Canon Powershot S90 Review
The Canon Powershot S90 is the most advanced ultra-compact from Canon. This is a very full-featured model which features full-manual controls, including manual focus, and highly efficient controls. This is new line among ultra-compacts, compared to the well-regarded but mostly point-and-shoot SD-series.
The S90 is built around a slightly larger than usual 10 megapixels sensor designed for low noise. A special wide-angle lens with F/2 maximum aperture at wide-angle gives this digital camera a head-start for low-light photography.
The unique design of the Canon Powershot S90 lets it have direct controls over exposure parameters with what amounts to two control-dials, something rarely seen outside of advanced DSLRs. One dial surrounds the 4-way controller and the innovative second dial is found around the lens.
The headline features of this digital camera are quite complete for an ultra-compact, having more controls than compact cameras and even most ultra-zooms:
- 10 Megapixels sensor
- ISO sensitivity from 80 to 3200, 1/3 stops
- 3.8X wide-angle stabilized optical zoom lens
- Aperture ranges from F2 (wide) / F4.9 (tele) to F8
- Shutter-speeds from 1/1600s to 15s
- Full manual controls (PASM)
- Multi-segment, center-weighed and spot metering
- Manual focus with distance scale and electronic zoom
- Macro focus to 5cm (wide) or 30cm (tele)
- Single-shot or continuous autofocus
- Automatic, preset and custom white-balance
- White-balance fine-tuning along B-A and G-A axis in 19-steps.
- Exposure bracketing, 3 frames, 1/3-2 EV steps
- Focus bracketing, 3 frames
- Exposure compensation, -2..+2, 1/3 EV increments
- Flash compensation, -2...+2, 1/3 EV increments
- Flash modes: Off, Auto, On, Slow-Synchro
- Flash settings: FC, curtain, red-eye correction, red-eye lamp, safety FE
- Self-timers: Off, Face and custom, 0-30s, 1-10 shots
- Single-shot, locked-focus continuous and continuous-focus drive modes
- Landscape-orientation panorama-assist mode
- JPEG, RAW or RAW+JPEG modes
- 640x480 30 FPS Movie mode
- Lithium-Ion battery
- SDHC Memory
- HDMI for playback
Suitability - What is it good for?
The Canon Powershot S90 is more flexible than other ultra-compacts. Its slightly protruding lens means it is actually a bit thicker than ultra-compacts generally are, measuring 1.2" at the thickest point. This may keep it away from pant pockets but it can fit in most others.
What this says is the the S90 features unprecedented portability of advanced features. Not only that, the S90 is clearly designed for its features to be used, with plenty of controls and two dials. As such, the S90 is suitable for general purpose photography with an emphasis on spontaneous photography.
Its 3.8X optical zoom lens, ranging from 28 to 105mm, favors wide-angle over telephoto, giving it preference of close-by subjects rather than distance photography. An F2 maximum aperture at the wide-end helps it for low light but quickly dims down as you zoom in. At the tele end the maximum aperture drops to F4.9.
Both night and sports photography are not the ideal subjects for such small cameras but the S90 should manage reasonably at cityscapes at night since its shutter-speed reaches 15s. There are a number of reasons though why it simply won't do for fast action.
As expected from a 10 megapixels camera, the S90 can be used to produce nice prints up to 12"x16 under most conditions.
Capability - What can it do?
This camera has quite a long list of features compared to its size but we have to say that the emphasis is not on what it can do but on what it lets the photographer do.
The full manual controls of the Canon Powershot S90 allow independent control over ISO, shutter-speed and aperture at full-resolution without restriction other than the relation between aperture and focal-length. The ISO starts at 80 and reaches to 3200 for desperate times. Shutter-speeds go from a not-too-fast 1/1600s to 15s which is enough for city photography at night.
The S90 allows finer control over metering by its choice of 3 patterns: evaluative, center-weighed and spot. Its white-balance system is sophisticated with fine-tuning along to axis in 19-steps available. There may never have been an ultra-compact that did this before. There are 7 preset white-balance plus auto and custom. The custom option allows the S90 to shoot under difficult lighting.
There is hidden exposure lock (AEL) and program shift feature. When exposure is locked by the camera with a shutter half-press, using the EC button activates AE-L. Using the lens ring or the control-dial during this makes the S90 shift its exposure-parameters.
Focusing is either in Auto, Macro or Manual mode. Auto focus itself has quite a few options such as a small vs larger center-frame and multi-point face-detection. The manual focus mode can show a magnified view of the focus point to assist with the last.
The self-timer is customizable in duration (0-30s) and number of shots (1-10). There is also a smile-timer which waits for people to smile. Your mileage may vary when using this as it does not always recognize smiles quickly enough.
The Canon S90 also has bracketing for exposure or focus. It outputs 3 frames with customizable steps. Exposure can also be offset using the usual EC and FC, both from -2 to +2 stops in 1/3 EV increments. Now that we mentioned the flash, it is worth mentioning that it has a complete set of controls tool. First or second curtain can be chosen for when flash fires. Redeye reduction and the red-eye lamp can be turned on or off independently. Flash modes include on, off and auto.
This camera is equipped with too many scene-modes. Since the S90 has full-manual controls, the only useful scene mode is panorama assist mode. This mode can help line up as many as 26 images. It works either from left-to-right or right-to-left, unfortunately in landscape orientation only. The numbering for these files is truly bizarre as they do not sort sequentially.
This is one of the rare fixed-lens cameras to shoot RAW as well as JPEG. JPEG files are available in 2 qualities at 5 resolutions and RAW files are available either with or without 10 megapixels JPEG.
Finally, there is also a movie-mode which can record video at 640x480 at 30 FPS up to 4 GB of file size, which corresponds to a about 42 minutes. Optical zoom can never be used while filming, only before. Instead up to 4X digital zoom is available. There is an exposure slider that can be set before filming as well. This is not much of a feature but most camera do not even do that.
The Canon Powershot S90 has both AV and HDMI out which it uses for playback mode only. Images and video can be reviewed on a standard or HDTV but they cannot be used as a viewfinder.
Usability - How easy is it to use?
The Canon S90 is both simple and efficient to use. It is quite rare to find a sophisticated camera with very nice controls in a small body but Canon managed this feat of engineering quite well. Surely not everything is ideal but this is the most efficient fixed-lens camera since the A2 from Konica-Minolta.
This Powershot is mostly intuitive but since Canon did run out of space for buttons, a few features are hidden. All important controls are easily accessible and mostly well thought of. The rectangular and smooth body is a bit too slippery in the front to hold securely, so luckily a wrist strap is provided. A small protrusion on the back below the mode-dial helps find some grip but it's truly minimal and a bit too close to the LCD.
The camera body is simple and well constructed. The whole thing feels mostly solid, even the battery-door is not so flimsy. All buttons have positive action with short travel. They are too recessed to use with gloves on. The dial around the 4-way controller is really thin and rotates quick easily which makes it prone to accidental use.
The short lens barrel is surrounded by a customizable control ring. It feels sturdy with positive stops to prevent accidental use. This ring greatly contributes to the S90's efficiency as it can act as a second control-dial. A button on top of the camera selects which function the ring can control:
- Standard: Ring controls exposure parameter, dial control exposure-compensation (EC).
- ISO: Ring controls ISO, dial controls exposure parameter.
- EC: Ring controls EC, dial controls exposure parameter.
- MF: Ring controls the focus distance, dial controls exposure parameter. Manual focus starts when the ring is turned. The left arrow exits manual focus.
- WB: Ring controls white-balance fine-tuning along B-A scale, dial controls exposure parameter.
- Zoom: Ring controls the zoom in fixed steps taken them 35mm lenses, dial controls exposure parameter.
As mentioned already, the ring has positive clicks but the dial rotates freely. For this reason it is better to avoid the default Standard assignment which puts EC on the rear dial. Otherwise, exposure can easily go wrong. The ISO assignment is probably the most efficient since it is most likely to change unless using manual focus often. The zoom assignment is mostly for nostalgia because it still wide steps, unlike a real zoom ring. Also, there is already a zoom controller, so this assignment causes the loss of one direct control.
Most function assignments work well and intuitively. The main issue is with program (P) mode which does not have an exposure parameter. In that mode, the rear dial controls EC unless the ring is assigned to EC. This causes EC to be dialed in accidentally. It would be great if in P mode, the rear-dial would apply a program shift to choose between equivalent exposures, like most DSLR cameras do.
Actually, there is a program shift on the S90. To access it you must trigger AE-L first. To do so, half-press the shutter-release and press the up-arrow. Exposure will then be locked. Rotating the ring shifts along ISO, while rotating the dial shifts aperture and shutter-speed.
The top of the camera holds the power button, the ring function selection button, the shutter-release and the mode dial. The power and ring buttons are flush with the top surface which makes them difficult to use while wearing gloves. The shutter-release is also very flat. It has a short travel with a soft halfway point. It seems a little too far from the right edge of the camera for perfect comfort but the mode-dial is preventing it from being moved in that direction. If there was a small grip, maybe matching the thickness of the lens ring, then the shutter could be placed in front of the mode-dial. It would also make the camera more ergonomic. Lastly, the shutter is surrounded by a small zoom controller. It moves the lens in 9 short but noticeable steps.
The 3" LCD has 461K pixels. This is not the sharpness LCD but that is hard to tell by looking at it. The refresh rate is good and it has a nice anti-reflective coating. It does show fingerprints extremely easily though. The LCD display is mostly exposure-priority except in T and A mode where it only becomes so when the shutter is pressed halfway. The downside of this LCD is that it has limited contrast, hence images may appear over-exposed even when they are not. The live histogram is accurate enough to check exposure though.
To the right of the LCD, there is a 4-way controller with a button in its center and the control dial around it. This is in turn surrounded by 4 buttons: Shortcut, Play, Display and Menu. The Shortcut button is another customizable one which can be assigned one of thirteen functions. No need to enumerate all 13 options but the one-touch WB is worth noting since it provides the most efficient way to set custom white-balance. Just press and hold, no need to press the shutter, select an image, etc. It simply sets WB with what is in front of the camera. This is very well done.
This camera has an easy to navigate options system, partitioned into 2 sections: the FUNC section and the MENU section. The FUNC section groups commonly used functions: ISO, white-balance, bracketing, flash-compensation, metering and dive-mode, plus a few rarely used functions: color-mode and image-size. The MENU section gathers other rarely changed options.
Panorama-assist mode shows an easy to understand guide for lining up images but the preview is so small, it is difficult to align things precisely. Surely Canon could have used the entire width of the display.
Canon S90 Facts
Sensor-Size: 8 x 6mm
Actual size when viewed at 100 DPI
|10 Megapixels Fixed Lens||ISO 80-3200|
|3.8X Wide Optical Zoom||Shutter 1/1600-15s|
|Built-in Stabilization||Full manual controls, including Manual Focus|
|0.9 FPS Drive, Unlimited Images||Custom white-balance with 2 axis fine-tuning|
|640x480 @ 30 FPS Video Recording||Spot-Metering|
|3" LCD 460K Pixels||Lithium-Ion Battery|
|Secure Digital High Capacity|
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