Normally, the unveiling of a new compact camera like the Canon Powershot S2 IS, announced today, wouldn't rate more than a brief mention on this site. Our focus is on digital SLR models used in serious and professional photography since, as working shooters, this is where our interests lie. As such, we don't burn up too much bandwidth writing about point-and-shoots.
But, like other photographers who use digital SLRs on assignment, we also have a compact camera or two for recreational shooting.
Both site co-editor Mike Sturk and I have owned a mix of Nikon and Pentax models over the years. He likes to cart his along on weekend fishing expeditions; with two boys under 6, mine have been pressed into service recording first steps, first soccer games and various family outings.
For ages, I'd been using mostly a Nikon Coolpix 990, and it really met my off-duty shooting needs pretty well. But as a new Dad, I was also toting along a Canon Elura digital video camera, to ensure that for important milestones I was armed with the tools to capture either still or moving pictures.
A Brief History of the Powershot S1 IS
That all changed in March 2004, when I first caught a glimpse of the Canon Powershot S1 IS. Its specifications indicated it could shoot 30 fps, 640 x 480 pixel resolution video continuously, right up to the maximum capacity of the inserted CompactFlash card. No 45 second or other too-short clip limit, as was common a year ago and was a deal-stopper for me in using most compact cameras to shoot personal video.
Instead, the S1 IS could capture about an hour of uninterrupted video at its highest quality setting to a 4GB card. That was all I needed to know to audition the S1 IS for the role of weekend knockabout camera, since it would give me the ability to capture both still pictures and what I hoped would be decent-quality, long-running video clips in the same lightweight body.
Well, I was wrong to hope the camera would record decent-quality video. The truth is the S1 IS's video quality has been stunning, eclipsing anything I'd seen from a compact camera's video mode previously, and easily a match for the video quality of my Canon Elura DV camera. The clarity of the sound has also far exceeded my expectations; the combination of a surprisingly good built-in mono mic, and the fact there's no tape mechanism whine permeating the background, has meant the sound is also superior to the Elura, despite the fact the Elura sports stereo mics.
But wait, there's more. When the S1 IS is in still mode, it operates much like any other midrange compact camera: auto exposure and auto white balance all respond quickly to changing shooting conditions, while the motorized zoom moves through the zoom range rapidly, though with a slightly jerky feel. In other words, when operating as a still camera, Canon designed these functions for speed over smoothness, which makes sense.
Switch to video mode and the whole feel of the S1 IS changes. Automatic exposure and automatic white balance adjustments are made smoothly - almost imperceptibly - in response to changed scene brightness or a shift in the colour of illumination, just like a good-quality DV camera. Same goes for the zoom: all jerkiness is gone, replaced by a silky smooth and almost completely silent shifting of focal length. (By comparison, many competing cameras disable zoom altogether when set to video mode.)
These are just some of the many examples I could give of how, when the S1 IS is capturing video, Canon designed it to act like one of their better consumer-level DV cameras, rather than a still camera that just happens to be able to shoot video. I've not seen another still compact camera with a video mode that seems as thoughtfully and usefully implemented. The design effort makes it a pleasure to use the S1 IS to record video, and has meant my Elura - a US$1600 DV camera at the time it was purchased - has been shelved pretty much permanently, while the S1 IS has become a constant companion.
Oh yes, I almost forgot, it's a still camera too. On that score, its 3.15 million image pixel photos are just fine - very good colour and reasonable image clarity - but the files become overly noisy by ISO 400 and there's a bit too much evidence of smoothing in flat areas at any ISO. Plus, like so many compact cameras, the time it takes for the camera to take the darned picture once the shutter button has been mashed down can be infuriating long (though pre-focusing helps a lot). In short, it's a reasonable still camera, and the pictures it has produced have been more than satisfactory for my use of it. But it's when the camera is switched to video mode that the S1 IS really shines.
From my glowing praise of the video mode in particular, you might be left with the impression that the S1 IS is the perfect weekend camera for the Soccer Mom or Soccer Dad whose other camera is a digital SLR. And while it's close, there are have been a few flies in the ointment.
S1 IS autofocus has a tendency to drift briefly to the camera's nearest focus distance, then rapidly back to the proper focus distance, when shooting video. Even in situations where maintaining focus should be dead-easy. The mic picks up even the slightest breeze, resulting in wind noise in video all too often when shooting outside, while the mic is positioned on the side of the camera where it's too easily covered by the neckstrap. In addition, the responsiveness of the S1 IS in still mode, as well as the image processing, could be improved.
I've been able to live with or workaround each of these deficiencies, but I'd prefer if the camera didn't have them. Plus, I've lost count of the number of times the camera was in still mode when I suddenly wanted to record video, or vice versa, so if the camera could capture either pictures or movies based on whether I press the top shutter button or back video start/stop button, that would be the icing on the cake.
Enter the Powershot S2 IS
Enter the Powershot S2 IS. I've not used this camera yet, but based on the briefing we received on the new model earlier this year, and a look at the specifications, it appears that Canon has kept all of the good stuff of the S1 IS, including long video clip recording, while also addressing that camera's main shortcomings.
Canon Powershot S2 IS (Photo courtesy Canon USA)
First, still image quality is promised to be better, thanks to its 5.04 million image pixel CCD sensor and DIGIC II image processing (the camera's still photo specifications are nearly identical to those of the Powershot SD400). The example S2 IS photographs released by Canon certainly look clearer and more photographically natural than those produced by the S1 IS.
Plus, audio recording now includes wind noise filtering, in addition to two mics for stereo sound, a manual, 5-increment level adjustment and selectable audio quality up to 44khz. The two new mics have been positioned on the front of the camera as well, which should minimize the risk of them being covered by either the neck strap or fingers.
The S2 IS will also record video at any time, regardless of the currently-selected shooting mode, simply by pressing the back video start/stop button. Similarly, it's possible to capture 5MP still pictures while video is being recorded, without stopping the video capture (though Canon's example movie shows the flow of the video being interrupted by the taking of a still photograph, production cameras should be able to record a still seamlessly while video is being recorded).
Canon Powershot S2 IS (Photo courtesy Canon USA)
Autofocus is said to be zippier, thanks to the DIGIC II processor, though only using the S2 IS is likely to reveal whether the quirky focus drift of the S1 IS has been solved.
Canon has also bumped up the shooting rate to as quick as 2.4 fps, increased the size of the rear LCD monitor from 1.5 to 1.8 inches, replaced the USB 1.1 port with a USB 2.0 port operating at USB 2.0 speeds, increased the top shutter speed to 1/3200 from 1/2000, extended the optical zoom range to 12X from 10X (the S2 IS's focal range is equivalent to 36mm-432mm) and beefed up the already-excellent image stabilization to include a mode for pan shots plus another that enables stabilization only during the actual exposure.
The memory card format has also changed, from CompactFlash to Secure Digital (SD). For the pro shooter with a bag full of CompactFlash cards already, this last feature revision won't be particularly welcome. But, SD is well on its way to replacing CompactFlash everywhere, so Canon's adoption of this card format in the S2 IS isn't surprising. Also, the camera will record JPEG still images only, there is no RAW format option. This is the same as the S1 IS, and may be a significant limitation for some pro shooters. And while I shoot RAW most of the time when a digital SLR is at my eye, when using a compact camera I'm in a different shooting head space where a low-compression JPEG serves my needs just fine. So, this isn't a serious feature omission to me.
A camera is more than just a collection of specifications, so we'll have to wait until the S2 IS is released to see if it does in fact shore up its predecessor's small number of performance hiccups. If it does, the S2 IS will quickly replace the S1 IS as my camera of choice for family photography, or anytime I need to capture video.
Canon USA's press release details these and other changes in the Powershot S2 IS. The camera will sell for an estimated street price of US$499.99 in the U.S., and is slated to ship during the last month of my older son's soccer season (otherwise known as June 2005).
• Corrected an error in the description of the S2 IS's video specifications. Though we had been told in a briefing on the camera that it would be able to record Fast Frame Rate (60 fps) video, production cameras do not have this capability (May 25, 2005)