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Saturday, May 12, 2012

Why oh Why, My S95


I almost feel embarrassed to write this article as there are legions of professional photographers out there with oodles more experience in photography than I have. If any pros are reading this, please don’t hesitate to call me out if I’m wrong about something. I am a gadget fan though, so I do feel qualified to at least tell you why the Canon S95 is one of my favorite gadgets. I’d also like to explain a few key points about what I look for in a camera that may be valuable to many non-professionals, or those just starting to dip their toes into the treacherously expensive waters of photography.

The Canon S95

If you were to peek into my photography gear bag, you’d first see a large Canon T2i DSLR camera, along with a small assortment of stupidly expensive lenses (seriously, I know it takes a lot of R&D to develop these things, but come on now). While looking at all that kit, you’d probably be wondering why an amateur hobbyist like myself needs it all, and in the process I bet you’d probably miss the tiny Canon S95 sitting in the corner of the bag. If you don’t believe how easy it would be to miss the S95, check out this great size comparison of the two cameras from CameraSize.com.

That brings me to why I love the Canon S95. Why would I need it when I have an expensive DSLR with a high quality lens? Well, given the enormous size of a DSLR in comparison to a point and shoot, you can likely imagine many awkward situations when a camera that large is simply overkill, too heavy to carry, or attracts too much attention. Why the S95 and not just any garden-variety point and shoot? As someone that has come to enjoy the total control that a DSLR gives me over a photo, it is hard to go back to a point and shoot that only offers me the automatic modes like Auto, Sports, Beach, or Fireworks. In addition to the qualities I will mention below, I want a camera that gives me total control over settings like shutter speed, aperture, ISO, white balance, among others.

The S95 gives me manual control of all of those things in a package so incredibly small and light, that I barely notice I’m carrying it. When all of that manual control isn’t needed and I simply want to go full auto, ram the shutter button down, and relax when I’m on vacation, the S95 does a fine job as well. 

I should mention that the S95 has since been replaced by the S100, and I fully expect that the S105 (assumed name) will be released sometime this fall. Normally I would say go right out and buy the S100 over the S95. At this point, without ever having used the S100, I’m not sure. Some have suggested that while the feature set of the S100 is improved, the image quality is slightly reduced. Check out this review of the S100 on The Verge, as well as this side by side comparison of images from the two cameras and decide for yourself. Also, here is a spec for spec comparison between the S95 and the S100. Ultimately, I think the S95 must still have value as it is currently selling for only a few dollars less than the S100 on Amazon (over a year and a half after its release).

Before I get to what to look for in a camera, I’d like to point out one more awesome little gadget that is permanently attached to my S95. I’m referring to the crab-like appendage known as the Joby GorillaPod Micro 250 tripod seen in the image above. Perhaps in testament to the popularity of the S95, some of Joby’s own product marketing shots show an unbranded S95 atop their tripod. This was a great and inexpensive addition to my camera. It is so unobtrusive that I can keep it permanently attached and barely even notice. If you’ve ever tried to take a picture in low light, you’ll notice how essential it is to keep the camera as still as possible. When no suitable flat surface exists to place my camera on, this micro tripod has often fit the bill. It certainly won’t do what a full tripod will, but it’s better than nothing at all. When stowed, the tripod does cover the battery door, but it is easy enough to swing it out of the way to open the door.

Is the S95 the be-all end-all of point and shoot cameras? How can I say this? Mmmm..No. For one, the pop-up flash is irritatingly located right where I would normally put my left index finger. Two, it’s pretty darn expensive as far as point and shoots go (currently $350-375). I’m sure I could find additional negatives, but my point is that it is a fantastic point and shoot that does everything I want it to do. Ultimately, each person will have their own set of requirements. It’s also a Canon and I’m partial to Canon as I’ve had a long and positive history with their products. For amusement sometime, ask a room of passionate  photographers whether they prefer Canon or Nikon and then watch the exchange from behind safety glass. For a full review of the S95, check out this one at Steve’s Digicams.

No matter what point and shoot camera you buy, here are some things I’d recommend keeping in mind when comparing the average $175 point and shoot camera to top-end compact cameras like the S95.  

The List (Bring this with when you go shopping):

·         Sensor Size: Consider the image sensor of the camera to be similar to the retina at the back of your eye. It is what captures all the light coming into the camera to produce the final image. You can also think of the image sensor as the film that would have been exposed in a traditional camera.

In photography, light is everything. The bigger the image sensor, the more light you can capture (there are other factors as well). The more light you capture, the better chance you will have of getting amazing pictures.  Rather than go into too much detail on the importance of the image sensor, I’ll leave it to my friends at Engadget to explain further.

What I will point out, is that typical point and shoot digital cameras use one of the smallest sensors available; the 1/2.3” sensor that is the smallest box in the image below. The S95 steps this up to the larger orange box measuring 1/1.7”. It may not seem like a lot, but the effect on images is noticeable. Few other cameras put a sensor that large into a package as small as the S95. If you want to know one reason (among many) why people eventually step up to a DSLR like the Canon T3i, or the new category of mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras like the Sony NEX-7, check out the large APS-C box below and you’ll start to have an idea.


·         Wide Maximum Aperture: Using the eye metaphor again, think of the camera’s aperture like the pupil of your eye. When the “pupil” of the camera is fully dilated and wide open, you will see a value like f/2 or f/3.5. This will let as much light into the camera as the lens can physically allow. On the other end of the spectrum when the “pupil” is so small that it only lets in a tiny pinprick of light, you’ll end up with numbers like f/16 or f/22 on your display. Once again, I’ll leave it to my friends at Engadget to explain this in further and more graphic detail.

On the S95, you’ll find a very rare (for a point and shoot) f/2 maximum aperture. In contrast, cheaper point and shoots will have numbers more like f/2.8 or f/4. That may not sound like a lot, but f/2.8 lets in half as much light as f/2 and f/4 lets in half as much light as f/2.8. 

Here you can clearly see that each "f-stop" allows half as much light through.

An aperture value of f/2 will allow a lot of light into the lens and make for great pictures in low indoor light without the aid of a harsh flash. Not as much in the S95, but more so in a DSLR, it will also allow for images with shallow depth of field that produce the sometimes desired (especially for portraits) background blur. This can be seen in the image of my irresistibly cute son below. Depth of field is a complex subject requiring an post all to itself, but having an aperture of f/2 in a point and shoot will get you the shallowest depth of field possible, but due to the lens and sensor mechanics of a point and shoot, you’ll never get the same type of background blur (called bokeh) as you would in a large DSLR like the shot below with an APS-C sensor.  

I used my Canon T2i and a combination of f/2.8, a fast shutter speed, and
close proximity to my subject to capture my son with a blurred background.

Also keep an eye out for the aperture range. You typically will find this marked on the front of the lens. On the S95 you will find the range 2.0-4.9. This means that at its widest angle zoom (completely zoomed out) you will get f/2.0, but at the longest telephoto zoom setting (completely zoomed in) you will only get f/4.9. This is normal and you will want to look for lenses that have the lowest starting f-stop (like f/2.0) and the smallest variance to the other end of the range. To find a large aperture like f/2.0 or f/2.8 throughout the entire focal length (zoom range), you’ll need to get a DSLR and spend gobs of money on a stupidly expensive zoom lens, or buy a fixed focal length (no zoom at all) lens like this popular prime lens.

·         Good High-ISO Performance: A large aperture will get you very far in the game of taking great pictures in low-light, but it isn’t the whole story. Another chapter in that story is high-ISO performance. In Digital cameras ISO refers to the light-sensitivity setting of the camera. On a bright sunny day, you may only want a setting of ISO 100 otherwise the picture might be totally washed out (unless you up the shutter speed, but that’s another story altogether). Indoors, you might need ISO setting of anywhere from ISO 400 to ISO 800 or more to be sure that the sensor captures more of the light coming into the camera.

ISO really comes from the old film days when you bought a roll of film with a specific ISO rating and couldn’t change it unless you changed the roll of film. Thanks to digital camera and image sensors we can change this on the fly. The problem is the higher the ISO, the more noise or graininess you will see in the picture. Another issue is simply comparing ISO specs between cameras won’t allow you to tell how well it will really perform in low-light. For this you really need to pay close attention to camera reviews. A good review will provide comparison shots like this one comparing ISO performance between the S95 and the S100. This is one area where the S95 falters a bit and an area that the S100 corrects. On my camera, I limit the maximum ISO in the settings to ISO 640 as it seems to be a good compromise between low-light performance and noise. High end DSLRs can easily handle ISO 6400 or higher without batting a shutter.

·         Megapixels aren’t everything: Megapixels refer to the number of individual pixels or points of captured light that make up your picture. It wasn't all that long ago that we were engaged in what some affectionately describe as the “Megapixel Wars.” This refers to the time when the salesmen would have you believe that megapixels were everything and that you had to get the camera with the most megapixels. Thankfully this time seems to be over as it has now become cheap enough to have a more than adequate megapixel count in very inexpensive cameras. The S95 weighs in at 10 megapixels, and in my opinion, anything from 8mp to 12mp is plenty for this category of camera. 

More important than the megapixel count though is the size of the image sensor. I’d take a 10mp camera with a larger sensor over a 12mp camera with a smaller sensor any day. Check out the articles here and here for more on why megapixels don’t really matter much anymore and why too many can actually degrade the quality of your image.

·         Optical Image Stabilization: The pros will say that a good photographer doesn’t need image stabilization to compensate for camera shake unless you are using a very long telephoto lens. I agree with them and have noticed that many high-end DSLR lenses don’t even include it. The problem is, I’m not a pro yet and I use it as a crutch for now to compensate for my lack of desire to tote around a tripod, and my general lack of pro-level skills. My big tip here is to ignore cameras that only have digital image stabilization. This is an artificial software trick that will help at times, but not nearly as much as the optical systems that physically move the lens, and/or the image sensor to compensate for camera shake.

·         Bonus Features: There are a multitude of bonus features that can tip the balance for me once my trifecta of important features are met (Sensor Size, Max Aperture, and ISO performance). A feature I’ve begun looking for is the capability to shoot in RAW (which both the S95 and S100 can do). I think many may not realize that the JPEG image their camera is producing isn’t what you originally shot. The instant you click the shutter to take a picture, the camera is busy compressing and quickly touching up the image. A RAW image is uncompressed and requires a lot of post processing on your PC after the fact using programs like Adobe Lightroom, but it retains much more of the original image. RAW gives photographers a highly prized feature, total creative control over the image. RAW isn’t essential, and I don’t use it much on a point and shoot, but it is a nice feature to have when needed.

Some others to look for? WiFi is becoming more common allowing you to transfer pictures to your computer without a cable in sight. Also, GPS is becoming more and more prevalent allowing you to geotag images with the location where the image was taken. Both are great features, but keep in mind that they will suck down the battery very quickly if left on.

I also like a large high resolution screen, 1080p HD video, and the latest image processor. Both my S95 and T2i offer nicely sized 3 inch screens, but the T2i ups the resolution from 461,000 dots to just over a million dots. The effect is noticeable and very useful for reviewing pictures. HD video features are great and have completely obviated my need to carry around a separate camcorder on vacations. I also like to see that a camera has the latest image processor available. Think of this as the CPU of the camera. A good image processor can help in any number of areas from faster start up and continuous picture taking, to better digital image stabilization that works in concert with the optical stabilizer.

I still don’t have this last one, but I’m anxious to have a variable-angle screen in my next cameras. There have been many times when I want to take a picture low to the ground (think kids), or high above my head (think crowded areas) and can’t do so without losing sight of the screen.Variable-angle screens allow the screen to be tilted away from the camera in multiple directions. 

Some final parting tips:
  • Always, always buy an extra battery: Many digital cameras are notorious for giving you no indication that a battery is running low until it is about to die. I always keep a spare battery in my camera case. This is one item I refuse to buy from Amazon as there seem to be fake batteries (which can explode or offer poor performance) everywhere I look. For this, I turn to reputable camera suppliers like B&H or Adorama.
  • Buy a nice compact case right away to prevent damage to the cameraThis one has worked very well for my S95 and has room for an extra battery and extra memory cards.
  • Buy a high capacity, fast memory card: I like to make sure the memory card isn’t a bottleneck in my ability to shoot pictures rapidly. HD video can also be very demanding in terms of speed required from the card and capacity needed for longer videos. This is the one I use. It could be overkill for some, but I love it.
  • Buy a second, cheaper SD card (or even another ultra-fast one) as a backup: Memory cards can be fickle and give you no warning when they are going to die. Have a backup, and always transfer your images off the camera as soon as possible. Here is a nice, fast, and cheap card.
  •  Buy a micro lens pen: This will help clear the lens if it gets dirty or gets water spots on it. This one has worked wonders for me.
  • Get an air blasterHere is a great tool (more suited to DSLR cameras) for cleaning dust safely off lenses or image sensors.
  • Always shoot at the highest resolution your camera offers and at the highest quality setting (usually “Fine”): This will cause pictures to take up more room on your memory card, but remember, you can always reduce the size of a picture for sharing purposes, but you can never make a great shot bigger than it was originally captured without losing a lot of quality.
  • Turn OFF digital zoom: It is a useless software-based abomination that does nothing but destroy the quality of the image. If you need to zoom father than your camera will allow, buy a camera with a longer zoom, or crop the picture after the fact on your PC.

Well, that’s all I have for now. Please let me know if any of this helped you or if you have any additional tips or corrections that could help others. Check out my work at www.emmanuelcanaan.com