Canon S3 IS — Superzoom Gets a Facelift

By Stuart Sweetow of Audio Visual Consultants © 2006

Originally published in Digital Photographer Magazine

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The S3 IS retains the S2 features that contributed to the popularity of this semi-pro camera. These include the 12x zoom with three modes of optical stabilization, full manual control including focus and white balance, continuous shooting at 2.4 frames per second and the DIGIC II processing engine.

The new dark grey S3 ups the resolution to 6MP, enlarges the articulating LCD to two inches and bumps up the maximum ISO to 800. Additional new features include a recording histogram, a widescreen mode and a sports shooting mode. In addition to the 2-inch display, the viewfinder incorporates a 1/3-inch high-resolution LCD. This is helpful for shooting and playback in bright sunlight.

Taking a Tour of the S3 IS

The S3 has a slew of buttons and controls arranged in logical patterns on the back and sides of the camera. Around the large shutter release is the lever that controls the two-speed zoom. Behind that is the power switch lever; press toward the red icon to record and in the direction of the blue icon for playback. Push on the little button in the center to turn the power off. To the left is the mode knob with 13 shooting choices including full auto.

On the rear of the camera, just below the power switch is the Omni Selector — a four-way rocker control with arrows pointing up, down, left and right. These operate in conjunction with the adjacent Function button. Below that is a red Movie Record button.

Just below the Function button are buttons for ISO, Shortcut and Display. In the playback mode, the Function button activates Delete, the ISO button becomes Jump (to find particular shots) and the Shortcut button activates the Print/Share function.

On the left side of the camera are buttons for manual focus (MF) and Macro. On the top, to the left of the pop-up flash is a button for flash options; it activates Sound Memo recording in the playback mode, Below that is an AV output jack and a little loudspeaker. On the opposite side is a USB port and a jack for external power.

Shooting in the Manual Zone

While this camera has several automatic and semi-auto features, it is no slouch in the manual mode. To activate manual focus, press and hold the MF button on the left side of the lens, and move the Omni Selector up or down. The display shows an approximate reading in feet or meters. For help with focusing, the center of the image becomes magnified. Another focusing aid is the Focus Bracket feature. It takes three consecutive shots: at your set focal point, at a point a tad closer and one a little farther.

In addition to Focus Bracketing is auto exposure bracketing (AEB) where the camera takes one shot at the exposure value you set, one at a greater exposure and one at a lesser one. Use the Omni Selector to control the level of over- and under-exposure in 1/3 stop increments from -2 to +2.

Other manual controls include adjustable flash output and light meter choices of spot, center weighted or evaluative. The evaluative mode measures the light from several points in the frame and uses a computer program to make the exposure decision.

In the manual white balance mode (called Custom) you aim the camera at a white card or white object. Then press the Set button until the display indicates that white is set. You can also use a white lens cap and aim that at the light source.

The recording histogram helps you determine correct exposure during shooting. Blinking highlights in the playback histogram confirm that you are not washing out bright spots on your subject.

The My Colors mode provides the following choices: Vivid, Neutral, Sepia, B&W, Positive Film, Lighter or Darker Skin Tone, Vivid Red, Blue or Green and a Custom setting. Within Custom you can change the contrast, sharpness, skin tone or any combination of red, blue and green.

Shooting in the Creative Zone

The Color Accent mode, which also operates in the Movie mode, lets you shoot a scene and arrange for a portion to be in black & white. For example, a rose could remain red while the green leaves behind it are monochrome. The Swap Colors function lets you alter the color of a single object in a scene, such as changing the color of a stop sign to green.

For situations where you don’t have time to white balance, the S3 has two daylight settings (cloudy and sun), two fluorescent settings (cool white and warm white), indoor (tungsten) and auto.

If you don’t want to take the time to manually focus, but want more accuracy than auto-focus, the Flexizone auto-focus system lets you move the focus area to any of 375 points in the frame, using the Omni Selector and the set button. The camera has Focus Lock and AF lock.

Stitch Assist lets you create a panorama photo from up to 26 shots. The display helps you create the right amount of overlap. With the included software, you stitch the shots together to create a panorama with no visible seams. You can choose from five shooting sequences: left to right horizontally, right to left horizontally, vertically bottom to top, vertically top to bottom and clockwise starting at the top left.

The Intervalometer enables you to shoot scenes at set intervals. You can document the construction of a building or watch a flower bloom. The interval time may be set from two seconds to 60 minutes, and up to 100 images may be shot at a time.

The S3 offers “second curtain flash” to create the effect of streaks together with flash. You set the camera for a long exposure time to capture a subject in motion. The flash fires at the end of that exposure. This enables you to combine a properly exposed photo together with a streak from the long exposure, resulting in a dynamic look.

In the continuous shooting mode, the camera shoots continuously while the shutter button is held down. The Standard Continuous Mode lets you see the subject during shooting and is limited to 1.5 shots per second. In High-Speed Continuous Shooting, as many as 2.3 shots per second are recorded but not displayed in the viewfinder during shooting.

The self-timer gives you a choice of delay times as well as a choice of the number of shots taken by the self timer. The delay time is variable from two to 10 seconds, and up to 10 shots may be captured with the self-timer.

In addition to Macro, the S3 has a Super Macro mode where you can shoot as close as 0 mm from the lens. In other words, you can place an object right on the lens and get it in focus. Of course, this close, it will be a challenge illuminating any object other than a transparent one, but Super Macro can also be used to copy slides.

In addition to status displays on the LCD and viewfinder, you can turn on grid lines for composing your scene using rule-of-thirds composition or for simply making sure the horizon is straight.

The S3 has three types of image stabilization: Continuous, Shoot Only (that activates when the shutter release is pushed) and Panning (that lets you pan the camera horizontally while stabilizing only the vertical shake).

The Shortcut button lets you register one frequently used shooting mode, so that when you press the button, you can access that mode without having to go into the menu. For example, you can quickly go to spot metering or manual white balance by pressing the Shortcut button. Press it again to return to your previous settings.

You can create new folders to store images each time you shoot. The options include a way to create a new folder at a specified date and time or to create a new folder the next time you shoot images. Each folder has a limit of 2000 images.

Apply Effects in the Playback Mode

When the camera is set to playback, you can perform such functions as adding sound memos to images and applying the My Colors effects. In the playback mode, you can modify color, saturation contrast and sharpness. This enables you to experiment with the changes before committing them to the memory card.

You can magnify a portion of the image; jump to images, moving 10 or 100 at a time or view a matrix of nine images on the display. In the playback mode you can rotate vertical images 90 or 270 degrees. The S3 has a slide show feature that includes dissolves and wipes. With the supplied Stereo Video cable, you can play images and sounds on a standard TV monitor.

Advanced Audio Video Recording

While you can use this camera as a camcorder, you can also use it as a sound recorder—storing as much as two hours of audio. This camera provides stereo audio separation with two microphones, mounted on either side of the lens. Audio levels may be adjusted, and there is even wind noise filter. Recording quality options are available; use a lower quality setting (and smaller file size) for voice recordings and high quality for music.

The S3’s Movie Mode is on par with most consumer camcorders, with up to 30 fps and VGA resolution (640 x 480 pixels). For maximum recording times, frame rate may be lowered to 15 fps and resolution reduced to QVGA (320 x 240 pixels).

The zoom control is quiet during filming, and such features as manual focus, Photo Effects and My Colors work during shooting in the Movie Mode. The MovieSnap feature lets you capture still images at resolutions up to 6MP while recording movies.

The S3 Movie Mode offers a five-mode slow-motion replay function, as well as an in-camera editing that lets users remove unwanted footage from the beginning or the end of a movie clip. For video post-production, the included movie editing software lets you re-arrange the clips and add music, titles and transitions.

The CD that comes with the Canon S3 IS has software for both Mac and Windows. It includes Apple’s QuickTime, Canon’s ZoomBrowser EX 5.6, Canon’s PhotoStitch 3.1 and other photo utilities. Unless you already have QuickTime on your computer, you will need to install it from the CD to perform the video editing operations.

When you run Canon’s ZoomBrowser you will find images sorted by .jpg and .avi, the latter being your movie files. In the program’s Task window, select Edit Movie and then Add Images. Since the software lets you rearrange the clips, you can select the movie clips in any order. A storyboard of the clips you added is displayed at the bottom of the screen, and the program lets you move each image to the left or right in the storyboard.

Myriad Menu Controls

The menu is divided between Function Menu, Record Menu, Playback Menu and Print Menu. The Function Menu lets you set such parameters as exposure, white balance, metering mode, flash output, pixel count, compression settings, movie frame rate, bracketing and My Colors.

The Record Menu offers such options as second curtain flash, slow synchro (to select appropriate shutter speed for dark backgrounds), red eye reduction, continuous shooting, self-timer, AF mode, AF assist light, tally lamp, digital zoom, image stabilization modes, Intervalometer and custom display settings.

Within the Playback Menu you may apply My Colors, operate the sound recorder, create slide shows and transitions, transfer the order of images displayed, protect particular files from accidental deletion and erase the entire card. The Print Menu lets you select particular images and quantity and adjust print settings.

You may determine preferences in the Setup Menu, such as adjusting the camera startup sounds, shutter volume and other audio indicators. This is where you set the date and time, audio playback volume, LCD brightness and power saving modes. Additional Setup Menu functions include language, distance units, print methods, startup themes and choices of operation sounds. The supplied software lets you upload images and sounds from your computer to the camera.


The 168 page manual is clearly written and guides you through the basics before offering you myriad choices. You can get started quickly, shooting in the full auto mode, in one of the semi-auto modes or in full manual. That’s only the beginning. The creative color options, the bracketing features, contrast control, skin tone adjustment, second curtain flash and the Intervalometer are but a few of the goodies that this camera’s instruction manual will reveal.

The image stabilizer worked well, the manual white balance was right on, even in a dimly lit room and the recording histogram helped keep images properly exposed. The articulating LCD screen proved handy for capturing those high and low angles, but it is still a little small.

The choices of playback controls and option to record sound memos adds to the versatility of this camera. While the buttons and controls are logically arranged, the Delete control would be better positioned in a more remote location, rather than having it share the frequently-used Function button. The addition of 800 ISO helps in those darkened situations where you might not get a shot at all, but it is quite grainy.

The display options such as grid lines are handy, and the ability to customize the display let you be in the driver’s seat. The battery meter is visible only when you are near the end of the battery life; users probably would appreciate more warning. Operating on AA batteries is convenient. Having to manually open the flash is cumbersome, and its short range is limiting. Canon sells a special accessory flash, but there is no connector for an external flash.

The movie quality and ease of use are real treats, and the sound-only recording option adds to the versatility of this recording device. This is the kind of camera that brings fun back to photography. You can take your time exploring the instruction manual, discovering a new features as you go along.

Pros are sure to enjoy the manual features and the almost limitless control of parameters. The Creative Zone settings and the My Colors effects will bring out the artist in you. The Intervalometer and the sound recorder add to this unit’s value. This is the kind of camera with which you can discover more ways to make pictures, trying different features and experimenting with myriad options.

Just the Facts

Canon S3 IS

Street Price: $499 (Only price given by Canon at press time)

Image Sensor: 1/2.5″ CCD, 6.2 megapixels

Lens: 6.0 – 72.0mm, (35mm film equivalent: 36-432mm); f/2.7-3.5

Digital Zoom: Approx. 4.0x

Viewfinder: Color LCD viewfinder. Dioptric Adjustment -5.5 to +1.5

AF System:
TTL autofocus (continuous or single)
Focus lock and manual focus available
Focusing frame: 1-point AF (fixed to center or FlexiZone AF)

Shooting Distance (from tip of lens):
Normal: AF 1.6 ft to infinity (W), 3.0 ft to infinity (T)
Macro: 3.9 in. to 1.6 ft
Super Macro: 0 to 3.9 in

Shutter: Mechanical shutter plus electronic shutter

Shutter Speeds: 15 to 1/3200 sec. (Shutter speed varies according to shooting mode)

Light Metering System: Evaluative, Center-weighted average or Spot (Center to AF-point)

ISO Speed: Auto, High ISO Auto, ISO 80, 100, 200, 400, 800 equivalent

White Balance: TTL auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Fluorescent H, Flash or Custom.

Built-in Flash: Auto, on, off, red-eye reduction is available. FE Lock, Slow synchro and 1st-curtain/2nd-curtain flash are available.

Flash Range: Normal 1.6-17 ft (W), 3.0-13 ft (T) Macro 12 in to 1.6 ft (W)

Flash Exposure Compensation: +/- two stops in 1/3-stop increments
Flash Output: Three stops

Continuous Shooting:
Approx. 1.5 shots/sec. (Large/Fine mode)
Approx. 2.3 shots/sec. (Hi-speed continuous shooting, Large/Fine mode)

Shooting Interval: Approx. 1-60 min. (1-min. increments)

Number of shots: 2-100 shots (Maximum number of shots varies according to memory card capacity.)

Self-timer: Activates shutter after an approx. 10-sec./approx. 2-sec. delay, Custom Timer

PC-controlled Shooting: Available (USB connection only. Software program included in camera kit.)

Recording Media: SD memory card/MultiMediaCard, 16MB card supplied

Image Sizes: 2816 x 2112, 2816 x 1584, 2272 x 1704, 1600 x 1200, 640 x 480

Movie Clips: 640 x 480 @ 30 / 15fps, 320 x 240 @ 60 / 30 / 15fps, WAVE (stereo)

Audio: Sampling Frequency: 44.100/11.025 kHz, Quantization bit: 16 bit

File Formats: Still: JPEG (Exif 2.2), Movie: AVI (Motion JPEG compression)

Direct Print: PictBridge compliant, Canon Direct Print and Bubble Jet Direct compatible.

Interface: USB 2.0 Hi-speed, audio/video output (NTSC or PAL selectable, stereo audio)

Power Source: Four AA alkaline battery supplied or NiMH batteries (NB 300), Compact Power Adapter (sold separately)

Dimensions: 4.46 x 3.07 x 2.97 in.

Weight: 14.5 oz

Contact:, 800-OK-Canon

Camera Summary:

Features: 4
Ease of Use: 5
Image Quality: 4
Value for Your $$$: 5

With a host of manual controls and the wide range of creative options, the Canon S3 IS is well suited to the photographer who wants both manual and semi-automatic features.

+ Recording histogram, articulating LCD, versatile viewfinder, focus bracketing
– Limited flash options, small LCD size, no RAW or TIFF files

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