The Canon Powershot S90 has been making a big splash in the photographic community since it’s release last fall. The long overdue sucessor to the S80, and assumed to be an answer to the Panasonic Lumix LX3, it’s thus far been a hit with photographers, prompting one well known blogger to call it the “world’s best compact camera“. But does the S90 really stack up to this claim? I’ve been wanting to do this review for a long time, and after 6 months of steady usage, it’s finally time to take a deeper look…
Body & Ergonomics
There have been many concerns, criticisms, and praise of the S90’s ergonomic styling. Garnering the most acclaim is the front control ring – it’s a winner, and you’ll enjoy using it. In fact, I find myself often spinning it “just for fun”. Some are quick to slam the rear wheel, claiming it moves too easily, and adjusts settings unintentionally. This has not been my experience. Yes, the wheel moves freely, but I rarely adjust it by accident. To be clear though, it could benefit from click stops instead of an unhindered rotation.
Another concern I have, which I have not seen voiced often, is that the buttons are too flat, too small, and lacking precise tactile sensation. As far as compact cameras go, I believe the Canon SD 870 IS was the pinnacle of Canon’s rear control ergonomic design – the buttons were simply perfect. On the S90, the “func/set” button in the middle does not protrude from the outer wheel at all, and it’s easy to press the wrong button by accident. Another complaint I have is of the mode dial on top of the camera – at times (especially with sweaty hands) its just too rigid. The body is made of metal, and exudes quality, yet I find it sometimes too slippery. And there really is nothing in the way of a serious grip. Get used to holding the camera with two hands, or be very careful with one hand. However, I’m happy to report that mine has survived more than one drop onto the concrete, wearing a few scars with pride. This all may sound very negative, but it’s not a painful camera to use, and you’ll quickly adapt to any niggles you may have.
(Update: after at least 10 free falls to the pavement, my S90 finally got injured (lens was stuck). It went the camera hospital for surgery, and came out firing proudly at f/2)
For the most part, image quality is a hit. If you want access to technical data, head over to DPReview, because I won’t be talking about that here; only my personal impressions. One thing Canon should be proud of is that fact that it has overtaken the LX3 in high ISO performance. There is more detail, colors are more accurate, and there is less noise. ISO 1600 can often get the job done. But to be honest, you won’t want to be shooting there often. Stay as low as possible; this is a compact camera after all. As with most Canon’s, I do find the red’s are a bit toasted, but you do get rich, vibrant, satisfying colors. The “positive film” setting in the My Colors menu is a personal favorite. It also shoots RAW, if that is your cup of tea.
One point of comparison I can’t help making is with my old Canon G6. This was my first serious compact camera and one I came to love. Image quality was out of this world. So naturally I always refer back to it. I’m sad to say that I don’t think the S90’s pure image quality stacks up with the G6. Sure, the S90 has less noise and more detail. But I find the G6 has better noise, and better detail. It’s also delivered cleaner looking long exposures at night. And a 3D look I don’t feel the S90 can match. You can’t have everything though, and you’ll be hard pressed to find another compact on the market with a 1/1.7″ sensor that performs as admirably as the S90. Canon’s move to limit the sensor to 10 megapixels was widely applauded, and I hope this trend continues.
In the lens department, the S90 can be almost be seen as a successor to the G6. It’s the first time they have had a compact camera with a lens starting at f/2. It doesn’t maintain this speed through the range, however, bottoming out at f/4.9 at 105mm (to the G6’s f/3 at an impressive 140mm). But I am shocked to see that they managed to fit such a fine piece of glass into a such a small package. Sacrificing a little bit of f-stop in order to create a truly pocketable camera was probably a worthy trade-off. IQ at 100% is impressive, yet not quite up to par with the G6. I do wonder why there is no option to adjust sharpness in RAW mode though. In JPEG, I find sharpness needs to be toned down a touch, especially when shooting well lit cityscapes or landscapes, as you might end up with halos and jagged edges. The range of the lens, from 28-105mm, is incredibly useful, and almost all you’d ever need, as long as you’re not into ultra-wide or super-telephoto photography. The f/2 at the wide end really does help in creating natural looking, non-flash shots in low light (now where is that f/1.4 or 1.8 fixed lens compact?).
The S90, for the casual or serious photographer, is simply a fun camera to use. It’s immensely programmable, from the front and rear control dials, the shortcut button, and the func menu. Many people enjoy setting their front ring to zoom settings, to mimic classic prime focal lengths. I quite enjoy the white balance trim, giving me just the colors I want. The self timer is a very fun feature as well: it can take up to 10 sequential pictures in a row. Reviewing pictures with the rear wheel is very enjoyable and useful, letting you see whats before and after the current shot. Taking a page from the DSLR guidebook, the Custom mode on the dial makes shooting with specific settings a quick rotation away.
As a night shooter, you might find yourself shooting on Av mode, letting the camera take care of the shutter speed. This is not possible with the S90. You must use Tv or M, forcing you to adjust more controls than is necessary, slowing down your shooting process. Just about all DSLRs enable you to take long exposures on Av mode, but the S90 maxes out at 1″. For someone who doesn’t shoot long exposures, this is no big deal, but for one who does, it is annoying. Let’s hope the successor acts more like a DSLR in this respect. Another concern is the flash – it doesn’t go down until you adjust the setting with a button, unlike other cameras (including DSLRs), where you can just manually press it down. Operation in the menus is not quite as fast as former models, and there are some moments of lag, but we do like the speedy use of the rear wheel when navigating the menus.
It might look like I have a lot of bad things to say about this camera, but that’s only because I’m serious about photography and make use of a camera to the utmost. The fact is, I am very happy with this purchase, and I have recommended it to many friends who have asked for advice. Best of all, it fits in my pocket, and thus stays with me almost all the time. The features, from the low(ish) noise sensor, to the fast f/2 lens, the useful zoom range, and the direct control dials, makes shooting not only fun, but helps create fantastic results in a variety of conditions. And it’s a beautiful piece of equipment. Is it the world’s best small sensor compact camera? While everybody is entitled to their own opinions, this reviewer says yes.
For your reference, here are 10 shots from the S90 under a variety of conditions, showing just what this little compact is capable of…
DPReview – “I may not have liked it when I first used it, but I soon found myself picking it up every time I went out the door…”
Luminous Landscape – “A day or so of use convinced me that Canon is really on to something with the design of the S90’s control interface…”
Ken Rockwell – “Every so often a camera comes out that stands out from the rest…”
CNet – “The Canon PowerShot S90 is designed for photography enthusiasts and it carries a hefty price tag to prove it…”
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