Grant McWilliams

Photography S90 Review

S90 Review

After months (no years) of debate trying to find my perfect point and shoot camera that was good enough to be my only camera I bought a Canon S90. I thought since I've now been using it for several months I'd post a review of what I thought.

The choice really came down to the Panasonic LX3, Canon G11 and Canon S90. The G11 was knocked out in the first round because it really doesn't do anything more than the S90 and is larger and heavier. It's lens has a bit more reach but it gives up low light performance (f2.8 vs f2.0 for the S90) in the process. It has a hot shoe and even though that tempted me with buying the G7 I never ever used it. The deciding factor was that the S90 fits in my pocked comfortably and the G11 never will (nor did my G7 because of weight). The real comparison came down to the Panasonic LX3 and the Canon S90.

The real draw to the LX3 was that it has amazing low light performance. To be honest at ISO 80 and lots of light you can take great photos with a point and shoot as long as you have some manual control. At ISO 400 things change and the point and shoots are just about done. By ISO 800 you start throwing away photos but a DSLR is just getting started. The draw of having great low light performance almost made me choose the LX3 before the S90 came out. The biggest reason I didn't was that the LX3 has no lens! OK, it has a lens but what good is a 60mm reach? That's not a zoom lens, thats a "bring it in to normal field of view" lens. I was really hoping for at least a 2x - 3x zoom so I held off. When DPreviews did their premium point and shoot comparison and the S90 proved to have better low light performance and a 28-105 f2.0 lens I bought one. Now that Canon smacked Panasonic up side the head I see that Panasonic is coming out with an LX5 (what happened to the LX4?) with a longer reaching lens and a control ring, the two things that Canon has that Panasonic really needs. It looks like though they're trying to get even rather than leap frog Canon. Before I go on I will just mention just for the record that the Pansonic movie mode creams Canon. So on with the review.

 

I started out with a Canon S230, then upgraded to a Canon SD500, then a Canon G7, then a Canon SD870 and now the Canon S90 so it's safe to say I can compare apples to apples since they're all the same brand. The S230 was purchased based on reviews, the SD500 got me 7MP and longer videos (with a large sensor for a P&S). The G7 was my first purchase with the intention of going up market. It had full manual control, lots of physical dials, optical image stabilization and a bigger lens. I bought the giant wide angle lens and then after taking two trips with the G7 I dropped it (lightly) in front of the Space Needle and it's never worked since. Canon says they can fix it for $135 or give me $275 trade in on a G11. The SD870 came along because it got me optical image stabilization and wide angle in a small body and has served me well. Even though the sensor got smaller the images got a bit cleaner than the SD500 which wasn't expected. The SD870 is basically a combination of the SD500/G7 combo without the full manual controls. What about the S90 then you're screaming at this point? I'm going to say this once - the Canon S90 is the single largest improvement in Point and Shoot digital cameras that I've ever seen. Bold statement indeed. Let me tell you why.

Most of the bad press that the S90 has gotten has been aimed squarly at ergonomics so I'm going to address that last. The good thing about the S90 is that it takes great photos at ISO 80 like any P&S camera. An even better thing is that it takes great photos at low light levels. I take a lot of photos in restaurants of food and my kids have just gotten used to ignoring the flash going off. Now I take photos in restaurants and nobody notices! That's right flashless photography in rooms with very little light. This has transformed my photography. I can now take photos of people, food and more without disturbing anyone. I can now take out my camera in a restaurant, point, press the shutter button and the photo turns out and nobodies the wiser!

If you doubt me check out Ken Rockwell's photos he took. Also might as well read his review while you're there.

So check out his review for more. I'm not quite so "OMG" about the S90 but I am very impressed with it's abilities and Ken knows way more than I so maybe I should be.

The good points of the S90 as I see them (in order of preference)

  1. Small and light like my previous pocketable cameras

  2. Amazing low light performance from a P&S

  3. Very fast lens on the short end, not horrible on the long end

  4. Control rings, control rings, Custom function set setting and programmable button! More later

  5. Large, high resolution LCD screen

  6. Decent zoom

Those of you who know me know that I agonize over number 1. I stopped taking photos with my SLR because it's impractical in size and cost. I started again when digital cameras came out and I got good enough for me to put in my pocket. If I don't have it on me I won't take pictures with it, if it's large enough or heavy enough that I have to think about it I probably won't have it on me. Probably not fair but it's number 1 for a reason.

Since I've already talked about number 2 and 3 I'd like to talk about number 4 for a second. One of the reasons I've bought a lot of Canon cameras because unlike other manufactures their menus are actually usable. A friend had a Pentax (I'm a long time Pentax SLR user) and it honestly took me about 15 minutes to figure out how to change the exposure settings and once I'd figured it out I forgot it. For a setting that I use virtually every time I take a photo this shouldn't be buried in the menus! With the S90 I assign it to the ring on the back. While holding it with one hand I can spin the dial and adjust the exposure on the fly. I don't use the ring on the front unless I'm in manual mode. Curiously I can assign Aperature to the ring around the lens and Shutter Speed to the ring on the back. Wow, that sounds familiar to how I used to shoot with the SLR.

The programmable button allows me to assign one thing to a button on the back but because it doesn't allow me to choose anything I'm not using it much. A couple of the useful things you can assign to it are ISO Speed, White Balance, AE Lock, AF Lock and Display Off. I currently have it set to AE Lock. You can also set up a custom menu but I can't have my custom button display the custom menu so once again I'm not using it much. If they allowed this it would put the 2 or 3 things I really need access to and allow me to bring them up with the touch of a button. See number 4 on my list of bad points below.

There's also a Custom setting on the shooting mode dial where I can configure my own shooting mode but I've never played with it yet. According to the manual you can assign the shooting modes (including manual), the items set in each shooting mode, items in the shooting menu, zoom position, manual focus position and anything in the "My Menu" to this custom shooting mode. Interesting, I'll be playing with this in the future.

All said and done I think Canon has revolutionized the "usability aspect" of P&S cameras. Not only do I have full manual controls but I have access to them. The G7 gave me this but in a 1lb package that barely fit in my pocket.  The S90 gives me this in a 6 oz package that I barely notice.

The bad points of the S90 as I see them (in order of badness)

  1. Slippery as heck and there's no grip

  2. Rear control ring spins way too easy

  3. On/Off button almost impossible to press when shooting one handed

  4. Can't program anything to the programmable button

  5. Movie mode isn't much to write home about

  6. Lens could be a bit longer and definitely faster on the long end

  7. Other strange ergonomic issues

 

Notice that virtually all the complaints in the media about the S90 have had to do with ergonomics. I concur so I'll talk about 1, 2, 3 and 7. The finish on the S90 is a sort of painted/splattered matte black that's a bit slippery. Maybe I only notice that because it has no grip. This situation can be greatly improved by buying Richard Franiec's grip for the S90. On good advice I bought the grip before I bought the camera. I'm not 100% satisfied with the grip as I think it needs to be a bit taller by a couple of millimeters. I probably could have just mounted it a few mm higher and I'd be happy even if it looked a bit weird. With the grip you'll notice that number 2 is a smaller problem because you're no longer struggling to grasp the camera by holding onto anything including the rear control wheel. I still move it on occasion but I've become accustomed to just double checking my exposure when I shoot. I assigned exposure to it because I adjust it for about every shot anyway. This doesn't mean I'm letting Canon off the hook but there is a solution. I think Canon should be giving us a grip and the "pad" next to the Shooting Mode dial at the top right corner of the LCD screen needs to be larger for my thumb.

While I'm attacking number 7 I'll add that the shutter button is excellently placed but way too small. The Shooting mode dial is perfect but the on/off switch (number 3) is placed in a manner that you'd think someone at Canon was on crack or they tested with monkeys. The ring function button is where you'd expect the power button to be but since you will probably only change the ring function once (or once in a while) it makes no sense. I like to reach in my pocket, pull my camera out, turn it on and take a photo all with my right hand. Had the Ring Function button been the Power Button I could do this but since I'm not a monkey with 6 inch fingers I need two hands to turn on my camera. Shame on Canon for using animals for testing.

Number 4 is only a problem because it's botched. On other cameras that don't have a programmable button I'd not dock them points for having a bad one would I? Maybe I need to give them a little slack over it then but they came so close.. Since I have a programmable menu where I can hide a few functions that I use often and I have a programmable button doesn't it make sense that one of the things the programmable button should do is allow me to pull up my programmable menu? I think so.

Number 5 is, well unfortunate. In all reality NTSC video is perfectly fine as we've been watching it for 60 years, our DVDs still come in it and our movies in the theater are very near it. Granted it is VGA resolution but those are very fine hairs to split. However, with the advent of everything widescreen I think having a "widescreen VGA" video mode would be more advantageous than an HD video mode. I don't see not having HD video as a downfall but this does show that Canon's hardware and software has fallen behind the times as they've realized that they just can't push bigger video with these chips. With the G7 they did a 1024x768 video mode but only at 15 fps so nobody used it. This tells me there just wasn't the bandwidth to push HD. Nobody at Canon is saying "You know, I think this HD fad will just blow over so let's stick with SD". Again I don't think HD is that big of a deal as the biggest improvements to video Canon can make is:

  • allow me to zoom optically while filming

  • really use h.264 for compression so videos are more compact

  • widescreen

  • allow videos longer than 40 minutes

The first one is the biggie. My Canon HF200 allows me to zoom smoothly during a video which is awesome. My biggest complaint about videoing with a P&S is that the controls are very crude. The problem with past Canon cameras was they used mjpeg for video which made very large videos. My Sanyo E1 uses h.264 and I can get about 1.25 hrs per GB of storage space. My old Canon's used mjpeg and I get about 10 minutes per GB of storage space. The S90 uses h.264 and I get about 12 minutes per GB of storage space. What? Not sure how they're doing that but it doesn't sound right.

Lastly number 5 is more of a nitpick. If I lived in a perfect world where the hills rolled and were covered with sunflowers I'd want more zoom and I'd want it to be faster on the long end. This would necessitate a bigger lens though unfortunately.

Conclusion

This is an amazing camera and has gotten closer to my perfect ideal than any other camera to date. Maybe the Panasonic LX5 will equal it but I'm happy so far. If you buy the grip for it I think you'll be very happy with the output. The ergonomic issues can be lived with.

Usually I recommend a bevy of addons for a device but in this case you only need a decent sized SDHC card and Richard's Grip. You may want to pick up an extra battery or two just as backups. The battery life is very good and I rarely have to swap during the day bu