Canon S120 Field Test Part II

Wi-Fi, capable lens and special features

By Eamon Hickey | Posted: 09/22/2014

Wi-Fi. Smartphones are dramatically undercutting the compact camera market and a large part of their appeal is the easy connectivity they offer to all those things, like Facebook and Instagram, that didn’t exist when I reviewed the PowerShot S45 a little over a decade ago. In the last year, it’s become crystal clear that the camera companies know they need to get their cameras connected, so I was especially interested in trying out the new, improved Wi-Fi functions of the Canon PowerShot S120, which Canon is prominently promoting.

I delved into the Canon PowerShot S120’s Wi-Fi system as soon as I got the camera unpacked. It consists mainly of a control interface on the camera -- kind of an overarching app -- which lets you set up (and easily recall later) various destinations for your photos. These could be services like Facebook and Flickr, or Android and iOS devices like your smartphone or tablet. The camera can connect to Wi-Fi networks and send images directly to a service like Flickr (routed through an online portal called Canon iMAGE GATEWAY) or it can connect to your smartphone (or tablet) and send images to its camera roll or photo app.

I had a variety of hiccups getting iMAGE GATEWAY set up on the Canon S120, but it eventually all came together, and I successfully configured the portal to my Flickr account. With that arrangement I could send pictures directly to Flickr from the PowerShot S120 any time there was an accessible Wi-Fi network. It’s relatively easy to browse images on the camera and choose which ones to send. I didn’t test other services such as Facebook, but if they work similarly (and they’re supposed to), it should be equally simple.

Happily, the initial setup for my iPhone 4S included no hiccups. In this mode, the camera creates a Wi-Fi network, and I connected my phone to it, then launched an iOS app called Canon CameraWindow (also available for Android). Thus connected, I could browse images on the camera’s LCD and send them to my iPhone or, alternately, use CameraWindow on my iPhone to browse the PowerShot S120’s SD card and initiate transfers from the phone. Once the photos were in my phone, of course, I was able to wrangle them in all the usual ways -- text messages, email, Instagram, Facebook and all their kin. You can also geotag your images with GPS location data from your mobile device, however remote control of the S120 is sadly not supported.

On one of my walks, I took a few minutes to test the Canon PowerShot S120’s connection to my iPhone in the field. It worked fine but required me to spend a minute or two firing up the camera’s Wi-Fi interface and then using the CameraWindow app on my phone (three hands would have helped with this). Apart from the lack of remote control capability, Canon’s Wi-Fi system on the PowerShot S120 is as good as any I've tried and better than most, but ultimately, I don’t think any camera company has solved this problem yet. Compared to shooting directly with my iPhone, there are still way too many steps between pressing the shutter button and hitting “send” on a photo text message or a Facebook upload.

Lens. The Canon PowerShot S120 sports a very nice lens, with an extremely useful focal length range (equivalent to 24-120mm in 35mm format terms) and a comparatively fast maximum aperture of f/1.8 at the wide-angle end of the zoom, although it narrows to a less impressive f/5.7 at the telephoto end. In the coffee house that I mentioned earlier, I shot one wide-angle image of the folks waiting for their cappuccinos, and the ability of the lens to open as wide as f/1.8 kept my ISO at only 800 despite the dim indoor light, minimizing noise in my image.

That same photo is very sharp even though the shutter speed was 1/20 second, thanks in part to the excellent image stabilization on the Canon PowerShot S120. I put the IS to a much greater test on an earlier image looking down on evening Broadway traffic. It came out sharp even though I shot handheld at 0.6 second.

On a different day, I was testing the Canon PowerShot S120’s HDR function by shooting a landscape style image into the sun, and I provoked a pretty dramatic patch of red lens flare, but I can’t really criticize a pocket camera for something like that.

5.2mm (24mm eq.), f/1.8, 1/20s, ISO 800
Wide open. At f/1.8 the PowerShot S120 can keep the ISO in check for a good low light photo.

Zoom series. To showcase the lens even further, below are a series of shots at wide angle, full telephoto and full tele with 4x digital zoom enabled, all shot handheld. For more zoom series please visit our S120 gallery page.

Canon S120 - Wide angle, full telephoto, 4x digital zoom
24mm equivalent focal length
120mm equivalent focal length
120mm equivalent focal length with 4x digital zoom
Zoom-Zoom. For a compact camera that is not a "longzoom", this looks pretty good!

Special features, high ISO, and movies. One by-product of the small sensors in compact cameras is very deep depth-of-field in nearly all non-macro shots, which can be good for landscapes but not-so-good for portraits where a blurrier background is often desirable. As we noted, the Canon PowerShot S120 has a new feature called Background Defocus that uses digital trickery to simulate background blur. When I tried it on an ideal static test subject (a fairly close tree trunk with a distant background) it produced a significant background blur that I couldn’t get with a standard shot. But it also produced weird smear effects between the subject and the background. When I tried it on a real-life shot of some street musicians in Washington Square Park, I got less background blur -- although more than a standard shot provided -- but I also avoided the smear. On a third image of a guy in the park who was selling jokes for a dollar apiece, I shot him full-length and the distance between him and the background wasn’t as great. In that image, there is no noticeable additional background blur. So my results were mixed at best, plus I got cheated: the joke I bought ended up being worth only about 50 cents.

16.2mm (76mm eq.), f/4.5, 1/60s, ISO 400, Background Defocus enabled
Background Defocus mode. The S120's background defocus mode did seem to apply slightly more blur to the background in this shot, but is hit-or-miss depending on the subject and distance.

I also got mixed results with the high dynamic range (HDR) mode on the Canon PowerShot S120. I used it on a backlit shot of a tree in Tompkins Square Park, and it kept the sky from blowing out to pure white. So far, so good. I also tried it on an interior shot in a café with sunlight streaming through the front windows, but it produced an exaggerated, unpleasant comic-book look that I associate with really over-the-top HDR processing.

5.2mm (24mm eq.), f/1.8, 1/40s, ISO 1600, High Dynamic Range mode
High Dynamic Range. The S120's HDR mode produced mixed results, including this rather comic-book looking shot of an indoor cafe.

A third special feature on the Canon PowerShot S120 that I tried out is its new Hybrid Auto mode. This mode creates a single continuous 720p video out of clips shot in the 3-4 seconds before each of the still images you take, with the still images themselves interwoven into the footage. (They are also available as normal standalone images.) It’s evidently supposed to be like a hybrid still/video diary of your adventures shooting pictures. I think Canon imagines people using it on, say, a sightseeing tour or on a day at Disneyland. I did a mini diary of my walk in Tompkins Square Park, and the function itself worked seamlessly, creating a video with no effort on my part. But let’s just say that video won’t be winning any awards, unless they give awards for sleeping aids. Only in really creative and dedicated hands would this feature produce anything watchable, in my humble opinion.

Movies. For normal videos, the Canon PowerShot S120 works very well. On a second trip to Washington Square Park I spotted a couple of dogs, clearly old friends, in a comical wrestling match. A dedicated movie record button made it easy for me to instantly start recording and the footage is sharp and smooth.

1,920 x 1,080
MP4, Progressive, 60 frames per second
Download Original (51.8 MB)
1,920 x 1,080
MP4, Progressive, 60 frames per second
Download Original (64.9 MB)

The Canon S120 can shoot Full HD (1920x1080) video at 60p (60 frames per second, progressive) or 30p, as well as HD (1280x720) and VGA (640x480) at 30p.  Movies are recorded using H.264 compression with linear PCM stereo audio in MP4 format. Maximum clip size is 4GB, and recording time is limited to 29 minutes and 59 seconds per clip.

A special Full HD Star Time-Lapse Movie mode records a still image each minute, and combines them to create a movie that plays back at 15 frames per second. There is also a Super Slow Motion mode which shoots 640x480 at 120 fps or 320x240 at 240 fps, and a Miniature Effect is available at 720p and VGA resolutions, recording at 6, 3 or 1.5 fps. Sound is not recorded in these modes.

Exposure is automatically controlled when recording movies, however you can adjust exposure compensation up to -3 to +3 EV or lock it, but you must do so before starting to record. Optical zoom is supported while recording standard movies and a wind filter setting is available.

High ISO. One last thing that Canon is touting on the PowerShot S120 is its HS System for 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.

And it's nice that the Canon S120 supports RAW capture, as we know that many of our readers prefer making their own decisions regarding noise reduction, white balance, saturation, sharpening, contrast, etc., by shooting in RAW mode instead of relying on the camera's JPEG engine, so bear that in mind when comparing to any compact models that don't support RAW output.

11.1mm (52mm eq.), f/5.6, 1/50s, ISO 3200

Summary. The Canon PowerShot S120 is a worthy new entry in Canon’s now venerable lineup of pocketable premium cameras for enthusiast photographers. It’s got nearly all the features I could ask for, really snappy performance, and top-notch image quality all wrapped up in a sleek, extremely portable package.


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