Canon G11 £499
26th Oct 2009 | 12:00
The most hotly anticipated compact camera of the year
Canon PowerShot G11: Overview
The Canon PowerShot G11 is Canon's flagship compact, and the latest model in the popular and well-regarded 'G' range.
Its predecessor, the 14 megapixel Canon G10, managed to appeal to compact camera owners seeking maximum imaging power and flexibility, as well as SLR users looking for a smaller back-up camera.
So the Canon G11 has its work cut out. Which makes it even more surprising to hear that the G11 actually has a lower resolution sensor than its predecessor, offering a 'mere' 10 megapixels.
This seems a bit risky from a marketing point of view - like it or not, megapixel count still has the power to sway the wavering punter - but Canon believes the numerous other improvements to the PowerShot G11, such as improved image processing technology, higher ISO sensitivity and all-new swivelling LCD, can compensate for the loss of pixels.
The PowerShot G11 has a faster flash synch speed too (1/2000th sec) and an HDMI output to enable you to view your stills and video on a HD TV, for example.
The Canon G11 can shoot in RAW, as with its predecessor, and is compatible with Canon's Digital Photo Professional software, suggesting Canon is very much aiming the PowerShot G11 at serious amateurs and pros seeking a more portable, more discrete alternative to a full-blown SLR.
So the PowerShot G11 is clearly not a cheap backup option, or impulse purchase, and needs to prove its ability to transcend the usual limitations of a compact camera compared to a budget SLRs - namely smaller, noisier sensors, less sophisticated image processing, reduced creative controls and, of course, a much narrower choice of lenses.
The G11 is equipped with the same image stabilised lens as the G10 (equivalent to 28-140mm equivalent), with a versatile 6x optical zoom.
This lens is a great wide-angle performer, and your shooting flexibility is greatly enhanced by the new swivelling LCD.
But what Canon gives with one hand, it takes away with the other, as the LCD is actually smaller than on the PowerShot G10.
The G11 is also compatible with a wide range of Canon flashguns and underwater equipment, though as mentioned, you have nowhere near the lens flexibility you get with a comparably priced budget SLR. Enough overview, what the PowerShotG11 like to use?
Canon PowerShot G11: Features
Take the Canon PowerShot G11 out of the box and the differences to the G10 are immediately obvious.
It's fatter and deeper for a start, thanks to the all-new swivelling LCD housing.
While it's good to have this new screen as a compositional tool, the extra bulk of the PowerShot G11 will not be to everyone's taste.
It fits into a jacket pocket OK, but you'll struggle to get it into your trousers unless you wear comedy baggies or cargo shorts - there's no way you'd describe the G11 as slimline.
Which rather reduces its appeal for SLR owners seeking a slimmer, more portable alternative to their main camera.
Of course, the elegantly designed lens is recessed with the body when the camera turns off, which helps, but the lens cover doesn't look particularly sturdy - we strongly recommend you get a sturdy pouch for this relatively pricey compact.
In terms of handling and build, the PowerShotG11 is clearly made to last, with a reassuringly tough hinging mechanism for the LCD.
Look at the top, and you notice Canon's ingenious pairing of the PASM exposure mode dial with a secondary ISO dial beneath it.
This is a very elegant solution, as you can set the ISO at the same time as you change or adjust exposure mode.
It's certainly neater than the separate ISO button (or menu-only option) you get with many SLRs. Just remember that the ISO wheel is just that, a manual wheel, so it will stay at whatever previous ISO setting you used until you adjust it again.
Fortunately, you're unlucky to accidentally change ISO as you change exposure mode, as the two wheels are quite separate - it's really well designed.
To the left of these wheels is another great feature, a dedicated exposure compensation wheel. Again you have to wonder why such a feature hasn't been integrated into modern budget SLRs.
Being able to darken or lighten exposure via the wheel is a real time saver; although the exposure increments are limited compared to a higher-end SLR, you instantly see the effects of adjusting the compensation on the image in the LCD, thereby increasing your hit rate.
The shutter release and zoom lever are well integrated too, though the shutter release is a bit too close to the on/off switch.
As mentioned, the flip out LCD swivels through a range of helpful angles, and isn't too stiff. In terms of handling and interface, our biggest gripe is the cramped arrangement of buttons and dials to the right of the LCD.
Several times we accidentally activated the metering mode button or function setting button while manipulating the LCD or just picking the camera up.
This could get really annoying and we can't help thinking that Canon has sacrificed some elegance and usability for the sake of that fancy new swivelling screen. The menu system on the PowerShotG11 is clear and bright, and certainly as logical and legible as he menus on Canon EOS SLRs.
Menu option that reveal more options have an ellipsis (...) after them and it's all very straightforward. The aforementioned Function Setting button enables you to adjust key image settings such as White Balance, picture styles and flash compensation.
You also access the built-in Neutral Density filter this way. We really like this feature, as it does a good job of emulating a physical ND filter for darkening an over-bright sky.
Before we move onto to discussing image quality and exposure, other noteworthy features include a bewildering range of Scene Modes (everything from Beach to Fireworks to Color Swap) and the ability to boost, and even swap, colours in camera.
As for movie mode, the video maxes out at 640 x 480 @30 frames per second, so high-definition it ain't. Again, this makes the PowerShotG11 look relatively pricey, when you consider you can get the even more versatile Nikon D90 SLR with HD video for £800 if you shop around.
Canon PowerShot G11: Image quality
Despite having a smaller sensor in headline terms, the PowerShotG11 delivers detailed, well exposed images from the box.
The Digic 4 image processor is very smart technology, delivering smooth and natural colours whether you shoot in JPEG or RAW.
We're also impressed by the metering system, which takes challenging lighting conditions in its stride.
And as mentioned, it's a two second job to hit the metering button and choose, say, Spot over Centre-Weighted mode, or to adjust exposure compensation via the top wheel. Pardon the pun, but Canon's making a big noise about the more sensitive sensor, with its increased ISO range and beefed noise-reduction technology.
LENS:The swivelling lens is ideal for taking candid shots, just make sure you don't accidentally activate the rear buttons on the camera when manipulating it
So does it make a difference? Yes and no. Keep below ISO 400 and as you'd expect from a premium-priced Canon camera, noise is barely noticeable.
Up to ISO 800, noise is clearly there, but you tend not to mind as you're benefiting from the improved low light performance and availability of faster shutter speeds.
The amount of noise at ISO 3200 means this setting is only any good for real emergencies, but the same can be said for extreme ISO settings on a budget SLR. In other words, the G11 is more 'sensitive' than its predecessor, and is a genuinely impressive low-light performer so long as you try and stay below ISO 800.
COLOUR:The Vivid colour styles boosts the saturation in your landscapes, and come in handy if you're still shooting JPEG rather than RAW
Autofocus options are pretty good too, giving you the choice of Flexizone focus frame or Face Detection frame, as well as intelligent AF modes such as Continuous and Servo.
While it's impressive for a compact, the PowerShotG11's AF still 'hunts' too much for our liking and takes longer to lock on to the subject than an SLR. This could be an issue for pros or serious amateurs considering the G11 as a backup camera, but you can't have everything.
PORTRAITS:By default, portrait mode tends to overcook portraits, so we found the Darker Skin Tone option in My Color helps to cool things down
Earlier we mentioned the built-in Neutral Density filter, and this is well worth a try (depending on the lighting conditions, of course). The ND filter, which is activated via the function setting button, effectively decreases light levels by three stops - useful if you're getting blown out skies on a bright day, for instance.
Neutral density filter off...
Neutral density filter on...
NDF:The built-in Neutral Density filter can be a godsend if your skies are tending to lose detail – see the difference in these shots?
Just remember to turn the exposure compensation wheel back to zero if you've previously dialled it downwards, otherwise your shots could be too dark. By default, the pop-up flash is quite harsh, but there's a good range of adjustments for a compact camera (and the PowerShotG11 takes external flashguns via the top hot shoe).
ZOOM:The 6x optical zoom is a really flexible performer and although you will suffer from converging verticals when shooting buildings, you can work around it
Picture modes and My Colours
As for the plethora of Picture Modes, they're certainly fun, but shouldn't be used as a shortcut or crutch by people who aren't comfortable getting to grips with the PASM dial.
ISO TEST:The PowerShot G11 is pitched as light sensitive, high ISO compact, and these shots, taken at 1200 and 3200, prove its ability. Noise is impressively well controlled, though it will be noticeable when you zoom in over 800 – so use the ISO power wisely
The PowerShotG11 is too expensive and powerful a camera to only shoot in Auto everything mode or presets. Being able to adjust colour saturation in camera is rather more useful, and we found the Darker Skin Tone option (under My Colours menu in image preview mode) worked well with portraits taken at higher ISOs.
Vivid mode can be good for washed out landscapes too. It's also possible to swap colours on saved shots if you're bored/sad, but these in-camera widgets are certainly no substitute for Photoshop.
Canon PowerShot G11: Verdict
Trying to market a high-end, premium-priced compact in tough economic times is not going to be easy, and Canon deserves credit for squeezing so many powerful features into the PowerShotG11 while still keeping it portable and easy to use.
The G11 is a great low-light performer, and this, combined with the intelligent metering modes, AF, and generous picture presets, means that it's quite difficult to take a bad photograph with this camera.
But it's not perfect by any means, and anyone considering shelling out five hundred quid should consider the following points.
The PowerShot G11 is a very flexible compact with many power features normally associated with SLRs.
As well as the ability to shoot in RAW and take quality low-light shots without flash, the G11 is fast and intuitive, with generally unflappable metering and AF systems.
Build quality is good without making the camera too heavy, and the swivelling LCD is ideal for shooting from awkward angles - or taking candid shots of people without them realising!
As for the camera design and menus, while they're not perfect, the combined shooting mode/ISO dial is a stroke of genius - as is the dedicated exposure compensation wheel. SLR designers take note! The 6x optical zoom is quiet and versatile, too.
Earlier G series PowerShots were real objects of desire, but the PowerShotG11 is unlikely to elicit many lustful glances.
The swivelling LCD housing means it's quite a fat and awkward camera, and while Beth Ditto fans may disagree, portly doesn't mean sexy in our book (thanks to breakthroughs like Micro Four Thirds, budget SLRs are getting smaller and neater by the day, too).
What's more, it's alarmingly easier to activate the G11's rear buttons by accident, and both image preview and menu choice selection can be sluggish.
Then there's the underwhelming movie mode.... Sooner or later, you come up against that hefty price tag. For £500 you can get a perfectly good budget SLR; a few hundred quid more gets you a quality mid-range SLR with HD video...
For G series obsessives, or well-heeled owners of Canon SLRs seeking a backup camera, the G11 makes sense.
There's certainly a lot to like about this camera, but its relatively high price, combined with some design and usability niggles, mean that less partisan buyers should weigh up the pros and cons before handing over £500.
While the PowerShotG11 ticks a lot of boxes, it doesn't tick all of them, so if slim dimensions and quality video performance are as important as advanced creative options, you may be better looking elsewhere.
And remember, however good this compact camera sounds on paper, the restrictions of its design mean it will never outshine a similarly priced D-SLR.