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Review: Canon S120
3:01 am | December 24, 2013

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Review: Canon S120


Canon generally releases its S range of premium compact cameras at the same time as it updates the G series, and it’s no different this year with the introduction of the Canon PowerShot S120 to replace last year’s Canon PowerShot S110.

As with its bigger sibling, much of the outward design of the S120 remains unchanged from its predecessor, but internally there have been some significant upgrades.

It is the first S series camera to feature a lens with an f/1.8 aperture. Its diminutive dimensions also make it the slimmest camera in the world to feature an f/1.8 optic. It’s still a 5x optical zoom, starting at 24mm.

Canon PowerShot S120 review

It also shares the same new 12.1 million pixel back-illuminated CMOS sensor as the Canon G16. Although pixel count remains the same as its predecessor, the new design should produce better images. Canon’s latest processor, Digic 6, is also found in both models.

The special thing about Digic 6 in these models is that not only should low light performance be greatly improved from previous models, but continuous shooting can offer something pretty exciting. The S120 can shoot at 9.4fps (JPEG only, no continuous autofocus) without a buffer. That means that it can shoot, in theory, until your card is full without stopping. You can also stop shooting and restart without any lag.

Canon says that the autofocus speed of the S120 has been improved by around 50%. As before, both models feature full-manual control and raw format shooting. The S120 also features a control ring around the lens.

Unlike the G16, the S120’s 3 inch screen is touch-sensitive. Both of the new models now feature Wi-Fi connectivity, with GPS available if used in conjunction with your smart phone.

A new introduction for both models is Star Mode, which has been designed to help those wanting to shoot night time photographs. Canon says that it is so confident of the camera’s low light capability that it wants to actively encourage photographers to use the cameras in the dark.

Star Mode is a fully automatic mode which deploys the best settings for capturing the night sky. It also has the ability to capture star trails and time-lapse movies within the camera itself, without the need for post production work.

Canon PowerShot S120 review

Background Defocus has also been added. This takes two images, one in focus and one out of focus, combining the results from the two automatically to produce a DSLR type shallow depth of field effect. HDR mode has been improved with new digital filters.

Manual focus peaking has been introduced on these new models for the first time in a Canon stills camera. We’ve seen this before on Canon video cameras and from other stills cameras manufacturers.

Full HD video recording is available at 60fps for smooth movies.

Whether the S120 is more appealing than the G16 will no doubt be down to personal taste on handling. As the two have very similar specifications, the S120 is worth considering if you’re looking for something a little smaller but with fewer direct controls on the body. The S120 is also cheaper than the G16.

Build quality and handling

As previously mentioned, the build and design is almost identical to the S110, although the top plate now features a shinier material, giving it an even more premium feel.

The S120 feels reassuringly weighty despite its small size, with the sleek black exterior giving it a classy air.

On top of the camera is a mode dial for quickly switching between the different exposure modes available, including fully automatic, scene, digital filters, semi-automatic (shutter priority and aperture priority) and fully manual. Unlike on the G16, there’s no dial up top for changing exposure compensation.

The well-liked control ring around the lens reappears here on the S120. This is such a popular feature of the camera that we’ve since seen very similar controls appearing on other cameras in the premium compact territory. The ring can be customised to control different settings, depending on what you prefer to use most often. Traditionalists may like to set it to control aperture.

Canon PowerShot S120 review

If you choose to use the control ring for something else, such as sensitivity, then you can use the scrolling dial on the back of the camera to control aperture or shutter speed, depending on the mode that you’re shooting in.

On the back of the camera the layout remains the same as its predecessor, with a fairly typical array of buttons, including a dial for navigating through the menu and changing key settings. Exposure compensation needs to be controlled from the back of the camera, so unlike the G16, there’s no dedicated ISO button.

As with many other Canon compacts, the scrolling dial doubles up as a four way navigational pad, with each of the four directions acting as a shortcut to various settings.

Pushing the left directional button enables you to toggle between focusing modes, such as macro and manual focusing. Pushing the right button displays different flash options, while the downwards button controls the settings which are displayed on the screen. The up button has two functions, acting as the exposure compensation button when in shooting mode or as the Wi-Fi button when in playback mode.

In order to access other commonly used settings, such as sensitivity, timer mode and metering, a sort of quick menu can be accessed by pushing the function button in the middle of the scrolling dial. You’ll need to push the function button again to get rid of the menu once you’re ready to shoot, rather than just half pressing the shutter button, which seems a little unintuitive.

Wi-Fi can only be accessed when playing back an image, as it’s used to share pictures to social networking or with other devices. It’s a shame that you can’t use Wi-Fi to remote control the camera, as you can with other cameras from other manufacturers. If you want to share directly to sites such as Facebook then you will need to register with Canon Image Gateway on a computer and set up access this way. It’s a little annoying having to do this separately, but once it’s done it then becomes pretty quick and simple to share your shots.

Canon PowerShot S120 review

If you don’t have access to a Wi-Fi connection, you can also send images across to your smartphone or tablet. Again, this requires a first-time set-up, but once it’s done, it’s pretty easy to use. The free Canon CW app (available for iOS and Android) is very simple and easy to use, if a little basic. You can also use the app to add GPS locations to your images if you want to plot them on a map.

Anybody used to making their way through Canon’s menu system will be at home here, it’s a fairly straightforward affair. As pressing the central Function button brings up a sort of quick menu, the main menu is mainly reserved for altering things such as the date and time.


Over the years, the Canon S range has gained a reputation as an excellent performer, especially for its size and weight. The S120 builds on that excellent lineage, producing great images straight from the camera as we’ve come to expect.

Colours are natural and well saturated, without being overly vibrant. Skin tones are particularly pleasing, while you have the option to boost colours if you wish by using the MyColors option from the function menu – although bear in mind these can only be used when not shooting in raw format.

The S120’s new back-illuminated 12.1 million-pixel sensor is a significant upgrade from the S110, especially in terms of low light performance. Shooting images at up to ISO 3200 results in usable images, especially if printing or sharing at normal to small sizes. Although image smoothing is present pretty much throughout the sensitivity range, even at ISO 1600 this isn’t too bad, and there’s still an impressive amount of detail kept. Straying into ISO 3200 is fine if you need it, but you might want to avoid if it if you want ultra-sharp images.

Canon PowerShot S120 review

This improved low light performance comes as a result of the addition of the latest Digic 6 processor, which also facilitates high continuous shooting rates of 9.4fps, which is extremely useful for shooting fast moving action. That processor also means that buffering time is very quick, meaning you can keep shooting until your memory card runs out.

By shooting at mid-range apertures, such as f/8.0, we can assess the sharpness of the S120’s lens. The optic is capable of delivering sharp images right the way across the frame, leading to pleasing results, especially when shooting in good light.

Focusing is generally pretty snappy and quick, although this does drop a little in low light, but not enough to be too much an annoyance. Macro focusing is also pretty impressive, allowing you to get very close to the subject to produce detail rich frame-filling close-ups.

Leaving a lot of the decision making up to the S120 is fine, with good performance put in by the automatic white balance and general-purpose metering, even when shooting in artificial or high contrast lighting conditions.

Useful zoom

Although the S120 doesn’t have a particularly long zoom range, it should be adequate for most every day scenarios. Shooting at the far end of the telephoto zoom lens results in images which are sharp, although there is some degree of image smoothing if you examine at 100%. You can also activate digital zoom if you need extra reach. This is also good if you’re sharing at normal or small sizes, but if you examine at actual size, there is a fair amount of detail lost. As you can’t use digital zoom when shooting in raw format, you could also crop into the image in post production if you need to keep a raw file.

Canon isn’t particularly known for its range of digital filters, but there are some to experiment with on the S120, found under a dedicated mode. Our particular favourites are toy camera and nostalgic, but this will likely be down to personal preference. It’s a shame that you can’t use the filters while shooting in raw format mode though, as you’ll be stuck with any filter you choose to use. Similarly, you can also get a little creative with “MyColors” which basically recreates classic film types, such as Positive Film or monochrome. Although again fun to use, you can’t use them when shooting raw format, though at least with these you do keep creative control over parameters such as aperture.

The touchscreen is one of the best features about the S120, being very responsive to the touch. It also doesn’t suffer too badly from glare or reflection, though with a fixed screen and no viewfinder you may struggle in extremely bright sunlight.

Sample images

Canon S120 review

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The S120 gives you full manual control over settings, meaning you can create long exposures such as this. Optical image stabilisation does a good job of helping to produce a blur-free image even when shooting handheld.

Canon S120 review

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Noise is apparent at very high sensitivities, such as ISO 3200 but, shared at smaller print and web sizes, the image is more than acceptable.

Canon S120 review

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Automatic white balance has done a good job of producing accurate colours even under the artificial lighting conditions of this scene.

Canon S120 review

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The S120’s 24mm equivalent lens gives a great wide angle of view for a variety of different scenarios. It’s slightly wider than the G16’s 28mm.

Canon S120 review

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The S120 is now capable of shooting as wide as f/1.8, helping when you want to shoot low-light scenes.

Canon S120 review

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Colours are represented accurately by the S120, being bright and punchy without going over the top.


Canon has a lot more competition in the premium compact department than it previously had, so it seems to be pulling out all the stops to make its latest updates appealing to consumers.

We’ve been long time fans of the S range, and it seems like the improvements to the specifications have made it even better and a more worthy competitor to the very good Sony RX100 II.

Although it doesn’t quite match the Sony in terms of image quality, it is smaller and available at a cheaper price point. It also has a touchscreen, so if you’re a particular fan of those, it’s also worth considering.

Image quality is excellent, especially in terms of low light performance thanks to that new Digic 6 processor. We’re also particularly impressed by the fast continuous shooting speeds, which is very useful for shooting fast moving action.

The S120 perhaps represents a more complete package than its sibling camera the G16. It pairs the same sensor in a smaller body which is pocket friendly, while including enticing features such as Wi-Fi and a touchscreen. That said, if you’re a traditionalist who prefers more buttons and dials to make changes, then the S120 may be just a little too sleek for you.

While it’s good to see Canon keeping Wi-Fi on the S120, it’s a shame that there’s been no additional functions added since the S120, such as the ability to shoot remotely from a smartphone or tablet. That’s something that’s offered by other manufacturers, so it’s a bit of a disappointment not to have it here. That said, the ability to share directly from the camera (admittedly once you’ve already set up a Canon Image Gateway account on a computer separately), is handy and quick if you’re connected to a Wi-Fi network. The free Canon CW app is also useful for quickly grabbing shots from your camera if you need to share while you’re out and about.

We liked

A nifty little performer, there’s lots to like about the Canon S120, not least the excellent image quality. It’s not quite on a par with the Sony RX100 II but it’s not too far behind, which considering its smaller sensor is pretty impressive. It seems the Digic 6 processor is the key to high image quality here.

We disliked

It’s about time Canon improved its digital filter offering, giving more choice and the ability to shoot with them while using raw format and keep full manual control. While it’s nice to have a dedicated mode for filters, we can’t help but feel like they could be more integrated into the camera for a better approach.

Final verdict

The premium compact camera market is a pretty crowded one now, but the S120 remains as one of the most solid performers you can buy. It’s a good option for those who want top notch image quality along with something that fits snugly into a pocket. If you’re not too bothered about lots of buttons and dials, this will also appeal to you.

If however, you’d prefer something a little chunkier, with a viewfinder, then have a look at the Powershot G16 if you want to stay firmly in the Canon camp. You may also want to consider the Panasonic LF1 and of course there’s the oft referenced Sony RX100 II, if you have a larger budget to play with.

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