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Canon PowerShot S90 Review

A guest Review of the Canon PowerShot S90 by Patrick Dean from NeutralDay.com.

canon-s90-front-view.jpgThe Canon PowerShot S90 takes the helm as the latest and greatest from the PowerShot “S” series of digital compact cameras, and does so with a bevy of photographer friendly specifications.

Featuring a 10 megapixel sensor, DIGIC IV processing, and a fast f/2 lens, Canon has placed an emphasis on a typical compact camera weakness, low light photography, while at the same time offering full manual shooting controls, a large 3 inch LCD, and an innovative control ring that emulates an analog experience. In short, the S90 appears perfectly designed to please photographic enthusiasts.

Highlights

canon-s90-views.jpg

10.0 Megapixel, 1/1.7-inch CCD Sensor: Combined with the S90’s DIGIC IV processing, the 10 megapixel sensor forms the heart of what Canon dubs the “High Sensitivity System”, offering improved low light performance and minimal noise. This is the same sensor found in Canon’s flagship PowerShot, the G11.

3.8x Zoom Lens (f/2-f4.9, 28-105mm): The S90 offers decent wide-angle coverage at 28mm with a fast f/2 aperture. This means improved performance in lower light, and shallow depth of field effects.

RAW and RAW+JPEG Shooting: The S90 allows photographers to capture RAW images for improved post-processing.

3 Inch, 461K LCD Display: The large display is bright with ample clarity for capturing and reviewing images. It features Canon’s “PureColor” system that enhances viewing angles, while multiple coatings improve resistance to dust and scratches.

Customizable Control Ring
: The bezel around the lens is actually a “Control Ring” which can be set up by the user to manipulate ISO, white balance, focal length, and more.

In The Hands

canon-s90-overview.jpg

Offered only in matte black, the PowerShot S90 is small camera, with simple, yet classic good looks. Less than an inch wide, the S90 easily fits into most pants pockets, and certainly fits comfortably in a jacket pocket or purse. Overall build quality is pretty good, with nice tight seams and a minimal of “flex”. I quite like the slim styling, but it does mean consumers will have to do without any sort of grip. Fortunately the S90 is light enough to handle with ease and the buttons on the back, along with the shooting mode dial’s protrusion, do sort of give the thumb something to hold on to. Since the large 3 inch LCD occupies so much space on the rear, camera buttons are small, and can be on occasion, accidentally pressed. By far the worst aspect to the S90’s design is the dial that surrounds its d-pad. It simply spins too freely, giving a distinct sense of lack of precision. While it does get the job done, it would be tremendously improved by the simple addition of a “clicking” type action.

In Use

Exposure: 0.04 sec (1/25) | Aperture: f/2.0 | Focal Length: 28mm | ISO Speed: 100 | Exposure Bias: -1/3 EV

Exposure: 0.04 sec (1/25) | Aperture: f/2.0 | Focal Length: 28mm | ISO Speed: 100 | Exposure Bias: -1/3 EV

Set to “Auto”, using the S90 is a simple affair with near instant startup times, and responsive AF performance, even in very low light. This smart auto mode uses scene detection to determine the appropriate camera settings without any input from the user. Of course like any good PowerShot, the S90 offers a healthy supply of shooting modes for specific situations and environments like “Landscape”, “Portrait”, “Fireworks”, and “Snow”. Further it allows enthusiasts to take additional creative control with Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual modes. Camera settings are easily changed via the wisely chosen dedicated buttons, or by pressing the d-pad’s centered Function/Set button which reveals a menu with access to camera settings like ISO, white balance, and exposure compensation. Options are indicated with large, easy to read icons, further enhanced with descriptive text. A dedicated Shortcut button is even provided for users to assign their favorite settings.

When it comes to composing photos, the S90 provides several different views to aid in the process, from totally unobstructed, to grid overlays and live histograms. Focusing is accomplished from a point in the center of the frame, and while the point can be enlarged, it can’t be moved. That said, if the default AF mode isn’t up to the task, the S90 provides a manual AF mode, which displays a zoomed in view of your subject to aid in acquiring focus, and it works surprisingly well. Also, for close up work, users can choose the Macro AF option that allows for focusing to happen just inches away from your subject.

Finally, I have to offer some praise for Canon’s innovative Control Ring. With its own dedicated button atop the camera, users can quickly set the Control Ring to a number of settings, like aperture, or intuitively, focal distance. Cleverly, the Control Ring comes into play elsewhere, for example in the Nostalgic shooting mode, the Control Ring is used to progressively adjust the strength of the filter’s effect. Due to the S90’s small size, the Control Ring at times can be awkward to turn, but I still very much liked this novel and well implemented approach.

If there’s fault to find in the S90’s performance, it would be its average continuous shooting speed. A number of compacts offer faster continuous shooting speeds and even special “burst” shooting modes. The S90 takes a more leisurely pace, a distinctly average .9 fps. I’m not terribly upset by it, but some consumers will have higher expectations from a camera in this price range.

Image Quality

Exposure: 0.003 sec (1/320) | Aperture: f/2.8 | Focal Length: 28mm | ISO Speed: 400 | Exposure Bias: +1/3 EV

Exposure: 0.003 sec (1/320) | Aperture: f/2.8 | Focal Length: 28mm | ISO Speed: 400 | Exposure Bias: +1/3 EV

The real appeal of the PowerShot S90 for enthusiasts will clearly be its image quality. A distinct step above nearly all other small sensor compacts, the S90 provides surprisingly good low-noise files up to and including ISO 800. After ISO 800, detail begins to suffer due to in-camera noise reduction, but I was surprised at how good ISO 1600 looked. Also, as I mentioned above, the S90 has a special Low Light mode, but these lower resolution files are far less pleasing on a pixel peeping level, especially at this mode’s highest ISO level, ISO 12,800.

canon-s90-iso-source.jpg

canon-s90-iso-samples.jpg

RAW and JPEG files pulled from the S90 and viewed in either Adobe’s Lightroom or Canon’s Digital Photo Professional (included) show ample detail and pleasing color, and thanks to Canon’s i-Contrast, above average (for a compact) dynamic range. However, like many compacts, the S90 struggles to resolve the finest details, especially when further away in the picture plane. Visual flaws include frequent purple fringing and some slight distortion at the wider end of the lens. All in all though, the S90’s image quality ranks amongst the best in the compact class, and for some photographers, it will be impressive enough to leave their DSLR at home on less critical outings.

Conclusion

Exposure: 0.006 sec (1/160) | Aperture: f/3.5 | Focal Length: 60mm | ISO Speed: 800 | Exposure Bias: 0 EV

Exposure: 0.006 sec (1/160) | Aperture: f/3.5 | Focal Length: 60mm | ISO Speed: 800 | Exposure Bias: 0 EV

With its impressive image quality, all around superb performance, and sleek good looks, the Canon PowerShot S90 should be at the top of any photographic enthusiast’s wish list. While I tend to be quite reserved in my praise for compact cameras, largely on the basis of image quality, I was easily impressed by the S90. There’s something quite appealing about a camera that fits into your breast pocket, that can achieve attractive shallow depth of field effects, and can be counted on in challenging light conditions, even if that means using the camera at ISO 1600. But of course, that’s exactly what the S90 offers, and which few others can. The S90 is almost perfect, only the lack of HD video recording, and faster continuous shooting speed really keep it from that description. Outside of that, the S90 comes so close, we can’t help but to “Highly Recommend” it.

Availability

Canon PowerShot S90 Digital Camera

Additional Samples

Exposure: 0.025 sec (1/40) | Aperture: f/4.0 |Focal Length: 70mm | ISO Speed: 200 | Exposure Bias: +1/3 EV

Exposure: 0.025 sec (1/40) | Aperture: f/4.0 |Focal Length: 70mm | ISO Speed: 200 | Exposure Bias: +1/3 EV

Exposure: 0.4 | Aperture: f/7.1 | Focal Length: 28 mm | ISO Speed: 80 | Exposure Bias: -1 EV

Exposure: 0.4 | Aperture: f/7.1 | Focal Length: 28 mm | ISO Speed: 80 | Exposure Bias: -1 EV

About the Author: Patrick Dean is the editor of the photography news and review website, NeutralDay.com. He also frequently tweets at twitter.com/neutralday.

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