Monday, December 28, 2009

Photography with the Canon S90

I have been watching the evolution of the Canon G series for a couple of years now, and with the G10 last year, and G11 this year, it seemed like this camera has reached a state where it is a very useful camera, capable of producing excellent images. I wanted to own a camera that I could take with me almost all of the time, so it has to be small and light, and I wanted a camera where I have raw format, to give me more control over the processing of the image. The G10 and G11 have most of the properties that I want, but both cameras are heavy and thick -- so much so that I would not want it in my pocket for very long.

With the introduction of the S90 using the same sensor as the G11, the size and weight issue has been removed, and if the online reviews are accurate, the S90 promised to be a very capable small camera. I ordered the camera, and I've been using it for about two months so far. My conclusion so far is that this camera is all it's cracked-up to be, with a couple of design flaws that can be corrected with some accessories and post-processing.

Heritage Carrots at the Byward Market, Ottawa

Image quality

The image quality from the S90 is superb for a camera this small. While downtown in the Byward Market, I took a photograph of a totem pole with the S90 at ISO 100, and with my Nikon D200 with an 18-200mm zoom at ISO 200, both hand-held. When I examined the photographs at home, both looked good at 100% zoom. with the D200 image a bit sharper. The only real difference between them was that the D200 image had a much finer depth of field. This can be an advantage or a flaw, depending on the situation.

Totem pole detail, using the S90

The other noticeable difference was some chromatic aberration on the edges of the S90 photo. This is a pain, but it can be fixed during post-processing.

I made a 12x18" print of the S90 photograph, and it looks fantastic. Nobody would guess that it came from a point-and-shoot camera. I am very impressed with the quality of the images from this camera.

Low light/high ISO performance

The quality of the image at high ISOs (400 and up) is actually quite good, but not something that competes with a DSLR (mind you, my D200 isn't too good either). As well, the camera has an f/2.0 lens at 28mm, which is quite good. I used the S90 recently at a family gathering, using ISO 800 to 1600, and the results are quite acceptable for family photos. There is definitely noise present, but sized for a print, it's hardly noticeable, and it can be removed with my normal noise reduction software. I wouldn't see one of these images as an art print, but it's very respectable for everyday use.

Boxing Poster, taken at ISO 800

Cool features

The S90 has some very nice features that help make it a very easy camera to use. It has a very large 3-inch screen on the back, the same size as on most high-end cameras. It is very clear and bright -- I can still use it in bright sun. The screens on newly designed cameras have come a long way since I bought my first DSLR (a Nikon D100, way back in 2003).

There are also two programmable controls -- a front ring (positioned around the lens), and a back programmable button. Both can control a variety of functions. The front ring can be set to control focus, ISO, +/- exposure, white balance, and focal length in fixed steps. I use the latter function. It allows me to set the focal length to various 35mm equivalents: 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, and 105mm. The only problem I have is that I am always turning the ring the wrong way -- it's the opposite from my Nikon lenses. Maybe it's a Canon/Nikon thing.

The back programmable button can be set to a different, wider set of functions, ISO, white balance, custom white balance, AE or AF lock, face detection, red-eye correction, display off, and more. I have it set to ISO because I shift ISO quite often. AF lock would also be quite useful for me.

The Provincial Courthouse, Ottawa

Design Problems

Other reviewers have described various problem areas of this camera, but none are show-stoppers for me. These are the problems that I have personally experienced:

The first problem I noticed was that there is no grip on the front of the camera. This made me hold onto the camera by squeezing my hand on the front and back, where the back controls are located. As you might expect, this led to inadvertent button presses, and movement of the dial on the back. Fortunately, there is a terrific low cost solution -- a grip manufactured by Richard Franiec. The grip costs US$32.95, and got to me in about a week, shipping from the US into Canada. It makes a big difference in how you hold the camera, and I highly recommend it.

The second problem is that there is no way to attach a filter to the lens. Since I am a landscape photographer, I really want to use a polarizing filter. The G11 has a filter thread, but the S90 does not support a filter. I'm guessing that the lack of a filter thread reduces the profile of the camera. There is a third-party accessory to solve this problem as well. Lensmate offers a 37mm adapter for the S90 for US$24.95 that glues onto the front of the lens. A device is provided to center the adapter when you install it, and another gadget is included to allow you to remove the adapter if needed. I got this adapter just before Christmas, and it was very easy to attach. Now, I have a polarizing filter for the S90, and I'm very happy with the results.

Courtyard on Elgin Street, Ottawa

The third problem does not yet have a remedy. The circular control on the back is used for exposure compensation during normal operation. This is a very useful feature, but the ring is too easy to move. Many times I have accidentally changed exposure compensation without realizing it. The addition of the grip on the front has helped quite a bit, but I still find that the ring gets moved accidentally.

It is important to recognize that this is still a point-and-shoot camera. The image quality is superb, but the camera still behaves like a point-and-shoot in some respects. The camera is still slow to focus and shoot compared to DSLRs as are most compact cameras. This means that it is not great for action photography. As a camera for family photographs, as well as everyday use for street and landscape photography, it's a very useful tool.

. . . Rob Williams

Full Disclosure: I receive no support whatsoever from any equipment or software manufacturer. I own all equipment reviewed, and I either purchase or use freely available downloads of any software reviewed. These are strictly my opinions, and you are free to disagree if you want!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Roadside Memorials

When I was growing up, I don't recall ever seeing a roadside memorial around Ottawa.  The first time I remember seeing any roadside memorial was on a trip to India in 1986.  On the roads around Delhi, there were quite a few shrines beside the road, most of which were likely remembering people who had died on the road.  The traffic in and out of Delhi was unbelievably wild, and bad accidents were common.

In the past few years, I have been noticing roadside memorials in Ottawa, in various places around town and outside of the city.  I can think of seven right now from the center of town westwards.  I'm in the process of looking for more memorials -- I'm sure they are more out there.

The latest is a memorial for a bicycle commuter who was killed in September on a busy road in downtown Ottawa; the photographs in this posting are from that memorial.  This happened only two days after a horrible incident where five cyclists riding in formation were hit by a single vehicle in Kanata, a community in the far western end of Ottawa. There was a considerable level of shock felt by Ottawans, and the cycling community in particular over these two incidents, and in at least one other cycling death in the area.

I find these memorials quite touching.  They are all hand-made by people who obviously care a lot about the people who are being remembered, and the sites can be very moving.   Some have hand-written signs and notes that give a very personal feeling.  Most are frequently maintained with new flowers (usually plastic, but very colourful when you drive past) and new designs from one season to the next.

I am building a portfolio of photographs from roadside memorials which I will show on my website as soon as I have enough photographs.  If anyone in the Ottawa area knows of a roadside memorial site, I would appreciate an email with the location.

. . . Rob Williams

Sunday, December 6, 2009

More on November and December photography

Since my last posting, I have been challenging myself to get outside and do some more photography in November, and now in December.  We have not yet had a significant snowfall, so the landscape is still dull, filled with greys and browns.  Not only that, but sunny days have been rare these days.

Roadside Memorial

Despite that, there are some subjects that can be photographed with these light and landscape conditions.  I have found three themes that seem to offer some photographic opportunities: architecture, cityscapes, and a series of photographs of roadside memorials that I have been working on for a while now.

Detail of the Totem Pole in the Byward Market, Ottawa

It's not a coincidence that all of these subject areas can benefit from even light, or a dead-looking landscape.  I will have some further comments on cityscapes and roadside memorials in the near future.

Patio along Elgin Street, Ottawa

. . . Rob Williams

Sunday, November 15, 2009

November photography: good, bad or ugly?

After the brilliant colours of October, November gives us a different palate: browns and greys. All the leaves have fallen, and a succession of grey skies, rain, drizzle, and fog leaves the landscape dull and lifeless.

I took a look at my photographs over the past couple of years, and discovered that I have virtually no photographs taken in November. I guess that the flurry of photographs in the fall use up all of my energy, and the dullness of November gives me no inspiration.

One thing I do enjoy is the vast number of shades of brown that are in the fields and forests. With rain and fog, the browns are more intense than when it's dry. Even so, the colours are very subtle, just the opposite of the brilliance of the previous few weeks.

Since I enjoy hiking anyway, I went out this morning after a night of rain. As is often the case, I usually find out it's worth the effort, even if all I get out of it is a good walk. I've included a couple of photographs from this morning's outing.

. . . Rob Williams

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Photographs from North Head, Grand Manan Island

I have added a few new photographs taken during my trip to Grand Manan Island this summer. These photographs were all taken at Fisherman's Wharf, North Head, a working wharf located right beside the ferry terminal. I really enjoy the different designs for each boat; each has it's own personality. There are no mass-market fishing boats here, and it gives the port it's unique identity. Here are a couple of photographs not on my website:

Fisherman's wharf at sunset

Iron Lady, My Dear Boy and Loose Change

Nets and buoys

Lobster traps waiting for the next season

. . . Rob Williams

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Recent Work: Nets at North Head, Grand Manan Island

Immediately beside Fisherman's Wharf at North Head, there is an open area used by various fishermen to work or store equipment.  These nets were lying on the ground, next to some buoys and lobster traps.

Nets at Fisherman's Wharf

Other images from my recent trip to Grand Manan, including a recent update with photographs from Whale Cove, can be seen on my website.

. . . Rob Williams

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Photographs of Pettes Cove, Grand Manan Island

Here are some images from Pettes Cove on Grand Manan Island. Pettes Cove is immediately beside Swallowtail Lighthouse, the most famous landmark on the island. The cove has a pebble beach with fantastic rock formations, and a beautiful view.

Pettes Cove at dawn

Pre-dawn light

Cora Belle Weir

Rock formation at Pettes Cove

Pettes Cove rocks

These, and other images from my recent trip to Grand Manan can be seen on my website.

. . . Rob Williams

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Recent Work: Grand Manan Island 2009

I've just started processing the images from a recent trip to Grand Manan Island. As usual, there was lots of fog in the first week, so fog takes part in many of my photographs.

The path to Swallowtail Lighthouse at dawn

Swallowtail Lighthouse

The early morning light is fantastic as the fog lifts.

These, and other photographs from Grand Manan Island are also available on my website. I will add more images to this article as they become available.

. . . Rob Williams

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


August 3, 2009, Grand Manan Island

This morning greeted me with a frequent sight on Grand Manan -- thick fog. When you travel to a coastal island, you have to expect bad weather -- especially this year, which seems to be unusually rainy.

Net Point through the Fog

Our trip to Grand Manan has had more than it's share of fog, and I was not enthused with yet another foggy day. Eventually, I decided to get up and go out with my camera anyway, just to see what would happen.

The house we are renting is right beside one of the island's most photographed sites, the Swallowtail lighthouse. As I was loading the car, I noticed that the lighthouse was visible through the fog, just a faint outline against the grey fog. I picked up my camera and took some photographs, and as I did, the fog began to lift just a bit. I continued to photograph, and after a few more minutes, the lighthouse emerged from the fog, and gave me some superb images.

Swallowtail Lighthouse

After having some fun with the lighthouse, my next stop was Pettes Cove, the cove immediately beside the lighthouse. I didn't plan on stopping, but the fishing weir in the cove caught my eye emerging from the fog, and I decided to see what it would look like against the grey sky and ocean. By now, the fog had just about dissipated, occasionally letting the sun shine through the clouds. The shimmer on the water in front of the weir was fantastic.

Weir at Pettes Cove

Fog can completely obliterate the scenery (at times here, you can barely see across the street), but when it's not quite so thick, it can create fantastic abstractions. On an island like this, you have to be prepared to deal with fog, and take advantage of what it has to offer.

. . . Rob Williams

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Bad weather and landscape photography

Today's Environment Canada forecast for Ottawa

Rain, rain, and more rain -- that's the forecast from Environment Canada. Forecasts are often wrong, especially in the long term, but this forecast is one of my worst fears as a landscape photographer. For some reason, this kind of weather has confronted me quite often this spring and summer.

So, what am I supposed to do? One option is to turn to wildflower photography, which I have done for a couple of weekends. Occasionally, the clouds break, and I can try some landscapes.

Another option is to follow some advice that I've read from time to time: when the the weather turns stormy, head out! Yesterday I decided to get myself out of the house, and do just that. The forecast indicated clouds and showers all day, with a risk of thunderstorms. Just in case there was a break late in the day, I went out to a favourite spot for a short hike, and maybe some photographs.

When I got to the trail, the path was wet, and there were storms in the distance, and as I got started walking, it started to rain. I waited out the storm, and walked down to the marsh.

Mer Bleue marsh

Sometimes you get lucky. Shortly after I arrived at the marsh, the sun broke through the clouds, and lit up the marsh. The storms continued in the background, giving me some beautiful scenes. The only problem was lightning in the distance -- I never got too far down the trail just in case the storm arrived overhead in earnest.

I know that I won't be this lucky very often, but I'll take this kind of opportunity whenever I can.

. . . Rob Williams

By the way, the images for this post were processed entirely using my Linux machine. Bibble Pro 5 (Preview version 2) was used for raw conversion, and digiKam was used for viewing and resizing. Everything is not as smooth as I would like (this includes more time needed to get used to the tools), but Linux is now a servicable option while my main machine is out at the shop.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Audacity of the Canal Builders

The Rideau Canal running from Ottawa to Kingston was built between 1826 and 1832 in reaction to the events of the War of 1812. A safe route between Montreal and Kingston was needed, to avoid a vulnerable area of the St. Lawrence River. Although the canal uses mostly natural waterways, the engineers of the time still had a significant challenge, and undertook extraordinary measures to manage the water.

Recently I visited several locks between the Narrows Lock which divides Upper Rideau Lake and Big Rideau Lake, and Jones Falls. The work of the engineers and dam builders in this region is incredible.

The Narrows Lock

The Narrows lock is a pretty location with lakes on both sides, but the lock and dam are somewhat unremarkable. Upper Rideau Lake represents the high point of the waterway. The dam between Upper Rideau Lake and Big Rideau Lake is quite short -- there is a natural narrows here. As well, the difference in water levels is only a few feet, so it's hard to understand why this dam and lock were necessary.

It turns out that there was a lot of hard bedrock leading to the next lock down at Newboro. So, rather than excavate the rock and delay their work, they decided to raised the level of the lake with the dam at the Narrows, to allow ships to pass. Now that's thinking outside the box!

The dam at Jones Falls also shows you the level of engineering and dam-making ability that this group possessed. The dam is immense -- at 60 feet high and 350 feet wide at the top, it was the highest dam in North America in 1831. It is quite an impressive sight.

The Dam at Jones Falls

Colonel By and his engineers certainly had a huge job on their hands, and their efforts are still impressive today.

A good website for the history and description of the canal can be found at, or at the Parks Canada website for the Rideau Canal.

. . . Rob Williams

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Graffitti Art

Graffiti on buildings and other objects is considered a crime of vandalism, and in most cases I agree completely. On the other hand, some of the most interesting urban scenes contain graffiti, and I think it can occasionally cross the boundary into the art world, worthy of being seen and not hidden or removed. I found these two images on one of my recent outings, quite unexpectedly. They are hidden from view, except if you are crawling around under bridges, but I find them quite striking.

. . . Rob Williams

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Recent Work: Lac Bourgeois

Lac Bourgeois, Gatineau Park, Quebec

One of the nice things about spring is that the shoreline of lakes is not yet overgrown, so if you are willing (and able) to walk to the edge, some views are available that are hard to get at other times of the year. Sometimes it involves wading through mud and muck, but a good pair of waterproof hiking boots can get you through!

. . . Rob Williams

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Suburban Henge

Strange obelisks at Green's Creek

Recently while walking along a nature trail in the east end of Ottawa, I encountered a series of strange concrete obelisks, obviously decaying with age, complete with spray-painted art and tags.

Today's version of stonehenge? I can only guess at the modern "rituals" that gave rise to these pillars.

. . . Rob Williams

Monday, April 27, 2009

A City of Sculptures

Cello Sculpture, National Arts Centre
Ottawa's downtown has been a place of many monuments and statues for a long time, and I've been noticing more sculptures in the heart of downtown lately.  Just a couple of weeks ago, I photographed a group of three angel sculptures between the Rideau Centre and the Government Conference Centre.  Last weekend I went downtown again, and found another scultpure I had never seen before -- a beautiful polished sculpture of a cello on a terrace of the National Arts Centre, only a stone's throw away from the three angels.

This is an incredible scultpure -- a polished reflective surface that almost disappears against the sky.

The shine of the surface, along with the lines of the sculpture itself produce some fascinating shapes and images.

This is a great addition to the NAC, and to the downtown.  I really hope that the NAC continues to contribute more accessible artwork (both physically and artistically) to the public.

. . . Rob Williams

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Tentative signs of Spring

Morris Island Conservation Area, April 2009

Last weekend, I went out to the Morris Island Conservation Area, about 45 minutes west of Ottawa along the Ottawa River.  Although daytime temperatures have been steadily rising, it's still getting below freezing at night, so I wasn't too surprised to see that Spring seems to be quite tentative in the conservation area.  However, I was quite surprised to see the amount if ice still present along the river.

 Detail of the ice on the river, April 2009

The water levels on the river were very low -- I guess that the levels are controlled by the nearby hydro-electric dam.  This no doubt affects the remaining ice.  Without the high water levels to flush out the ice, it seems to sit around and melt more slowly with the sun and daytime temperatures.  You could hear the ice crack as the sun shone.

Despite the ice, just a few meters into the forest, you could see the very beginnings of spring growth -- just a hint of green starting to appear in the muck of the snow melt.

Forest meltwater, April 2009

As the sun gets warmer this week, the hint of green in the photograph should get much thicker, and the trees will begin to flower.  It's time for spring -- I can't wait!

. . . Rob Williams

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Angels over Ottawa's Downtown

Angels over Ottawa

The last time I was in the downtown, I noticed that there were three new angels overseeing the city.  I figured that the way our politicians behave, they need all the help they can get.

The new angels are grouped together at the intersection of (count 'em): Sussex, Rideau, Wellington, Elgin, MacKenzie and Colonel By Drive, beside the old Union Station (now a government Conference Center).  This area has been redesigned recently to make it easier for pedestrians to walk -- and I guess the angels are there to oversee everything.

At any rate, I quite enjoyed seeing them there, and I hope they keep a close eye over the shenanigans over at Parliament Hill.

. . . Rob Williams