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Canon PowerShot S90 review

January 9, 2010

Overall Rating:

4

Canon PowerShot S90


  • Star rating:

Manufacturer:

Manufacturer:

Price as Reviewed:

£380.00

With full manual exposure control and the ability to save images as raw files, the Canon PowerShot S90 may be the perfect compact camera for the demanding enthusiast photographer

Canon PowerShot S90 at a glance:

  • 10-million-pixel sensor
  • 28-105mm equivalent zoom lens
  • ISO 80-3200
  • 3in, 461,000-dot screen
  • Street price around £380

Within the current Canon PowerShot range there are two compact cameras that are designed to appeal to the enthusiast photographer. Although the Canon PowerShot S90 is smaller and lighter than its sibling, the PowerShot G11, the two cameras share many of the same features. Most notable of these is the ten-million-pixel 1/1.7 inch CCD sensor.

However, the similarities don’t end there. As with the G11, two of the main selling points of the S90 are its manual exposure control and ability to save images in Canon’s CR2 raw file format. These features, plus its small size, are the S90’s main attractions. This is a compact camera the enthusiast photographer can have full control over, which, on paper at least, makes the S90 ideal for when point-and-shoot images simply won’t suffice.

Although the PowerShot S90 has only a 3.8x optical zoom lens rather than the 5x lens found on the G11, it is a 28-105mm equivalent, which is ideal for both landscapes and portraits. The lens also has a maximum aperture of f/2 and optical image stabilisation which, combined with a maximum sensitivity of ISO 3200, should make it useful in low light.

With aperture and shutter priority exposure modes, as well as an innovative control ring, the S90 looks like an interesting option for the enthusiast on those occasions when a DSLR would simply be overkill.

Build and handling

Unlike the Canon PowerShot G11, the S90 is an ultra-compact camera. Measuring 100×58.4×30.9mm and weighing 175g, it is small enough to fit inside a jacket pocket. With a discreet, simple, yet stylish design, it isn’t a camera you would be embarrassed to be seen with at a party. However, the body isn’t all style and no substance, as the front and rear of the camera are made of metal and feel solid and well built.

That is not to say there aren’t a few peculiarities when it comes to handling. For example, when I first picked the S90 up and tried to press the shutter button, I missed by almost a centimetre. I think this button is set too far to the left of the position where I would naturally expect it to be.

Passing the camera around to a few people at AP confirmed that it wasn’t just me who thought this because most of the people who handled the camera instinctively pressed the top of the Mode dial rather than the shutter release.

Similarly, the neat pop-up flash rises from where I naturally hold the camera with my left hand, and it took me by surprise when the automatic flash popped up for the first time.

For the most part, though, these small ergonomic issues aren’t a problem once you have used the camera for a while, and certainly shouldn’t put off potential purchasers. In fact, there is one handling feature of the S90 that I wish was included on the PowerShot G11 – the control ring. This is found around the base of the lens, and feels just like an aperture ring. In fact, when the camera is in aperture priority or manual exposure mode, the control ring can be set to change the aperture. This is a nice touch, and really adds to the camera’s handling.

Aperture control isn’t the only function of the control ring, as it can also be used to control the EV compensation, ISO sensitivity setting, stepped zoom setting, manual focusing and the white balance shift. Using the ring to control focusing, zoom and EV compensation feels very natural if you are used to handling a DSLR.

There is a button on the top of the camera to select those features you wish the ring to control. I changed this according to what I was photographing and the exposure mode I was using at the time. Generally, I had it set to control aperture or EV compensation.

As for the rest of the camera’s handling, the S90 is largely the same as most other current Canon compact cameras. A mode dial controls the shooting mode, while buttons on the back provide direct access to the most commonly used functions, such as turning the flash on and off. A scroll dial is located on the back of the camera, which allows settings such as shutter speed and ISO sensitivity to be quickly scrolled through and selected from the on-screen menu.

In all, the range of dials and buttons makes it easy to select all the various controls and settings, regardless of whether they are accessed directly or via one of the camera’s on-screen menus. However, as it has more buttons and controls, I prefer the handling of the PowerShot G11.

White balance and colour

In its default colour style, the PowerShot S90 produces bright images with good colour saturation. However, there are plenty of other colour settings should you wish to add more punch or tone down the colour saturation. For holidays and events I recommend using the Vivid style for boosting the saturation of the colours to create striking images. Conversely, landscapes with brooding skies may benefit from the neutral colour setting. A custom My Colors style can also be created, saved and applied to all JPEG images.

Of course, colour styles are not applied to raw files. By their very nature these files contain just the raw image data from the camera. However, if you open the S90’s CR2 raw files in Canon’s Digital Photo Professional software, it is possible to apply any of the default colour styles to a raw image before saving it as a JPEG file.

The AWB setting did a great job and produced good results on bright sunny days, in overcast conditions and when under fluorescent and tungsten light. Similarly, the daylight balance setting produces neutral results on a sunny day, and good images when the sky was overcast.

One useful white balance-related feature is the ability to be able to set the control ring so that it adjusts the blue/amber white balance shift. Turning one way adds more blue, while turning the other adds more amber. Although I generally found better uses for the control ring, it was handy to be able to adjust the white balance quickly in this way.

Metering

There are three metering modes – evaluative, centre and centre spot – on the Canon PowerShot S90. For most situations evaluative metering works very well, although like most compact cameras the S90 struggled a little with backlit scenes.

Centre spot metering generally proves more useful than centre weighted metering. This is especially true when it is used to make sure that the highlights in a scene aren’t burnt out. By using the centre spot metering to take a reading of the image highlights and then setting the exposure compensation to +1EV, I find that highlights are bright but without being completely white, leaving enough detail for post-capture editing.

When the PowerShot S90 is given the more complicated task of using slow sync flash mode to expose for both flash and ambient light, the camera performs exceptionally well. Images are bright and well exposed.

Autofocus

It seems that contrast-detection AF has progressed about as far as it can with the technology currently available. Most high-end compact cameras now have a reasonably fast AF system, and it is often how well these systems perform in awkward lighting conditions that helps to distinguish one from another.

The S90’s AF system performs very well. In good light the AF locks onto focus quickly. When given more challenging lighting conditions, the camera has a built-in red AF focus beam that lights a scene to help it find its point of focus.

Another useful feature is Face AiAF, which detects faces and focuses on them. Once it detects a face in a scene, the AF can track it as it moves around the scene.

However, if you aren’t happy with the camera’s autofocus, or you simply wish to be creative, the PowerShot S90 can be manually focused. When in manual focus mode, the centre of the frame is magnified to aid accuracy. Manual focusing on compact cameras can often be a fiddly process, but the control ring of the S90 makes it simple and it goes some way to replicating the feeling of manually focusing an SLR lens.

LCD, live view and video

With no optical viewfinder, the S90 user is reliant on its 3in, 461,000-dot LCD screen when composing images. Although traditionalists may dislike the lack of viewfinder, if the viewfinder on the PowerShot G11 is anything to go by the S90 isn’t missing out.

During my test of the S90 I didn’t come across any problems with the screen. It is large and bright, and shows enough detail so it is possible to check images for details and sharpness.

The brightness of the live view preview changes to reflect how your image will be exposed and saved. This is useful should you be in a manual exposure mode or wish to use the EV compensation to adjust an exposure.

When adjusting the exposure compensation in video mode, the view on the screen also represents how the final footage will look. However, the exposure cannot be changed once video capture has started.

Resolution, noise and sensitivity

With a maximum sensitivity of ISO 3200, the Canon PowerShot S90 is capable of taking images in low-light conditions. Unfortunately, the small sensor produces quite a lot of image noise. Much of this noise is removed via aggressive noise reduction, which causes image details to have a smudged appearance, particularly at higher sensitivities.

Below ISO 400 images exhibit far less chroma noise, but luminance noise is visible, although fairly unobtrusive. Raw files captured by the S90 tell a similar story. Without any noise reduction noise is present at all sensitivity settings, although again it isn’t really obtrusive until ISO 400. At ISO 3200, even when the luminance and chroma noise reduction sliders are both set to 100 in Adobe Camera Raw, noise is still very apparent, with clumps of blue pixels appearing randomly in the image.

However, a compact camera such as the S90 isn’t going to be used by photographers producing fine-art images or for competitions. In fact, most people who use the S90 won’t be producing prints any larger than A4, and I imagine the majority of the images will be printed at 6x4in size.

As most users of the S90 will only occasionally be pushing the camera to its limits, the noise it produces at high sensitivity settings shouldn’t be a concern – and it is certainly better than on many other compact cameras we have seen.

These images show 72ppi (100% on a computer screen) sections of images of a resolution chart, still-life scene and a grey card. We show the section of the resolution chart where the camera starts to fail to reproduce the lines separately. The higher the number visible in these images, the better the camera’s detail resolution is at the specified sensitivity setting.

The competition

Image: Canon G11

Perhaps the biggest rival to the S90 is the Canon PowerShot G11. Both have manual exposure modes as well as the option to capture images as raw files. However, the G11 has a viewfinder, 5x optical zoom and range of control dials, making it more of a replacement for a DSLR than truly pocketable compact camera.

One camera that is of a similar size to the PowerShot S90 is the Fujifilm FinePix F200EXR. We originally reviewed this camera in AP 15 August 2009 and it received an impressive four stars. With a slightly larger 1/1.6in, 12-million-pixel sensor and a 5x optical zoom lens (28-140mm equivalent), the F200EXR is similar in specification to the PowerShot S90. It lacks the ability to save images as raw files, but there is the option to capture images at sensitivities as high as ISO 12,800.

Image: Fujifilm FinePix F200EXR

With the Canon PowerShot G11 costing just slightly more than the S90, I would imagine that the G11 is the S90’s main rival. However, at around £200, the Fujifilm FinePix F200EXR is a very good, if often overlooked, competitor.

Our verdict

Small, stylish and with full manual exposure control, the Canon PowerShot S90 is a great compact camera for those looking for a few more advanced features than the standard compact. Unlike its bigger brother, the PowerShot G11, the S90 is small enough to take anywhere. Although I prefer the way the G11 handles, I hope Canon finds a way to put the control ring feature of the S90 into the next G-series camera.

However, while the image quality of the S90 is very good for a compact camera, it doesn’t really break any new ground. Also, with a street price of around £400, it is quite expensive.

Canon Powershot S90 – Key features

Software support
Canon’s Digital Photo Professional software comes included with the PowerShot S90. This excellent software makes it simple to edit raw images and produces good results.

Flash
The small in-camera flash has a guide number of 6.5m @ ISO 100, although this is reduced to just 2.5m @ ISO 100 when at its maximum focal length. This is due to the smaller maximum aperture at this focal length.

i-Contrast
This feature applies a contrast curve to lift the shadow areas of an image. It can do this either at the time of capture, or it can be applied in playback mode to existing images.

  • Memory Card: SecureDigital/MMC and SDHC
  • White Balance: Auto, 7 presets, plus 2 custom
  • Built-in Flash: Yes
  • Viewfinder Type: N/A
  • LCD: 3in LCD with approx 461,000 dots (153,600 pixels)
  • Output Size: 3648x2736 pixels
  • Sensor: CCD with 10 million effective pixels
  • White Balance Bracket: No
  • Max Flash Sync: Up to 1/500sec
  • Exposure Modes: Auto, program, aperture priority, shutter priority, manual, custom modes and 16 scene presets
  • Weight: 175g (without battery or card)
  • Power: Rechargeable Li-Ion battery NB-6L
  • Lens: Canon 3.8x zoom lens, 28-105mm (equivalent) f/2-4.9
  • File Format: Raw, JPEG, raw + JPEG simultaneously
  • AF array: 9 points, selected automatically
  • Exposure Comp: ±2EV in 1/3EV steps
  • Colour Space: sRGB
  • Drive Mode: Single and continuous. Approx 0.6fps maximum in continuous
  • Shutter Speeds: 15-1/1600sec in shutter priority and manual mode
  • RRP: £449
  • ISO: 80-3200
  • DoF Preview: No
  • Focusing Modes: Manual, single AF, continuous AF, face detection
  • Dimensions: 100x58.4x30.9mm
  • Metering System: Evaluative, centre weighted average and spot (can be linked to active AF point or face detection)
  • Connectivity / Interface: USB
  • Compression: Fine, Normal
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