DPInterface Canon PowerShot S3 IS Review
When the Canon PowerShot S2 IS came out, it was one of the most anticipated cameras of 2005. This year, Canon decided to throw in only some marginal upgrades to the S3 IS. Those changes include:
With so few improvements made and competition getting better (Things like the Sony H5 offer much better features for the same price), I'm not sure if the S3 IS will cut it. Let's find out how it compares now; in this review.
Size and Weight
There are tons of big zoom cameras out there - big and small - so this is how the S3 IS fits in:
(255.1) 111.0 x 78.0 x 66.1 mm (370 g) - Canon PowerShot S1 IS
As usual, I've included the "DPI measurement unit" (As opposed to volume) on the left for a more accurate impression of a camera's size.
The Canon PowerShot S3 IS is a midsized 12X stabilized zoom camera with only the Sony H5 and Panasonic FZ30 being bigger. The Canon S3 IS has become slightly bigger and put on a little bit of weight since the S2 IS but I doubt that users will feel any difference.
Open up the Box
The Canon PowerShot S3 IS features the same stuff as the S2 IS which, in this case, is a bad thing:
Storage and Power
The Canon PowerShot S3 IS includes 16 MB of memory which is just nonsense. I recommend at least a 512 MB SD card to start with - more if possible. A high-speed card (10 MB/s or faster) makes things noticeably faster and lets you do indefinite continuous shooting.
550 shots - Canon PowerShot S3 IS
The Canon PowerShot S3 IS makes it to the top with its best-in-class battery life of 550 shots (CIPA Standard). The S3 IS uses 4 AA batteries which is more than the 2 AA batteries or single lithium-ion battery most of the cameras above use - whether this is an issue is up to you but cameras this size are better off being heavier to reduce shake. Non-rechargeable batteries are included with the Canon S3 IS so you'll have to go out and buy a set of 4 or 8 AA NiMH rechargeable batteries (I'd recommend 2300 mAh or better) plus a quick 15 minute charger for yourself.
Quite expected for an ultra-zoom camera are quite a bit of accessories:
The Canon PowerShot S3 IS is now colored black, which looks more professional than the S2 IS in silver.
The Canon PowerShot S3 IS carries forward the 12X optical zoom lens used on the S2 IS. This lens is equivalent to 36 - 432 mm, f2.7 - f3.5 which is fairly fast. The Panasonic FZ7 has a lens with the same focal length but is f2.8 - f3.3 while the Sony H5's lens focal length is the same too, except it's a little slower with f2.8 - f3.7. Kodak's Z612 lens is different, covering 35 - 420 mm and is very slow at f2.8 - f4.8 (compared to other 12X zoom cameras). And I should probably note that all the lenses of those 4 cameras have optical image stabilizers, which I'll highlight later on in the review.
The lens on the S3 IS is driven by an Ultrasonic Motor which moves the lens at the speed of your choice while moving smoothly and quietly. Zooming is enabled in movie mode and the S3 IS can do it relatively fast compared to competition.
The small holes peeping out of the top left and right of the lens are the stereo microphone units. Next to the right microphone is the AF-assist beam. And next to the left microphone is a 3-in-1 self-timer, red-eye reduction and tally lamp which have their respective functions: counts down, shines red and blinks when a photo is taken/movie is being recorded.
The manual popup flash above the lens has a range of 50 cm to 5.2 m at wide-angle and 90 cm to 4.0 m at telephoto, both at ISO auto. In macro mode, the flash range is reduced to 30 to 50 cm, though I would not encourage using the flash in macro mode because of shadows cast by the big lens barrel.
On the left, there's a nice large grip for holding the camera steady with a finger hook. There's no jog dial here unlike cameras like the Sony H5.
The Canon PowerShot S3 IS has a tiny (by today's ultra-zoom standards) rotating 2 inch LCD which has 115,000 pixels. The LCD's indoor visibility was excellent while outdoor visibility was just so-so. Viewing angle was not great and solarized when viewed at angles around 40 degrees. So a rotating LCD would solve that problem and is also useful for above crowd, below waist or self-portrait shooting. The EVF above the LCD has about the same resolution and visibility - it has a dioptric correction. The reverse display feature "rotates" the LCD image according to its position.
Other ultra-zooms have at least 2.5 inch LCDs and EVFs, both with about double that resolution. And though they are fixed, those LCDs have better viewing angles. Personally, I'd rather the S3 IS have a fixed but bigger LCD as it does everything a rotating LCD would except self-portraits - anyway, to take a self-portrait photo with a camera this bulky would be quite awkward.
Beside the LCD is the dedicated movie record button (Button with red dot) which can be pressed at anytime to start or stop a movie. On the right of the LCD are 4 buttons - Words and icons are in white for options in shooting mode and blue for options in playback mode with the exception of the DISPlay button.
The FUNCtion button brings up a menu with almost all the settings you'll need including:
The Photo Effects sub-menu and My Colors mode from the S2 IS have merged to form the My Colors sub-menu you see here. I personally think that Photo Effects would've been a better name but anyway, the sub-menu allows for quicker access to changing those options. The custom color allows you to customize contrast, sharpness, saturation, red, green, blue and skin tone values.
The bracketing feature takes 3 shots in a row, allowing to choose the best shot. Exposure bracketing takes 3 shots; one underexposed, one overexposed and one just right. Exposure bracketing is selectable up to ±2 in 1/3 increments. Focus bracketing does the same, except the other 2 shots are focused further and nearer respectively up to ±1 in 1/3 increments.
Finally, the movie resolution and frame rate are selectable even in other modes so you can hit that dedicated movie button anytime. In playback mode, the FUNCtion button doubles as a delete photo button.
Next comes the ISO button which toggles ISO from Auto, Auto High ISO, 80, 100, 200, 400 and 800. In Auto mode, only the first 2 ISO options are available. High Auto ISO boost sensitivity over 100 though you're better off manually selecting that value. The ISO button doubles as a JUMP button in playback, and as the name says, it allows several options for you to jump between photos. Also, hitting the ISO button when the shutter button is pressed halfway activates AE lock.
The third button is a print/share button in playback mode but in shooting mode, it's a shortcut button! You can assign any one of these functions to it:
All those functions either have their own button (like AE and AF lock) or are within 2 button presses away in the FUNCtion menu. So the only sensible functions to assign to the shortcut button, in my opinion, are metering method or IS mode. I chose the former.
The final button in that row is the DISPlay button which toggles between the LCD and EVF when shooting and amount of information displayed when playing back.
The SET button is used most of the time as an "okay button" and is used to turn on FlexiZone AF which lets you select and move around the focus point.
The MENU button brings up a menu with most camera settings such as AF-assist beam, Canon's AiAF (Artificial Intelligence Auto Focus), camera time and stuff like that. You can exit the menu by pressing the MENU button again or pressing the shutter button half way down.
Of course, the S3 IS has a 4-way controller which is used to move around the AF point, navigate through menus and tweak exposure settings (among other things). This controller feels fairly plasticky and is difficult to press.
And should I note there's a status LED clipped between the SET and MENU buttons.
A mode dial is one of the few things located on the top of the S3 IS so I'll start with that:
The only other issue on the Canon PowerShot S3 IS is the smallest selectable aperture is f8 (the camera can do f16 in auto and program mode) and the fast shutter speed limitations:
Lens position Aperture value Fastest shutter speed Wide-angle f2.7 - f3.5 1/1600 sec f4.0 - f5.0 1/2000 sec f5.6 - f7.1 1/2500 sec f8.0 1/3200 sec Telephoto f3.5 - f4.5 1/1600 sec f5.0 - f6.3 1/2000 sec f7.1 - f8.0 1/2500 sec
Fastest shutter speed
f2.7 - f3.5
f4.0 - f5.0
f5.6 - f7.1
f3.5 - f4.5
f5.0 - f6.3
f7.1 - f8.0
That means you can only select 1/3200 sec if you're at wide-angle and choose f8. As for the slowest shutter speed, it's 15 seconds and there's no bulb mode on the S3 IS. This means that low ISO with long shutter shooting may not be possible under some conditions (too dark for example). As comparison, the Sony H5 can do exposures as long as 30 seconds but only as fast as 1/1000 sec.
Other things you'll find on the top is the shutter button with zoom lever, continuous/self-timer selection, power/mode switch and flash mode/sound memo button on the other side. The S3 IS has a zoom lever which resembles those found on video cameras - The zooming speed depends on the amount of pressure put on it.
On the left side of the camera, there's a speaker and A/V Out port on the side with the macro and manual focus buttons on the lens barrel.
Press the macro button and you can go as close as 10 cm to a subject. Holding the same button down activates super-macro mode - and while the lens is locked at wide-angle, you can go as close as 0 cm (that's not a typo). Hitting the manual focus button while the shutter button is pressed halfway activates AF lock.
The other side of the S3 IS features two ports: USB 2.0 High-speed and DC-IN. Below that is a Secure Digital memory card slot, covered by a sturdy door.
At the bottom of the camera, you'll find a tripod mount and a battery compartment with a very sturdy door to protect those 4 AA batteries. Two quirks about the tripod mount: it's plastic and not inline with the lens.
And on to the next section... which contains a super macro mode demonstration.
We'll start with the S3 IS' shooting screen which now features a live histogram! The live preview interface can be very cluttered with all the bells-and-whistles turned on like the live histogram and shooting grid. Despite that, it is very complete, showing everything. A new menu option lets you customize two different display sets for each of the LCD and EVF displays.
You can select one of the Canon PowerShot S3 IS' many image resolutions which include 6 megapixels, 4 megapixels, 2 megapixels, widescreen 16:9 and VGA plus three compression options - Superfine, Fine and Normal. I find that most users (not only me) normally use Fine for everyday shooting and SuperFine only for very important shots.
There are also other manual controls on the S3 IS (which include menu options):
There are 4 optical image stabilization modes on the S3 IS which includes continuous (always on but soaks up more energy; usually for framing telephoto shots), shoot only (stabilizes the picture when the shutter button is clicked; usually more effective), panning (stabilizes up and down movements only; for tracking a moving subject), off (prevents IS from "unstabilizing" a shot when the camera is already on a steady surface like a tripod). Here's a little example:
Both shots were taken at full telephoto at 1/8 second. Needless to say which of the shots were taken with and without image stabilization.
Saving the best for the last, the Canon PowerShot S3 IS can go as close as 10 cm in normal macro mode and 0 cm in super macro mode. Yup, that's right - 0 cm. So there's no minimum focus distance and you can do this:
To get this:
You can go in for ultra-closeups using things like paper with some backlighting.
The Canon PowerShot S3 IS has the same excellent movie mode as the S2 IS. It takes VGA movies with stereo sound at 30 FPS till the memory card fills up. Each movie is limited to 1 GB only though, and that doesn't take long - about 8 or 9 minutes.
If you want to record more movies for less space, the frame rate is selectable with 30 FPS or 15 FPS. You can lower the resolution down to QVGA (320 x 240) as well. A QVGA 60 FPS option records longer than VGA 30 FPS but shorter than VGA 15 FPS movies.
Some other advanced movie settings include microphone level (1, 2, 3, 4 or 5), wind filter (it does just what it sounds) and sampling rate (11, 22 or 44 kHz). All these audio options with stereo sound!
You can adjust exposure and focus while recording a movie or let the camera do it for you. The optical image stabilizer can be used too - and even turned on and off if it's assigned to the shortcut button. And needless to say, optical zoom can be used with either low or medium speed (see below). AND if you wish, there's also digital zoom which can bring zoom up to a whopping 48x or 1728 mm!
The Movie Snap feature from the S2 IS is also on the S3 IS. It lets you take a full resolution 6 megapixel still photo in the midst of recording a movie. The movie pauses during that time and continues after that, so keep that in mind.
For obvious reasons, the Canon PowerShot S3 IS produces great looking videos with excellent sound.
The Canon PowerShot S3 IS starts up and extends its lens in just 1.5 seconds. When it comes to AF, the S3 IS takes about 1/3 to 2/3 of a second to focus in typical situations though it may take a little over a second in low-light. Shutter lag is a little obvious at telephoto (especially in low-light conditions) but not noticeable at wide-angle.
Shot-to-shot speed was 1 shot every 1.9 seconds, longer if the flash is used. Flash recharge time using fully charged batteries was a quick 3 seconds.
In continuous shooting, the Canon S3 IS can shoot indefinitely till the memory card is full - you may need a high-speed card for this though. In normal mode, it shot at 1.5 FPS while that ups to 2.2 FPS using high-speed mode. The difference between the two modes is normal speed keeps the LCD on for composing (great for following moving subjects) while high-speed constantly displays the last shot taken on the LCD for reviewing.
The Ultrasonic Motor (USM) driven lens can be zoomed in and out using 3 different speeds - low, medium and high. Low speed, available in both still shooting and movie mode, moves the lens very slowly to allow for fairly precise zooming - it takes up to 7 seconds to reach full telephoto. Medium speed is only available in movie mode. Zooming is a little faster but slow enough keep the moving of the lens silent. High speed zooming can only be done in shooting mode and brings the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in under one second! Despite that, the lens is fairly silent with only a soft click to be heard.
The S3 IS powers down in 1.1 seconds from either shooting or playback. When the lens is at telephoto, power down time can lengthen to 2 seconds.
Time to take a look to see how the Canon PowerShot S3 IS fares in image quality:
Well, I wanted to use f3.2 and 1/2500 sec for the ISO 800 shot but that's where those limitations got in the way. The ISO 80 and ISO 100 shots are very clean with the difference between the two almost unnoticeable. At ISO 200, noise goes up as things become slightly more grainy. Noise levels go up again at ISO 400 but is still acceptable. At ISO 800, the shot could do with some noise reduction and post processing but don't expect to make high resolution prints out of that. Thankfully, saturation doesn't drop at ISO 800, unlike the Sony H5. There's a tiny bit of chromatic aberration (color fringing) in all those shots but is nothing to be concerned about.
Overall noise levels were low compared to other cameras. The Canon PowerShot S3 IS produces clean photos at ISO 80 and 100 and slightly noisy but still acceptable shots at ISO 200 and 400. The Panasonic Lumix FZ7 does worse in this area while the Sony H5 produces cleaner images at the expense of saturation loss above ISO 800. As for overall chromatic aberration level (not just from the shots above), it was low thankfully.
Barrel distortion is noticeable while pincushion distortion is not. Colors produced in the S3 IS' photos were fairly accurate except the camera sometimes mixes up purple with blue. There was little red-eye in my people photos thanks to the high popup flash. The only other image quality issue on the S3 IS is blown out highlights which is an issue in most cameras. On the S3 IS, the blown out areas are not that bad.
Overall image quality of the Canon PowerShot S3 IS is very good though I'm sure it could perform better in terms of noise at ISO 800.
The full set of photos, all in the Canon PowerShot S3 IS photo gallery.
In playback, the Canon PowerShot S3 IS can playback stills and movies (With sound) as well as do all this: Protect image, print marking, slideshow, rotate and simple movie editing.
You can also magnify still photos by 10x and take a look around using the 4 arrow buttons. Choose to see no info, basic info or lots of info about your photos. A histogram is available as well. The amount of info displayed is plentiful and complete. Overexposed and underexposed sections of a photo blink when using advanced playback.
There are two voice recording options and they're not to be confused with each other. Sound Memo records sound up to 1 minute while Sound Recorder records up to 2 hours. I'd say that they should combine those options and make the entire thing unlimited.
Finally, you can post process photos with the My Colors features from the FUNCtion menu.
Appeal to the crowds
Who's the Canon PowerShot S3 IS for? Check out the target audience rating:
Penny pinchers - Based on features and what's in the box, the Canon S3 IS is not really the best bang for your buck. It has 6 megapixels yet it's priced at $499, the price of 7 megapixel ultra-zooms. You'd have to get a memory card and rechargeable batteries too which will set you back another $50 - $100.
Digital camera newbies/beginners - While the S3 IS features a simple auto mode and many scene modes, I'd recommend the Canon A700 which has full manual controls but comes at a cheaper price and has a large 2.5 inch LCD. The A700 has less than 1/2 of the number of buttons on the S3 IS, making it less daunting to pick up
Everyday shooters - Everyday photographers will appreciate the manual controls they can use and also the more simple programmed auto mode for quick shooting. The relatively small size of the S3 IS (versus digital SLRs) makes it less tiring to hang around your neck. The Canon S3 IS best suits this user audience with its appealing feature set.
Advanced amateurs/enthusiasts - The S3 IS, though having full manual controls and some bells-and-whistles, may not be enough to satisfy enthusiasts. They would want something like the Fujifilm S9000 or Sony R1.
Professional photographers - The Canon S3 IS can seem bulky to professional photographers. What they probably want is a pocketable camera - something way smaller than the digital SLRs they normally use.
Upgraders - Users of the Canon PowerShot S1 IS would love the major improvements the S3 IS has over their camera but S2 IS users would probably want to wait till the S5 IS or at least an ultra-zoom with more new features. Canon S1 IS upgraders need to get SD cards while other Canon users may need to get extra batteries and/or SD cards if they're upgrading to the S3 IS.
Users jumping ship - Those who are using other camera brands should have no trouble upgrading though Fujifilm, Olympus and Sony camera owners who are jumping ship need to get SD cards.
The Canon PowerShot S3 IS took the features of the S2 IS and added a few more, enlarged the LCD and painted the body black. Now this black colored ultra-zoom has 6 megapixels, 12x optical zoom, a rotating 2 inch LCD and some other nice features.
I'll start with the nice 12x optical zoom lens with an optical image stabilizer. This USM driven lens allows from precise and silent zooming. Throw that in with the advanced movie mode features and you get probably the best movie mode on a digital still camera. The movies are limited to 1 GB each though, and that limit arrives quickly since the S3 IS doesn't use the MPEG4 format.
We'll move on to other things like the S3 IS' class leading battery life, very good LCD and EVF visibility, full manual controls and performance. The rotating 2 inch LCD is a little small and having used the Sony H5, I'd prefer a fixed 3 inch LCD with terribly high resolution to something that tiny.
The Canon S3 IS has full manual controls which are great, save for those pesky shutter speed restrictions and limited small aperture selection. In addition, there's a live histogram too - I'm only saying this because this is Canon's 2nd digital camera to include one. At the moment, only 2 Canon cameras have a live histogram; this one and the S80 I reviewed a while back. Anyway, thumbs up to Canon and they should add it to the Digital ELPHs as well!
The S3 IS is expandable with several conversion lenses and filters. The downside to the Canon PowerShot S3 IS and its box contents is a tiny memory card included, no rechargeable batteries and no lens hood. The Sony H5 has the last two items bundled in. With that, the S3 IS becomes additionally expensive - its recommended retail price is already $499 (the price of the 7 megapixel Sony H5).
Everything about the S3 IS' performance is fast except autofocus. The camera fires off continuous shots at over 2 FPS till the memory card is full. Autofocus is fairly fast but still lags behind the Panasonic FZ7 and even the Sony H5.
While the Canon PowerShot S3 IS has 2 unique features - 0 cm super macro and 2 handy places to access you favorite settings and feature - it lacks the jog dial found on most competition.
All-in-all, the Canon PowerShot S3 IS is a great ultra-zoom with very good image quality and some unique features. Well, the Canon S-series ultra-zoom cameras are usually known as hybrid cameras because of their superior movie mode. So, some improvements ought to be made so the S3 IS will really become a bridge between camcorders and digital cameras.
If you can live with the small LCD and few tiny issues here and there, I'd recommend the S3 IS. Alternatively, there's the Sony H5 if you're willing to sacrifice the fancy movie mode and shutter speed (1/3200 sec vs 1/1000 sec) for a little more value for money and large LCD. Overall, it's a tie between the Canon S3 IS and Sony H5. So you pick the features you need and naturally, the camera which fulfills your needs.
Camera rating upon 10 (more about this): [Category: Ultra-zoom]
Here are some other cameras you might want to consider:
Kodak EasyShare Z612 - Is this standard or what? - 6 megapixels, 12x optical zoom, image stabilization and a 2.5 inch LCD. Slow performance and no high ISOs will make you think twice though.
Olympus SP500 UZ - 6 megapixels, 10x optical zoom and a 2.5 inch LCD but no image stabilization and slow performance.
Panasonic Lumix FZ7 - Once again - 6 megapixels, 12x optical zoom, image stabilization and a 2.5 inch LCD. The FZ7 is probably the fastest of this group but does not have the advanced movie mode and high ISO performance of the Canon S3 IS
Sony Cyber-shot H5 - Comes with 7 megapixels, 12x optical zoom, image stabilization, a large 3 inch LCD and has a little more bang-for-your-buck.
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