Canon PowerShot S2 IS Review

Canon PowerShot S2 IS
“This class of camera is one of the great deals for 2005.”
  • Terrific 12x zoom lens/ image stabilization; movie mode w/ stereo sound
  • Confusing control nomenclature
  • manually-operated flash
  • smallish LCD screen
  • steep learning curve


Another day, another mega zoom digicam with a 12x optical zoom and built-in optical image stabilization.  This one is far from plain vanilla, however, since the PowerShot S2 IS is the replacement for the popular, year-old S1 IS.  Since this is the consumer electronics business, for the same initial asking price ($499) you get higher resolution (5 megapixels instead of 3MP), a more powerful zoom (12x versus 10x), a larger LCD screen, and more importantly, the improved DIGIC II processor that speeds up all the operations (so the camera is very responsive with a minimum amount of shutter lag).  And it takes very accurate images, something Canon is well known for.

The S2 IS joins an ever-increasing crowd of 5 megapixel image-stabilized 12x mega zoom digital cameras:  Panasonic, Sony and Konica Minolta are in the thick of the battle.  (See our in-depth Sony DSC-H1 review.)  Nikon’s bulkier 10x CoolPix 8800 with Vibration Reduction is also an option, but it has an 8MP processor and a much higher price ($899).  Coming soon is the Samsung Camera Pro815 ($849) with an 8MP imager and a whopping 15x optical zoom, making it the mega zoom king.  Unfortunately, it does not have image stabilization as these others have.

This class of camera (5MP, 12x zoom, optical image stabilization for less than $500) is one of the great deals for 2005.  With their extensive focal lengths, they are great for travelers; one camera handles anything thrown its way without encumbering separate accessory lenses or moving to a more expensive digital SLR.  The S2 is a good camera but it has its flaws.  Read on to see if it fills your photographic bill.

Features and Design

The silvery-gray Canon PowerShot S2 IS is made primarily of plastic, but it still feels sturdy and has a nice grip.  Having a somewhat retro Machine Age design, it’s powered by four AA batteries.  The shutter button is conveniently placed on the grip and the zoom switch is within easy reach.  For the record, the S2 has a focal length of 36–432mm and a maximum aperture of f2.7.  The top of the camera has a power on/playback switch, a mode dial, and a manually operated pop-open flash.  It also has a key that suggests the learning curve with this digicam.  The key is marked with a flash arrow and a microphone (that’s as good as far as that goes, but what do they do and in what modes?)

You run into similar issues on the rear of the camera, with buttons doubly marked for what appear to be red-eye and JUMP.  Then there’s another perplexing button near the electronic viewfinder with a red dot on it.  What is this for?  Time to go to the 186-page (!) owner’s manual.  Alas, the diagrams here are just as confusing.  I’ve waded through owner’s manuals for many years and even learned how to program a VCR in pre-Guide Plus+ days.  This one is a chore.  Come on, guys.  Photography is supposed to be simple and fun, not like taking a calculus class.  Canon should follow Sony and even the PC companies by including a Read Me First diagram with basic instructions.  In case you are wondering, the red button starts movie clip recording, and what I thought was a red-eye icon handled metering modes.

There is also the usual four-way arrow key to move through menus, a .33-inch EVF with diopter control that adjusts to your eyesight, and a 1.8-inch Vari-Angle LCD screen.  The screen is very cool; it swings out and adjusts so you can take shots in unusual positions, such as holding the camera over your head to see beyond a crowd, etc.  The screen has a brightness adjustment for shooting in the dark or you can use the smaller viewfinder.  Screen quality is decent, nothing more or less.

Another big difference between the S2 and older S1 is the fact that the newer model uses SD cards instead of the much bigger Compact Flash media.  When a camera maker moves from CF to SD, usually the newer model gets smaller–but not so in this case; Canon opted for a larger LCD screen (1.8 inches versus 1.5), a good move in our view.  A solid door snaps closed after you insert the card.  The camera comes with a puny 16MB SD card, so expect to budget around $100 for a high-speed 1GB SD card such as a SanDisk Ultra II.

The carton also contains a lens cap with cord, USB and A/V cables, a strap, two owner’s manuals (one for the camera, another for printing), four AA batteries and a CD ROM with a very good software bundle including ArcSoft PhotoStudio 5.5, which does a very nice job editing and retouching images.  Definitely plan to pick up a set of four NiMH batteries with a fast charger.

Canon PowerShot S2
Image Courtesy of Canon


The camera starts up very quickly (around two seconds), even when using the supplied alkalines.  Canon claims 130 shots with standard alkalines and 550 with NiMH batteries, another reason to opt for rechargeables (besides the Green factor).  The figures use the Camera and Imaging Products Association (CIPA) standards.  I found the numbers close, but after a lot of zooming with the LCD on, snapping images and videos, the alkalines cried uncle and died before the stated 130.

We mentioned the steep learning curve, but the initial menu setup is simple when it comes to setting the date/time, resolution, optical image stabilization mode (on is the default), etc.  Like all Canon digicams, the mode dial is separated into a “Creative Zone” and an “Image Zone” with Auto highlighted, the mode photographers will use most of the time.  In the “Image” neighborhood you’ll find the usual scene modes such as Portrait and Landscape.  Move to the SCN (meaning “Special Scene”) setting and you have six more options like Beach, Fireworks, Night Snapshot and others.  These settings will handle most of your photographic needs and they do the job as advertised.  I was very happy with the results when shooting in JPEG Large; there was little purple fringing.  Contrast and overall color were just right.  Canon offers a nice toy for the adventurous called “My Colors.”  With it, you change the overall colorcast of an image such as making it bluer or redder.  You can even lighten skin tones.  It’s something fun to play with, but remember to turn it to Auto for your daughter’s birthday party or a shot of the Washington Monument.

For frustrated D-SLR wanna-bes, the “Creative Zone” has aperture- and shutter-priority modes as well as straight manual control.  You can tweak this camera to your heart’s content, adjusting exposure compensation, ISO, white balance, flash output and lots more.  One of the great things about optical image stabilization is the ability to take shots at slower shutter speeds without a flash.  You’ll really love this feature as well as the ability to shoot 2.4 frames per second at top resolution.  ISO ranges from 50 to 400 and we didn’t see appreciable noise until hitting 200.

Speaking of the flash, while you have a number of creative options (such as First- and Second Curtain and the obligatory Red-Eye Reduction) the engineers at Canon decided you should do the work and open the flash rather than it popping up automatically.  This is a bonehead move in my view, especially since the S1 IS had an auto pop-up flash.  Fortunately, the powers that be did include an AF Assist lamp for better flash images in dark situations.

Another positive note is the top movie mode (VGA, 640 x 480 pixels).  Unlike competing cameras, you can record and playback stereo sound.  Granted, the separation won’t rival your local Cineplex,but it does add a nice touch of realism to your videos.  The S2 IS also lets you use the zoom while shooting videos; most other cameras only have one focal length.  Another nice trick is the ability to take stills while shooting video.  Almost every other camera makes you stop what you’re doing and move the mode dial from Video to Still.  It’s a very nice feature that really lets you grab the memories you want in whatever form you’d like.  Canon none-too-imaginatively calls this “Movie Snap.”

Canon PowerShot S2
Image Courtesy of Canon


Although I liked the final stills and videos I took with this speedy, responsive camera, Canon is asking way too much from consumers to get up to speed.  Granted, an experienced shutterbug will have less difficulty wading through the extremely dense owner’s manual.  And if you plan to simply shoot in Auto or with the various scene modes, the camera will do the trick.  Yet the deal breaker for me is the manual flash.  Imagine taking a critical shot, pressing the shutter then realizing you have to open the flash.  In that critical moment, the memory could be gone.  Toss in the fact that you don’t get rechargeable batteries and a charger, and this mega zoom camera moves near the bottom of the list of available options.


    • Nice range of focal lengths
    • Lifelike captured images
    • Extensive manual adjustments
    • Easily adjustable–but small–LCD screen
    • Top movie mode (VGA) with stereo sound
  • Video clips and stills can be taken simultaneously


    • Steep learning curve
    • Confusing owner’s manual
    • Manual flash operation
  • No TIFF or RAW option