Canon Powershot S90
DSLR price and pretensions
Review The S90 marks the re-introduction of Canon’s acclaimed PowerShot S series. Aimed at the serious amateur or professional photographer, it combines full manual capability with the simple design of a point-and-shoot, all in a pocket size camera with near-DSLR performance. Unsurprisingly, it comes with the hefty price tag of £449.
Canon's Powershot S90 marks the return of the S-series
To justify its price the S90 comes with an array of professional features packed into its small and stylish case. The 10Mp sensor also features on its bigger brother, the G11 and utilises Canon's latest DIGIC 4 processor with its Dual Anti-Noise System that allows low light shooting without increased noise. Perhaps more surprising is that currently, the PowerShot S90 is the smallest compact camera to shoot in Raw format. With no optical viewfinder the S90 relies on a 3in LCD display comprised of 461,000 dots.
First impressions are a sleek and elegant compact, but the handling was not entirely satisfying. The matt black finish of the case gives a sense of solidity while the sparse body design with its hidden pop out flash has an odd retro feel to it. At 100 x 58.4 x 30.9mm and 175g, the camera is small and light, but Canon seems to have sacrificed function in favour form.
The lack of any kind of grip is, for any keen photographer, a bit of an obstacle to a smooth shooting experience. Canon has also changed the traditional position and design of the shutter button making pressing the correct button somehow less immediate. After some practice you get used to the new layout but, initially, attempts to take photos by pressing the Program Dial instead, was a common occurrence.
In addition there is not a dedicated button to activate or deactivate the flash, so this is done through the selection of the appropriate settings, and it's always a bit of surprise when it pops up, especially as the flash is positioned in line with the natural grip of the left forefinger. Unless you pay specific attention to the left hand position, it’s all too easy to obstruct the flash.
With no traditional viewfinder, the sharp, bright LCD panel handles image framing
One of the best features of this new baby is the introduction of a Control Ring, a rotary collar at the base of the lens barrel programmed to adjust the settings of various functions according to the mode you are in or the function you assign to it. For example, in Auto mode the ring allows you to switch between focal lengths, acting almost as a manual zoom, while used in Program mode it becomes a manual focusing dial.
You can program the ring to adjust focus, shutter speed, aperture, exposure compensation, white balance or ISO by activating the Ring Function button located on the top plate of the camera. The feel of the dial is reminiscent of the manual shutter ring of an analogue 35 mm, with the same clicking and intuitive operation, adding a distinct nostalgic mood that will appeal to all old school film users.
The Control Ring can have different functions assigned to it including focus
The Control Ring also works in combination with a Control Dial at the back of the camera to quickly change settings. With the latter, its behaviour is markedly different from the smooth and precise action of the Ring, and has a much looser motion and moves far too fast for precision, often resulting in unwanted changes.
In use, the Control Dial is extremely efficient in Scene Mode where allows you to swiftly change scene type with one quick finger move. The combination of these selector dials together with a customisable Shortcut (S) button makes for some very intelligent and fast control of almost all the camera settings without the need to access menus and submenus.
The S90 mounts an impressively sharp and bright lens with an f/2.0-4.9 aperture range and an optically stabilized 3.8x zoom covering the classic 28-105mm range with very little optical distortion. The PowerShot S90 also has a wealth of shooting modes. In brief these are: Auto, Program, Aperture priority, Shutter priority, Manual, Scene, Movie, Low Light. There are over 20 speciality scene modes too, covering virtually any lighting or subject condition.
The pop-up flash has is handy, but could be better implemented
For the snapshot enthusiast Canon has included a Smart Auto mode with Scene Detection Technology. This intelligent automatic application works by evaluating the shooting conditions – including recognising moving objects and locking exposure and focus on target – and applying the most suitable settings for the situation.
The Scene Recognition works quite well in most environments, producing spot-on exposures when detecting the correct scene. However, in testing the camera occasionally misinterpreted shooting conditions and applied settings for the wrong scene.
The Control Ring can work with the Control Dial, each changing different functions such as shutter and aperture
Performing well in most conditions was Face Recognition, as you can actually choose face you want to focus on with the camera automatically adjusting the white balance and the exposure – particularly useful to avoid washout flash portraits. Despite Canon’s claim that the feature is able to recognize up to 35 faces per frame at almost all angles, its performance is not always efficient in profiles. Blink Detection is included too and adds to the sophisticated and accurate portrait technology offered by such a small camera.
The real crowd pleaser though, is the S90’s low light capabilities. There’s an incredible amount of detail preserved in the nighttime shots. Apart from the brighter lens, the optical Image Stabiliser (IS) works wonders in reducing camera shake and image blur. This, coupled with the noise reduction processing, delivers the best available light performance we’ve seen see in a compact camera.
If you want to be truly nocturnal, the Low Light shooting mode stretches the sensitivity to a whopping ISO 12800 while dropping the resolution to 2.5Mp – a clever compromise, if high resolution is not an issue.
At the other extreme, Intelligent Contrast – available in most recent Canon models – automatically improves detail in dark areas without affecting correctly exposed areas in high contrast situations. Among its more professional features advanced options like Exposure and Focus bracketing. Added to the picture the user takes in manual mode are two more shots taken with slightly different camera settings to compensate for shooting mistakes in the original.
While not the longest of zoom lenses, it's wide-angle f/2 aperture is ideal in low light
Focus bracketing is useful in situations with limited depth of field, such as macro photography, where one may want to make a series of exposures with different positions of the focal plane and then choose the one in which the largest or more significant portion of the subject is in focus.
The S90 delivers absolutely flawless photo quality with impressive noise characteristics, even at high ISO speeds. Apart from some mild luminance noise and softening of detail at the highest end, the level of noise favourably compares to some of the best entry-level DSLRs and is far above any other point-and-shoot or compact cameras. Colour quality was pretty accurate too, if a little bit on the cool side. Also, exposure and white balance were, in line with Canon’s tradition, generally first-class from the S90.
Excellent images, but at a price
With this backdrop of image quality excellence, it was rather disappointing that camera handling was not matched by a similar performance. The S90 is a slow shooter with one frame per second in continuous shooting and a significant shutter lag delay, half a second to focus and shoot in normal light conditions. This could be a real disadvantage, as it makes an otherwise brilliant and versatile camera totally unsuitable for fast moving subjects.
Another disappointment was battery life. The already diminutive 220 shots turned out to be far less during testing, to a level that is not quite acceptable considering that most compact cameras have double the battery life span of the S90. Finally some users might be put off by the Movie mode with its maximum VGA-quality, and at a time when HD video recording starts to make an appearance on mobile phones.
Using the S90, the combination of user-friendly technology, small size and sheer DSLR power is quite addictive. With this new S-series model Canon has raised the bar on compact camera technology, but there's more to a camera than circuitry and some handling issues need to be addressed. Yet, despite some design flaws and slow performance, you can't help but love this camera. ®
Catherine Monfils  is a professional photographer specialising in portraiture, lifestyle and fashion.
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