Canon PowerShot S90 Review


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

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.



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


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.



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.


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.


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, He also frequently tweets at

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Some Older Comments

  • borFroreSoirm March 27, 2012 07:44 pm

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  • Dave Hodgkinson July 20, 2010 11:54 pm

    @aaron - my answer is "hell no". The full Auto mode and the "Scene" modes will get you well on the way. Once you're happy snapping with those (and understanding what they do for you) will then get you started with the Aperture, Shutter Speed and other option.

    When I'm "shooting from the hip" with the S90, it's what I'll use. If I have a few more moments to spare, then I'll set it up the way I want. Which will probably be not much better than the scene modes!

  • Aaron July 20, 2010 04:41 am

    Is there a base level of photograghy skill or experience needed with Canon's S90?

  • Canon S90 May 13, 2010 03:52 am

    Many pictures ! NICE !

  • Dave Hodgkinson April 22, 2010 10:29 pm

    Is anyone hitting problems with blown out reds? Am I doing it wrong?

  • Bobby G. Burns April 2, 2010 02:19 pm

    I bought the S90 Feb 2010. It's a nice camera but my only dissappointment is that it does'nt have a fill-flash setting for taking photos of people outdoors. For the price I can't believe Canon omitted this feature.

  • Mark March 23, 2010 01:02 pm

    The lack of HD video is a total deal breaker. Will have to wait until they upgrade this model.

  • ken February 20, 2010 11:45 am

    Thanks for the tip!!...I included a link on the flickr canon s90 forum!

  • Chris February 19, 2010 01:45 am

    @Fred Merrifield
    That's clever, I will have to try that.

  • Fred Merrifield February 18, 2010 04:45 am

    I fixed the rear dial looseness by insertering a 3/8" wide piece of bllack plastic electrical tape into the gap between the dial and case ( adhesive side away from the dial) and trimming the "tail' to 1/4" and folding it down around the side of the case.

  • Alison Turner January 27, 2010 05:50 am

    I love it! Just wrote a blog about it here:

  • CanonFan January 9, 2010 01:20 am

    I love this camera! I love all Canons, actually =) Hehe, I knew this review would be good even before I read it.

    Thanks for writing it!

  • jack clarfelt January 8, 2010 09:58 pm

    I agree totally with the review, this is the best compact camera I have ever had. The lack of grip can be alleviated by 'non slip' tape applied where your forefinger grips the front and also small pieces on the underneath cover of the battery compartment and on the top right of the back where youtr thumb rests. I use black nonslip tape bought from a marine supply store, it is used on dinghy seats etc. It is worth trying as the camera feels really secure when you hold it..
    Unfortunately, I have no fix for the rear ring which is too easy to inadvertantly move but I'd love to hear from anyone who has.

  • Harriet January 8, 2010 07:25 am

    Thank you for a great review.

    My husband gave this to me for Christmas. (Well, I did choose it after I read your review. He is a great husband who loves his techie wife!)

    I am an advanced beginner and love this camera for all the reasons mentioned in this review.

    For me, not having a viewfinder is great because it would be wasted on someone who is very nearsighted and needs bifocals. Love the large screen!

    I love the point and shoot features with the extra ability to do custom stuff.

    I will be taking photos for my blog and website so I definitely appreciate the RAW feature, and how easily it interfaces with my computer.

    Thanks again!

  • philoufr January 7, 2010 07:57 pm

    I confirm it is prone to blown highlights, more then my Nikon D90, so I almost always ude negative exposure compensation from -1/3 to 1 full stop if the scene has strong contrast with violent lightnings

    Maybe I don't use the best methods, but I can not make DPP recover much highlights

    The good news is that the shadow details can be recovered very easily, of course with some noise especially at high ISO, but this is no surprise

    I agree with Spacemunkie that a S90 could be better than a basic DSLR, except for action shooting, where no P&S, as good as it is, can compete with even the most basic SLR

  • Patrick Dean January 7, 2010 05:23 pm

    yes, it is prone to blowing highlights, even with the i contrast feature. Some of this recoverable with RAW, but best to just make sure expose for those highlights (i contrast seems to be good at shadow detail---but watch your ISO, because it also boosts noise a bit).

  • CanSan January 7, 2010 11:13 am

    Can anybody comment on the dynamic range? Is it prone to blowing the highlights like so many other compacts?

  • Spacemunkie January 7, 2010 10:37 am

    What a fantastic little camera. I don't buy stills cameras for video so lack of HD video is irrelevant. SD is there in case you really need to cap some footage. This thing has been optimised for quality photography and it's all the better for it.

    Images look fantastic all the way up to 800iso with 1600 and 3200 looking rather nice converted to b&w - no banding whatsoever and pleasing grain-like noise. It's a breeze to use thanks to all the customisable control rings - possibly quicker to alter all your main settings than most DSLRs.

    Screen is superb, huge and easily viewable in bright, direct sunlight. There's no room for a viewfinder and they're always going to be poxy and parralax ridden in something this size. I use a 1Ds and a 40D and the S90 is far from disgracing itself in this company. I'd go as far as to suggest that many folk who buy a Rebel and kit lens might be better advised to simply buy one of these. Smaller and much more versatile in many ways. The only problem I have with it is that I'll want an S100 when it comes out :)

  • philoufr January 4, 2010 06:54 am

    Sorry the link did not seem to work

    I try again

  • philoufr January 4, 2010 06:44 am

    I bought the S90 to complement my Nikon D90 reflex camera, and I really appreciate it more and more everyday

    It has a very good image quality, fantastic low lights ability, aperture and speed priority programs, and RAW files have a lot of potential for post processing

    I can have it with me all time in my pocket, what is impossibe with a SLR

    You can see what I have done with it on my flickr gallery here :

  • r4i software January 2, 2010 09:10 pm

    Excellent control system for manual, semimanual shooting; fantastic wide-angle f2 lens; very good low-light photo quality.

  • Gia December 31, 2009 02:38 pm

    Does anyone know the shutter delay on this camera?? Thanks!

  • Peter Beck December 26, 2009 03:17 am

    Well, part of the reason this whole class of camera exists, for regular folks and pros, is that the best picture is the one that you take, as opposed to not taking because you left your gear at home.

    That holds equally true for videos. And with widescreen tvs being more the norm, VGA playback looks increasingly subpar.

    The next step *should* be, 720p video, preferably at better than 24 fps, in a compact. Panasonic has one that does either 24 or 30 fps, AND that refocuses its autofocus when you zoom.

  • Chris December 25, 2009 03:44 am

    Really who cares about HD Video? It's a compact camera. Are you really going to be shooting any worthwhile video on a compact camera? Other than a few minor niggles this seems like the perfect camera for the amateur/hobbyist and as a secondary pocketable camera for professionals. The only major issue is the price.

  • ShahrulFahmy December 24, 2009 06:56 pm


    I just try my friend brand new camera canon S90... its really cool... Will think twice before grab other DSLR hehe :D Anyway, thanks for sharing

    KL, Malaysia

  • Peter Beck December 24, 2009 05:20 am

    How does it stack up against the Panasonic Lumix LX3? That supposedly has an optimized CCD for low light, a fast Leica f2 lens, and HD video (720p @ 24 fps), too?

  • Chris December 20, 2009 01:15 pm

    I just ordered one off NewEgg for $341 after a $20 instant and a 10% off for using PayPal rebate (marked down from their normal price of $400). I will post some photos to the forum once I get it and have a chance to play with it during Christmas.

  • Emil December 19, 2009 08:12 pm

    Does anyone know the price range of this camera in Europe? or in Duty free shops in EU?
    I can see that it costs 420$ in the States, and in South Eastern Europe its around 430E.
    Thank you in advance

  • Richard Eng December 19, 2009 02:04 pm

    Um, with a camera this small, how the hell can you fit a viewfinder into it??? Even the viewfinder in the G11 is just barely usable because it's so damn small, with a crummy 77% coverage. In ultra-compact cameras, you have to give up some things, such as a viewfinder. That's the reality. If you need a viewfinder, then you need a larger camera, not a shirt-pocketable device like the S90.

  • Eric Mesa December 18, 2009 11:14 pm

    I WILL buy this camera! It's going to replace my current compact P/S which is only marginally better than my cell phone in image quality- Fuji Finepix 345. I think I'm going to get a wide angle lens for my dSLR first, but then this camera will definitely be my "everywhere camera" because sometimes a dSLR is just too bulky. (or not allowed)

  • Rich December 18, 2009 05:31 pm

    I don't care how great the pictures are. If I can't see the subject in direct sun because this camera has no viewfinder, it gets a thumbs down. At this camera's cost a few dollars for a viewfinder would make Canon look smart. All these camera companies should bring back the viewfinder on compact cameras.

  • Henry K December 18, 2009 04:14 pm

    Another good Canon product indeed. I feel its not off-target to the infamous "G" series. Also a suitable suplement for sometimes too bulky DSLR camera where light equipment suits the occasion and environment.

  • kit_l December 18, 2009 12:08 pm

    I had one of the first S90s; I have put a few thousand images on it. I have compared it directly to the DP1, DP2, GF1, G1, LX3, and G11 (I spend too much money on cameras!).

    I kept the G1 (with the 14–45 and the 45–200) and the S90. I added the Richard Franiec grip: total security on the holding front with this addition.

    I have video cameras for video, so this lack was not important for me. IQ is excellent, 10MP enough for snaps, and an excellent UI. Two thumbs up from me.

  • Richard Eng December 18, 2009 06:35 am

    I just picked up a S90 for my Christmas European vacation (leaving Christmas eve for 9 days to Paris, Lucerne, Milan, Florence, and Rome). I'm leaving behind my 40D, which is too big and bulky for such a trip.

    I don't care about HD video. I don't care that HD video is becoming the standard feature in all compact cameras. I think it's goofy using a compact camera to shoot videos anyway. But if you must capture a silly video once in a while, hey, SD is good enough!

  • Masey December 18, 2009 06:18 am

    Cheers for a fantastic review on what is sure to be a hit this Xmas. I'm so impressed with the image quality of this little beauty. Probably going to get my hands on the G11 in the New Year, but this is in the running as a close second at this point.

  • Booker December 18, 2009 03:42 am

    I agree, to not include HD Video with this camera puts it out of consideration for me. I'd gladly spend an extra few hundred bucks to have the video feature in such a small package.

  • Rich December 18, 2009 03:06 am

    I don't care much about HD video. I've only shot video with my Panasonic LX3 maybe 3 times in the past year. And I ended up deleting them later. However, other cameras in the same price range and category have HD video, so you kinda expect that the S90 should also.

    I might go ahead and buy the S90 anyways. I played around with it at the store and it's much smaller and easier to carry around than my LX3. It's definitely a great camera for everyday use.

  • Jason Collin Photography December 18, 2009 02:09 am

    I like that this compact camera allows you to shoot in RAW + JPG mode, which is my preferred mode of shooting.

  • Patrick December 18, 2009 02:00 am

    Indeed the exif on that last shot is wrong. The correct exif is:
    Exposure: 0.4 | Aperture: f/7.1 | Focal Length: 6 mm | ISO Speed: 80 | Exposure Bias: -1 EV
    Sorry about that folks.

  • The Wallbanger December 18, 2009 01:46 am

    It's sad that I'm passing up this spectacular camera until it's later released with HD video. As a near-flagship product, I'm unsure why Canon didn't include this feature that's quickly becoming standard.

  • Anthony December 18, 2009 01:30 am

    @whiggy: I thought the same exact thing when I first saw it. Took a look at the EXIF and seems to be 1/2 s @ f/7.1, ISO 80... or so says my Gnome image viewer.

  • nffcnnr December 18, 2009 01:13 am

    i have had the S90 for almost 2 weeks. As an amateur/hobbyist i'm finding this suits all my needs. It's noticeably larger than the SD750, but i can still walk around okay with it in my back pocket. And i do. i don't go anywhere without a camera. i'm still exploring the features and experimenting a lot with the settings but i think i got my money's worth. $408: S90 (Fry's); $54: 16Gb Class 10 HCSD card (Fry's); $30 for 2 extra OEM NB-6L batteries (Amazon). i'm all set.
    The S90's performance in low light is fantastic. Since most of the pics i put on the internet are concert photos, the S90 has a huge detail advantage over my previous compact, and a huge portability advantage over any DSLR. It's perfect for me.

  • BP December 18, 2009 01:10 am

    How does it compare to the Canon PowerShot SD880 IS ELPH. I bought that a few months ago, as it was Consumer Reports #1, but I'm having buyer's remorse given the review I'm seeing of the S90. Has anybody tried both?

  • Jimmy December 18, 2009 12:54 am

    I picked an S90 up from last week and have been completely infatuated with it ever since. Coming from a Canon XSi (a great camera in its own right), I'm now more inclined to take my camera more places and take pictures in situations that I'd think twice about if I was shooting with my DSLR.

    My only two complaints: First, there's no HD video (it maxes out at 640 x 480 @ 30FPS). In addition, the dial on the back of the camera that surrounds the d-pad really does spin too easily as Patrick mentioned. I find myself accidentally changing settings from time to time because my thumb barely grazes it.

    That being said, I'd recommend the S90 in a heart beat to anyone who wants near SLR image quality in a pocketable form factor.

  • David December 18, 2009 12:44 am

    I think the EXIF captions are switched between the second sample shot and the last photo

  • whiggy December 18, 2009 12:36 am

    No way the last image was exposed for 0.003 sec (1/320).

  • OsmosisStudios December 18, 2009 12:16 am

    It does a good job (GREAT by compact standards) at high ISO but its noisy as all hell even in the 100-200 range.

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