Originally Posted: December 9, 2009
Last Updated: April 23, 2010
The Canon PowerShot S90 ($429) is an ultra-compact camera with a "high sensitivity" 10 Megapixel CCD, a fast 28 - 105 mm lens with image stabilization, a high resolution 3-inch LCD display, full manual controls, RAW support, customizable controls, and more. While the S90 may seem like the replacement for the PowerShot S80 (introduced way back in 2005), the cameras actually have very little in common.
The S90's main competitors include the Fuji FinePix F200EXR, Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX1 - - all of which are marketed as good low light shooters. Will the PowerShot S90 be the new low light champ? Find out now in our review!
What's in the Box?
The PowerShot S90 has an average bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:
- The 10.0 effective Megapixel PowerShot S90 digital camera
- NB-6L lithium-ion battery
- Battery charger
- Wrist strap
- USB cable
- A/V cable
- CD-ROM featuring Canon Digital Camera Solution
- 179 page camera manual (printed)
The PowerShot S90 does not come with a memory card, nor does it have any built-in memory. That means that you'll need to buy a memory card right away, unless you happen to have one sitting around already. The S90 supports SD, SDHC, MMC, MMCplus, and HC MMCplus media, though I'd stick with the first two if I were you. A 2GB card is a good size to start with, and it's definitely worth spending a little extra for a high speed model, though you don't need to go overboard.
The PowerShot S90 uses the same NB-6L lithium-ion battery as some of Canon's Digital ELPH models. This compact battery packs 3.5 Wh of energy, which is on the lower end of average by compact camera standards. Let's see how that translates into battery life:
All of the cameras in the table above feature wide-angle lenses, 2.7 or 3.0 inch LCDs, and image stabilization. As you can see, the PowerShot S90 has the second lowest battery life in the group. In other words, you may want to consider buying a spare battery.
I do want to mention the usual issues about the proprietary batteries used by the S90 and every other camera on the above list. They're expensive (a spare will set you back at least $39), and you can't use an off-the-shelf battery when your rechargeable runs out of juice. For better or for worse, you're stuck with them on nearly all compact cameras these days.
When it's time to charge the battery, just pop it into the included charger. The charger plugs directly into the wall, and takes approximately just under two hours to fully charge the NB-6L.
As with all ultra-compact cameras, the PowerShot S90 has a built-in lens cover, so there's no clunky lens cap to deal with.
There are a just a few accessories available for the S90. They include:
As you can see, there aren't any lens accessories available for the PowerShot S90. Then again, you'd be hard-pressed to find a camera this small that supports them!
CameraWindow in Mac OS X
Canon includes version 54 of their Digital Camera Solution Disk with the PowerShot S90 (I think they skipped everything in the 40 range). The first part of the software suite that you'll probably encounter is Camera Window (pictured above), which you'll use to transfer images to your computer, organize photos on the camera (meaning delete or protect), and adjust a few camera settings (startup screen, sounds, theme) as well.
ImageBrowser in Mac OS X
After you've transferred photos to your computer, you'll find yourself in either ImageBrowser or ZoomBrowser, which are for Mac and Windows respectively. The Browser software lets you view, organize, e-mail, and print your photos. If you categorized any photos on the camera (more on this later), then this information is transferred into the Browser software.
Editing in ImageBrowser
Double-click on a thumbnail and you'll bring up the edit window. Editing functions include trimming, redeye removal, plus the ability to adjust levels, color, brightness, sharpness, and the tone curve. There's also an auto adjustment option for those who want a quick fix.
While Browser can open RAW files, it cannot edit them or export them to JPEGs. For RAW editing you'll need to use...
Digital Photo Professional in Mac OS X
... Digital Photo Professional, which is normally found on Canon's D-SLRs (and not their compact cameras). The main screen isn't too different from Image/ZoomBrowser, with your choice of three thumbnail sizes, plus a thumbnail w/shooting data screen. The batch processing tool lets you quickly resize and rename a large number of photos.
RAW editing in DPP
The RAW editing tools in DPP are fairly elaborate. You can adjust exposure, white balance, the tone curve, color saturation, sharpness, and noise reduction. The software is very responsive, with nearly instant updates to the image after you change a parameter.
If you're using Photoshop CS4 or a recent version of Photoshop Elements, you'll be able to open the RAW images if you're using version 5.6 or newer of the Camera Raw plug-in.
What is RAW, anyway? RAW images contain unprocessed image data direct from the camera's sensor. Thus, you can adjust settings like white balance and exposure without damaging the original image, so it's almost like taking the photo again. The downside is the large file size (compared to JPEG), fewer shots in continuous shooting mode, and the need to post-process each image on your computer before you can turn it into a more common format like JPEG.
PhotoStitch in Mac OS X
The last part of the Canon software suite that I want to mention is PhotoStitch. As you can see, this allows you to combine multiple photos into a single panoramic image. It's super easy to use, and the results can be impressive. While using the S90's Stitch Assist feature isn't required to make panoramas, it does help you line things up correctly, so there are no "seams" in the final product.
Canon includes a fairly thick and detailed manual with the PowerShot S90. It's not the most user-friendly manual out there (though I like the "what do you want to do?" section at the beginning), but you should find answers to any questions you may have. Documentation for the included software as well for direct printing (via PictBridge) is included in digital format on a CD-ROM.
Look and Feel
For those of you who remember the old PowerShot S80 (and the models that came before it), you'll recall that it was a midsize camera with a sliding door that covered the lens and flash. These cameras had wide-angle lenses, large LCDs (for that time), an optical viewfinder, and manual controls. While the PowerShot S90 retains the wide-angle lens, manual controls, and large LCD of its predecessor, it's a much smaller and sleeker camera. It's not one of those ultra-thin cameras, but it's still quite portable. The S90 is made of a combination of metal and plastic, and it feels pretty solid in your hands. Operating the camera with just one hand is very easy.
It's not often that I make a bullet-point list of all the issues I have with the ergonomics and usability of a camera. However, since the PowerShot S90 has quite a few things that just drove me nuts, I'm making an exception. They include:
- Control ring around the lens: It does not protrude very far from the camera, and the functions it offers aren't terribly useful -- and they change in each shooting mode. Probably the most useful thing it can do is control the manual focus, though some folks may like the Step Zoom function (which is the default in Auto mode)
- Control dial on the back of the camera: Your thumb often rests on it, and since it spins freely (it's not "notchy" at all), adjusting something accidentally is very easy. Its default function is exposure compensation, and let me tell you, I was adjusting this all the time when I didn't want to. There needs to be a button press involved before this dial becomes active.
- Top of the camera: Everything is flush with the camera, so you can't tell anything apart. The power and Ring Func buttons are right next to each other and feel exactly the same. I frequently pressed the Ring Func button when I just wanted to turn the camera off. In my opinion, the Ring Function options belong in a menu somewhere. I also found the zoom controller and shutter release button to be quite small
- The flash: When the flash is activated, it raises automatically. The problem is, it pops up right where you're right to hold the camera, cutting the amount of space for your left fingers in half.
In other words, try the PowerShot S90 before you buy it. While these things drove me up the wall, they may not bother you at all.
Alright, enough babbling, let's see how the S90 compares to our group of cameras from earlier in terms of size and weight now:
I was not expecting the S90 to be one of the larger cameras in this group, and I was really surprised to see how close in size it is to the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3. As I said, the S90 isn't one of those ultra-thin cameras (though Canon has plenty of those), but it fits in most pockets or a small bag with ease.
Okay, let's start our tour of the PowerShot S90, beginning with the front.
One of the biggest features on the PowerShot S90 is its fast and wide 3.8X zoom lens. When the lens is at the wide-angle position, the maximum aperture is F2.0, which is a full stop (or more) faster than a typical compact camera lens. What this means is that the lens lets in twice the amount of light as your typical compact camera. At the telephoto end of things, the maximum aperture is a more conventional F4.9. The focal range of this 3.8X lens is 6.0 - 22.5 mm, which is equivalent to 28 - 105 mm. The lens is not threaded, and conversion lenses are not supported.
Around the lens is a rotating ring whose function can be customized. I already mentioned a few things about it earlier, and I'll have a bit more in a few paragraphs.
The PowerShot S90 features an optical image stabilization system. As most of you know, photos taken in low light or at the telephoto end of the lens can easily turn out blurry. The image stabilization system has sensors which detect the tiny movements of your hands that can blur your photos, and it shifts one of the lens elements to compensate for this movement. While image stabilization can't freeze a moving subject or let you take a 2 second handheld exposure, it does make a sharp photo a lot more likely in challenging conditions (and the S90's fast lens doesn't hurt, either). Want to see the image stabilization system in action? Have a look at this:
Image stabilization off
Image stabilization on
I took both of the above photos at the very slow shutter speed of 1/3 of a second. As you can see, with image stabilization turned on (and set to "shooting only") you got a very sharp photo, as opposed to the blurry mess in the unstabilized photo. You can also use the IS system while you're recording movies, and you can see it in action in this brief video clip.
To the upper-right of the lens is the S90's pop-up flash. This flash rises automatically when you activate the flash, and when you disable it, it goes back down. The flash is quite powerful at wide-angle, and so-so at telephoto. The flash range is 0.5 - 6.5 m at wide-angle and 0.5 - 2.5 m at telephoto with the ISO set to Auto. While Canon does offer an external flash for the S90, do note that it's a slave flash that does not integrate with the camera in any way.
Just to the right of the Canon logo is the microphone, with the AF-assist lamp above it. The camera uses the AF-assist lamp as a focusing aid in low light situations, and it's also used to reduce redeye and signal when the self-timer is counting down.
On the back of the camera you'll find a large and very sharp 3-inch LCD display. This screen -- probably the same one that's on the PowerShot G11 -- features 461,000 pixels, which is twice the resolution found on most compact camera LCDs. Outdoor visibility is very good, and in low light the screen brightens up nicely, so you can still see your subject.
Unlike its the cameras that came before it, the PowerShot S90 does not have an optical viewfinder. Of course, it's a lot smaller than the PowerShot S80, so there's not as much room for one, but it would've been a nice touch. As I always say, whether the lack of a viewfinder is a "big deal" is sort of up to you.
Now let's talk about the stuff to the right of the LCD. The thing between the mode dial and the buttons is a thumb rest, though I found that my thumb sat on the four-way controller, as well. The top two buttons are the Shortcut and Playback buttons. The Shortcut button is customizable, and by default it does nothing (I'll tell you what it can do later in the review). When you're connected to a photo printer, this button will print the photo you're currently viewing. The Playback button does exactly as it sounds.
Under those is the combination four-way controller and control dial. The dial is used for many things, including navigating menus, quickly skimming through photos you've taken, and adjusting exposure settings. As I mentioned earlier, the control dial spins freely (it doesn't "click" between each stop), and it's very easy to turn accidentally. The four-way controller can be used for many of the same things, and it also does the following:
- Up - Exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV, 1/3EV increments) + Jump (playback option)
- Down - Self-timer (Off, custom, face) - see below
- Left - Focus (Normal, macro, manual) + AF lock (hold down shutter release halfway and press left to activate) - see below
- Right - Flash (Auto, on, slow synchro, off) - any setting besides off will result in the flash raising
- Center - Function menu (see below) + Set
The PowerShot S90 has two very cool self-timer modes. Gone are the regular 2 or 10 second options -- now the whole thing's customizable. Using the control ring and the four-way controller, you can set the timer delay (0 - 10 secs) as well as how many photos are taken (1 - 10). The other mode (face self-timer) waits until a new face enters the frame (presumably it's that of the photographer) before taking anywhere from one to ten photos. You may never have to run from the camera to your photo spot again!
Manual focus mode (center-frame enlargement not shown)
In addition to the usual auto and macro focus modes, the S90 has a manual focus option. This feature lets you use the command dial to set the focus distance yourself (you can also use the ring around the lens, if you change some settings). A guide showing the focus distance is displayed on the right side of the LCD, and the center of the frame is enlarged, as well.
Pressing the center button on the four-way controller options up the Function menu, which has these options:
- ISO speed (80 - 3200, 1/3-stop increments)
- White balance (Auto, daylight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent, fluorescent H, flash. underwater, custom) - see below
- My Colors (Off, vivid, neutral, sepia, black & white, positive film, lighter skin tone, darker skin tone, vivid blue, vivid green, vivid red, custom color) - see below
- Bracketing (Off, exposure, focus) - see below
- Flash compensation/output (-2EV to +2EV or 1/3, 2/3, Full) - choices depend on shooting mode
- Metering (Evaluative, center-weighted, spot)
- Drive mode (Single-shot, continuous, continuous AF) - see below
- Image size/quality (see chart later in review)
Fine-tuning white balance
The S90 has a pretty nice set of white balance controls. In addition to the usual presets, there's also a custom spot, which allow to use a white or gray card to get accurate color in unusual lighting conditions. You can fine-tune any of the white balance items, in the amber-blue and/or green-magenta directions. Two things you can't do on the PowerShot S90: bracket for white balance or manually set the color temperature.
Sharpness is one of the settings you can adjust with the Custom Color option
The My Colors feature should be self-explanatory, save for the custom color option. This one lets you manually adjust contrast, sharpness, saturation, as well as red/green/blue/skin tone levels. There are two other My Colors options (Color Accent and Color Swap) that I'll tell you about in a bit.
The S90 has the ability to bracket for exposure and focus. For exposure, the camera takes three photos in a row, each with a different exposure value. The interval between each shot can be as little as 1/3EV or as much as 1EV. Focus bracketing is something that you can use in manual focus mode. The camera also takes three shots in a row: one at the manual focus position, a second a little closer, and a third a little further away. You can adjust how large the interval between each shot is, though it's not specific (just small, medium, or large).
Now let's get into the continuous shooting mode on the PowerShot S90. There are three continuous modes on the camera: regular (which locks the focus on the first shot), AF (which refocuses before each shot), and LV (locks focus on first shot; for manual focus, AF lock, and fireworks mode only). Here's what kind of performance you can expect from the S90's continuous modes:
While the ability to shoot until your (high speed) memory card fills up, the PowerShot S90's burst rate is pretty lousy. I'm not saying that the competition is a whole lot better (save for the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX1), but I expected better from this fairly pricey camera. The LCD does lag behind the action a bit when shooting continuously, which makes tracking a moving subject a bit difficult.
Returning to the tour now: the last two items on the back of the camera are the Display and Menu buttons. The Display button toggles the information shown on the LCD, while the Menu button does exactly as you'd expect.
There's plenty more to see on the top of the camera. I mentioned earlier how the flash takes up valuable finger space when it's popped up, and you can see what I'm talking about in the above photo.
Control ring options
At the center of the photo we find the Power and Ring Function buttons, which feel nearly identical, which is why I ended up pressing the wrong button so many times. I suppose now's a good a time as any to talk about the control ring around the lens. As you can see, it's fairly small, and I found myself using either of my middle fingers to rotate it. In Auto mode it will let you adjust the zoom to common focal lengths (28, 35, 50, 85, 105), and in the P/A/S/M modes it will adjust the ISO, exposure compensation, shutter speed, or aperture. You can also set the ring to fine-tune the white balance or manually focus. While I liked having this ring for adjusting focus and the shutter speed or aperture, I could easily live without its other functions.
Next up we have the shutter release button, which has the zoom controller wrapped around it. Both of these are on the small side, in my opinion. The zoom controller moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in about 1.8 seconds. I counted ten steps in the S90's 3.8X zoom range. Two other things I noticed: one, the zoom seems a bit unresponsive when you want to make a small adjustment. It's like the camera has to think about it for a fraction of a second. Perhaps more bothersome is that the camera does not display the current zoom setting on the LCD, so you never really know where you're at.
The last item on the top of the PowerShot S90 is an important one -- the mode dial. The options here include:
As you can see, the PowerShot S90 offers a full set of manual controls, and you can also save your favorite camera settings to a spot on the mode dial.
In Smart Auto mode, the camera will select a scene mode for you, even detecting when you're using a tripod. If you want to select a scene mode yourself, you can do that too. A new scene mode is called Nostalgic: as you turn the control ring the photo "ages", getting more faded and "rougher" as you increase the strength of the effect. Some other scene modes of note include color accent (select a color to keep, everything else turns to black and white), color swap (exchange one color for another), and Stitch Assist (line up photos side-by-side for later stitching into a single photo).
Another new feature is the same Low Light shooting mode that can also be found on the PowerShot G11. Low light mode reduces the resolution to 2.5 Megapixel and boosts the ISO as high as 12,800. This can often lead to images that are too noisy even for small prints. If the ISO doesn't go too high you can get decent results (example), but if you see the camera using ISO 3200 or higher, don't expect much.
And that's all for the top of the PowerShot S90!
Nothing much to see here. The flash is (obviously) popped up, and the lens is at full wide-angle in this photo.
On the opposite side of the camera you'll find it's I/O ports, which are kept under plastic covers. The port on the top is HDMI (for connecting to an HDTV -- cable not included), while on the bottom you'll find a single port that handles both USB and A/V output. In case you're wondering where the optional AC adapter goes: the camera uses a DC coupler, which is a battery with a power cable coming out of it. The cable feeds through a hole in the bottom of the battery door.
The lens is at the full telephoto position in this photo.
On the bottom of the S90 you'll find a metal tripod mount (hidden from view here), plus the battery/memory card compartment. The door that covers this compartment is reinforced and fairly sturdy, though it feels like it could still snap off if forced. As you can probably guess, you won't be able to get at this compartment while the camera is sitting on a tripod.
The included NB-6L battery can be seen at right.
Using the Canon PowerShot S90
It takes just about a second for the PowerShot S90 to extend its lens and prepare for shooting -- pretty snappy.
There's a live histogram on the S90
Autofocus speeds were decent, but not spectacular. You'll wait for between 0.2 and 0.5 seconds at wide-angle and 0.6 - 0.9 seconds at telephoto for the camera to lock focus. The camera focused quickly and accurately in low light, with focus times staying under a second in most circumstances.
Shutter lag wasn't noticeable at fast shutter speeds, though I noticed a tiny bit at slower shutter speeds, though you should really be using the flash or a tripod at that point.
Shot-to-shot times ranged from around 1.5 seconds for JPEGs to 3 seconds for a RAW+JPEG combo. The flash is slow to charge, which brings those times up to around four seconds.
You can delete a picture after you've taken it by pressing the down button on the four-way controller.
Now, here's a look at the image size and quality choices available on the camera:
As the table illustrates, the PowerShot S90 can take a RAW image alone, or along with a Large/Fine JPEG. Old time Canon users may also notice that there is no longer a "super fine" JPEG quality setting anymore.
Alright, let's move onto the menu system now!
The PowerShot S90 has an high resolution version of the standard Canon menu system. It feels a little slow moving at times, but it gets the job done. If you want, the camera can display a description of each menu item, which can be helpful to beginners. The menu is divided into three tabs (when in record mode): shooting, setup, and My Menu. Here's what you'll find in that first tab:
- AF frame (Face AiAF, center) - see below
- AF frame size (Normal, small) - see below
- Digital zoom (Standard, off, 1.4X, 2.3X) - see below
- AF-point zoom (on/off) - enlarges the focus point or the detected faces when you halfway press the shutter release
- Servo AF (on/off) - camera focuses even with shutter release halfway-pressed, useful for tracking a moving subject
- AF-assist beam (on/off)
- MF-point zoom (on/off) - enlarges the center of the frame in manual focus mode
- Safety MF (on/off) - activate autofocus momentarily when using manual focus by halfway-pressing the shutter release button
- Flash settings
- Flash mode (Auto, manual) - the latter lets you adjust the flash strength; only available in the manual shooting modes
- Flash exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV, in 1/3EV increments)
- Flash output (Minimum, medium, maximum) - only available with flash mode set to manual
- Shutter sync (1st-curtain, 2nd-curtain)
- Redeye correction (on/off) - digital redeye removal, as the photo is taken
- Redeye reduction lamp (on/off) - uses the AF-assist lamp to shrink your subject's pupils to reduce the risk of redeye
- Safety FE (on/off) - whether the camera adjusts the shutter speed or aperture to avoid overexposure when using the flash
- i-Contrast (Auto, off) - see below
- Safety shift (on/off) - camera will adjust the shutter speed or aperture as needed to obtain a proper exposure when in the priority modes
- Wind filter (on/off) - reduces wind noise when recording movies outdoors
- Review (Off, 2-10 seconds, hold) - post-shot review
- Review info (Off, detailed, focus check) - detailed shows you shooting data and a histogram; focus check enlarges the focus point or faces
- Blink detection (on/off) - puts up a warning screen if someone in your photo had their eyes closed
- Custom display settings - you can have two sets of these, which you toggle by pressing the Display button
- Shooting info (on/off)
- Grid lines (on/off)
- 3:2 guide (on/off)
- Histogram (on/off)
- IS mode (Continuous, shoot only, panning, off) - see below
- Date stamp (Off, date, date & time)
- Record RAW+JPEG (on/off) - here's how you turn on RAW+JPEG mode
- Set Shortcut button (Off, face select, ISO, metering, white balance, custom WB, servo AF, digital teleconverter, redeye correction, i-Contrast, AE lock, AF lock, display off) - define what this button does
- Save settings - save your favorite camera settings to the custom spot on the mode dial
The camera found three of the six faces in our test scene
There are two AF modes on the PowerShot S90: Face AiAF and center AF. Face AiAF combines multi-point autofocus with face detection. If the camera detects any faces, it will give them focus priority, making sure white balance and exposure are accurate. If there aren't any faces, it'll switch to 9-point autofocus. The camera's face detection system can locate up to nine faces in the frame, and you can select one of them to track as they move around the scene (note that you must assign this function to the shortcut button first). The face detection system was a bit flakier than it was on the G11, though the camera detected 3 or 4 faces fairly easily (I think some Canon cameras just don't like this test). There's also a blink detection feature that warns you if one of your subjects had their eyes closed in the photo you just took.
The other AF mode simply focuses on the center of the frame. You can select from a normal or small focus point. The S90 does not have the FlexiZone AF of the PowerShot G11 and a few other Canon models, nor does it have continuous AF.
The camera has a number of digital zoom options, all of which can reduce the quality of your photo if you use too much of it. However, if you're willing to lower the resolution a bit, you can safely use the standard digital zoom setting without reducing image quality, as long as you stop at the right time (the camera will warn you). At the M2 (4 MP) setting you can get 5.3X of total zoom without a loss of quality, while at M3 (2 MP) you get 8.7X.
The S90 has the same i-Contrast feature as many other PowerShot models. This feature promises to reduce over or underexposed areas of a photo, but in practice, I rarely see much of a difference (which is why I don't bother with examples of this one). If you do take a photo that could use some brightening, you can also use this feature in playback mode.
What are those three IS modes all about? Continuous mode activates the OIS system as soon as you halfway press the shutter release, which helps you compose the photo without camera shake. The "shoot only" option doesn't turn it on until the photo is actually taken, which improves the performance of the OIS system. The panning mode only stabilizes up and down motion, and you'll want to use this while tracking a moving subject horizontally. You can also turn the whole thing off, which is advisable if you're using a tripod.
Now, here's what you'll find in the setup tab of the menu:
- Mute (on/off) - quickly turn off the camera's beeps and blips
- Startup volume (Off, 1-5)
- Operation volume (Off, 1-5)
- Self-timer volume (Off, 1-5)
- Shutter volume (Off, 1-5)
- Sound options
- Startup sound (1-3)
- Operation sound (1-3)
- Self-timer sound (1-3)
- Shutter sound (1-3)
- Hints & Tips (on/off) - gives you a description of menu items
- LCD brightness (1-5)
- Startup image (Off, 1-3)
- Card format
- File numbering (Continuous, auto reset)
- Create folder (Monthly, daily)
- Lens retract (0 sec, 1 min) - how quickly the lens retracts when you enter playback mode
- Power saving
- Auto power down (on/off)
- Display off (10, 20, 30 sec, 1-3 min)
- Time zone (Home, world)
- Distance units (m/cm, ft/in)
- Video system (NTSC, PAL)
- Reset all - back to defaults
The last tab in the menu is called My Menu, a feature normally reserved for digital SLRs. You can select what items you want here, and whether the camera goes to this menu (instead of the record menu) when you press the Menu button. Definitely a handy thing to have!
That's all for menus, let's get to photo quality now.
The PowerShot S90 did an excellent job with our macro test subject. The color is nicely saturated, with the camera's custom white balance feature handling our studio lamps with ease. The subject has a very smooth appearance, yet plenty of detail is still captured. I see a tiny bit of noise in the shadows near the bottom of the figurine, but it's not nearly enough to concern me.
Canon lists a minimum focus distance of 5 cm at wide-angle, but they don't say what it is at the telephoto end of the lens. After a little digging around, I think that the minimum distance at telephoto is 30 cm.
The S90 performed well in our night scene test, as well. I can't zoom in as much as I normally do, since this lens tops out at 105 mm. If you want to take a long exposure like this, you can use the Auto mode (which should select the night scene automatically and can even detect if you're using a tripod), the dedicated night scene mode, or one of the manual shooting modes. Whichever method you choose, you should be able to bring in enough light for a properly exposed photo. The buildings in the photo are fairly sharp, though you will spot some noise right away, though details remain (mostly) intact. While highlight clipping isn't a huge issue, you will notice some moderate levels of purple and cyan fringing in various places.
Now, let's use that same scene to see how the S90 performed at higher ISOs:
There's not much of a difference between the first two crops. At ISO 200 there's a bit more noise, but not enough to hold you back from midsize or large prints. At ISO 400 we start to see some detail loss, so this is probably as high as I'd go with the S90, at least if you're shooting JPEGs. The ISO 800 photo has a fair amount of noise and detail loss, though it could still be used if you do a little post-processing (see below). I would say that the ISO 1600 and especially the ISO 3200 settings are too noisy to be usable.
You can usually squeeze more detail out of a camera by shooting with the RAW format and doing some post-processing. So, let's take that ISO 800 shot and see if we can't clean things up a bit. I converted the RAW image using Digital Photo Professional (with the noise reduction turned down), removed noise using NeatImage, and then applied a little Unsharp Mask in Photoshop. Here are the results of that:
JPEG, straight out of the camera
RAW -> JPEG conversion (DPP)
RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask
While it's not a miraculous improvement, the cleaned up photo is definitely better than the JPEG that came straight out of the camera. There's more grainy noise in the photo, but a lot more detail as well.
We'll do a normal light ISO test in a little bit.
There's very little barrel distortion at the wide end of the PowerShot S90's 28 - 105 mm lens. Do note that only JPEGs will look like this, as the camera is correcting for barrel distortion automatically -- RAW images will have a lot more distortion. This test also shows some mild vignetting (dark corners), which showed up in a few real world photos. There was also a bit of corner blurriness, but it's not nearly as bad as what you'll find on most ultra-compact cameras (including some from Canon).
The PowerShot S90 uses both the AF-assist lamp and software to remove redeye from your photos. As you can see, there isn't any redeye in this photo.That was a nice surprise, since ultra-compact cameras almost always have big problems with redeye. Do remember that this test isn't close to scientific and that your results may vary!
Now it's time for the studio ISO test. Since the lighting is always the same, you can compare these results with those from other cameras I've reviewed over the years. I'll be reusing this scene several times in this section, so grab a cup of coffee and let's get going!
Everything looks great through ISO 400 -- large prints won't be a problem. Things start to soften up at ISO 800, with some mild detail smudging. Still, very usable, especially considering that this is an ultra-compact camera. ISO 1600 is softer still, and is best for small prints only. I'd probably best on ISO 3200, unless you're willing to shoot RAW.
Speaking of RAW, let's clean up the ISO 1600 and 3200 images and see how they look. Again, I'm using Digital Photo Professional (with noise reduction turned down) to convert the files, instead of the usual Photoshop.
JPEG, straight out of the camera
RAW -> JPEG conversion (DPP)
RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask
JPEG, straight out of the camera
RAW -> JPEG conversion (DPP)
RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask
Now that's some nice improvement! ISO 1600 can now be used for larger prints, and ISO 3200 is a lot more usable, as well. You probably don't want to post-process your low sensitivity shots, but if you're at the upper end of the ISO spectrum, it's definitely worth spending them time doing some post-processing.
For my last trick, I want to compare the PowerShot S90 against three other "low light" cameras: the Fuji FinePix F200EXR, Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX1. To level the playing field, I lowered the resolution of the FinePix's photos from 12 to 10 Megapixel. I also brightened up the very dark images from the DSC-WX1. Let's see how the PowerShot S90 compares to the rest of the pack, at least in terms of JPEG output:
Canon PowerShot S90
FinePix F200EXR (downsized)
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX1 (brightened)
Canon PowerShot S90
FinePix F200EXR (downsized)
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX1 (brightened)
At ISO 800, the best looking photo comes from the Fuji FinePix F200EXR, in my opinion. The DMC-LX3 looks pretty good as well. The PowerShot S90's JPEGs get fairly soft at high ISOs, but there's not a lot of visible noise, either. The DSC-WX1 is kind of in the middle in terms of noise, but it's color is pretty awful (at least in my studio). The results are pretty much the same one stop higher, with the FinePix again having the best sharpness and most detail. The LX3 shows a lot of noise, but it's still quite sharp. The S90's image is soft -- almost blurry -- while the crop from the DSC-WX1 has quite a bit of detail loss.
Keep in mind that the results above are for JPEGs only. Both the PowerShot S90 and the Lumix DMC-LX3 are capable of shooting RAW, and if you're willing to use that format and post-process a little bit, you'll get results that are better than the other cameras in the group.
For my last trick, I am going to attempt to show if there's a significant improvement between the PowerShot S90 and a camera with a conventional CCD (in other words, one that's not known for its high sensitivity skills). I selected Panasonic's ultra-compact Lumix DMC-FX580 as my "victim" for this test, and downsized its 12 Megapixel images down to 10 MP.
Canon PowerShot S90
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX580 (downsized)
Canon PowerShot S90
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX580 (downsized)
The FX580's results are typical of most (but not all) compact cameras -- pretty noisy, especially at ISO 1600. The PowerShot S90's photos have a lot less noise and are much more usable, especially if you do the RAW processing I showed you earlier.
All things considered, the PowerShot S90 produces very good quality photos for an ultra-compact camera. Exposure was generally accurate though like the majority of compact cameras, highlight clipping can be a problem at times. I have no complaints about color -- everything is nice and saturated. Images have the "smooth" appearance that is a Canon trademark, though they're right on the edge of being a bit soft. As I mentioned back in the distortion test, you will spot some very mild vignetting at times, as well as slight corner blurring. I also spotted some "jaggies" in this photo. As for noise: you will spot some noise at the base ISO if you look in the shadows. You will also see the effects of noise reduction in areas of low contrast. You won't notice either of these in all but the largest prints, or if you're viewing the images at 100% on your computer screen. Noise doesn't really start to affect image quality until you pass ISO 400 in low light, and ISO 800 in good light. As I've hopefully shown you, the S90's ability to take RAW photos will help you get more mileage out of images taken at the highest sensitivities. While it wasn't an issue in most of my real world photos, purple fringing levels were moderate in certain situations.
Now, have a look at the extensive photo gallery I've prepared for the PowerShot S90. View the full size images, maybe print a few if you can, and then decide if the image quality meets your needs!
Unfortunately, the PowerShot S90 has the standard 2009 Canon movie mode. You can record video at 640 x 480 (30 fps) with sound until the file size hits 4GB, or the recording time reaches one hour. At the VGA resolution, you'll hit the file size limit first, in about 45 minutes.
For even longer recording times, you can drop the resolution to 320 x 240 (30 fps), which allows you to hit that 1 hour time limit. The Color Swap and Color Accent features are available in movie mode, should you want them.
As is usually the case, you cannot operate the zoom lens while you're recording a movie. You can, however, use the image stabilizer. The PowerShot S90 also offers a wind filter, which comes in handy when you're taking movies outdoors.
Movies are saved in QuickTime format, using the efficient H.264 codec.
I figured that everyone has seen enough train movies to last a lifetime, so I decided to take a low light sample video instead. If you're really hankering for some trains, drop me a line (sooner rather than later) and I'll post one of those too.
Click to play movie (15.3 MB, 640 x 480, 30 fps, QuickTime/H.264 format)
Can't view it? Download QuickTime.
The PowerShot S90 has a pretty nice playback mode. Basic features include slideshows (complete with transitions), image protection, DPOF print marking, thumbnail view, and zoom & scroll. This last feature will enlarge the image by as much as ten times, and let you move around. You can use the scroll wheel on the back of the camera to move from image to image, while keeping the zoom and scroll setting intact. You can also use the Focus Check feature by pressing the Display button, which will enlarge the focus point or the faces that were detected in the photo.
|Original photo||Photo after "low" i-Contrast|
Photos can be rotated, resized, and cropped right on the camera. You can apply most of the My Colors feature to your photos, as well. If there's any redeye in your photos, you'll find a tool to remove it here. You can also use the i-Contrast feature to brighten up the dark areas of your photos, with a choice of Auto, Low, Medium, or High settings.
If you're viewing a movie, you can use an "edit tool" to trim unwanted footage off of the beginning or end of the clip.
Selecting a category
Photos that were taken in certain scene modes are automatically categorized, but if you want to do it manually, just use the My Category option. Your selection saved in the photo's metadata and transferred over to your computer (though only Canon's software can do anything with it).
|Moving through photos with the scroll wheel...||... and the Jump button|
There are several ways to move through photos on the camera. Naturally, you can just press left or right on the four-way controller. You can also turn the scroll wheel, which lets you move through your photos a lot quicker. Another option is to use the Jump feature, which lets you move ahead by date, category, file type, or just by 10 or 100 photos. The jump feature is activated by either pressing up on the four-way controller, or using the control ring around the lens.
By default, you won't get much information about your photo while in playback mode. But press the Display button and you'll get a lot more, including a histogram.
If you're using the four-way controller to move through photos, you'll wait for less than a second between each one. You can move through them a lot quicker by using the scroll wheel. Like nearly all of Canon's cameras, when you rotate the camera 90 degrees, the photo on the LCD rotates too.
How Does it Compare?
The Canon PowerShot S90 is an ultra-compact camera with a fast, wide-angle lens, a sharp 3-inch LCD, full manual controls, support for the RAW image format, and more. It also takes very good quality photos, and is a notch better than most compact cameras when shooting in low light or high sensitivities. So why wasn't I taken with the PowerShot S90? Simply put, the ergonomics and usability of the camera are poor, which is quite unusual for a Canon camera. Whether it was the free spinning control dial, the ring dial that isn't really that useful, or the pop-up flash that takes up valuable space on the top of the camera, the S90 to be a frustrating camera to use (at least in my opinion). Throw in below average battery life, unremarkable continuous shooting and movie modes, and a slow-charging flash, and the PowerShot S90 isn't quite what I had hoped for. It's not a bad camera by any means -- its core features work well -- but you absolutely should try one in person before you buy.
The PowerShot S90 is an ultra-compact camera with a stylish matte black body. The body is made of a mixture of metal and plastic, and most things feel pretty solid. From a design and usability standpoint, the S90 is a real mess. On the front of the camera is a unique customizable ring that sits around the lens. The problem is, it doesn't really add much to the shooting experience, unless you frequently adjust the ISO sensitivity or exposure compensation. On the back of the camera is the same four-way controller/command dial combo that you'll find on many other Canon cameras. Unfortunately, this wheel doesn't "click" between each stop, which makes it very easy to unintentionally change the exposure, scene mode, ISO, or whatever function it's handling. Combine that with the fact that your thumb often rests on or near it, and you have a recipe for trouble. I can't tell you how many times I changed the exposure compensation without even knowing it. The top of the camera isn't much better. The S90 has a flash that pops up when needed, which reduces the amount of room for your left hand fingers by half. You can't press it back down like on some cameras -- you have to disable it using the four-way controller. Next to the flash are two buttons which feel identical. One is for power, while the other lets you change the function of the control ring on the front of the camera. You can probably tell where this is leading -- pressing the wrong button is very easy (why they couldn't put the ring function options into the menu is beyond me). Lastly, the zoom controller and shutter release button are on the small size, and the former seems a bit unresponsive at times.
Getting back to more pleasant topics, the PowerShot S90 has a fast (well, at least at wide-angle) F2.0-4.9, 3.8X optical zoom lens. For the uninitiated, an F2.0 lens lets in twice as much light as an F2.8 lens that you'll typically find on a compact camera. The focal range of the lens is a pleasant 28 - 105 mm, though telephoto fans may want something with a little more "oomph". As you'd expect, the S90 has Canon's optical image stabilization system, which does an effective job of reducing blurry photos, and it can smooth out your videos, too. On the back of the camera is a big 3-inch LCD display with an impressive resolution of 461,000 pixels. This screen has good outdoor visibility, and is easily viewable in near darkness. Those who remember the old PowerShot S80 will recall that it had an optical viewfinder, but that's not the case on the significantly smaller S90.
The PowerShot S90 has a nice set of features for both beginners and more advanced users. If you're the point-and-shoot type, you can use the camera's Smart Auto mode, which selects a scene mode automatically (it even knows when the camera is on a tripod). The S90 offers face and blink detection, and the handy face self-timer feature means that you'll never have to make a mad dash from the camera to your photo spot again -- the camera will wait for you. The S90 has plenty of scene modes that you can select from, including one that assists with composing a panoramic photo and another that takes low light photos with ease (though be warned: the resolution is lowered and the ISO can go very high). Manual control lovers should be pretty happy with what the PowerShot S90 has to offer. You've got control over aperture, shutter speed, focus, and white balance (including fine-tuning). It also supports the RAW image format, and Canon includes capable software to work with those files. The S90 is one of the most customizable cameras you'll find. There's the control ring on the front of the camera (which I found to be of limited use), the shortcut button on the back, a custom spot on the mode dial, and a menu that you can populate with your favorite settings. The PowerShot's movie mode is nothing to write home about. While it offers long recording times and a wind filter, the resolution is merely VGA, and you can't operate the zoom while filming.
Camera performance was good in most respects. The S90 is ready to start taking pictures after a short 1 second startup delay. The camera focuses quickly and accurately at both ends of the lens, and low light focus times stayed at a second or less most of the time. Shutter lag was barely noticeable, and only at slow shutter speeds. Shot-to-shot speeds are about average without the flash, but with it you'll wait for about four seconds before you can take another photo, which is pretty sluggish. You'd think a pricey 10 Megapixel camera would have a fast continuous shooting mode, but the PowerShot S90 can't even break the 1 fps mark (though you can keep shooting until your memory card fills up). Another area that needs improvement is battery life: the S90 is well below average in this department.
Photo quality was very good. The PowerShot S90 takes well-exposed photos with pleasing, vivid colors. Like most compact cameras, the S90 does clip highlights at times, though I've seen much worse. Photos have the typical Canon "smooth" look, though some may find things a bit too soft (thankfully, you can increase the in-camera sharpening). While you will spot some noise in shadow areas and some very mild noise reduction artifacting in low contrast areas, overall the PowerShot's photos are very clean at low ISOs. You can safely shoot through ISO 400 in low light or ISO 800 in good light without having to worry too much about noise or detail loss. You can improve image quality considerably if you shoot RAW and do some post-processing, which allows for very usable photos taken at ISO 1600 (try that on most compact cameras). Purple fringing wasn't a constant problem, but it did crop up here and there, as did mild vignetting and corner blurring. Redeye wasn't an issue on this ultra-compact camera (which came as a big surprise), thanks to Canon's automatic removal feature.
I hope you're not tired of reading yet, because I have a few other things to mention. For one, I don't like how the camera does not display the current zoom setting on the LCD. Canon did this for a while with the Digital ELPH line, and I was disappointed to see the same thing on this high-end camera. Since the S90's memory card slot is on the bottom of the camera, you won't be able to get at it when the camera is on a tripod. And finally, I was a bit disappointed that Canon didn't throw a memory card in the box or build some memory into the PowerShot S90.
When Canon announced the PowerShot S90, I was pretty excited. Manual controls and a fast lens in an ultra-compact body? Yes, please! My enthusiasm waned quickly once my review unit arrived. Not because of the picture quality or feature set, but because the usability and ergonomics are so poor. It's like Canon designed the camera without thinking that people's hands would actually be touching (witness the free scrolling dial, pop-up flash, and identical power/ring func buttons). The PowerShot S90 has impressive photo quality, a fast lens and nice LCD, and lots of manual controls, but using it was just too frustrating for this reviewer. Now, you may disagree with my assessment, and the the only way to find out is to try one yourself. If you can live with its design quirks, then the S90 will do whatever you require. If you're like me, then you'll probably want to consider one of the cameras listed below instead.
What I liked:
- Very good photo quality
- Roughly a full stop advantage over typical compact cameras in low light
- Fast F2.0-4.9, 28 - 105 mm zoom lens (telephoto lovers take note)
- Optical image stabilization
- Ultra high resolution 3-inch LCD with very good outdoor and low light visibility
- Full manual controls, with white balance fine-tuning
- RAW image format support; good RAW editor included
- Smart Auto mode picks a scene mode for you; plenty of others to choose from yourself
- Quick startup time, good focusing speeds (even in low light)
- Lots of customizable stuff: control ring and shortcut button, My Menu, custom spot on mode dial, self-timer
- Redeye not a problem (much to my surprise)
- Handy face self-timer feature
- Optional underwater case
- HDMI output
What I didn't care for:
- Ergonomics are a real mess -- free-wheeling control dial makes it way too easy to accidentally adjust important settings; power and ring func buttons are identical and right next to each other (you know where that's going); pop-up flash takes up valuable real estate on top of camera; control ring on front of camera a bit small, of limited use
- Some shadow noise and NR artifacting in low contrast areas at base ISO; mild vignetting and corner blurring at times
- Sluggish continuous shooting mode
- VGA movie mode seems a bit dated; optical zoom cannot be used while recording
- Flash is slow to charge
- Zoom controller can be unresponsive; current zoom setting not shown on LCD
- Below average battery life
- No optical viewfinder
- No memory card included; can't access memory card slot while using a tripod
The PowerShot S90's closest competitors are the Fuji FinePix F200EXR, Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX1. Some other cameras worth considering include the Casio Exilim EX-Z450, Nikon Coolpix S640, Pentax Optio P80, and the Samsung TL320.
As always, I recommend a trip down to your local camera or electronics store to try out the PowerShot S90 and its competitors before you buy. And I really mean it this time!
See how the photos turned out in our gallery!