Review – Canon S90, Part 1: First Impressions

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 ⇒


33 Responses to “Review – Canon S90, Part 1: First Impressions”

  1. Nice review,

    I need your opinion since my wife is trying to decide between Samsung NV100HD and Canon S90, and she needs it for taking good photos, mostly on auto, and that it is as small and unobtrusive as possible.

    Could you give me your opinion which one would you choose and why ?
    Let’s say video is not essential.


    • Alan,

      While I have not used the Samsung NV100HD, I haven’t read great reviews about it either. It’s a shame, because it’s a nice-looking camera that is well spec’d and priced.

      I can certainly recommend the S90 to anyone who is looking for a high-end P&S, but I would also recommend people look at cheaper options if they are going to be mostly shooting at low ISOs. Below ISO200, most P&S cameras should produce similar pictures. I believe in always spending the least amount of money possible to get the product you need.

      • You’re right,

        After a bit of research, the only thing remotely appealing to NV100HD is the touch screen interface (and that is not working top notch either).

        Thx for the opinion.

  2. Big annoyance #3: This may be the case for all cameras. I’m pretty sure I can not save as RAW on full auto on either my G10 or Rebel.

    • Interesting… I wonder if this is a Canon thing?

      • This is true for all Canon cameras that can shoot RAW (as far as I know). It’s a Canon thing…they might be the only ones that do it.

        Their habit of not listening to customers is (at times) amazing. Proof of this is in the useless “Print Direct” button that ends up on so many of their DSLRs.

  3. Hmm… i thought your ideal small spy camera was going to be the yashica ez xxxx, since it’s small and best of all, looks like a toy, so def. no one will take you seriously…

    and really, who does take you seriously??? j/k 😛

    this is Somanna by the way.

  4. Curious about small rear control ring: is it supposed to have indents “clicks” like the front one? Mine is free spinning and seems to get bumped and change easily. Thanks

  5. Big annoyance #2. Somewhat less annoying…you can zoom if you hit the “Func Set” (middle button). Agree that Zoom might as well zoom into the image since lens zoom is disabled while in review mode–but as you mentioned, this is not the usual Canon behavior.

    Some other random information: Hitting menu will cancel zoom (hitting func. set again would be more logical but then it would match Nikon behavior ;-). Hitting display in review mode will take you through a number of different display screens (detailed, focus check, basic).

  6. Re: Big Annoyance #1. I believe Canon SLRs have a similar ‘philosophy’, where ISO is not considered an equal peer of shutter speed & aperture from a control perspective. I think they may have made some improvements but they seem lag most competitors in this aspect and think that most users want to use 1EV ISO steps and don’t provide useful features like setting an auto ISO range (a la Pentax) and/or min shutter speed (a la Nikon). It’s my recollection that for some time you could only use auto ISO in the ‘Green’ mode. I think they are grudgingly adding custom settings to enable 1/3 EV steps in some recent models.

    While I recognize that a camera like this would not handle very well with most accessory flashes, it is still unfortunate that manufacturers still tend to leave this off. IMO flash support is one of the huge areas where digicams fall down and unfortunately I think they could really benefit from a powerful bounce flash. Even if they don’t want to include a hotshoe, they should give the built-in flash the capability of controlling canon speedlights wirelessly.

  7. My mini cam was my Canon SD780IS, which my eldest daughter stole from me…Ok, I gave it to her after she said…”Daddy” and mind you she is 24 years old…Anyway, I have been pondering this cam since before it was released. Can you take some ISO 800 images and post em up?

    • Javier, the girl in the subway is at ISO 800 (JPEG straight from camera), while the “girl” in the bus is at ISO 1,250 (shot RAW and converted with DPP). I’ll be posting more examples in Part 3 of the review, but I’m dragging my feet hoping Adobe will release an update including the S90 profile, because Canon’s DPP sucks for the type of editing I tend to do.

      Don’t you have a G10? From what I’ve seen the S90 has slightly better IQ, but comes in a smaller package.

      Stay tuned for Part 2 of the review tomorrow; as a manual focuser, you’ll appreciate what I’ve done 🙂

      • Adobe’s latest RAW converters (incl. Lightroom 2.6, available today) support the S90, though I’m guessing they don’t do the distortion correction yet. I hope you find me wrong about that.

        • Indeed, they released the update yesterday, and I’ve read that ACR corrects distortion, but haven’t installed it yet so cannot comment on that.

          UPDATE: I’m not getting distortion correction in ACR, nor any of the other “lens aberration” corrections offered in DPP (lens distortion, chromatic aberration, vignetting and color blur). Chromatic aberration and color blur together did a great job of getting rid of blue fringes (better than ACR’s lens corrections), while lens distortion took care of that unsightly barrel distortion. They need to be supported by ACR.

  8. Thanks for your review. Some good info here that is useful. I have recently purchased a S90 as a constant companion, and for my blog, replacing my 10 year old 2 MP Canon Digital Elph (I also have a DSLR that always seems a chore to carry). The S90 is a delight and I am very pleased with the results although still exploring the possibilities.

  9. Nice review.

    I don’t get any lint. Maybe it depends on the type of pants.

    OK, you plugged your review on my blog, here I am reversing it. 🙂

    Oooh, ooh: I have a “street photography mode” post about the S90 here.

    (And finally a little more data and pics here.)

    • Hey Eolake, I wouldn’t comment (ahem, plug) on your blog if I didn’t like it, and you 🙂 Do plug away, the more info people have, the better.

      That Custom mode is useful, isn’t it? I have it set to Street Mode too.

  10. Hi, Thanks for the Great! Review.

    I came here because of your hyperfocal distance stuff, so I read part 2 before part 1. Just like Desert first, it was most satisfying. I really agree a quick Hyperfocal distance setting would be awesome. Seems like this could also enhance Quick-Shot. Canon, firmware update for this one please.

    This is an excellent overview of the camera, I’ve had mine for a week, but not much time to use it. I really find the quality of the rear wheel disapointing, and given the solid feel of the lens control ring and the mode dial I find it quite confusing; my rear dial can turn just as I rotate the camera to view a vertical image only to find it has advanced me to the previous image. I’m working on different hold grips right now, but I’ll be moding that dial some how I’m pretty sure.

    I used the egrips sticky grip stiff on the camera in a few places for improved handling. The metal grip add on is something I might purchase as well, but right now egrips works.

    Aside from the rear dial my gripes are the zoom switch, don’t like it but it would be WAY BETTER if the zoon setting was on the LCD. Manual zoom with the ring is nice, but why does it have less settings? Like you mention at least it then prints the setting. Program/Exposure-Shift should be WAY easier to a access, especially in P mode. I could not seem to get accurate enough MF, but I need to test it more.

    For the size I’m happy to work with it a while longer and get it customized for me.

    Thanks for taking the time to test and write about all this stuff.


    • Jake, I’ve seen a few people add tape to the edges of the wheel in order to increase friction. You’re not alone 😀

      • Hi,
        I’ve thought about tape, but I’m trying to see if I can find something a little better for the this application. I’ll have to do something soon though.

        Speaking of tape, since you showed where there was a problem with the fit of the battery door letting dust in, I checked mine with various paper widths and concluded that yes this could be improved. I added a properly trimmed piece of clear postal tape to the camera body in that area completely invisible when closed, almost invisible when open, absolutely no interference with the door opening or closing, and sealed tight when closed. I was also concered with moisture so I wanted to seal it asap. Thanks for the alert.

  11. Hi Miserere,
    Your review is very helpful (precise and to the point). I am planning to buy a digital camera (pocket size). I need your opinion as to which one should i choose and why among Canon S90, Panasonic Lumix LX-3 & Panasonic Leica D-LUX 4.
    Picture Quality is primary and price is not an issue. Video is not important.
    Thank You!

    • Rahul,

      I would never buy the Leica, simply because it’s 99.99% the same as the LX3, yet costs twice as much. I don’t condone getting ripped off and I hate sales people thinking I am stupid.

      So, the choice is between the LX3 and the S90. Not having used the LX3, the most I can advise you is to look at the focal lengths you use the most, as I think this is the biggest difference. Both cameras are similar at the wide end, but the LX3 goes only to 60mm-equiv (at f/2.8) while the S90 goes out to 105mm-equiv (and is f/3.5 at 60mm-equiv, which is 2/3 stop slower than the LX3). The other question concerns the hotshoe; if you want one, only the LX3 has it. As far as IQ is concerned, given the samples I’ve seen online, I’d say both are superb for their size, so you can’t go wrong with either. If you decide on the LX3, good luck finding one in stock! 🙂

      • Thank You for the reply Miserere. It helped me make decision to buy the correct camera. I bought the LX3 which was the sensible choice. Except the zooming capability, i would say LX3 is far superior than the S90. I was lucky to find one at a bargain price with ready availability. I am happy for buying the LX3.

        Thank You again for the guidance.

  12. I just got the S90 today and came across your site after searching how to shoot RAW in Auto mode. Yeah, I don’t get why it’s not an option. The Auto mode does a really good job at getting quick good looking shots. Why not have RAW on it?

  13. “I read that the S90’s barrel distortion is automatically removed by cameras software, or the supplied RAW converter; I’m then surprised you were able to see any.”

    You can’t *remove* barrel distortion electronically, all you can do is distort the image the other way. In doing so you will introduce some other damage to the image. It’s so much better to use a lens that doesn’t distort in the first place.

  14. How does the S90 compare with the much more expensive Lumix GF1? I am looking for a P&S that gives me enough manual control. Are there other P&S that would compare favorably with the S90?


  15. Thanks for taking the time for your opinion of the s90, since I am considering purchasing one. Seems to possess some quirks that will drive me crazy with spinning wheels which may nix the deal for me.
    You mention and provide a photo of lint in the battery compartment.
    I have a black neoprene “glove” for my Canon sd700is from at It is a fabulous product that provides a safe and secure grip and protects the camera from scratches and dust entering the battery/card compartment. I just checked my sd700 and there was none.
    They don’t list the glove itself, so I am not sure if they still offer them. Perhaps an in depth googling will reveal a source.
    BTW, stabilisation is spelled stabilization. Thank god for spell check in word & gmial!
    Steve, in chilly, snowy Chicago, near the Red line.

    • Steverino wrote: BTW, stabilisation is spelled stabilization.

      Ha ha ha, only if you’re American. Back in the UK we spell it with an S 😛

      That “glove” you mention isn’t something I would like. I had something similar for my BlackBerry but had to take it off because it added extra traction which made it difficult to take out of (and put in) trouser pockets.

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