F8.0, ISO 50
Custom WB, 2 sec. Self-Timer, Tripod Used, IS OFF, 100% Crop

The Canon S1 allows the use of a long shutter speed of up to 15 sec. but only in Shutter Priority and Manual modes. This allows you to take some nice night shots. Generally, with CCD image sensors, noise usually becomes more prominent at slow shutter speeds. The S1 has special noise reduction algorithms that automatically kicks in at shutter speeds slower than 1.3 sec. and you'll notice a slightly longer processing time before the next picture can be taken.

To test this noise reduction algorithm, we decided to take a low-light indoors shot. If you must ask, this time Bamm-Bamm and I had to crawl under my desk to find a dark spot for a long enough shutter speed of 8 sec.

As you can see, AF at this extreme low light is fine as long as you keep over 9 cm away at the wide angle setting. The above picture is cropped to remove all the junk you'll find under my desk. Custom WB works well, and the background is perfectly black with no noise.

The last feature we will mention is the histogram. The histogram is in Playback Mode only. You can see the histogram by pressing the DISPLAY button until the histogram displays. The histogram is invaluable to give an indication of under- and over-exposure (don't rely on the LCD/EVF since the brightness is adjustable and may be misleading); in addition to the histogram, overexposed areas of the image blink.

Overall, very good image quality for a 3.2MP digital camera: great image detail, some CA in certain cases. You should have no problem obtaining excellent 4x6 in. or 5x7 in. prints, plus the occasional 8x10 in.

The pictures in the Canon S1 IS Photo Gallery page provide a good sample of what the Canon PowerShot S1 IS is capable of. I have provided samples at 800x600 pixels (compressed to Quality 60/100 in Photoshop Elements). Remember that this version is of slightly lesser quality than the original 2048x1536 version.

You can safely assume that most macro shots and slow shutter speed shots required the use of a tripod. Any image that is adjusted for levels in Photoshop has "_adjusted" appended to the file name.

I have defaulted the image size to 800x600 pixels. For those who have their monitor resolution set to 1024x728 pixels, everything should snugly fit and you should not have to scroll to see the whole image. If your monitor is set to 800x600 pixels resolution, start the slide show and then scroll to the right to position the image within your screen width. Then, press F11 (if you are using Internet Explorer) to switch to full screen mode, and the image should fill your screen nicely. Press F11 again at any time to switch your monitor display back to normal mode.

To return to this page from the Photo Gallery, click on the animated graphics of the camera.

Please open and download the original size version only if you need to and only once to your hard drive -- and save me some precious bandwidth. Thanks!


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