Canon S3 IS Review

 
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Basic Specifications
Full model name: Canon PowerShot S3 IS
Resolution: 6.00 Megapixels
Sensor size: 1/2.5"
Lens: 12.00x zoom
(36-432mm eq.)
Viewfinder: EVF / LCD
ISO: 50-800
Shutter: 15-1/3200
Max Aperture: 2.7
Dimensions: 4.5 x 3.1 x 3.0 in.
(113 x 78 x 76 mm)
Weight: 14.5 oz (410 g)
MSRP: $500
Availability:  
Manufacturer: Canon
6.00
Megapixels
12.00x zoom
1/2.5"
size sensor
image of Canon PowerShot S3 IS
Front side of Canon PowerShot S3 IS digital camera Back side of Canon PowerShot S3 IS digital camera Top side of Canon PowerShot S3 IS digital camera Left side of Canon PowerShot S3 IS digital camera Right side of Canon PowerShot S3 IS digital camera

Imaging Resource rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

Canon S3 IS Introduction

by Mike Pasini
Review posted: 07/06/06

The Canon PowerShot S3 IS is the latest in an extremely popular line of long zoom cameras, following the 5.0-Mp S2 IS, the 3.2-Mp S1 IS, and the 2.6-Mp Pro90 IS.

The Canon S3 IS accommodates a wide range of users with its variable level of exposure control. Experienced shooters will appreciate the Manual, Aperture Priority, and Shutter Priority modes, while novices will find the Auto, Program AE, and Scene modes useful. With a full range of creative effects, the added attraction of 12x zoom Canon optics, and optical image stabilization -- a feature found on only a handful of digital cameras, most of them more expensive, the Canon S3 IS should appear high up on the lists for photographers looking for a long-zoom camera. Like its predecessor, the S3 IS's well-integrated Movie mode can record at 640x480 pixels and 30 fps with zoom -- and it records stereo sound.

The Canon S3 IS bumps resolution up to 6.0 megapixels (for 2,816 x 2,112 pixel images up from 2,592 x 1,944), increases the sensitivity range to ISO 800, features a slightly larger LCD (2.0 inches vs. 1.8), includes a Movie button available in any Record mode, and adds a 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio.

All in all, the Canon PowerShot S3 IS is quite a camera, with an amazing range of capabilities and good picture quality, all at an affordable price. Read on for all the details!

 

Canon S3 IS User Report

The S3 IS. The 12x zoom is fully extended beyond the two mics that capture stereo sound.

The digicam megapixel race of years past seems to have settled down now. Six megapixels seems to be the best tradeoff between detail and noise. Cramming more pixels on a small digicam sensor kicks up the noise, while companies seem to have decided that selling less than six megapixels is too tough a job. Maybe it's because digital SLRs are happy with six (although their sensors are much larger), but the crowd seems to be content with six in a digicam.

Subcompact digicams won a lot of hearts by featuring a large LCD. The larger the LCD the more detail you can appreciate on Playback. And if you're shooting a social gathering, that translates into more fun. An easy sell. The articulated LCD like the one on the Canon PowerShot S3 IS gives the photographer a better view of what the camera sees no matter how it's held, but it costs more to make, and isn't quite as glamorous--until you use one.

SD/MMC Card Slot. You'll want a few big SD cards to keep up with the S3 IS's Movie mode.

AA Batteries. We couldn't wear out a set of non-rechargeable lithiums in two weeks of use.

Then there's the zoom ratio. Cranking up the telephoto end of the zoom range is another sure winner. But to win, you have to do it in the optics, not with digital zoom. The word is out. Strangely, though, just as the news gets around, we're seeing some remarkably accomplished digital zooms. And sadly, many of the longer zooms don't bother with any kind of image stabilization.

When Canon designed the PowerShot S3 IS, they came down on the side of the photographer on all of these issues.

Its 6.0-megapixel sensor runs the sensitivity up to an ISO 800 equivalent that's not too noisy to make 4x6 prints; yet it retains excellent detail even in far shots taken with the digital zoom.

The Canon PowerShot S3 IS's LCD isn't large, but it is articulated. There are two kinds of people in this world. Those who've used articulated LCDs (and love them) and those who haven't. The design on the Canon S3 IS articulates 180 degrees out from the back, then twists 270 degrees on a horizontal axis, giving you the ability to see the screen from almost every angle imaginable.

And when it came to delivering a long zoom, Canon continued its impressive 12x zoom with image stabilization. This is the same lens the Canon PowerShot S3 IS has and it couldn't be improved. It's nice to see a large piece of glass now and then. Large LCDs are fun but a lens as small as a contact lens, as you see on smaller shooters, is a disappointment. Enthusiasts will live with a smaller LCD to get large glass. Glass is the magic.

Articulated LCD. It's a small LCD but it can dance. You can compose your image with the camera held overhead or down low, and even from the front and sides. As at least one photographer has put it, don't show me what the world looks like from 5'9" -- I already know.

The minute we got our hands on the Canon S3 IS, we wanted to start taking pictures. It's a photographer's dream.

Appearance. The Canon S3 IS looks nearly identical to the S2 IS, apart from its attractive gun-metal gray body color. Some functions have been assigned to different buttons, resolution and sensitivity have increased, the LCD is a tad larger, Sports mode has been added to the Mode dial, and a Wide Screen aspect ratio was tossed in for good measure. But the PowerShot S3 IS is an evolution, not a revolution.

Good thing, too.

The S3 IS simply demands to be held. It's too large for a coat pocket; but that fits, because this is a camera you want focused on the world, ready to go, not tucked in your pocket like an auto club card, there only for emergencies.

The PowerShot S3 IS is also an attractive design. I got a few compliments on it as I walked around town taking gallery shots. The body color, well-integrated components, and smart graphics just caught people's eye. I have a 25-year-old Mervyn's tie a friend gave me which never fails to prompt someone to comment how nice it looks. This never happens with our Jerry Garcia tie, so I know it isn't me. It's the tie. And the CanonS3 IS has the same effect. We were careful not to walk around with both it and the Mervyn's tie on at the same time. Might attract a crowd.

The Grip. Good thing I don't have long, red nails. You can angle your fingers downward, but it's a tight fit. I got used to it.

It's surprisingly compact from front to back (no, not thin). The right-hand grip protrudes just a bit less than the collapsed lens. And it isn't long, either, tucking almost all the controls within reach of your right hand and leaving the left side free for the LCD to swing out.

Nor is the Canon S3 IS heavy. You can slip it over your neck and forget about it. It won't swing away from you and bang into things; but it won't slide all over the car seat, either. It seems to have perfect balance.

Not a perfect grip, though. It's thin and a bit small even for my hands (which are not large enough to palm a basketball). When I grab the PowerShot S3 IS grip, my fingernails hit the body panel. Angling my fingers down alleviates that a bit, and certainly after using the camera a week, I wasn't as conscious of the cramped grip. But the minute I picked up a digital SLR with a more substantial grip, I felt a repressed relief worthy of half an hour on the Dr. Phil show.

The Lens Cap. Great idea -- a little fabric on the inside secures the cover to the lens.

The lens cap is worthy of a little comment, too. I tend to fumble lens caps, especially if they have strong springs. My fingers slip off the springs and the cap launches itself into the air like a frisbee; or worse, bangs off the lens. But the PowerShot S3 IS cap has no springs. Instead, it has a non-shedding fabric lining that snuggles securely against the lens housing barrel (not the lens itself). I actually enjoyed how it felt to slip the cap on and off. And it only once fell off accidentally, when I put the camera down on an uneven surface. Even better, when I forgot to take it off (you can't quite see the front of the camera when operating it), the lens harmlessly nudged it away when protruding into its shooting position. A small touch--perhaps even a compromise--but another example of this camera's design sophistication.

Display. Fortunately, we were distracted by the view. We set the diopter adjustment for the electronic viewfinder on the S3 IS (an unavoidable choice on any long zoom) and quickly went through the options on the Display button (off, minimal information display and complete information). I prefer the more verbose information screen.

Count the Screws. This thing is built. We counted six screws just in the flash assembly.

But while hunting around for how to turn on the grid (which makes rule-of-thirds composition, not to mention straight horizons, easier), I discovered the Custom Display menu item, with which I could tailor the minimal and verbose info displays on both the LCD and EVF. I could include the histogram on all of them or not, for example. Just mark the checkbox. Very fine indeed.

The resolution of both displays is fine enough that the small live histogram can be appreciated at a glance. It's also fine enough that grid lines don't obscure the scene. They're helpful without calling attention to themselves. Canon struck a fine balance with those display features.

The 2.0-inch articulated LCD is larger than the 1.8-inch version on the Canon S3 IS, adequate but a bit of a letdown after playing with LCDs no smaller than 2.5 inches. Still, because it's articulated, I'll take it.

You don't have to be a paparazzo to appreciate an articulated LCD (hey, that should be a t-shirt; or a Steely Dan song). I've chatted with many Coolpix owners (myself included) who bemoan their aging swivel digicams for their two or three megapixel sensors, but won't part with them because they can angle the LCD toward themselves regardless of the angle the lens takes on the scene. Canon has kept this concept alive with its articulated LCDs, and they get outright prolonged applause for including one on the Canon PowerShot S3 IS.

The mechanism on the Canon S3 IS seemed a little stiff to me. Stiff enough that I often lost my grip and worried about scratching the LCD. I didn't, but I sure didn't like losing my grip.

Performance. The Canon S3 IS doesn't keep you waiting: Not when you start it up (even though the lens has to extend); not when you've taken a shot; not when you're shooting in Continuous mode; and not when you're shutting down.

It isn't instant, like a digital SLR, but I never felt like I had to wait for it. And not having to wait meant I felt free to turn it on or off at will. When it takes a camera a long time to start up or shut down, I just let the power management routine put it to sleep so a half-press of the shutter button wakes the camera up. With cameras that have extendable lenses, this is a risky strategy. But the PowerShot S3 IS was quick enough to shut down and start up, and the lens extends and retracts quietly.

I didn't always zoom the lens all the way out to 12x (or even further with its acceptable digital zoom), but I did always leave the image stabilization on. That's because image stabilization isn't only useful at telephoto focal lengths.

‘It's a photographer's dream.’

Sure, bring even a 10x zoom without image stabilization at full telephoto up to your eye and you'll think you have an incurable disease. The subject will jump around in the electronic viewfinder so badly that you'll think it's a moving target. That makes image stabilization desirable, if not essential, for a long zoom at telephoto.

But take that same non-stabilized camera indoors and you'll need flash even at wide angle. With stabilization like we see on the Canon S3 IS, you can shoot hand held at about two stops slower than without it. So you can shoot without flash -- and red-eye.

Hand Held
Shutter Speeds

1/15

1/13

1/40

Take a look at the gallery to see a few normally impossible shots in Program mode:

  • A high school graduation announcement shot at ISO 80 and 1/15 second. That's the lowest noise possible (to preserve the paper texture) and an impossible hand held shutter speed. The aperture was wide open at f/2.7, hence the shallow depth of field.

  • The Rumbolino's stick shift knob against the blurred background of the dash at 1/13 second and f/2.7. You can bet I didn't cram a tripod into the passenger seat to get that shot. (Editor's Note: Rumbolino is apparently the name Mr. Pasini has for his Alfa Romeo.)

  • Even Lucien Labaudt's fresco murals at Beach Chalet profited from image stabilization at 1/40 second. If you like to shoot in museums (a terrific source of free art for your walls), a camera with image stabilization will let you get a better shot than one without it. You can't use flash or a tripod in most museums that permit photography, but you won't need either with image stabilization.

I like having ISO 800 available and appreciate Canon's decision to let us pick a more aggressive Auto ISO (Auto High) for the S3 IS than the standard. I shot the mandolin strings that appear in the gallery at ISO 800 and the noise, although evident when examined closely, didn't bother me enough to tap into one or another noise reduction filter.

In short, I really appreciated the versatility that the PowerShot S3 IS's increased sensitivity and optical stabilization provided.

Shooting Experience. As camera bodies go, the Canon PowerShot S3 IS is really quite small (though its name is not small at all). One hand can handle it with your thumb doing almost all the work on the controls and your index finger working the zoom and shutter.

Controls. They're all within reach of your thumb. No EV button, no OK button, no dials, but once you learn how to access EV, confirm selections and adjust sliders, it makes sense.

I'm not a big fan of Canon's menu system or its button layout. I'm not a big fan of elevator Close and Open buttons either (and always get them embarrassingly wrong). They aren't intuitive and, unless you train yourself, you forget them both easily.

But functionally, Canon's control system works well on the PowerShot S3 IS. There's no EV button, for example, but one press of the Menu button brings up the shooting menu with EV selected. You just have to press the Left or Right arrow to set EV. That's functionally equivalent to pressing an EV button and spinning a dial. It's just that until you find that out, you're at lose ends.

Similarly, I'm not thrilled with the Canon S3 IS's Set button sitting below the four-way controller. I prefer an OK button in the middle of the controller -- and really like a joystick there instead of an OK button. No hunting around. No time-motion studies required. But, again, the Set button functions efficiently if you remember when to use it.

Despite its high quality and stereo sound, I wasn't nearly as enamored of the Canon S3 IS's Movie mode as I felt I should be. The problem was the size of the files. A 19-second stereo clip took 37.3MB of disk space. The S3 IS saved the 640x480-pixel, 30-fps movie as an AVI, not the most compact form.

I wasn't charmed by the separate Movie button either. You don't have to switch to Movie mode, you can just hit the Movie record button in any Record mode and the PowerShot S3 IS will start recording a movie. Conversely, you can hit the Shutter button while capturing video and the S3 will blank the movie frame, record a shutter sound and save a JPEG of the scene you were looking at when you pressed the Shutter button before continuing filming. That little effect can't be disabled, either.

Summary. I don't want to mislead anyone with all the enthusiastic comments that have preceded this conclusion. Much as I enjoy shooting with the Canon PowerShot S3 IS, I think I'd better keep it here a few more weeks to, uh, refine my impressions. You can't rush through a fine camera any more than you can gulp down a fine wine. You have to savor them both. Slowly. With a smile on your lips.

 

Basic Features

  • 6.0-megapixel CCD delivering image resolutions as large as 2,816 x 2,112 pixels
  • 2.0-inch color LCD monitor with 115,000 pixels
  • Electronic optical viewfinder of low-temperature polycrystalline silicon
  • Glass, 12x 6.0-72mm lens (equivalent to 36-432mm zoom on a 35mm camera)
  • 4x digital zoom (48x combined with optical)
  • FlexiZone autofocus and a manual focus mode
  • Full Automatic, Program AE, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, Manual, and Custom exposure modes, as well as six main preset exposure or "Scene" modes, and eight special Scene modes
  • Manually adjustable aperture setting ranging from a maximum of f/2.7 to f/3.5 depending on lens zoom position, to a minimum of f/8.0
  • Shutter speed range from 1/3,200 to 15 seconds (although not all shutter speeds are available at all f-stops and focal lengths; see chart).
  • Built-in pop-up flash with five operating modes
  • Secure Digital (SD) memory storage
  • Power supplied by four AA batteries or optional AC adapter

 

Special Features

  • Optical image stabilization
  • AF Assist Beam
  • Movie and Still shutter buttons with simultaneous operation
  • Stereo recording in Movie mode
  • Sound caption recording
  • Stitch-Assist mode for panoramic shots
  • Continuous Shooting, and 2 or 10-second Self-Timer modes
  • Unique "My Colors" mode
  • Night Display brightens LCD for easier framing of dark subjects
  • Ten custom Photo Effects
  • White balance (color) adjustment with eight modes
  • ISO adjustment with Auto, High Auto and five ISO equivalents
  • Automatic Exposure Bracketing and Automatic Focus Bracketing
  • Evaluative, Center-Weighted, and Spot metering options
  • DPOF (Digital Print Order Format) and PictBridge compatibility
  • USB 2.0 High Speed interface
  • USB cable for connection to a computer or certain printers (driver software included)
  • Video cable for connection to NTSC/PAL televisions, VCRs, etc.

 

In the Box

The Canon PowerShot S3 IS comes with the following items:

  • Canon PowerShot S3 IS
  • Neck Strap NS-DC4
  • Lens cap
  • Four AA-type alkaline batteries
  • USB cable IFC-400PCU
  • Stereo Video cable STV-250N
  • 16MB SD card SDC-16M
  • Digital Camera Solution CD
  • Instruction manual, software guide, and registration kit

 

Recommended Accessories

  • Large capacity SD/MMC memory card. (These days, 128 to 256 MB is a good tradeoff between cost and capacity, but given the S3 IS's video capabilities, you'll probably want a much larger -- and faster -- one.)
  • Rechargeable batteries and charger
  • AC adapter kit
  • High power external flash HF-DC1
  • Soft case PSC-75
  • Lens accessory kits

 

Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • 12x zoom with image stabilization
  • Useable 4x digital zoom (for 48x scope-like range)
  • Auto Hi and ISO 800 sensitivity settings
  • Very responsive shutter speed
  • Fast startup/shutdown time
  • Good color accuracy
  • Powerful built-in flash
  • Very capable, stereo Movie mode available in any Record mode
  • Stills can be captured while taking movies
  • Includes 16:9 aspect ratio
  • Articulated LCD
  • Attractive design is compact but comfortable
  • Very good battery life
  • Fast file downloads via high-speed USB 2.0 port
  • Already good zoom extendable with conversion lenses
  • High noise at high sensitivity settings
  • Rather contrasty default tone curve
  • Higher than average chromatic aberration at all focal lengths
  • Fast shutter speeds not available at all apertures, which is not uncommon
  • Movie files restricted to 1 GB size
  • AVI movie format not as compact as MPEG-4
  • No Raw file support

 

The long-zoom digital camera market is getting pretty crowded these days, so it takes a lot for a product to really stand out. Despite the stiff competition though, the Canon PowerShot S3 IS is indeed a standout product. Building upon the already very popular S2 IS model, the Canon S3 IS shows substantial improvements. At the same time, the excellent image stabilization system has been carried forward, and image quality is very good. Taken as a package, the Canon S3 IS is one fine digital camera, and one that's a lot of fun to use besides. Based on our testing (and playing with it), it's clear that this is going to be a huge favorite in the market. If you're looking for a good all-around camera with great features, a long zoom lens, image stabilization, and a really excellent, well-integrated movie mode, all at an affordable price, there really isn't another model on the market that'll fill the bill the way the S3 IS does. The Canon PowerShot S3 IS is highly recommended, and an easy Dave's Pick in its category.

 

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