Canon S90 £350
16th Dec 2009 | 11:54
Canon revives its S series compacts with this likeable SLR backup
Canon PowerShot S90: Overview
The Canon S90 is the latest compact DSLR replacement from Canon - the little brother to the successful Canon G11.
Profits are squeezed to the point of asphyxiation in the compact camera market at the moment; tough economic times mean your typical 'point and shoot' compact owner doesn't feel the urge to upgrade as often as makers would like.
There's also a bewildering range of new cameras to choose from. And of course, camera phones keep getting better and better.
Hence the rebranding of some compacts as 'SLR backups'. The term's a bit vague, but basically it refers to a compact camera which offers better optical quality and more sophisticated imaging options than your typical point-and-clicker - while still being very compact and easy to carry around.
The kind of compact, in other words, that SLR owners would be happy to take as a backup, or use as their main camera when the SLR is just too big and indiscrete.
The Canon PowerShot S90 certainly falls into this category. It weighs in at a slimline 175g and is only about three inches deep with its 28-105mm lens fully extended.
At the same time, it shoots in RAW as well as JPEG and comes with Canon's Digital Photo Professional RAW-processing software, just as you get with Canon EOS SLRs. As well as SLRs, the Canon PowerShot S90 has a lot in common with Canon's flagship compact, the PowerShot G11.
You get the same 10-megapixel sensor, for instance, which as well as offering a very respectful resolution, does a sterling job of keeping digital noise down at higher ISO settings.
And while the Canon PowerShot S90 only has a 3.8x optical zoom lens compared to the 5x zoom on the PowerShot G11, the difference is not that huge.
Canon PowerShot S90: Features
The lesser zoom range will be less of an issue for PowerShot S90 owners when they discover they get a very handy maximum aperture of f/2.0 at the wide-angle end, a big advantage in a camera in this price range.
Something else the PowerShot S90 has in common with the PowerShot G11 is innovative ergonomics.
Although the S90 lacks the cleverly combined exposure/ISO dial you get with the G11, it has a unique ring mounted around the lens.
Using the Ring Function button on the top of the camera, this can be configured to adjust aperture and shutter speed, ISO, exposure compensation, white balance compensation, or operate a 'step zoom' feature that sets the lens to a series of specific focal lengths. Just like a 'pro' camera.
The PowerShot S90 also has a bigger rear LCD than the PowerShot G11.
It's a full three inches in size and is very easy to read with its 461,000 pixel resolution. All it lacks is the PowerShot G11's articulation, but as we mentioned in the G11 review, this does make the latter rather fat.
Another of the PowerShot S90's innovations is a rear rotary wheel, used to adjust key settings in a similar way to the ring around the lens.
So, you can set the front lens ring to change aperture, for instance, while the rear ring adjusts exposure compensation. The rear ring is a good idea, but can be a bit fiddly. It's not as well engineered as the ring around the lens, and it's frustratingly easy to activate the nearby four-directional controller by mistake.
Making the rear ring a tad stiffer would have really helped here, and we suspect Canon will fix this on the next iteration.
Another slight quirk is the placement of the shutter button; it's quite small and you find yourself fingering the PASM dial every time you want to take a shot until you get used to it. The zoom lever, which is connected to the shutter release button, is also quite fiddly if you have big fingers.
These are not major problems though and the PowerShot S90's build quality is pretty good. This is clearly a compact that is built to last, although you should be aware some owners on the Canon USA site have already complained that that lovely rear LCD has a tendency to scratch quite easily. Since we have to send our review sample back, we weren't going to put this to the test!
Canon PowerShot S90: Performance
Let's talk more about the lens. It's really fast and bright, as you can open the aperture as wide as f/2.
So it's ideal for blurring the background in close-up portraits, and being able to whack the aperture right open is obviously very handy in low light.
The lens itself is of outstanding quality and we found there to be minimal distortion – a great performance for the money.
The zoom is a bit limited at 3.8x, but you quickly get used to it, and there's optical image stabilisation to keep things nice and sharp at the telephoto end. The other advantage of a limited zoom is that it gets you into the good habit of getting closer to your subject, rather than relying on telephoto trickery and suffering the inevitable distortion you get on cheaper compacts.
The PowerShot S90 is a very discrete camera, so it's great for candid street photography, where you don't always want your subject to know they are being photographed. As mentioned, it's very easy to compose shots on the generous, well-lit rear LCD.
When it comes to speed and performance, it's a mixed bag. The PowerShot S90 takes about three seconds to save RAW images, which is quite good for a compact, so we're not quite sure why it still takes a second or two to work through much smaller JPEG files.
The camera can only manage 0.9fps in continuous shooting mode, too, which limits its appeal for action and sports photography.
On a related note, it's advisable to hold the camera quite firmly when you take the shot, as it's so light, we sometimes found ourselves moving away before it had actually finished processing.
Canon PowerShot S90: Image quality
The exposure and metering on the S90 cope well with every-day photographic tasks, though we did notice in a couple of situations that the camera had a tendency to blow out highlights and err on the side of overexposure, forcing us to dial down the exposure compensation when it shouldn't have been necessary in the lighting conditions.
We never quite got to the bottom of this, but it's easy enough to adjust the exposure compensation upwards and downwards via the rear wheel.
COLOUR: The 'My Colours' menu option lets you really boost the primary colours in JPEGs, as here
Generally though, the metering is accurate for a compact camera. The ISO performance is very impressive, as you'd expect from a camera which has the same sensor as the much-lauded PowerShot G11.
It's combined with Canon's Digic 4 image processor to create a 'Dual Anti Noise System' and we're sold on it.
Keep the ISO below 800 and the performance is exemplary; beyond it obviously gets much more noticeable, but is not a major problem until you ramp up the ISO to reckless levels. The other advantage of higher ISOs is faster shutter speeds, further adding to this already versatile camera's flexibility.
METERING: The metering system is generally reliable, save for an occasional tendency to overexpose, and the Digic 4 image processor delivers smooth, well saturated shots
The heavyweight ISO performance is obviously a big bonus in low-light conditions. It also helps to keep images natural-looking, as we found the pop-up flash to be pretty harsh on Auto settings.
Your options are limited – off, on, slow synchro – so it's worth finding out how to dial the flash down a bit using the Function Setting button at the rear of the camera. On a more positive note, the pop-up flash is well built and stylish, and zips out of the top with impressive speed.
ZOOM:Shot with the lens zoomed right out, this is a great telephoto performance for a compact camera. Edges are sharp and there's minimal distortion. The optical stabilisation technology works well
Canon has provided a few other exposure widgets worthy of mention.
The i-Contrast feature has been overhauled so it does more than just apply a quick and dirty shadow 'fix'. Now, the camera increases the 'gain', or sensitivity, in darker areas as the image is processed, to produce a much subtler enhancement of high-contrast scenes.
FLASH:The S90's flash is a bit harsh by default, but doesn't do a bad job in preserving the skin tones here. Flash options are limited, but you can adjust flash compensation in a matter of seconds
Meanwhile Smarter Scene Detection claims to automatically select the best camera settings for a particular scene by selecting it from 22 options.
It works well enough for the 'auto everything' user, but shouldn't be used as a substitute for getting to grips with the PASM dial and taking full creative control over your camera. We also found the range of built-in colour options to be useful.
HIGH ISO:Shot at ISO 800 in a near-dark garden centre, this shot shows the powerful noise reduction technology in action. There is noticeable speckling when you zoom in on Santa, but it's still a credible performance for a compact
Lighter and Darker Skin Tones are self explanatory, but more intriguing is Positive Film, which recreates the vivid tones of film.
You can also boost Red, Green and Blue, or further customise colour options to your preference. It's no Photoshop killer, and you'll still need to tweak the colours after the shot if you shoot in RAW, but still, this is another nice widget to have.
On the subject of RAW, Canon's Digital Photo Professional software is arguably the best RAW processing tool to be provided by camera makers in the box. It uses a logical slider system similar to Adobe Camera RAW, and while obviously lacking the latter's mind-boggling array of possibilities, Digital Photo Professional does a more than respectable job of processing and saving your RAW images.
If you want to get more from Digital Photo Professional, check out the regular tutorials written by our colleagues on PhotoPlus magazine.
Shooting video - not possible
Although the PowerShot S90 has an HDMI mini port for viewing images on a decent TV, you can't record HD video. This will inevitably raise questions for some prospective buyers when they can get the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3 for about the same price.
The Panasonic can record at 720p HD in movie mode at 30fps, and is a further indication of how Panasonic is currently leading the pack when it comes to implementing HD movie recording in budget cameras.
To be fair to Canon, the movie mode on the Panasonic is still quite basic, so we wouldn't necessarily say this is a deal breaker – and if you use the PowerShot S90 as a backup for your SLR, chances are you now have HD movie recording on your main camera anyway.
Canon PowerShot S90: Verdict
At around £370 if you shop around, the PowerShot S90 makes a lot of sense as a backup for Canon SLR users, or as a versatile, high performance compact that you won't outgrow quickly.
Being able to shoot in RAW and process the files in Digital Photo Professional will obviously be a big advantage for Canon SLR users, but the PowerShot S90 is also very easy for photography novices to get to grips with.
The biggest attractions are the fast, sharp lens, with an impressive f/2 maximum aperture, combined with an exemplary ISO performance (remember, you are getting the same sensor as the PowerShot G11, the jewel in Canon's compact crown).
The layout and design of the PowerShot S90 is generally good too, and the generous rear LCD beyond criticism.
The downsides are the occasionally fiddly ergonomics, the rather harsh flash, the restricted zoom, and of course, the lack of HD video recording.
We suspect it'll be this that determines whether the target market goes for this camera or buys an HD movie-enabled competitor like the Panasonic LX3 instead
Nearly £400 might not seem a lot in SLR terms, but we can't help thinking that Canon have been a bit stingy on the video front…