Recently, Joe and I purchased a point and shoot camera, for two reasons. First, the 30D is truly on its last leg. That camera is now 9 years old, and although still functional, barely so. And second, a point and shoot is much smaller and easier to carry around when hiking, etc. It was not intended to be a replacement for the 30D – obviously a point and shoot will never be equal in quality to a DSLR, even a rickety old one – but rather a small, action camera, in place of a smart phone camera. We’d like to get a replacement DSLR eventually, but it will need to wait a bit longer until I’m finally finished with school. In the meantime, I wanted to systematically go through how this little point and shoot stacks up against the 30D; yes, I do realize it is somewhat unfair to compare a point and shoot to a DSLR, but the 30D is the only camera I have shot with for the last several years, and is thus the only thing I have to compare to.
To test out our new mini-camera, Joe and I went on a couple of adventures to Artist Point and Iron Horse State Park, lugging both cameras in tow.
Overall image quality
When superimposed next to a picture at almost exactly the same settings with the 30D, the difference in image quality with the S110 is noticeable; however, this little camera still performs surprisingly well. The resulting image is less crisp and detailed, and the color seems somewhat dull by comparison, but when you consider the size/weight trade off between the two cameras, for something like a long backpacking trip where you’re trying to pack as conservatively as possible, the reduction in image quality is reasonable.
The aperture on this camera ranges from f2.0-8.0, making it well-suited to lower light situations, and giving the ability to create lovely depth of field.
The cap at f8.0 does create some important limitations to the camera’s performance, though. One prime example is when trying to photograph waterfalls. For these shots, I typically like to have the exposure in the neighborhood of at least 1 second to capture the water as a soft, hazy cascade, but in the bright sunlight, it is often necessary to compensate with narrower apertures. The 30D goes all the way up to f22.0, which is ideal for soft waterfall shots in bright light. During our hike at Iron Horse State Park, I found a small waterfall and attempted to take a couple of shots of it, but since it was in the sunlight, this was challenging to achieve with a cap on my aperture at f8.0.
Fortunately, this camera has a simulated neutral density filter built into it, which can help a bit to compensate for the limitations on aperture, and which is the only thing that made the above shot possible.
Neutral Density Filter
A neutral density filter is normally an external filter placed over a lens to reduce the intensity of all light entering the lens, while preserving color, and really making details pop. Of course, with a point and shoot, you cannot use standard lens filters, so the availability of a built-in simulated filter is a nice addition. I flipped on the neutral density filter in the settings, which allowed me to stretch the exposure on the above waterfall to 1 second.
However, even with the neutral density filter applied and the aperture at f8.0, there are still some areas of the photo that are considerably overexposed, particularly the rocks in direct sunlight, and this is even after attempting to balance the exposure out in Camera RAW.
The final verdict: waterfalls in the shade.
On this same hike, we ventured into the Snoqualmie Train Tunnel to evaluate low-light performance. The ISO goes up to 12,800, but of course introduces a lot of noise to the shot, which is totally to be expected.
Because of the noise often introduced in low light situations, it is advantageous to use other features of the camera that increase the light getting in and minimize the amount of ISO necessary. Some of the most basic strategies include shooting at wider apertures and lengthening exposure times. Oftentimes, I like to use a combination of all three. And this is where the S110 has a serious limitation.
When attempting to set the exposure length to greater than 1 second, the camera defaults to an ISO of 80, making it virtually impossible to combine exposure length and ISO to achieve a good exposure in any really useful way. I think this is the camera’s Achilles heel.
Given this limitation, I decided to test out the camera’s ability to perform at low light levels with ISO alone.
The inside of this tunnel is almost pitch black, so clearly, the ISO alone gets the job done, but certainly at the expense of a lot of noise.
The maximum exposure length is capped at 15 seconds, which is actually pretty decent, and about half of what is allowed by the 30D. Again, it really is a downside that you cannot combine this exposure length with increased ISO for optimal low light photography; although I highly doubt this is specific to the S110, but rather a limitation of point and shoots in general. It’s not a deal-breaker by any means though, because you’ll still be able to get great “magic hour” shots.
The focal length from 24-120mm, which is a nice range for shooting both wide-field and close up.
Auto Focus vs. Manual Focus vs. Macro Focus
The auto focus feature on the camera works well in general, but fails when trying to shoot very near field. For close up shots, especially when shooting wide open and looking for nice soft background, you’ll need to switch over to either the macro focus, which is designed to focus on the closest objects in the frame, or manual focus and just handle the focusing yourself – which you choose will depend on your individual shooting scenario. I find the macro focus actually works really well in most circumstances, and the manual focus feature on this camera is slow and somewhat cumbersome by comparison. My personal preference is just switching to macro, given how much faster it is.
The primary reason I chose the S110 over other point and shoots was the fact that it shoots in RAW, making it one step up from other point and shoots by adding additional editing power – which can arguably make a considerable difference to the end photograph.
This camera uses a newer version of Camera RAW than the 30D, which I learned the hard way is not compatible with Photoshop CS5 (really!? CS5 is not that old). There is a work-around for this, but it’s not ideal, as it requires downloading another piece of software for conversion of RAW files to DNG. This means that for every image you take and want to edit in Photoshop, you ultimately end up with 3 (large) images taking up space on your computer: the original RAW, the Photoshop-compatible DNG, and the final JPG. Of course you can quickly move these large preprocessed images off your computer and onto an external hard drive or the likes, but still, what a pain! I don’t have another solution at this point, because I am far too broke to purchase Photoshop CS6, which is compatible with the newest Camera RAW version. If you find yourself running into this problem, Adobe’s free DNG converter can be downloaded here.
The Bottom Line
Based on its performance in multiple different shooting techniques, the S110 seems a reasonable small action camera, with some great features. There are some limitations that preclude its use for certain circumstances, such as awesome waterfalls in the sun and astrophotography, but outside of these it’s a solid hiking camera. Of course, making the decision to swap this camera out for a DSLR for the purpose of saving weight depends on assessing the trade off in image quality and technical ability with the amount of weight saved, so of course this review would not be complete without telling you how much the thing weighs: a scant 6.1 ounces.