Photo magazines and websites have been marked by a chorus of enthusiastic comments about the Canon S95 in the last couple of months, I'm aware of that. Nonetheless I feel like joining the party with the results of my personal experience with this little gem.
A preliminary remark: having ditched DSRLs a couple of years ago in favor of more unobtrusive tools, I don't look at compact cameras as simple pocketable notebooks to be used alongside a more "serious" unit, but as a reliable and fully functional alternative to bulkier systems. In other words it's not my habit to take a quick snapshot of a subject I stumble upon today, and then get back to do the job with a "real" camera the next day. Most of the times I want my only and final shot properly captured by the one camera I always have with me. Which leads us to a major critical issue: what resolution can be considered as an adequate resolution? It depends on many factors, of course. But basically my experience tells me that since my photographs are not destined to be printed as huge as a five story building (I haven't been hired to shoot a Calvin Klein ad -yet-), being their final and bigger destination a 24x36 inch (60x90 cm) inkjet print, 10 to 12 megapixels are enough. Which makes the S95 a viable candidate.
As regular PhotoGraphia readers know, my interest in high ISO values has been close to zero until now. My recent years' works originate from files captured under the most favourable lighting conditions. Yet behind the scenes there is a hidden activity made of experimentation in various directions. Although keeping them still unpublished, I happen to take photographs in low light every now and then. Hence my interest in a "bigger" sensor as the S95's: 1/1.7" (7.60x5.70 mm = 0.43 cm²) vs. the 1/2.33" (6.13 x 4.60 mm, 0.28 cm²) found in standard compact cameras, which makes a juicy 50% difference in size.
How does it compare? I currently own two other compacts, the 10 mp Panasonic TZ65 (1/2.33" sensor) and the 14.7 mp Canon G10 (1/1.7" sensor). Of course the Panasonic, with its smaller sensor, notwithstanding its surprisingly good overall quality is a weak competitor in terms of noise. What really strikes me is the comparison to the G10. Looking into the texture of a blue sky, whereas the latter reveals a pleasant fine-grain-film look even at ISO 80, the S95 delivers smooth and perfectly noiseless transitions. In the meantime it's difficult to tell the difference in crispness, although under a pixel-peeping exam the G10 unsurprisingly performs a little better (note that I always set the sharpening value at 0 in my cameras, as I only shoot jpg). Color rendition is top level, something like a good negative film cleverly exposed and perfectly processed. Speaking of exposure, thanks to the i-Contrast function, highlight clipping can be easily avoided, whithout the distasteful results of the so-called HDR rendering (provided that the Shadow-Correct option is set to off). And the good news is that everything goes shipshape up to ISO 800.
Now to the ergonomics. The unit is incredibly sleek and compact. It can be slipped in any pocket and forgotten there. Yet it's sturdy and dense. Canon's S-series and G-series cameras are better built than any entry-level and enthusiast DSLR of the brand. Even the 5D (first breed) I owned for a while was poorly built in comparison (wich is why I never had a feeling with that camera). And the metal body is gorgeously finished in a matte black tactile coating. But the real cherry on the cake is the programmable lens ring, thanks to which the photographer can tweak a value of his choice: aperture, exposure compensation (my favorite), shutter speed, saturation, etc. Buttons and wheels are far from being flimsy (Panasonic should do something about this), and strap lugs are available on both sides.
I didn't notice any relevant downsides yet. Apart from the limited zoom factor, yet giving a luxurious f/2.0 at wide angle, which is not bad at all for such a small sized lens. On the other hand, whenever I need a bigger focal lenght my dear old G10 is still there. And with its 14.7 megapixels there is even room for a little cropping. Purists permitting.
In his comment below, Gordon Lewis (by the way, you MUST visit his blog, Shutterfinger) cleverly points out that my review lacks some helpful informations. This addendum should make up for that.
My new interest in higher ISO values is quickly explained: I usually don't use a tripod, except for some experiment I'm currently doing on long exposures. Therefore, whenever I shoot in dull light, considering that I mostly use medium long focals, a little help in terms of sensitivity is more than welcome.
My method of working is quite simple. I shoot jpg only, exposing for the highlights and trying to get the deepest shadows I can. Then I correct perspective, crop to square and start tweaking tones, contrast and saturation. And I leave my photographs unsharpened most of the times. When a noise therapy is needed, I perform it before any further post-processing step, as software like Noise Ninja (my favorite) can tell noise from "good" information only if noise keeps its original luminance and chrominance values. When I use Noise Ninja, most of the times I don't apply the treatment to the whole image, but only on skies and textureless surfaces. Otherwise I leave noise as it is, since it improves the perceived sharpness. To get an idea of what I'm saying, try this: add some fake (monochrome) film grain to a photograph, selecting an area rich in details. Then undo the grain. Then redo it again. The grainless version will look softer and poorest in details, whereas the grainy one will be seen as crisper. IMHO this also explains why film-era nostalgics miss the look and feel of chemical capture. It wasn't the picture itself, but the silver halide "sauce" on top of it.