Canon S95: A fantastic backup to my DSLR (full review with sample photos)

I just bought the Canon PowerShot S95 as an always-with-me backup to my huge DSLRs.

It’s the best compact camera I’ve ever used or owned. Period.

f/2.0 | 1.0 Sec (handheld!) | ISO 400

I’ve been out of the market for a pocket sized camera for years – the last compact I bought was a Canon G7, before that a Canon S2 IS in 2005, and my first digital camera – a Canon PowerShot S40, purchased in 2002 before I moved to Indonesia.

I still have the S40!? from 2002, and the G7. However, the G7 is Novita’s compact backup to her Canon 40D, and I rarely use it. I’ve basically been an all or nothing kind of guy for years. Either I drag around my Canon 5D Mark II and a bag of L lenses, or it’s my iPhone for crappy 2mp photos. There’s been no middle ground.

The Canon S95 fixes all of that.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a complete freak about researching things – borderline obsessive. I spend far too many hours reading reviews and comparing cameras online, in shops, and in conversation. On that note, I highly recommend using Dpreview’s camera comparison tool.

At one point, I was considering the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 with the 20mm f/1.7 Lens (has received rave reviews), but realized once again that it’s simply not something I can always have with me, and the lens isn’t stabilized. Nor does it have the flexibility of a zoom.

Next up was the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5. This was the newly announced follow up to the LX3; a camera with a cult-like following. The LX5 has some features that beat the S95 – 24mm vs 28mm and a faster lens at the long end. It also records video in 30fps vs S95’s 24fps. That’s a preference only the end user can decide upon. However, after a long, exhaustive comparison and seeing them both in person, I decided yet again that I wouldn’t be able to pocket the LX5 with ease (or without my “murse”). I am also turned off by the LX5’s lens cap. I just KNOW that thing would get lost at some point, and living overseas, it’s not always easy to find spare parts without paying far too much. If I had not been so concerned about size, the LX5 would have been VERY tempting.

BUT, the Canon S95 won me over.

It’s the newly announced successor to the very popular Canon S90.

Some of the main features include:

  • HS System & f/2 lens
  • High-sensitivity 10 MP CCD
  • 28mm wide, 3.8x zoom lens, Hybrid IS (equal to 28-105mm)
  • Lens Control Ring, Full Manual & RAW (lens ring is awesome!)
  • 7.5 cm (3.0″) PureColor II G LCD
  • HD movies (720p 24fps), HDMI
  • High Dynamic Range mode
  • Multi-Aspect Shooting

What did it for me?

  1. The size – only 193 grams and 30mm thin
  2. Low light capability – f/2.0 and IS – decent ISO 800
  3. HD video
  4. Lens control ring – very useful for getting back a bit of the SLR feeling
f/2.8 | 1/50 sec (handheld) | ISO 80

Why the sudden need for a compact camera? Well, in a week and a half, I’ll be flying to Bacolod for the Masskara Festival, and a week after that I’ll be flying to Japan for 12 days to travel around Tokyo, Kyoto, and Nara with my brother.

I’ll be bringing all of my gear of course, but I really don’t want to miss those moments when a huge DSLR is too obvious, intrusive, or unwelcome. The S95 is as inconspicuous as they get. I’ve started doing a fair bit of video, and the 720p from the S95 is quite decent, but nothing like my 5D2’s 1080p. The vast majority of my photos will still be taken with my SLR, but expect to see some more casual photos posted from the S95.

I’ll be posting unedited and edited sample shots soon, including many low-light photos and even a comparison to the SLR and G7 in regards to low light ability.

I apologize if this sounds like a promotional piece for Canon. It’s certainly not meant to be. I simply believe in sharing my experiences when I finally find equipment that suits my needs. Having said that, don’t let anyone fool you that these compact cameras can stand up fully to modern DSLRs. They can’t. As far as low light is concerned, they can do quite well up to around ISO 800 and 1600 is still usable, but they don’t hold a candle to a full frame sensor. The speed is still nothing compared to an SLR, and the pixel-peepers will never be as satisfied. BUT try bringing your 70-200 2.8 IS in your jeans without some odd glances. (Is that an L or are you just happy to see me?…..)

All in all, I’m thoroughly pleased with the S95. It’s opening up new avenues for fun and creativity that I’ve missed. Keep checking in for more examples and opinions.

f/3.5 | 1/8 sec (handheld) | ISO 250 | On Camera Flash
f/3.5 | 1/80 sec (handheld) | ISO 80
f/2.0 | 1/60 sec (handheld) | ISO 200
f/2.0 | .4 sec (handheld/stabilized) | ISO 80
f/2.0 | 8.0 sec (tripod) | ISO 80
  • Being a research hound myself, I like that you went to all the trouble for me! Been searching for a compact camera for those in-between shots (between cameraphone and DSLR). I’ve been using DPReview for many years, but still haven’t bought a compact since 2004. Incidentally, all my compacts have been Canons, even though my DSLRs have been Pentax and Nikon.

    • Gail, I’ve seen lots of Nikon aficionados using Canon for compact cameras. The size and sensor capabilities alone makes this one stand out from the crowd. If it were any larger, I’d be leaving it at home. This is also why I couldn’t go for the 4/3 or G12 cams – simply too large.

      I suggest going to have a play with these various cameras. They’ve come a long way in only a few years in terms of reducing noise levels.

      • John Orford

        canon rule this segment.

  • Casper

    Funny! My only compact is also the S40, and I’m also considering the S95, discarding the Lx5 for the exact same reasons as you (as well as it being cheaper than LX5)!

    • Casper – the S40 was my very first digital camera. $430 in 2002. Loved that thing but had no clue what I was doing. 🙂

      I’m sure the LX5 is a wonderful camera; it just didn’t work for me only because of the fact that I need something always with me – without the stipulation that I must always carry a bag of some sort. (otherwise I’ll bring the 5D2).

  • Great review Brandon! I have the S90 and love it for it’s compact size (fits in my shirt pocket) and the adjustment ring and f/2.0 (although you will never get the DOF that a dSLR has but then I wouldn’t expect that). Like you I’ve found that ISO 800 is about the best to hope for. Some things I didn’t like were the placement of the flash (it always hits my finger when holding it) but then I don’t use it all that much and no 720p video (although the video is decent). There are not enough changes to warrant getting the new version though. That said, if I were in the market for a new compact camera I wouldn’t hesitate to get the S95. Enjoy it!

    • Hi Matt. Thanks for dropping in so frequently. 🙂

      I agree, if you have the S90, there’s no sense in moving up. I do wish the flash could be put back down again manually without a button – too many things to break. 🙂

      You should see the differences between the G7 and the S95 in anything about ISO 400 – incredible strides they’ve made in noise reduction (plus the extra stop of light helps).

      When are you moving to Indonesia? Gotta wade through my emails soon to answer you properly.

      • Pushing on the flash to make it go down would be a welcome feature. My problem is when I turn the flash on my finger is always right on top of it. We’ll be heading to Indonesia in June/July of 2011. Our kids just got dual citizenship.

  • Manuel

    Hi Brandon, thanks for this review. I think that I am also obsessive about researching before spending lots of $$ on something, like a camera. Anyway, I also just got my s95 and I am trying to learn how to get the most out of it (i.e. what settings work best when, kind of thing). So, I found your pics in Flickr which led me to your blog. I am trying to find s95 pics that also tell me what kind of settings were use, so I can learn more about my new camera. So, I really appreciate the pics that you have posted PLUS the additional info about what Settings were used PLUS whether you used a tripod or not (specially for low lighting pics). Thanks again and I am definitely bookmarking your blog 🙂 ciao from California, Manuel

  • Nice review- and cool blog! I just stumbled on it. I’m also torn between the S95 and LX5 but the ‘pocketability’ of the S95 is winning me over……

  • I think that I am also obsessive about researching before spending lots of $$ on something, like a camera.

  • Lainer

    I’ve been looking for the perfect compact. I have the D-Lux 4, and I love it. The one thing I hate about it is the lens cap. I’ve never lost it, but it’s an issue sometimes. It’s certainly something that Leica could have addressed in their new D-Lux 5/LX5 camera, but didn’t. Shame! Anyway, I just bought the S95 too. I also have a Sony NEX 5. I love the smaller cameras. Now, the Canon S95 is a much cheaper build quality than the D-Lux 4. the D-Lux has more metal, and is just plain nicer in build. Now that doesn’t mean the S95 will not be a hardy camera. I still have my Canon SD 800, and it actually feels heftier than the S95. plus, the SD800 has an OV (optical viewfinder). I had a G9 and sold it. Although I loved the ergonomics of the camera, it was so much slower in AF than the little SD800, and now the S95 camera. The S95 is much better than the G9 in low light. The S95 is small and I do believe sturdy enough to take a beating. The Leica D-Lux 4 is no slouch either. It produces lovely files and is sturdy. But I’m finding the Sony NEX 5 blows them away with its APS-C sensor. The files will of course be better with the bigger size sensor. Here’s the thing though, each camera has its strengths and weaknesses. The D-Lux 4 has a nice build and produces lovely files. They seem a bit sharper than the Canon. The Canon is smaller, easier to pocket and has the nice retractable lens with cover. The D-Lux loses points for that. The Canon has all of the features of the D-Lux plus that cute miniaturization option. The files on the Canon are wonderful, but I lean toward the D-Lux 4, as it pleases my eye right out of camera. But, I still got the Canon S95 because it’s just plain convenient for everyday carrying, just like the iPhone. I can’t say that so much for the D-Lux with its annoying lens cap. Why the S95 then? Well, the zoom is longer, and the camera is slightly smaller for when I want to bring a camera everywhere. The D-Lux is great for when I’m doing artsy stuff.The Sony is wonderful in low light, much better than these little compacts, but their zoom lenses are big, thus making them not so compact. The Sony is going to be the future though, as the compacts are starting to become less desirable as the need for better IQ becomes top priority.

    I don’t think there is one perfect camera. If you need to pocket the camera, the S95 fits the mold. If you want a slightly better file, get a D-Lux 4 or 5, or the LX 5 which is slightly bigger but cheaper. If you want better IQ in files, get a Sony NEX 5. But to me, the Canon S95 would be most likely in everyones bag because it is the smallest, shoots RAW and has a zillion features for a much cheaper price.

    • i’m torn between canon s95 and panasonic lx5

  • awesome! awesome!

    : )

  • Nice shots (e.g. colored bottles); I have the previous model but looks like it has more features and better aperture; hope I break/lose my camera!

  • Jezz_custodio

    A-W-E-S-A-M-E!! I was in doubt if I am going to buy this camera but upon seeing your photos, I was stunned. Yeaaa, Im gonna buyy Canon S95. Thanks to youuuu :)) VERY NICE SHOTS

  • Jezz_custodio

    Awesome* not awesame