Overall, the S2950's photo quality is OK for casual use outdoors in bright conditions, but really nothing else. While these are 100 percent crops of photos of our test scene, photos viewed at smaller sizes are noticeably soft and smeary starting at ISO 200. Some post-shoot sharpening helps this, but if you tend to do a lot of heavy cropping or enlarging, it might not be good enough. From there things just look worse to the point where they really aren't usable at ISO 800 or above. The loss of detail is one thing, but really it's the color shifting starting at ISO 400 that drags it down. Keep in mind that as the lens is extended, the apertures get smaller. To compensate, the camera will raise the ISO or slow the shutter speed if needed. Either way, if you're holding the camera and using its 18x zoom and there's not a lot of light, you're going to end up with soft or blurry photos. But that goes for any megazoom camera, not just the S2950. If you need a camera than can regularly handle low-light photography without a flash, I would not recommend this camera.
If you like taking close-ups, the S2950 can focus as closely as 0.8 inch from a subject; this was shot at about 2 inches from the subject. Megazooms tend to take very good macro photos and that's the case here. Even when viewed at 100 percent, such as the crop of this flower, you get enough fine detail at ISO 64 to make a nice print.
It's really a shame the photos aren't just a little bit better from the S2950, because its feature set is quite good for the money. For example, it has aperture- and shutter-speed-priority as well as full manual shooting modes. (There's a Custom mode, too, so you can define a frequently used group of settings.) For the most part, though, the real control is over shutter speed with settings from 8 seconds to 1/2,000 second. Apertures are limited to two stops at each step of the zoom range courtesy of a neutral density (ND) filter: f3.1-6.4 wide and f5.6-11 telephoto. There is some depth-of-field to play with in macro, but don't expect the kind of control you'd get from a digital SLR.
Its color quality, at least at lower ISOs, is good. The S2950HD produces photos with bright, vivid colors that were reasonably close to accurate in our lab tests. Exposure was pretty good, too, but highlights tended to blow out, which is typical of point-and-shoots.
Of course the main attraction is the wide-angle zoom lens--28-504mm on a 35mm camera. The range allows for shooting flexibility, but since the photos generally lack sharpness and fine detail, you won't want to do too much cropping or enlarging. Also, the autofocus is slow at the telephoto end, so trying to shoot a moving subject with this camera is very tricky. Lastly, the sensor-shift image stabilization doesn't seem to be all that helpful, so you'll probably want to put this camera on a stable support when using the zoom to get the sharpest possible results.
At the lens' widest position there is some barrel distortion (top). At the telephoto end, there is no issue with pincushion distortion. Lens sharpness is OK, but it did get softer out to the edges and in the corners. This was particularly noticeable on the right side of our test camera. Fringing in high-contrast areas isn't much of a problem, but bright subjects had ringing artifacts when viewed at 100 percent.
If you like to take wide panorama shots, here's how. You press the shutter release with the camera aimed where you'd like to start your panorama shot and it puts a circle and a target on the screen. Put the circle in the center of the target by moving the camera to the right and it'll take the next shot when it's centered. Do that once more and it'll take your three shots and stitch them together in-camera into a single photo. This is best for scenes with little or no movement, but it works well otherwise. Take a closer look.