Product Type: Canon digital cameras
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Canon Powershot S2 IS
Member Name: davidbuttery
Canon Powershot S2 IS
Date: 10/02/11, updated on 10/02/11 (70 review reads)
Advantages: Packed with features, great handling, very good photo quality, excellent lens, very responsive, CHDK
Disadvantages: Mediocre LCD/EVF, some purple fringing, takes time to learn everything
The S2 is a five-megapixel camera, something that was not exceptional even when it was released in 2005. Even its 12x optical zoom was by no means unheard of, though "superzoom" was much less common then than now. What attracted most people to this camera was its combination of those things, a very extensive feature set, a remarkable (for the day) movie mode and - of course - its ability to produce good quality photos, which I've found it is capable of pretty consistently in most conditions. Even today that combination is more than worth a look.
== Design and handling ==
This is not a very small camera at all, and you won't be able to slip it into any but the largest of pockets. It's smaller than a DSLR, though, and sits firmly in the "bridge" category. Unlike later models in the S range it was only produced in silver, which may disappoint some, but those who don't think a camera needs to be black to look good won't mind that! Its branding is not flashy, consisting of little more than three embossed "Canon" logos and the model name in quite small print above the lens. Look on the underside and those who mind about such things will see that it was made in Japan.
Handling is one of the S2's best areas, at least once you get away from the idea that this is a pocket camera. It should certainly be used with a neck strap, as it's quite heavy (around 500 grams ready to go) but it's very satisfying to hold. The chunky, slightly roughened hand grip is extremely secure and one-handed shooting is no problem at all. Although there are a lot of buttons, nearly all the ones you're likely to need in a hurry are well located and precise in operation. The flash must be *manually* popped up; this divides opinion, but I like it as it means you'll never have it go off accidentally where you'd get into trouble!
== Ease of use, features and settings ==
There are an awful lot of features on the S2, and if I were to get carried away I could easily make this section as long as the rest of the review combined! However that does mean that it may be a little overwhelming as a first digital camera, and I would probably recommend that you get well acquainted with a smaller, simpler PowerShot model first. That said, if you're the sort of person who enjoys being confronted with a vast range of options and controls, then by all means go for it. You're unlikely to run out of things to fiddle with for some while!
Although there is an Auto mode, and a (small) selection of Scene modes, these are not really the S2's main attraction. What attracts more users is its full range of other settings: Program, Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority and full Manual. There's also an extremely useful Custom setting on the mode dial: you can set up the camera just the way you want it, then save that setup so that it loads up immediately whenever you twist the dial to the C position. Naturally there's manual focus too, though it's not particularly easy or intuitive to use.
The S2 has a two-part macro setting. The "ordinary" macro is no great shakes, giving up at a minimum distance of around 10 cm. However, keep your finger on the macro button and you enter "super macro" mode, in which the minimum focusing distance is 0 cm. No, that's not a misprint. This camera has *no* closest-focus limit, and could in theory even focus on dirt on the lens glass itself. (I haven't tried that one myself, I hasten to add!) Of course, you'd need to solve the problem of the lens barrel blocking off all the light, probably by setting up some sort of backlighting.
Most compact cameras have some sort of burst mode continuous option, wherein you keep your finger pressed down on the shutter to take a series of shots. The S2 has two of them: in the standard mode, which runs at about 1.5 fps, you still get a brief live preview between each shot, which can help with framing. Choose high-speed instead and the rate goes up to 2.3 fps, pretty respectable for a compact, although now there's no live preview. With a decently fast memory card, there's never any wait for buffering; you can keep shooting until the card's full.
A very useful facility is bracketing. This allows you to take a sequence of three images, one at the settings you choose on the camera and two more a slight distance either side in terms of either exposure or focus. For example, if you choose exposure bracketing, you will find that compared with the initial shot, the next will be a little darker and the third a little lighter. The precise changes depend on how far apart you set the "sides" of the bracket to be. It's a really useful feature when the light is difficult and you want to give yourself the best chance of at least one good photo.
A brief rundown of some of the other features of the S2: ISO can be set from 50 to 400, which is an unexciting but useful range. White balance has the usual range of settings, including not only the basics such as sunny, cloudy and so on but also a special one for flash photos and a manual option (point the camera at a sheet of white card to take a reading). You can control the power of the flash, as well as whether it fires at the start or the end of an exposure. There's (rather basic) on-camera control of contrast, sharpness and saturation, and even a simple intervalometer option.
== LCD, menus and controls ==
The S2 has a 1.8-inch screen, and if you come to it from a more modern camera you'll find it rather small at first. It does, however, offer full tilt and swivel, which is great for getting shots at unnusual angles - and for protecting the screen when the camera's not in use. There's also an electronic viewfinder (EVF), and you can swap between the two by means of the Disp button. Neither has a particularly high resolution, and the EVF in particular is a bit fuzzy, but it can be very useful to be able to hold a heavy camera like this up to your eye when composing and taking a shot.
Despite the relatively small screen size, menus and icons show up on it pretty clearly. These are very similar to those used in Canon PowerShot digicams for many years now, and are pretty self-explanatory. (Of course, things like the lightning bolt for flash and the flower for macro are more or less universal across manufacturers anyway.) One nice touch is that if you have the S2 set to Auto and call up the main menu, the sections not available in that mode are shown greyed out rather than being absent altogether. The one potentially confusing thing is remembering which menu items are summoned by the Func/Set button and which by the Disp button.
As I mentioned above, there are a *lot* of buttons on this camera. There are seven (plus the four-way pad) on the back alone, plus several more on the top and even on the side. On the top too is the mode dial, which is slightly knurled and clicks into place reassuringly precisely. Next to it is the power control, which works in an interesting fashion. To switch the camera on, you move a small collar one way for shooting and one way for review, but to turn it *off* you press a button. This lack of a straight toggle means it is much harder to activate the power switch by mistake.
The sheer number of controls that Canon had to pack into the S2 does mean that it can be a little overwhelming at first; this is not the camera for you if simplicity means everything. For example, the flash control is on the top. So is the continuous (burst mode) switch, but at the other end. The manual focus and macro activator buttons are on one side of the base of the lens holder. On the other hand, one really straightforward control is that for shooting movies: it's a separate, obvious button with a big red spot in the middle! On the plus side, there is a "shortcut" button that you can set as you wish: you might want it to control ISO, or white balance, or focus lock.
== Lens and zoom control ==
One of the main attractions of the S2 was, and remains, its lens. Its 12x optical zoom gives you the equivalent of a 36-432 mm range. Not much use for wide-angle shots, but then this camera is not meant for those. The far end of the zoom, on the other hand, is a revelation if you've previously been confined to the 105-ish mm telephoto limit of the average 3x zoom camera. For example, I was able to get some decent shots of racing cars from over halfway up the main grandstand at Silverstone, and that's really quite a long way from the track itself. Although a 12x range is nothing by comparison with the 30x and more available today, it is still extremely nice to have.
Of course, none of this would be any use if the optics weren't any good, but happily this is far from being the case, and frankly from Canon I would have been upset to find anything less. The S2's is a nice big lens, and lets in plenty of light: its widest aperture is a very creditable f/2.7 at wide-angle, but it's the f/3.5 at full telephoto that really stands out when compared with many other compact(ish) cameras. To see why this matters, consider the much newer Canon SX130 (also 12x zoom). At full tele, that can only manage f/5.6, a full one-and-a-third stops slower. In real terms? You could have a shutter speed of 1/60 second with the S2, but in the same conditions the SX130 couldn't manage faster than 1/20 s. It's a *big* advantage.
The S2 also possesses Canon's very effective image stabilisation (IS) mechanism. Unlike the digital "shake reduction" gimmicks seen in many cheap cameras, which is often nothing more than a behind-the-scenes tweak of in-camera settings, this one works by physically moving an element in the lens. The upshot of that is that you get the stabilisation without losing image quality; it's better than "shake reduction" in much the same way that optical zoom is better than digital zoom - ie *much* preferable. You can choose to have IS on all the time, just when you press the shutter or in a special "vertical only" mode for panning shots. I've found I can hand-hold down to about 1/15 s with IS turned on, and those with really steady hands may be able to do better.
The zoom is a joy to control, too. Canon's excellent ultrasonic motor (USM) means that it moves smoothly throughout its range - you don't get the jerky steps you're limited to by many compacts. It's activated, as on many other Canons, by a collar around the shutter button, but it has a really useful trick up its sleeve: move the collar slightly for a slow but very accurate - and almost silent - zoom; shift it all the way for a much faster, and not so silent (but still quiet) movement. You can go from full wide to full telephoto in around one second, which is impressive.
== Movie mode and consumables ==
In its day, the S2's movie mode had a claim to being the best available on any digital camera. (Back in 2005, not a single DSLR had movie mode at all.) It's been surpassed now by HD video, but it's still quite usable, in that it records VGA (640 x 480) movies in stereo sound. The stereo isn't all that wide, but it is easily discernible. The problem of wind noise which plagues many compact cameras' videos to this day is considerably reduced by the provision of a camcorder-style anti-wind setting, which works pretty well. You are limited to video files of 1 GB (about 8 minutes at full quality) though that should be ample for most people.
One of the reasons why the S2 is quite heavy is that it takes four AA batteries, rather than the two we've become used to in recent years. That's no bad thing, however, as it means that battery life is extremely good. Just recently I spent a day out photographing seagulls at a nearby river. Using lots of burst mode and keeping the camera on for long periods as I fiddled with menu settings, I almost filled up a 1 GB memory card (well over 300 photos) on one set of batteries, albeit good-quality ones. (Maplin 2500 mAh NiMH rechargeables - as usual with any AA-powered digicam, rechargeable batteries are a must.)
Talking of memory cards, the S2 takes standard SD cards, which are easy to find all over the place and the cheapest of all formats. A word of warning, however: it does *not* support the newer SDHC (or SDXC) cards. That means you're limited to a maximum card capacity of 2 GB, but as that will allow you well over 700 photos even at top resolution it's unlikely to bother you unduly. It's best to use reasonably fast memory cards, as the price premium is small and the performance gain is useful. I've found that a SanDisk Ultra II card can keep up with anything you and the S2 can throw at it, and even in high-speed continuous mode never stops for buffering.
== Additional... ==
For the adventurous, and those for whom the above list of features (and a few more options I couldn't squeeze in, such as continuous autofocus) isn't enough, there's the amazing freeware addon CHDK. This stands for "Canon Hack Development Kit", and as the name rather implies it's entirely unofficial. As such, if you use it and it destroys your camera, Canon aren't likely to be all that sympathetic. However, as far as I'm aware this simply doesn't happen, and I certainly use it a great deal on my S2 (and on my other compatible PowerShots) with no problems at all.
CHDK is, roughly, a temporary firmware upgrade. It sits on an SD card (taking up only about a megabyte) and when activated gives you access to a startling variety of features. For example, you can shoot in RAW mode - only 10-bit (not as good as with DSLRs) but it's something. You can use ridiculous shutter speeds - how does 1/20,000 s strike you? You get a live histogram (actually, you can choose from *eight* types) rather than the after-the-event one the S2 offers as standard. You get a much more precise battery meter. You can even write scripts to automate camera controls - the first time you see your S2's lens zoom in and out without a touch is one you won't forget.
The easiest way to get hold of this little marvel is simply to search for "CHDK" online, which should bring up the official wiki as the first result. It's not a polished, professional product and you'll have to do a little bit of fiddling to get it installed (though this is not at all hard) and to find out exactly what it can do, but then if you own a digicam like the S2 you probably don't mind that too much!
== Photo quality and verdict ==
Clearly, there's no point in buying a camera with all the bells and whistles in the world if it's no good at producing high quality output, so this really is crunch time for the S2. Happily it doesn't let you down, and within the confines of what is reasonable for a 5 mp compact it does a fine job. Resolution is good, and though image noise is rather high at ISO 400 and pictures can benefit from a little sharpening on the computer afterwards, those are a lot easier to deal with than if the camera had been so aggressive with the noise reduction that detail had been lost. You can't get that back later, whereas with a modicum of care you *can* retrieve sharpness.
Colours on this model are typical Canon, which is to say that they're nudged a little in the direction of oversaturation. Nothing to scare the horses, and a lot of people like the slightly brighter effect this gives. A slightly more serious fault is that at full tele in particular there's quite obvious purple fringing (chromatic aberration) on full-size JPGs. I say "slightly" because, well, how often do you actually *use* a full-size picture? Most photos will either be viewed at the smaller resolution of a monitor screen or printed out, and the purple fringing is barely evident at these sizes. Normal 7x5 prints look fabulous, and 10x8 is more than acceptable too if you're not going to be viewing from three inches away.
I'm sure it's apparent by this point that I really like using this Canon. Elderly it may now be, but although none of its features taken in isolation are that special any more, as a package they still add up to a very capable and enjoyable digicam to use. There really isn't anything it does *badly*, at least unless what you need most is a camera that will slip unobtrusively into a shirt or jeans pocket. Its continuing popularity is evidenced by its second-hand prices on eBay and the like: £50-60 is the norm. Mine was a tenner because the flash didn't work (I borrowed another one to test that for this review) and I consider that the best photographic bargain I've ever found, by far.
Short of taking the plunge and moving up to a DSLR, the Canon PowerShot S2 IS is really all the camera most people will need, even now. It's certainly a camera that repays a bit of time and effort in getting to grips with all its features, but once you're over that hurdle it's also a very pleasant digicam to use in most situations. I'd give it four and a half stars if I could (the half-point penalty would be mostly for the less than ideal LCD and EVF resolution, about the only thing that ever actually irritates me about this device) but it's such a nice camera to use that I'm rounding it up to the full five.
Summary: Still a remarkably capable digital camera, and so rewarding to use
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