Canon PowerShot S120 review
Written by Ken McMahon
Canon’s PowerShot S120 continues to refine the company’s concept of a pocket camera for enthusiasts. While superficially similar to last year’s PowerShot S110, the new model includes a number of upgrades that make it a more usable camera overall.
The Wifi is easier to setup, the lens a little brighter, the top video mode now films 1080 / 60p, there’s a bunch of new shooting modes including some neat astrophotography options, and a higher resolution touch screen with the chance to pull focus during video by tapping the desired subject. All nice to have, but most importantly the S120 becomes a much faster camera than its predecessor. For some bizarre reason Canon has traditionally equipped its compacts with terrible continuous shooting capabilities allowing the competition to leave them in their tracks. Well no longer. The PowerShot S120 can now fire a burst of five frames at about 15fps, then continues to shoot at 9.4fps pretty much until you run out of memory. This along with slightly snappier AF and shutter lag makes the S120 a much quicker and more satisfying camera to use.
But now more than ever the S120 finds itself surrounded by rivals with equally compelling messages: the bigger sensor, hotshoe and tilting screen of the Sony RX100 II, and the longer zoom and built-in EVF of the Lumix LF1 spring immediately to mind, or if you’re willing to carry something only a little chunkier you can enjoy the brighter lenses of the Lumix LX7, Fujifilm X20, Olympus XZ2, not to mention Canon’s own PowerShot G16; Panasonic now even offers an interchangeable lens camera in this size category with the GM1. It’s tough competition, so before concluding, let’s take a final look at how it measures-up compared to its closest rivals.
Canon S120 vs Sony RX100 II
Sony’s Cyber-shot RX100 and the updated RX100 II redefined what we could expect from an enthusiast-class compact, and as such it’s fair to say this is the camera that represents the major competition for the Canon S120. So how do they compare?
Physically both cameras share roughly the same profile viewed from the front, but the RX100 II is almost 1cm thicker and almost 50% heavier too. Now this doesn’t make the RX100 II a large camera, but the Canon S120 is noticeably slimmer and lighter. I found I could squeeze it into most trouser pockets for example, whereas the Sony often needed a bit more space.
In terms of optics, the S120 has a broader 5x range equivalent to 24-120mm compared to 28-100mm on the RX100 II. The focal ratio starts the same on both at f1.8, and while the Sony appears faster when fully zoomed-in at f4.9 compared to f5.7 on the Canon, the S120 actually shares essentially the same aperture when set to the RX100 II’s maximum zoom of 100mm. The S120’s lens also offers a built-in ND filter which can be handy for long exposure work, although it’s only 3 stops.
Both cameras offer high resolution 3in screens, but the S120’s is touch-sensitive while the RX100 II’s can tilt vertically. This is a tough one to weigh up as both have their uses and you’ll need to decide which best suits you personally. But one important advantage the Sony has over the Canon is the chance to fit and external electronic viewfinder accessory.
Both cameras can shoot 1080p video at 60fps, but the Sony RX100 II offers full PASM exposure control options along with manual focusing with focus peaking assistance while filming. Its hotshoe also allows you to mount an external microphone accessory which all makes it a more professional choice for video. But it’s not completely one-sided as the S120 lets you apply the popular miniature effect to movies, offers a couple of slow motion options (albeit at sub-HD quality), and its touch-screen allows you to pull-focus simply by tapping.
In terms of continuous shooting, both cameras can shoot at their full resolution at around 10fps, but the RX100 II slows down to 2.5fps after 13 frames (which takes about one second) whereas the S120 is happy to keep shooting at this speed until it runs out of memory.
Moving onto connectivity, the RX100 II is much better-served with its hotshoe and accessory interface supporting external flashes, microphones and cable releases. Both cameras have built-in Wifi, but while the Canon S120 is limited to sharing and tagging images, the RX100 II additionally offers basic smartphone remote control and it supports NFC as well. You can also charge the RX100 II over USB whereas the S120 requires a mains-powered charger.
Both offer a wealth of shooting modes. The S120 sports a neat new Starry Sky set of presets for easy astrophotography and also lets you dial-in exposures as long as 250 seconds direct from manual mode. In contrast the RX100 II’s maximum dialable-exposure in manual is 30 seconds, although the Bulb mode lets you expose for several minutes if desired. The RX100 II also features an auto panorama mode, something that’s still sorely lacking from any Canon.
Arguably the biggest difference though is the sensor: a 1in type sensor with 20 Megapixels on the RX100 II versus a 1/1.7in type sensor with 12 Megapixels on the S120. So the RX100 II’s sensor not only has over 50% more pixels in total, but 2.8 times the surface area. In my tests the S120 came close to recording similar degrees of real-life detail in good light and at low ISOs, but above 400 ISO and especially 800 ISO, the RX100 II’s bigger sensor simply records more light with less noise. But do have a look at my Canon S120 quality pages to see the differences in practice as they may be closer than you think. Also check out the first page of my review where you’ll see the RX100 II can deliver a slightly shallower depth of field than the S120, but again not quite as much as you might expect.
The final aspect to weigh-up is the price with the Sony RX100 II costing over 50% more than the S120. This coupled with the S120’s more pocketable dimensions could swing it for some enthusiasts, although others will be smitten with the bigger sensor, but as you can see above, there’s lots of smaller features to weigh-up too. Ultimately though, while the RX100 II is more expensive than the S120 and is thicker too, it remains an extremely compelling prospect for enthusiasts looking for a compact.
See my Sony RX100 II review for more details.
Canon S120 vs Panasonic Lumix LF1
Panasonic is the first company to really take on Canon’s PowerShot S series on size. The Lumix LF1 offers a similar degree of manual control and enthusiast features as the S120 in much the same body size, but crucially adds two important features. But first, what do they have in common?
Both cameras share essentially the same sized bodies squeezing-in 1/1.7in sensors with 12 Megapixels (and similar image quality as a result), along with full manual exposure control over stills (but not movies), RAW files, 3in screens, miniature modes for stills and movies, 250 second maximum exposures, and built-in Wifi.
In its favour over the LF1, the S120 sports slightly wider 24mm coverage at the wide-end with a fractionally brighter f1.8 vs f2 focal ratio, a touch-sensitive screen, astro-photography presets and support for 1080/60p video and slow motion movies. The top continuous shooting speed may be roughly the same (approx 10fps), but the S120 can keep shooting while you have memory remaining whereas the LF1 is limited to a one-second / 12 shot burst at its top speed.
In its favour, the LF1 has a much longer telephoto reach of 200mm vs 120mm, a broader array of continuous shooting options, NFC to make the initial Wifi negotiation easier for compatible devices, smartphone remote control, auto-panoramas, and a tiny but useful electronic viewfinder; you can also recharge the LF1 over USB. Depending on where you’re based, the LF1 may also be a little cheaper.
So while there are a number of things to weigh-up, it mostly boils down to whether you want the slightly wider lens, better continuous shooting, 1080 / 60p video and touch-screen of the S120 over the comfortably longer lens, electronic viewfinder and smartphone remote control of the LF1. It’s something only you can decide, but the great news is there’s finally some decent competition for the S120.
See my Panasonic Lumix LF1 review for more details.
If you’re happy to carry something a little chunkier in order to have a lens that’s bright at both the wide and long ends, also consider the Canon PowerShot G16, Fujifilm X20, Olympus XZ2 or Panasonic Lumix LX7. Or if the idea of having the smallest interchangeable lens cameras is appealing, check out the Panasonic Lumix GM1.
Canon PowerShot S120 final verdict
Canon’s PowerShot S series was once the only choice if you wanted a pocket-sized camera with full manual control and support for RAW files. But today the enthusiast compact market is one of the fastest growing and every company wants a piece of the action. Of all the recent rivals, Sony’s Cyber-shot RX100 II has arguably shaken this segment the most, packing a bigger sensor, hotshoe and tilting screen into a body that’s the same size as the S120 from the front but only a centimeter thicker.
So it’s testament to how good the S120 is that it can stand up to such strong competition and remain relevant in today’s marketplace. Like its predecessor it packs a useful 5x 24-120mm equivalent zoom into a body that really is genuinely pocketable. And while the sensor surface area is 2.8x less than the Sony RX100 II and the resolution over 50% lower too, the image quality actually comes closer than you’d think. Sure at sensitivities over 400 and especially 800 ISO the Sony takes a comfortable lead, but if you’re shooting at lower sensitivities there’s not a lot in it, particularly if you stick to print sizes less than 13x10in.
I’m also amazed none of the S120’s rivals have a touch-screen, including those from Panasonic. The ability to tap to focus anywhere on the screen or pull focus during video is a huge advantage and those who are used to smartphones and tablets will find the swipes and pinches feel natural during playback – and once you need to enter copyright information, a Wifi password or a caption for sharing, you’ll be pleased you can tap at an on-screen alphabet.
Of course so far – apart from the tap focus-pulling – these capabilities are the same as the S110 before it. Of the new features, the 1080 at 60p, Starry Sky presets, focus peaking, enhanced HDR, higher resolution screen, slightly easier social sharing setup, and slightly brighter lens are all nice to have, but it’s the improvements to the speed which really transform the S120 from its predecessor. The focusing and shutter response feel faster, but the continuous shooting performance is nothing short of miraculous. In my tests the S120 shot a short burst of five frames at about 15fps before settling down to 9.25fps for pretty much as long as you held the shutter button down. I’m talking hundreds of frames over sustained periods without slowdown. In this respect the S120 leapfrogs the competition not to mention every Canon compact before it (although the G16 also offers similar speed).
It’s not all good news though. Compared to the Sony RX100 II, the PowerShot S120 lacks connectivity and expansion options – unlike its rival there’s no chance to connect an optional viewfinder, flash, microphone or cable release, and while both have Wifi the S120 lacks NFC and the chance to be remote controlled by a smartphone. Since the RX100 II and most of Panasonic’s Wifi-equipped compacts boast NFC and smartphone remote control, this is an aspect Canon really needs to resolve.
But if your goal is to take long exposures, the S120 has you covered with manually selectable shutter speeds down to 250 seconds and a built-in ND filter if you’re shooting landscapes. If you’re into astrophotography, the three new Star presets also make it easy to capture wide fields, trials or even timelapse videos of the night sky. So the inability to connect a cable release or have a Bulb mode may not be as big an issue as they first sound.
It’d also be nice if the S120 had more for manual movie shooters. Yes there’s now focus peaking which remains active once you start filming video, but there’s no way to manually focus during movies and no manual control over exposure either.
I’m also concerned by Canon’s decision to sacrifice some of the slimness of the S110 just to boost the aperture at the wide end from f2 to f1.8. This really makes little difference to exposures or depth of field and was arguably only introduced to look competitive against other f1.8 compacts. But doing so thickened the camera by 2.1mm which isn’t insignificant for a camera which measures 29mm thick and is all about pocketability. I hope Canon isn’t tempted to thicken it any further in the future to incorporate a tilting screen or a brighter lens. Doing so brings it dangerously close to models like the RX100 II and G16. I’m all for making the G16 more sophisticated and the G1 X smaller, but the S series has to stay genuinely pocketable or it loses its raison d’etre.
As it stands though the S120 can still be squeezed into most pockets which keeps it unique against most of its competition – indeed only the Lumix LF1 challenges it in this regard. And if it is a genuinely pocketable enthusiast-class compact you’re after then you should be comparing the S120 very closely against the LF1 and also seeing what that extra 1cm of thickness gets you from the RX100 II. But for me even against such rivals the S120 remains a highly compelling camera and one I’d be very happy to carry around as a backup to a system camera or even by itself for many situations. As such it remains Highly Recommended.
One of smallest cameras with RAW & manual control.
Very fast sustained burst shooting.
Flexible 5x range with 24mm f1.8 & built-in ND filter.
Focus peaking greatly aids manual focusing.
Built-in Wifi with social sharing from the camera.
Touchscreen interface with tap focus pulling.
Wealth of presets including HDR and Star modes.
(relative to 2013 advanced compacts)
17 / 20
16 / 20
18 / 20
17 / 20
18 / 20