Photography and the Canon S95

I recently purchased the Canon S95, a relatively high-end pocketable digital camera that was recently on sale for a price too good to pass up. My experience with it so far has challenged my previous views on photography and led me to a better understanding of what makes a photo “good.”

I’ve had point-and-shoots before (a 3MP Creative that was actually pretty decent for the time and sub-$100 price, and a 5MP Canon A530 that despite positive reviews, I was never satisfied with), but until my digital SLR (Konica Minolta Maxxum 5D circa 2005), I didn’t really enjoy photography all that much. With a cheap camera, you might get an ok “shot with friends” every now and then, but between blurry indoor pictures and over/underexposed scenery shots, the results were consistently disappointing. I didn’t really find myself motivated to pull out my camera when out with friends or beholding a beautiful nature scene, because I knew the end result would likely be blurry or washed out.

Enter the SLR. With easy manual controls and a quality sensor, photography suddenly became fun and rewarding. I found myself really enjoying taking pictures of scenery because with an SLR, taking the time to compose the shot and set the exposure and aperture just right consistently paid dividends in the form of a beautiful pictures to be proud of. Once I got the hang of editing RAW images, the results just got better. Now I didn’t have to worry about white balance when shooting because I could get that right later, and punch up the contrast a bit too, without compromising the quality of the image. I began to love bringing my camera whenever a scenic shot was expected.

But I never enjoyed people pictures. I used to just shrug that off as being a personal preference, but now that I have the S95, I’ve realized that there was more to it than that.

Despite being great in manual mode, my SLR never did a great job in auto mode and indoor flash shots typically had that “deer in the headlights” look. Sure, I could get a good posed shot with a tripod and a minute or so of fiddling with the manual settings, but the times when that is socially acceptable are pretty rare. So once again, my feelings about photography followed the capabilities of my camera. I didn’t bring my camera to social outings because “I was a scenic photography guy.” But the real reason was that I never liked the results, so I didn’t bother (not to mention an SLR is bulky, although I don’t think that would’ve generally stopped me if the results were good enough).

Now enter the S95. It’s size might suggest that it’s just another point-and-shoot, but it doesn’t take long to realize it’s more than that. Even people who’ve probably never rotated an aperture dial or manually set an ISO have made comments about it being a “really nice camera.” Spend some real time with it and you begin to understand why. It’s a spare design, but in the hand it has the feel of a quality piece of tech. Switch the shooting mode dial to manual and you get two easy-to-access scroll wheels to control every aspect of the shot (exposure and aperture by default), and it’ll shoot in RAW too. So now I’ve got a modern camera that handles as well as my SLR and doesn’t require a shoulder strap to carry on hikes.

But although I bought it because it had the above features that I loved about my SLR, to my surprise (although in retrospect this shouldn’t be surprising), the two features of this camera I’ve appreciated most are its automatic mode and its excellent “fast” (f2.0) lens. As it turns out, while this camera does a fine job with scenery shots where I want to take the time to compose and configure the shot to be just right, the thing that I love most about it is something I didn’t think I’d care as much about. It’s ability to take great “people shots.”

I now realize that the reason I never liked taking pictures of people wasn’t because of some disdain for posing people or being “that guy” at a party, but the fact that I’ve never had a camera that worked well in auto mode or which had a fast enough lens to take crisp indoor shots (often without a flash, even). So much to my surprise, I’ve used my S95 in automatic mode most of the time. My one disappointment with the camera is that it won’t save as RAW when shooting in auto mode, but even this hasn’t proven a big deal. Canon’s got the algorithm for exposure/aperture and white balance so good in automatic mode, that I seldom wish I had more ability to tweak the image in post. Sure, I’ll still want to do this for scenic shots that I want to be “perfect," but I’m finally understanding just how much social photography isn’t about the perfect shot, but about the right moment. Until I had a compact camera with an excellent auto mode and a fast lens, capturing a good shot of the right moment was tough. With the S95, it’s easy. I’ll always credit my first SLR with giving me my love for photography, but the S95 is my new shooter of choice.