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Canon PowerShot S5 IS review: Canon PowerShot S5 IS

Canon PowerShot S5 IS

Lori Grunin Senior Editor / Advice
I've been reviewing hardware and software, devising testing methodology and handed out buying advice for what seems like forever; I'm currently absorbed by computers and gaming hardware, but previously spent many years concentrating on cameras. I've also volunteered with a cat rescue for over 15 years doing adoptions, designing marketing materials, managing volunteers and, of course, photographing cats.
Expertise Photography | PCs and laptops | Gaming and gaming accessories
Lori Grunin
4 min read


Canon PowerShot S5 IS

The Good

Tons of manual and automatic features; well-laid-out controls; solid body; nice LCD display.

The Bad

Lens aberrations and vignetting; some processing artifacts; lacks raw file support; redesigned lens cap still pops off too easily.

The Bottom Line

Though it remains a good megazoom, thanks to continued image and lens artifacts, the Canon PowerShot S5 IS is slowly losing ground to competitors.

There was a lot to like about the Canon PowerShot S3 IS, and much of it remains in this year's PowerShot S5 IS, including Canon's veteran optical image-stabilization technology, excellent metering and focusing systems, the signature flip-and-twist LCD display, and a hefty set of manual and semimanual controls. The S5 IS bumps up to 8 megapixels from the S3's 6-megapixel sensor, increases the LCD size from 2 to 2.5 inches, and adds trendy bonus features like face-detection autofocus/autoexposure, maximum sensitivity of ISO 1600, and an ISO-shift mode that lets you jack up the setting with a button press when the camera tells you the shutter speed is too slow. We can thank the upgrade to a Digic III processor for many of the new capabilities.

I liked my description of the S3 IS so much I'll use it again for the S5 IS: its aesthetic seems to be a cross between those of a classic Volkswagen Beetle and a Busy Box. But somehow, it still works. It's gained a few ounces over the year, up to a not-so-svelte 1 pound, 3.4 ounces. The larger LCD has also caused some middle-age spread, widening the camera to 4.6 inches. However, it remains comfortable to hold, reasonably fluid to operate--once you know where everything is--and feels as solid as the aforementioned classic car.

Canon implements the S5 IS' features quite well. For example, the camera includes a dedicated record button for movie capture, plus stereo microphones, a wind filter, and audio volume adjustment. Unlike most implementations, which force you into a specific face-detect scene mode, Canon makes face detection one of the focus-area-selection options. You can select a face in a scene and jump back to it with a couple of button presses, or you can let the camera seek out up to three faces in the scene and automatically select the most prominent one. It lets you see the runners-up, but you can't make your own pick in the latter mode. Using face detection can be a bit confusing--both to understand and use effectively--and I'm not convinced that either simply focusing on your chosen face and recomposing or setting an off-center focus point on the face aren't lower-tech but ultimately more efficient solutions. For any camera.

The S5 IS' performance splits right down the middle. It delivers very good speed for its class. It wakes up and shoots in 1.3 seconds, with a shutter lag of 0.5 and 0.8 second in bright and dim light, respectively. It can shoot consecutive single images 1.6 seconds apart, growing to a reasonable 2.1 seconds with flash enabled. Continuous shooting is fixed at about 1.5 frames per second (fps), regardless of image size, and can run for about 18 shots before it starts to slow.

But the functional aspects of the S5 IS' performance--lens geometry and sharpness, viewfinder usability, and noise--are less impressive. The centerpiece of a megazoom camera is the lens, in this case the same 12x zoom, f/2.7-3.5 36mm-to-432mm as that of the S3 IS (And the S2 IS). On one hand, the optical stabilizer, focusing system, and exposure rendering are as good as they've ever been. But the EVF (electronic viewfinder) is kind of coarse for manual focus unless the subject is fairly simple--think of a rock versus a white, puffy dandelion.

Sample photos from the Canon PowerShot S5 IS
Furthermore, to maintain the same focal range with the lens across different sensors, Canon has had to keep each sensor size to 1/2.5-inch; unfortunately, the weaknesses of the lens/sensor combo either becomes more evident as resolutions climb, or we're just tired of seeing the same old problems. For the S5 IS, that means asymmetrical vertical distortion on the left side accompanied by ever-present aberration in the form of cyan and magenta fringing--not just at high-contrast edges, where we expect it, but at medium-contrast boundaries as well.

Image noise seems about average for its class. As a rule, you really don't want to rise above ISO 200; at that point, color noise becomes measurably and visibly apparent. You could probably get away with ISO 400 for certain types of scenes, but beyond that, you lose tonal range and detail.

I'm also split down the middle on image quality. Color looks great; it pops but manages to stay shy of oversaturated. White balance is excellent under a variety of conditions. But even at its sharpest, the S5 IS' photos generally look overprocessed and a bit smeary. Some of that fades to obscurity when you print, but if you're planning to crop your photos, it will become quite noticeable.

Canon's VGA 30fps motion-JPEG movie capture continues to be among the best we've seen--the tradeoff is a file size of about 2MB per second--though like most, it performs best when there's only some centralized motion. A lot of motion around the scene results in increased motion and compression artifacts.

With competitors like the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9 upping the megazoom ante to 15x--and more important, opening up the wide angle--it's past time for Canon to introduce a new lens on its Sn series. The PowerShot S5 IS is still a pretty good megazoom but one that's slowly losing ground to the competition.

Shooting speed (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Typical shot-to-shot time  
Time to first shot  
Shutter lag (typical)  
Canon PowerShot S3 IS
Canon PowerShot S5 IS
Fujifilm FinePix S700
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8

Typical continuous-shooting speed
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
In seconds  
Canon PowerShot S5 IS


Canon PowerShot S5 IS

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 7Image quality 7