Happy New Year 2010!

Posted in General with tags , on Friday, January 1, 2010 by Miserere

by Miserere

  

Sorry for the recent silence on EtL; I’ve been away visiting family, being ill, and generally not doing much Photography. But I’ll take spending quality time with my parents over Photography any day, especially when I only see them 1-2 times a year.

I am now back home, jetlagged, and wondering how I’m still awake at 00:05 on January 1st, 2010 πŸ™‚

The party calls, so I will just leave you with a simple

  

!!!!!!!! HAPPY NEW YEAR !!!!!!!!

  

Given how this planet of ours rotates, for some this is old news, while for others the New Year is still to come. Whatever the case may be for you, I wish that 2010 brings you everything you deserve πŸ˜‰

Happy Birthday, EtL!

Posted in Editorial with tags , , on Saturday, December 19, 2009 by Miserere

by Miserere

  

Oh…how time flies…they grow up so quickly… Yes, gang, EtL is 1 year old today!

The statistics on blogs are not very optimistic, with some sources stating that 60-80% of blogs are abandoned within the first month. Looks like I beat the odds—and that always feels good.

During this year we’ve published 152 posts and received over 156,000 visits, with readers leaving 1,065 comments (OK, I’ll admit, some of those are mine). I’ve written some comedy, conducted interviews, philosophised about Photography and given you my opinion on interesting technology being introduced; I also pointed you towards interesting blogs and photographers I chanced upon during my web travels. Of course, I showcased some of my own Photography every now and then, lest you think I’m all talk and no click. Peter Zack wrote some great tutorials and thinking pieces for us all, and Sean Leahy took us behind the scenes at Grand Central Terminal.

Our busiest day, with 3,784 visits, was Thursday, September 10, 2009. Curiously, no article was published that week. The most viewed post was Peter Zack’s The Most Important Images of the Last 100 Years, with almost 11,000 visits, followed by my Canon S90 review, Part 1, with some 8,500 visits.

In this coming year I would like to interview more photographers—I think we can all learn much from them. I want Peter to share more of his knowledge with us. After Sean’s contribution, I would like to publish other people’s adventures with Photography, so if you have a story to tell, please e-mail me and we’ll see if it can get published.

But most of all, I hope that you guys keep coming back to enjoy what we have to offer at EtL. If you have requests, let me know! I’m all ears (or eyes, if you write me).

So here’s to another year full of ideas, Photography and laughter.

Cheers!

  

  –Miserere

  

PS: If you’re wondering what my first (real) post was, see here. And the very first post of all time, the introduction, can be found here.

Some Canon S90 Sample Shots

Posted in Cameras, Miserere's Photos, Photos with tags , , , on Wednesday, December 16, 2009 by Miserere

by Miserere

  

As some of you may have noticed, I bought a Canon S90 a couple of months ago and have been putting it through its paces during this time. While the reviews showed photos taken mostly for the purposes of testing the camera, the fact is I bought the S90 to take real photographs with.

Below I’m posting some “real” photos for your enjoyment (click for larger versions). If you would like to see more, you can check out my Canon S90 Gallery.

When I view these photos, varied in style as they are, I see a clear similarity between them: The only reason they exist is because I had the camera in my pocket. For only two of them did I also have my DSLR with me, but packed away in my backpack, whence it was unlikely to come out to take either of those two photos. So thanks to my new pocketcam, I have a handful of photos I wouldn’t otherwise have taken. No, the S90 isn’t perfect, but it’s proving to be extremely useful nonetheless, proving once again that, more often than not, the best camera is the one you have with you.

  

  

  

  

  

  

Review – Canon S90, Part 3: Image Quality

Posted in Cameras, Reviews with tags , , , , on Wednesday, December 9, 2009 by Miserere

by Miserere

  

⇐ Part 2: Using the Camera

  

Any engineer will tell you that all technical designs are a study in compromise, and this is palpably, and visually, true for cameras. We can cry out for tiny cameras as much as we like, but we’ll have to pay a price in image quality (IQ)—there is no way around that. So while the S90 is pocketable, is its IQ good enough that you will actually want to put it in your pocket? For those of you who don’t want to read the rest of this article, here is my answer: Yes. For those who don’t just want to take my word for it (and you shouldn’t), keep on reading.

  

The Trials and Tribulations of a Small Sensor

The S90’s 1/1.7″ sensor has a surface area of 43.3 mm2, by comparison an APS-C sensor has an area of about 385 mm2 and a full-frame of 864 mm2. Despite this huge difference in area, the S90 produces good images with pleasing colours. Where I’ve found the S90 to lag is in sharpness, with images having the typical telltale, mushy feel of a P&S camera. I can recover some detail with judicious sharpening, but I’ve found I need to pay a lot more attention and work harder with the sharpening than I need to with my DSLR. Happily, Canon decided to scale back and only crammed 10MP into this little sensor, but the pixels are still much smaller, and thus noisier, than those in a DSLR. Another issue with small sensors is achieving the wide angle FoV, especially with zoom lenses; in most cases wide angles will exhibit noticeable barrel distortion. This can be corrected in postprocessing, and I’ll be taking a look at how well the S90 files cope with this.

  

Dynamic Range

No lab tests here, just some good old-fashioned real-world photography. Exhibit A: Bright, sunlit buildings (which are actually misshaped, that’s not lens distortion) with shade in front. The sky is nice and bright, as are the lit parts of the buildings, yet there’s plenty of detail in the shadowed area. Honestly, this is all I need to know.

  

The S90 at Low ISO

I will not be publishing 100% crops at various ISOs, as those can be found elsewhere on the internet (for example, at the Imaging Resource S90 samples page). Mine will be more of a qualitative comment on low ISO performance. OK, here it goes…

It’s very good. At the very least, it’s good enough. Good enough for what? Good enough for me.

Seriously, I don’t know what else I can say. Search on Flickr and you’ll find almost 4,000 photos tagged with S90, take a look and see what you think. Colours are nice, JPEGs are sharp, RAWs are a bit soft (so you can apply your own sharpening to taste) and life is generally good. Granted, it’s a P&S, so you shouldn’t compare it to a DSLR (not that that’s stopped some people), but I don’t see a difference in web-sized images. There are differences at the pixel level, but I suspect these won’t translate to differences visible in 8×10 prints. In fact, I plan to test this in the near future to see if it’s true&mdasg;I’ll keep you posted.

Here’s a snapshot at ISO 80, 40mm-equiv., f/5.6, and pretty much auto everything else. I shot in RAW and converted with ACR, but I only applied my standard S90 settings to the image, meaning it looks quite close to how the camera-made JPEG would have looked. I love the sky, which really was that blue.

For all the pixel-peepers out there, I’m also including a 100% crop for your viewing pleasure. I didn’t perform any special sharpening, which I normally would if I were cropping an image this much (like my white squirrel). Some may have noticed that the tones of blue in the sky don’t transition smoothly. Welcome to the world of small sensors (although DSLRs can also render tonal gradients in this way). I don’t think this would be a problem in a print.

Here’s another pic at ISO 80 showing pleasing colours (shot at the long end, wide open):

  

The S90 at High ISO

Now things begin to get interesting! A P&S claiming 3200 as its maximum ISO has some big proving to do. Again, if scene comparisons is what you want, please go to the Imaging Resource S90 samples page. What I’m going to do here is show you a scene at ISO 1600 in 3 different versions: as it came out of camera via the JPEG engine, as a RAW processed with DPP, and as a RAW processed with ACR. Instead of showing 100% crops, you can just take a look at the full-res images by clicking on the thumbnails below.

  

ISO 1600 comparison for the Canon S90
Direct from camera Processed with DPP Processed with ACR

There are clear differences: The out-of-camera JPEG shows the least amount of chroma noise, yet there is little detail left and the colours are dull; the DPP-processed image (with automatically chosen noise reduction settings) shows slightly more detail and is less washed out, but the colours are still dull; finally, the ACR-processed image (with no real noise reduction) is clearly noisier, yet the colours are truer to life and there is a bit more detail. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, so pick your poison: dull, featureless, noiseless images, or vibrant, slightly-more-detailed, noisy ones. It’s your choice! If you plan to use external noise reduction software, shooting RAW is definitely the best option; if you process with DPP, don’t forget to turn off noise reduction before exporting to your preferred noise reduction program.

I (and Canon) consider high ISO to start at 800, so let’s see what the S90 can do at that sensitivity. Enter the surprised squirrel. Shot at ISO 800, 105mm-equiv. f/4.9, 1/100s (and slightly cropped, I confess):

Let’s satisfy our innermost pixel-peeping urges and look at a 100% crop (feel free to click to enlarge):

I added a touch of sharpening to improve the squirrelness. This is not a great image, but it’s not that bad either, bearing in mind it’s from a P&S with the lens wide open and at ISO 800.

Final verdict: The S90’s high ISO capabilities are impressive for a P&S. No, it’s not as good as a DSLR, but we shouldn’t be comparing it to one (although some people do). That said, it was only a few years ago that DSLRs had similar high ISO performance, so I’m happy to see this good behaviour in a P&S. If you’re wondering why I didn’t show an ISO 3200 shot, it’s because it’s one stop worse than ISO 1600, and if you use it, to so at your own risk and don’t come crying to me if your pictures have no detail.

Oh what the hell, here’s a sample at ISO 3200. I’m only posting it at websize, though. Processed via ACR with Chroma and Luminance noise reduction added to taste.

  

Long Exposures

I only had one real opportunity to test this out, so bear with me. Here are 3 examples; click on them for the full size.

  

Canon S90 long exposure test
1.6 s 5 s 15 s

They look fine to me, which makes me wonder why Canon were afraid to add a bulb shooting mode (or exposures longer than 15s). I mean, that’s why they didn’t give the S90 a bulb mode, cos they were afraid. Right…? Add this to the list of things that baffle me about this camera. And yes, I understand that to add a bulb mode would have meant adding a connector for a cable release…but this wouldn’t have been a bad thing to begin with.

  

Geometric Distortion

Let’s not beat around the bush: The lens on the S90 provides a healthy dose of barrel distortion at all focal lengths, although it is worse at 28mm-equiv. It seems the camera’s firmware corrects some of it in-camera, and I say “it seems” because I have not been able to find any official confirmation of this fact. Tom Niemann, creator of the PTLens software tells me the RAW files don’t have quite as much correction as the JPEGs out of camera, which means the camera must be performing some type of correction. And speaking of PTLens, I contacted Tom about adding the S90 to his list of supported cameras and he was most gracious. He sent me instructions on what photographs I should take with the S90, and after I sent him the files, he calculated the correction parameters from them and created a profile for the S90. I have been using PTLens for over 2 years and am very happy with it; and at $25 it is one of the cheapest programs (or Photoshop plug-ins) available. You can download a trial version here.

  

Distortion correction for the Canon S90
(colour differences are due to different settings on DPP)
Uncorrected Corrected with DPP Corrected with PTLens

Canon’s RAW converter, DPP, can also completely correct distortion. When using it early on (before Adobe released a profile for the S90’s RAW files) I did all distortion correction with DPP. Having compared it to PTLens, I see only a slight difference, with DPP correcting a bit more than PTLens. Forgive me, but I haven’t photographed graph paper to measure which correction is truer, but PTLens’s looks good enough to me, so that’s what I’ll be using. On the plus side, I have found no loss of detail in in-focus areas associated with the correction. I have, on some occasions, seen a slight loss of detail in out-of-focus areas in some images. I find this strange and cannot readily explain it, but because the difference occurs only occasionally, in a part of the image that is not as important, and the loss of detail is not great, I have not lost any sleep over it.

Because correcting distortion adds an extra step to my post-processing, I only apply it when absolutely necessary. I’ve found that in most cases the barrel distortion is either not noticeable, or not objectionable. Oh, and DPP can automatically correct vignetting too (although you have to tell it to do it), but PTLens requires manually selecting the parameters. If this statement seems like an afterthought, it’s because it is—I just haven’t found vignetting in the S90 to be a big deal.

The last issue associated with distortion correction via software is the reduction in the FoV. Because the image is “squeezed in” from the sides, the edges have to be cut off so as not to leave the photo with the shape of a bow-tie. From those of you expecting me to tell you how many degrees of FoV you lose at each focal length, I beg forgiveness—I had neither the time nor inclination to test this. To the eye, it doesn’t seem like much is lost, and if instead of 28mm-equiv. the wide end is 29mm-equiv., then so be it; I will add that to the list of compromises I am happy to make in order to have this camera in my pocket.

  

Macro

The S90 does macro at the wide end, which I find annoying. Macro reproduction is about 1:10; to obtain the same magnification with an APS-C DSLR you’d need a lens capable of 1:3 macro. I haven’t done any serious macro shooting, but here’s a flower at close to maximum magnification:

And (you guessed it), here’s a 100% crop:

Make your own mind up.

  

Lens Flare

Again, I was lazy. I just took 3 pics at different apertures shooting into the Sun. Click thumbnails for larger version and judge. I think flare control is very good, and I especially like those Sun spikes at f/8.

  

Canon S90 flare test
f/2.8 f/4 f/8

  

Chromatic Aberrations

You will have to forgive me here for not presenting some evidence for what I am about to say, but a) I simply do not have time right now as I’m travelling in 3 days, and b) The file I was going to use as an example I converted the CR2 to DNG, and then deleted it. You’ll just have to take my word on this. The S90 does quite well in dealing with CA, which I have managed to induce only in areas of very high contrast. It seems to favour blue or green fringing, which is much less unsightly than the purple variety. DPP does a wonderful job of dealing with it, although it’s not quite automatic and you have to play around with sliders to get the best result. ACR does not handle it quite as well, but is still acceptable. In general, I have not found CAs to be a problem, but do be careful of tree branches against cloudy skies.

  

RAW vs JPEG

I don’t want to get into a general debate about one shooting style vs the other, just give my opinions as they pertain to the S90. Those photographers who shoot straight JPEGs have nothing to worry about with this camera, whose JPEG engine works very well up to ISO 800 (in part aided by its superb auto white balance). From ISO 800 onwards the camera does a great job of killing noise, but at the expense of lost detail—for some this is not an issue, and at web viewing sizes there is little difference. If you can dial in the JPEG settings so that images come out with the colour, saturation and contrast you like, you’re good to go out of camera.

I shoot RAW, not because there’s better image quality to be obtained, but because there is more latitude when postprocessing images, which I regularly do. Most of my photography is in B&W, which involves a conversion with selective channel processing, not to mention highlight and/or shadow recovery—a RAW file fares much better under such assaults. If all I did in postprocessing was bump up the contrast and maybe add a bit of sharpening, I would shoot JPEG without a doubt.

  

Conclusion

No camera is perfect, and the S90 is as far from it as the best of them, yet it is still eminently useful. I will not be returning it nor selling it off, and I foresee it giving me a few good years of use as a pocket cam. I Despite its drawbacks, none of them make me feel like I’m fighting the camera every time I take a photograph. As I’ve grown used to it during these past weeks I have figured out a workflow to photographing with it that I’m happy with and seems to give me the results I want. I’m still learning the ropes when it comes to postprocessing (it was only admitted into the Adobe stable of supported cameras some 3 weeks ago) but so far I am happy with the IQ I can extract from the RAW files.

As far as the user experience goes, I find the camera user-friendly, and what’s more important, photographer friendly. I have larger than average hands yet can handle the camera just fine. Having the shutter button so far into the top plate took some time getting used to, but now it’s a non-issue, as is the rear control wheel that is annoying so many other people—it just depends on how you hold the camera. As for another requirement of the forum brigade, autofocus speed, I don’t feel like I’m qualified to grade it, especially after reading the multitude of opinions on the autofocus speed of the Olympus E-P1. The S90’s autofocus speed is faster than I can focus manually, yet slower than a speeding bullet.

Will it make my DSLR obsolete? Absolutely not, but that’s not why I bought it. I wanted the best IQ I could carry everywhere in my trouser pocket, and the S90 is just that: The smallest compromise I could make in the smallest P&S I could find.

To end this 3-part review I want to list the pros and cons I find for the S90. Many of the cons could be easily fixed via firmware, and while I would love Canon to address them themselves (as I’m not the only one with similar complaints), I suspect the folks at CHDK will do it sooner (some hope here).

Pros:

  • Small, light and pocketable
  • Good JPEGs and RAW files (superb for a P&S)
  • Impressive high ISO performance for a P&S
  • Fast f/2 aperture at the wide end
  • Superb auto WB which can be manually fine-tuned
  • PASM shooting modes plus very useful Custom mode
  • Highly customisable buttons and dials (including lens ring) allowing direct or quick access to most important features (i.e., superb user interface)
  • Very fast start up time
  • Powerful, adjustable onboard flash
  • Accurate AF (with assist lamp in low light)
  • Can review images with camera turned off
  • Very nice, bright, crisp LCD screen that can be used in strong sunlight light

Cons:

  • Manual mode disables auto ISO (Canon, give us auto ISO in M mode!)
  • Manual focus offers a poor distance scale and no indication of depth of field
  • Manual focus mode “disappears” when camera goes into sleep mode
  • No hyperfocal focus mode
  • No way to turn off sleep mode
  • No RAW shooting in modes other than P, Av, Sv or M
  • The lens is very slow at the long end (f/4.9); if Canon could make it f/3.5, or even f/4, it would be so much better
  • One cannot customise the auto ISO range and the manual doesn’t even tell what the range is for each shooting mode/scene
  • No bulb mode (with 15s being the longest exposure available)
  • No cable nor IR remote release
  • No hotshoe (though not much of a problem for me)

The Cat that Fought Back

Posted in Cameras, General with tags , on Monday, December 7, 2009 by Miserere

by Miserere

  

A friend of mine believes that the Internet was invented for the sole purpose of allowing people to share cat photos. On Flickr there are over 3.2 million photos tagged with cat (although not all seem to be of the feline variety), while a Google Image search for the word cat returns almost 100 million hits. There are a lot of cat photos out there…and I wonder, do cats even like being photographed?

But now, one cat is fighting back, one cat is saying:

O yea? Wel nowz I teyk fotos of U.
Haw du u like dem apllez!?

Meet Cooper the Photographer Cat. Not only is he a handsome American Shorthair kitty, he also likes to take photos of his adventures in and around the Seattle neighbourhood where he lives with his two servants, Michael and Deirdre Cross.

How does he take photos, you ask? Good question! Cooper ordered Michael to provide him with a camera he could easily carry with him, yet adapted to his anatomical shortcomings (such as not having fingers). Michael, ever the faithful servant, commissioned a special little camera that Cooper could wear hanging from his neck and which would take a photo automatically every 2 minutes. Once a week, Michael puts the camera on Cooper and lets him roam the land, free to practice his Art.

You can see more of his photographs in his Flickr stream.

  

Philosophical Pondering

And speaking of Art, there are many who think one of the pillars of any artistic endeavour is Intention. That is, a photograph is only Art if the photographer intended it that way. So, for example, if I take a photograph of a dent in my car to send to my insurance company, that’s not Art; if, on the other hand, I set out on a walk with my camera and decide to take a nice photograph of the sunset over the hills, then it is Art. The question I pose to you, then, is this: Given the aesthetic merits of some of Cooper’s photographs (he’s had a gallery showing and is selling prints), can we consider them Art? And if we do, are we then saying that Cooper took them purposefully, and thus that he knew what he was doing?

As an aside, I hate to think of the legal ramifications of getting photographs of other people’s private lives through your pet.

All photos: Β©Cooper the Photographer Cat (published here without his written consent)

The Camera You Have With You: A White Squirrel

Posted in General, Miserere's Photos, Photos with tags , , on Saturday, December 5, 2009 by Miserere

by Miserere

  

As a card-carrying member (#249, Pentax chapter) of the Worldwide Squirrel Shooters Association, I am always on the lookout for a good squirrel photo opportunity. In general, one needs a fast DSLR with a relatively long lens for this endeavour (a 70-300mm zoom works well), but sometimes a chance encounter with a rare squirrel will have you shooting with whatever camera you may have, because a lousy photo is better than no photo at all.

Such was the encounter I had today. I was driving home early in the morning; it was cold but sunny, and I was in a rush to drop the car off at home before walking to work (I know this sounds backwards, but that’s my life). I had just turned into my street when I saw a white, fuzzy flash of fur cross the road. I looked to the pavement on my left, and right there, looking back at me with beady, red eyes, was a white squirrel. A white squirrel! Possibly the most prized photograph a member of the WSSA can take! I stopped the car immediately.

With trembling hands I took my Canon S90 from my jacket pocket and fumbled to turn it on. Alas, I was too slow, and sensing that she was in danger of being photographed, the white squirrel had fled through a hole in a fence. But I was not giving up! I parked the car and walked stealthily towards the fence; I could hear some rustling and the occasional flash of white in the bushes behind the fence. When I was some 5m away a sudden frenzy of shaking branches and the sound of little feet scampering announced the white squirrel’s departure. All was silent.

I reached the fence and peered over into a large garden with trees in the far side. Nothing moved, and there was no trace of the white squirrel, only the sound of far away traffic. I waited for a minute or so, camera ready and zoomed out to the max, set to Av and auto ISO; I was not going to miss again. And then I saw it. Sitting motionless atop a fence post, it had been there all along, yet remained invisible to my eyes. Not anymore.

I pointed the camera at it and took a few shots (the above is a resized JPEG straight from the camera). I wasn’t close enough for a high quality portrait, but I knew I at least had evidence of my encounter. All of a sudden a regular squirrel appeared in the branches above the white squirrel and started shrieking. The white squirrel shrieked back and scurried up the tree, possibly to claim it as her own. I snapped a few shots while this happened, then sensing it would not be leaving its tree nor coming any closer, I left it to its own devices, my mission accomplished.

As I walked to work a few minutes later I whistled a tune while admiring my catch on the rear LCD screen; I will even admit I skipped a little. It was a cold but sunny morning—and I had just photographed a white squirrel.

The image below is a 100% crop from the first frame, with a little bit of sharpening added.

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
Scene
Mode
Max. ISO Shooting
Mode
Max. ISO
Portrait 400 AUTO 1600
Landscape 400 P 1600
Night
Snapshot
1600 Tv 800
Kids/Pets 800 Av 800
Indoor 1600 M
Sunset 400 Low Light 12,800*
Sunset 400
Night
Scene
80
Fireworks 80
Beach 400
Underwater 800
Aquarium 1600
Foliage 400
Snow 400
Color
Accent
800
Color
Swap
800
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 Β±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).

  

Focusing

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 focusingβ€”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
File
Type
Focus
Mode
FPS
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
File
Type
ISO Delay Time
(s)
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 ⇒