Canon Powershot S1 IS Review

Click for our main menu

Canon Powershot S1 IS

Steve's Conclusion

Canon's PowerShot S1 IS represents a practical and cost-effective alternative to the 8-megapixel high-end consumer digicams dominating the headlines this year. Like its predecessor the Powershot Pro 90IS, the S1 combines a 3-megapixel imager and a 10x image-stabilized optical zoom lens. The difference that three years in digicam evolution makes means that the new S1 is now much more compact, faster and less than half the price. The S1'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 can benefit from the pre-programmed scene modes when needed. The advanced user will exploit the full potential of the Program AE, Shutter-Speed priority AE, Aperture-priority AE, Stitch-assist, and Manual exposure modes.

The most prominent feature of the S1 IS is its 10x Canon zoom lens, with a focal length coverage of 38-380mm 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 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 S1; 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 able to capture sharp images hand-held at a shutter speed of 1/60 second at 380mm focal length -- the S1's image stabilization really works.

This remarkable lens is also fast, its maximum aperture ranges from 2.8 at wide angle to 3.1 at telephoto further enhances 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 an moderate amount of chromatic abberation (purple fringing on highlights) in high-contrast areas at the telephoto end of the zoom range, decreasing with focal length. The zoom mechanism is driven by a switch- actuated Ultra Sonic Motor (USM), it operates smoothly and quietly throughout its range. Its operation is fast, too fast in fact, it was difficult to stop the zoom action at the desired focal length on the first attempt, usually requiring 2 or 3 touches of the zoom lever to precisely compose the image. After using it for a while you learn to push the zoom buttons slowly to achieve a slower zoom rate.

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. I favored the articulated 1.5-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 needs only a touch of the conveniently-located DISPLAY button. The viewfinders provide a wealth of exposure information, including the ability to display a histogram while reviewing your images. Both were easy to use in conditions of low ambient light because they "gain-up", or intensify, the live image. The S1 provides a viewfinder brightness control with only two settings, normal and bright; I found that the bright setting was essential even for the EVF when shooting in bright daylight. The viewfinder system gives you the flexibility to show as much or as little exposure information as you want; simply depress the DISPLAY button until the viewfinder meets your needs. One downside of the S1's viewfinders is that the live image freezes during autofocus, making it difficult to follow a moving subject. If the subject is moving at a predictable rate and direction, you can practice panning and get a fairly good percentage of properly composed shots, but if its rate or direction are erratic, your results will be poor. (see Firmware update info below, Canon has issued new firmware that solves the EVF "freezing during auto focus" problem when shooting in single-shot mode. It is still a problem in multi-frame mode though.)

The S1's shooting performance is good. From power-on until the first shot was captured measured just under five 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 shutter lag is attributable to the delay in the live image presented on either of the S1's viewfinders. In Single shot mode, the S1 IS captured 3-megapixel Superfine images at the rate of one every 2 seconds without flash; with flash, the shot-to-shot rate was one every 4 to 8 seconds, depending on the distance to the subject. In Continuous shooting mode, the S1 IS captured images at 1/2-second intervals; between shots, the viewfinder displayed the last image captured, not the live image, so you will have some difficulty following a moving subject in this mode. Performance measurements were made while using a Sandisk Extreme 512MB CF card, shooting 3-megapixel images in Superfine quality.

The S1's autofocus system delivered consistently sharp images. It uses only a single AF point, but you can position it virtually anywhere in your composition. Although it has no AF-assist lamp, the S1 was able to autofocus fairly reliably in conditions of low ambient light at the wide angle end of the zoom range. 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, the resolution of EVF or LCD viewfinders is not resolute enough for use as a focusing screen. The S1 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 S1 enlarges the image in the selected AF point, providing enough resolution for you to accurately determine focus. The S1 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.

I was pleased with the S1's results outdoors. The power of the 10x zoom lens gets you close to the action, allowing well-composed shots even from the spectator area at a race track. The autofocus system and lens produced consistently sharp results. Images were consistently 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. My only complaint outdoors was that the S1 sometimes overexposed while using forced flash to fill-in the shadows in portraits. I was also pleased with the S1's indoor results. The combination of the 38mm wide angle end of the zoom range and relatively low powered flash will limit your interior shots to small rooms and portraits of small groups. You'll be able to include yourself in group portraits because the S1 IS has both a tripod socket and self-timer. The S1 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 S1 has a very high quality movie mode with sound, capturing your choice of 30 or 15 frames per second at resolutions of 640x480 Fine or Normal, 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, they're very smooth with no compression artifacts whatsoever. While many digicams force their lens to full wide-angle in movie mode, the S1 IS allows you to zoom during recording because the ultra-quiet USM motor does not interfere with the audio. The S1 also provides a useful movie editing tool 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 mode is limited to 1GB which in our testing produced:

    640 x 480 pixels Fine (max. 9:09 at 30fps)
    640 x 480 pixels (max. 12:23 at 30fps)
    320 x 240 pixels (max. 26:41 at 30fps)
The good news is that Canon put a CF Type II card slot on the S1 and it's FAT-16 and FAT-32 compatible. This means that you can use any capacity CompactFlash Type I or II card or Microdrive, even the new 4GB Microdrive.

The S1 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 300 shots on a set of 2200mah NiMH rechargeables. 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.

While the 8-megapixel comsumer digicams offer high-resolution for those big prints, most images are viewed on-screen, and are rarely printed larger than 8x10-inches. The Canon PowerShot S1's 3-megapixel images satisfy most printing needs, while its image-stabilized 10x zoom lens minimizes the need for cropping because of its powerful magnification. The S1 will please both the beginner and the advanced photographer with its consistently well-exposed and sharp results. 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 S1 IS should be high on your list.

Firmware Update

Firmware specification changes (Version
  • Improvements in the communication processing with the CF card.

  • Specification changes for the way images are displayed in Continuous AF Mode.

  • Improvements for the overexposure phenomenon that occurred during daytime synchronized shooting.

Go to the Canon S1 IS Firmware Page

Go to
S1 Sample Photos

Want a second opinion?

DC Resource's S1 review

Imaging-Resource's S1 review

Return To Our
Reviews Menu

Visitors of Steves can visit the stores below for real-time pricing and availability. You can also find hot, soon to expire online offers on a variety of cameras and accessories at our very own Camera Deals page.