Review – Canon S90, Part 1: First Impressions
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
- 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).
The 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.
Technicalities 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).
The #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.
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.