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Canon Powershot S90 Digital Camera Review

Back to the Future: Canon astound everyone by relaunching the once popular Powershot S series with a tidy 318 10Mp model with an f/2 lens and Raw recording.

|  Canon Powershot S90 in Compact Cameras
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Canon Powershot S90 main image Canon Powershot S90 review
ePHOTOzine resident tester, Matt Grayson takes a look at the Canon Powershot S90. A small pocket camera with Raw recording, manual modes and fast f/2 lens.

Boasting features normally seen on top end prosumer compact cameras, the Canon Powershot S90 is a small, pocketable model with Raw shooting, manual controls, a 10Mp CCD and 3.8x image stabilised optical zoom on a 28mm lens at the widest. The DiG!C IV processor runs two, count them, two noise reduction systems as well as face detection and dynamic range compensation. Priced at £318 from Warehouse Express, it sounds too good to be true. Is it? Or have Canon made a grave mistake and undersold themselves?

Canon Powershot S90: Features
Before Canon discontinued the S series from the Powershot range, they were big, cumbersome cameras that felt as though they were made out of granite. The S90 is a more modest and delicate reworking of the lost classic and looks quite nice. Gone is the sliding front cover and optical viewfinder. Instead a 3in LCD screen is used as the only source to preview your shot.

More modern features have been added such as the ring zoom function that allows you to change settings by twisting the lens bezel on the front. Settings can be assigned to the ring such as ISO, manual focusing, exposure compensation and zoom.

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Canon Powershot S90 inserting the card
The S90 accepts SD, SDHC, MMC and HC MMC memory cards.
Canon Powershot S90 held out
The Canon is only small in size but it's big on features.
Canon Powershot S90 using the controls
The small command dial looks crowded with the few features it has on it.
Canon Powershot S90 main menu
The traditional Canon menu is plain and simple with bright graphics and an easy-to-use interface.

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Only the low-light scene mode features on the command dial with all others bundled in the SCN selection to save space. Primarily, I think because the dial is a lot smaller but also because it already looks crowded with the manual exposure controls, custom and scene modes along with the video and auto options.

Keeping the higher prosumer functions ensures the camera isn't categorised with the rest of the Powershot range and sits itself firmly between the SX and G series.  Priced at £318, it's a camera that is more akin to the Ricoh GX200 at £295.99 and Panasonic LX3 at £324.

A modest 10Mp CCD sensor echoes the thoughts of when the G11 was released to gasps that a manufacturer wasn't pandering to the pixel race by actually lowering the count from the previous model. To use the same sensor could be a simple cost cutting exercise by purchasing a larger amount from the outset, but it could also mean (and I expect this to be the official word) that Canon have found the optimum resolution that the sensor can handle before it starts to lose quality.

The zoom is a relatively standard 3.8x optical and the S90 benefits from an ultra wide f/2.0 aperture. The wide aperture will help in the fight against noise by allowing more light through the lens while the lower resolution keeps the pixels further away from each other to reduce noise caused by the heat generated by each pixel which affects neighbouring. It will also help prevent camera shake by allowing quicker shutter speeds to freeze action.

Canon Powershot S90: Handling
Although the S90 is missing the bulky feel of the older S series cameras, it certainly doesn't feel cheap or badly made. Despite the compact size, it still has some weight to it and the metal casing is solid to the touch.

All the areas of the camera feel well made. The zoom ring is a loud clicky type but feels positive and although the buttons sit flush to the body, they're easy enough to operate. A small command ring is also on the back surrounding the navigation pad and you can use either to get around the menu system. If you have large hands like me, you may find it easier to use the wheel over the small buttons of the pad. It's a lot faster anyway.

The command dial on the top is small and firm. If you ask me, it's a bit too firm and so far is the only thing going against a thoroughly enjoyable little camera.

On the bottom of the camera is a metal tripod bush which is wonderful. This high use tool is often made of plastic which is subject to faster wear and tear but a metal one will ensure longevity.

The enclosed CD installs Zoombrowser EX, Digital Photo Professional and Photostitch onto to your computer. Zoombrowser is a simple browsing system to look at the pitures on your camera and transfer them to your computer. You can also perform some basic editing on the program such as red-eye correction, sharpening, inserting text and adjusting the colour or brightness.

As well as Zoombrowser, you also Digital Photo Professional, Canon's Raw converter, organiser and also has an editing system which is more sophisticated than the Zoombrowser program. Another cool program that comes in the bundle is Photostitch. It's an intelligent panormaic stitching program that gets your panoramas glued together in three steps. It's easy to use and intuitive as long as you've taken the images properly. You can also perform matrix for going up and along and 360° stitching. 

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Canon Powershot S90 DPP screengrab
Digital Photo Professional is included in the software bundle.
Canon Powershot S90 Photostitch screengrab
Photostitch panorama stitching software is also included along with Zoombrowser EX.

Canon Powershot S90: Performance
All photographs were taken in Raw format where possible and converted to JPEG using Adobe Camera Raw.

The Powershot S90 copes really well in most exposure conditions. In diverse lighting, the camera managed to get detail from shadow areas and prevent too much burn out on the highlights although there was some.

It does have a good dynamic range as standard though and even with bright side lighting, there was detail coming through in the shadow areas.

The Canon boasts standard focusing, an ok macro function that can focus in as close as 5cm and manual focusing. This mode will pop up a window in the middle of the monitor that shows an enlarged version of the centre of the frame.

This allows you to focus using the wheel on the back of the camera unless you've assigned manual focus to the function ring on the front then it's like using a DSLR.

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Canon Powershot S90 manual focusing
Manual focusing selects the centre of the screen for fine tuning. A proximity level sits to the right.
Low ISO in controlled light is exceptional and as the sensitivity moves through into the mid-range, slight salt and pepper noise is only detected at ISO400. Not bad for a small sensor, so the thoughts on finding the optimum resolution may be true after all. Noise is evident at ISO800 and ISO1600 and by the final stage of ISO3200, coloured blobs of green and purple are more noticeable. However, I expected it to be a lot more aggressive than this and I'm really happy with how the camera has controlled noise.

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Canon Powershot S90 outside ISO80 test
Outside ISO80 test.
Canon Powershot S90 outside ISO100 test
Outside ISO100 test.
Canon Powershot S90 outside ISO200 test
Outside ISO200 test.
Canon Powershot S90 outside ISO400 test
Outside ISO400 test.
Canon Powershot S90 outside ISO800 test
Outside ISO800 test.
Canon Powershot S90 outside ISO1600 test
Outside ISO1600 test.
  Canon Powershot S90 outside ISO3200 test
Outside ISO3200 test.

In natural light, there's pots of information at ISO80 and ISO100, in fact this continues up to ISO400 before the image starts to get smoothed out in a bid to remove noise. Detail content and quality begins to peter out at ISO1600. To give the camera credit where it's due, the noise control of the Canon Powershot S90 is great although at ISO3200, purple colour is visible in the mid-tones.

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Canon Powershot S90 studio ISO80 test
Studio ISO80 test.
Canon Powershot S90 studio ISO100 test
Studio ISO100 test.
Canon Powershot S90 studio ISO200 test
Studio ISO200 test.
Canon Powershot S90 studio ISO400 test
Studio ISO400 test.
Canon Powershot S90 studio ISO800 test
Studio ISO800 test.
Canon Powershot S90 studio ISO1600 test
Studio ISO1600 test.
  Canon Powershot S90 studio ISO3200 test
Studio ISO3200 test.

Colour reproduction

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Canon Powershot S90 colour test
Canon Powershot S90 colour test.

Judging by how the Canon performed throughout the test, it seems to prefer cooler tones because I got better colour results from blues and greens than I did from reds and oranges. However, brighter colours such as yellow do pretty good too although they're not as warm as I'd like, only brighter.

Subtle hues seem to do well, the camera doesn't ignore them and it also handles tricky colours such as purple nicely.

Earthy colours such as brown and greens when photographing foliage or landscapes look pretty good. Green is realistic meaning your garden or trips to the park won't suffer and brown is rich and not to dark.

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Canon Powershot S90 foliage
Green is realistic and yellow is bright, so my daffys come out looking divine.
Canon Powershot S90 browns
Earth colours such as brown are rich and realistic.
Canon Powershot S90 portrait length
Skin tones look good on portraits taken indoors and outdoors.
Canon Powershot S90 portrait close
Noise can be a bit of a pain but is easily taken care of in editing.

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Skin tones are balanced and shooting inside with the flash only suffers because of the amount of light available. This means the ISO has to be ramped up and colour can get messed up with because of that.

Dynamic range
Canon have fitted the iContrast feature to the S90 which increases the dynamic range of the camera to add more detail to dark areas and cap the highlights. It gives the picture an air of being a HDR shot which it is, but without the use of multiple exposures merged together.

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Canon Powershot S90 iContrast off
Shadows on an overcast day threaten to ruin a shot.
Canon Powershot S90 iContrast on
using iContrast boosts the dynamic range to include detail in dark places.

In natural light I found it's best to use the preset white-balance modes because the camera will get it slightly out from time to time and it's difficult to work out when it will or won't. Daylight was the most accurate giving a balanced reading in auto on most occasions but in cloudy conditions, the auto setting gave a slightly magenta cast which was unfortunate.

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Canon Powershot S90 auto white-balance cloudy
Auto white-balance cloudy.
Canon Powershot S90 white-balance cloudy
White-balance cloudy.
Canon Powershot S90 auto white-balance tungsten
Auto white-balance tungsten.
Canon Powershot S90 white-balance tungsten
White-balance tungsten.
Canon Powershot S90 auto white-balance fluorescent
Auto white-balance fluorescent.
Canon Powershot S90 white-balance fluorescent
White-balance fluorescent.

The same goes for tungsten lighting, the preset tungsten mode was a much more balanced result than the auto setting which still looked orange. Where it gets strange is with fluorescent, the other strong light source. I prefer the auto setting to the preset simply because of the slight off colouring of light tones that look a browny green colour.

The Canon Powershot S90 takes a Li-Ion battery NB-6L, which cost £39.99 from Warehouse Express. I charged it fully before beginning the test and it lasted me the full length of the test and I took around 300-400 images in total. The camera doesn't use a viewfinder so the screen was in constant use and I had to review all images once I'd taken them.

Buffer read/write times
There are two continuous shooting modes on the Canon Powershot S90 although there's only one speed. In Raw mode, the camera managed 6 frames in ten seconds but recorded ten frames in just under ten seconds when switched to JPEG. This concurs with the Canon specification that it runs at around 0.9fps (frames-per-second). There's no high speed sprint shooting mode, the continuous shooting on the S90 will keep plodding away until you stop or the card gets full, whichever happens first.

Lens performance
Sporting a relatively modest 3.8x optical zoom, the built-in lens is image stabilised, it has a bright aperture of f/2.0 and a wide-angle view of 28mm. At wide-angle there is a slight amount of barrel distortion which only shows on straight lines that run parallel with the edge of the frame.

There was only very mild chromatic aberration on high contrast areas showing as a thin purple or green line.

DxOMark provides objective, independent, RAW-based image quality performance data for lenses and digital cameras to help you select the best equipment to meet your photographic needs.

Visit the DxOMark website for tests performed on the Canon Powershot S90.

Canon Powershot S90: Verdict
Judging by the features available on the camera, the Powershot S90 appears to be a compact that isn't here to have fun. It's not here to be slung in a drawer and only taken out for nights out or on holiday. This is a serious picture making device that demands regular contact.

It's a lovely little camera although personally I prefer the bulkier build of the previous S series before they ended production the first time round. The price is a decent point to start at for the amount of features available. It'll make a very good back-up camera for the photographer who likes keeping control, shooting in Raw and a good lens but may not always want to take a bulky camera system with them.

Canon Powershot S90: Pros
Raw recording
Function ring on lens
Bright lens
Good build
Great noise control

Canon Powershot S90: Cons
Very slight barrel distortion
Command dial is a bit too tough for its size


Canon Powershot S90: Specification
Price £318
Resolution 10Mp
Sensor size 1/1.7in
Sensor type CCD
Max image size 3648x2736
Aspect ratio 3:2
Focusing system AiAF
Focus points 9
Focus types Single, continuous, face detection, macro, manual
File types Raw, JPEG
ISO sensitivity ISO80 - 3200
Metering system TTL
Metering types Evaluative, centre-weighted, spot,
Exposure compensation +/- 2EV in 1/3 step increments
Shutter speed range 15sec - 1/1600sec
Frames-per-second 0.9fps JPEG, 0.6fps Raw,
Image stabilisation Yes (shift type)
Monitor 3in Purecolor LCD, 461,000dots (153,666px)
Media type SD, SDHC, MMC, MMCplus, HC MMCplus
Interface USB 2.0, HDMI
Power Li-Ion NB-6L
Size 100x58.4x30.9
Weight 175g

The Canon Powershot S90 costs around £318 and is available from Warehouse Express here:

Canon Powershot S90
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MD_CRUZ 12 7 United Kingdom
14 Apr 2010 6:07PM
If only it had a function to trigger external flash! Would have been the perfect for me.

Do we know if the LX3 will be replaced soon?

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MattGrayson 13 622 3 England
15 Apr 2010 10:04AM
Not that I've heard but i expect it will happen sooner or later. Smile
t_downes 11 279 United Kingdom
16 Apr 2010 10:22PM
My wife has the powershot s90 and it's a superb camera. I feel it's a camera for someone with small hands as i have large hands and my fingers get everywhere on the front of the camera if you know what i mean..

MattGrayson 13 622 3 England
19 Apr 2010 9:14AM
Luckily, I think I do... Wink

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