Exit Review: Canon S100

I like bunnie’s exit review idea: a retrospective review at the end of a device’s life can be very useful and insightful, and it’s worth thinking back. Here, my thoughts on three and a half years of using a Canon S100 camera.

Short background: I bought a refurbished Canon SD600 as my first own camera in 2008, got a lot of use out of it, and liked it a lot, but by 2013 it was developing severe spotting in sensor and/or lens. I had bought a Nikon D60 DSLR as my “big camera” in 2010, and wanted a newer pocketable camera to take around and bring into shows. I liked my SD600 and was happy to stick with Canon, and had desired an S-series camera since its reboot with the S90 in 2009.

The Canon S100 was announced in 2011; I bought a black one as an “open box” from Black’s in May 2013 for 291 CAD including taxes. The choice came down to the S100 or a white S110 that Henry’s was selling. Ultimately I thought the additional features in the S110 (slightly better ISO, wifi, touchscreen) were not worth the extra price. I had it until December 2016, when I lost or was helped to lose it.

The S100 was my main camera from June to December 2014 when the D60 had a mirror-sticking problem (magically self-resolved) and from August 2015 until September 2016 when the only lens I had for the D60 was getting unsharp due to too many bumps. After September 2016, it was my wider-than-50mm-equiv-lens camera when I wanted that. It was also my portable camera and video recorder at other times.

The tactile ring was one of the bigger selling points when I was choosing. It felt great and was fun to play with. I am a great fan of knobs and notches. But ultimately, I didn’t end up using it that often. In fact I probably got more use playing with it than actually using it to adjust settings. The second control ring on the back was nice, though also not that useful – I ended up using it mostly while reviewing photos.

There was one big problem: laggy firmware. I had been used to my DSLR: with a kit lens, rotating the lens adjusts the zoom immediately – it’s a physical control. Adjusting exposure was done by holding down one button and rotating a control ring; ISO, another button; and in both of these cases, this is always done immediately. On the S100, these adjustments would happen with a lag, or sometimes a notch or two of the movement would be missed off. Changing the camera “mode” meant waiting a second for an animation to finish on the screen before I could change any settings. That sucked, especially in a camera three years newer than my DSLR.

For some reason I never found, I was unable to use shutter speeds longer than 1 second. The camera would faithfully make the exposure, but the resulting image would never be written to the card. This was a disappointment after doing some 15 second exposures on my SD600, but I never had enough cause to dig really deep into it.

(Annoyance: the S100 and the D60 adjusted exposure in the opposite direction – D60 has positive to the left, S100 the other way around. No one’s fault, really, except maybe mine for buying cameras from two manufacturers – but it was a pain.)

As with some review samples, my S100 lens was always a bit soft in corners – not to the point of images being unusable, but not perfect at 100% either. 12 megapixels gave a lot of leeway in 2014, though.

I got the common S100 lens error in April 2014, when the lens wouldn’t retract; Canon Canada support first gave me a form response, but ultimately ended up servicing and returning it 6 business days after I sent it in, and the camera was fine after that. As far as I could tell, the whole electronics board including lens was replaced. Economics of modern electronics repair…

A Canon S100 digital camera with its outer casing removed

Annoyingly, this is the only photo of my S100 I actually have. I was trying to fix the lens error.

The proprietary battery and AC charger was standard for cameras of its age, but it sucked to have it nevertheless. USB something or other, please.

The HD video was nice. Zooming while recording is taken for granted these days, but it was indeed useful. On the other hand, I didn’t end up shooting in raw image format much – the JPEGs were usually good enough for me.

The low-light performance didn’t really amaze me. The lens was f/2.0, theoretically a big upgrade on the SD600’s f/2.8, but in practice it didn’t feel substantially better in the dark. Maybe my standards went up? But I can think of a few really good concert photos I took with the SD600 and not a lot more with the S100. Maybe I should have let its ISO go up a bit higher? I had been conditioned by the SD600 and the D60 to avoid everything higher than ISO 400.

The ergonomics were fairly good for what it was. Obviously it’s no DSLR with proper two-hand hold and an optical view-finder. But it’s also way, way better than touchscreen-primary devices. Just having a zoom rocker makes a huge difference. The mini hand hold on the front and the thumb rest on the back were okay given the size of the camera. It was never going to fit in my hand as well as a DSLR, but it made the most of its pocketable size. Small note: the wrist strap that came with the camera was much too stiff; I ended up using SD600’s wrist strap for most of S100’s life.

The colour scheme was new – bright white “Canon” text on matte black camera body was a bit of an adjustment coming from black text on the metal-silver SD600, but it grew on me in the end (possibly as the white greyed out and became a bit less stark). The black paint rubbed off a bit on corners with use, but not as much as it’d feared, and the wear looked pleasing. Much like the SD600, the S100 felt durable and I never had the sense I would break it with a bump or a drop – and the lens error didn’t happen after a bump.

I ended up barely using the flash, and would not miss it if it was gone. I tried using the GPS briefly but disabled it for most of camera’s life because it didn’t really feel necessary.

Having lost it along with photos from 10 days (including 3 days of holiday), I guess it would have been good to have more automatic photo off-load. Fairly automatically nightly syncing would have been nice, for instance. So long as it wasn’t over Google servers… and I don’t think there’s still any good, reliable ways to do this on hardware with less computing power than a smartphone.

I guess a downside was that a camera this small is a bit easier to leave behind or pick out of a pocket.

What next? I started to look into cameras to replace the S100 as my pocketable. It didn’t amaze me as much as the SD600 (to be fair, my standards might have risen), but I liked it well enough to consider getting another Canon.

Looking at “real cameras”, the Canon S-series as I know it from the S100 and S110 continued in 2013’s S120 and then sort of continued with 2015’s G9 X, though the latter is a bit thicker while also losing the back control ring. I had started sizing up the G9 X in its very attractive silver/leather look, but I’m having second thoughts now.

In some sense, a modern smartphone would be a decent enough successor. The photo quality is certainly good enough in most conditions. But modern smartphones are not optimized for camera use – they are difficult to grip, very fragile, and adjusting settings while taking photos is difficult. I don’t want a camera that will break after one drop.

I’m tempted to go back to the basics. I took some really great photos with my consumer-grade SD600 and I’m considering going in that direction, a small cheap consumer camera that maybe runs CHDK and is nothing special – but 2016-era “nothing special” might well be good enough. Just please, have USB charging. Let’s see.