Canon Powershot S2 IS Review

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Canon Powershot S2 IS




Steve's Conclusion

Canon's PowerShot S2 IS is a significant upgrade from the S1 IS we reviewed in 2004. Its 12x 36-432mm zoom lens, up from the S1's 10x 38-380mm glass, and its 5-megapixel resolution, up from the S1's 3-megapixels, are the most notable improvements, but Canon made additional refinements that should not be overlooked; they increased the S2's maximum shutter speed to 1/3200 second from the S1's 1/2000, its maximum continuous capture rate to 2.4fps from 1.7fps, the size of its LCD monitor to 1.8-inches from 1.5-inches, and equipped it with an AF-assist lamp. The S2's movie mode also benefitted from several audio enhancements. The camera's feature-rich exposure system is simple enough for a beginner, yet offers advanced photographers plenty of opportunity for creativity. The beginner will enjoy the simplicity of Automatic point-n-shoot mode, and benefit from the pre-programmed scene modes, including the new Foliage, Snow, Beach, Fireworks, Indoor and Night Snapshot modes. The advanced user will enjoy the S2's Program AE, Shutter-Speed priority AE, Aperture-priority AE, Stitch-assist, and Manual exposure modes.

The most prominent feature of the S2 IS is its 12x Canon zoom lens, with a focal length coverage of 36-432mm in 35mm equivalence. That's a lot of lens by anyone's standards especially when the vast majority of other digicams only have 3x zooms, and today's 8-megapixel cameras offer only 7x or 8x zooms. Anyone who has used a digicam with a long focal length zoom knows that these lenses really add to the overall "fun factor" of using a camera. But the longer the focal length, the more susceptible images are to blurring from camera shake. Non-stabilized cameras with high power telephoto lenses require the use a tripod or a faster shutter speed to overcome the camera-shake issue. Not so with the S2; its IS image-stabilized lens reduces the effect of camera shake in your long telephoto shots, and makes the camera capable of taking handheld shots in lower light levels without the flash. I was consistently able to capture blur-free images hand-held at a shutter speed of 1/100 second at the lens' full telephoto 432mm focal length, more than 2 stops better than the rule-of-thumb shutter speed of 1/focal-length, and experienced a high percentage of blur-free images at 1/50 second -- the S2's image stabilization really works.

This versatile lens is also fast; its maximum aperture ranges from 2.7 at wide angle to 3.5 at telephoto, further enhancing your ability to capture sharp images in marginal lighting conditions. I noticed a moderate amount of barrel distortion in full wide angle, diminishing as the focal length increases. I also noticed a slight amount of chromatic abberation (purple fringing on highlights) in high-contrast areas throughout the zoom and aperture ranges. The zoom mechanism is driven by a 2-stage switch-actuated Ultra Sonic Motor (USM); it operates smoothly and quietly throughout its range. The motor runs at a slow or fast speed depending on how far you deflect the zoom lever, making it easy to compose the image without overshooting the desired focal length.

You have a choice of two viewfinders for composing and reviewing your shots: an LCD monitor, or, like most digicams with a big zoom, a high-resolution electronic viewfinder (EVF) with diopter adjustment. The LCD and EVF are equally-functional, you can setup the camera, compose and review your images on either one. The viewfinders provide a wealth of exposure information, including the ability to display a histogram while reviewing your images. I favored the articulated 1.8-inch LCD for camera setup, image review and overhead or waist-level shooting, and the EVF for eye-level shooting SLR-style; switching between the two requires two depressions of the DISP button. Both were easy to use in conditions of low ambient light because they "gain-up", or intensify, the live image. The LCD was bright enough to use outdoors, but it would benefit from a better anti-reflective coating to minimize glare. The EVF was also effective outdoors, but would benefit from a deeper eyecup. The S2's viewfinders were effective when following a moving subject, providing a continuous image during autofocus without freezing.

The S2's shooting performance is very good, noticeably improved from the S1. From power-on until the first shot was captured measured just under two seconds, while waking the camera from its Display Off power-saving mode took only 1.5 seconds. Shutter lag, the elapsed time between depressing the shutter and capturing an image, measured 2/10 second when pre-focused and 8/10 second including autofocus time; about 1/10 second of that is attributable to the delay in the live image presented on either of the S2's viewfinders. In Single shot mode, the S2 IS captured 5-megapixel Superfine images at the rate of one every 1.5 seconds without flash; with flash, the shot-to-shot rate was one every 2.5 to 8.5 seconds, depending on the distance to the subject.

The S2 offers two continuous shooting modes, Standard and High Speed. In Standard mode, the S2 IS captured images at 6/10-second intervals; between shots, the viewfinder briefly displayed the live image. In High Speed mode, shots were captured at 4/10 second intervals, but the viewfinder briefly displayed the last captured image between shots, making it difficult to follow a moving subject. I was impressed that the only limit on the number of continuously captured images was the amount of available memory on the installed SD memory card; the S2's buffer was able to empty as fast as images could be captured. Performance measurements were made while using a Sandisk Extreme III 1GB SD card, shooting 5-megapixel images in Superfine quality.

The S2's autofocus system delivered consistently sharp images. It uses only a single AF point, but you can position it virtually anywhere in your composition. With the help of its AF-assist lamp, the S2 was able to autofocus quite reliably in conditions of low ambient light; in complete darkness, the maximum range of the AF-assist lamp was about 10 feet. Manual focus is a feature missing from most consumer digicams, and for good reasons. First, it's impossible to determine focus using a zoom-coupled optical viewfinder, it does not offer a through-the-lens view and is intended only as an aid to image composition. Secondly, EVF and LCD viewfinders are not resolute enough for use as a focusing screen. The S2 IS, however, enables Manual focusing with its MF-Point Zoom feature. To focus manually, depress the MF button on the side of the lens, then depress up or down on the Omni Selector to change focus. The S2 enlarges the image in the selected AF point, providing enough resolution for you to determine focus, although it is not nearly as effective as a dSLR's focusing screen. The S2 also provides a graduated distance scale on the viewfinder, and offers a unique Focus-bracket function that takes a sequence of three shots while varying focus through a menu-specified range; focus bracketing can not be used with flash.

I was pleased with the S2's results outdoors. The power of the 12x zoom lens gets you close to the action, allowing well-composed shots even from the spectator areas at sports events. The accurate autofocus system and lens combined to produce consistently sharp results. Images were well-exposed and richly saturated right out of the camera, but you can override the degree of sharpness, contrast and saturation using the camera's menu system. Image noise was average for a camera in this class, quite noticeable throughout at ISO 400, present to a lesser degree at ISO 200, detectable in shadow areas at ISO 100, and essentially absent at ISO 50.

I was also pleased with the S2's indoor results. The limited field of view at the lens' 36mm wide angle extreme combined with the moderate flash range limit interior shots to medium-sized rooms and group portraits.. You'll be able to include yourself in group portraits because the S2 IS has both a tripod socket and self-timer. As I have already mentioned, the S2's AF system, aided by its AF-assist lamp, worked well in dim lighting. The S2 is effective at squelching its flash at close range, and has good macro focusing; it would be a good choice for taking images of small objects for online auction listings. The flash does not automatically pop-up when needed; it must be manually raised to fire - a minor annoyance.

The S2 has a very high quality movie mode with sound, capturing your choice of 30 or 15 frames per second at resolutions of 640x480 or 320x240. The 30fps 640x480 Fine movies consume about 2-megabytes per second of recording but they look like they were shot with a camcorder, very smooth with no compression artifacts. While many digicams prevent zooming during movie recording, the S2 IS allows it because the ultra-quiet USM motor does not interfere with the audio. Speaking of audio, the S2's performance is exceptional. Audio is recorded in stereo in movie mode, and the separation is quite good. Both the microphone level and audio sampling rate can be set from within the S2's menu system. The S2 also has a wind filter that can be enabled, reducing the amount of wind noise present in the audio track. In-camera editing of movies is provided in playback mode, allowing you to cut from the beginning and/or the end, and saving the edited clip as a new file or overwriting the original. The maximum length of capture in any quality setting is limited to 1GB. If you plan to exploit the S2's movie mode, make sure to get a large and fast SD memory card.

Canon has integrated the S2's still and moving image capabilities well. Unlike other digicams, the S2 has separate shutter buttons for stills and movies; movies can be taken in any of the S2's still picture modes, and stills can be captured while the camera's mode dial is in the movie mode. Not only that, but stills can be captured during movie recording; the movie will be flawed with a brief series of black frames and the audio will contain the shutter release sound, but Canon has redefined the term "shooting priority" with this feature.

The S2 IS is powered by 4 AA batteries and I was impressed by their life considering that you always have either the EVF or LCD turned on when using the camera. It captured about 200 shots on a set of 2500mah NiMH rechargeables with full-time use of continuous image stabilization and occasional use of continuous AF. As usual, I recommend that you acquire at least two sets of high-capacity NiMH rechargeable batteries so that you are never disappointed when that once in a lifetime photo op meets a set of dead batteries.

The PowerShot S2 IS is a very capable entrant in the megazoom digicam market. With 5-megapixels of resolution, a high-quality image-stabilized 36-432mm zoom lens, very good image quality and industry-leading support for moving images, the S2 IS offers a compelling combination of quality and versatility. It will please both the beginner and the advanced photographer with its consistently well-exposed and sharp results. The S2 IS presents a worthy alternative for consumer digicam users considering an upgrade to a consumer dSLR. While its image quality, responsiveness and viewfinder quality are not quite up to dSLR standards, the S2's versatility is unmatched by any dSLR available today. If you have a need for megazoom focal lengths, the S2 IS also represents a terrific value; while dSLR image-stabilized long focal length lenses sell for thousands of dollars, the S2 IS can be had for under $500, image-stabilized zoom lens included.

If you're looking for a light-weight, stylish, moderately-priced digicam that is versatile enough to handle most family events while getting you close to sports action or wildlife, the Canon PowerShot S2 IS should be high on your list. You should also consider the SONY Cyber-shot H1. Both cameras carry similar specifications and are capable of delivering high-quality images. The H1 provides better indoor flash and AF-assist performance, a larger LCD monitor, lower image noise at high ISO settings, shorter shutter lag and faster AF performance. The S2 IS advantages include better Continuous AF tracking of moving subjects, industry-leading movie mode, articulating LCD monitor, faster shutter speeds, greater playback magnification, and greater continuous shooting speed and buffer depth.

It's difficult to choose between these two high-quality digicams. Please have a look at our Sample Photos, including H1 comparison shots taken at the same time under identical conditions.





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S2 Sample Photos



Want a second opinion?

DC Resource's S2 IS review

Imaging-Resource's S2 IS review

DP Review's S2 IS review

DC View's S2IS vs H1 review

LetsGoDigital's S2IS review





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