Canon PowerShot S120 Review – The Canon PowerShot S120 is the latest model in an acclaimed series of advanced compacts, and is proof that high-end performance can come in small packages
There’s a well-established market for cameras that combine the specifications, features and performance of an advanced enthusiast model with the style and portability of a pocket compact, and the latest example of that type is the new Canon PowerShot S120.
Canon PowerShot S120 review – Features
The Canon S-series of high-spec compacts is one of the longest-running in the digital camera industry, with the first model, the two-megapixel 2x zoom S10 making its debut in 1999. Since then the series has seen a steady progression over 13 models, with each one adding more and better features (apart from the optical viewfinder, dropped after the S80 in 2005) while retaining the sleek style and compact portability of Canon’s best pocket-sized cameras.
The latest is the Canon PowerShot S120, announced in August this year. It features a very similar range of features to the much larger PowerShot G16 that we reviewed last week, with the same 1/1.7in back-illuminated 12.1-megapixel CMOS sensor, the same DIGIC 6 iSAPS processor, and a very similar 7.5cm (3.0in) 922,000-dot monitor, although in the case of the S120 this combines a capacitive touch-screen control interface.
The S120 even has the same f/1.8 maximum aperture, although the lens itself is a very different unit to the G16. It features a 5x zoom lens equivalent to 24-120mm, with a maximum aperture range of f/1.8 – f/5.7, optical lens-shift image stabilisation and an automatic lens cover. It certainly looks a lot like the same lens as last year’s S110, but that only had a maximum aperture of f/2.0, so presumably it must be different.
The S-series is aimed at experienced enthusiast photographers, and offers a full range of manual control options, with a main exposure mode dial on the top plate offering program auto, aperture and shutter priority and full manual exposure, as well as a small variety of scene modes and a very limited fully automatic mode. Other advanced options are available, including manual focusing and raw shooting mode. While the S120 does look very slim and fashionable, this is a camera for serious photographers.
As with the G16 and its predecessor the G15, the S120 is only an incremental development of the S110, tweaking the design slightly and adding or improving only a few features, such as doubling the resolution of the monitor, but many small changes can have a significant cumulative effect, and the S120 is noticeably faster, smoother and more satisfying to use than its older sibling.
Features which remain unchanged from the S110 include the autofocus system, Canon’s tried-and-tested nine-point AiAF system with single, continuous and servo AF/AE, as well as touch-screen focus point selection, but now the manual focus option includes the new Focus Peaking feature from the G16.
The exposure metering system is also the same, with evaluative and spot metering linked to the face detection and touch AF systems, but the S120 offers slightly faster maximum shutter speed at 1/2500th of a second, as well as timed exposures of up to 15 seconds, or 250 seconds in the new Star mode. Like the S110, the main exposure adjustment control is a ring around the lens bezel, which combined with the rotary D-pad bezel and a nice clear on-screen display makes for a very intuitive control system. The ring function is fully customisable.
The S110 was somewhat ahead of its time offering Wi-Fi smartphone integration, and this feature is also included in the S120. By installing the free app on an Android or Apple smartphone, pictures can be downloaded and shared wirelessly, and GPS location data can be added to the pictures in the camera. However unlike some other cameras the phone cannot be used to remotely control the camera.
One major improvement is to the video recording feature. The S120 can shoot full 1920 x 1080 HD video with stereo sound, with full optical zoom and Touch AF, and can also now shoot at 60fps, producing much smoother movement and increased clarity.
Canon PowerShot S120 Review – Design
The Canon PowerShot S120 is a beautiful example of understated elegance in design. Canon has got just about everything right here; the simple and unassuming body is strong and functional but still slim and handsome, while the superbly designed control interface manages to be easy-to-use when you need it to be, while not restricting more experienced photographers keen to explore the camera’s many features.
The build quality is excellent, with a strong magnesium alloy and aluminium body finished in a lovely matt texture, and only available in black. Despite the slim profile and the lack of a front handgrip, the non-slip finish and the textured rear thumb rest make the camera very comfortable and secure to hold.
The rear buttons are large and well labelled, and operate with just the right amount of tactile feedback. The rotary D-pad bezel has just the right amount of resistance and turns with a nice ratcheted click, and the combination of responsive and well-designed touch-screen controls, the well-implemented control ring around the lens bezel and the nice clunky mode dial make the S120 a genuine pleasure to use.
It really is hard to think of anything negative to say here; the manual flash pop-up may annoy some, but it’s a positive feature for those of us who prefer to shoot with natural light. It doesn’t have an optical viewfinder of course, and there will always be a few people whining about that, but the monitor is excellent and works well even in bright sunlight. Even the tripod bush is in the right place, directly under the centre line of the lens.
The S120 feels like a “proper camera” while looking like an elegant fashion compact. That Canon has managed to fit so much high-tech performance inside such a slim and attractive body says a lot for the amount of thought and skill that has gone into the design.
Canon PowerShot S120 Review – Performance
The S120’s overall performance is very good, although given its price and specification it’s not quite as fast as I’d hoped. It can start up, focus and take a picture in approximately two seconds, which is reasonably quick, and in single-shot JPEG Superfine mode it can maintain a shot-to-shot time of approximately 1.2 seconds, which is also fairly fast.
In continuous shooting mode it can shoot five frames at 12.1FPS, and then drops to a still outstanding 5.5fps, which can be increased to 9.4fps by turning off live view and AF.
The only fly in this pleasant and soothing ointment is battery duration. The S120 is stuffed with high-tech gizmos, and they all require power. The camera is powered by a rather small 1080mAh li-ion battery, and Canon claims 230 shots per charge.
In fact our test camera didn’t do quite as well; the battery indicator was down to one bar after only 120 shots, although it took another 50 before it finally ran out. 170 shots isn’t many if you’re a keen photographer; li-ion batteries do improve after a few charge cycles, but you might still want to invest in a spare battery.
Canon PowerShot S120 Review – Image Quality
The S120’s overall image quality is excellent, as one might expect from a camera costing over £400. In most respects it is very similar to the Canon G16, not too surprising since it uses the same sensor and processor.
Colour and White Balance
The S120’s overall image quality is superb, as one might expect from a camera costing over £400. In the standard My Colours mode, colour reproduction is slightly more saturated than strictly neutral, but the results are very pleasant, producing nice punchy pictures even in overcast lighting.
There are vivid and neutral settings that produce greater or lesser saturation, as well as sepia, monochrome and other more specialised settings, and the results are uniformly excellent. The S120 has a sophisticated variable white balance mode that can cope with multiple light sources within the same shot, and this works surprisingly well, cancelling colour tints from combined compact fluorescent and incandescent lighting.
Accurate exposure metering is something we take for granted with Canon cameras, and the S120 offers no unpleasant surprises. The multi-zone evaluative metering copes well with all types of lighting, especially when used in conjunction with the automatic face tracking AF.
Shooting JPEG format, dynamic range in the default auto mode is limited, but the DR Correction function brings out plenty of shadow detail, as does shooting in raw mode and hand-processing the results, and for really high contrast situations there is always the HDR option.
12.1 megapixels may not sound like much, when there are compact cameras out there offering over 20MP, but you’ll find that it’s par for the course when it comes to high-end compacts.
Sheer pixel resolution isn’t the only measure of photographic quality, and by limiting the sensor resolution Canon has ensured that the individual photocells on the sensor can be larger, capturing more light and providing more dynamic range and colour depth. Images are sufficient well detailed for large prints, and have excellent sharpness and contrast.
When it comes to high-ISO image noise, the S120 performs identically to its stablemate the G16. Up to 800 ISO images are virtually noise free. From 1600 ISO upward to 6400 noise becomes progressively more visible, and at the 12,800 ISO maximum setting the quality has reduced to the point where the image is pretty much unusable except at a very small size. The noise reduction system removes detail progressively, so the higher the ISO, the less detail.
The major photographic difference between the G16 and the S120 is the lens. The S120’s isn’t quite as good as the G16’s, but it’s not at all bad. Centre sharpness is excellent, and corner blurring is kept to a minimum except at maximum aperture. There is no visible chromatic aberration, but there is some purple fringing caused by sensor charge leakage in very-high contrast areas.
Canon PowerShot S120 Review – Verdict
There’s no question that the Canon PowerShot S120 is one of the best compact cameras money can buy. It has the performance, features and image quality of a high-end advanced compact with the style and portability of a pocket snapshot camera.
It handles well, its complexity is made fun and easy to use thanks to a well-designed control system, and it even looks good, although it would be nice if it came in other colours.
Unfortunately it also has a price tag to match its abilities, and is significantly more expensive than some very similar rivals. If you’re looking for one camera that can do it all, from advanced creative photography to social snapshots on a night out, it’s definitely one you should be looking at, but whether or not you decide it’s the camera for you will probably come down to that illustrious Canon brand name in the end.
Canon PowerShot S120 Review – Sample Image Gallery
These are just a small selection of images captures with the Canon PowerShot S120. For a full selection of images, including a full set of ISO shot, head over to the Canon PowerShot S120 review sample image gallery.