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Canon PowerShot S300

Canon makes a major update to their original S100 "Digital ELPH": More zoom, more controls, and better photos. Hard to beat!

Review First Posted: 4/5/2001



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MSRP $699 US

 

*
2.1-megapixel CCD for 1600 x 1200-pixel images.
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3x telescoping zoom lens (35-105mm equivalent).
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Same superior build quality, with all-metal body.
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Significantly improved image quality, excellent color.


Manufacturer Overview
Canon U.S.A. has become a strong contender in the digital market over the last two and a half years, developing a broad line of digital cameras, all designed and engineered to live up to the high standards Canon's known for in the film world. Last year saw its introduction of several innovative consumer-level cameras, as well as the extraordinary EOS D30 digital SLR. In the "prosumer" realm, the 3.3 megapixel G1 gladdened the hearts of many of the Canon faithful, providing a "no excuses" high-end design with all the features serious enthusiasts look for in digicam hardware. Finally, the diminutive PowerShot S100, also called the "Digital ELPH" set a new standard of portability and ruggedness for ultra-compact digicams.

Roughly a year after the introduction of the original S100, Canon's revamped the design, making a number of significant improvements. The lens has been increased from a 2x to a 3x zoom, a "mode dial"on the camera's top and an added button on the back panel make for easier camera operation, improved macro focusing range, more options for image size and quality, all in an only slightly larger & heavier package. At the same time, to our eye, image quality has noticeably improved, with better sharpness and color rendition. Overall, a very impressive little camera that trades off virtually nothing in image quality, functionality, or speed to achieve it's tiny size.


High Points



Executive Overview
The Canon PowerShot S300 Digital ELPH camera continues the definitive styling and tiny size of the popular ELPH line. Small and extremely light weight, the S300 is very portable with a smooth, sleek design that allows the camera to glide right into most shirt pockets. With a similar design to the previous S100 model, the S300 offers a slightly different control layout and a couple of added external controls (namely the Exposure Compensation / White Balance button and a Mode dial). The S300 features a well designed, retractable lens with a built-in, sliding lens cover (no lens cap hassles!), that keeps the camera's surface smooth with no protrusions when the lens is fully retracted. Its all-metal case design represents some of the highest "build quality" we've seen yet in a digicam, and it feels very solid and substantial in the user's hand. All the main controls are on the back panel of the camera, with the exception of the Mode dial, power and shutter buttons. A small, recessed thumb grip on the back gives you a nice, firm hold, and a wrist strap provides easy toting.

An optical and LCD viewfinder are both located on the back of the camera. The optical viewfinder features a pair of LEDs that inform you of the camera's status, while a central autofocus target inside the viewfinder helps you line up shots. The LCD viewfinder can be turned on and off with an adjacent button and features a 1.5 inch screen with a low temperature polysilicon, TFT color display (essentially meaning that the LCD monitor has a very sharp display).

The Canon 5.4-16.2mm 3x zoom lens (35-105mm equivalent) offers a maximum aperture ranging from f/2.8-f/4.7, depending on the zoom setting. Focus ranges from 2.5 feet (76cm) to infinity in normal mode and from 6.3 inches to 2.5 feet (16-76cm) in Macro mode. A TTL autofocus function utilizes an efficient AiAF (artificial intelligence autofocus) system which evaluates a broad field in the center of the image for more accurate focusing. There's also an Infinity Focus mode (controlled by the Macro/Infinity button) that quickly sets focus at infinity for fast shooting. The optical zoom lens is controlled by the Zoom lever on the back panel, and an optional 2.5x digital zoom function can be engaged by zooming past the optical telephoto range.

The S300's controls are very easy to operate: A mode dial on top of the camera selects from among the major operating modes of the camera, with options of Playback, Automatic Exposure, Manual Exposure, Stitch Assist, and Movie modes. A good complement of rear-panel controls let you control the most frequently-used camera functions without having to resort to the LCD menu system, a feature we always look for. (In particular, the exposure compensation and white balance adjustment functions now appear on a rear-panel button: On the earlier S100, these were menu items, and therefore much slower to access.) Once in the menu system, the menu options are very clear and easy to understand, with a nice balance of icons and text. The camera has a "shooting priority" design philosophy, which means that you can pretty much always take a shot just by pressing the shutter button, regardless of where you are in the menu system. This is a great feature, as it makes it much less likely that you'll miss a shot because you're fiddling about in a menu screen.

As for it's major exposure modes, Automatic exposure mode places the camera in charge of all exposure decisions, except for flash mode, macro mode, the self-timer, and Continuous Shooting. Alternatively, Manual mode allows you to adjust things such as white balance and exposure compensation (EV) through a menu system employing the LCD screen and rear-panel controls. (No aperture priority or shutter priority metering options are offered though.) Stitch Assist (panoramic) mode allows you to capture a series of images to be "stitched" together as one panoramic shot with the accompanying software, and Movie mode records up to 30 second movie clips with sound. Aperture and shutter speed are controlled automatically in all modes. The Self-timer and Continuous Shooting options are available in most exposure modes, via the back-panel buttons. The built-in flash offers five settings (Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Forced On, Forced Off, and Slow-Sync). White balance offers six settings (Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Incandescent, Fluorescent, and Black & White), and exposure compensation (EV) is adjustable from –2 to +2 in 1/3 EV (f-stop) units. The self-timer gives a 10 second delay with a flashing LED countdown before the shutter fires and the Continuous Shooting mode allows you to shoot approximately 2.5 frames per second, depending on available memory space and the image quality setting.

Images are stored on CompactFlash type I memory cards (an 8MB card comes with the camera) with quality choices of SuperFine, Fine, and Normal, and image sizes of 1,600 x 1,200, 1,024 x 768, and 640 x 480.

An included A/V cable allows you to connect to a television set for image playback and composition, and a USB cable provides high speed connection to a computer. Two software CDs come with the camera and provide Canon's Solution Disk software for image downloading and stitching together panoramic images, as well as a Remote Capture program that controls the camera from the computer. Additionally, ArcSoft's PhotoImpression provides tools for image correction, manipulation, and a variety of fun templates and filters, and a copy of ArcSoft VideoImpression provides minor video editing capabilities. All software packages are compatible with both Windows and Macintosh operating systems.

Power for the S300 is provided by a LiIon rechargeable battery, which is included in the box, along with a plug-in charger. US models do not come with an AC adapter cable though, so battery power is your only option.

Overall, we were very impressed with the S300: It's more than just a worthy follow-on to the previous S100, but rather takes the whole field of ultra-portable digital cameras to a new level. Really an excellent design job by Canon's engineers!


Design



Like the PowerShot S100 Digital ELPH before it, the PowerShot S300 Digital ELPH maintains the tiny dimensions that have made the ELPH line so popular. The S300 is as portable as they come, with an exceptionally rugged, all-metal body that should stand up to heavy use. The retracting lens features a smart design that keeps the camera front completely flat when the camera is off, making it a perfect fit for the smallest of pockets, while an automatic metal lens cover means you don't have to worry about smudging the lens or losing the lens cap. The S300 measures 3.7 x 2.5 x 1.2 inches (94.8 x 62.5 x 29.9mm) and weighs in at a mere 8.5 ounces (240g) excluding the battery, which is just a tiny bit larger and heavier than the S100 (but not enough to make much of a difference at all). The photo inset right shows you just how small the S300 is: Here, it's almost entirely hidden behind a standard playing card!



The front of the S300 reveals the distinctive ELPH styling, with the lens off-center slightly toward the right, and viewfinder, flash, and focus-assist illuminator windows just above it. The focus-assist light is in the middle, a bright, bluish-white LED that helps the camera focus in low light levels. The raised lettering of the Canon logo and a small grip give your fingers something to cling to as they wrap around the camera.



The Mode dial, Shutter button, and Power button are all on top of the camera, each with a sunken position that maintains the S300's sleek design. There's also a tiny microphone for recording sound with movies.



On the right side of the camera (when looking at the back panel) are the wrist strap attachment and the CompactFlash slot, the latter of which fits securely beneath a locking plastic door.



The opposite side of the camera simply holds the USB and A/V output jacks, which are protected by a snug rubber cover. This cover seems to do a good job of protecting the ports, but it sticks out a little on the otherwise very sleek case, and we also worry a bit about flexible flaps like this breaking over time.



The remaining camera controls live on the back panel, along with the optical and LCD viewfinders. A small, textured thumb grip provides a relatively secure hold on the camera and gives a good grip for one-handed operation (for small to medium hands, those with larger hands may have a little difficulty negotiating the controls, which are a little close together). The S300 features slightly more external control than the S100 offered, now allowing you to change white balance and exposure compensation with a press of a button (instead of treating it as a menu option). As we mentioned earlier, we view the increased accessibility of the exposure compensation and white balance adjustments to be a significant user interface improvement: In our experience, these adjustments are used very frequently, so moving them out of the menu system onto a separate rear-panel button is a big plus.



The S300 features a nice, flat bottom, which holds the metal tripod mount and battery compartment. We don't usually like to see the tripod mount so far over to the side of the camera because the weight of the camera, placed off-center on the tripod head, can overly stress the mount threads. Given the S300's tiny size and the solid metal tripod socket (kudos for that), this may not be a concern. One consequence of having the tripod socket so close to the edge though, is that the camera may not rest level on some tripod heads. (Again, a minor concern, since you can usually just tilt the tripod to align the camera however you'd like.) The locking battery compartment cover slides open and then outwards, with a small, rubber flap in the center of the compartment door. This flap covers a hole in the battery compartment cover provided to allow access to the connector jack in the "dummy battery" used in the AC adapter kit. (Like many other Canon digicams, the S300's AC adapter scheme employs a dummy battery that fits into the battery compartment, and which provides a plug for the AC power converter's cable.)


Viewfinder
Both an optical viewfinder and an LCD monitor bedeck the S300. The real image optical viewfinder is just left of center on the back panel and features center target marks for autofocus and exposure. No parallax correction marks are provided for closeup shooting. The optical viewfinder has a reasonably high eyepoint, which should accommodate most eyeglass wearers, but the camera's small size precluded the provision of a diopter adjustment. Two LEDs on the left of the viewfinder report the camera's current status. For example, when Macro mode is enabled, the bottom LED lights solid yellow. The top LED lights green when focus and exposure are set. A flashing green LED indicates that the camera is accessing the CompactFlash card. If the top LED lights orange, the flash is fully charged and ready to fire, while a flashing orange LED warns that a slow shutter speed is in use and to keep the camera still.

The 1.5 inch, low temperature, polycrystalline silicon, TFT LCD monitor comes on automatically when the camera is turned on, but can be canceled by pressing the Display button (you can also set it to remain off when the camera is powered on, simply by turning the LCD monitor off before turning the camera off). The LCD monitor displays a variety of camera information such as the white balance setting, flash mode, the number of available images, image quality, and others (this display will actually turn itself off after a few seconds, but can be recalled by pressing the Display button twice or by pressing any of the control buttons). In Playback mode, the LCD monitor offers both a multi-image index display mode and a playback zoom for close-up examination of captured images.

An Instant Review function is controlled through the Record menu, which automatically displays the last captured image on the LCD monitor as it's being recorded to the CompactFlash card. You can set the review time to two or 10 seconds, and you have the opportunity to instantly delete the image. This is a nice feature for checking your exposure or framing. If you're not happy with the shot, simply erase it and start again. Like other record-mode camera functions, you can shoot again immediately by pressing the shutter button, even if the current "review" hasn't ended.

Despite its small size, we found the S300's LCD to be very sharp and readable, and it did exceptionally well under bright outdoor lighting as well. (Even in full sunlight.) Overall, it's one of the most readable LCD's we've seen yet on a digicam.

In our testing, the LCD viewfinder performed very well, showing just over 99% of the final image area at all focal lengths. Unfortunately, the optical viewfinder didn't fare nearly as well, showing only about 79% of the image area at the wide angle end of the lens' zoom range, and 84% at the telephoto end. An accuracy figure of 85% is fairly typical for optical viewfinders on digicams, so the S300's doesn't do too bad at the telephoto end of its range. We do feel it's a bit too "tight" at wide angle focal lengths however. (Personally, we like to see optical viewfinders with closer to 90% coverage, but 85% has been an accepted standard in the film-based point & shoot camera world for years.)


Optics
The S300 features a 3x, 5.4-16.2mm zoom lens (equivalent to a 35-105mm lens on a 35mm camera) with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 at full wide angle and f/4.7 at full telephoto. The AiAF (artificial intelligence autofocus) function uses a broad active area in the center of the image to calculate the focal distance and is very precise, especially with subjects slightly off center. (Which might be missed by more conventional autofocus designs.) In normal mode, focus ranges from 2.5 feet (76cm) to infinity, and from 6.3 inches to 2.5 feet (16-76cm) in macro mode. A bright LED autofocus assist light on the front of the camera helps the camera focus in low-light shooting situations, and we found it worked very well during our testing. (The camera can focus reasonably well, if not perfectly, in total darkness.) The bright, bluish-white light illuminates the subject briefly, allowing the camera to judge focus. Unlike some cameras with AF assist lights though, there's no option to disable the light on the S300. Given that there's no manual focus option on the S300, it may be immaterial whether the AF light can be disabled or not: With it turned off (for candid shots for instance), your only option would be poorly focused photos.

The lens on the S300 telescopes into position very quickly when the camera is turned on, but the overall time from power off to first shot captured is still about 4.2 seconds: The lens itself telescopes out in only just over a second, but there's about a one-second delay between pressing (and holding down) the power switch before the camera wakes up. (This was doubtless a deliberate design decision, to prevent the camera from being accidentally turned on by a brief impact in a pocket or purse.) After the lens has telescoped out, it seems to take the camera another two seconds or so to fully wake up, and snap the picture. The 4.2 second power-on time is still quite fast, but not nearly approaching the 1.1 seconds some reviewers have reported. (Which just corresponds to the actual lens-extension time.)

The S300's optical zoom is controlled by the Zoom rocker button on the camera's back panel, and provides a smooth zoom actuation, although the S300's lens seems to favor a number of specific focal lengths. This "preferred zoom" behavior is fairly common among cameras we've tested, and slightly annoying when you're trying for very precise framing. On the other hand, you can usually just step forward or back slightly to get things exactly right, so it isn't an insuperable obstacle. A digital telephoto feature enlarges images up to 7.5x, and is enabled by zooming past the optical zoom range with the Zoom rocker button activates the digital enlargement. The amount of digital enlargement is reported in the LCD display. As with any digital zoom function, remember that image quality suffers somewhat from the enlargement, with sharpness decreasing in direct proportion to the degree of digital zoom.

Macro mode is controlled by the Macro/Infinity Focus button on the back panel. One press sets the camera for macro photography and a second press sets the focus at infinity for far away subjects and panoramic shots. The third press puts the camera back into normal photography mode. The Infinity Focus mode is a nice plus, allowing a little faster shooting since the camera isn't having to determine focus. Infinity Focus is only available in the camera's "Manual" exposure mode.

In our testing, the S300's Canon-designed zoom lens seemed to be of very high optical quality, surprising in light of it's being shoehorned into such a tiny package. Geometric distortion was lower than average, showing 0.57% barrel distortion at the widest angle setting, and essentially no pincushion distortion at telephoto. Chromatic aberration is fairly low, although in an interesting way: The colored fringes around the black patterns on our resolution target extend for four or five pixels in the corners of the image. That broad a fringe would normally cause us to judge a lens poorly. What's different about the S300's optics though, is that the degree of coloration is quite slight, making the distortion pretty inconspicuous in most shots. At the telephoto setting, there are only about two pixels of even the faint color visible. In our resolution tests, the S300's lens produced very sharp, clear images, losing very little sharpness even in the corners of the frame. We begin to see aliasing in the test patterns at about 575 lines per picture height in both the horizontal and vertical directions, although detail is clearly visible all the way out to 700-800 lines. Significantly though, there's virtually no color aliasing present anywhere. All in all, the S300's lens does better than those of most full-sized digicams. Very impressive!


Exposure
We found the exposure control on the S300 pretty straightforward, as with the previous S100 model, with an improved LCD menu system that was less time consuming to navigate. The camera features Automatic and Manual basic exposure modes, Manual simply meaning that you have control over the image quality, exposure compensation, and white balance. The camera controls shutter speed and aperture in all exposure modes. Putting the camera in Automatic exposure mode means that the camera controls everything, with the exception of the self-timer, flash, capture, and macro modes. Exposure mode is controlled by the Mode dial on top of the camera, which also includes Stitch Assist (or panorama) and Movie modes (both described below). The S300's sensitivity setting is equivalent to ISO 100 and is not adjustable. However, in low-light shooting situations, the ISO equivalent automatically raises to 150. Shutter speeds on the S300 range from one to 1/1,500 seconds, which somewhat limits the camera's low-light shooting capabilities. In our testing though, we found the S300 produced bright, clear images at light levels as low as one foot-candle (11 lux), a level about equivalent to a city night scene under typical street lighting.

Camera operation is a breeze, as you just point and shoot most of the time, leaving the exposure decisions up to the camera itself. Halfway pressing the shutter button sets focus and exposure, and the small LEDs next to the optical viewfinder let you know when the camera is ready to take the picture. A number of the camera functions are controlled by individual control buttons on the back panel, but a few features require the LCD menu system. We always like to see as little reliance on the LCD monitor as possible, but the small size of the S300's back panel means some compromise is required, in order to leave enough room to grip the camera securely. Regardless, we found the LCD menu system very navigable, and it only took a glance at the manual to make sure we were on the right track.

The S300 uses a center weighted metering system, which means that the camera averages exposure values from a small area in the center of the image to determine the proper exposure. Although there is no adjustable AE/AF Lock function on the camera, the usual half-press of the shutter button serves as a simple exposure/focus lock option. (Here's how this works: Place the area you want to base the exposure on in the center of the field of view, halfway press and hold the shutter button to set the exposure and focus. Aim the camera to achieve the final framing while continuing to hold down the shutter button. Once you've framed the picture, just fully press the shutter button to capture your photo.) Exposure compensation is adjustable from -2 to +2 in 1/3 EV increments, in all modes except Automatic, simply by pressing the Exposure Compensation / White Balance button on the back panel.The first press of this button displays the EV scale on the LCD screen, with the setting controlled by the arrow buttons. A second press of the same button brings up the white balance screen. White balance options include Automatic, Daylight, Cloudy, Incandescent, Fluorescent, and Black & White (which records monochromatic images).

A 10 second self-timer option is accessible through the Continuous/Self-Timer button on the back panel and is available in all photography modes. Once in this mode, a half press of the shutter button sets focus and exposure, and a full press triggers the self-timer countdown. The timer will count down from 10 seconds by flashing a small LED on the front of the camera, which will accelerate at two seconds. The mode is canceled by simply pressing the Self-Timer button again or turning the camera off.


Flash
The built-in flash on the S300 offers five operating modes, all controlled by the Flash button on the back panel. The button cycles through Auto (lightning bolt icon with an "A"), Redeye Reduction (eyeball icon), Forced On (lightning bolt), Forced Off (lightning bolt with a slash), and Slow-synchro (person icon with a star). Auto, Forced On, and Forced Off are pretty self-explanatory. Red-eye Reduction means that the camera fires a small pre-flash before the full flash, to reduce the occurrence of the Red-eye Effect. The Slow-synchro mode times the flash with a slow shutter and is perfect for night subjects because it allows more ambient light into the image. All of the flash modes are available in Manual exposure mode, with a small assortment available in Automatic and Stitch Assist modes. The flash takes about 10 seconds to charge. The top LED next to the optical viewfinder glows orange when the flash is ready. Canon states that flash power ranges from 2.5-11.5 feet (76cm-3.5m) in normal wide angle mode, and from 2.5-6.6 feet (76cm-2m) in telephoto mode. In our tests, we found that the flash range was about 8 feet, with the lens partway between telephoto and wide angle. This range is shorter than that of many digicams, largely due to the somewhat "slow" maximum aperture of the lens when its set to full telephoto, and the diminutive body size, reducing the space available for a large flash capacitor. For the advanced amateurs out there interested in using a "slave" flash with the S300, we report that, although the flash looks like a "single pop" design to the naked eye, it does in fact use two very closely spaced flashes, so you'll need a special slave trigger to use with it. (You can find one at www.srelectronics.com.)

Movie Mode
A new feature on the S300 that wasn't previously available on the S100 is the Movie exposure mode. The S300 can record short movie clips with sound, with actual movie length depending on the resolution size. Movies are recorded at approximately 20 frames per second, with resolution sizes of 640 x 480, 320 x 240, and 160 x 120 available. Maximum recording times are four, 10, and 30 seconds, with the larger resolution size offering the shortest recording time. (This time may be dependent on the complexity of the images being recorded: In our tests, we measured recording times of six, 15, and 30 seconds respectively.) Recording stops and starts with a full press of the Shutter button, but the amount of available CompactFlash space may also limit the recording time. The self timer option is available in Movie mode - The camera begins recording after the 10 second delay has elapsed, and continues for the maximum amount of time available for the resolution selected, or until the shutter button is pushed again. Exposure compensation and white balance are both adjustable in Movie mode, but remain fixed after recording starts.

Stitch Assist Mode
The S300 features a panoramic shooting mode, called Stitch Assist, which is accessible via the Mode dial. Once the mode is selected, a guideline tool appears in the LCD monitor to help you line up shots (a small arrow tells you which way to swivel the camera). There are actually two Stitch Assist modes to choose from: left to right and right to left, indicated by an arrow on the LCD screen. The left and right arrow buttons select the direction for the sequence. All exposure adjustments (flash, image quality, exposure compensation, white balance, and macro/infinity mode) are set with the first image. Note that digital telephoto and certain flash settings (Auto and Redeye Reduction) are not available with this mode. You can shoot up to 26 images in a sequence and needn't worry about minor discrepancies in the overlapping portions of successive images, as these can be quickly fixed with the stitching software that accompanies the camera.

As an additional aid to aligning successive panorama images though, after each image has been captured, a portion of it is retained on the screen (shifted appropriately) to help you line up the next one. Depending on the subject, this can be quite effective, as it's fairly easy to see when portions of the image don't "connect" across the seam properly. (See the screen shot inset right, which shows the result of two shots being lined up. The seam between them is about 1/3 of the way in from the lefthand edge of the image.)

Continuous Shooting
Once activated by pressing the Continuous/Self-Timer button on the back panel, the S300's Continuous Shooting mode is claimed to shoot approximately 2.5 frames per second as long as the shutter button is held down or until the buffer memory is filled (shooting times may vary depending on the subject and shooting setup). In our tests, we found Canon's spec for continuous shooting speed to be pretty optimistic: We measured maximum-resolution continuous mode speeds at about 1.19 frames per second, and minimum-resolution times at 1.52 frames/second. Still pretty fast, but nowhere near the 2.5 frames per second that the documentation claimed.


Shutter Lag/Cycle Times
When you press the shutter release on a camera, there's usually a lag time before the shutter actually fires. This time is to allow 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.

Canon PowerShot S300 Timings
Operation
Time (secs)
Notes
Power On -> First shot
4.2
A bit faster than average
Shutdown
1.7
Faster than average. (Fast lens retraction.)
Play to Record, first shot
3.2/0.77
Longer time is to switch from playback mode, shorter is to interrupt "review" display. (Latter is really just the autofocus delay.)
Record to play (max/min res)
1.6/1.4
Quite fast
Shutter lag, full autofocus
1.15/2.2
A bit slower than average. (Shorter time is for normal focus distance, longer is for macro shots.)
Shutter lag, prefocus
0.063
Blazingly fast!
Cycle Time, max/min res
2.09/1.85
Faster than average.
Cycle Time, continuous mode, max/min res.
0.85/0.66 sec,
1.19/1.52 frames/sec
Quite fast. Seven shots before buffer fills at maximum res, 64 shots before it fills at minimum res.


Overall, the PowerShot S300 is a speedy little camera. It starts up and shuts down quickly, and is quite fast from shot to shot, with cycle times of 2.09 seconds at maximum resolution and 1.85 seconds at minimum resolution. Shutter lag times are a bit slower than average though, 1.15 seconds for normal focusing distances, 2.2 for macro shots. The really amazing speed though, comes when you prefocus the camera by half-pressing the shutter button before the shot itself. Under that condition, we clocked the S300's shutter lag at an amazing 0.063 seconds. Thus, while the normal autofocus operation is a little sluggish, the S300 could be a great camera for action shots in those situations where you can prefocus it in anticipation of the action arriving.


Operation and User Interface
As we mentioned earlier, we found the S300's user interface very straightforward and relatively uncomplicated. Most of the camera's functions are controlled by the control buttons on the top and the back panel, while settings such as image size and quality are controlled through the LCD based Record menu. Canon provides more efficient LCD menu system than the S100 offered, as you scroll through menu items on-screen instead of through a series of pages. Control over exposure mode was brought to an external Mode dial, which makes changing the camera mode a snap. Even if the LCD monitor is switched off, pressing one of the control buttons on the back panel (such as the Exposure Compensation or Flash buttons) activates the display temporarily, so you can save battery power by switching off the LCD monitor. Following is an overview of the S300's controls and menus.


Shutter Button: Located on the top panel, this button sets focus and exposure when halfway pressed and fires the shutter when fully pressed. If the self-timer is activated, a full press of the Shutter button triggers the 10-second countdown.


Mode Dial: Encircling the Power button on the camera's top panel, this dial controls the camera's exposure mode, offering the following selections:



Power Button: Resting snugly in the center of the Mode dial, the Power button turns the camera on or off. Turning on requires holding the button down for a second or so, to avoid problems with the camera accidentally being turned on while in a pocket or purse.When the camera is powered on, the lens extends outward into its operating position. Likewise, the lens retracts back into the camera body when the camera is switched off.


Zoom Rocker Button (Index Display and Playback Zoom Control): Positioned in the top right corner of the camera's back panel, this rocker button controls the optical and digital telephoto when the camera is in Record mode. In Playback mode, the button brings up a nine image index display (when pushed to the wide angle end) and zooms into captured images (when pushed to the telephoto end).


CF Open Latch: Situated on the right side of the back panel, this sliding latch opens the CompactFlash card slot.


Display Button: Directly to the left of the optical viewfinder eyepiece on the back panel, this button turns the LCD display on and off.


Menu Button: Located beneath the lower right corner of the LCD monitor, this button accesses the LCD menu system in Record and Playback modes.


Exposure Compensation / White Balance Button: To the left of the Menu button, this control activates the exposure compensation and white balance displays in Manual, Stitch Assist, and Movie modes. Pressed once, the button displays the exposure compensation scale, adjustable from -2 to +2 in 1/3 EV steps. A second press displays the white balance options, which include Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Incandescent, Fluorescent, and Black & White.


Macro/Infinity Button (Right Arrow Key): Just to the left of the Exposure Compensation / White Balance button, this control cycles between Macro, Infinity Focus, and normal focusing modes while in Record mode. In both Playback and Record menus, it acts as the right arrow key to navigate through menu items. In Playback mode, this button scrolls forward through captured images.


Continuous/Self-Timer Button (Left Arrow Key): Continuing left from the Macro/Infinity Focus control, this button cycles through Single, Continuous, and Self-Timer shooting modes while the camera is in Record mode. In both Playback and Record menus, this button serves as the left arrow key to navigate through menu items. In Playback mode, it scrolls backward through recorded images.


Flash Button (Set Button): The last in the series of controls below the LCD monitor, this button cycles through the following five flash modes (options may change depending on the exposure mode selected):


In both Playback and Record menus, this button serves as the "OK" signal to select menu options and return to the main display.


Camera Modes and Menus

Movie Mode: Records short movie clips with sound. The actual amount of recording time varies with the resolution setting and amount of CompactFlash space. The majority of the exposure controls are available in this mode, with the exception of digital telephoto, flash mode, and Continuous Shooting mode.

Stitch Assist Mode: Records a series of up to 26 images to be "stitched" together as a panoramic shot. Two directions are available: Left to Right Stitch Assist and Right to Left Stitch Assist (based on which direction the camera will move to create the panoramic sequence). The majority of the exposure controls are available in this mode, with the exception of digital telephoto, Auto and Red-eye Reduction flash modes, and Continuous Shooting mode.

Manual Exposure Mode: Restricts the camera's control to shutter speed and aperture only, letting you adjust the digital zoom, flash mode, image quality, shooting method (Single, Continuous, or Self-Timer), Macro mode, Infinity Focus mode, exposure compensation, and white balance.

Automatic Exposure Mode: Places the camera in charge of all exposure settings. You can select only the digital zoom option, certain flash modes, the self-timer, and Macro mode.

Playback Mode: This mode allows you to scroll through captured images and movies, write protect images, view a nine-image index display, zoom into to a captured image, delete unwanted images, rotate images, and set up images for printing on DPOF compatible devices.

Record Menu: Accessed by pressing the Menu button in Automatic, Manual, Stitch Assist, and Movie modes.


Playback Menu: Accessed by pressing the Menu button in Playback mode.



Image Storage and Interface
The S300 stores images on CompactFlash type I memory cards, and an 8MB card comes with the camera. Upgrades available up to 128 megabytes from Canon, and currently (Spring 2001) to as large as 512 megabytes from third party manufacturers. The remaining image capacity at the current resolution/quality setting is shown on the LCD monitor when the camera is turned on. When the number reaches zero, the camera beeps and the LED next to the optical viewfinder flashes or, if the LCD viewfinder is enabled, a "CF card full" message appears on the display. The table below shows the number of images of each size that can be stored on the provided 8MB memory card, and the approximate level of JPEG compression used for each.

Image Capacity vs
Resolution/Quality
Super Fine
Fine
Normal
High Resolution 1600x1200 Images 7 11
24
Approx.
Compression
5:1 8:1
17:1
Standard Resolution 1024x768 Images
16
24
46
Approx.
Compression
5:1
7:1
14:1
Low Resolution 640x480
Images
35
50
87
Approx.
Compression
4:1
6:1
10:1


As you would expect, the CompactFlash card should never be removed while the camera is in operation to avoid damaging the media. A flashing green LED next to the optical viewfinder indicates when the camera is accessing the card. The card fits into a slot on the side of the camera, protected by a plastic flap that snaps firmly into place and that is released by a sliding switch.

You can protect individual images on the CompactFlash card while in Playback mode through the Playback menu. Once protected, images cannot be erased unless the entire CompactFlash card is formatted or the protection is subsequently removed. The Single Erase menu option under the Playback menu allows you to erase individual images while in Playback mode. Likewise, the Erase All option allows you to erase all frames on the card (except those that are write protected). The entire card can also be erased by formatting, available through the Record menu. Images can also be rotated in 180 degree increments or setup for DPOF printing through the Playback menu.

Frames are stored on the CompactFlash card and assigned file numbers from 0001 to 9999, organized in folders containing up to 100 images. Through the Setup menu, the File Number Reset option allows you to turn on the file number reset option, which resets the file number each time a card is inserted into the camera. Otherwise, the camera assigns a continuing number from the last file number of the last card used. This prevents the same file number being used for images taken together and saved on multiple cards.

A USB cable and two software CDs accompany the camera, for high speed connection to a computer. We clocked the S300's image download rate at 279 KBytes/second. This is about average among USB-equipped digicams we've tested. External card readers can be more than twice as fast, but 279 KB/second is fast enough to completely empty a full 8 MB memory card in only 28 seconds. (Likely to be fast enough for most users.)


Video Out
The S300 comes with an A/V cable that allows you to connect the camera to a television set for reviewing images and movies, or for composing shots (US and Japanese models come set up for NTSC and European models for PAL). The television can be used as a viewfinder in all modes except Stitch Assist.


Power
The S300 utilizes a Canon NB-1L rechargeable battery pack for power, meaning you don't have the option of popping in a set of AAs in a pinch. The good news is that the battery pack uses lithium ion cells, meaning you can recharge it at any time without worrying about permanently reducing its charge capacity. Lithium ion batteries also have the advantage that they don't "self discharge" (lose charge just sitting there) the way the more common NiMH batteries do. Canon estimates that a fully charged battery pack will provide approximately 120 shots with the LCD monitor on and about 270 shots with it off. In Playback mode, Canon estimates that a fully charged battery pack will provide about 85 minutes of playback time. (Due to the odd battery compartment shape and special battery, we weren't able to measure power consumption directly as we normally do. Instead, we timed how long the camera would operate in various modes with a fully charged battery.) An optional AC adapter is available and highly recommended for use during image playback or when downloading captured images to your computer. There's also an Auto Power Off function that can be turned on through the Setup menu and which shuts down the camera automatically after three minutes of inactivity. The table below details power consumption in various operating modes.

Operating Mode
Operating Time
Capture Mode, w/LCD
60 minutes
Capture Mode, no LCD
? minutes (not measured)
Playback Mode
85 minutes
(Canon's number)


The worst-case power consumption for the camera is in Capture mode, with the LCD activated. The 60 minutes of continuous run time we measured in that mode is a bit lower than average among cameras we've tested, but not too bad. Still, our standard recommendation of always buying at least one additional battery for your camera stands.


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.
Packaged with the S300 are two software CDs containing Canon's Digital Camera Solution Disk (version 4.0) and ArcSoft's Camera Suite (VideoImpression and PhotoImpression), compatible with Windows 98/2000/Me and Macintosh OS 8.1 or higher. The Solution Disk software provides an image browser tool that handles image downloading, manages files (displays, moves, copies, etc.), sets up images for printing and allows you to set up images for e-mail. As part of the Solution Disk, the PhotoStitch software allows you to connect your panoramic sequence images by automatically arranging them into the correct order. The software also assists with cropping and alignment. A Remote Capture package (part of the Solution Disk) allows you to operate the camera from the computer, letting you control exposure features. Remote Capture also offers a time-lapse function, which takes a series of still images at specified intervals.

ArcSoft PhotoImpression provides additional downloading, organization, printing, and minor editing tools for managing your digital images. Images can be organized into "albums," or cropped, rotated, or flipped before being printed. VideoImpression offers a limited array of video editing tools, allowing you to edit your movie files,by deleting or adding frames. VideoImpression also allows you to link together still images and movie clips into longer movie files.

We don't normally go into much detail on the software packages accompanying the cameras we review, but the bundle that accompanies the S300 looks more complete than most. Canon's ZoomBrowser image organizer tool is quite functional and useful, and their PhotoStitch application is one of the better panorama-stitchers on the market. ArcSoft's digicam-oriented packages are also some of the more user-friendly on the market. Overall, a very nice bundle.


Included Hardware
Included in the box are the following items:



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 S300'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 S300 performed, and how its images compare to other cameras you may be considering buying.

We have to say at the outset that we were quite impressed with the image quality produced by the PowerShot S300. The earlier S100 did fine in its own right, but we felt that some compromises had to be made to squeeze everything into such a tiny package. We're happy to report that the S300 seems to have eliminated any such compromise in any aspect of image quality: Our test shots were clear and sharp, with very little distortion, low noise, and excellent color. Here are the details:

Overall, the S300's white balance system performed nicely, interpreting most of our light sources accurately. The household incandescent lighting of our Indoor Portrait did trick the S300 a little, as it produced a somewhat warm cast in the photos shot under it. Still, the automatic white balance setting produced accurate results throughout the remainder of our tests. Color looked great during the majority of our testing, a significant improvement over the previous S100 model. Although the S100 performed reasonably well, the S300 produces much more accurate color, and its white balance system seems to be slightly more sensitive to varying illumination. We did notice slightly bright red values, particularly in the red flower of the Outdoor Portrait, and a slight tendency to produce purplish tints in the blue flowers of the bouquet (in both the Outdoor and Indoor portraits). Still, the large color blocks of the Davebox test target look about right, with good saturation. (We noticed small, glowing halos around the outside edges of the bright red and blue blocks, and a brighter pixel outline inside the brighter yellow and bluish blocks.) The S300 has no trouble with the bright red and magenta color blocks on the middle, horizontal color chart (commonly confused by digicams), though the black separator line has a reddish tint, and the subtle tonal variations of the Q60 chart are faintly visible in the "B" range (another common problem area for digicams).

The S300's lens appears to be of unusually high optical quality: It produces very sharp, clear images, losing very little sharpness even in the corners of the frame. We begin to see aliasing in the test patterns at about 575 lines per picture height in both the horizontal and vertical directions, although detail is clearly visible all the way out to 700-800 lines. Significantly though, there's virtually no color aliasing present anywhere.

Optical distortion on the S300 is moderate at the wide angle end, where we measured an approximate 0.57 percent barrel distortion. The telephoto setting produced much better results, with no visible pincushion distortion. Chromatic aberration is low: We can see about four of five pixels of coloration on each side of the black target lines at the wide angle setting, which would normally rate low marks. The saving grace though, is that the degree of coloration is quite slight, making the distortion pretty inconspicuous in most shots. At the telephoto setting, there are only about two pixels of even the faint color visible. (This distortion is visible as a very slight colored fringe around the objects at the edges of the field of view on the resolution target.)

Perhaps the camera's biggest weakness, we found the S300's optical viewfinder to be quite tight, showing approximately 79.4 percent of the image area at wide angle. Frame accuracy was approximately 84.25 percent at the telephoto setting. Shots framed with the optical viewfinder were shifted toward the lower right corner of the frame. The LCD monitor was much more accurate, showing about 99.3 percent of the image area at wide angle, and about 99.1 percent of the image area at telephoto. Since we normally prefer to see LCD monitors as close to 100 percent accuracy as possible, the S300 does an excellent job. Flash distribution looks nice and even at the telephoto setting, with a small hot spot on the center target lines. At the wide angle setting, flash distribution is brightest in the center of the target, with slight but not severe fall off around the edges and fairly pronounced fall off in the corners. (Overall, the S300's flash system doesn't get particularly strong marks.)

The S300 comes in somewhat below average in the macro category, capturing a minimum area of 7.81 x 5.86 inches (198.47 x 148.86mm). Although really not very close, at least the resolution is good, with a lot of fine detail visible in the coins and on the brooch. Details are reasonably crisp, though just a hair soft. Color looks reasonably accurate as well, though slightly magenta. We picked up a hint of barrel distortion across the dollar bill from the wide angle lens setting. Noise is low, and only noticeable in the gray background. The S300's built-in flash does a good job of throttling down for the macro area, producing a slightly more accurate color balance (though greenish). The large coin produces a bright reflection, but maintains detail. Flash power falls off around the corners of the image fairly severely this close, but manages to light the main subject area pretty well.

The S300 was only average in terms of its low-light category, as we were only able to obtain bright, usable images as low as one foot-candle (11 lux). The target was still visible at the 1/2 of a foot-candle (5.5 lux) light level, but with a dim, pink cast. Even at the 1/16 of a foot-candle (0.67 lux) light level the target was visible, though the image appeared almost black and white. From the 1/2 of a foot-candle light level on down, the exposure compensation adjustments seemed to make little difference in the resulting images. However, from one foot-candle on up to eight foot-candles, the exposure adjustments were much more noticeable. Noise remains very low in all the images, and is barely noticeable at the higher light levels (from one foot-candle on up). To put the S300's low-light performance into perspective, an average city night scene under modern street lighting corresponds to a light level of about one foot-candle, so the camera should be able to handle most night city shots. Anything darker will require the use of the built-in flash.

Overall, we were definitely pleased with the S300's performance throughout our testing. Improved color performance, great image quality, and nice, sharp details make the S300 a worthy contender for its 2.1 megapixel class. Despite limitations in the macro and low-light areas, the S300 does a great job in most average shooting conditions, with a reasonably accurate white balance system that adeptly assesses most light sources. The S300 is a much improved update to the previous S100 model. With the S300, there seems to be no sign of tradeoffs made to achieve the tiny body size: It holds up well against the entire field of 2 megapixel digicams, regardless of their size or price point.


Conclusion
A welcome addition to the Digital ELPH line, the S300 combines the best of what most digicam consumers are searching for: A tiny camera that takes great pictures. As one of the smallest digicams we've seen, the S300 is ready to go anywhere, its "elfish" size makes it very pocket-friendly. The S300's point & shoot design provides hassle-free operation, though users can opt to select features like exposure compensation and white balance. Movie and Stitch Assist (panorama) modes provide flexible shooting options, and a nice complement of software provides more creative utilities. Image quality is first rate: It consistently turned out sharp images with excellent color and very low noise. Despite its slight price premium to larger 2 megapixel cameras, we think it will prove to be a very popular model. Highly recommended.


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