Understanding the Canon PowerShot N

Of all the myriad of compact cameras announced at the CES trade show in Las Vegas at the start of 2013, the tiny Canon PowerShot N, with its either-way-up design, tilting touchscreen and round-lens shutter and zoom controls is sure to be one of the most interesting. Not because of its photographic feature set or appeal to enthusiasts - at heart it's a fully-automated point-and-shoot - but because of its unique design and overall philosophy, and what this says about the way mass-market photography is going.

It's no great secret that the conventional point-and-shoot camera market appears to be in terminal decline. The ever-increasing capability of smartphone cameras means that they're more than good enough for the vast majority of casual users, while their internet connectivity makes it easy to share pictures with the rest of the world the moment they're taken. Throw in the current popularity of Instagram, with its emphasis on the use of 'artistic' image processing filters and community sharing, and it's little wonder that people are deserting the pocket camera in droves. Why carry a small camera when you're taking your phone anyway, and it does what you want better?

Because of this, the traditional camera manufacturers are having to rethink their approach. It's clear that compact cameras have to offer some compelling advantage over smartphones to persuade buyers to part with their money. This has generally meant zoom lens range or features, as in superzoom 'bridge' cameras or high-end enthusiast compacts, both of which have continued to do relatively well. But with the Powershot N, Canon has gambled on something very different - creativity and fun.

So what's the PowerShot N all about?

In essence, the PowerShot N is best seen as a smartphone companion for the Instagram generation. With its flip-up touchscreen, and unconventional zoom and shutter controls that work equally well when the camera is held upside-down, it's designed to encourage shooting at unusual angles. It has built-in Wi-Fi for uploading images to social media, either by direct connection to a hot-spot, or via a smartphone or tablet. It's also very small and easy to slip into a pocket when going out. But perhaps most tellingly its all-new 'Creative Shot' mode, which takes the concept of creative processing filters further than we've ever seen before, is turned on by default. Canon's marketing tagline is 'Creativity with a Twist', and it's very apt.

Obviously the PowerShot N has to offer something smartphones don't, and that's provided by its 28-224mm equivalent 8x optical zoom lens and 12MP 1/2.3"-type sensor (~6.2 x 4.6mm), that's larger than those used in most phones. In combination with the Digic 5 processor, this promises better image quality and much greater compositional flexibility than you'll get from a phone camera. The tilting screen, which flips up a little over 90 degrees, allows shooting at unusual angles, but sadly doesn't move far enough to let you frame self-portraits. 

Body and Design

The PowerShot N is an unusual design to say the least, as emphasized by its front and rear views. The back of the camera has no buttons, only a tilting capacitive touchscreen that's the primary interface, just like a smartphone. There are three small buttons on the sides: the power switch is on the left, while the right side is home to the playback button, a dedicated button to connect to your phone by Wi-Fi, and a little switch to select between normal shooting and 'Creative Shot' mode. The front of the camera is dominated by the 8x zoom lens, and the two silver rings encircling it turn out to be the zoom controller and shutter button. There's a little LED flash on the top right of the camera too.

The slimline ring close to the body is a zoom controller with a fairly conventional action - press one way to zoom in, the other to zoom out. The thicker ring is the shutter release, and despite its decidedly unconventional design it offers the usual action - half press down to focus, full press to take a picture.    What's unique about the PowerShot N is that this design is symmetrical - the zoom ring and shutter button offer exactly the same action when operated from the underside of the camera. It may look like a crazy idea, but it really does work.
There's no controls on the top plate at all, not even a shutter release. Here you can see the camera with the lens retracted; it's not the slimmest in the world, but at 1.2"/30mm, it's still eminently pocketable. The Powershot N has two baseplate compartments - the one on the left is for the battery (which is charged via the camera's USB socket), the tiny one on the right is a for a Micro SD card.  

When you first pick up the N, this design is slightly bewildering - without the familiar position of the shutter button, it's not immediately clear how to hold it and take pictures. But after a couple of minutes playing with it, everything starts to make sense - this is a design that works remarkably well, allowing you to shoot at unusual angles using just one hand (of course a wrist strap will make a lot of sense too). Here are a couple of options we've found for how to hold it.

This is perhaps the most-stable way to hold the N, cradling it with your left hand, and operating the zoom and shutter controls with your right index finger. This arguably makes for a more stable shooting platform than the conventional compact camera pose.    There's no space on the back to put your thumb, so to hold the camera one-handed you have to adopt an unconventional grip. For example, you can pinch it between forefinger and thumb, and operate the controls with another finger.  
Here's a one-handed waist-level grip with the screen flipped-up; the shutter and zoom can be operated using your index finger from underneath the camera. Uniquely, the N can be operated equally well with either hand.  Alternatively you can turn the camera upside-down for overhead shooting, and operate the controls with your second finger.

Essentially, the Powershot N forces you to reconsider everything you thought you knew about holding a camera, and to get the most out of it you have to throw away your preconceptions. It's definitely a camera you have to try for yourself to appreciate fully. However the unconventional design does mean that it's not a camera you can easily pass to friends or family for a quick snap; in fact hardly anyone we've handed the camera to has managed work out how to take a picture without being taught.  

Creative Shot mode  

Creative Shot is an all-new mode that takes the concept of creative filters beyond anything we've seen before. Rather than simply applying a series of filters directly to your original shots, it starts by taking a series of bracketed exposures, which according to Canon can include either exposure or focus bracketing. It then not only adds processing filters, but can also select different crops, and even at times rotate the image before cropping (this appears to apply mainly to faces). It'll select five filters out of a broad range, so you never know exactly what you're going to get - there's an element of Lomography here. Thankfully the camera always saves your original too.

The examples below (kindly provided to us by Canon EU) give some idea of how this works. The camera's produced five variants on the original image, applying different filters to the bracketed exposures, and in three cases selecting different square crops. It's definitely interesting, even if it may not necessarily be to every purist's taste.     

Original shot  Filtered version 1
 Filtered version 2  Filtered version 3
 Filtered version 4  Filtered version 5

What's interesting about Creative Shot is that it's semi-random - if you take exactly the same picture several times in a row, you'll get a different set of filtered variants each go. Not all will be masterpieces, of course - in practice you'll likely delete many of them - but you can never be sure exactly what you'll get. The American street photographer Garry Winogrand said "I photograph to see what the world looks like in photographs", but with the N, you can find yourself photographing to see what the camera thinks the world should look like in photographs. It's certainly a unique shooting experience.

Summary and First Impressions

When digital cameras first arrived on the scene, the freedom from the constraints of film camera layout resulted in lots of design experimentation. The articulated screens on Canon's own G-series, like Nikon's classic twist-body Coolpixes, encouraged shooting from different angles. But after a few years everything settled back down again, and if you walk into a camera shop now, most of the compacts on the shelf will look little different in basic design to film cameras such as Canon's classic APS film Ixus II. Inertia can be a powerful thing.

The PowerShot N reminds us again that cameras don't necessarily have to follow these conventional lines, and alternative designs can work really well. It may look like it shouldn't work, but it genuinely does. Whether it truly offers something sufficiently interesting to attract buyers who've been having fun with Instagram on their smartphone, but wouldn't call themselves 'photographers', remains to be seen. But it's certainly refreshing to see Canon trying something a little different.