Archive for November, 2009

Review – Canon S90, Part 2: Using the Camera

Posted in Cameras, Reviews with tags , , , , on Friday, November 13, 2009 by Miserere

by Miserere


⇐ Part 1: First Impressions

Since I started writing my initial impressions I’ve continued playing around with settings and even read through the manual (gasp!); I’ve also got more comfortable with the camera, which gives me confidence when shooting. I’m still not at the point where the camera disappears in my hands, but I know that day is rapidly approaching.

Now let me address different aspects of shooting with the S90.


LCD Screen

When you have a camera that lacks a viewfinder, a good LCD is important, and in every respect the S90’s screen excels. It is crisp and bright; so much so that I have it set to its lowest brightness and have no problem using it in bright sunlight. The antireflective coating no doubt helps in this mission. I don’t know how resistant it is to scratches (I hope you’ll understand that I don’t take a nail to it to find out), all I know is that there are no marks on it yet after about 1 month of living in my pocket, often with my BlackBerry. For those of you who like to wear polarised sunglasses while shooting, here is the low-down: The LCD screen is horizontally polarised, so brightness is maintained while shooting in landscape format; if you rotate the camera to portrait, however, brightness decreases considerably

Photos displayed on the LCD look great, and you can cycle through them with either the left/right arrows (with each photo popping up immediately) or with the rear wheel (which shows the photo shrinking as the next one flies in). When you press the up arrow in playback mode, you access the playback menu that allows you to look at photos by date, by category (a type of tag you can set in-camera) or jump them by 10 or 100. Also in playback mode, you can press MENU to start a slideshow and access options for that photo (erase, protect, rotate, add category, crop, correct red eye, resize, etc, etc; all for JPEGs except ‘category’).

And speaking of playback, it can be used even when the camera is off. Just keep the play button pressed for 1s and you can browse your photos without the rest of the camera turning on or the lens extending.

And here is what the screen looks like while shooting. It appears cluttered, but for me most of it just goes away when I’m shooting; I only pay attention when I need to consult the histogram or know the value of a setting. Basically, I see through it unless I need to look at it.

Canon S90 LCD screen while shooting

Allow me to decipher the less-obvious features for you: The big M tells me I’m in Manual mode; the MF indicates Manual Focus; on the bottom, the green circle with holes next to the current shutter speed indicates the rear wheel is controlling it; the two green brackets to the right indicate the lens ring is controlling the aperture, currently set to f/2; the two square brackets in the lower-left corner tell me I’m metering in center-weighted average mode; finally, the scale running along the bottom half of the right side is the light meter, which in this case is telling me I’m 1 1/3 stops overexposed. The dark bars along the top and bottom delimit the 2:3 aspect ratio, and the grid is the famous rule of thirds, which I actually use to get straight lines straight. The center square is the area that gets blown up to roughly twice the size to aid in manual focusing. last of all, that little camera icon with the arrowhead on top tells me which way is “up”; turn the camera 90° in either direction and the icon will turn to point up. But if you turn the camera upside down, the arrow will point down.


Shooting Modes

Shooting modes available are the standard M, Av, Tv, P and AUTO, plus C (custom mode), low light and SCN (scene mode, with a hefty 17 settings: portrait, landscape, night snapshot, kids & pets, indoor, sunset, night scene, fireworks, beach, underwater, aquarium, foliage, snow, color accent, color swap, nostalgic and stitch assist). Movie recording is accessed as another mode on the dial.

Scene mode names should be self-explanatory. Some of them are quite pleasing, such as the nostalgic scene (which offers 5 different “nostalgic” looks), while others (such as snow, or fireworks) will be superfluous to any experienced shooter who understands camera settings. The real downside is shooting is completely automatic in SCN mode, so the photographer can only control the focal length, thus rendering this mode useless for RAW shooters.

Another interesting mode is Low Light. Again, all you can control is focal length, while ISO varies automatically between 320 and 12,800. That’s not a typo. What the camera does is bin up pixels 2×2, so the output image is only 2.5MP in size (1824×1368 pixels), or 1/4 the native resolution, thus gaining 2 stops in effective ISO range. Needless to say, the resulting image is a JPEG. This “gain” in ISO can also be achieved by downsampling a RAW file in postprocessing, and likely with better results.

As far as I can tell (because the manual doesn’t), the only modes that give you RAW output are Av, Tv, M and P.

Now for the modes I use the most: Av and M, the former for general shooting, the latter for low light shooting.

Av: I seem to have settled on using the lens ring for aperture, the rear wheel for EV comp., the shortcut key for AE-L, and I change ISO through the FUNC. SET key, who’s first item is ISO, thus acting like a shortcut key (see screen grab below).

M: I’m still battling for the best way to set up Manual mode for low light shooting. I am undecided between the method I described in part 1 of this review and the following: Lens ring for aperture, rear wheel for shutter speed, shortcut key for AE-L, and I change ISO as in Av above, through the FUNC. SET key. Neither are perfect, both have their drawbacks. For slow shooting, either works fine and I have no complaints, but for candid shots in low light where brightness changes quickly, I yearn for auto ISO in M mode. A quick way to set the correct exposure in M mode is to half press the shutter, then press the up key; the camera will set aperture and shutter speed to what it considers appropriate.

Canon S90 quick access menu through 'FUNC. SET'


Focal Lengths and Maximum Aperture

I complained in part 1 about how slow this lens was towards the long end so I thought it would be useful to list here how the maximum aperture changes with focal length in order to help owners better choose what focal lengths to use if they want to maximise light gathering.

Canon S90 maximum aperture
for each focal length
F.L. (mm-equiv.) Max. Aperture (f/)
28 2
32 2.2
35 2.5
40 2.8
50 3.2
60 3.5
70 4
85 4.5
105 4.9

One thing the LCD display does not tell you is what focal length you’re zoomed to. The zoom lever moves in fixed steps, each of which corresponds to the values in the table above, except there’s an extra step between 40mm and 50mm where the max. aperture does not vary and stays at f/2.8. If you are really fussy about what focal length you’re shooting, you can assign the lens ring to zooming. When doing this, each click of the ring corresponds to 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm and 105mm; these values show up on the LCD so you know which one you’re choosing.


Auto ISO

It would be so nice to have control over the ISO range available in auto ISO, or at least the maximum ISO; major blunder for Canon here. Furthermore, the S90 is rather quirky with respect to what ISO ceiling it chooses in each shooting mode. I’ve produced a table below listing what that ceiling is for every shooting and scene mode. This information is not given in the Canon S90 user manual and is not available anywhere else that I’m aware of.

Canon S90 maximum ISO in Auto ISO mode
for every shooting and scene mode
Max. ISO Shooting
Max. ISO
Portrait 400 AUTO 1600
Landscape 400 P 1600
1600 Tv 800
Kids/Pets 800 Av 800
Indoor 1600 M
Sunset 400 Low Light 12,800*
Sunset 400
Fireworks 80
Beach 400
Underwater 800
Aquarium 1600
Foliage 400
Snow 400
Nostalgic 800
*: Images taken at lower resolution of 2.5MP.


White Balance

You can manually select from the typical list of white balance light sources (plus “underwater”, which is a first, for me), or custom set it using any white (or grey) surface in your scene. Each WB setting can then be warmed up or cooled down to taste.

So far I’ve just used auto WB because it just works. Even though I’ve shot in RAW, I’ve only had to reset the WB in postprocessing once when shooting indoors in low light, and with mixed lighting conditions.


The Flash

I’m finding the onboard flash quite neat, and given my expectations for it (quite low), I’m happy about it. In Av and Tv you can set it to fire always, never, or slow synchro (Which is Canon-speak for “fill flash”); in P mode you can also choose “Auto Flash”. In all 3 modes you can control the flash EV comp. with a range of ±2 EV, in 1/3 EV steps. When shooting Manual mode, you have the option for flash on, or off; when on, you can to choose between 3 power output settings (even photographing an average room, I just used medium power).



Autofocus: So far so good; I haven’t used so many P&Ss that I can compare AF speed, so all I can say is it’s slower than my DSLR, but faster than a tortoise, and certainly adequate for my needs. Cool feature: You can set AF to face recognition and it will try to find a face anywhere in the frame in order to focus on it; if it doesn’t find it, it focuses on something else and shows a green square (or more) around that area. I can see this feature appealing to mums and dads trying to get their kids’ faces sharp. Combine this with servo focusing (Canon-speak for continuous focus) and you can at least stand a chance against any 5-year old.

Manual Focus: In part 1 I said I wasn’t happy with manual focusing but would wait to start complaining about it. Good job I waited. Even better job that I read the manual while I was waiting. My main issue with manual focusing was that it appeared to turn off after reviewing an image; turns out you need to press the up arrow in order to make the rear wheel control focus again. Once in manual focus, hit the up arrow again, and the rear wheel reverts to its assigned duty (EV comp. or whatever). Of course, some may like using the lens ring for manual focusing—I tried that but didn’t like it. Here’s a nice trick: When in autofocus, you can focus on your subject, then, if you press the left arrow (which is the shortcut to set focus mode) while keeping the shutter button half pressed, the camera goes directly to manual focus, with the focus distance set to your subject. You can also autofocus, lift your finger off the shutter button, and then press the left arrow to access the focus modes, then scroll through the 3 options (macro, auto and manual) to get to manual. Pressing the left arrow while half-pressing the shutter you bypass this last bit completely. You can choose to have the center portion of the scene magnified to aid with manual focus. Manual focusing is not sticky, so if you turn the camera off, you’ll be in autofocus mode when you turn it back on; same goes for Macro focusing. I’ve happily figured out a workaround for this: Save manual focus to the Custom mode. I’ve configured my Custom mode to Av with Auto ISO and manual focusing. When in Custom mode, turning the camera on and off doesn’t unstick the manual focus setting.

Whatever focus mode you use, you can choose to bracket your focus automatically, whereby the camera will take 3 shots: one at the chosen focus distance, one slightly in front, one slightly behind. You can set 3 different interval sizes for the bracketed shots. This is a cool feature that I’ve heard many people ask for on DSLRs.

Now here comes a focusing gripe: Although the camera does remember what distance it was focused to when you turn it off, then on, it forgets if the LCD turns off automatically due to the powersave feature. Here’s the funny thing, if your camera is set to meters, it will revive focused to 5m; if it’s set to feet, it revives at 5 feet! There is some good news, the focus distance is one of the settings that is registered with the Custom mode, so make sure you focus to some useful distance before saving settings to Custom. I have the Custom focus set at 3m (or at least where I think 3m is) because that’s the hyperfocal for 28mm-equiv. f/2.

Canon S90 LCD in Manual Focus mode
Canon S90 Manual Focus Shooting Screen - Normal Canon S90 Manual Focus Shooting Screen - Macro
Normal distance Macro distance

As I’m interested in street photography, zone focusing is an important part of quick, unobtrusive shooting. A ‘Hyperfocal’ focusing mode would have been extremely useful, and I see its lack as a big hinderance, especially since it’s so easy to implement. Are you listening, Canon? The fact that the camera’s distance scale in MF only has marks at 1m, 2m, 5m and ∞ (10cm, 20cm and 50cm in macro) doesn’t help matters. In order to help all you zone focusing enthusiasts out there, I’ve created the following tables for you; I hope they’re useful. For your convenience, I created a PDF version of these tables, in both meters and feet: Canon S90 Depth of Field and Hyperfocal Tables. These tables will also be useful for any other camera with a 1/1.7″ sensor, such as the Canon G10 or G11; it will be approximately correct for the Panasonic LX3 and Leica D-Lux4.

Canon S90 hyperfocal distance for main
focal length and aperture combinations
  Hyperfocal Distance (m)
F.L. f/2 f/2.8 f/4 f/5.6 f/8
28mm 3.01 2.13 1.51 1.07 0.76
35mm 3.32 2.35 1.66 1.18
40mm 4.37 3.09 2.19 1.55
50mm 4.78 3.38 2.40
85mm 9.78 6.92
105mm 14.9 10.6


Canon S90 Depth of Field for wide/normal focal lengths
at standard distances in Manual Focus mode
  Depth of Field (m)
F.L. Dist. f/2 f/2.8 f/4 f/5.6 f/8
28mm 1m 0.75 – 1.50 0.68 – 1.88 0.60 – 2.96 0.52 – 15.9 0.43 – ∞
2m 1.20 – 5.96 1.03 – 33.3 0.86 – ∞ 0.69 – ∞ 0.55 – ∞
5m 1.88 – ∞ 1.49 – ∞ 1.15 – ∞ 0.88 – ∞ 0.65 – ∞
35mm 1m 0.77 – 1.43 0.70 – 1.73 0.63 – 2.49 0.54 – 6.53
2m 1.25 – 5.01 1.08 – 13.3 0.91 – ∞ 0.74 – ∞
5m 2.00 – ∞ 1.60 – ∞ 1.25 – ∞ 0.95 – ∞
40mm 1m 0.81 – 1.30 0.76 – 1.48 0.69 – 1.85 0.61 – 2.84
2m 1.37 – 3.70 1.21 – 5.73 1.04 – 25.1 0.87 – ∞
5m 2.32 – ∞ 1.90 – ∞ 1.51 – ∞ 1.17 – ∞
50mm 1m 0.83 – 1.26 0.77 – 1.41 0.71 – 1.71
2m 1.41 – 3.43 1.26 – 4.86 1.09 – 11.9
5m 2.45 – ∞ 2.02 – ∞ 1.62 – ∞

Now here are a couple of crazy ideas for camera manufacturers: First, give us a hyperfocal focus setting; second, give us a value of what distance the lens is focusing to in manual focusing, because a scale with 1m, 2m, 5m, and ∞ (or 2ft, 5ft, 10ft and ∞) just doesn’t cut it. Instead of a little bar going up and down, just give us the distance as a number, and while you’re at it, you could also give us the near and far focus limits of our DoF for the focal length and aperture we’re using. The maths aren’t difficult, and I’m sure the camera’s little brain can handle it.


Shutter Lag

Shutter lag is one of the most important properties for a P&S, because historically we’ve been given P&Ss that allow us to make coffee during the time it takes them to take the shot after pressing the shutter release. Not so with the S90, not even The Flash could get away with making coffee. There is clearly some lag when using autofocus, which is no worse than other P&Ss I have tried (not that many, to be honest) and is due to the focusing action, but when shooting in manual focus there is no perceptible lag.

In order to prove to myself that there really was no lag, I set a stopwatch running and took a photograph of it every 10s for 100s, measuring the delay between me pressing the button as the stopwatch hit 10s, 20s, 30s, and the time shown in each photo. The lag I measured is 160ms, which is in the same league as some DSLRs (high end DSLRs are in the 50ms range, while middle tier models are around 100ms). In real life, 160ms is just as good as instantaneous. Another gold star for Canon.


Shooting Speed

I don’t use the camera in servo mode (Canon-speak for continuous shooting), but I performed a quick test to see how quick it would shoot continuously, in both RAW and JPEG (but not RAW+JPEG—sorry, I have a life). I used a Kodak 4GB SDHC Class 2 card. I might redo the test with a 133x card to see if there is a bottleneck (because Class 2 isn’t very fast for an SD card) but I think the results will be the same because the shooting speed remained constant during the 10 consecutive shots I took for each test, meaning the camera’s buffer wasn’t getting filled up, meaning data was being written to the card efficiently. Or…the camera has no buffer and shooting speed depends only on the card speed (until the camera’s maximum processing speed is reached). I have not found any numbers for the buffer size on the internet, so can’t comment right now. What I can say is the JPEG shooting speed I tested is in line with Canon’s 0.9 fps claim.

One thing that hasn’t been stated anywhere is how ISO affects fps. If you shoot RAW, there is no appreciable difference; however, if you shoot JPEGs, you will get faster fps below ISO 800, while shooting at ISO 800 and above the camera slows down by around 40%. I assume this is because of the extra number crunching required to clean up noise at ISO 800 and beyond.

I also tested the time it takes for an image to pop up for review after the shot is taken. I’ve condensed all the results in the tables below.

Canon S90 FPS for various shooting modes
ISO < 800 ISO 800+
RAW AF 0.5fps 0.5fps
RAW MF 0.7fps 0.7fps
JPEG AF 0.8fps 0.6fps
JPEG MF 1.0fps 0.6fps


Canon S90 delay time between shot and review
ISO Delay Time
JPEG <800 1.5
JPEG 800+ 2.1
RAW all 2.5


Taking Photographs

Let’s not lose sight of what this little black box was designed to do: Take photographs. How is this experience? For me, enjoyable. As I figure out how to best set up the camera for my type of shooting I also try to find workarounds for those things I don’t like. The unstickiness of manual focus was circumvented via the Custom mode, but other gripes cannot be avoided, such as not being able to zoom into the image preview that shows up after taking a shot. [UPDATE: Thanks to reader Thorsboe, we now know this isn’t quite true. In the setup menu one can choose the length of time the review stays up: never, 2-10s, and ‘hold’. ‘Hold’ basically means “forever”, and in this setting you can zoom in all you want. Just hit playback or half-press the shutter button to exit review mode.] [UPDATE 2: An anonymous tip in the comments tells us that pressing the FUNC. SET key during the review will “hold” the image, thus allowing you to zoom in. This seems like a better solution than the previous one.] But all in all, I’m finding it easy to take photographs the way I want to, and in general the camera manages to stay out of the way. It is also very responsive in MF mode, as evidenced by the short shutter lag, which allows you to photograph the decisive moment, not the decisive aftermath.

I could complain about its small size making it awkward to hold at times, but then I wanted a small camera to carry in my pocket always, so I’m still experimenting with different grips. In truth, shooting with one hand is very easy, it’s when I want to shoot at slow shutter speeds and hold the camera steady with two hands that I run into problems placing my left hand.

Can I use this camera to make Art, or will it be relegated to snapshot duties only? The answer to this question depends in part on the camera’s IQ, which I will address in part 3 of this review, but as far as controls and functions are concerned, the S90 is most definitely a camera to take real Photographs with, not just snapshots. Canon have to be commended for having catered to us photographers; while the camera does have plenty of gimmicky, newbie-friendly features, they are neatly hidden in the Scene mode and one never need encounter them unless one looks for them. Ridding menus of cute functions leaves them barren, with only the essential settings remaining. Furthermore, those intricately related to shooting can be controlled with a wheel or dial; yet those that are secondary are still only 1 click away.

Part 3: Image Quality ⇒


More Small Cameras: Leica X1 Field Report at Luminous Landscape

Posted in Cameras with tags , , , on Thursday, November 12, 2009 by Miserere

by Miserere


Leica X1Michael Reichmann has today published his thoughts after 3 weeks of using the Leica X1. Read it over at Luminous Landscape.

For those of you not in the know, the Leica X1 is the company’s first foray into the compact large-sensor market. Featuring Sony’s excellent 12MP APS-C CMOS sensor, it boasts a fixed 36mm-equiv. f/2.8 lens. A Leica lens, of course. It has no viewfinder, but does have a hotshoe which allows the attachment of an optional optical VF (after you’ve handed over $350). Like its big sisters in the M line, all the main shooting parameters are controlled via wheel dials instead of menus. The price? Well, it is a Leica, so it needs its own paragraph for the pricing (please contact me if you know pricing in mainland Europe and Japan).

US: $2,000
UK: £1,320
EU: €????
Japan: ¥????

One Step Closer to a Modular Digital Camera: The Ricoh GXR

Posted in Cameras, In the News with tags , , on Tuesday, November 10, 2009 by Miserere

by Miserere


Ricoh GXR

I’ve been advocating for modular DLSRs for a while now (some of you are probably bored of hearing me), but I had never thought of what Ricoh have come up with: marrying lenses to sensors. The logic? have a single camera body that can take a number of different sensor+lens blocks. Do you want to use a superzoom with 28-300mm reach today, but don’t want to haul around a large lens? No problem! Use a small zoom lens attached to a small sensor. What if you want low light capability or want to shoot portraits? Use a wide-aperture prime lens with a larger sensor.

There has been no official announcement, just leaks, but this seems to be the real deal. Ricoh has produced a mirrorless body with pop-up flash and accessory EVF (Electronic View Finder), the Ricoh GXR, and will initially release two lenses+sensor blocks: a 24-75mm f/2.5-4.4 lens with a 10MP CCD sensor and a 50mm f/2.5 macro lens with a 12MP CMOS sensor. In neither case do we know the size of the sensor, but I suspect the focal lengths are 35mm-equiv. If I had to guess sensor sizes, given the focal lengths, apertures and apparent physical size in the photos, the 24-75mm lens is attached to a 1/1.7″ sensor like that on the Canon S90, while the 50mm is attached to either a 4/3-sized sensor, or an APS-C—I bet on the latter. Interestingly enough, Sony produce both a 1/1.7″ 10MP CCD and an APS-C 12MP CMOS, and it would make sense for Ricoh to source all its sensors from a single manufacturer to obtain bulk discounts, hence my bet on the sensor sizes.

Another possibility is the appearance of several different bodies. For now we are only seeing a μ4/3-style body (like the Olympus E-P1 or the Panasonic GF1) but Ricoh could develop a larger body with an integrated EVF (such as the Panasonic GH1) or even a DSLR-style body if they release larger lenses (but always with an EVF, as I don’t see how they’d stick a mirror and prism on top of the sensor and make it affordable).

My opinion: I think the idea is novel, and I applaud innovation and newthink. However, I don’t see this system being economical. The two most expensive components of a camera (if we are to believe camera makers) are the lens and the sensor. The Ricoh puts both of these together, and forces you to buy both every time you want to take a different kind of photo. While they might be able to keep prices down with blocks containing a 1/1.7″ CCD, those with APS-C sensors will be much more expensive. It’s true Ricoh can probably buy the sensors at a lower price because they’ll be buying more of them, but I don’t see those costs being significant enough. If they manage to price APS-C blocks only slightly above the APS-C lenses of their competitors, then one has to wonder what corners they cut in the lens in order to make it cheaper.

There is no official information on prices yet, but I can assure you the success or failure of this Ricoh system will depend on its prices. While this is far from the modular DSLR I envisage for the future, I hope Ricoh do well in the suddenly-competitive niche of mirrorless, large sensor cameras.

First-look video courtesy of Which magazine (a still of which is the photo at the beginning of this article):


UPDATE: It’s official now, read about it on DPReview. I was correct about the sensor sizes—do I get a prize for that? 🙂 Sample images from the two lens-sensor combos are available here. Samples look pretty good, but then I don’t expect any company to put out a camera in this day and age that produces really bad images. By the way, big kudos go to Ricoh for having the cameras shoot RAW in Adobe’s open DNG format.

As far as prices are concerned, is now accepting preorders in the U.S. and is asking:

  • GXR body: $550
  • 12mp APS-C 50mm-equiv. f2.5 macro unit: $830
  • 10mp 1/1.7″ 24-75mm-equiv zoom unit: $440
  • GF1 external flash: $280
  • VF2 viewfinder: $257
  • DB-90 Li-Ion battery: $47

The (unconfirmed) British prices I’ve seen are £420 for the body, £600 for the 50mm-equiv. and £300 for the 24-75mm-equiv.

Given these numbers, which appear to be street prices, I predict this camera system will be a flop. I just paid $427 for my Canon S90, which has the same sensor, and possibly better lens, as the 24-75mm-equiv. zoom unit, which Ricoh is asking $990 for (body+sensor+lens). The S90 is smaller too.

You can see a size comparison of the GXR vs the Panasonic GF1 here. Spoiler: The GXR wins by a small margin.

Amateur Photographer has a piece about it here.

Review – Canon S90, Part 1: First Impressions

Posted in Cameras, Reviews with tags , , , , on Monday, November 9, 2009 by Miserere

by Miserere


Miserere - Canon S90 Review

The Invisible Camera, that is my ultimate goal in Photography equipment: A camera that goes unnoticed by both the subject and the photographer. I’m not talking about a spy camera, simply one that is unobtrusive, that doesn’t stand out, and is easy to operate and carry around. And it goes without saying that it should deliver great image quality. I know this camera does not yet exist; the choice right now is: high IQ, low price, small size—pick any two. Because I wanted a camera to carry around always, it had to be small to fit in my trouser pocket; I also didn’t want to spend much money, so it’s clear which two qualities I picked from the trio above.

I quickly ruled out the μ4/3 and Sigma DP1/2 contenders due to price and size (while they’re smaller than a DSLR, they’re not quite trouser-pocketable). As I wanted a zoom lenses for extra flexibility, I was left with few options: Panasonic LX3, Canon G11 and Canon S90. The Panasonic was introduced in mid 2008, and while it has great reviews, it is difficult to get a hold of one. This had been my initial pick, until Canon recently announced the G11 and S90, both of which sport a new 10MP sensor and image processor. When I was ready to buy last month, the LX3 was on backorder, so I was left with the G11 and S90. Given the title of this review, you know which one I picked. The reasons were smaller size and faster lens; that simple.

I’ve been shooting the S90 for over two weeks now (almost 500 shots taken) and I’m ready to start this multi-part review. In future instalments I will get into IQ specifics, high ISO performance and other nuances, but for now I will simply give you my first impressions.


Canon S90 Main Specifications

  • Sensor: 10MP 1/1.7″ CCD (4.67x crop factor)
  • CCD dimensions: 7.6mm x 5.7mm (3:4 aspect ratio)
  • Lens: 28-105mm-equiv. f/2.0-4.9 (min. aperture: f/8)
  • Shutter speeds: 1/1600s — 15s (1/500s max. flash sync. speed)
  • Shutter lag: 160ms (in manual focus, as tested by me)
  • Fastest shooting speed: 1fps JPEG in manual focus and ISO < 800 (as tested by me)
  • Minimum focus distance (at 28mm-equiv.): 5cm (~2″)
  • RAW shooting (Canon’s propriety CR2)
  • 461k pixel 3 inch LCD
  • Lens control ring
  • Optical Image Stabilization
  • Built-in flash
  • SD/SDHC card
  • Rechargeable Li-ion battery
  • Weight: 195gr/6.9oz (incl. battery)
  • No optical viewfinder
  • No hotshoe


What’s in the Box

Miserere - Canon S90 Review

  • NB-6L Lithium-Ion Battery (3.7v, 1000mAh)
  • CB-2LY Battery Charger for Canon NB-6L Lithium-Ion Battery
  • IFC-400PCU USB Interface Cable
  • AVC-DC400 Video Interface Cable
  • Wrist Strap
  • Software CD-ROM (including Canon’s Digital Photo Professional RAW conversion program)



My first thought when I took the S90 out of the box was wow, this thing is small! It’s roughly the size of a cigarette pack, smaller than an iPhone except in thickness, and most definitely pocketable. It’s light, too, despite which, it still feels solid in my hand. I have slightly large hands, yet the camera feels comfortable to shoot, although the rear buttons do sometimes feel a bit small. Maybe I have fat thumbs?

Whenever I use an unfamiliar camera, I make it a point not to read the manual. I believe anybody who’s familiar with digital photography should be able to shoot any camera, and if they can’t, it’s the engineers’ fault. I’m happy to say I was able to figure out the camera very quickly and was up and running, shooting RAW, in a matter of minutes. Of course, I’ve been playing around with settings, trying out different configurations since then, and this has also been easy. This is one of the first things I noticed: Making changes to secondary shooting parameters (AF zone size, drive mode, metering mode, etc) is quick, not requiring to go through endless menus. There is a user-assignable button on the rear, and the control ring around the lens can also be set to control a number of different parameters. What the lens control ring controls will affect what the rear control wheel is assigned to. It would have been nice to also make the rear wheel customisable.

My first huh? moment came when I went to take the first photograph and my index finger instinctively pressed the mode dial. I don’t know why, by I wasn’t expecting the shutter release to be so far into the camera (I’ve read others complaining about this too). Even after all this time I’m still not quite used to it. Given the limited space on this tiny camera, I fully understand why the shutter release is where it is, and I doubt it could have been placed on the corner. But speaking of the mode dial, this is the most secure dial I’ve ever encountered; it turns with big heavy clicks at each setting, inspiring confidence that it won’t accidentally turn (which is more than I can say for my DSLR’s mode dial).

Miserere - Canon S90 ReviewThe ON/OFF and ‘lens ring function’ buttons take up the place where you’d expect a hotshoe to be. Many are complaining for the lack of a hotshoe, and I do think Canon could have squeezed one in if they had really wanted to, albeit with an increase in camera size. Some would have given up the flash to get a hotshoe, thus leaving the camera the same size. I imagine Canon decided early on that it was going to make the smallest camera possible, and if you really want a hotshoe, you can buy the G11. I admit that I was initially a bit annoyed by the lack of a hotshoe, but I’ve since come to appreciate the onboard flash, and after playing with it in dark rooms, I think Canon did the right thing. To be honest, was I really going to carry around an external flash with me? The whole point of this camera is that it be small and portable. I’ll talk a bit more about the flash in the upcoming instalments, but for now I’ll leave you with this photo to the right, made possible thanks to the onboard flash. I manually set a long exposure and had the flash fire in front curtain sync; to realise how dark it was in this pub, note how only the candle and dim overhead bulb create a light trail due to camera movement. Shot in RAW and converted with Canon’s DPP automatic settings.


Customising the Settings

Here’s what I’ve settled on most of the time. When shooting Manual, the lens ring controls ISO and the rear wheel shutter speed. When I press the UP arrow on the touchpad, the rear wheel then changes to control the aperture. This works for me because I tend to leave aperture and shutter speed set, and just vary ISO to get the appropriate exposure. As you might guess, this is the mode I use for low light shooting. Canon failed big time with the ISO in Manual mode, as it’s the only mode where you cannot set it to AUTO; maybe they’ll fix that with a firmware upgrade, and they really should, as it would make Manual shooting so much more flexible.

In Av, I still have the lens ring controlling ISO, then the rear wheel controls aperture. Both for Manual and Av I’ve set the customisable button to Lock-AE.

Pressing the DISP button takes you to a menu allowing you to set ISO, WB, metering mode and many other secondary shooting options. The camera doesn’t remember which item you used last after turning the camera off and defaults to ISO, which is a shame, as this could make for another quick-access button. I am currently trying it out as an ISO control, leaving the lens ring to control something else. This is fine in good/decent light, but in low light I find I need immediate and frequent access to ISO settings.

One thing I liked a lot was the delay timer. You can set the delay from 1s to 15s in 1s increments, or 15s, 20s, 25s or 30s. Then you choose how many shots you want taken, from 1 to 10. You can also set a mode where the camera will only take a shot when it detects a face in the frame. Again, you can choose 1-10 shots to be taken.

The bottom line is this: Canon have made this camera heavily customisable, which should allow you to set it up just the way you like it, or extremely close.


Shooting Experience

Miserere - Canon S90 ReviewTechnicalities over, let’s not forget this is a camera, and I bought it to take pictures with. How does it perform? So far, so good. The #1 benefit is that it is always with me, either in my jean or jacket pocket, and I can have it out and ready to take a picture in under 2 seconds. Case in point is this photo taken on the Boston T (subway). I was in my seat, looking out of the single open door, when the girl stepped into view talking with someone on the phone trying to decide whether to get on the train or not. I whipped the camera out of my pocket, set it to P mode, auto focused, and took the shot, all before the door closed. I’m not so sure I could have taken this photo had I only had my DSLR in its bag with me. Note that this photo is a straight JPEG out of camera (resized for web) shot wide open at the lens’s widest angle without geometrical distortions being corrected (check the EXIF for other info).

Miserere - Canon S90 ReviewThe #2 benefit is that it looks like a P&S (well, it is a P&S), so people don’t take it seriously and are not intimidated by it—this helps when shooting in public. As an example, here is a photo I took on a bus; I discretely metered off her leg with the camera in M mode, then set the camera in my lap and took 3 blind shots to increase my chances of a correct framing. Nobody paid any attention to me, and I got the shot. I’ve been in similar situations with my DSLR before, and people have turned their heads to look at me, inadvertently alerting my subject—sometimes they were the subjects and the whole scene was ruined by them noticing me and my huge camera.

A few words about the lens control ring. In principle, it’s a great idea, especially if you come from the era when aperture was controlled on the lens, but it’s difficult to implement on a tiny P&S. On a DSLR your left hand is underneath the camera, supporting it, and your fingers can easily turn a right around the lens, but that’s not how you hold a P&S. Furthermore, the ring turns in steps, very secure, tight steps, which means the camera must be held firmly with the right hand to provide counter torque. I have yet to get used to doing this in a natural manner. That said, having an extra, customisable selector is a welcome addition, and Canon should be congratulated for coming up with this feature.

Other points to mention about shooting:

  • Shutter lag: Small to non-existent, depending on whether you’re using auto or manual focus, respectively.
  • Auto focus speed: Not lightning fast, but it seems fast enough for most subjects. If I were to photograph sports (but why would I with a P&S), I would use the continuous focus mode, which Canon calls “Servo Focus”.
  • Image stabilisation: I haven’t done any tests, but I know it works having taken shots at 1/20s with focal lengths of 70mm-equiv. and longer. I also managed to take a sharp shot at 28mm with a 1s shutter speed (it did take me two attempts, but it’s still impressive).
  • Mechanical noise: There is a very low noise when taking a shot (once you disable the annoying fake shutter sound) which is barely audible. If shooting the camera at arm’s length on the street, you probably won’t hear it yourself.
  • Start-up speed: Very fast, less than a second.
  • Battery life: My first battery charge allowed me to take 193 shots, of which 59 were with flash. I had automatic review turned on, and auto powerdown also on. Image stabilisation was set to continuous. I might have chimped and deleted a few times (old habits die hard), so maybe the number of shots is more like 200-210. I also did a lot of menu exploration and button pressing. Given all this, and my extensive use of flash, I think battery life is very good. The CIPA standard number of shots according to Canon is 220 on a full charge, so I think Canon surpassed this mark.
  • Shutter speed, aperture, ISO and +/-EV change in steps of 1/3 stop. You might be able to change this somewhere (to 1/2 or full stops), but it’s not in any prominent menu. Not that I’ve looked for it, because I’m happy with 1/3 stops.
  • The LCD displays a live exposure value with a +/- 2EV range. You can also display a luminance histogram and rule-of-thirds grid lines.

Now some complaints:

  • Big annoyance #1: Cannot set Auto ISO in Manual mode. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. This is a huge handicap.
  • Big annoyance #2: After you take a shot and the review image pops up, the camera does not allow you to zoom in to check focus; you need to hit the ‘play’ review button in order to zoom in to the image. I’ve read that Canon DSLRs also have this issue. It drives me nuts and I cannot comprehend why Canon doesn’t change this (it’s a simple firmware tweak!).
  • Big annoyance #3: If you set the camera to AUTO shooting mode, it will record you image in JPEG, even if you have the camera set to RAW. I don’t know if this is a bug, or if Canon thinks that anyone shooting in fully Auto mode couldn’t possible want a RAW file, but I’m here to tell Canon that I would like to reserve the right to shoot in Auto mode and RAW, thank-you-very-much.
  • Big annoyance #4: No hyperfocal focus mode! My 5 year old Pentax P&S has a hyperfocal setting, why doesn’t the S90 have it? This is another simple firmware fix that would enhance the camera’s usability tremendously.
  • Big annoyance #5: Manual focusing. I’ll reserve my detailed comments for now, as I want to test out manual focus a bit more and read about it in case I’m missing something.
  • Big annoyance #6: The flash has a little servomotor that propels it up and down. Because it lives in the corner of the camera, you will likely have your left index finger on it when it decides to come up. I would have preferred a mechanical spring-loaded flash without a motor.
  • Big annoyance #7: The lens is f/4.9 at the long end. With f/2 at the wide end, I would have expected f/4 at the long end, or f/3.5 if Canon really wanted to make a statement with this camera—f/4.9 is paltry.
  • Minor annoyance #1: I know P&S cameras aren’t weather-sealed (unless they’re underwater cameras), but a bit of sealing on the battery/card door wouldn’t hurt. Every time I take the battery or card out, I blow away a lot of lint. See photo below for 1 day’s worth of lint. I cringe at the thought of all this crap getting inside the camera and making its way onto the CCD or into a lens gearing.

Miserere - Canon S90 Review

That’s it for the moment. If you have any questions, go ahead and post them in the comments section and will address them. I might add to this section over the coming days if I find I’ve forgotten to mention something, but any further opinions should appear in the next instalments of this multi-part review.

Part 2: Using the Camera ⇒