Canon PowerShot S95 vs DSLR

Three months ago one of my brothers visited me from Germany and we had a great time together, but somehow in between taking him to Meiji Shrine, Harajuku, Asakusa, Kamakura and Mt Fuji, my old Sony DSC-W80 digital camera went absent without leave: It was there one day and I couldn’t find it the next day. It never showed up again and I’m not sure exactly where or how I lost it.

To be perfectly honest, the Sony DSC-W80 had been actually my least favourite camera so far, mostly because of its poor indoor / low-light performance. I was almost glad to have been presented with an excuse to start looking for a better replacement, even if it would cost me some money. Many point and shoot cameras attract buyers with ever increasing megapixel numbers, but draw them from a tiny image sensor that captures nowhere near enough light for all those pixels, so you end up with more noise and distortion.

Last Christmas I visited my sister in law’s brother in law, who is a photography enthusiast and owns a Nikon D90 with a 16-85 VR DX lens. He took some shots of us sitting around the kitchen table at what I would consider pretty minimal light (we’re talking Germany in late December after all!) without using a flash. The sharpness, the colours and the detail in the pictures were just amazing. I started reading up about the Nikon D90 and was very impressed. I later found the camera with a good quality kit lens, the 18-55 VR DX for about JPY 75,000 at Amazon Japan, but also looked at its lesser sibling, the D5000, which uses the same high quality image sensor as the D90 and D300, but a lower resolution LCD and is a bit cheaper than the D90 (just under JPY 60,000 with the same lens).

Back in the late 1990s I had a Canon EOS SLR (analog), but it developed a problem with its lens and I never bothered to get it fixed, switching back to compacts instead. What I found then was that actually having a camera on you usually is more important than owning a better camera. The best SLR or DSLR is of no use if you don’t have it within reach when an opportunity for a great picture arises. Cameras that fit into a jacket pocket ended up getting more use, since I was always reluctant to bring along the bulky camera bag needed to protect the SLR.

This is the reason why I have abandoned the idea of a DSLR for now (i.e. until I get rich and can afford a good DSLR like the Nikon D90 as a *second* camera for special occasions). Today I ordered the Canon PowerShot S95, which Ken Rockwell calls the “world’s best pocket camera”. It combines a large image sensor with a compact body. Its main difference to its predecessor, the Canon PowerShot S90 is added support for 1280x720p video at 24 fps. In a few days I should know how it actually performs, as I’m planning to hike in the mountains west of Tokyo for autumn leaves viewing with friends. Then I’ll just need to make sure the Canon S95 won’t disappear like my Sony 😉

UPDATE (2010-11-16):

I ordered the camera at Camera Kaikan (camera-k.net) on Sunday morning and it was delivered on Monday morning, little more than 24 hours later. I bought a no-name 8 GB class 4 SD card for it. The class (i.e. minimum writing speed in MB per second) of the card matters only for video, where data streams to the card continuously.

You can get really cheap class 2 SD cards, but that’s not fast enough to keep up with the 720p24 HD recording mode supported by the S95. Various people in online forums were saying class 10 was an unnecessary expense while recommending class 6 as the base line. However, looking at the file size of a one minute clip I took, 720p24 HD seems to result in a data rate of 2.5 MB per second, or 37% below the 4 MB/s minimum required for class 4. So theoretically class 4 should work as well as class 6 for HD recording on the S95.

I am very pleased with the picture quality so far, but I’ve only started experimenting with the various modes and menus for manual control to explore its full potential.

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