Canon S120 Field Test Part I

A Capable Little Companion for the Big City

By Eamon Hickey | Posted: 01/15/2014

The opportunity to shoot with the Canon PowerShot S120 gave me a chance to reacquaint myself with a line of premium compact cameras I've liked ever since I reviewed my first S-series PowerShot, the S45, way back in 2002. In that bygone world Facebook wasn't even a dream and the iPhone and Instagram were still years in the future. The new PowerShot S120 is chock full of features for the modern world of 2013, but I'm happy to say that the basic idea of its predecessors -- a very compact, well-built camera with advanced features -- survives unchanged.

5.2mm (24mm eq.), f/2.8, 1/60s, ISO 125

Size, handling, and controls. The Canon PowerShot S120 manages the nice trick of being very compact and lightweight while still feeling very solidly built, with a premium fit and finish. On three different days, I carried the camera around New York City on foot and by bicycle, and it fit easily in a jacket pocket. I don't typically carry cameras in my pants pockets, but if you do, the PowerShot S120 is small enough to do so comfortably. It's not much different than carrying a smartphone.

Although the Canon PowerShot S120 is quite small and has no grip beyond a thumb ridge, I found it easy to hold and handle. On my first outing with it, I spent an hour walking around Greenwich Village looking for quick grab shots, and I had no trouble carrying the camera in my hand the whole time, secured by a simple wrist strap. In fact, the PowerShot S120 is a camera that could go with me almost everywhere.

As befits its premium lineage, the Canon PowerShot S120's controls are precisely engineered, and they operate with a positive feel and quick response. The buttons and dials are small but well placed and designed. On my first walk, I came across a common East Village sight -- a young actor or musician (or maybe just a scenester) striking a pose for a photographer friend -- and was able to switch the camera to Auto mode and capture the scene in about a second as the actor/musician/whatever tried to look dashing for his 8x10 headshot.

18.3mm (86mm eq.), f/4.5, 1/60s, ISO 800
A candid camera. The PowerShot S120 has the controls and speed you need to capture shots quickly.

The overall control system and layout of the Canon PowerShot S120 also strikes a good balance, enabling lots of versatile features without cluttering the camera. A dedicated dial gives quick access to all exposure modes -- in my outings with the camera I usually alternated between Auto and Aperture Priority. In the PASM modes it's quick and easy to access exposure compensation, as I did for a shot of a man in a café where I reduced the exposure by 2/3 stop to maintain the dark feel of the environment. It was equally easy to change ISO on the fly as I did when I stepped into a coffee house on a drizzly day, increasing the ISO to make several shots of the denizens huddling in the dim light around their warm cups of Java.

Canon is touting that the HS System in the PowerShot S120 produces high quality images in low light. The camera can record at ISOs as high as 12,800. I used the PowerShot S120 at ISOs from 400 to 6400, including my shots in the café and the coffee house, as well as for some outdoor pictures in deep shade on an overcast day. The resulting images have obvious noise reduction processing, but they are indeed remarkably good for a compact camera, easily usable for modest enlargements in my view.

Canon S120 - Higher ISO potential
6.5mm (31mm eq.), f/2.5, 1/15s, ISO 800
13.8mm (65mm eq.), f/4.0, 1/20s, ISO 2000
18.5mm (87mm eq.), f/4.5, 1/50s, ISO 6400
As ISO rises... The S120 holds its own for a camera with a smaller sensor.

One interesting control on the Canon PowerShot S120 is the ring around the base of the lens. I thought I'd like it for controlling the zoom function -- it zooms the lens in 7 distinct steps -- but I turned out to prefer the standard rocker switch around the shutter release for that. So, in Washington Square Park, I switched its function to controlling manual focus (it can be used for 9 different functions) for a macro shot of some multi-colored leaves. It worked poorly, with slow and mushy focus response. For my shooting at least, I don't see any real advantage to using it for the other functions it can control, so the ring ended up being a bit of a disappointment for me.

As we noted above, the display on the Canon PowerShot S120 is a 920,000-dot touch screen. It's crystal clear, as one would expect, and fairly usable in bright light (about the same as other high quality LCD screens I've shot with). Its touch screen functions also worked seamlessly for me, although I used them only to test: the PowerShot S120 has enough of the right buttons and dials that I didn't need the touch screen to control the camera efficiently.

Performance. Canon is touting the fast autofocus on the PowerShot S120, and it is indeed very quick. It let me grab several fleeting moments as I was using the camera, including the shot of the scenester posing for a portrait that I mentioned earlier. On that same drizzly day, I was walking into Washington Square Park when I happened on a squadron of filmmakers (almost certainly NYU Film School students) standing next to a video camera and reviewing a scene on a laptop. I raised the camera and snapped the shot in less than a second. In all my outings with the camera, focus was always fast and decisive, even in relatively low light.

18.3mm (86mm eq.), f/4.5, 1/125s, ISO 3200
Focus. The PowerShot S120 focuses quickly and decisively, even in sub-optimal light.

The Canon PowerShot S120 can also shoot 9.4 frames per second without buffer stall. How many people will find this useful on a point-and-shoot? I'm not sure, but I tried it out anyway, using it to capture a sequence of two dogs play-fighting in the dog run at Tompkins Square Park. It definitely works, but if you forget to change the setting back to single shot, and ambient noise makes it hard to hear the camera, you can end up with a whole ton of inadvertent pictures from the rest of your walk in the park. Trust me on that.

In all other ways, I found the Canon PowerShot S120 to be nicely responsive but not remarkable. Startup is quick but not instantaneous (the lens needs a little time to extend). In my shooting with it, control response was quick -- certainly quick enough that it didn't slow me down, and where I missed a shot or two as I fumbled with the camera, it was my fault, not the camera's. And Canon's on-screen hints for navigating the control system are easy to understand. 

We've already commented on the relatively skimpy battery life figures for the Canon PowerShot S120, and I experienced this first hand, exhausting the battery in less than 3 hours of heavy use one day. For me, that's the one significant fly in the ointment for this camera: on a busy shooting day, I'd need a spare battery, so if you buy one of these little gems I highly recommend that one little luxury.

5.2mm (24mm eq.), f/2.8, 0.6s, ISO 200

Stay tuned for Part II of my Canon S120 Field Test, where I'll explore the lens, Wi-Fi, and some additional features packed into this little camera. In the meantime, head over to the Canon S120 gallery page for a closer look at this first batch of sample gallery images, and a few others as well.


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