The Canon S90, to Asia and Back
Review by J. Stuart Studios
The Canon S90 is the quintessential photographer's compact digital camera. To properly test the camera, nothing short of a red-eye departing LAX headed for Asia would suffice. The small frame of the S90's body fits nicely into tight pockets (jeans, suits, etc.) and packs plentiful features that can be accessed rapidly on the fly. The S90 passed the J. Stuart Studios' extensive travel photography gauntlet with flying vibrant colors (and subtle tonalities too).
The bottom line: the Canon S90 is recommended for all who want a compact point and shoot digital camera with a bevy of available manual controls.
Why the Hype?There is one reason for the explosion of interest in the new Canon S90, manual controls. The fully programmable control ring located on the front of the camera is great. Setting it to exposure compensation has been helpful to underexpose scenes by varying degrees, usually by -1/3 or -2/3 stops, to compensate for the S90's tendency to overexpose a scene's highlights. Similarly, the ring has also been helpful to further bring down a scene to silhouette buildings and statues. The rear scroll wheel is a perfect match for setting aperture or shutter speed. This wheel scrolls very freely, but numerous naysayers have needless complaints. The rear scroll wheel works well, does not get bumped accidentally too often, and is pleasing to touch. Lastly, the shortcut button ("S") above the rear scroll wheel is easy to program and currently occupies the white balance menu. However, the shortcut button is rarely used since the auto white balance works well. These manual controls are what make the Canon S90 fabulous to use.
Resolution, Panoramic Stitching & HumidityThe large 10.0 megapixel sensor provides enough resolution to fill a 23-inch Apple Cinema Display with deep vibrant hues. This relatively large sensor is housed in a pleasing black body that has an almost miraculous ability to resist fingerprints. Capturing images at the largest JPEG setting, 3648 x 2736 pixels, has provided more than ample data for current needs. If greater data latitude is ever required, the Canon S90 has RAW capability available. The 10 megapixel images have proven detailed enough for stitched panoramas of Victoria Harbor at dusk.
The series of images needed to compose the panorama to the above were taken from a slightly swaying ship. The image stabilization helped a good deal and works well in all conditions tested.
An unseen obstacle is humidity, and it was a battle in both Hong Kong and Vietnam. The air was thick and the scene was perfect as the door to the ship's deck opened. As the unconditioned air ensconced the Canon S90's lens, which had been air conditioned for hours, the lens fogged up and created a neat mist effect on some images. The S90's lens handled this moisture well and autofocus continued to work. Once dried off, the lens had a streak-free shine.
ISO & MacroAlthough Canon has publicized the high-quality high ISO of the Canon S90, much has been left to desire. It is true that the high ISOs of 1600 and 3200 work relatively well (as tested while crawling through the Cu Chi Tunnels of Vietnam) to other compacts or even older DSLRs, but it would be much nicer to have ISO 80 through 400 free of splotchy chromance noise. Sometimes the race to have the highest or best is overkill, and simplicity is king. Canon did take the bait and engineered the S90 into the ISO wars rather than focusing on extremely clean low ISOs.
The macro function works well, but focus is sometimes a problem and the sharpness does fall-off at the edges. However, simply recomposing and taking another photograph overcomes focus issues. Despite any drawbacks, the macro function is fabulous! Also, the Canon S90 has a nice autofocus magnification window option. When activated, this option superimposes a large box in the center of the LCD with the center of the scene magnified. This helps in landscapes and macro compositions to determine if the scene is really in focus, and it especially helps in taking sharp macro shots.
Power Pop-up & LCDThe 3.0-inch LCD has proven excellent in bright field conditions, as well as in dark spaces. In the menu the rear LCD's brightness can be boosted for extreme conditions, but the middle and low-end brightness settings have worked well in direct sunlight to indoor incandescent lighting. An added benefit of dialing the LCD down to the middle to lowest settings is that the battery life is extended. Canon built in a nice shortcut to quickly brighten and darken the LCD with the press of the "Disp." or display button on the rear of the camera under the scroll wheel. The placement could not be better suited for a quick thumb press to either brighten or darken the screen.
The small pop-up flash is mighty powerful for such a small package. Light emitted from the flash is evenly distributed in most instances, and does a good job of exposing the scene. In aperture priority, shutter priority, custom, and program the flash has numerous customizable settings available: auto/manual, flash exposure compensation from -2 to +2 in 1/3 increments, and 1st-curtain/2nd-curtain flash sync. These features are excellent and missed in manual. It is interesting how Canon left flash exposure compensation off of flash options in manual. This is a feature that is missed and will hopefully be included in a software update in the future.
Final ThoughtsThese are not all of the settings, nor all of the S90's features, but these are the most used features by the author. Aperture priority seems to be the best balance between manual control and automatic. Aperture priority shines compared to shutter priority, because depth of field is readily controllable via the free wheeling rear scroll wheel. The option for full manual control has been useful in several situations, but aperture priority is faster to use.
As mentioned earlier, the S90's small physical size is a valuable attribute. The camera's small dimensions enable pocketability and photographer anonymity. While traveling Europe with a Nikon DSLR and fast glass, many people took notice and anonymity was not possible. Certain cathedrals and museums asked to refrain from photographing. The Canon S90 did not draw any attention in Asia. Photographing in monasteries and museums was not a problem, partly due to the S90's small size and relatively "non-professional" look.
For a $430 camera, the feature-packed Canon S90 cannot be beaten. At least not this week!
Thank you for reading,
J. Stuart Studios