Conclusion - Pros
- Excellent image quality, particularly at lower ISO settings
- Well optimized JPEGs
- Extensive photographic feature set
- New Function Ring transforms use of manual controls on a small camera
- Usable, fast raw mode with excellent DPP software supplied
- Highly customizable
- Fast, sharp zoom with useful 28-105mm range and F2.0 aperture (though only at the wide end)
- Reliable metering, focus and white balance
- Fast face detection / tracking
- Very compact, well built
- Nice screen
- Decent battery life
- Usable results up to ISO 800 (though shooting raw is advised at higher settings)
Conclusion - Cons
- Highlight clipping and channel clipping in bright, contrasty conditions
- Rear dial rotates too freely and cannot be disabled, so accidental settings changes too common
- No noise reduction options, JPEG NR too strong at higher ISO settings
- Video limited to VGA resolution
- Lack of grip and smooth, featureless body don't help handling one bit (although third party solutions are available)
- Focus in low light and at long end of zoom could be faster
- Flash underpowered, flash performance overall not that impressive
- Full auto modes not that impressive - take control for the best results
- Relatively small maximum aperture at long end of zoom
There's been something of a 'serious compact camera' renaissance in the last couple of years, led by Panasonic with the LX series and Canon with the G9/10/11. That said, the choices for the enthusiast wanting full photographic control in a pocketable package are still very limited (even the LX3 is big for a compact), meaning the S90 was given a warm welcome when first announced last fall.
On paper it's a compelling package, with comprehensive photographic features, a fast, useful zoom and as much in the way of external control as you could possibly fit onto such a small body. For the SLR user wanting something that offered the 'carry anywhere' convenience - but not the compromise - of an ultra compact DSC the S90 promises to be the perfect second camera.
And for the most part it delivers on that promise; the image quality is surprisingly good, the user interface well thought out and the design truly pocket-friendly. The handling takes some getting used to, which I guess is inevitable given how much Canon has tried to cram into a camera the size of an Ixus/Elph. But once you're familiar with the controls and the various operational foibles it offers a surprisingly fast and fluid shooting experience for the enthusiast photographer with a desire for total photographic control.
To paraphrase the famous advertising headline, no one was ever fired for buying a Canon compact; whatever you feel about the company it's hard to deny that it produces cameras that deliver reliable, consistent results in a wide variety of shooting situations. And whilst the S90 is inevitably limited by its tiny sensor (the great leveler that ensures most compacts produce broadly similar results) it is definitely one of the better models on the market today, with excellent metering, color, focus and white balance. Yes, you still get clipped highlights in bright conditions, smeared low contrast detail in dull conditions and noise at anything over base ISO, but with careful use of the controls the results - at normal viewing magnifications, are pretty impressive.
The Sony 10MP high sensitivity sensor at the heart of the S90 (and several competitor models) - hailed as the answer to compact camera low light performance - is good, but it's no 'great leap forward', and offers maybe a stop or so of advantage over current generation higher resolution sensors, meaning ISO 800 is acceptable, ISO 1600 usable at a push. Far more useful for a lot of lower light shooting situations is the F2.0 maximum aperture at the wide end of the zoom, which produces superb results with enough depth of field to be perfect for dimly lit interiors and dawn landscapes - without needing to stray too far up the ISO range.
The JPEG output at base ISO is superb; easily as good as the G11 or LX3. At higher ISO settings it's good for its class, but the (unavoidable) noise reduction is too strong for our liking, and in the middle ISO settings we'd recommend advanced users shoot raw and process to their own taste (and you do get a decent raw converter in the box, unlike many compacts).
I admit I didn't like the S90 when I first got it; the handling is seriously compromised by the size and lack of grip (this camera really needs a grip, something Canon has left to third party suppliers to offer) and the controls take a lot of getting used to. But spend some time customizing the settings and familiarizing yourself with the various knobs and dials and you'll be rewarded with a pocket camera that offers some of the most comprehensive - and usable - photographic control on the market.
The new function dial transforms the use of manual controls on a compact camera and (once you've set it up right and learned what it does in each mode) it goes a long way to overcoming the most common problem when sophisticated controls are squeezed into a tiny body - that they're too fiddly to actually use. I wish I could say the same about the freely-rotating rear dial, which is great when you're using it and a total pain when you're not: a serious blunder in an otherwise incredibly well designed user interface. It's just too easy to accidentally move, and it can't be turned off, so you'll find yourself accidentally changing important settings (such as AE compensation or ISO) just by handling the camera when it's turned on.
I did, eventually, manage to get to grips with using the S90 without moving the rear dial accidentally most of the time, but it really needs to be stiffer; at the moment it feels safer to leave the camera in full auto mode (which does disable the rear dial) for most casual shooting, somewhat negating the point of all those controls.
The S90 isn't the fastest kid on the block but it's not really that kind of camera. We found the autofocus a little sluggish at the long end of the zoom, particularly in low light, but it is at least reliable (as is the face detection - complete with 'blink warning'). For static landscapes and interiors you'll never notice the focus speed (or lack of), but if you've got a hyperactive toddler the S90 will, like many compacts, struggle to keep up with the action. I loved using it for landscapes, but the focus and slightly flaky flash exposures would stop it being my number one choice for social snaps.
The Final Word
Photographers looking for a serious, pocket-friendly, compact camera haven't had a lot to choose from, and the S90 offers the first real competition to Panasonic's LX3, the success of which almost certainly led Canon to revive the long-running and much missed 'S' series. I may not have liked it when I first used it, but I soon found myself picking it up every time I went out the door.
It is, above all else, a great walkaround camera, capable of results (particularly at lower ISO settings) that most serious photographers would be more than happy with. The control system encourages photographic experimentation (unlike so many compacts, which simply make it too painful to work manually), but the automatic systems are also reliable - and intelligent - enough to give you great results if you prefer to just 'point and shoot'. The tiny body might not make for particularly good handling, but it's small enough to carry anywhere and the image quality it produces rarely disappoints.
Ergonomics & handling
Exposure and focus accuracy
Image quality (raw)
Image quality (jpeg)
Low light / high ISO performance
Movie / video mode
Lanscapes, interiors and anyone wanting a 'walkaround' compact with excellent image quality
Not so good for
Fast moving subjects or low-light social photography. Movies.
The S90 offers an appealing combination of compact styling, photographic functionality and powerful control. Crucially it also offers some of the best image quality we've seen in such a small camera for a long time, sensor limitations aside. It's got a great lens and great features and is only let down slightly by the inevitable handling issues that come with such a small camera.
Scoring is relative only to the other cameras in the same category.
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