For an upcoming vacation, I wanted to buy a new digital camera that offered more features and flexibility than my existing point-and-shoot model. Although my aging Canon PowerShot S200 has served me well for a number of years, I knew it wouldn't be up to the task of photographing animals on safari. Therefore, I faced a decision: upgrade to a full blown digital SLR (single lens reflex) camera, or find something in between that was still compact enough that it would not be a burden to carry. Fortunately, at the same time my colleague Larry Chen delivered version 2.0 of his ebook "Take Control of Buying a Digital Camera," on which I was the editor. With his advice as a guide, I picked the right camera for me: the Canon PowerShot S2 IS.
[The 2.0 version of "Take Control of Buying a Digital Camera" is now available as a free update for current owners. If you don't yet have a copy, it's on sale for 50 percent off through Christmas, as are our other consumer electronics books: "Take Control of Digital TV," "Take Control of Your iPod: Beyond the Music," and "Take Control of Buying a Mac." The discount applies to any one or more of these titles; use the link above to load the necessary coupon. -Adam]
Who Am I? Before I even started to look at camera models and reviews, I sat down to figure out what type of photographer I am. In the past, I've always been a "snapshooter," more concerned with getting the picture than with trying to eke out the highest quality of the shot; my little point-and-shoot gives me plenty of quality for just about any picture I typically need, and the small size makes it easy to carry along. But in this case, I'm headed to South Africa, where I'll have the opportunity to photograph sweeping savannas, wild leopards and elephants, and other subjects not found in Seattle (including the wildest of them all, my niece and nephew). In this respect, I will be shooting more as what Larry terms an "artistic photographer" than a snapshooter, focusing more on the quality of the image than the portability of the camera.
But the quest for higher quality usually leads one to look at DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) cameras, which can use specialized lenses and shoot at much higher resolutions (currently between 6 and 16 megapixels). DSLRs also include many more manual controls for setting aspects such as white balance, ISO speed, and the like. "Take Control of Buying a Digital Camera" version 2.0 includes a new chapter about DSLRs that not only gives you an idea of what you might spend for one, but also talks about characteristics specific to DSLRs that you may not run into with point-and-shoot cameras (such as focal length magnification factor and dust spots on the sensor).
Although a DSLR was appealing, I couldn't justify the cost (at least $1,000 at the low end) and I knew it was too much technology for me - I have no training as a photographer and, quite simply, want to get the best shot with the least amount of work. I'm willing to learn, but I don't shoot consistently enough to become an expert. Plus, when you buy a DSLR, you invest in a system - on most models, you're buying only the camera body, then purchasing a lens or three and associated peripherals. I didn't relish the idea of dragging a huge photographic kit with me.
Setting My Priorities -- With a DSLR off the table and a point-and-shoot too limited, I waded into the crowd of mid-level digital cameras. To narrow my search, I needed to figure out which features were most important to me. Obviously, I wanted more resolution. These days, that means looking for a camera with a resolution of at least four megapixels. However, that didn't narrow my search much.
So, I began compiling a list. I wanted some manual focus capabilities so I wouldn't be locked into using the automatic focus mode all the time. Tying into that, I wanted good macro capabilities, so that I could shoot objects extremely close-up without the lens and camera processor choking on the focus. At the same time, I wanted a good level of zoom, since I'd be shooting animals and the like from a distance. And I wanted good shot-to-shot speed, a notoriously tricky problem with most digital cameras, especially higher-resolution ones due to the time it takes for the camera to capture an image, save it to the memory card, and be ready for the next image. I can't tell a lion to please hold still while my camera digests its pixels, and kids aren't much more cooperative.
Size was also important. In fact, Larry's ebook sensibly encourages thinking about size and usability before delving into marquee features because you have to carry and grip and manipulate the camera's controls far more often than you press the shutter button. A camera that frustrates you due to its onscreen controls or poor ergonomics, no matter how tricked out with features, is a camera that ultimately gets left at home. After using my point-and-shoot for years, I already knew that I wanted something larger than a pocket camera but small enough that I could stow it in - and quickly retrieve from - a backpack or shoulder bag.
The middle range of digital cameras is also where manufacturers cram every last feature they can dream up in order to compete in their ongoing Marketing Bullet-Point Escalation. So I also made a short list of features I would ignore, such as digital zoom (useless), PictBridge compatibility (nice if I owned a supported photo printer, but I don't), video capture (I own a small digital camcorder), and built-in effects (oh, please).
Lastly, some people swear by certain camera manufacturers, but I'm flexible. I started by looking at Canon models because I've had a good history with their products; my S200 is still working just fine, and the S100 I owned before it still takes decent photos, even after I accidentally dropped it into a river.
Choosing and Buying -- Like a good geek, I took my search online. Web sites such as Digital Photography Review post extensive reviews of current models - enough to make my head spin. But they're also good barometers of what models photographers are interested in. That's when I came across the Canon PowerShot S2 IS.
As it turns out, my office-mate, TidBITS Contributing Editor Glenn Fleishman, owns the previous model, the PowerShot S1 IS, which let me add a valuable dimension to camera buying: hands-on experiences from friends and family. The S2 improves on the S1 on several fronts, such as increased resolution and better shot-to-shot speed. Both share a body style that meet my size and ergonomic requirements, with a rounded grip on the right side that fits my hand well.
Based on playing with Glenn's camera, reading the reviews, and viewing sample images taken from the S2 online, I decided to buy it. Here, again, Larry's advice came in handy. Using a few online price-comparison sites, I found the camera offered by a vendor for half the asking price of $500. However, I became wary: I wasn't familiar with the vendor (though it had fairly good buyer ratings), and most other stores were either selling the camera for full asking price (indicating to me that it was a popular model, so price cuts weren't necessary to attract buyers) or listing no current inventory. For all I know, that discount vendor would have delivered, but it seemed like too much of a good deal and spooked me.
Instead, I went to dealmac.com and set up a notification for "S2 IS," and a few weeks later received an email message that Dell's online store was offering a camera deal, a coupon, and free shipping that brought the price down to about $350. I jumped on it, also taking the opportunity to buy a pair of 512 MB SD memory cards.
Matching Priorities to Reality -- So, how did my wish list compare to the final product?
The S2's 5 MP resolution is probably more than enough for my needs, and the shots I've taken have been nice and clear. (You can view some of them at my Flickr site; the metadata stored with each image includes the camera used, so you can look at the right-hand column on a picture page to see which shots were taken with the S2 versus other cameras.) I was surprised to find quite a bit of noise in some of the shots, but Larry's ebook came through there, too: noise can occur at high ISO settings; I had been shooting some low-light tests and forgotten to reset the ISO.
The manual focus controls, while not as smooth as having a focus ring around the lens barrel, are intelligently placed. The manual focus button is located on the left side of the lens barrel (lens protrusion is probably more accurate), so I can press and hold it with my left hand and use a four-way rocker switch on the back of the camera with my right thumb. Pushing up or down increases or decreases the focal length, with a usable (but still somewhat limited) enlarged detail on the screen indicating the focus point.
The macro feature is, well, awesome. When I engage the Super Macro mode, it can focus on objects that are, according to the specifications, 0.0 inches away. Canon goes out of its way to make sure you understand that you can damage the lens by bumping it against the object you're photographing!
The 12x optical zoom is wonderful, especially compared to the 2x zoom of my S200. On my Flickr site, the photo of the Lenin statue near my office was taken from almost a block away using the maximum zoom. Another nice thing about the S2's zoom is that the lens barrel doesn't keep pushing forward as you zoom in; instead, when you enter shooting mode it extends to a fixed length, and the lens adjusts within the barrel as you zoom.
The shot-to-shot speed is impressive as well, at 1.6 seconds. I made a point of spending the extra money to get high-speed memory cards that can keep up with the data flow. I'm going to have to be careful with this feature, as I could easily fill up a card without realizing it.
I also discovered a feature I didn't know I would love until I got my hands on the camera. On my S200 and my wife's Canon PowerShot S50, the flash is always activated automatically when you power the camera up, but I find that in most cases the flash is too bright and either washes out the image or creates an unwanted high contrast between foreground objects and the background. Not only does the S2 have a setting for controlling the intensity of the flash, the physical flash mechanism must be raised by hand to activate it. This way, I don't have to remember to turn the flash off before I start shooting.
Final Thoughts -- I've had the camera for a few months and am very happy with it. I'm also indebted to Larry for writing an ebook that answered all of my questions (one reason I volunteered to edit the book in the first place). I'm writing this article mid-flight on my way to South Africa, so I'll soon know for sure whether my research and experimentation so far will pay off. Depending on my Internet access, I'll try to upload photos to my Flickr site when I can. I hope you enjoy them!