initial review: 2/22/2010

  Canon S90 Review

Pocket raw.

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Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan
What, a review of a Canon product? Yes, I try and use Canon products as well as Nikon ones. That's especially true in the compact camera realm, where the lack of a really good Coolpix has had me (and others) scrambling for a competent camera that they can easily carry around with them all the time.

Well, here's one such camera: the Canon S90. It'll definitely fit in most shirt pockets, yet as you'll see in a bit it packs some punch.

I originally wasn't going to purchase the S90, mainly because I had several other fairly competent compact cameras. But every time I walked by it on display at Best Buy, I kept getting struck by the fact that it seemed smaller than my current "shirt pocket" cameras yet promised much of the same feature set and possibly performance. Always a sucker for "the next best thing" I eventually capitualated to my inner consumer when I got both some Best Buy reward dollars and a rebate from another purchase.

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan



These are absolute ratings based upon the class of camera (compacts).

Source: purchased


The Basics

Canon basically promotes the S90 as being something akin to the G11's sensor/electronics in a less sophisticated and smaller package. To that end we get a 10mp 5.7x7.6mm CCD sensor at the core, with a base ISO value of 80. While not huge in comparison to other compact camera sensors, this is one of the larger sensor sizes used in the small cameras. That, coupled with the understated pixel count, provides for a fairly large photosite compared to some recent compacts. The goal in that is to provide a better low light experience.

Other key features of the S90 are:

  • 28-105mm f/2-4.9 lens. The image stabilized lens retracts enough so that it barely sticks off the body (less than 1cm). Even fully extended it only gets to about 1.5" (<4cm).
  • Raw files. Besides creating several qualities and sizes of JPEG files, the S90 also can create raw files, giving us access to the original shot data.
  • 3" 461k dot LCD. A big, though not state-of-the-art, display dominates the back of the camera.

If you're interested in other items, here are just a few of the things that the S90 features: ISO to 3200, 9-point autofocus with optional face detection, a pop-up flash, shutter speeds from 15 seconds to 1/1600, exposure compensation, three types of metering, the usual PASM exposure modes plus over a dozen Scene modes, self timer, and a basic VGA movie mode. In short, most of the things you'd expect from a reasonably well-specified compact camera, though the video capabilities are a little out of date.

Since the G11 has been mentioned, I should point out the primary differences that might make you choose that camera over the S90:

  • Build. The G11 is a much more robust build. That makes it larger, heavier, but also less susceptible to damage due to the bumps and grinds of daily shooting. The size and weight, however, make the G11 more of a jacket pocket camera than a shirt pocket camera.
  • LCD. With the G11 you get a positionable LCD that rotates and tilts and can flip to cover up for travel. The LCD is 2.8" instead of 3", but the same 461k dot of the S90.
  • Few added features. The G11 gives you a mostly unusable optical viewfinder, a bigger battery, a faster top shutter speed (1/4000), a hot shoe, a slight hand grip, but surprisingly fewer extra features than you might think. One key item that some find useful: the G11's use of dials for settings; for example ISO and exposure compensation move to dedicated dials, which is nice.

There's little difference in handling between the G11 and S90 other than the dedicated dials and positionable LCD. Amazingly, just those two differences are enough to create two cameras with very different personalities and uses. There are times, for instance, when I like the G11. For macro shooting down low, for instance, that positionable LCD is very useful. For moving in and out of different lighting, the two dedicated dials of the G11 (ISO and exposure compensation) also make for a very nice touch that some will appreciate. On the other hand, the S90 works very nicely as the extemporaneous shooter--pull it out of your pocket and start shooting, rarely dipping into controls. Just goes to show how attention to a few details can completely change the use and appreciation of two otherwise identical cameras. Canon should be applauded for taking the same basic internals, most of the same external controls, and creating two very different cameras that will appeal to different shooters, but have the same final image characteristics. This is exactly what we photographers want: choice without image performance sacrifice.


Let's get the S90's biggest design flaw out of the way right up front: as Canon sells it, it's a rectangular box. And a very slim one, at that. What that means is that when you grip the camera with your right hand only, well, you can't grip it. The front casing is slipperly enough that you can't shoot one-handed. There's a very slight (too slight) thumb rest on the back of the camera, but even those with small hands will have a difficult time handling this camera.

Fortunately, entrepenuers often rescue the big consumer electronics companies when they make design mistakes, and the S90 is no different. Richard Franiec to the rescue. For US$32.95 you can get the fix to most of the problem: a user installable custom grip for the S90. A nicely designed machined aluminum accessory that mounts via supplied adhesive to the S90 body, the Franiec grip gives you something to grab onto. You can see at the left of the front photo at the top of this review: nicely styled and it fits right in. It doesn't perfectly fix the the ergonomic problem as your hand position using the grip can't adjust easily to hit the thumb wheel for controlling something (aperture, exposure compensation, whatever). But it does make it so that you can hold the camera comfortably one-handed and shoot with it that way. Shame on Canon for not figuring this out for themselves. If you get an S90, try Richard's solution. You'll be glad you did. [Full disclosure: I originally bought Richard's grip and started using it. When he realized who I was, he refunded my purchase. I neither asked for that or wanted that. But I accepted it. I had already written the above--though it hadn't yet been published--when this happened, and his refund wouldn't have impacted what I wrote. So to be clear, I'd recommend Richard's little accessory for this camera whether I had to pay for it or not.]

I mentioned the thumb wheel. It's another source of ergonomic frustration on the S90: it's too loose. It's very easy to move the wheel accidentally. In aperture priority exposure mode, that means you're accidentally moving the aperture setting. In other cases you could be accidentally moving the exposure compensation or something else that's important. Either the wheel needs to be made stiffer, or we need a control dial like Nikon's just below the Mode dial (better, as it would facilitate no hand movement while shooting).

As if to compensate for that failure, Canon came up with an absolute beauty of a solution to other settings: a ring around the lens. You can set this ring to step the zoom between "normal" focal lengths (28, 35, 50, 70, 105), to change white balance, to manually focus, to change exposure compensation, to set ISO, or to set image quality. There's a button on the top of the camera that you use to quickly change the function, but I suspect that most people will naturally gravitate towards one function they use a lot, as I have. A very nice touch, and once you've used this, I'll bet you that you want every other compact camera you use or try to have this same function.

The menu system is classic Canon, a little too deep at each of the main tabs, but otherwise understandable and reasonably structured. Virtually everything that an advanced user would like can be found there, including three more customization abilities: setting the Shortcut button (yes, another shortcut!) creating your own custom menu for things you use a lot, and saving the current settings to the Custom mode (C) on the Mode dial (which allows you to get to a full group of settings instantly).

Overall, it should take most users only a few minutes to figure out how to control the camera, though it will certainly take you longer to figure out how to make the most of the customization features (lens ring, shortcut button, Custom setting on Mode dial, custom menus). There's a lot of sophistication in the controls and handling, but it's also reasonably simple, a perfect combination, in my opinion.



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Battery Life
It's a small camera with a small battery, so something has to give. Consider getting 200 shots from a single charge as being good. That means you should probably be carrying an extra battery or two with you, but fortunately they are small and light.

Writing to Card
Seems decent enough. It's difficult to tell for sure as this isn't exactly a performance-oriented camera: continuous shooting is a tiny bit less than 1 fps. But the buffer seems to be emptying at good speed, so I can average better than .3 fps in RAW mode with my fastest card.

Autofocus System
Autofocus performance is adequate. Again, this is a small camera that's using its imaging sensor to focus, so we can't expect DSLR-type of performance. Still, as compact cameras go the S90 seems like slightly better than mid-pack when focusing. It's definitely not as sluggish as some compacts I've seen, and the performance seems to be good in low light, too. I generally don't try to assess continuous tracking focus performance in small compacts, as I've yet to find one that is perfectly fine at it, but the S90 doesn't do all that bad here, either. Again, I'd put it slightly above average.

Color integrity is good, though I see clear degradation in the higher ISO values. For a Canon camera, the colors are a slight bit muted and more natural than usual. There's not the strong yellow shift I see in reds with other Canon cameras. White balance seems a little cool for me at Auto.

Here's why the S90 is staying in my stable of cameras: it performs surprisingly well for a compact camera. No, you're not going to get D3-like noise handling, but Canon has tuned this camera pretty well, especially for JPEG users. First, let's look at my now famous basketball gym test up close (same focal length, settings as close as I can get to those I've used in my Nikon DSLR tests). This is at ISO 3200, raw, no sharpening:

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan raw straight from camera

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan raw afer running Dfine noise reduction

Yes, there's a lot of colored noise in the original raw and it's not fully removed with a simple noise reduction (I did not try to optimize the noise reduction here--I just used Dfine defaults). However, all things considered, it cleans up enough to be a usable image (remember, we're looking at 372x 460 pixel crops at 100% from a much bigger image here). Not DSLR level, no, but surprisingly useful in a pinch.

Like many compacts, the S90 performs quite well from base ISO to ISO 400. Unlike many compacts, I'd judge ISO 800 to be usable for some work. It's only when we get up to the highest ISO values (1600 and 3200) that things really start to break down and require care in exposing and post processing to get useful images.

If you're within the restrictive aperture and shutter speed ranges, exposure is generally pretty good, though perhaps a bit hotter than I would normally set. I see a bit more highlight blowout when I let the camera do the setting than I normally like on a compact. Not much, but enough that I'm punching in a slight bit of exposure compensation most of the time. But watch for boundary conditions. In aperture exposure mode, for example, the camera won't set more than a 1 second exposure, and in all modes the camera won't set an aperture smaller than f/8. Thus, you have to watch out for pegging one of the settings in extreme low light or bright light conditions. This is normal for a compact camera, of course, but the S90 is "professional" enough that you sometimes might expect it to be able to do more than it can do. The indicators that you've pegged a setting are low-key (the camera doesn't lock up), so just keep a close eye on your settings.

As you might be able to tell from the basketball samples above, the camera is really resolving 10mp (at least in raw; JPEG at high ISO values incorporates detail-sapping noise reduction). I'm on the sideline shooting at 70mm, yet we can still clearly see what's happening with the net and the rotation of the ball, even after noise reduction. More than some compacts, the S90 seems to get excellent acuity at base ISO: the lens is good and the pixels have decent integrity. At base ISO this camera should make a very satisfying 14" print, and perhaps even a decent 19" print.

Final Comments
I've shot the G11 side by side with the S90 and the results are nearly identical.


  • Still a compact. ISO 3200 is usable only in a stretch, but at least it's usable.
  • Small battery. Either you shoot sporadically or you carry an extra battery.
  • Get a grip. You need Franiec's grip to really make the camera usable.


  • Shirt Pocket Friendly. Collapses smaller than a deck of cards.
  • Customizable. Serious shooters will like the degree they can customize the camera.
  • Good Image Quality. A near perfect 10mp compact shooter at base ISO, but quality drops with ISO rise.

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