Canon PowerShot S120 Digital Camera Review
Another year, another excellent PowerShot S
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There's little doubt that Canon's PowerShot S has cemented its spot as a groundbreaking camera series. Canon practically invented the prosumer compact segment, mating a full feature list with great image quality. Since 2009's PowerShot S90, we've seen Canon upgrade from CCDs to CMOS sensor tech, adding features like WiFi, faster image processors, Full HD video, and touch control with the rear LCD.
The latest addition to the family, the Canon PowerShot S120 ($449.99 MSRP), continues to iterate on the concept. Like last year's S110, you get 5x zoom, but this time with a brighter lens and faster autofocus.
It's worth noting that, in the age of large sensor advanced compacts like Sony's RX100-series, Canon made the choice to stick with a recipe it knew by heart. There's something to be said for tradition, and the S120 shows how good a time-tested camera concept can get better with age.
Design & Handling
Small camera, plenty of control
Most point and shoots settle for shrunken controls in exchange for a slim profile. The PowerShot S120 goes against the grain, preserving the slim body but inflating the size of its rear buttons to make them easier to press. The new, more pronounced controls are a subtle change visually, but they bring the S-series closer in design to Canon's beginner-friendly A-series. It's a welcome improvement upon the PowerShot S's proven control layout, making the S120 more approachable than prior S-series entries.
The S120 also features a beefed-up rear thumb rest and a speckled finish across its metal case, making the whole package easier to hold. The signature control ring that surrounds the S120's lens is a useful touch. Not only does it automatically change functions depending on what mode you're in (for instance, in aperture priority, it's mapped to open or close the camera's aperture), it also is highly customizable. The ring is satisfyingly clicky between your fingers as you twist it, letting you make adjustments finely and accurately. The camera's compact size makes it a pleasure to shoot one-handed, but control freaks will probably choose to use two hands, in order to take advantage of that great front ring.
The only thing Canon could have added is a custom function button like we saw on the Nikon P330. That said, between the big touchscreen, the improved buttons, the physical mode dial, the control ring, and the zoom toggle, the S120 has enough control to swap settings with ease.
Novice or pro, you'll find plenty to appreciate
There are quite a few different elements that come together to make the S120 a compelling choice. A hallmark of the S series continues to be the combination of a large sensor and a fast lens—something that has only gotten a bit better with the latest iteration. The S120's f/1.8-5.7 5x optical zoom lens is paired up with a 1/1.7-inch CMOS sensor—bigger than average for a camera of this size. There's optical image stabilization, too, so you can expect great low-light shots. By using aperture priority mode, it's easy to get some decent shallow depth-of-field effects in your shots when you're shooting wide open.
The Powershot S120 also has a top-notch screen. A new, sharp 3.0-inch touchscreen has been updated to more than double the resolution of the S110, clocking in at 922k pixels. With tap-to-focus, it's easy to graduate from a smartphone and feel right at home on the S120.
While Canon loyalists will adapt to shooting with this camera without blinking, the S120 highlights Canon's famous ease-of-use for the rest of us. Much of what you'd want to change is in a quick menu atop the live view and the remaining options lie in a well-organized and simple menu system accessible by pressing menu button. All menus are touch sensitive, reacting to taps and swipes so you can leap over a long list of settings in a single flick.
This is the second PowerShot S camera to feature WiFi, and it's the same implementation used across Canon's lineup. You can pair the S120 to your smartphone or tablet using Canon's Image Gateway application, available on iOS and Android. From Image Gateway, it's simple to save images to your phone's internal storage and out to your favorite social networks.
Still among the best point-and-shoots
Given the pedigree of Canon's S-series, the S120's reputation precedes it. We expected great performance in both the lab and the real world and we weren't disappointed. In our battery of lab tests, this little black number held its own against some of the best point-and-shoots out there.
The S120 shined in ways that matter in the real world, not just in the lab. It does a great job with auto white balance, handling both fluorescent and daylight with an acceptable amount of error. If you like shooting continuous photos, the S120 is capable of over 7 FPS with a buffer that is nigh impossible to fill up, topping out at around 40 frames. Even once it starts to slow down
One area where we noticed marked improvement was in video sharpness. Canon overlooked video in previous S-series models, but with the S120, 1080/60p finally comes standard. This new S-series model delivers crisp video in bright light. scoring higher than the S110, which was limited to 1080/30p.
Anecdotally, we can't say we had any complaints about autofocus speed. The S120 felt a bit faster than some other point-and-shoots but not quite as lighting-fast as the autofocus we've seen from mirrorless cameras like Olympus's E-PM2. Neither the S120 nor the E-PM2 is particularly well-suited for photographing fast-moving sports action, but when trying to capture a sharp shot of a moving cat or baby (cat baby?), AF speed can really matter.
You've come a long way, baby
Even with the advent of large-sensor compacts like Sony's RX100 and the Nikon Coolpix A, the PowerShot S120 is a camera that holds its own quite well. While it's no longer the top of the market, it still turned in great performance in all of our lab tests. You can expect solid still quality and good enough video for capturing moments off-the-cuff.
In two very important areas, the S120 completely beats out the RX100. Of the two, the S120 is smaller, thinner, and—unlike the RX100—the one that fits comfortably in a pants pocket. We also think that it's the only advanced compact camera out there you can confidently hand to a non-photographer without ruffling feathers. Canon's ease-of-use truly shines here.
It doesn't hurt that the S120 is significantly cheaper, ringing the till at $449.99, compared to the base $599.99 you'll be paying to get in with the RX100 crowd. Don't get us wrong—the RX100 is still the better camera, but the S120 is cheaper, easier to use, and just the right size to take with you anywhere.
With its handling improvements, brighter lens, 1080/60p video, and unquestionable pocketability, the S120 is a terrific camera either for DSLR owners looking for something svelte to slip into a pocket, or shutterbugs with no desire to lug a DSLR while on vacation.
By the Numbers
The PowerShot S120 did well in our scientific tests. Not that we're all that shocked—S-series models have a well-established and storied reputation for delivering great image quality.
We were blown away by the improvements in video that the S120 brings to the table. It's a very able performer in low light, requiring only 7 lux to produce an image of 50 IRE, a broadcast benchmark for minimum illumination. Thanks to the S120's improved 1080/60p shooting mode, we noticed a nice boost in visible detail and sharpness in our motion video tests. We measured 650 lw/ph horizontal and 700 lw/ph vertical in our bright light scenario and 450/575 under low light.
We were relatively impressed with the color accuracy of the PowerShot S120. We saw the best results when color modes were turned off, which resulted in a minimum color error of 2.32.
The included color modes are there to make the picture take on a different look, like with the slightly desaturated Neutral mode, the dark skin/light skin modes for portraits and the arty positive film and vivid options. Overall, the PowerShot S120 carries on the Canon tradition of giving you the choice between pleasing colors, or accuracy while shooting.
The most noteworthy change to the S120's optical design that that you now get a faster max aperture at full wide angle. Outside of that, you can expect pleasingly sharp shots from this little point-and-shoot, as we've seen from past PowerShot S cameras. That's not to say that things couldn't have been better, though.
The PowerShot S120 uses some software oversharpening to accomplish what its small lens and sensor can't get to on their own. In a few cases, we saw some patches on our resolution chart enhanced artificially with more than 30% oversharpening. Thankfully, though, since the S120 shoots RAW, you can skip the JPEG algorithm's method and apply sharpening to your own shots as you see fit.
You'll notice quite a bit of detail loss when shooting in high ISOs. We were stunned just how bad images taken between ISO 1600 and 12800 look—detail flies out the window and you'll be left with blurry, soft photos. Even on the normal noise reduction setting, the noise level jumps past 1% by ISO 800 and hits a high of 2.26% for ISO 12800. Check out the samples below for examples of what you lose going all the way up the ISO spectrum. Mindful shooters should limit the S120's auto ISO function to max out at ISO 800.