Canon Powershot G11
The resolution race is over, apparently
Review Canon’s Powershot G-series has been a best seller for the best part of 10 years. What photographers have always loved in these cameras is the combination of pocketability with full manual control and direct access to all main settings by means of professional-looking dials and buttons.
No contest? Canon's Powershot G11
With the G11, Canon remains faithful to tradition but, surprisingly, it puts the brakes on the resolution contest and drops the 14.7Mp count of its G10  predecessor to 10Mp, all in the pursuit of better noise performance. Outwardly very similar to the G10, this model has just a few but fundamental changes.
The Powershot G11 gains what Canon describes as a High Sensitivity sensor; increased sensitivity range with a top setting of 3200 and a new Low Light mode with an extended scene-only speed of 12800. It also features a tilt and swivel 2.8in LCD, albeit smaller than the G10’s 3in fixed panel. In addition, there is a Quick Shot mode; White Balance fine-tuning and an HDMI socket.
Other key features are RAW image recording; i-Contrast to even out area of highlights and shadows in high contrast scenes; 26 shooting modes and the renowned DIGIC 4 processor. What the G11 loses is the sound recording option; the remote image capture and the Superfine JPEG file compression featured in the G10.
The design of the body has changed very little from the G10. However, the alloy has been replaced by varnished plastic to compensate for the extra weight of the tilt and swivel LCD, but the G11 maintains all the beautiful metal dials that made the G series the compact of choice of many DSLR owners.
The articulating LCD panel is smaller than the fixed screen of its predecessor
The dials are solidly built and provide direct manual control of the parameters most used by professional photographers, like exposure compensation, manual ISO control and shooting modes. These controls on the top plate of the camera are also designed to avoid accidental triggering or changes.
By contrast, the controls located at on the back panel are less steadfast, and I often found myself changing settings without realising. Indeed, the delete button – inserted close to the resting position of the right thumb – is easily activated by mistake. That said, the buttons on the rear of the camera are cleverly angled, which makes them easy to identify by touch. So, as the G11 becomes more familiar, these controls eventually become more difficult to press in error.
Manual controls maintain this compact's appeal among the pros
The G11 is large and heavy compared to most 5x compacts but feels quite balanced in your hand and gives you the sensation of handling a professional small camera. Appealing to professional photographers is the inclusion of a viewfinder, but the reduced size and limited 77 per cent vision together with an almost total lack of data indicators makes it practically superfluous. Canon went out of its way to design a compact that gives a similar shooting experience to a SLR, even down to an analogue-style light meter needle, so it’s a pity so little attention was paid to the most pro-friendly feature of all.
The lens itself is great for such a small camera and a main advantage over larger-sensor cameras like Olympus PEN E-P1  or Panasonic GF1, that offer either fixed lenses or interchangeable lenses at extra costs. The optical quality of the G11’s lens is the same of the G10, with very little softness at the edges and not much chromatic aberration, but the lower resolution of the G11’s sensor smoothes out any minor flaws and gives better overall image quality.
The in-built zoom lens is not only exceptionally bright and sharp for its size but it is also a versatile all-rounder with a Macro function capable of focusing as close as 0.8 cm, a wide angle with very sharp edges and a bright, stable 5x zoom.
However, The zoom lever surrounding the shutter was also a frustrating, with a less than smooth action and an annoying delay in responding. Considering that the 5x, 28-140mm, f/2.8-f/4.5 stabilized lens is one of the main selling points of this camera, it is a pain that accurate zooming to the desired focal length isn’t easier to achieve.
Great lens, but the zoom control lever lacks sensitivity
Canon’s image stabilisation greatly enhances the already excellent performance of the lens. It can be selected in two modes: Continuous for faster shooting or Shoot for maximum level of correction. A nice addition is the Panning option that helps reduce camera shake when tracking horizontally moving objects. The G11 includes a built-in flash unit that features nice professional manual settings like flash exposure compensation, rear-curtain sync and a new increased sync speed of 1/2000th of a second. The flash performs well as both main and fill-in light.
Sample Shots and Video
Despite its semi-professional ambitions the G11 is not a fast shooter. Power up is quite quick but nothing else is speedy. It takes over 1.5 seconds for the camera to display an image after capture and continuous shooting is a mere 0.8 frames per second.
Autofocus in low light was none too bright
Autofocus, which is usually one of Canon’s strengths, did not always perform well in tests, especially in low light. It is not particularly fast and too often either missed the main subject or took so long to find the focus plane that I missed my shot entirely. On paper the G11 should be able to focus in very dim light without the AF-assist lamp on but this wasn’t the case during tests. On the plus side, the G11 has two focusing aids that can be quite useful if you get used to them.
There’s the Flexizone AF, consisting of a focusing square that appears in the frame and that you can move around with the control dial to set the focus point on any area of the scene. The AF-point zoom alternative magnifies a portion of the scene within the focal point and overlays it to the normal image to check focus on relevant elements, like the eyes in a portrait for example.
While there is an issue with the pixel count reduction, it does not necessarily represent a giant step back. The biggest criticism the G10 received when launched was poor noise performance. So Canon had to make improvements in its next release.
The options were either, maintain the same resolution and increase the size of the sensor, as Micro Four Thirds cameras did, or decrease the resolution and maintain the same size sensor. The advantage of the latter is that Canon could keep the excellent small zoom lens of the G10, while preserving the same magnification ratio of a bigger lens.
The optical viewfinder is good to have, but lacks attention to detail
Canon decided to create a less dense (lower pixels count) sensor but boost its light gathering by increasing the size of the pixels. The result, in my view, is a much improved handling of noise and colour aberrations compared to the previous model and a very good overall image quality.
In use, you can only manually select a maximum of 3200 ISO. The Low Light mode has an automatic facility to increase the sensitivity range to up to 12800 ISO although this comes at the price of resolution which will automatically drop to 2.5Mp.
Still room for improvement, but the image quality is certainly impressive
These ISO boosts are a scene-only feature, meaning the user will not be able to select them directly from the ISO dial. It is interesting that in my test the camera never selected an ISO setting higher than 5000 when in Low Light mode, despite shooting in very dim environments. This is further confirmation of the outstanding performance of the new sensor, which enhances the performance of Canon's classic DIGIC 4 processor.
In light of the G11's ISO performance, it looks like Canon’s approach has paid off. The new sensor delivers outstanding low light pictures. Noise is negligible all the way to ISO 800 but even at 1600 and 3200 noise is handled very well, with good dynamic range, acceptable levels of detail and colour fringing.
The video mode of the G11 is nothing more than average with a standard resolution of 640 x 480 pixels at 30fps. Canon unfortunately does not enable the optical zoom while recording and limits recording length to 4GB or 1 hour.
Like most cameras in the G series, the G11 is certainly no looker – unless you like the old-fashioned, chunky rangefinder style – but it’s not meant to be. This is no gadget camera, rather a pocketable back-up option for the pro-photographer or serious amateur. Its strength lies in image quality and abundance of manual controls rather than stylish design and fun factor.
No doubt the G11 will have a tough job fending off large-sensor competitors, but shop around and you'll find it is still the best value-for-money option if you’re after a medium size compact with manual control and semi-professional output. I just wish Canon could redesign the viewfinder to make it a real image composition alternative to the LCD screen. ®
Catherine Monfils  is a professional photographer specialising in portraiture, lifestyle and fashion.
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