Canon Powershot S80 Review

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Canon Powershot S80

Steve's Conclusion

The Canon PowerShot S80 is the successor to the Powershot S70 that we reviewed in 2004. It offers a marginal improvement in resolution (8-megapixels versus 7.1), while retaining the versatile 28-100mm optical zoom lens. Canon also improved the camera's buffering, offering an unlimited shooting depth during rapid or continuous operation. Like the S70, it is an enthusiast's camera, offering complete exposure control and manual focus, while its automatic and scene modes will allow the beginner to obtain good results without any fuss. But unlike the S70, RAW shooting mode is not a feature of the S80.

The S80 is an attractive package, with an aluminum finish to the body and a black front cover. It is smaller in size than the S70 due to the use of SD media rather than CF. It is small enough to fit in your pocket, yet large enough to house its 2.5-inch LCD and ample controls. The S80 retains the sliding lens cover of the S70, but has an improved eyelet for the camera strap, allowing the cover to open without interference.

Canon reorganized the S80's controls, mounting the Mode Dial on the right side of the body and replacing the S70's 4-way controller with a Multi Control Dial. The Multi Control Dial was effective, combining the functions of a 4-way controller with a dial for menu navigation and changing camera settings. But in shooting modes where the Multi Control dial was active full-time (Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority, Manual, Scene and Movie modes), I found that it turned too easily, sometimes resulting in unexpected changes in shooting parameters. I never quite got used to its sensitivity, and formed a habit of checking the active Mode Dial-controlled setting frequently. Canon should add more detent resistance to this novel control in its next incarnation. I also found that removing the S80 from your pocket would sometimes open the battery door or change the setting of the Mode Dial; the mechanical design of both should be made more secure as well. Battery life was good, the NB-2LH lithium ion battery capturing over 220 images before the displaying the low battery warning.

Have you ever found yourself with your back pressed against the wall or corner opposite your subject when shooting indoors? The 3x optical zoom lenses of most consumer digicams have a maximum wide angle focal length in the 35-38mm range, limiting the camera's field of view and making certain interior or landscape shots difficult, if not impossible, to capture. If you value the wide angle end of your camera's zoom range, the S80 is quite worthy of your interest. Its focal length at full wide angle is 28mm, offering plenty of field of view for interiors, group portraits, and landscapes. And shots of your distant subjects won't be compromised; the versatile 3.6x zoom extends to 100mm at the telephoto end of the range. There are 9 zoom steps between 28mm and 100mm; that's adequate for most shot composition needs but you may need to zoom with your feet a bit for precise framing.

The S80's lens is not only versatile, it's sharp as well. Combined with Canon's excellent autofocus system, the lens produced very sharp results across most of the frame, although I noticed some softness at the corners throughout the zoom and aperture ranges. Like most cameras in its class, the S80 exhibits a bit of barrel distortion at wide angle, but only slight amounts of chromatic aberration (purple fringing in high contrast areas) throughout the zoom range.

The S80's shooting performance is very good, improved from the S70 by almost every measurement. From power-on till the first shot is captured takes about 2 seconds, and a shot can be captured from sleep mode in the same time. Shutter lag, the delay between depressing the shutter button and capturing the image, measured less than 1/10 second when pre-focused and 6/10 second including autofocus delay; use of the LCD viewfinder adds less than 1/10 second to those measurements, a very good performance. In single shot mode, the S80 was able to capture images at a rate of one every 1.7 seconds without flash, and between 2.5 and 7 seconds with flash, depending on subject distance.

The S80's has only one continuous shooting mode, equivalent to the S70's High Speed mode. It was able to capture images at a rate of just under two per second continuously and without any slowdown due to a full buffer; it writes image files to its SD memory card as fast as they are captured! The LCD viewfinder briefly displayed the last captured image, helping you to follow a moving subject. Performance measurements were made shooting Large Superfine images with a fast Sandisk Ultra II 2 GB SD memory card installed. The S80's responsiveness is more than adequate for capturing most family events, spontaneous action and children's sports activities.

The S80's outdoor results were very good. Images were consistently well saturated with accurate color reproduction; more saturation can be dialed in by using the Vivid color effect in the FUNC menu. Exposures were also accurate, but Programmed Auto seemed to favor an aperture setting of f/4 under bright sunny conditions. You can override the camera's aperture/shutter speed settings by using Program Shift; depress the ISO button (AE Lock) after focus has been achieved, then adjust the combination of Aperture/Shutter Speed using the Multi Control dial. The lens' versatile 3.6x optical zoom range offered enough field of view at wide angle for pleasing panorama's and enough magnification at telephoto to bring your subject closer. The S80's LCD was quite usable on the brightest of days even without using its brightness adjustment, and the 10x magnification available in playback was quite useful for critically reviewing shots in the field.

The S80 also performed very well indoors. As I mentioned earlier, the 28mm focal length at wide angle is very useful, offering plenty of field of view for cramped interiors. The flash is quite powerful by consumer digicam standards; its useful range exceeded the 14 feet at wide angle claimed by Canon. The S80 uses a single lamp for both AF-assist and red eye reduction; red eye was reduced at close range, but its effectiveness diminished as the subject distance increased. The supplied ZoomBrowser software has an effective Red Eye correction tool you can use if the S80's red eye reduction fails. The AF-assist function worked well at full wide angle in dim lighting, but was much less effective toward the telephoto end of the zoom range. The LCD viewfinder was usable in average room lighting, but "gains-up" only a little in dim lighting conditions; you can turn-on red eye reduction mode, causing the camera to burn the lamp continuously while the shutter button is half- depressed, and improving the usability of the LCD. With its close-focusing macro mode and effective squelching of its flash at close range, the S80 would be a good camera for photographing your online auction listings.

The S80's ISO range of 50-400 is adequate for a consumer digicam. At ISO 50, images are essentially noise-free. Noise becomes detectable in shadow areas at ISO 100, and evident at ISO 200. At ISO 400, noise is present throughout the image, and a lot of fine detail is lost. It's nice to have ISO 400 in dim lighting; it can make the difference between getting the image and not, and despite the presence of noise, the images are quite usable.

The S80's movie mode is quite versatile, offering resolutions of 1024x768 (15fps), 640x480 (15 and 30fps, with optional My Colors effects) and 160x120 (15fps). Movie size is limited to 1GB or the remaining capacity of the installed SD card in all modes except Compact (160x120), which is limited to three minutes. 640x480 clips at 30 fps were smooth and good quality, while 1024x768 at 15fps were noticeably jumpy. You'll have to make a size versus quality decision on which mode to use; see our sample photos to compare similar clips shot in both modes. The S80 provides an in-camera editing function, allowing you to trim movie length to a desired length and content. This feature may be more useful than you think; the S80's 1024x768 and 640x480 30fps movies consume nearly 2 megabytes per second of recording time! Movies are recorded with sound; you'll be able to use the optical zoom lens to compose, but not during recording. One note of caution; the S80 has separate menu options for digital zoom in still and movie recording modes; be sure to disable digital zoom in movie mode to avoid degrading moving image quality.

The S80 offers a set of exposure modes that will please both the beginner and the enthusiast. Beginners will enjoy the S80's fully automatic exposure mode, and will appreciate the assistance offered by the camera's 12 scene modes that optimize shooting parameters for common subjects and conditions.

Enthusiasts will enjoy using the Creative Zone of the shooting mode dial, where they will find Programmed Auto, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, and full Manual exposure modes. The S80 offers help in these modes by warning you of potential under/over exposure and camera shake caused by slow shutter speeds. In addition, it offers a Safety Shift feature in Shutter and Aperture priority modes, overriding user settings that may make it impossible to obtain a good exposure. As good as the S80's AF system is, there are subjects and shooting conditions that render it ineffective. For those conditions the S80 offers Manual Focus, which assists you by magnifying the AF frame, and AF lock, which allows you to lock focus on an object at a distance similar to that of your subject. The S80 also provides an AE lock, allowing you to meter your off-center subject for proper exposure.

Advanced users will find complete control of exposure, including the ability to set ISO, White Balance (including a unique Underwater setting), Exposure compensation, saturation, contrast, sharpness and a choice of Center-Weighted Average, Spot, or Evaluative metering. The S80 also offers both exposure and focus bracketing, taking a series 3 exposures while varying exposure or focus settings, improving the likelihood that you'll come home with a good shot of a subject taken in difficult conditions. With such a broad range of adjustments, it can be a daunting task to reproduce the camera settings you like; the S80 allows you to save the active settings (including the current zoom setting) and later recall them in Custom mode, minimizing the time necessary to set up the camera, and eliminating any mistakes you might make changing one setting at a time.

Care to get creative with color? The S80 will perform in-camera color processing in My Colors mode, avoiding the need to learn how to manipulate colors in an image editor. Included are functions to simulate the more vivid colors of slide film, darken or lighten skin tone, and several others. The Custom Color mode provides independent controls for red, green, blue and skin tone. When using My Colors, be sure to turn on "Save Original" in the S80's context-sensitive menu system; it will save both the color-processed and original images as separate files, helping you to avoid ruining an irreplaceable shot with poor My Colors settings.

Despite its wealth of features geared to the advanced user, the S80 is missing one that some consider important - RAW image mode. Camera RAW images are essentially the digital equivalent of a film negative, providing the advanced photographer the unprocessed original for manipulating in an image editor. With the absence of RAW mode, the S80's appeal to the most advanced users has been reduced, a market that Canon was unlikely to satisfy with this camera anyway. If you require RAW support in a high-end Canon digicam, you'll have to step up to the G6 or the Pro 1

The S80 would be a good companion to more versatile and complex digicams. I recently took the S80 and several other cameras, including dSLR's, on a fall foliage trip. I found myself always grabbing the S80 first because of its ease of use, terrific image quality and the ability to play back an image enlarged 10x on its high-quality LCD; I would capture the same scene with the other cameras only if they were pleasing on the S80's LCD.

With an MSRP of under $550, the Canon S80 presents an excellent value among high-end consumer digicams. With 8 megapixels of resolution, a versatile optical zoom range of 28-100mm, excellent image quality and a stylish pocketable design, it has broad appeal for recording family events and travel. It is capable of being used by photographers of every experience level, providing plenty of automation for the beginner and ample controls for the advanced user. The average size of a 8-megapixel Superfine image is nearly 5-megabytes, so make sure that you get an SD memory card large enough for a days worth of shots. And because the S80 can not be powered by common batteries, make sure that you get a spare NB-2LH battery, keeping it fully charged so that you don't miss that once in a lifetime photo op. The S80, like its S70 predecessor, is an excellent camera, one that I can again highly recommend. Please have a look at our sample photos to see for yourself what it is capable of.

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Want a second opinion?

Imaging-Resource's S80 review

DC Resource's S80 review

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