DCRP

Canon PowerShot S90 Review

Using the Canon PowerShot S90

Record Mode

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:

Resolution Quality Approx. file size # images on 2GB card (optional)
Large
3648 x 2736
RAW + Large/Fine JPEG 15.0 MB 113
RAW 12.5 MB 135
Fine 2.5 MB 749
Normal 1.2 MB 1536
Wide (16:9)
3648 x 2048
Fine 1.9 MB 1007
Normal 918 KB 2048
Medium 1
2816 x 2112
Fine 1.6 MB 1181
Normal 780 KB 2363
Medium 2
2272 x 1704
Fine 1.1 MB 1707
Normal 556 KB 3235
Medium 3
1600 x 1200
Fine 558 KB 3235
Normal 278 KB 6146
Small
640 x 480
Fine 150 KB 10245
Normal 84 KB 15368

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
  • Volume
    • 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)
  • Date/time
  • Distance units (m/cm, ft/in)
  • Video system (NTSC, PAL)
  • Language
  • 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:


ISO 80

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

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:

ISO 800

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!


ISO 80

ISO 100

ISO 200


ISO 400


ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

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.

ISO 1600

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion (DPP)

RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask
 
ISO 3200

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:

ISO 800

Canon PowerShot S90

FinePix F200EXR (downsized)

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX1 (brightened)
 
ISO 1600

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.

ISO 800

Canon PowerShot S90

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX580 (downsized)
 
ISO 1600

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!

Movie Mode

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.

Playback Mode

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.

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