DCRP Review: Canon PowerShot Pro90 IS
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: Sunday, February 11, 2001
Last Updated: Friday, January 18, 2002

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For the last several years, the specs on high-end "prosumer" digital cameras were usually the same. Take the highest Megapixel CCD out there (1.3, 2.1, then 3.3 Mpixel), add a 3X optical zoom lens, and toss it in a familiar body. Lately, though, things have been diverging from that formula. Recent cameras from Sony (with their high-end Mavica cameras), Fuji (FinePix 4900 Zoom), and Olympus (C-2100 Ultra Zoom) have packed larger zoom lenses, ranging from 8X to 10X.

Now Canon's joined the "big gun" party with the PowerShot Pro90 IS (isn't that a mouthful). This new camera ($1399) takes the popular PowerShot G1 (see our review) and adds a 10X optically stabilized zoom lens to the mix. While it does use the same 3.3 Megapixel CCD as the G1, the Pro90 only records 2.6 million of them. Overall, I was pretty happy with the G1 -- will this continue with the Pro90? Find out...

What's in the Box?

The PowerShot Pro90 (as I'll call it) has everything you need right in the box. It includes:

  • The 2.6 Mpixel Canon PowerShot Pro90 IS camera
  • 16MB CompactFlash card
  • BP-511 Li-ion rechargeable battery
  • AC adapter / battery charger
  • Neck strap
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • Lens cap
  • Remote control
  • CD-ROM featuring Canon Digital Camera Solutions software
  • 140 page manual

I really don't have much to comment on in this section, since you've got most everything you need right here. Thankfully, Canon includes the battery charger with the camera, instead of charging extra for it, like the did on their S-series of cameras.

The 16MB CF card is a bit on the skimpy side -- I'd like to see Canon and other manufacturers move up to 32MB cards since the prices have come down so much.

While my camera came with a lens cap, it didn't have the little strap to prevent losing it -- though the "system map" in the box showed one. Maybe they're just playing with me.

For those of you who still use serial (RS-232) connections, you'll have to buy the serial interface cable (IFC-200MC for Mac, IFC-200PCS for PC) from Canon.

I've covered Canon's excellent software in the past, so I'm not going to talk about it here. Check out the PowerShot S10 review for more.

Speaking of excellent, Canon's manuals are continuously some of the best out there. They're sensibly laid out, and easy to read.

There are all kinds of accessories lenses, filters, and flashes available for the G1 and Pro90. Above, you'll see the LH-DC58 lens hood (along with the BP-511 battery that's included with the camera). The Pro90 is compatible with all EX-series Speedlites from Canon. Canon also sells wideangle, telephoto, and macro lenses that can screw right onto the Pro90.

Look and Feel

The Pro90 is a solid, heavy, but not bulky camera. It's made of what I'd call "high grade plastics" -- it doesn't feel like the camera would shatter into a million pieces if accidentally dropped. The dimensions are 5.0 x 3.3 x 5.5 inches, and the camera weighs in at 24 ounces empty. The Pro90 has a large grip for your right hand, though my left hand felt uncomfortable on the lens barrel.

Let's begin our tour of the Pro90, starting with the front. The 10X optical zoom lens stays within the lens barrel at all times -- you can barely tell it's there. The f2.8/f3.5 lens has a zoom range of 7 - 70mm, which is equivalent to 37 - 370mm on a 35mm camera. The lens is threaded for 58mm attachments, as I alluded to in the previous section.

Interestingly enough, Steve's Digicams mentions that the lens on the Olympus C-2100 Ultra Zoom may be the exact same one as the Pro90. Nobody knows for sure (or, they won't tell anyone), but it's worth noting.

The flash on the Pro90 can not be released by hand -- if the camera is going to use it, it pops up. The little light below the main flash is for redeye reduction.

Towards the left of the above shot is the shutter release button. While the button didn't have a lot of "play", I found it to be just fine.

Now onto the back of the camera. While the swiveling LCD may seem like a gimmick, once you get used to it, you'll wish every camera had it. In the photos above and below, you can see some of the positions the LCD can go into.

The quality of the LCD is quite good - it's smooth and bright (and can be made brighter via the setup menu). With the swivel feature, you can use it in most conditions.

Above the LCD is the Electronic Viewfinder. Like all the other large zoom cameras I've tested, Canon has replaced the traditional optical viewfinder for an electronic one. You're essentially looking through an LCD display, though it's not as sharp and bright as the one on the back of the camera. One nice thing about EVFs is the ability to display lots of information in the viewfinder (such as exposure settings). Overall, though, I'd rather have a traditional optical viewfinder.

Underneath the EVF, you'll find a diopter correction dial, for those of us with glasses.

The three buttons to the right of the LCD are:

  • AE/FE lock (locks the flash and exposure settings - great for panoramas) [rec mode] / Delete photo [playback mode]
  • Exposure compensation, white balance, auto-bracketing, flash exposure compensation [rec mode]
  • Display (toggles amount of info shown on LCD)

Some details on a few of the options just mentioned:

  • Exposure compensation: -2.0EV to +2.0EV in 1/3EV increments
  • White balance: Auto, daylight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent, flash, custom
  • AEB bracketing: You select the range (in 1/3EV increments) and the camera takes three photos at different EV settings
  • Flash exposure compensation: -2.0EV to +2.0EV in 1/3EV increments

The Set and Menu buttons on the right of the above photo, as well as the four-way switch above that are for using the menu system.

Now it's time for the top of the Pro90. Towards the left side of the picture you can see the hot shoe for an external flash (Canon recommends their EX-series of Speedlites).

The three buttons towards the center of the photo are:

  • Jump: quickly move through photos [playback mode]
  • Thumbnail mode [playback mode]
  • Spot metering [rec mode] / zoom in [playback mode]

To the right of that you'll find the LCD info display, and the "drive" button below that. The LCD info display is chock full of information, ranging from battery strength to exposure settings. The drive button toggles the camera between single-shot, continuous, and self-timer/remote control shooting.

Now onto the side of the camera. Here, we can finally get a good look at the zoom controls for the Pro90. See that ring around the lens barrel at the far left of the camera? That's how you zoom in and out on the Pro90. I'd love to see Canon add the zoom controls to the four-way switch on the back of the camera as well. One glaring error (in this reviewers opinion) is the reversal of normal zoom controls. On a traditional manual zoom camera, you'd turn the barrel clockwise to zoom in, and vice-versa to zoom out. The opposite is true on the Pro90 - you turn it counterclockwise to zoom in. Do note that this is an electronic zoom control and not mechanical - it's just like the zoom buttons on all the other digital cameras. There is a bit of lag before the zoom actually starts, as well.

Other buttons, seen in the center of the photo, are flash setting, manual focus, and image stabilization on/off.

The manual focus feature, when invoked, adds a little meter on the right side of the LCD display. No distances are given, so you have to guess how far you're focused sometimes.

The image stabilization feature is very nice, especially in low light or fully zoomed shots.

Under a very sturdy plastic door you'll find the I/O ports for the Pro90. In the above close-up, you can see the speaker, DC in (for AC adapter and recharging the battery), A/V out, and Digital Out (for USB).

Finally, that brings us to the mode wheel. For some reason, I'm not a big fan of its placement, or design. The top ring has the various modes, and underneath, you can switch between Off, Record, Playback, and PC Connect. The available modes are:

  • Auto (camera chooses everything)
  • Program Mode (you can change all options except aperture/shutter speed)
  • Av / Aperture Priority Mode (you set aperture, camera chooses appropriate shutter speed)
  • Tv / Shutter Priority Mode (you set shutter speed, camera chooses appropriate aperture)
  • Manual Mode (you can set both aperture and shutter speed)
  • Pan Focus (camera quickly switches focus between subject and background so both are in focus)
  • Portrait (subject sharp, background blurry)
  • Landscape (background sharp)
  • Night Scene
  • Black and White
  • Stitch Assist (for panoramic shots)
  • Movie Mode

A few notes about the manual modes listed above.

  • Shutter speeds range from 8 sec to 1/1000 sec
  • Aperture choices are from F2.8 to F8.0
  • At full telephoto, your aperture choices are limited to between F3.5 and F8.0
  • When the shutter speed is 1/1000 sec, the aperture is limited to between F4.0 and F8.

Here's a look at the other side of the camera, with the included 16MB CompactFlash card and remote control shown. This is a Type II CF slot, and the IBM Microdrive is fully supported. The door that covers this slot is very secure and should hold up well.

Last but not, the bottom of the camera (with fashionable blue sticker). The only things of note down here are the battery compartment and the metal tripod mount.

Using the PowerShot Pro90

Record Mode

The Pro90 takes just three seconds to startup after you turn the power on. When you depress the shutter release button halfway down, it takes a little less than one second to lock focus (a little on the long side). As you depress the button fully, the shutter opens in a fraction of a second. Shot-to-shot speed is good (as with the entire PowerShot line), with about 3-4 seconds between shots, at the highest setting. The speed of the zoom lens is also very fast and smooth, once it gets moving.

The Pro90 uses the "overlay" style of menus, which are well laid out, and easy to move around in. Here are your choices in Record mode:

  • Resolution (Large/Medium/Small, which is 1856 x 1392 / 1024 x 768 / 640 x 480)
  • Compression (SuperFine, Fine, Normal)
  • File Format (JPEG, RAW)
  • ISO speed (Auto, 50, 100, 200, 400)
  • Digital Zoom (Off, 2X, 4X)
  • AF Mode (continuous, single)
  • Review (Off, 2 sec, 10 sec - this is how long the photo is shown on the LCD after it's been taken)
  • File Number Reset
  • Contrast / Sharpness / Saturation adjustment
  • And the usual setup stuff.

The chart below describes the various resolution and quality modes, and how many photos can be saved on the included 16MB CompactFlash card:

Resolution Quality # Images on 16MB card
Large (1856 x 1392) Superfine 9
Fine 17
Normal 35
Medium (1024 x 768) Superfine 25
Fine 45
Normal 84
Small (640 x 480) Superfine 54
Fine 94
Normal 161
RAW (1856 x 1392) RAW 6

What is RAW mode? It's essentially a dump of the RAW, unprocessed data from the CCD. You can't just pop this RAW file onto your website, though - it must be converted to another format first via Canon's software. The nice part about RAW mode is the amount of space it takes up -- a 1.7MB RAW image takes up 7.4MB when converted to an uncompressed TIFF! For everyday shooting RAW mode (and TIFF mode) is overkill -- Fine or Superfine JPEG format is just fine.

Here's what you'll see if you look through the EVF, or on the LCD.

And now, a word about ISO settings. In our review of the very similar PowerShot G1, we noticed that photos got pretty noisy at the higher ISO settings (and even "Auto"). My recommendation: for everyday shooting, keep the ISO locked at 50.

An example of purple fringing on the Pro90. It seems to be worst on cloudy days. See the original picture (of the tree) in the gallery.

Another issue that the Pro90 shares with the G1 is "chromatic aberration", more commonly known as purple fringing. This is most often seen where objects bump up against a bright background (usually the sky). The sample about illustrates this problem -- the Pro90 and G1 seemed worse than the competition in this regard.

The Pro90 is the first camera in a long time that doesn't have a macro mode. Out of the box, you can get as close as 10cm (full wide) to 1m (full tele) from the lens barrel -- if you want to get closer, pick up the optional Close-up Lens, which allows you to get as close as 34-50cm at full telephoto.

The Pro90 did a pretty good job with night shooting, as you can see in the above sample. Even with image stabilization, a tripod is necessary for shots like this.

Overall, I'd rank the photo quality as "pretty good". The purple fringing can be a problem, and it seems like many of the photos seem a bit under-saturated Take a look in the gallery and judge for yourself.

Movie Mode

The PowerShot Pro90 can record movies in AVI format, using the M-JPEG codec. The movies are recorded at 320 x 240, 15 frames/sec. You can record up to 30 seconds of video and audio, regardless of the size of the memory card being used. You cannot use the zoom lens during filming.

Click here to play movie (AVI format, 1.4MB)
This movie was trimmed in the middle.

Playback Mode

Like all of Canon's PowerShot line, the Pro90 has a very good playback mode. Basic features such as slideshows, DPOF print marking, and thumbnail mode.

The menu in playback mode

The zoom and scroll feature, as I call it, is first-rate on the Pro90. Zooming is almost instant, and scrolling around in the zoomed image is smooth.

Moving between photos is lightning fast as well, taking less than a second. If you really want to move through photos, use the Jump button which lets you jump ahead (or back) 9 images.

The Pro90 gives you a pretty fair amount of detail about your photos -- the only thing missing is a histogram.

If I could wish for just one more thing in playback mode, it would be the ability to delete a group of photos at a time, instead of just one or all.

How Does it Compare?

The Canon PowerShot Pro90 IS is the latest in a string of higher-end, "big zoom" cameras. It's got an excellent feature set, good photo quality, a neat swiveling LCD, and fast processing speeds. There are a few annoying design quirks, and chromatic aberration can be a problem. The closest competitor is the Olympus C-2100 Ultra Zoom, as I mentioned. While the Pro90 is higher resolution than the Ultra Zoom (2.6 vs. 2.1 Mpixel), it costs $300 more, and doesn't add a whole lot more in the features department (aside from movie mode and the swiveling LCD). I'd compare these two closely before you make any decisions -- and don't forget to check out the other cameras worth looking at (see below).

What I liked:

  • Nice 10X zoom with optical image stabilization
  • Useful swiveling LCD
  • Full manual controls, and plenty of presets if you don't wish to use them
  • Fast processing speeds
  • Excellent playback mode
  • Supports IBM Microdrive

What I didn't care for:

  • Chromatic aberrations can be a problem
  • Quirky zoom controls
  • Zoom not functional in movie mode
  • Expensive at $1400

There are a number of cameras worth checking out before you buy the PowerShot Pro90. The most obvious is the Olympus C-2100 Ultra Zoom, but also look at the Fuji FinePix 4900 Zoom and Sony Mavica MVC-CD1000. As always, I recommend a trip to your local reseller to "try before you buy!"

Photo Gallery

So how does the photo quality stand up? Check out the sample photos in our photo gallery!

Want a few more opinions?

Be sure to read the reviews from Steve's Digicams, Imaging Resource, and Digital Photography Review!

Jeff welcomes your comments or questions. Send them to jakeller@pair.com.

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