Comparing the Canon PowerShot S95 to the Apple iPhone 12 mini camera

This may not be the most useful post in the world, because who other than me regularly shoots these two cameras? Who knows, maybe this post will end up ranked #1 on Google for “Canon PowerShot S95 vs. Apple iPhone 12 mini” for the five people a year who might do that search.

But on my Ride Across Indiana, I sometimes made a photo of something with both cameras as I thought I might want to use the image for that night’s blog post and to share with friends on social media. I didn’t have any way to get photos off the S95 and into my phone.

Every digital camera makes decisions in its software about how to render a scene. It’s fascinating to me how differently these two cameras manage the light.

In each of these pairs, the Canon S95 photo is first. I’ve done light post-processing on all of these photos but they are not substantially changed from how they came from the camera. Sometimes I tried to zoom the iPhone and the S95 to the same extent, and sometimes I didn’t.

I notice three main differences: the iPhone tends to pull out shadow detail to the point of flattening scenes, the iPhone over-sharpens everything, and the S95 is far more likely to blow out highlights.

1: Old alignment of the National Road west of Dunreith

National Road west of Dunreith
National Road west of Dunreith

2: Indiana Statehouse.

Indiana Statehouse
Indiana Statehouse

3: My bike by an abandoned bridge west of Plainfield.

Abandoned US 40 bridge west of Plainfield
Abandoned US 40 bridge

4: Rising Hall in western Hendricks County.

Rising Hall on US 40
Rising Hall on US 40

5: Old house in Putnam County.

Old house on US 40, Putnam Co.
Old house on US 40, Putnam Co.

6: Bypassed US 40 bridge, Putnam County.

Old US 40 concrete alignment with bridge, Putnam Co.
Old US 40 concrete alignment with bridge

It’s great to have a capable camera in my pocket all the time. But I think I prefer the S95 shots every single time.

I wish I still had my old iPhone 6s — I don’t remember its camera doing such aggressive processing.


36 thoughts on “Comparing the Canon PowerShot S95 to the Apple iPhone 12 mini camera

  1. One of the primary things I have learned from your photography posts is that the capture and reproduction of an image is far, far more complicated than it might seem, with so many potential variations as to make me question the idea that any particular shot can capture what is “really” there. And with “really” measured by an individual’s eyesight and perception, the differences between what is objectively there and what any particular individual sees in a photo must be almost infinite.

      • Andy Umbo says:

        I can actually say that “pro” series color transparency film, like Kodak E-100 (properly processed), was made to look as accurate to the “real” colors as possible, and to try and give the most accurate contrast of a situation. Those of us that go back to the film days remember that many commercial users, like catalog houses, went back and forth between digital and film because they were having trouble getting digital to jump through the color accuracy hoops, a cake walk for professional film.

        What was finally decided was that so much color matching had to go on in the “pre-press” stage, that starting with a digital file was going to be cheaper than having to scan film anyway. This was all based on the truth that, at least in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, the majority of catalog returns on apparel, was: “…color not accurate to what was shown…”.

        When it comes to digital, it’s the wild west, who knows…I have been to a dozen professional digital seminars at the dawn of digital, and I could never get a camera company representative or their tech reps, to tell me if their “nominal” settings had the same accuracy, or thought put into it, as professional color film. There’s a huge difference between color that’s “pleasing”, or accurate! I think all camera companies figure if it’s important to you, you have a pre-press guy controlling it before reproduction.

        • Andy, I was raised and trained with the mantra that Kodachrome had the best “pop” and therefore the most popular for popular use (snapshots, ads, magazines), but for the best rendition of reality, one shot Ektachrome (old E4 process). Your recollection?

          (I was in Germany in the early 70s and shot a pretty good amount of Agfa 50s…compared to either Kodak product, it was pure excitement for a teen boy’s amygdala)

        • Andy Umbo says:

          Retrocrank you are correct…I started shooting E-3 sheet film and E-4 roll film back in the early 70’s. When it got to E-6, Ektachrome went through a lot of permutations based on the engineers trying to flatten the contrast for scanning, get it sharper, a lot of stuff, but the crime, and it was a crime, was the 90’s era E-100 Ektachrome and E-100 Ektachrome G was the best stuff we had ever seen, and then digital came along and killed it. I haven’t tried the new E-100 since I no longer have an E-6 lab within a hundred miles of me, but I’m going to…

          Kodachrome was always considered a magazine journalists film, mostly for 35mm “pros” that didn’t want to shoot 120. It was one of the finest grain and highest sharpness color films ever produced, but the “lie” that photojournalists told that you couldn’t see the difference between 120 Ektachrome and 35mm Kodachrome in print, was mostly that, a lie. The amount of enlargement needed for 35mm had way more to do with softening it in print, than the differences in film type.

          Kodachrome II was one of the best films I ever used, but when they cleaned it up to Kodachrome 25 and 64; it got way too contrasty, and had a ton of cross-over problems. Not unusual to have a roll processed by Kodak and see green shadows and magenta highlights. Impossible to correct. That, and the long processing lead, was the beginning of the end for that film and tight deadlines. It was also “suggested” to us, that we were having so many problems with Kodachrome, out here in the fly-over, because Kodak was keeping their “dead-on spec” film for their large markets, and sending us the ones on the outside of the “spec” edge. That’s what it seemed like…

  2. Andy Umbo says:

    I’ve said repeatedly that the iPhones, at least the early iPhones, had a more accurate, color algorithm when used on the “auto” setting, than almost any professional camera I’ve ever owned. It’s one of the reasons I always set the color myself per situation (and still use color correction filters) on my “pro” cameras.

    For the rest, including sharpening, I’m pretty sure the average user loves the color, contrast, and saturation results of their phones, no matter how “juiced” and inaccurate. Even the last years I was shooting professionally, not that long ago, supposedly trained professional art directors (all ‘kids’ of course) were requesting results I thought were over-saturated, and over-sharpened. I have a pal, who is a “pro” as well, who is occasionally asked to judge photo contests, and he says basically 90% of the work has post processing where the sharpening and saturation sliders are virtually buried on the plus side of the scale.

    I actually think there’s a lot of people that would be interested in this post. It’s a good example of what the camera companies think vs. the phone companies, when it comes to imaging. Who’s responsible for the acceptance of “juiced” images as normal? The phone companies, the camera companies, or are the phone companies just reacting to user preferences? It’s a mystery. Even in my day, Velvia, was rarely used by professionals or “pro-sumers”; it was considered “garish”. It was mostly used by amateurs and landscape shooters.

    • I think phone cameras are trying to do two things: adjust for lousy lighting conditions and make the world look more colorful than it is. I think the average phone camera user loves that.

      • matt says:

        I wasn’t sure if I should delve into the deeper thoughts, but maybe it won’t be a complete waste of your time.

        I think the phone-style algorithms evolve much faster to reflect the Instagram-Likes mentality. I’m not surprised you picked the camera algorithm as your preference, blown highlights and all — I guess I mean, I too would pick the camera images.

        I was also thinking the future generations will be looking back on all these super-saturated images and think they got the short end of the color stick in their world.

        • This is what the comments are for; never fear delving deeper when you have the time and inclination.

          I sometimes wonder about upgrading my p&s to something more modern, like a Sony RX100 — I might get away from the blown highlights if I do that. My wife has an RX100 Mark I and it manages the highlights much better. But I’m so used to using my S95.

          I agree, we will look back at photos made in this era with smartphones and think, “They look so 2020s.”

        • matt says:

          “we will look back at photos made in this era with smartphones and think, “They look so 2020s.””

          Oh, no! This is true!

        • Andy Umbo says:

          You know Jim, the “blown highlights” thing at the dawn of digital was a really well known lesson for transparency shooters of the last era. We were taught in a pinch to under-expose if there were any questions, because film had a long enough scale that the pre-press house or printer could just “key” those dark areas and pump more light through it to get detail; but once the highlights were gone, there was no getting them back. This training played right into digital, as once there was no detail in the highlight pixel area, there was nothing to get! In the beginning, you could pick out people trying to get back detail in digital photos reproduced in magazines, as it would just turn a grayish brown, but no detail! I think I remember that Olympus was one of the first digital cameras to “roll off” the highlights to act more like a film curve.

        • I shoot the S95 on P in Vivid Color mode with the exposure dialed down 2/3 of a stop. This helps with two things: juicing the boring Canon color palette a little, and helping hedge against those infernal blown highlights. Clearly it’s sometimes not enough. The S95 is still ultimately a point and shoot, with so many controls buried in menus. Especially for the documentary work I was doing on this trip, I don’t dial in exact settings for any one photo, I don’t have time. I just hope my general settings are good enough for 95% of shots.

        • Andy Umbo says:

          Jim, I have one digital point-an-shoot that’s a Canon A560, even more basic and almost no controls, but yeah, same stuff, and surprising from a Canon, and I was surprised when I got it and started using it. Dull colors unless the contrast in the scene is really high and it’s set on Vivid, and blown-highlights in a lot of photos. It’s very old now, but I still remember being “disappointed” with the output.

  3. Don’t forget that seeing and visual perception are highly emotion- and circumstance- laden cognitive processes. “Snapshots” really should evoke those memory-charged emotions and help the viewer imagine the moment. Which is why I think the “PhoneCamera” with its processed image is great- convenient as all get-out, but never intended to render an accurate rendering of the light pattern cause by the subject.

    As you know, and here show, the Powershots are great little examples of a device that render a photographic image, leaving the “processing” to the photographer. Whether you put the dial on “A” or “P” or make up some “C” is under your control, but you are the one making the call about what that image will render. Whether you use a high end FX DSLR or a Powershot is more about the range of experiences you are trying to capture than the ultimate image under some circumstance within the camera’s repertoire of possibility.

    I’ve seen professional “art” photography made on phones, and it can be stunning. But if a pro can sell that work and be proud to call it a good product of his/her/their/Bob’s mind, why argue? The fact that most pro images we see are made on high end digital or film equipment suggests the iPhone pro is the tiny exception to the giant rule, and time will tell which has greater art-history-cultural significance.

    It’s my opinion that this fact underlies the enduring popularity of film. It’s certainly a strong basis for my own efforts.

    • Great comment. For the purpose I was using it for, the iPhone 12 overprocessed my images. But it’s a great choice for a selfie or to remember a great time with family or friends.

  4. Kurt Ingham says:

    I kept my i Phone 6 for a long time because I really liked the camera. The 12 Pro I have now is much better in low light but is otherwise a bit too aggressive

  5. Joshua Fast says:

    I guarantee the Smart HDR is on. I always cringe at the over processed look of iphones, i don’t know why apple thinks this is a good idea. Its ok to have shadow in a shot. Settings >> Camera > Smart HDR off

  6. Joshua Fast says:

    lol! Thankfully it remembers you choice, once you have it off it will remain off even with a new phone.

  7. I think this is an interesting comparison, and definitely shows how the idea of popular photography has been evolving in the digital era. The Canon came from a day where digital was definitely king but camera phones were still in their infancy. I think they were still trying to go for a look familiar to those who used film cameras a few years earlier. Whereas the phone cameras are going for their own look that is different, a look based on the fact that processing has to overcome the limitations of the sensor. And now that hyper-plasticky HDR’d look is established as “normal”. It’s a look that I’m not particularly fond of, and it pushed me towards going back to film. I think it’s the same for millenials and Gen Z discovering film, for some of them the “iPhone look” is the only thing they knew.

    I was taking photos of sunset last night. I took a couple with my iPhone 8, and no matter what I tried, nothing looked natural. I also took a few with my Olympus XA2, and I’ll see how they look when I get them back in the lab. But unless the camera screwed up, I’m guessing I’ll like them better than the iPhone shots.

  8. I have an S100, which replaced an S90. I get great results with raw, as long as the ISO setting is under 200. More than that and aggressive noise reduction is required, which loses sharpness. Neither camera has the dynamic range of a DSLR. Raw gives a little more latitude, but it’s still too easy to blow out the highlights, as your images attest.

    These and similar “high-end shirt pocket” cameras are fine “go-anywhere” cameras, easy to carry when a DSLR is too cumbersome. They’re also an extinct species, done in by cellphone cameras. When my S100 dies, the closest replacement is Canon’s G5X Mark II. It’s significantly larger and more expensive, but the lens is faster and the larger sensor is supposed to give better image quality.

      • The RX100 VII is the current version. It’s similar to the Canon G5X II in size and weight (bulkier than the S95). It costs $1300 vs. $900 for the Canon, but it has a 24-200 lens rather than the Canon’s 24-120. The G5X II has the same focal length range as the S100 (I think the S95 doesn’t go as long), which is why I consider it the nearest replacement.

  9. Fascinating comparison, and the comments are a wealth of information for a film shooter like me who also uses a phone camera and occasionally a Canon DSLR. Phone is very capable, but really I consider it useful for snapshots and recording something important. The DSLR always disappointed me until I started using vintage glass and manual settings. An film is amazing, same film stock and different camera/lens combo equals different results. But much more fun!

    • The phone is indispensable as a camera. I can’t imagine not having it with me. But for the kind of actual work I do, I want one of my regular cameras.


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