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!