Canon Powershot S5 IS Review

As long as major players, such as Canon, continue to transfer the expertise and technology they develop in high-end products into the digicam market, it will remain lively and competitive. The newly released Powershot S5 IS, for example, uses the same Digic III processor that drives the ground-breaking EOS 1D Mark III. This device, coupled with ultra-sonic motors, a large bright display, and big-camera ideas (such as a hot-shoe with full TTL functionality), delivers a compact camera well worth a look by professionals for use as a no-fuss, pocketable solution where slapping mirrors and bags of equipment won’t go.

ISO 100 1/500s F/4 Auto-WB 432mm (35mm equiv.)

Since this review is published through the Luminous Landscape, it is assumed that readers are well versed in photographic technique and terminology. They also know that a complete discussion of the entire inventory of functions and features of any camera is available from those more inclined to provide such information, like Phil Askey at his excellent


This is a personal experience

Among other things, I’m a social scientist, so I’m compelled to come clean about the influence that I, personally, bring to this discussion. I’ve been waiting patiently for this camera to hit the shelves – the first time I’ve bought any camera that was on the market less than a year. This time I tumbled in less than a week. Up to now, my digicams were a venerable Canon G3 and a flashy little Sony P200, both excellent in their own right, but starting to cause more problems than they solve as my experience and photographic demands grow. So I traded them in at my favourite camera shop in Ottawa, Canada, with barely a sigh, for the new S5 IS. Having bet this much on a new camera, you may suspect that I’m going to sing about its glory no matter what I actually think. On the contrary, I don’t like being tricked. I expect Canon to play nice.

Out of the Box

The first thing you’ll notice is that the S5 IS has some heft, but compared to SLRs, is a bit like a Blackberry compared to a full-sized computer – everything is all, sort of, squished together, especially for chubby little fingers like mine.

OK, so jam in the batteries, a reasonable-sized memory card (the provided 32 Mb card will never leave the box), set the date and time, set the control dial to “P” and start shooting to see what happens. Figuring out how to use the viewfinder instead of the display screen takes a moment. Trick: face the twist screen inwards, so the LCD side is hidden, and everything displays in the viewfinder. The LCD screen, by the way, is huge, bright and I would not have bought the camera if it didn’t flip and twist. This feature was a huge part of the G3 experience, something I would never sacrifice again in a digicam (the P200).

Still disinclined to open the manual (I was in the car), I decided to try to be creative: Hmm. Where’s the aperture and shutter-speed control dial? – ahh, the 4-way controller. It’s also labeled with the exposure compensation icon, but nothing else – like, White Balance, or ISO. Wait, there’s an ISO button – change that to 80 from “Auto”.  My G3 experience tells me that “FUNC.” means essential shooting settings – there’s the White Balance, first on that menu. Oops, the picture quality is “Large” but only medium compression – set that to “Superfine” and leave it there. Moving on, I press the “DISP.” button a few times: it cycles through two levels of info settings for the viewfinder and the display – live histogram, excellent; rule of thirds grid, nice! Check out the “Menu” menus – quite Canon. Safety FE? Safety MF? Tally Lamp? Ok, I’ve got some reading to do when I get home. Still, within an hour, I was familiar and capable without the manual at all. Verdict: out-of-the-box experience with the S5 IS is what I expected it be – quite positive.

ISO 80 1/202s F/3.5 Auto-WB 432mm (35mm equiv.)

Features To Talk About

Here is a roll call of basic features that bring the S5 IS to the attention of professional picture-takers.

Priority Modes

Both aperture and shutter priority exist, and except for the range limits, which pale compared to a typical SLR lens, are fine. Manual Mode gives you an exposure scale in addition to the live histogram if you have selected it using the Custom Display menu. 

Program Shift

It was a bit of a surprise to find this feature, although the range of the aperture settings limits the range of shifting.

ISO Range

We’re so used to silky smooth APS-C, and larger, sensors, you’re going to have to be bit open-minded. ISO 80 is good; 100 is OK; ISO 200 is the absolute maximum you’ll want to use; anything higher is unusable. There’s more on image quality a little later in this review.

Exposure Controls

You can choose Evaluative metering, which includes face recognition (courtesy of the Digic III processor), Center-Weighted and Spot.

Exposure Lock

If you press the ISO button while the shutter button is half-pressed, the exposure locks on the target you happen to be aiming at for the next shot.

Focus Lock

Focus lock is actually manual focus – press it while pressing the shutter release and it sticks to where you are focused until you press it again to un-stick it. You can also use the aim-at-your-target-then-half-press-and-recompose method to focus lock as well.

Manual Focus

There are few digicams that offer truly effective manual focus and the S5 IS is no exception to this, the problem being the clarity of the display and the adjustment mechanism: a digital display (tiny and crude in the viewfinder) and the 4-way controller instead of a focus ring or even a dial. (I try to imagine a compact digicam with a full-time focus ring and I get all funny in the knees.)

Super Zoom Lens

An excellent reason to buy this camera is the 12x optical zoom lens. I’d prefer 13x starting at 28mm, but I’m not really complaining. The lens zoom range is actually 6 to 72 mm, giving 36 to 432 mm in a 35 mm equivalent sensor. Zoom is controlled with Canon’s usual rotating ring that surrounds the shutter release. The ultrasonic motor is so fast and quiet, I don’t really think a zoom ring on the lens would be a lot more convenient. With such a long zoom range, you should naturally expect some barrel distortion at the wide end, but there is surprising clarity across the entire image throughout the zoom range.

The lens aperture range is a maximum of f/2.7 at the widest focal length and f/3.5 at full zoom with a minimum aperture of f/8.0 – typical of small-sensor cameras. This means amazing DOF without wide-angle distortion in scenes with both near and distant objects, but also means that background blur is possible only in wide aperture zoomed shots.

The lens also has two macro modes: normal, down to 10 cm and super-macro down to 0 cm! Here’s a picture of the paper fibers seen through a bookmark pressed against the end of the lens barrel and aimed at a bright light source. (You can see a bit of CA creeping in there.)

ISO 80 1s F/2.7 36mm (35mm equiv.)

Image stabilization (IS) apparently provides up to 3 more stops of handholdability for low light or telephoto shots. My tendency is to leave the IS on, making the S5 IS more useful overall.


I tried a few experiments to see how to get the auto focus (AF) to work well or wander. Distant, dark scenes and fuzzy subjects can be challenging, as you might expect. Bright, edgy, wide-angle shots work best. I didn’t make shutter-lag measurements, but AF feels fast and reliable. If you set AF to be on continuously, it reduces shutter-lag somewhat but blows batteries fairly quickly. (Having an extra set or two of double-A’s in your pocket is advisable.)

The Digic III face recognition technology finds faces in the scene and tells you it found them by framing them. If there are many faces, you can even choose which face to focus and meter on. It works so well, it can find faces if you aim it at a television.

An interesting AF feature is the Frame Selector. You can move the AF frame by pressing the SET button, which turns the frame (a little box superimposed on the preview image) from white to green, then moving it with the 4-way controller. You can also set the Spot Metering mode to follow it around. When composing a messy scene, this works well enough to quickly move the focus point so that you don’t have to use the shutter half-press method to focus lock on an odd spot in the scene, especially nice if you’re using a tripod.

The Digic III face recognition technology finds up to five faces in the scene and tells you it found them by framing them. It then attempts to focus on them and meters on them as well. It works so well, it can find faces if you aim it at a television.


The flash is a bit annoying, in that it doesn’t have a pop-up capability, and is typically underpowered. The incredible news is the presence of a hot shoe that accommodates full TTL metering interaction with late model EX-series Speedlites. (Actually, a hot shoe is one of my base requirements.) I bought a 430EX for use with my G3 and now have a 580EX for my “portable studio”. The S5 IS works beautifully with these light sources.

Exposure Compensation

Exposure compensation is quickly accessible with its own button – the up-direction of the 4-way controller, after which the left and right directions, respectively, decrease and increase compensation. The mode you enter by pressing Exposure Compensation stays until you press it again, so you can easily play with it from shot to shot until you get it right. Of course, the live histogram helps with this too.

Review Mode

With the large, bright display and a combination of handy settings, the S5 IS is quite capable in this department. There are 3 display modes, no info, some info (both of which you control), and lots of info, including over-exposure indication. The zoom is reasonably fast and you can go back to un-zoomed by hitting the Menu button. When you’re in zoom mode, it’s often nice to go to the next picture without zooming out first: hit the Set button to choose between “next picture” and “pan” because the 4-way controller is used for both – very nice indeed. Picture-to-picture speed is not thrilling but tolerable.

Movie Mode

I know that photographers aren’t supposed to be interested in taking digicam movies, but the S5 IS does a good job with no effort – just press the movie button and you’re taking 30 fps standard-TV grade movies; press it again and it stops. AND, while you’re making a movie, if you see a photo opportunity come along, just press the shutter as usual – pretty impressive, really. If the camera is in your pocket for personal or professional reasons that day, this feature just adds to its usefulness for anyone.

Raw Mode

There isn’t one. I’m still undecided about whether or not this is a problem, but I don’t really understand why Canon would leave this out; after all, isn’t it just the omission of processing steps? They withdrew RAW mode from the recently released G7 as well. Go figure!


When unpacking the box, for what I thought to be the last time, I grabbed all the little pieces and the manual, and stuffed the box in the cupboard. Only later did I realize that useful information was still in the box in the skinny “Basic” manual. This is a problem, Canon. Go ahead and make the two parts obvious, but please bind them in a single volume.


Image Quality

The sensor is a 1/2.5” which translates to 5.76 x 4.29 mm. The ISO (gain) settings range from 80 to an ambitious 1600. As the following images indicate, (taken at 1/125s, f/5.6 and 14.5 mm) you should not expect to obtain reasonable-sized prints or do a lot of cropping with anything above ISO 200 – and maybe even that’s a little optimistic. I leave the camera set at ISO 80 so I don’t have to think about it. This is where the 3-stop image stabilization saves the day.

ISO 80

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

In addition to noise problems, default in-camera processing produces images that are a tad punchier than you might like. There is a custom option under My Colors in the FUNC menu that lets you tailor each of contrast, sharpness, overall saturation, and individual RGB channels, plus skin tones. It would be nice to have command over noise reduction, but the reality is that Canon’s NR algorithms and their judicious application are the envy of most other digicam makers.


Ergonomics – ActuallyUsingthe Camera

Holding the Camera and Pressing the Buttons

Physical ergonomics, how it works in your hands, is just about everything for a busy photographer. The camera, by DSLR standards, is tiny, so how do you wrap your head and your hands around something this small?

Here’s how I automatically want to grab the camera because I’m so used to a large DSLR-handful. It doesn’t work. My thumb is way too high to touch all the little buttons.

You have to hold it with your fingertips, like this. That doesn’t feel safe one-handed.

Use two hands, but there’s not much to grab there for the left hand, with most fingers just sort of hanging around underneath.

THE SOLUTION: get the bayonet lens adaptor that comes with a nice little hood. What a relief! Hold the camera firmly with your left hand. Now it works, and very well indeed.

Add in the flip and twist live view display screen, and you’re just about in digicam heaven.

One thing though: the buttons are quite small. I put on a pair of tight fitting gloves just to see how things work, and it’s a no go: you can’t even feel them, let alone press them. I would have added a teeny bit more bulk on this camera to make the buttons just that bit bigger. Canon has their target audience figured out, which we all sometimes wonder about, and small camera size is hugely important to them.



The next aspect of ergonomics is how all the valuable information is presented to you while you shoot, including the scene.

This is a tough spot for experienced photographers. (Having lived with a Canon G3 as my prime camera for 3 years amid 30 years with SLRs, I’ve got experience in both camps: the viewfinder and the preview screen gang.) On the one hand, using the eyepiece is a habit that’s hard to break because you’re aiming from the same perspective that you normally see things at head-height. The problem is that electronic viewfinders are low resolution (this one is only 115,000 pixels compared to the 207,000 pixels of the display screen) – not exactly thrilling, although bright enough (gained-up for dark scenes), 100% image coverage, tracks fast enough and hesitates only slightly when you half-press the shutter release. (The viewfinder does have the required diopter adjustment, by the way.)

On the other hand, I can’t say enough about the flip and twist preview screen that allows framing from any angle imaginable – a near perfect arrangement for clandestine street photography, candid work in large groups, shooting overhead in crowds, and macro photography. And, the S5 IS sports one of the best such preview screens on the market – fast, bright and smooth – since it was dropped from Canon’s G-series. But, when you’re taking shots near the boundary of hand-holding (which, of course, has been improved by 3-stop image stabilization) and can’t shoot at waste level, you want to brace your arms against your body with the camera at your eye, instead of arms extended to hold the preview screen at face height. You then have to double-press the DISP button to turn on the viewfinder – an unfortunate step when you’re immersed in your craft and the camera is supposed stay out of your way. The reason you have to double-press the DISP button is because the same button controls the amount of information you view and selects between the viewfinder and the preview screen.

Another problem: if you are using the viewfinder, even if the display screen is facing outward, the display of the main MENU and the FUNC menu is handled through the viewfinder. I’m prepared to make certain settings changes through the viewfinder, such as exposure compensation, and maybe ISO, but I don’t like to range through menus in the viewfinder. So you have to double-press the DISP button before pressing the MENU button and then double-press DISP again afterwards to go back to the viewfinder.

Canon: please make menus always come up on the display screen if it is facing outward. It would be an easy firmware upgrade.

Does this viewfinder problem make the camera undesirable? Answer: “no!” When I’m shooting like mad through the viewfinder or sedately with the preview screen, I’m getting great pictures in situations that I’d be missing otherwise.

Changing Settings

Changing settings buried in menus can cause you to miss important shots. Being a Canon kind of guy, it’s hard to say what’s actually easy to use, although I do know what’s really bad. The S5 IS is quite usable in this area. Here are essential settings and how to get at them:

Exposure Compensation ‚œ dedicated button‚œ‚ up on the 4-way controller

Exposure Lock ‚œ press the ISO button with the shutter release half-pressed

Focus Lock ‚œ press MF with the shutter release half-pressed or just aim at your focus target, half press and then recompose while holding; using the MF button makes it stick and gives you the advantage of being able to re-meter.

Focus Frame ‚œ press the SET button then move the frame around with the 4-way controller.

Flash Compensation ‚œ 2-levels down in the‚ FUNC menu but see the note about the shortcut button below.

White Balance ‚œ press the FUNC menu button where it’s the top item‚œ if you’ve used the FUNC menu since you last powered-up, it might not be the first item anymore

ISO ‚œ press the dedicated button and change it with the 4-way controller.

Drive Mode and timer ‚œ press the dedicated button‚œ press it repeatedly to cycle through choices

Display Control ‚œ press the dedicated button‚œ press it repeatedly to cycle through choices

Macro Mode ‚œ dedicated button on front left side; hold momentarily to get Super Macro Mode, which allows you to focus on lens dust

Review ‚œ swivel the power switch the opposite way from the shooting mode; it’s possible to get quite good at this

Focus Mode ‚œ 2-levels down in the‚ FUNC menu, but see the note about the shortcut button below.

The Shortcut Button

A final word on buttons: there’s one programmable “shortcut” button that’s also the print button when a printer is attached. You can set it to one of the following functions in the MENU menu: Focus Mode, White Balance, Custom White Balance, Tally Lamp, AEL, AFL, and Sleep. What the heck is “Tally Lamp” you ask? That’s the front lamp that indicates you’re taking a movie. Crazy!

My choice for this button is Focus Mode, since all the others are either crazy or easy enough to access already.



If you can’t tell yet, then I’ll just say it: the S5 IS is a very nice little camera with plenty of range and possibilities as a 3 rd camera for pros who want something eminently portable when the full-size beasts don’t fit in. Learn the image quality and viewfinder limitations and you’ve got a new sliver bullet for niche problems. I intend to give the S5  IS to my assistant at weddings to shoot candids while I’m taking the money shots. With the right carry bag, I’ll also bring it with me in the car just about wherever I go for those creative moments that I’ve been missing lately.

The S5 IS is also, I might add, a great instrument for amateurs looking to step-up in the digital world from a cheesy point-and-shoot, or to ditch that old film SLR and can’t quite face the time and expense commitment of DSLR technology. The creative modes, compensations settings, and hot shoe open doors to solid lessons in photography, and the long zoom with image stabilization presents situational versatility that’s hard to beat. One job of professional photographers is to help encourage new artists; the S5 IS is an economical vector for such people.

July, 2007


Tim Penner is one of the newly minted professionals who waited patiently for digital technology to mature because film was too big, too risky and too expensive. About 10 years ago, he said, “In 15 or 20 years, when affordable cameras can compete with film, and personal computers are powerful enough to process those huge images, I’m going to go into business.” After nearly 30 years of family, graduation and team pictures with the old Pentax, he bought his first usable digital, a Canon Powershot G3 in 2003, which taught him about sensors, retouching and workflows. It was a short step to an EOS 30D, a bag of lenses and his first wedding.

“The craft of photography was always about technology, but the work is a social connection. I see artistic rural and urban landscapes and still lifes everywhere; I study the pictures of old greats and new ones; the web has been my window on a world of images and art. But it’s people that interest me most and now it’s my turn.” At 54, Tim is taking a Master of Arts in Communication, works as a freelance technical writer in high technology, and now takes pictures of people for money and everything else for pleasure.