Canon PowerShot S90 Review

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:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon Powershot S90 3.9 x 2.3 x 1.2 in. 10.8 cu in. 175 g
Casio Exilim EX-Z450 3.8 x 2.2 x 0.8 in. 6.7 cu in. 130 g
Fuji FinePix F200EXR 3.8 x 2.3 x 0.9 in. 7.9 cu in. 175 g
Nikon Coolpix S640 3.6 x 2.2 x 0.8 in. 6.3 cu in. 110 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3 4.3 x 2.3 x 1.1 in. 10.9 cu in. 229 g
Pentax Optio W80 3.9 x 2.2 x 1.0 in. 8.6 cu in. 136 g
Samsung TL320 3.8 x 2.4 x 0.8 in. 7.3 cu in. 160 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX1 3.6 x 2.1 x 0.8 in. 6.0 cu in. 120 g

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.

Front of the Canon PowerShot S90

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

Customizable self-timer

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.

Function menu

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:

Quality Continuous Continuous AF/LV
RAW + JPEG (Large/Fine) Unlimited @ 0.8 fps Unlimited @ 0.5 fps
RAW Unlimited @ 0.7 fps Unlimited @ 0.5 fps
JPEG (Large/ Fine) Unlimited @ 0.9 fps Unlimited @ 0.6 fps
Tested with a Panasonic Class 10 SDHC card

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.

Top of the Canon PowerShot S90

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:

Option Function
Movie mode More on this later
Special Scene mode Pick the situation and the camera uses the appropriate settings. Choose from portrait, landscape, night snapshot, kids & pets, indoor, sunset, night scene, fireworks, beach, underwater, aquarium, foliage, snow, color accent, color swap, nostalgic, and Stitch Assist.
Low light mode Lowers the resolution to medium size (2.5 Megapixel) and uses an ISO range of 320 - 12,800 for a sharp (but noisy) photo in low light conditions. See below for more.
Auto mode Point-and-shoot, with automatic scene selection. Some menu items are locked up.
Program mode Automatic shooting, but with access to all menu options. A Program Shift feature can be activated by pressing up on the four-way controller and using the camera's two dials to select from various shutter speed/aperture combos.
Shutter priority (Tv) mode You choose shutter speed and the camera picks the aperture. Shutter speed range is 15 - 1/1600 sec.
Aperture priority (Av) mode You choose the aperture and the camera picks an appropriate shutter speed. Range is F2.0 - F8.0.
Full manual (M) mode Choose both the shutter speed and aperture yourself; same ranges as above
Custom mode Your favorite camera settings, easy to access

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!

Side of the Canon PowerShot S90

Nothing much to see here. The flash is (obviously) popped up, and the lens is at full wide-angle in this photo.

Side of the Canon PowerShot S90

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.

Bottom of the Canon PowerShot S90

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.