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Canon PowerShot S50

Has the Digicam "Arrived"?

I've owned a few digicams over the past 5 years. Yes, I'm not afraid to admit it. Real men (I mean — photographers) do use digicams. The reason that this site doesn't have more digicam content is threefold...

— the orientation of the site is toward advanced amateur, fine art, and professional photographers who typically use 35mm, medium format or large format — film or digital, not point-and-shoots.

— there are any number of web sites providing digicam reviews and forums. Digital Photography Review and Steve's Digicams are two of the better such sites. They and others do such a comprehensive job that my additions aren't much needed.

— there are so many new digicams coming to market (seemingly a new crop every week) that it's a Herculean task to just stay abreast of new products. I'd rather spend my time and energies on other matters.

Having said that, I have from time-to-time published digicam reviews and related articles. Some of these include my review of the Canon S10 in 1999, Nick Rains' article on using the Canon S30 as a histogram exposure meter for film-based shooting, Mike Johnston's two-part essay titled Just Say No to Digital SLRs, and my review in 2002 of the Nikon 5700.

Why then review another digicam now? Well, it was time for me to buy a new one for my own use. I had considered the Nikon 5700 a year ago when it was released and found it to be seriously wanting. By this spring, 2003, enough time had passed that I really needed to upgrade, and when Canon announced the PowerShot S50 in March I checked out the specs and then asked Canon for a loaner.


Park Bush, Toronto 2003
Canon S50 at ISO 100

One of the first frames taken while testing the S50 was this bush in a local park. I was simply taking snaps, becoming familiar with the various modes and settings. When I later loaded the file into Photoshop I was stunned at the resolution and overall image quality. Click on the image above to see a larger version.

The Canon PowerShot S50 has a MSLP of U.S. $699, but can be purchased by mailorder for around $500.

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Features & Specs

Image quality is of course an important consideration when evaluating any camera. But before considering megabytes, size and features, and doing a print evaluation, there are some of the more basic aspects to examine. Since I use CompactFlash cards in my digital SLRs it is important to me that any digicam that I buy use them, especially Type II cards like Microdrives. Since the latest generation of digicams produce large RAW files (4 — 5.5 MB) the reason to use large cards is the same as with DSLRs. Also, I'm not a big fan of some of the smaller new cards like the XD format. They are simply too small physically. My wife has a Fuji digicam that uses XD cards and I find that they are so tiny that they can be really easy to misplace. Also, adaptors are needed to be able to use them with most card readers. Not a big deal, but something that shifts the balance, for me at least.

I particularly like the fact that the S50 comes with a tiny one-piece battery charger. There is no cable. The charger plugs directly into the AC socket. In the past I've seen battery chargers that are larger than the cameras they came with, a nuisance when traveling. And the S50's battery is a Lithium Ion type, which gives excellent life. On the downside, the only battery status indication is on the rear LCD when the battery is almost exhausted. It's a matter of you're OK, or you're not OK, with nothing in between. Two thumbs down.

Physical form factor and build quality needs to be considered. I like the current Canon PowerShot S series because the bodies are metal and have a sliding lens cover. There's a solid all-of-a-piece feel to them that polycarbonate bodied camera just don't have. The S50 weighs a bit more than some similarly sized cameras, but the apparent robustness makes the trade-off worthwhile. The sliding lens cover makes the camera pocketable, though a coat pocket rather than a shirt pocket. (I usually carry mine in a belt-pouch).

Though the metal body feels all-of-a-piece it can be very slippery to handle because of the smooth metal surfaces. Using the provided wrist strap is likely a good idea. A textured surface might not looks as slick, but it would make the camera handle better.


Bird Circle — Toronto, 2003
Canon S50 at ISO 200

It was a dreary day as I started to experiment with the camera. For this humorous frame I dialed in +1 exposure compensation because of the bright snow, but had forgotten to check the ISO setting. Only once it was on the screen in Photoshop did I notice that it was grainy, and that I had used a higher ISO than needed. This was my first clue that ISO settings above 100 were less than ideal.

As a Canon DSLR owners (1Ds and 10D) I also find that the D50's similarly in control functions makes learning and operation less of a hurdle. Contemporary digicams can be complex beasts. Once you get past the "dummy" modes these can be even more complex to use than a DSLR, and so anything that eases the learning curve is appreciated.

Another aspect of the S50 (and the rest of the PowerShot line) is that it is able to produce RAW files (not all brands of digicams do). I almost never shoot JPGs, much preferring to have a "digital negative" which allows me to work with 16 bit images and adjust values like colour balance after the fact. Furthermore the S50 comes with software for the Mac that supports OS X, which numerous other camera manufacturers still don't.

The lens is a 7.1 — 21.3mm zoom with an f/2.8 aperture at the wide end and an f/4.9 aperture at the long end. This focal length range is equivalent to 35-105mm in 35mm terms, an ideal range for many shooting situations. But remember, though the range is equivalent, in terms of depth of field these lenses are what they are. This can be either good or bad news, depending on what one is looking to do. A 7mm lens has almost infinite depth of field, and is also easy to hand-hold at slow shutter speeds. But, these short focal lengths make the use of selective focus much more difficult, even at the long end. Note as well that minimum aperture, as with most digicams, is limited to f/8 to avoid diffraction effects. In fact I have noted that in Program mode the camera hold the aperture to f/2.8 as long as possible, indicating that Canon's engineers may believe this to be the optimum aperture.

One thing that is very annoying on the S50 is the very coarse zoom control. There are very few steps, and getting framing right can be a real annoyance. Definitely something that Canon needs to pay some attention to in this series of cameras.

I have read some negative comments about the multicontroler; that center-clicking with it isn't accurate. No, it's not. But on the other hand it isn't as bad as some have made it out to be.

 

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Noise

The Canon S50 is noisy at ISO 200 and 400. At ISO 50 is produces A3 (11x17") prints that are quite clean. At ISO 100 a bit of noise is visible. At 200 and 400 the noise is quite visible, though whether it's a problem depends very much on the subject matter and the print size made. Netimage is the answer though. When used properly it can make a dramatic difference and make high ISO images more than acceptable both with the S50 and with other digicams.

If you are only used to DSLRs, don't expect digicams to be as noise free at high ISOs. This is simply the nature of the beast and is the result of the fact that the very tiny photo sites (pixels) found in small imaging chips have a lower signal to noise ratio, and the amplification needed to produce high ISOs that users expect simply exaggerates this.

ISO 50
ISO 100
ISO 200
ISO 400
Canon Powershot S50 100% crops

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Will The Marriage Work?

Like most people I take family snapshots and casual vacation pictures. But, I also like to have a pocket camera handy in a wide variety of circumstances for more serious photographic opportunities. The photograph of the gulls above was taken on a walk in a local park. I would not normally carry a camera with me when out for a strole to get some fresh air, but a pocket camera makes it possible to have one along for those unexpected opportunities.

I have been using a couple of pocket cameras over the years and I wrote about two of my favourites in an article titled Pocket 35mm Cameras. These have of course been film cameras. There's nothing wrong with them, in fact the Ricoh is terrific, with a superb lens; very small and light weight, and the Rollei is almost a piece of pocketable mechanical art. But to be honest I have become spoiled this past year or so by working digitally when doing my more serious work, and the thought of shooting film, traipsing to the lab and back, then scanning, now seems like a real bother. I'm hooked on the instant gratification of digital. Another major advantage is to be able to come back with 2 or 3 or a half dozen images and be able to work on them right away, without having to either wait for the end of a roll or needing to waste most of an incomplete roll of film by getting it processed early.

So, I was very curious to see if the Canon S50 could replace my pocket film cameras for casual photography. Up until now I've been dubious. Even casual picture taking needs a camera with good reflexes (no pun intended). When I reviewed the Nikon 5700 in 2002 I was very disappointed at how slow everything was. A few days of shooting with it lead me to return the camera, as I found it unresponsive to the needs of typical street shooting.

The S50 is quite a bit better than the Nikon 5700 in this regard, though by no means up to the level that I'd like it to be. Look at it this way — it's tolerable. The delay caused by autofocus lag (typical of most point-and-shoots) is a bigger issue than any digital lag. The S50 isn't about to replace my Leica M7 for serious documentary street shooting, but it's fine for casual use.


In Motion — Toronto, April, 2003
Canon S50 at ISO 50

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The Viewfinder & Screen

Let's not talk about the optical viewfinder. It's as bad as just about every digicam on the market. Small, no diopter correction and inaccurate. The best that can be said about it is that it gives you a rough idea of what you're about to shoot. It also contains no shooting information whatsoever.

The rear LCD screen is where the action is. This screen is bright and sharp; easily viewable in bright daylight if you at least turn your back to the sun. It shows 100% of what will be (or was) shot. It can display a superimposed histogram (once the shot has been taken) as well as a couple of different menus. The shooting menu that contains a broad range of vital data such as selected ISO, exposure compensation, white balance settings, etc, and just about every other shooting parameter imaginable, can be superimposed on the live preview and settings can be made with the anticipated shot on-screen at the same time.


Head in the Sand — Florida, April 2003
Canon S50 at ISO 50

This is why I carry a pocket camera with me most of the time (whether film based or digital). I was walking along the beach while on a family visit to Florida when I saw this chubby kid being buried in the sand up to his head by his equally rotund mother. I took several frames, but this one was the most surreal. The others were simply weird. But fun. That's what a pocket camera is about. Fun.

Of course the LCD is fixed, and doesn't pivot and rotate the way it does on the similarly featured but physically larger Canon G3. This means that you end up holding the camera in front of you, sometimes at awkward angles, so that you can see what you're doing. Or, you have to revert to the inadequate optical viewfinder. This is the price you pay for digital in a small physical size.

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The Extras

The manual that comes with the Canon S50 is 181 pages in length, just 2 pages shorter than that supplied with the Canon 10D. If anything, this pocket digicam is more complex to operate than the 10D. Much more. Of course there are the usual press here — dummy modes that make the camera simple enough for a beginner, but there is also a depth of features and functions that belies the small size of this camera. There are also features that I won't even begin to touch on, like a movie mode with built in editing capabilities, and the ability to create tiled composites with on-screen alignment of just-taken images.


Muskoka Sunset, April, 2003
This 180 degree panoramic was created from a seven frame vertical stitch which produced a 60MB file.
The provided Photostitch software was not used as I found it produces noticeable seams.
Powerstich (unfortunately discontinued) was used.

Some features of the S50 are not even found yet in some high-end DSLRs, like audio recording capability with a built in speaker for in-camera playback. The camera knows whether the shot taken is vertical or horizontal and the images are appropriately tagged. There is also a built in intervalometer. I could go on, but if you'd like to read about all these then Phil Askey's review of the S45 (a very similar camera) is a good place to start or DCResource's S50 review.

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The Verdict

I have to admit that I'm hooked. I'm hooked on pocket cameras. I'm hooked on digital. And I'm now hooked on the Canon S50. My film-based Ricoh GR1S and Rollei 35SE are gathering dust. The combination of image quality, versatility and "fun" that the S50 provides outweighs any advantages that these pocket film cameras might have (and I forget what these advantages might be).

Who knows what the next couple of years might bring. But in the meantime the Canon PowerShot S50 goes everywhere with me.

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Postscript

I anticipate two major questions to arise from this review, so let's save ourselves the effort up front...

How does the Canon S50 compare with the XXX?

I have no idea. I haven't tested very many digicams, and don't intend to. I tested and then bought the S50 because it takes Compactflash cards and, being a Canon, is similar in its controls and functions to the Canon DSLRs (1Ds and 10D) that I already own and use. I also liked the fact that it's pocketable and is all metal. There may well be something better out there though, (and if there isn't one today there likely will be next month).

Can images from the S50 compare to those from a DSLR?

In a word, no. Though the S50 and other 4M and 5M cameras can produce very nice A4 and even A3 prints they can't really compare to those from a contemporary 6MP DSLR. The DSLR will have less noise and greater resolution. The lenses on the DSLR will also be significantly better than the tiny zooms on a digicam, even if these are consumer grade lenses. There's no free lunch.

 


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Concepts: Digital single-lens reflex camera, Canon Digital IXUS, Canon, Camera, Canon PowerShot, Canon PowerShot G, Canon PowerShot A, Single-lens reflex camera

Entities: Canon, Nikon, Ricoh, Mac, U.S., DSLR, LCD screen, ISO, digital negative, Photoshop, ISOs, OS X, Michael Reichmann, Mike Johnston, Steve, Nick Rains, bush, Phil Askey, Powerstich, Florida, pocket camera, SLRs, Photoshop

Tags: cameras, pocket cameras, images, review, digital, Canon PowerShot S50, pocket film cameras, high isos, DSLR, image quality, cards, canon dslrs, digicam reviews, small, digital slrs, Canon DSLR owners, rear lcd, hooked, iso settings, optical viewfinder, current canon powershot, RAW files, local park, time-to-time published digicam, battery chargers, compactflash cards, exposure compensation, aperture, lens cover, focal lengths, street shooting, long end, pocket 35mm cameras, Nikon, tiny one-piece battery, pocket digicam, histogram exposure meter, digicam content, contemporary 6mp dslr, Canon G3