When compacts were for dummies and DSLRs for pros, "serious" compacts in the vein of the Canon S120 and Sony RX100 made a lot of sense. Now, flanked by fantastic do-it-all compacts such as the Sony HX50 on one side and far more flexible compact system cameras on the other, their niche is squeezed harder than ever.
The S120 fights back by talking the language of the photographer, weighing in with RAW shooting, an f/1.8 lens, a neutral density filter and a full manual mode.
The Canon S120's target customer already has a big camera. In fact they probably have a cupboard of cameras to choose from, and because this is meant to be a "day off" camera it's clealy been designed to be as slim as possible. That flatness makes it very pocketable but imposes limits on the space available for the battery and the extent of the zoom.
Even so, there's room for a pop-up flash (which needs to be deployed manually) and a control ring that can be assigned to manual focus, zoom or aperture adjustment.
Before we get into the nuts and bolts, take a look at some of the unusual fun features. There are three Star modes which make it very easy to shoot night skies. Usually this is tricky on a compact as you'll typically be limited to a 30-second exposure and have trouble setting the focus in the dead of night. The S120's Star Trail feature handles all of that for you, exposing for about an hour and a half (battery permitting), building up a composite of long exposures over that time. You can call it quits whenever you like, and because you get a live preview on the LCD there's no guesswork involved. You can also opt for a single long exposure or make a timelapse movie of the night sky. It's also refreshing to have a generous maximum exposure time of 250 seconds in manual mode.
Neutral Density Filter
You can even take long exposures in daylight thanks to the internal neutral density filter feature. When this is switched on it has the effect of reducing the amount of light hitting the sensor, which allows you to keep the shutter open for longer without over exposing the image.
It's fun to play around with, although a little disappointing that you're limited to somewhere between one and two seconds depending on weather conditions. The picture of the van hurtling down the road is on the verge of over exposing with a 1.6-second shutter speed, while the waterfall (OK, sewerage outlet) is crisper at 0.8 seconds.
Aside from those tricks, the most impressive thing about the Canon S120 is the image quality. It's not fool-proof in Auto mode and most of the time you'll get better exposures if you're in High Dynamic Range mode, but assuming you have got it set up correctly for your scene, the pixel clarity is excellent.
There's a lot more to image quality than how clean your pixels are, but it's reassuring to see that, close-up, there's virtually no fringing, blurring or distortion, which gives you more potential for cropping and enlarging.
Optical zoom: 5x
ISO range: 80-12800
Shutter speed range: 1/2500 sec - 250 secs
LCD: 3in capacitive touchscreen
Video: 1080p @ 60fps
Connectivity: HDMI, USB, Wi-Fi b/g/n
Storage: SD, SDHC, SDXC
Bright lens, low light skills
That f/1.8 lens pays off when you're indoors, shooting under artificial light. You can capture great images without the flash while maintaining a reasonably fast shutter speed. For example, in regular domestic lighting you can expect the Auto mode to take a picture at 1/20 of a second at ISO 1600, which is sufficient to snap children playing with minimal motion blur and still retain crispness in the detail.
Video quality is also amongst the best of any compact. You can shoot in super-smooth 60 frames-per-second, aided by excellent image stabilisation. It loses out to the very best compact for video (that'll be the Sony HX50) because with just a 5x optical zoom you're tempted into digital zoom territory too soon, and also because that image stabilisation can come unstuck if you move around a little too much.
We like the idea of the control ring around the lens, and the ability to assign it to different functions gives you the opportunity to shoot the way you want. In practice it's a little too slow to communicate your input to the camera, so there's a slight delay between notching it round a point and the focus, ISO or aperture value changing.
Interface and touchscreen
Over the last few years we've become accustomed to highly intuitive user interfaces on phones, tablets and the web, but unfortunately this is still not an area of expertise for many camera manufacturers. At times the S120's controls and menus are baffling and infuriating. There's no manual in the box, so unless you seek it out online and give it a thorough reading, you could easily miss some of the camera's features because they're so deeply woven into the operating system. At times, the markings on the physical controls seem to bear no relation to their current function, or refuse to perform a function at all.
Usability is aided to a degree by the half-baked touchscreen implementation. Entering passwords and the like for the Wi-Fi set-up would be a lot harder without it, but this is countered by the disconcerting bleeps that go off randomly whenever you're holding the camera without actually shooting anything. It's possible to adjust the touchscreen's sensitivity or turn it off altogether, but that's not something a camera user should have to contend with.
Wi-Fi and battery
Battery performance is disappointing. How long the battery lasts will depend on how you use it, but in our tests it ran out of juice worryingly quickly, cutting short our field trip as we returned to base to plug it into the mains charger. It's a problem that's magnified by the USB connectivity. There is a USB port (although it's not marked as such) but it's the older USB Mini B type rather than the Micro B type used on modern phones, and there's no USB cable in the box so you'll have to go hunting around for an old cable if you want to charge and transfer files via USB.
That puts greater emphasis on the proudly badged Wi-Fi skills. Unfortunately the Wi-Fi features are almost a complete disaster. Out of the box there's very little guidance on how to set up the various, theoretically possible ways of sharing and transfering images and videos via email, Facebook and Twitter, or between other cameras, mobile devices and computers. For example, it's possible to apparently post a picture to Facebook without ever giving the camera your Facebook credentials. It just sails along with the process and tells you it's all fine when that can't possibly be the case.
The one Wi-Fi aspect that does work fairly well is transferring pictures to an iPhone, iPad or Android device, but even then we were told that, with a full memory card in the camera, there was not enough space on that memory card to transfer the video clips from the camera to our iPad.
Canon S120 review summary
The S120 goes some way to delivering the look and feel of a high end camera in a compact form, but the best point-and-shoots will do just as good a job in many situations, and do it with less fuss. However, if clarity of image is paramount, the S120 will bring a smile to your face, and those long exposure modes alone could be enough to warrant a splash of your cash.