Canon Powershot S3 IS Review

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Canon Powershot S3 IS

Steve's Conclusion

Canon's PowerShot S3 IS is a refinement of the S1 IS we reviewed in 2005. Canon retained the S2's versatile 12x 36-432mm zoom lens, but increased resolution from 5.2 to 6.3-megapixels, raised the maximum sensitivity from ISO 400 to ISO 800, and increased the size of the LCD monitor from 1.8 to 2-inches. 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 Color Accent and Color Swap modes. The advanced user will enjoy the S3's Program AE, Shutter-Speed priority AE, Aperture-priority AE, Stitch-assist, and Manual exposure modes.

The most prominent feature of the S3 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. 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 S3; 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 1/60 second -- the S3'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 at full wide angle, diminishing as the focal length increased to the point where it became essentially distortion-free at moderate to full telephoto focal lengths. 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 easier to compose the image without overshooting the desired focal length. It takes about 5 seconds to zoom the entire range at slow speed, and less than 1 second at high speed. While the S3's zoom has among the best electronic controls in the business, the manual zoom ring of a dSLR lens is far superior both in speed and accuracy.

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 2-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 or opening/closing the LCD. 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 S3's viewfinders were effective when following a moving subject, providing a continuous image during autofocus without freezing.

The S3's shooting performance is very good. From power-on until the first shot was captured measured just under two seconds. Shutter lag, the elapsed time between depressing the shutter and capturing an image, is improved over the S2IS; it measured a fast 1/10 second when pre-focused, most of that attributable to the delay in the live image presented on either of the S3's viewfinders; lag including autofocus was also fast at 1/2 second (also including viewfinder delay). In Single shot mode, the S3 IS captured 6-megapixel Superfine images at the rate of one every 1.4 seconds without flash; with flash, the shot-to-shot rate was one every 2 to 8.5 seconds, depending on the distance to the subject.

The S3 offers two continuous shooting modes, Standard and High Speed. In Standard mode, the S3 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 S3's buffer was able to empty as fast as images could be captured. Performance measurements were made while using a Kingston Ultimate 120x 2GB SD card, shooting 6-megapixel images in Superfine quality.

The S3'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 S3 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 S3 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 S3 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 S3 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 S3'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 very low at sensitivity settings of ISO 80 and 100. Noise becomes detectable in shadow areas at ISO 200, and noticeable at ISO 400. ISO 800 produces high noise levels throughout the image; consider it an accommodation that you'll use only when conditions warrant.

I was also pleased with the S3'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 S3 IS has both a tripod socket and self-timer. As I have already mentioned, the S3's AF system, aided by its AF-assist lamp, worked well in dim lighting. The S3 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 S3 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, and a high frame rate of 60fps at 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 S3 IS allows it because the ultra-quiet USM motor does not interfere with the audio. Speaking of audio, the S3's performance is exceptional. Both the microphone level and audio sampling rate can be set from within the S3's menu system. The S3 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 or 60 minutes, whichever comes first. If you plan to exploit the S3's movie mode, make sure to get a large and fast SD memory card.

Canon has integrated the S3's still and moving image capabilities well. Unlike other digicams, the S3 has separate shutter buttons for stills and movies; movies can be taken in any of the S3'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 S3 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 more than 200 shots on a set of 2500mah NiMH rechargeables with full-time use of "shoot only" 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.

Like its predecessor the S2, the PowerShot S3 IS is a very capable entrant in the megazoom digicam market. With 6-megapixels of resolution, a high-quality image-stabilized 36-432mm zoom lens, very good image quality and industry-leading support for moving images, the S3 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 S3 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 S3's versatility, especially its movie mode and articulating LCD viewfinder, is unmatched by any dSLR available today. If you have a need for megazoom focal lengths, the S3 IS also represents a terrific value; while dSLR image-stabilized long focal length lenses sell for thousands of dollars, the S3 IS can be had for under $500, image-stabilized zoom lens included. Please have a look at our sample pictures to see what this camera is capable of.

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Sample Photos

Want a second opinion?

DCResource's S3 IS review

DCView's S3 IS vs Sony H5 review

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