Nov 282009
 

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Canon S90 Review: Hooray! Finally, another compact camera to come my way to challenge my wife’s trusty D-Lux 4, the KING of 2009 COMPACTS IMO! The Canon S90 is a super compact camera with 10 Megapixel resolution and a 3.8X zoom lens which opens up to F2 at the wide end. In this review I will go over the features in a youtube video as well as write about my experiences with this camera. I will also show you some of the images I was able to capture with it during my two weeks with it. This camera was sent to me by B&H Photo as they wanted to see how I liked it. It is a very popular camera these days due to its small size, light weight, unique all purpose ” control ring” and fast F2 lens. All coming in at a little over $400!

As many of you know, my favorite compact to date is the Leica D-Lux 4 & Panasonic LX-3 (same cameras). They have provided me with not only the small size (though larger than the S90) but also the Amazing quality I come to expect in a compact camera. When I spend my money on a digital camera these days, I expect the image quality to be superb, the Auto Focus fast, and the handling of the camera to be comfortable. If a camera can not deliver on these three things then I take a pass.

The Canon S90 sure looks pretty amazing online and on paper. Its got plenty of resolution at 10MP (really, who needs more?) and the size is so small and thin that you can carry it in your front jeans pocket whenever you go out. This is something I can NOT do with the Leica D-Lux 4. Yes, it is compact (the D-Lux 4) but the lens sticks out a bit. While it fits fine in a purse or coat pocket, for front pants pocket carrying it is not the smallest camera you can take with you. The S90 on the other hand IS that camera so there is no reason NOT to take it everywhere! But, how does its Image Quality stand up to other compacts? How is its “usability factor” and durability? High ISO? AF? Well, read on to find out!

First, here is a youtube video I made that will show you the camera and its features:

“Auction in the Park” – Canon S90 – Converted to B&W in Photoshop

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What do you get for the money?

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The Canon S90 comes in a nice looking small box. Inside this box you get the camera body, a battery, a charger, a wrist strap, instruction book and a CD with Canon software. For a little over $400 this camera really should not be challenging my wifes D-Lux 4, (which I will tell you right now has  the better image quality) but it should be challenging cameras like the Leica C-Lux 3 or the Nikon P90 as they are in the same price range. NOTE: The C-Lux 3 is a gorgeous little camera geared for SIMPLICITY. A true point and shoot that anyone can get great results with. I loved that little camera and in my review (see that here) you can see my images with it.

But the S90 is a bit more advanced in terms of features over the C-Lux 3 so lets see what this camera has going for it. This is direct from the B&H web site:

High Performance Imaging

By combining a 10 megapixel CCD sensor and Canon’s advanced DIGIC 4 Image Processor, the PowerShot S90 offers dramatic low light sensitivity with minimal noise. Impressive ISO 3200 capability reduces blur and subject movement for crisp photos with spectacular sharpness and clarity.

Compact and Pocket-friendly

The S90 boasts an incredibly slim profile and lightweight body for true pocket-sized convenience. For the photographer that never wants to miss an opportunity, the S90 is the high quality camera that you can carry every day.

• 3.8x Optical Zoom Lens

With an equivalent zoom range of 28-105mm, Canon’s 3.8x Optical Zoom Lens captures everything from sweeping landscapes to telephoto action shots with ease. An impressive f/2.0 aperture allows you to create dramatic portraits by emphasizing your subject’s face and blurring the background with a soft, shallow depth-of-field.

• 3.0″ LCD

Boasting 461,000 dots of resolution, the 3.0″ Pure Color LCD screen of the S90 offers exceptional color and contrast for composing and reviewing photos and video. Advanced multi-coatings prevent visual interference from dust, scratches, and reflections.

• Custom Exposure Control

The new control ring around the lens of the S90 offers precise adjustment to focus, exposure, ISO, zoom, or white balance settings. Intuitive and easy to use, the ring is fully customizable to meet your shooting preferences.

• RAW File Capture

RAW files allow you to capture images without the loss of detail associated with JPEG compression. Using the included Canon software or a compatible 3rd party RAW converter, you’ll enjoy complete creative control in post-production with precise manipulation of shadows, highlights, color, and other image elements.

So while the S90 may look like a simple point and shoot on the outside, it does have some cool options with its “function control ring” that I have not seen in any other compact to date. As for its build quality, it is good but not great. My first impression was that it was not as well made as the Leica C-Lux 3. The S90 feels VERY plasticky and light, but that does not mean it is fragile. It also helps keep its price point in the $400 range.

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OK, So What About Image Quality and Higher ISO shooting?

All of these cool features don’t mean SQUAT if the camera can not pump out quality images. Luckily, the S90 can give you SPLENDID quality, as long as you have some good light! I am NOT a fan of on camera flash photography as it just gives your images a harsh flat look. I NEVER EVER use on camera flash. Instead, I rely on higher ISO capabilities and a wider lens aperture. Luckily, the S90 opens up to F2 at its widest setting so if you are indoors in low light you can go up to ISO 800 and shoot at F2 to get shots even at night. BUT, you will get some noise in this situation as you will with most compact small sensor cameras including the D-lux 4.

For example, here is an indoor shot taken at LOW LOW LIGHT at night at ISO 800.

ISO 800 in LOW light at night

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As you can see by clicking on the image to see the larger version, there is indeed some noise. Is it too much for your tastes? I am actually fine with it but noise like this does not really bother me. This is just a silly test image to test ISO 800 IN LOW LIGHT but if I were taking an important image, or something special, it should be able to stand on its own even with some noise in it. In other words, this noise will not make or break an image if the image is worth taking. I could have used the flash but then there is no need for high ISO anyway. If you are a flash shooter then you will have no worries with high ISO.

On the other hand, if you have some light coming in from a window you can set it to ISO 800 and get OUTSTANDING results! Here is an image I shot with some soft window light shining in to my kitchen (click image for larger and better version):

ISO 800 with some window light coming in

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So having SOME light coming in to your room can make all of the difference in the world!

Here are some ISO crops to show you how much noise to expect indoors at every ISO. First, the test image and then the crops:

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S90ISO80

S90ISO400

S90ISO640

S90ISO1000

S90ISO1600

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As you can see in the above examples, the S90 is usable in low light from ISO 80 and all the way up to ISO 1600. Remember, the above test shots are 100% crops. A resized version of the full image would show less noise. The high ISO performance is a bit better than the Leica C-Lux 3 I tested a few weeks back. Still, this is no where near what a current DSLR will give you. For example, Nikons latest DSLR masterpiece, the D3s can shoot at over 100,000 ISO. Amazing yes, but that will cost you a cool $5,000. That is about 12X the cost of an S90 and 100X the weight!

During my time with the Canon S90 I did not have to shoot at high ISO that much as I usually brought it out during the daytime, as will most of you. I also realize that most who buy this camera will most likely set it to AUTO and go. In AUTO you will have no issues with image quality, noise, or anything else for that matter. The camera will take care of everything for you. It will pop up the flash when needed, and close it when it is done. If you are looking for a great “AUTO” camera, the S90 delivers the goods in this respect.

If you prefer to shoot in Av mode where you can control the Aperture of the lens (I recommend this mode) then you can open up to F2 and get some pretty special image quality. Click any image below for a larger and better version.

“Cool Breeze” – Canon S90 – F2.2 – ISO 80

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“Macro” – F2 – ISO 80

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“Ring Bling” – F2 – ISO 80

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With some good light you can get some great color, sharpness, and tones. The images above are all STRAIGHT out of the camera. The one of my son in the car was converted from RAW and the two under it were shot as JPEG. One thing I have found with most small sensor compacts, and I KNOW that many will disagree, is that shooting RAW will only give you slight benefits as the JPEG’s are usually VERY good out of these cameras. With my wife’s D-Lux 4 we shoot JPEG 90% of the time and every image you see in on THIS PAGE was shot with the D-Lux 4 in JPEG mode.

The S90 is no different. I shot JPEG and RAW and usually went with the JPEGs as they looked so good unlike my $7000 Leica M9 which forces me to shoot RAW 100% of the time. There is a reason for that though. Camera companies make these small digital cameras VERY user friendly and set them up to give sharp colorful results out of the box. Most buyers of this camera will be new digital camera users and they want no muss, no fuss. With a camera like a Nikon D700, Canon 5DII, or Leica M9, the files are geared towards more experienced digital shooters and they assume you will process your images to suit your tastes and vision.

So the bottom line is that the Canon S90 JPEGs are quite good and for me, is how I would shoot it. If I wanted that extra ounce of performance I would set it to RAW and process accordingly.

How about AF Performance and the other features of the camera?

The AF of the Canon S90 is quick and about equal to the D-Lux 4 and C-Lux 3. Its not lightning fast but it is fast enough for a camera in this price range. Remember, this is a $400 camera but I keep making references to other $700 cameras. That is mainly because at this price point of $429, I can not think of another camera that beats it for features and usability. I have to reference the more expensive cameras since it comes close to those in many areas. So yea, the AF is great and it even has BLINK DETECTION! If your subject blinks, the camera will warn you so you do not snap while a blink is going on. How nuts is that?

It also has continuous AF which worked well for me. I really had no issues with the camera AT ALL during my time with it and I never even had to recharge the battery! When I returned the camera to B&H it still had plenty of juice left in the battery, and that is a GOOD thing! Most cameras today have good battery life though, so that is to be expected.

The one feature of this camera that sets it apart from others in this price range is the “control ring”. I go over this in detail in the video near the top of this page. You can set this control ring to “control” aperture, ISO, exposure compensation,  focus, WB or zoom.. I used it to control the aperture as I am used  to this with my Leica glass. I really enjoyed this feature and hope to see it used on other camera models. It gives  you a sense of control.

The movie mode is a let down IMO. Most cameras today are including HD video capability and the S90 gives you standard NON HD video. It also shoots in a “faux” widescreen cropping the top and bottom of the image off if you choose to shoot in 16X9. Again, the LX3 and D-Lux 4 are better in this regard as they have true 16X9 and HD video. Maybe the next version of this camera can include HD video?

Another thing I enjoyed with the Canon S90 is ONE of its scene modes. The B&W film mode gave me some cool B&W images right out of the camera with no need for photoshop conversions.

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To be honest, I did not care for the other “scene” modes so this is the only one I used. The S90 can make for a cool B&W camera though the look it gives you is more of the classic “grainy” film look.

The Bottom Line Conclusion

During my time with the Canon S90 I went form hot to cold on a few occasions. I loved the camera for its size, weight, and simplicity. I loved the fact that I could just slide it in my front pocket and take it with me EVERYWHERE. This resulted in me getting images I would usually not get. This is a great “grab-n-go” camera and can be used in full auto or manual modes. The person this camera is aimed at is someone who wants a grab-n-go camera that also gives you great image quality in good light and is easy to use.

Sometimes I disliked the camera as I knew I could have gotten better image quality if I had the D-Lux 4. But, the D-Lux 4 is $699 (soon to be $799) and this Canon S90 is $429 and at that price I have not had a camera in my hands that can beat it. If you are in the market for a modern digital camera that is sleek, small, light, and packs a punch then the S90 is a great camera and deserves to be seriously considered. Here is my list of the pros and cons of the S90:

PROS:

  • Small and sleek. Thin and pocketable.
  • Good color.
  • Great AF for this class of camera.
  • Control Ring is awesome and customizable.
  • Battery life is very good.
  • Image Stabilization.
  • ISO great up to 800, usable to 1600.
  • A 28-105 Built in lens.
  • Price!

CONS:

  • Plasticky Build
  • Movie mode is NOT HD!
  • Lens has some barrel distortion at widest setting, but most will never notice it.
  • Limited Dynamic Range, but this goes with most small sensor compacts (highlights can blow out easily)

There you have it! My PRO list is much longer than my CON list and the S90 is a heck of a camera for the money. I have to admit, if I were in the market for a nice point and shoot it would be tough to decide between this and the C-Lux 3. The C-Lux 3 is a more beautiful and simpler camera with equally as good image quality but the S90 beats the C-Lux with features and high ISO shooting so it all comes down to features vs looks. The smart money would go on features, so the S90 would prevail in this case.

Here are my thoughts on this camera vs others I have recently shot with:

S90 vs C-Lux 3 – The C-Lux 3 is GORGEOUS, and SIMPLE to use. It is the ultimate POINT AND SHOOT but not as feature rich as the S90 and its high ISO is not as good. From a photographer standpoint, I have to choose the S90. They are currently the same price and are both GREAT cameras so either would be a great choice. I know women LOVE LOVE LOVE the C-Lux 3.

S90 vs Sony HX1 – The HX1 is the king of versatility with a huge zoom, HD movie and sweep panorama built in. I loved using that camera but the S90 is MUCH smaller and provides better image quality. If size and IQ is a concern, the S90 wins. If even MORE features and HD movie recording is, then the HX1 wins. But its MUCH larger and $75 more than the S90.

S90 vs D-Lux 4 – Well, I love the D-Lux 4 and it has given me some of the best quality I have seen in a compact camera (next to the Sigma Dp2). It is now $699 and soon to go up to $799 so it is much more expensive than the S90 but it will give you better image quality, build, feel, and resale value. If your budget allows, I can easily recommend the Leica D-Lux 4 OR BETTER YET, the $449 Panasonic LX3, which is the SAME camera as the D-Lux 4. Panasonic makes both.

S90 vs Sigma DP2 – The Sigma will give you THE BEST image quality of ANY non interchangeable lens compact camera BUT IT IS SLOW as molasses and frustrating to use. Its also featureless. Its main draw is its rich color, sharp images and film like qualities. It comes in at under $600.

So there you have it! The Canon S90 at $429 competes well with cameras costing more and even can beat some of them for features and ease of use. The only other COMPACT camera I like better is the Leica D-Lux 4 or Panasonic LX-3. I feel the image quality and features of these two cameras are wonderful. BUT many may prefer the Canon for its even smaller size and ease of use.

If you want to buy an S90 for yourself, I HIGHLY recommend B&H Photo. They are simply the best in the business from MY experience. PERIOD. They offer a full refund return policy, no restock fees, super fast service and their web site shows REAL TIME “in stock” status. You can click here to check out their Canon S90 page and if you order using my links I will get a small credit that will help me pay for running this site! So I thank you for your support! I also love and shop with AMAZON and you can see their S90 page here!

If you enjoyed this review, feel free to leave a comment at the bottom of this page and also be sure to join me on twitter or facebook! Also, you can subscribe to my feed at the upper right of any page and be notified of when new reviews are posted! I will leave you with a few more images from the Canon S90! Enjoy and be sure to click on an image to see it larger and with better color!

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  21 Responses to “The Canon S90 Digital Camera Review”

  1. Hey guys, the video now works! Sorry but I had it marked as private in youtube and forgot to set it to public when the review went live. Its now working so if you missed the video be sure to check it out above!

  2. Nice review Steve.

    A friend got the S90 and the nice thing about using the ring under ‘Zoom’ is that it is easy to dial-in a focal length. So if you’re used to shooting with a 28mm or a 35mm lens, and therefore have a good intrinsic feel for the fields of view, you can easily dial it in and shoot from the hip.

    I’m trying to decide between this camera and the G11 (which uses the same sensor). The main downside to the S90 for me is the lack of hotshoe. For $25-$50 more the non-pocketable G11 offers that as well as rotating LCD screen, (mediocre) viewfinder and more customizability … though the zoom isn’t as wide or as fast at the low end. Tradeoffs.

  3. Hi!

    Great review! Is it possible to put up some RAW-files for us to take a closer look at?

    Regards

  4. Hi Bjorn,

    I will start supplying RAW files with my major reviews. My bandwidth costs me $$ and right now I can not put up RAW files for every review. When I review the Nikon D3s I will put a few up and that will be coming soon. Over time I hope to continue to make improvements and including RAW files will be one of them.

    Thanks!

    Steve

  5. hi steve

    great review as always
    i’ve just bought the s90 as well as the gf1 which i really love. i can’t see where the bw mode is in the scene setting
    am i missing something?

    keep up the great work

    best
    shane

  6. Thanks finally for a easy review of he S90. I don’t have the time to read complicated 16 page reviews. …. yours was simple and to the point. I will use your link to B&H.

  7. Steve, great review. Have now bought the S90, but too early to comment. You mentioned the B&W scene mode that you used – I guess that is the “nostalgic” setting, am I correct? I think Shane is asking a similar question…thanks again

  8. Hi steve,

    thanks for the great review. I’m pondering between the Lumix LX3 and the S90. The Lumix seems to be the better buy, but i always see a small magenta push in skin tones. Have heard this is due to IR sensitivity of the sensor.

    Steve, have you noticed anything similar on the d-lux 4 ??

    thanx

  9. Hmmm…. your video appears to be down again. Quite liked the review, though was a little bothered about how many times you referenced the Leica D-Lux 4 as a more expensive camera when, as you know, it’s simply a Panasonic LX3, which can be bought for the exact same price as the Canon S90. I feel this review should have been more about the S90 vs the LX3. If you ever manage to review the Ricoh GRDIII, which I’d really like to see your opinion of, then I could perhaps understand more the references to the D-Lux 4. Anyway, just a minor quibble in what was otherwise a great review, I was especially surprised to find that the S90 was thinner than the LX3, as the specs on DPR suggest otherwise. I am now torn between the S90 and the LX3 as my everyday pocket camera of choice…. Is it easily (jeans) pocketable compared to the LX3?

  10. Hey Overheat,

    Video is back up, thanks for pointing that out. Anyway, I mentioned the D_Lux 4 as that was a camera that I owned at the time I wrote that. I am aware of the LC-3 and it is also mentioned here but honestly, I never used it. Yes, it is 99.7% the same camera but there are slight differences in color, contrast, etc.

    I only talk about cameras I use or own so that is why I do not “compare” it to the LX-3. I never touched one. With that said, I did say this in the comparison section:

    “Well, I love the D-Lux 4 and it has given me some of the best quality I have seen in a compact camera (next to the Sigma Dp2). It is now $699 and soon to go up to $799 so it is much more expensive than the S90 but it will give you better image quality, build, feel, and resale value. If your budget allows, I can easily recommend the Leica D-Lux 4 OR BETTER YET, the $449 Panasonic LX3, which is the SAME camera as the D-Lux 4. Panasonic makes both.”

    Thanks

  11. Oh yea, the S90 IS thinner because its lens retracts where the LX3′s lens does not. The S90 can be carried in your front pocket when turned off. LX3 can not. Thanks!

  12. Overheat – I’ve got both and can say with no reservation that the S90 is noticeably smaller than the D-Lux4. They are both very, very good. But for me, this debate is primarily about size – and many buyers of either camera will already have at least one other system, and they are buying this for portability. Image quality and functionality is very similar on both. Personally, I’ll be selling the D-Lux4 and keeping the S90.

  13. Thanks guys – appreciate your comments – I’m still torn between the LX3 and S90, but your words are helpful. And Steve, I didn’t mean that last comment as an attack on your review, more as an observation that was meant to be constructive, but I guess it wasn’t perceived that way. Sorry about that. Your site is still my favourite camera review site, so please keep up the good work. I’m especially interested in the fast lens reviews and always look forward to reading them :)

  14. You haven’t mentioned the Panasonic LX 3, which is an identical camera to the D Lux 4 (minus the red dot) and retailing for around half the price – which makes it a direct competitor to the S 90.

  15. Stephen, the LX3 was indeed mentioned in this review as well as my D-Lux 4 review. How did you miss it?

    “S90 vs D-Lux 4 – Well, I love the D-Lux 4 and it has given me some of the best quality I have seen in a compact camera (next to the Sigma Dp2). It is now $699 and soon to go up to $799 so it is much more expensive than the S90 but it will give you better image quality, build, feel, and resale value. If your budget allows, I can easily recommend the Leica D-Lux 4 OR BETTER YET, the $449 Panasonic LX3, which is the SAME camera as the D-Lux 4. Panasonic makes both.”

    also

    “As many of you know, my favorite compact to date is the Leica D-Lux 4 & Panasonic LX-3 (same cameras). ”

  16. Thanks Steve! My apologies. I am agonising about which high-end compact to buy. I have am willing to fork out as much as the asking price for an X1 (put my name down on the waiting list for one at the Leica store in Hamburg – had to get behind 60 others in the queue), but am concerned about some the issues that have been raised (especially the slow(ish) AF).

    I have no issue with the fixed focal length and absence of a video mode. If money was no object, which high-end compact would you buy?

  17. i have a Panasonic Lx3 and a 6 year old Olympus Camedia C-7000 Zoom Digital Camera which is a Compact that has 7.1 million pixels and it also has RAW,TIFF and JPEG and the Olympus C-7000 is the Best Compact i have ever shot with.
    if you shot at the following.
    sharpness +5
    Saturation 0
    contrast -4
    and iso 80 and at full JPEG Res … then the images are so much better than the Lx3.
    you must test this olympus out.
    here in the uk it is under the name of the OLYMPUS CAMEDIA C-70 ZOOM.
    you can buy these 2nd hand over ebay.

  18. i appreciate the way that your review the cameras , which are straight forward and that can be understood by everyone
    myself i own the cano s90 but i would come to say that its not so impressive as a point and shoot camera i closed rooms ,
    many times you will be out of focus and the white balance just get confused sometimes

    i assume that the camera best photos can be taken at the manual mode and i have tried it in many occasions and it works better

    but as i am a mass photographer that likes to shoot continous photos the auto mode will be the choice and thats were the s90 fails with me in that regard

    i never had a Leica camera and i am considering to get one , , and also i am very fond of Sony latest compact cameras such as WX1 , HX5V and i am awaiting for NEX-5 and WX5 soon

    i would say that i will ony have canons , Leicas and Sonys in my future camera collections since i love the way thats these 3 compoanies think about the cameras

    recently Panasonic have announced their LX-5 and I assume that Leica will come our with D-Lux 5 , so lets wait .

  19. Hi Steve,

    I really appreciate your thorough reviews. I’ve read them for both the Canon S90 and the Sony Nex cameras (Nex3 and Nex5). How would you compare the picture image quality between the two? I know one is a compact and the Sony’s are not but I still want to compare the two. Here is what I’ve heard:
    – the image quality on the S90 is better (sharper, more true colors) than the Sony (slightly blurred and distorted colors). Is that true even of the Nex3 and Nex5?
    - the canon is very good in low light (don’t know about the Sony)
    - the Sony Nex series is incredibly fast – shoots 7 frames per second. This is something I haven’t liked about prior Canon cameras I’ve had (too slow).

    I’m trying to decide if it is worth the extra cost (and camera weight) to move up from a compact camera to a Sony Nex camera. Would appreciate any thoughts you have.

    Thank you.

  20. My S90 fell twice (!) onto the rocks from about 1 meter of height. Camera is fine, apart from a few scratches (some metal shines through) nothing is wrong – definitely S90 has no “plasticky build”, rather “plasticky feel” (that dreadful freely rotating rear control wheel).

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