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Canon PowerShot S20

Canon packs 3 megapixels and a 2x optical zoom into their "smallest digicam" body!

Review First Posted: 4/4/2000



Must-have e-book for this camera -- $20, Click Here!

MSRP $899 US

 

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True 3 megapixel sensor for 2048 x 1536 pixel images
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Very high quality 2x optical zoom lens
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Tiny body, smallest currently on the market!
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Exceptional image quality
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Rugged all-metal construction, auto lens cover
   

Manufacturer Overview
Canon has long been a leader in the film-based photography world, and has developed a solid line of digital cameras as well. Over a year ago (this is being written in March, 2000), their PowerShot Pro70 introduced exceptional image quality and many "studio-friendly" features at the 1.7 megapixel level. Subsequently, they made waves with a series of digicams in exceptionally compact metal bodies, echoing the style of their wildly popular "ELPH" film cameras. The latest addition to this line is the PowerShot S20, a full 3 megapixel camera with a 2x optical zoom lens, packed into what's arguably the smallest body in the digicam market. The S20's predecessors (the A5, A5 Zoom, A50, and S10) have been highly popular, thanks to the combination of compact size, pack-anywhere ruggedness (all metal body), and good image quality. We predict that the S20 will likewise find many a good home, for all the same reasons.

Highlights

Executive Overview
If you liked the smooth, compact, sophisticated styling of the Canon S10, you'll love the new S20. With the same control layout, body design and lightweight portability, the S20 keeps all the best features from the S10 with the addition of a larger 3.3 megapixel CCD. The body of the S20 is extremely slim and compact, with no major protrusions (except the lens, when extended), so that it easily fits into a shirt or coat pocket. The control layout is consistent with the older model and simple to navigate (one-handed operation is definitely possible). The small status display panel on top of the camera provides a fair amount of detail on current camera settings, helping to save on battery power by not using the large LCD display on the camera's back panel. Although many of the features still rely on the LCD based menu system, we liked the fact that the exposure mode, flash mode, continuous shooting, self-timer, and macro modes can all be controlled without referring to the LCD.
You have a choice of using the real-image optical viewfinder or the 1.8 inch, low temperature, polycrystalline silicon color LCD monitor for composing images. The optical viewfinder features center autofocus target marks and a small LED to let you know when the camera is ready for the shot. The LCD monitor offers a nice, sharp image as well as an information display that can be turned on and off. In Playback mode, the LCD offers an optional nine-image index screen and zoom capability for closer examination of captured images. The S20 is equipped with a 2x, 6.5 to 13mm lens (equivalent to a 32 to 64mm lens on a 35mm camera) with a focus range from 26 inches (66 cm) to infinity and from 4.7 to 26 inches (12 to 66 cm) in macro mode. An autofocus assist light on the front of the camera is activated in dim lighting situations. A 2x/4x digital zoom option can be activated through the Record menu, increasing the S20's zoom capabilities up to 8x (but beware that quality always suffers proportional to zoom level with digital zoom).
Exposure-wise, we experienced good control on the S20 with many of the camera's features accessible without resorting to the LCD menu system. From the mode dial, you can choose from four main exposure modes: Automatic, Manual, Image and Stitch-Assist (panorama). Immediately upon entering Stitch-Assist mode, the screen splits into "live" and "already captured" segments, helping to line up each new image with those already captured. The Image exposure mode lets you select from Night Scene, Landscape, Slow Shutter, Fast Shutter and Black & White special exposure modes, giving a nice amount of flexibility. (The various modes change the exposure program to favor fast or slow shutter speeds, smaller lens apertures, or higher light sensitivity & longer exposure times.) Manual mode lets you adjust the exposure compensation, white balance, etc. (although not the shutter speed or aperture as the name would perhaps suggest) while Automatic puts the camera in charge of everything.
The S20 offers either standard center-weighted average or "spot" exposure metering. White balance offers the standard options (Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten and Fluorescent) as does the built-in flash (Auto, On, Off and Red-Eye Reduction). When shooting in Manual exposure mode, the S20 gives you control over ISO, through the Gain setting, with choices of 100, 200 and 400. (200 and 400 listed on the menu as "+1" and "+2".) Additionally, you can adjust the image sharpness and contrast. A Continuous shooting mode allows you to snap the shutter as fast as 1.7 images per second (not to be confused with the Fast Shutter exposure mode which simply fires a single shot at a higher shutter speed).
Image storage on the S20 is based on the CompactFlash standard, with the card slot accommodating both Type I and II card sizes. (Making it compatible with the capacious IBM MicroDrive.) An NTSC video cable comes with the camera, making it a snap to review or compose images with a television screen. Likewise, for quick image downloading to a computer, the camera comes with a serial and USB cable compatible with Macs and PCs. In addition to Canon's PowerShot software, which downloads images and stitches together any panoramic shots, a copy of Adobe PhotoDeluxe provides additional creative options for image enhancement and correction. PhotoDeluxe offers a variety of filters and effects as well as templates for things like greeting cards and calendars.
All in all, the S20 is a portable, well-designed, easy to use camera that will please anyone on the go. It takes great pictures and offers enough options for most snapshooters, stopping short of the full manual control sought by advanced photographers. The special exposure modes give you greater flexibility when shooting in more difficult situations like night scenes or sporting events. User-friendly, highly pocketable and feature-laden, the S20 is the perfect choice for the consumer who wants a camera that takes really good pictures, is fun to use, and (often most importantly) is small enough to fit into a pocket to be packed along on any excursion.
Design
The PowerShot S20 looks very much like its cousin, the S10, in everything except color (the S20 has a warmer silver tone than the cooler S10). Side by side, they look almost identical, down to the last button. They even have the same weight and measurements, 9.5 ounces (270g) and 4.1 x 2.7 x 1.3 inches (105.4 x 69.4 x 33.8mm). The main difference between the two, aside from the exterior color (the S20 has a gold-toned metal case, vs the silver-colored one on the S10), lies in the larger 3.3 megapixel CCD of the S20, resulting in a larger 2048 x 1536 pixel maximum image resolution.


When the lens is in its retracted position, the front of the camera is very sleek and smooth with no protrusions. Once the camera is switched into any of the four capture modes, a mechanical lens cover slides open and the lens extends outwards automatically. Also on the front of the camera is a small finger grip, the built-in flash, the front of the optical viewfinder and an autofocus-assist light that activates in dark conditions.


The back panel of the S20 features most of the control buttons, the CompactFlash slot cover release, optical viewfinder and LCD monitor. Consistent with the styling of the front of the camera, the back is very smooth and sleek. Because of the small size of the camera, one-handed operation is possible, as all of the control buttons are within easy reach.


The right side of the S20 (looking at the back of the camera) holds the CompactFlash slot, wrist strap attachment and DC coupler cable cover (a little slot to accommodate the cord of the AC adapter). As with the S10, the positioning of the CompactFlash card and the slot cover make it a little tricky to get the card out of the slot. It would have been much easier if the card were turned to face the other direction, exposing the little lip most CompactFlash cards have on the back side which is perfect for hooking with a fingernail.


The opposite side of the S20 features the video and digital jacks as well as a CR2016 battery slot (which powers the S20's internal clock/calendar). The video jack remains exposed while the digital jack has a soft rubber cover that snaps into place to protect the interface.


A small status display, the mode dial and the shutter button live on top of the S20, all maintaining a very low profile like the rest of the camera. We're glad to see the continued presence of the status display panel, as it helps greatly in conserving battery power by working without the LCD (although you still need to revert to the LCD monitor to navigate the menu system).


The S20 features a nice, flat bottom with a metal tripod mount and locking battery compartment. Because of the camera's small size, the battery compartment and tripod mount are extremely close, making it impossible to change batteries while mounted. Probably a petty gripe, since the camera's size and portability mean it's more likely to be found in a coat pocket than atop a tripod in a studio.
Viewfinder
Although the S20's optical viewfinder doesn't feature any dioptric adjustment, it has a high eye point, making it comfortable for eyeglass wearers. The optical viewfinder does feature center autofocus target brackets, helpful when composing images. Additionally, a small LED next to the viewfinder lets you know when exposure and focus are set. A smaller LED beneath that indicates whether the macro function is turned on or off (denoted by an embossed macro symbol).
The 1.8 inch, low-temperature, color, polycrystalline silicon TFT LCD monitor optionally provides an informative information display of the camera's settings. The Display button to the right of the LCD monitor turns the LCD monitor as well as the information display on and off, cycling between three modes: Off, On, and On with Status Display. We appreciated both the thumbnail index mode Playback, as well as the image zoom, which allows you to get an enlarged view of captured images. The image zoom implementation in particular has an excellent user interface. You can scroll around the expanded image display using the rocker toggle control, and a small cursor shows what portion of the larger image you're viewing at any given time. (In the screen shot at right, we've scrolled to view the right center of the full frame.)
The optical viewfinder is one of the few design gripes we had with the S20: It only shows 76% of the final image area, meaning that you have to guess a fair bit about how much of the surrounding scene the camera will capture in the final photo. The over-tight cropping of the optical viewfinder means you'll have a tendency to stand a bit too far back from your subjects until you get used to its idiosyncracy in this area. Fortunately, the LCD viewfinder is much more accurate, showing about 95% of the final image. We really like to see 100% accuracy on LCD viewfinders, but 95% isn't bad, and in fact is better than most.
We particularly appreciated one feature of the S20's viewfinder that it shares with the S10: Even if you have the LCD display turned off (to save battery power), there's an "instant review" function available simply by holding down the shutter button after you've taken a picture. The just-captured image will remain displayed on the LCD as long as you hold down the shutter button, going away once you release it. Very handy for checking images you've just shot, without having to switch to playback mode (which takes time), or having to leave the LCD lit (which takes power). Nice feature, other manufacturers take note...
Optics
The S20 features a 6.5 to 13 mm, F/2.9 to F/4.0, 2x zoom lens (equivalent to a 32 to 64mm lens on a 35mm camera), a slight change from the S10's 6.3 to 12.6mm lens. Focus ranges from 26 inches (66cm) to infinity in standard mode and from 4.7 to 26 inches (12 to 66 cm) in macro. As we mentioned earlier, the lens automatically retracts when the camera is switched off, leaving a very smooth front. The actual lens is protected by a mechanical, sliding lens cover that retracts when the camera is turned on and the lens pops out. A bright red autofocus assist light comes on in dim lighting situations which really helps when focusing on dark subjects but can blow your cover in candid shots.
A 4x digital telephoto feature can be turned on and off via the Record menu, giving the S20 zoom capabilities up to 8x. While digital zoom always comes at the expense of image quality, in the form of significantly reduced image resolution, the higher CCD resolution of the S20 means that larger digital zoom images can be produced with less degradation than would be the case in lower-resolution cameras. A quick word of explanation: "Digital Zoom" just crops-out the central portion of the CCD array, and expands the resulting data to fit whatever file size you've selected. Given that the base resolution of the S20 is 2048 x 1536, a 2x digital zoom will still produce an uninterpolated 1024x768 image. Likewise, you can go all the way to 4x digital zoom, and still get a fairly sharp image at 640x480 image size.
The way the digital zoom works on the S20 is the same as on the S10, and sufficiently different from most digicams that it deserves some explanation. On most digicams, digital zoom works fairly independently of the optical zoom: You set the option, and the subject's image suddenly jumps to 2x or 4x its previous size in the LCD viewfinder. The S20 (and earlier S10) work much more the way an uninitiated person would expect them to: With the Digital Zoom option enabled, you control it entirely via the rocker-toggle zoom control, and you have a smooth, continuous range of magnifications available to you. The way this works (going from wide to telephoto, for instance) is that the lens will first cover its 2x optical range. Once the optical zoom reaches its 2x limit, there's a pause, while the lens racks back to its wide-angle position, and the 2x digital zoom cuts in. When this happens, there's no visible change in the viewfinder display, but the camera is now operating in 2x digital zoom mode, with the lens set to wide angle. Continued zooming runs the lens out to its telephoto position, now resulting in a total of 4x magnification (2x optical and 2x digital). If you continue to zoom, the process repeats itself, the lens racking back to the wide-angle position, and the digital zoom jumping to 4x. In this way, you have a continuous zoom range of 8x (2x optical times 4x digital), but as noted earlier, the digital zoom trades off resolution directly for magnification. Still, a very intuitive interface, and the pause as the lens changes settings provides a good cue that you're switching to digital zoom.
The telescoping lens design means the S20 can't accept threaded accessory lenses, but there's fortunately an excellent third-party solution, available from CKC Power. This machined, anodized aluminum bracket screws into the tripod socket, and provides 37mm filter threads directly in front of the lens. (A sample is shown above attached to the camera, holding a 2x telephoto adapter lens.) When screwed on, it's quite secure, and has the added advantage of protecting the extended lens from bumps and knocks. (It of course adds to the cameras bulk, but could easily be carried off-camera in another pocket. A very nicely-made accessory, and one we think should be standard equipment for all S20 owners. (But then we have a freely-admitted fetish for macro lenses and other optical accessories that may not be shared with more "normal" photography enthusiasts...) We don't normally review third-party accessories as part of our camera reviews, but the CKC Power lens adapter for the S20 fills a gap in the basic camera design, by permitting the use of accessory optics. Very highly recommended!
Optically, the lens is of very good quality, showing moderate (0.61%) barrel distortion at its wide angle setting, and slight (0.31%) pincushion distortion at the telephoto end of its range. In another measure of lens quality, the S20's lens shows almost no chromatic aberration (the tendency for a lens to produce colored fringes on objects at the edges of the frame). At wide angle, chromatic aberration is quite low, with just a little color showing around elements in the corners of our resolution target, and almost none at all in telephoto mode. Overall, the S20's lens seems to be of unusually high quality.
Exposure
We experienced good exposure control on the S20, and appreciated the variety of capture options available, although the tweaky techno-photographer in us yearned for direct aperture and shutter speed control. The relatively straightforward Automatic mode puts the camera in charge of all settings except flash (which you can only turn on or off), macro and the self-timer. Switching into Manual mode gives you control over metering mode (center-weighted or spot), exposure compensation (EV), white balance, ISO, sharpness, contrast, etc. Somewhat oddly, Auto mode doesn't allow you to select different image size/quality settings, but apparently always defaults to Large/Normal quality. The Image capture mode gives you a choice of preset shooting settings, including Landscape, Fast Shutter, Slow Shutter, Night Scene and Black & White. There's also a Stitch Assist mode, which helps you compose panoramic shots. (Stitch assist helps align the separate images that will make up the panorama, and fixes exposure based on the first image in the series. The individual images must subsequently be stitched together in the computer with the PhotoStitch application.)
The S20's manual is rather sketchy on just what the Image capture mode options do. Fast and slow shutter are fairly obvious: Within the constraints of available light, these set the shutter speed to the fastest or slowest available. (As governed by the range of available lens apertures.) Besides the obvious effect on shutter speed (fast shutter for sports, slow shutter for deliberate motion-blurs), you can also use these settings for their effect on aperture (fast shutter = large aperture = less depth of field, slow shutter = small aperture = greater depth of field). Night Scene mode appears to extend the maximum exposure time downward to 2 seconds, and simultaneously adjusts the camera so as to reduce its tendency to blow-out bright foreground objects. Black and White mode is fairly self-explanatory, although it bears mentioning that the monochrome images it produces are still full RGB files, so the file size isn't reduced as you might expect. Finally, we're a little puzzled by Landscape mode, as it didn't seem to have any obvious effect on the image. (The manual just says "for recording broad expanses of scenery".) We expected this would be a mode that biased the exposure system toward smaller apertures for greater depth of field, but this didn't appear to be the case.
The variable ISO is controlled via adjustments available through the Gain setting in the Record menu. Options include zero (ISO 100), +1 (ISO 200) and +2 (ISO 400). Oddly, the boosted ISO values don't seem to contribute to lower usable light levels, but rather just to faster shutter speeds at whatever light level you're currently shooting at. Although you don't have any control over shutter speed or aperture settings, the S20 offers shutter speeds from two to 1/1,000 seconds and aperture ranges from f/2.8-f/4.0 (wide to tele) to f/8.0. (Our unit would only go to two seconds in slow-shutter mode, not in normal or Night Mode. This may have been a defect with our specific unit though.) The camera doesn't report either shutter speed or aperture to you, something we'd at least like to see an option for. Shutter speed appears to vary in approximately 1/2-stop increments, and the lens aperture appears to have about 6 available aperture settings over the range from f/2.8 to f/8.0. (We were a bit puzzled how the camera gets the 1/3 EV exposure increments with aperture and shutter values that vary in 1/2 EV steps. It seems it may actually make fine adjustments with the internal gain setting...) White balance is controlled by a separate white balance button, with options for Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten and Fluorescent white values. Through the same button, exposure compensation can be adjusted from -2 to +2 EV in 1/3 EV increments. A 10 second self-timer is controlled by the self-timer button on the back panel and activated when the shutter button is fully pressed (the LED on the front of the camera blinks slowly for the first eight seconds, then speeds up for the remaining two). We appreciated the fact that the control arrangement of the S20 allows the self-timer to be used in the camera's macro mode: This is very handy for reducing camera jiggle when using a tripod or macro stand for macro work.
The S20 also gives you the option of center-weighted or spot metering, via the Set button on the back panel. Center-weighted averages the light readings from a large area in the center of the composition while spot takes a reading from dead center. Spot metering is available only in Manual mode, and then only when the LCD display is being used as the viewfinder. (A small square outline lights up on the LCD display to indicate the exact area being used to calculate exposure from.)

Flash
The S20's built-in flash offers four modes of operation (Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, On and Off) and ranges from 6.7 inches to 10.8 feet (17cm to 3.3m) in wide angle and 6.7 inches to 7.5 feet (17cm to 2.3m) in telephoto. Flash metering is actually performed through the lens, not via a separate sensor on the front of the camera. It's therefore likely to be more accurate, particularly as the lens zooms from wide angle to telephoto.
Continuous Shooting Mode
Controlled by the same button that activates the self-timer option, the S20 features a continuous shooting mode which captures approximately 1.7 images per second, depending on the amount of space on the CompactFlash card and in buffer memory (the interval increases drastically once the buffer fills). In this mode, the camera shoots continuously until the shutter button is released.
Stitch Assist Mode
The S20's software includes a very capable image-stitching application that lets you combine multiple images into a single larger one. You can stitch images horizontally, vertically, or even in a 2x2 matrix for "super" resolution. The S20 supports this use through a special exposure mode called "Stitch Assist." When you enter stitch assist mode, the LCD viewfinder turns on and splits into a double display. You can select the direction you want to shoot your pictures in via the left and right arrow keys on the rocker control. Once you snap the first picture, a copy of it remains on-screen, and the "live" portion of the viewfinder switches, so you can see to align the two images with each other. The photos above right show how this works, the first one showing the original image we're shooting, and the second one the screen as we're about to snap the second exposure, with the two images lined up. Overall, this is one of the nicest panorama-assist modes we've seen on a digicam.


Mysterious Purple Problem? - An easy fix!
While we didn't see it to a significant extent it in our own testing, several readers have written in to report a tendency in the S20 to produce rather purplish skies. (We apparently missed the problem on our first go-round because we'd just switched to version 5.5 of Adobe's Photoshop(tm) for our picture analysis, and the color-management settings in v5.5 masked the problem to a large extent. - Thanks to reader Greg Sullivan for helping us track down this problem!) When we first heard of the issue, it struck us as an ideal application of our favorite image-adjusting tool PhotoGenetics. Reader Jeff Schaefer was kind enough to share a couple of his photos with us, to demonstrate the color bias and the PhotoGenetics "fix" with. (Noted internet personality and megastar "Ryan" also graciously donated his presence.) Click on either image to see a larger view, visit Jeff's page for more examples.)

We've always been keen on PhotoGenetics as the "$30 camera upgrade," but even we were surprised by just how trivially it deals with a selective-color problem of this sort. We fiddled around for quite a while in the basic PhotoGenetics program, and ended up with fixes that would work for one photo, but not others. When we tried the "Isocolor" plug-in though, we were frankly amazed by how quickly we got a "genotype" that could be applied to pretty much everything with good results! (The Isocolor plug-in lets you make changes to specific colors in an image, without affecting the image as a whole. It costs an extra $14.95 beyond the base price of PhotoGenetics.) The photos above and below show the results of a PhotoGenetics "genotype" that took us all of about 30 seconds to develop. The best part is that once you have a genotype like this, you can batch-apply it to all your photos in mere seconds. Really phenomenal: In our view, for $45, PhotoGenetics and the Isocolor plug-in turn a great digicam (the S20) into a truly outstanding one! (Frankly, with PhotoGenetics, an easily-corrected color problem like the one shown here should be no reason to bypass anotherwise excellent digicam.)

We review PhotoGenetics elsewhere on this site, but make available here a copy of our S20 isocolor fix for free download. All you should have to do is click on this link, and then tell your browser that you want to save the file to disk. Visit our PhotoGenetics review & click through the link at the bottom to download a free evaluation copy of the program, crop our S20 fix into the "Genotypes" folder, and you're all set to go! If you decide to purchase PhotoGenetics, click-back through the link at the bottom of our review, and you'll get a $5 discount.

Shutter Lag/Cycle Times
When you press the shutter release on a camera, there's usually a delay or lag time before the shutter actually fires. This allows the autofocus and autoexposure mechanisms time to do their work and can amount to a fairly long delay in some situations. Since this number is almost never reported on, and can significantly affect the picture taking experience, we now routinely measure it with a custom electronic test setup.
On the S20, we found the shutter lag time with full auto focus to be about 1.3 seconds. Alternatively, shutter lag with prefocus (a half press of the shutter button before the actual exposure itself) is only 0.25 seconds. The time for full autofocus is a bit slower than much of the competition, while the prefocused time is a bit better than average.
The camera obviously has some buffer memory, as the first three shots in high-res mode are much faster than the subsequent ones. We found the shot-to-shot cycle time at the maximum resolution and image quality setting to be about 4.0 seconds for first three shots of a rapid fire series. The time then increased to 7.0 seconds for all succeeding ones. It seems like the camera is continuously emptying out the buffer memory as you prepare for the next shot. So, if you wait more than 10 or 15 seconds after the last shot, you'll be able to shoot another three in rapid succession. In the lower resolution settings, the minimum shot-to-shot cycle time is about 3.0 seconds, but you can shoot proportionately more frames before you run out of buffer memory. Shot-to-shot cycle times in the Continuous Shooting mode are 2.0 seconds in the lowest quality mode.
The S20 takes about 2.2 seconds to start up and about 2.5 seconds to shut down. Going from Record to Playback mode took an average of 2.7 seconds while flipping back from Playback into Record mode took around 2.5 seconds. The record-to-play delay would be vexing were it not for the very handy indefinite review option we mentioned earlier, obtained simply by holding down the shutter button after the exposure.
User Interface
The S20 features a well laid-out, uncomplicated user interface, although some LCD menu navigation was slightly confusing (arrow buttons navigate between menu options but you have to remember to hit the Set button to select an option). This was only an occasional issue, as most of the settings just assume whatever state you left them in as you leave the menu option. We are glad to report that one-handed operation is indeed possible, thanks to the small size of the camera body. We're also glad to see the use of the mode dial and rocker toggle button, which make accessing camera settings so much simpler.

Shutter Button: Located on the top right of the camera and silvery smooth, a half press sets the exposure and focus while a full press fires the shutter. Holding down the shutter button after an exposure displays the just-captured picture on the LCD screen.

Mode Dial: Also located on the top right of the camera, the dial is silver and ribbed for easy turning. This dial controls the mode of the camera with the following choices:


Rocker Toggle Button: Located on the top right hand side of the back panel of the camera, marked with arrows in four directions and telephoto and wide angle indicators. In Playback and all capture modes, this button navigates through each of the settings menus. In all capture modes, this button activates the optical zoom function via the up and down arrows. In Automatic, Manual and Image capture modes, this button controls the digital zoom function (up and down arrows) once the end of the optical telephoto range is reached. In Playback mode, the right and left arrows scroll through recorded images while all four arrows move around an enlarged image when playback zoom is activated.

Macro / Jump Button: Located in the top middle of the back panel, this button turns the macro function on and off in all capture modes. In Playback mode, it turns on the jump function which allows you to jump ahead nine images (i.e., from the first to the tenth and so on).

Continuous / Self-Timer / Magnification Button: Located to the left of the optical viewfinder on the back panel, this button cycles through the Self-Timer and Continuous Shooting options in all capture modes. In Playback mode, it allows you to zoom into a recorded image to check fine details and framing.

Flash / Multi Button: Located to the left of the Continuous / Self-Timer / Magnification Button, this button cycles through the available flash modes while in any capture mode. In Playback mode, it turns the nine-image index display on and off.

+/- / WB Button: Located beneath the Macro/Jump button, to the right of the LCD monitor, this button cycles between the exposure compensation (EV) settings bar and the white balance settings bar in Manual, Image and Stitch Assist capture modes.

Menu Rocker Button: Located beneath the +/- / WB button, this button accesses and dismisses the settings menus in Playback and all four capture modes.
Set Rocker Button: Located on the bottom of the Menu button, this button confirms menu selections in all settings menus. In Manual capture mode, this button allows you to select between spot and center-weighted metering options.

Display: Located beneath the Menu/Set Rocker Button, this button controls the LCD monitor and information display in all capture modes. One press turns on the image, another turns on the information display, and a third turns off both. In Playback mode, it shows the exposure information about the selected image.

CF Open Slide Switch: Located beneath the rocker toggle button, this switch opens the hatch covering the CompactFlash slot.
Camera Modes and Menus
Stitch Assist Mode: Accessed by turning the mode dial to the red stitch assist symbol, this mode allows you to take multi-frame shots for panorama images to be assembled later with the included PhotoStitch software. When the mode dial is set to stitch assist mode, the LCD automatically turns on, and displays one of five different viewfinder setups, letting you stitch images from right to left, left to right, up to down, down to up, or in a 2x2 array. These displays show both the previous image, and the one currently being shot, as an aid to aligning the camera properly. One such display is shown above right. Pressing the Menu button in this mode pulls up the following options under the Record Menu:

Scrolling to the top of the Record menu screen and over to the right accesses the Camera Setup Menu with the following options:

Image Mode: Accessed by turning the mode dial to the word 'Image' in red letters, this mode allows you to select from the following preset exposure settings:

Pressing the Menu button in this mode gives the following options under the Record Menu:

While in the Record Menu, scrolling up to the top of the screen and over to the right pulls up the Camera Setup Menu, with the same options as delineated under the Stitch-Assist capture mode.
Manual Mode: Accessed by turning the mode dial to the red camera symbol denoted with an ‘m,' Manual capture mode gives you some control over exposure compensation (EV) and white balance in addition to a few other settings. Pressing the Menu button in this mode pulls up the Record and Camera Setup Menus with the following options:

Scrolling up and over to the Camera Setup Menu gives the same options as stated earlier.
Automatic Mode: Accessed by turning the mode dial to the lone red camera symbol, this setting gives the camera complete control over exposure with the exception of flash, self-timer and macro. Pressing the Menu button in this mode pulls up the Record and Camera Setup Menus with these options:

Scrolling up and over to the Camera Setup Menu pulls up the same setup menu.
Playback Mode: Accessed by turning the mode dial to the blue playback symbol, this mode allows you to review, write protect and erase captured images. Pressing the Menu button brings up the Play and Camera Settings Menus with these options:

Scrolling up and over to the Camera Setting Menu pulls up the same options as in the other modes.
PC Mode: Accessed by turning the mode dial to the black data transfer symbol, this mode allows you to connect the camera to your computer and download images.

Image Storage and Interface
The S20 utilizes CompactFlash (Type I and II) memory cards as its image storage medium, which should never be removed from the camera while in use. (Removing a card while the camera is still writing to it could cause permanent damage to the card.) A 16MB card comes with the camera, but upgrades are available to 30MB and 48MB from Canon, and as large as 224MB from third parties, or even 340MB in the form of the IBM MicroDrive. The S20 organizes images into storage folders, assigned numbers from 100 to 998. Within each folder, images are numbered from 0001 to 9900 and stored in a folder containing up to 100 files. Note that images shot together in Stitch Assist mode are always kept together in the same folder, possibly resulting in some folders having 101 or more files.
You can protect individual images on the CompactFlash card through the Play menu in Playback mode. This prevents accidental erasure of images (except from erasure through card formatting). If you want to erase images, the Play Menu offers a Single Erase and Erase All option.
Below are the approximate compression ratios and maximum images for a 16MB card:

 

Image Capacity vs
Resolution/Quality
Super Fine
Fine
Normal
High Resolution Images 6 16 31
Approx.
Compression
4:1 8:1 18:1
Medium Resolution Images 17 44 82
Approx.
Compression
2:1 6:1 12:1
Low Resolution Images 36 94 176
Approx.
Compression
3:1 5:1 10:1



Video Out
An NTSC video cable comes packaged with the S20, allowing you to connect the camera to your television set for image playback or composition. All modes except Stitch Assist are available and the LCD monitor remains blank while the camera is connected to the TV. We assume that European models come with the appropriate cables for the PAL system.
Power
The S20 utilizes either a 2CR5 lithium battery or a nickel-hydride NB-5H battery pack plus a CR2016 lithium battery for the internal date and time backup. The camera comes with one 2CR5 battery, but we highly, highly recommend buying the optional DK-110 NiMH battery/charger kit: Don't even *think* about buying this camera without the rechargeable battery, you'll go broke buying lithium batteries! (Although a lithium battery in your camera bag is a great backup power source, since they don't lose capacity when not used, even after years of shelf time.) The power supply accessory kit also serves as the AC adapter for the camera. Canon estimates that the NB-5H, under normal shooting conditions, should provide approximately 55 shots with the LCD monitor on, around 230 with it off or about 50 minutes of image playback time. These numbers roughly agree with our own power-consumption testing, based on a nominal power capacity of 650 mAh for the NB-5H pack. Overall, the S20 is a somewhat toward the power-hungry end of the digicam spectrum, but not unreasonably so. As always, we recommend buying not just the rechargeable battery set, but a second battery if at all possible. (This recommendation is one we make to all digicam purchasers, not just S20 owners.)
Here's how the S20 measured up in our power tests:



Operating Mode
Power Drain
Capture Mode, w/LCD
840 mA
Capture Mode, no LCD
120 mA
Half-pressed shutter w/LCD
1080 mA
Half-pressed w/o LCD
780 mA
Memory Write (transient)
1090 mA
Flash Recharge (transient)
1020 mA
Image Playback
500 mA


Included Software

Learn what the manual left out -
How to *use* your camera.

Camera manuals are (sometimes) fine for knowing which button does what, but where do you go to learn how and when to use the various features? Dennis Curtin's "Shortcourses" books and CDs are the answer. (Cheap for what you get, too.) Order the Shortcourses manual for the camera reviewed in this article.
When you're ready to download captured images to your computer, the S20 can accommodate both PC and Mac users with the accompanying serial and USB cables. The included software CDs feature Canon's PowerShot software, PhotoStitch, and a copy of Adobe PhotoDeluxe, compatible with Windows 95, 98 or NT 4.0 and Macintosh OS 7.5 or higher. The PowerShot application simply allows you to download and organize captured images. PhotoStitch supports any panorama shots taken with the S20 and automatically ‘stitches' them together into one shot. Once you've downloaded your images, you can perform any minor corrections with Adobe PhotoDeluxe. PhotoDeluxe also provides a nice variety of creative filters for digitally enhancing images, such as applying a painterly effect or reversing the image to negative values. There are also a number of templates for things like greeting cards and calendars.
Test Results
In keeping with our standard policy, our comments here are rather condensed, summarizing our key findings: For a full commentary on each of the test images, see the Powershot S20's "pictures" page.
As with all Imaging Resource camera tests, we encourage you to let your own eyes be the judge of how well the devices performed: Explore the images on the pictures page, to see how well the S20 performed, and how its images compare to other cameras you may be considering buying.
Besides its small size and rugged body, the thing that most impressed us about the Powershot S20 was its exceptional resolution: We were expecting a good performance, due to the excellent detail it showed in some of our "natural" test targets, and in the very delicate in-camera sharpening it applied. We were frankly surprised though, when we saw just how well it performed in the laboratory resolution test. We were impressed with the resolution of some of the other 3 megapixel cameras we tested prior to the S20, most notably the Nikon Coolpix 990, but the S20 clearly has even the Coolpix beat in the resolution department. The S20's resolution appears to exceed what should be possible, based solely on its pixel count, a fact we attribute to its excellent suppression of artifacts. We "called" the S20's resolution as 900 lines per picture height in the horizontal direction, and 850-900 in the vertical, with detail visible in both directions as far out as 1000 lines. The lens also shows virtually no falloff of sharpness in the corners of the image, something we've become accustomed to seeing to one degree or another in most digicam images. As is commonly the case, sharpness at telephoto was slightly less than at wide angle, but the falloff really wasn't terribly significant. Really an exceptional performance!
Beyond the excellent resolution, detail, and sharpness, the S20's pictures showed pleasing color and saturation (neither over- nor under-saturated). It handled the difficult blues in our outdoor portrait test quite well, and generally had accurate color overall. The only fault we found in the color rendition was a tendency for strong highlights to go slightly magenta, the green channel dropping by about 2% relative to the red and blue. One reader had commented on this tendency in a unit he purchased, but we didn't find the amount of magenta in the highlights from our test unit objectionable. (Check the test images yourself, YMMV - Your Mileage May Vary.)
A further note to the above, added at the last minute: While we saw only the barest hints of it, some S20 owners have reported a tendency to shift bright blue colors markedly toward purple. We saw just the slightest tendency toward purple in the sky of our own outdoor shots, but feel we should also refer readers to this page, which shows several samples of images with rather purplish skies. That said, this is an absolutely tailor-made application for our favorite image-adjusting program PhotoGenetics: It's "IsoColor Evolution" function can develop a standardized correction for color problems of this sort, that you can then batch-apply to all your images. Although we didn't encounter the purple/blue problem to any significant extent in our own testing, we highly recommend the $45 PhotoGenetics program ($30 for the program, $15 for the IsoColor plug-in) to prospective S20 owners!
We would have liked to see more exposure control (such as aperture-priority and shutter-priority exposure modes, preferably even full manual), but that may not be as big an issue for a camera such as the S20, obviously aimed at the bring-it-anywhere recreational shooter rather than the technically-oriented enthusiast. (It does provide "action" and "slow shutter" modes that correspond to wide aperture/fast shutter/shallow depth of field and small aperture/slow shutter/greater depth of field respectively. This will cover many situations that would normally lead one to use either aperture- or shutter-priority metering.) Automatic exposure was quite accurate, with the default exposure being closer to correct on the outdoor/bright sun shots than most cameras we've tested.
One area we'd really like to see improved in the S20 is low-light shooting: It's adequate down to light levels you'd typically encounter at night under bright streetlights (1 footcandle), but we think at least another f-stop of speed would be helpful. (It's possible that production models may do better in this respect than the unit we tested, which had a maximum of 1 second exposure time in normal operating modes. The manual claims 2 second exposures for Night Mode, which would yield the extra factor of two in low-light we were looking for.) Three big positives about the S20's performance under dim lighting: 1) It has an autofocus-assist light, so it can focus in total darkness. 2) It isn't subject to the extreme color shifts at very low light levels we've seen in other cameras. 3) At moderate light levels (residential interiors), its incandescent white balance is a good bit better than most, producing well-balanced images with accurate color.
Another area with at least some room for improvement is the S20's optical viewfinder, as the current design only shows 76% of the final image area. Fortunately, the LCD viewfinder gives about 95% coverage, so you can look to it for critical framing.
The S20 performed well in Macro mode, with a minimum coverage area of 2.86 x 2.14 inches (72.63 x 54.47 mm). This is about average among digicams we've tested.
As a bottom line to our tests, the S20 delivered exceptional resolution and sharpness across the full frame (it has a great lens), with very good color and tonal rendition, in an exceptionally compact package.
Conclusion
With the S20, Canon kept the sleek, sophisticated, compact styling of the S10 and added a 3.3 megapixel CCD capable of delivering a much larger image resolution size (2048 x 1536). They also gave it an exceptionally sharp lens to match the sensor's resolution (producing the highest resolution we've measured on a digicam to date, as of late March, 2000). We found its color to be very good as well, both hue-accurate and properly saturated. (Neither over-bright nor dull.) While it lacks traditional aperture- and shutter-priority metering modes, much the same effects can be achieved through the "Fast Shutter" and "Slow Shutter" exposure modes. Overall, a great camera and a great extension of Canon's "Elph-like" digicam line. Highly recommended!

<<PowerShot S20 Sample Images | Additional Resources and Other Links>>

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