I’ve been meaning to pen this review for some time now, but I keep getting distracted by writing about, you know, travel destinations. In the meantime, the holidays are fast approaching and I’ve been getting tons of questions about the best camera gear for travel and underwater photography.
Today, I saw the prices for my beloved camera on Amazon, and my jaw dropped.
In my opinion, the best camera for travelers and casual underwater photographers is the Canon PowerShot S100 12.1 MP Digital Camera (obviously those divers are going to have to buy a case!) When I bought this camera, I forked over a little under $400 for it. Today, as Canon has recently announced a newer model, it’s listed at $250 (accurate at time of research). And with the Canon Underwater Housing going for $220 (again, accurate at time of research), you can have a great underwater setup for less than five hundred big ones.
You won’t believe the performance coming out of a camera this size. Basically, the Canon Gods took everything fantastic about the G-Series, which combined SLR performance with a medium-sized camera, and made it even smaller. With the gift-giving season in full swing and lots of us about to take off on winter holidays, there’s never been a more perfect time for me to give you a peek inside my camera bag.
I’m not going to list out every technical specification or get too into all the boring camera jargon, because you can find that stuff all over the interwebs. What I am going to tell you is my personal experience with this incredibly impressive piece of technology.
I’ll start with the disclaimer that I travel with two cameras (at minimum!) My PowerShot S100 functions as my underwater camera and my point-and-shoot, but I also have a great dSLR, the Canon Rebel T2i. I adore my SLR, but want to hear a confession? Lately I’ve found myself leaving the SLR locked in my hotel room, and throwing the Powershot S100 in my pocket instead. It’s a mere fraction of the size and weight, and I am shocked to report that I sometimes can’t tell the difference between photos taken on my SLR and photos taken on my Powershot s100!
How can that be possible?
Basically, the s100 features cutting edge hardware. It’s just the second Canon camera to come with the new Digic 5 processor, drastically improving white balance, noise reduction, and speed. It’s a full six times faster than its predecessor, the Digic 4, which is in my T2i SLR!
In layman’s terms, this camera takes sharp, clear, bright and beautiful photos. The color balance is fantastic, the detail and focus are inscrutable, and it performs well even in low lighting conditions. The image quality is simply out of this world.
I agonized over whether to buy the S100 or its slightly larger competitor the Canon G12. While Amazon reviews were kinder to the G12, Scubaboard members were smitten with the S100. As they were similar price, the S100 won out for me due to its size — I already have an SLR, I didn’t want another big camera. After six months of use, I could not be more thrilled with my decision. This camera is the perfect size to throw in my pocket when I’m doing activities like horseback riding or snowmobiling, or when I’m simply too lazy to lug my big heavy camera around. See those posts, or this one, for examples of what this camera can do!
This camera goes so far beyond a point a shoot. I frequently switch to Aperture or Shutter Speed priority, and full manual control is possible as well. It also has fool-proof settings for underwater, beach, fireworks, and more. This camera makes taking photos fun again!
The absolute biggest difference between this camera and my previous model, the Powershot 1300, is the video quality. The s100 shoots Full-HD 1080p video at 24 frames per second, or 720p video at 30 frames per second. Have you seen my One Week in Iceland video? Half of those clips were shot with my dSLR, half with my s100. Can you tell the difference? I can’t!
On of my favorite made-for-travelers features about this camera is the built-in GPS functionality. No more looking at a photo of a beach and trying to remember if it was on Maui or Oahu, or flipping through a set of temple pictures and trying to remember if that was Thailand or Cambodia. The GPS feature makes it a breeze to map your photos using either Canon’s included software or other tools by Flickr, Aperture, Google Earth, and more.
I notice that HDR photography is getting a lot of buzz right now, and the s100 has a built-in HDR feature! Unfortunately I haven’t gotten the chance to try it out yet as I rarely travel with a tripod, but it’s a fun bonus.
The negative that I have heard a lot of people complain about with this camera is the short battery life. The image processor that makes the image quality on this camera so mind-blowing, along with HD Video, GPS, and a few other features, eat a lot of battery. In my opinion it’s not that bad, and the solutions are simple — turn off the GPS function and buy a spare battery.
And of course, my dSLR still wins in a lot of categories. The s100 lens is 24mm wide, whereas my T2i lens opens all the way to 15mm — much better for shooting interiors and cities.
The Underwater Housing
When I conversed with some professional underwater photographers about which housing I was going to get for my s100, things got complicated again. Most avoid mentioning anything cheaper than an Ikelite Housing (running about $325), while some went as far as to make apocalyptic flooding predictions for the Canon Underwater Housing (running around $220). But here’s the thing. I had a Canon housing for my Canon 1300 model for two years — it never flooded. And while $100 for a better model might seem like a reasonable upgrade, I can’t stand the stiffness of the buttons on the Ikelite housing. Next pricewise comes the universally beloved Recsea housings, but at around $860 it might as well cost my weight in narcotics for how not-in-my-budget it is.
So I went for the Canon Housing. So far I’ve used it for my trip to Iceland and my trip to Hawaii. I’m happy to report that I’ve had zero problems. In fact, I’m in love! I’m so happy I went for the s100 over the G12. This camera may be tiny, but it’s underwater setting produces beautiful image quality underwater. See my posts on diving in Iceland and diving in Oahu for examples of what this camera can do submerged.
Note: I bought the black version of this camera, however I’ve since heard that the silver version is much preferred if you plan to use it underwater. The silver version absorbs less heat and leads to less fogging issues!
Onto the stocking stuffers! As I mentioned before, I can not more highly recommend getting a spare Canon NB-5L Battery battery for your camera! It’s less than 10 bucks, and it prevents those devastating tears that happen when an elephant walks in front of your safari vehicle and you miss it because your battery died. Especially essential for divers (switch batteries on your surface interval!) and those traveling to remote areas with limited electricity.
Do you mind if I step onto a travel photography soap box for a moment? It kills me when I see people spending hours agonizing over the best camera, fork over the big bucks for it, and then slap in the cheapest memory card they can find. That little one inch piece of technology is where your precious travel memories are stored! Invest in a quality memory card with high storage capacity. Personally, I use the SanDisk Extreme 16 GB Memory Card for my s100 and the 32GB version for my dSLR. Again, prevent the cries of a person who just missed the sunset over Macchu Piccu because they were frantically trying to clear space off their memory card, or the person who — I can barely write these words — loses all their photos from a trip when a card fails.
Divers, make sure to always pack a tub of silicone grease for the occasional O-ring maintenance. And I haven’t tried these out yet so I can’t vouch for them, but I’m going to pick up a pack of moisture muncher capsules to try to fight the occasional minor fogging problems.
You’ll notice one thing noticeably absent from this list — a camera case! I have a pretty high-tech system worked out for that one, guys. I use the bubble-wrap sleeve that my underwater housing was delivered in. Yup. Works like a charm! If you aren’t getting the underwater housing, generic point and shoot cases are cheap and can be picked up anywhere. Or if you’re as classy as I am, you can always use a sock.
Do I have any other S100 Camera lovers out there?
Note: All Amazon links in this post are affiliate links, meaning I will receive a commission for anything you buy on that site within twenty-four hours of clicking one of those links at no extra cost to you. I appreciate your support!
I’ve been searching for a good small camera. I too have the Rebel T2i and i’m obsessed with it, but i wanted something smaller so I dont have a carry it around. I’ll def be forward this article on to the parents….you think they’ll get the hint? 😛
I think any product mentioned between Thanksgiving and Christmas is firmly in the “gift hint” category! 🙂 I hope they go for it, you’ll love this camera!
Great post! I have the Panasonic version of the Canon S100 (the DMC-LX5) and I love it – it fits in my pocket and takes almost as good of photos as my dSLR! I had a random question – how do you carry around your dSLR when you’re traveling in a busy or potentially dangerous place? Do you have a special bag or do you just put the camera strap across your body? Thanks!
I’m pretty rough and tumble with my camera. I know I’m so lazy if I put it in a special case that would just mean I would take it out less. So I throw it right in my purse! Of course I always have the lens cap on, but that’s the only place I’m worries about scratches. Traveling through Southeast Asia I’ve always felt totally safe with my things, with the exception of Vietnam — I was pretty on edge there and held my stuff pretty close.
Good to know stuff, Alex! All the travel pics of the Galapagos, Equador, and the Adirondacks on my blog (https://adkchrisshaw.wordpress.com) were taken with a Rebel, but there were LOTS of times I was wishing I had something less bulky, but was afraid the quality would suffer. Obviously from your stunning pics, I should consider a more streamlined option!!
I really like having both! A camera for every occasion 🙂
I have the S90 and looooooove it!
When I first heard of this camera it was when the S95 was out and all the diving people I knew were raving about it… took me a full model to finally make the plunge, ha.
Good recommendation yet I can’t justify yet another camera. Figure I’ll take 3 to South Africa, P&S underwater, mid-size Fuji and the D5100. I know there will be plenty of times I won’t want the bulk or weight of the SLR which doesn’t fit easily into a purse. Which ever camera you’re using your shots are wonderful.
Thanks Gaelyn! I used to travel with three — an SLR, an underwater, and a crappy old one I would take out at night and that I didn’t care about. The old one died eventually so, back to just my two 🙂
Very compelling arguments you have listed here! Given that our practically brand-new Panasonic Lumix recently sprang a leak (while snorkeling in < 1 m of water no less… on its fifth outing out, to add insult to injury) we're trying to figure out a reasonable replacement while on the road so that we can try to capture some of the underwater life we've been experiencing. I definitely think a camera + case will be the way to go, so I'll put the S100 on the list of possible contenders!
I think a camera + case is definitely the must-do situation for anyone with a PADI card, because those “underwater” point and shoots rarely go below 30 feet! Best of luck deciding, and let me know if I can provide any help.
Oooh I was looking at the S100 when trying to decide on a travel camera. I ended up going with a DLSR (best decision ever!) but I still need a point and shoot. I was toying with getting a cheaper camera so I can leave it on a beach whilst swimming and take it out for nights worry free, but I still can’t get over how great I’ve been hearing this camera is! Have you ever had any concerns due to it being a higher end, more expensive point and shoot?
I used to travel with a third beat up old camera that I called “the party cam” — it basically only came out on nights out! Eventually it died an inevitable death. I wouldn’t mind having one again at some point but I don’t really want to buy a crappy camera just for the purpose of having a crappy camera. Ah well.
What a fantastic and in-depth review! And knowing how great your photos are, it’s great to hear such glowing reviews from someone who takes a lot of photos. I too travel with my T2i and a Sony Cyber-Shot, but when I’m looking to upgrade the little guy, I’ll be sure to get the Canon s100! Thanks Alex!
Thanks Arienne! I hope you’ll love it as much as I do.
I’m taking your recommendation (and amazon link) to heart and purchased the camera and the case. Super excited to try it out!
Yay!!! I’m so happy to hear you’re taking the plunge Julie. You have to let me know how much you love it once you get to try it out! My sister just got one for Christmas and she’s in love.
Yup, found this. 8) I took a little Ixus 70 diving in Kaikoura (NZ) last weekend, it could do with a bit of an upgrade.
The other question I’d appreciate your experience on: the S100 is noted as having quite a weak battery. How have you found this, particularly when diving in cold water and reliant on internal flash?
I really have almost no experience diving in cold water so I’m not sure what kind of effect that would have and as I use the flash very minimally. So unfortunately can’t help much there! But I did buy a spare battery on Amazon so that I can change between dives when necessary — cheap solution! 🙂
I’m doing a bit of research into which kind of point and shoot I should get for my upcoming trip to SE Asia, and I’m all but sold on the s100! I already have an SLR that I’ll bring, but I’m looking for something small as well. Initially I’d thought a ‘tough/waterproof’ one would fit the bill as it might be a happy medium of a “light and compact” + “party cam” ;), but now I’m undecided. Are there any ‘tough’ cameras you would recommend that offer quality images comparable to the s100 that don’t break the bank either? Thank you!
Hey Caitlin, I actually am pretty suspicious of those “tough/waterproof” cameras as they market them. I’ve met so many people on the road for whom they leaked somewhere rendering the camera useless. I’d go for the s100 over those any day, even though I am really really tough on my cameras!
It looks like a perfect point and shoot camera with typical Canon high quality. The video recording also sounds like a great feature. With it being full HD this should stand it out from other similar models.
I completely agree with the spare battery, I always carry one. Also the use of a premium SD card is a must to get the full benefit from a decent camera.
I also love your idea of using bubble wrap 🙂
You know me, always looking for a bargain! 🙂 Which bubble wrap most certainly qualifies as…
What is the newer version of this camera?
I am looking for something just like this for my trip through europe this year!
Hey Karliya! If you click any of the links in this post they will bring you to the Amazon page for the s100, which will link to the newest version of the camera. I’m not sure of the current model number and they release new ones every year or so. Hope that helps…. good luck!
how do you get such awesome shots without a strobe??? i love your underwater photos and am looking for a setup that can shoot photos and video. Thanks 🙂
Effectively harnessing natural light! I shoot shallow and try to dive only on the sunniest days. And I delete 9/10 photos I take! Perhaps I’ll have to write a specific post of tips eventually.
Hi there I’m on the hunt for a camera like this one but for some reason I can’t find the newest version. I’m looking for something small like the 2100, do you have a new one you’re using or can recommend? Thanks! love your blog so much
Hey there! I recently purchased the Canon G7X and will soon be reviewing it for the blog! Stay tuned 🙂
Hey Alex, my S100 died due to a fatal lens error. Any word on when that G7X review might be available?
Thanks for the nudge, Julie! Putting this back on my radar 🙂
Hi Alex! I recently picked up to s100 after reading your post. Do you have any specific settings tips for a novice? Ill be traveling Europe for a bit and want to make the most of my pics. I’ll also be using it for photos for work (hair and makeup shots) btw I love your blog!!
Hey Rachel! Don’t worry about shooting in full manual when you’re starting out — play around with Program (P), Aperture Priority (AV), and Shutter Speed Priority (TV). There’s a great ebook called Getting Out Of Auto that I recommend. Good luck!