Canon PowerShot S90 Review

My search is over.

Canon PowerShot S90

When I first read about the Canon S90, back in August of this year, I held out hope that it was the pocketable camera I was looking for to complement my Nikon D90. The only thing pocketable I had was a Canon SD200 (yeah, ancient). By the time the S90 was announced, I had tried and rejected a Canon SD870IS, a Nikon P6000, a Canon G10, and a Fuji F200EXR; okay, that last one’s a bit of a lie. It’s been my point-and-shoot up until now.  The SD870IS didn’t have the IQ or controls I was looking for, the Nikon P6000’s IQ was disappointing, as was its shot-to-shot performance (over 3 seconds between JPEGs, around 10 seconds between RAW), and the Canon G10 had good IQ and fantastic controls and performance, but was too large to fit in a pocket. That meant carrying a bag, in which case, I felt I might as well bring my DSLR. The Fuji F200EXR ended up being a compromise to myself. The low-light IQ was quite good, size was pocketable, but I sacrificed most of the manual controls I wanted.

So you might have gathered by now what my ideal P&S camera would be: small enough to fit in a pocket, have good image quality, especially in low-light situations, and give me manual control over exposure. The S90 hits all these points. I bought one on the first day it was officially available from Best Buy, October 11, so I’ve had some time to get a sense of what’s good and what’s not so great.

Design

After a couple iterations of my search with the G10 and P6000, I realized that there was one criteria I simply could not sacrifice: size. I didn’t have a camera that could slip into a pants pocket and not freak people out when pointed at them, as a DSLR too often does. The G10, and to a lesser degree, the P6000, are serious-looking pieces of photographic gear, and can’t easily fit into a pocket.

The S90 measures 10cm x 5.8cm x 3.1cm. By comparison, the SD870IS, which I also tried, measures 9.2cm x 5.9cm x 2.6cm. The body of the S90 isn’t much larger than that of the SD870IS – the lens housing protrudes somewhat, making the dimensions a bit larger front-to-back than the SD870IS.

Canon S90 size compared with Nokia E71
The S90 has a slightly smaller footprint than my Nokia E71, but is around 3 times the thickness.

From a size-performance standpoint, the main competitor of the S90 seems to be the Panasonic Lx3. Although 1.5 years old, the LX3 is still the reference point for the small, compact, high-performance camera. Its price, at least in North America, is a bit higher than the S90’s. The LX3 is advertised by Panasonic to be 10.9cm x 6.0cm x 2.7cm. However, this doesn’t seem to take into consideration the large lens protrusion, which brings the camera’s thickness to around 4cm. From a size standpoint, the S90 wins out by a fair margin, especially in the important thickness dimension. The S90 fits in a 28-105mm f/2.0-4.9 lens, which is slower, but covers a wider range than Panasonic’s 24-60mm f/2.0-2.8 lens.

Canon S90 versus Panasonic LX3 thickness

As you can see, there’s a pretty significant difference in the size of these two cameras. The key thing here is that the S90 can pass itself off as just another point-and-shoot. I don’t feel like the group photographer or any sort of awkwardness when I carry the camera to a social event. That’s very important. It means a whole new range of photographs can be taken, with decent image quality.

The S90 has a metallic-feeling outer casing, and is generally well put together. There’s no flexing of the chassis and carries some heft (175g, without battery or SD card) to give the impression of quality as well. When the flash unit is enabled, it rises up from the body using a motor, and retracts (motorized as well) when flash is disabled. It feels very confident and there’s no wobble or weird sounds from the motor system.

The Dark Side

The lens housing dominates the otherwise plain camera face. An autofocus assist light is just above and to the left of the lens. Otherwise, a couple logos adorn the front. Overall, it makes for a relatively quiet subject-facing design. There’s really nothing indicating serious camera equipment, hiding in the back.

Unlike the Panasonic LX3, there is no hotshoe. I presume Canon decided it simply isn’t what the targeted demographic is interested in. I don’t blame them. When I had the Nikon P6000, I tried mounting my SB-600 flash on it. It was comical. The flash head was about 2.5 times the volume of the camera and weighed 50% more. It was unwieldy to hold and use. It mostly defeats the purpose of a camera as small as the S90, if its size is doubled by just about anything you could mount on a hotshoe.

On the left side of the camera are mini USB and HDMI ports. At the bottom of the camera is a sturdy feeling flap for the battery and SD card compartments. The S90 takes NB-6L batteries. Also on the bottom, at just about the centerline of the lens is a metal tripod mount.

18 thoughts on “Canon PowerShot S90 Review”

  1. Still making my way through your review but I just had to remark about your comment on the scroll wheel – that’s the same thing that I said about Apple’s iPod scroll wheels (“there are no ‘clicks’ to indicate how far one must spin to exact a change”). When I told people that it’s a horrible piece of engineering (it was hilarious watching me use it for the first time after months of inactivity) and that people only think it’s great because they’ve learned to use it, they think I’m crazy.

  2. How did you find the high light clipping on the S90? I have seen this in many of the sample photos online. Did you need to step back the exposure on most of your photos? How did the overall Dynamic Range of the S90 compare to your F200EXR?

    1. The dynamic range of the S90 is definitely very limited compared to the DSLR I’m used to shooting with. Compared to what I remember of the F200EXR (I don’t have it with me currently, so I can’t do very scientific tests), it falls short as well, especially in the F200’s DR priority modes. I was always amazed by how much DR the F200’s sensor could pull out of scenes, given the small sensor. There’s no denying it; Fuji’s SuperCCD sensor is simply fantastic for dynamic range.

      I’ve found shooting at -1/3 to -2/3 stops EV compensation has been a good idea with the S90. The S90 seems to overexpose slightly, which might be the reason why more than the average number of samples are showing up with very blown highlights.

  3. Your comparison with the D40 SLR is an interesting one because I’ve been using one for a D40 couple years now, and I just ordered a S90 today (replacing my ancient SD200). Of course I don’t expect the S90 to take better photos than the D40, but I think it will do better in low-light high-ISO situations than the D40 w/kit lens based on sample shots, and also:

    – Lens has a 1.8 stop advantage over kit at wide end
    – Being 3 years newer probably gains it ~1 stop (for example, compare D90 to D40) w/ better tech and software
    – 1/6 area sensor size probably means ~2.5 stop worse

    Question: You were getting 1.5 fps, but canon only quotes a 0.9 fps continuous shot rate. Did you measure that rate or was it an estimate? Do you get the same result with a cheap SD card?

    1. The 1/1.7″ sensor is actually around 1/8.5 the size of the APS-C sensor the D40 uses. Combine that with the fact that the D40 is only a 6MP instead of 10MP camera, we’re talking closer to 4 stops of light-gathering advantage of the D40.

      The rest of your analysis is probably pretty accurate, but we’re still talking about at least 1 stop advantage (with our hand-wavy math) for the D40.

      I went out last night and shot a bunch of night photos of the Seattle skyline with the S90 and Nikon D90 for the upcoming ISO comparison post. Based on my quick glance at the photos, the performance isn’t even close, not that I expected it to be .

      Point is, don’t get your hopes up that the S90’s IQ will match even a 3.5 year old DSLR.

      As for the continuous shooting speed, the 1.5FPS was a rough estimate in the field. I recently did a timed test and got just over 1.1FPS, not as quick I had originally estimated. I don’t have a cheap SD card with me at the moment, so I can’t quite test that for you unfortunately.

      1. Got my S90! I’m really impressed by indoor shots at ISO400/800, which looks to me to have about the same noise as ISO1600 on my D40 when viewed at screen size.

        It seems to work fine with a cheap old SD card (2 GB kingston, unrated). I got 1.0 fps, so the slow speed might be some sensor limitation, though somehow the low-light mode gets around that.

        My only complaint so far is that Auto ISO is not configurable and tends to choose a higher ISO than I would prefer and higher than what it would choose on my Canon SD200.

  4. If you look closely at the images, I think you’ll notice disappointing corner softness at wide angle through “50mm.”

    Regarding the above comment, the S90 needs -0.7 EV exposure compensation (at least) to avoid highlight clipping. But once you know you need to shoot that way, I don’t think that’s an issue.

    Finally, I really like using the lens control ring as a zoom, because you can set it exactly to “28mm,” “35mm,’ etc. I find this a lot easier than the traditional p&s zoom toggle.

  5. Hi Charlie,

    Just a quick question, might be a stupid one:
    Can you use the flash in the manual mode as well as a long exposure?

    And what about the flash power? I would like to take some party picture in the dark and “paint with the light” available.

    I never bought a G10 or 11 because I thought they were to big for my pocket, but this one seems to be the perfect one. The camera that is always with you.

    thanks for the complete review.

  6. Interesting review! How about macro mode? How close can you get to objects? (The LX3 focuses on a distance of about 1cm). If the S90 had been available a year ago I may have given it a try.

    1. I think you meant 5cm, but yeah, it’s not great at macro. On the plus side, there’s very little distortion of the image at this focal distance, unlike the G11 images I’ve seen, which you can focus down a lot closer, but ends up with this nearly fisheye effect.

  7. Thanks for this review. It seems to be one of the few out there so far, and I appreciate it. How is the camera at fill-in flash (aka slow-synchro)? My earlier Canons were better at it than my newer ones, for some reason. Sometimes nice to take a night shot of a skyline with a person flash-lit in the foreground, if you can pull it off nicely.

  8. Just got my S90 at Best Buy yesterday. Did some frustrating comparison shooting between the S90, my old G9, and my partner’s G10. Sunny day in the shade using various detailed household objects as subject matter. I feel confident that the S90 gives me marginally better detail as compared to the G9 but, as mentioned by another post, the S90 does seem to overexpose slightly. I will try the 1/3 stop correction as suggested. Should work. For more serious shooting, I use a 5D, Mark 2 but no comparison there. The 90 gives me something a little better than my G9 to use on an upcoming major trip some of which is in dicey surroundings where I don’t want to “flash” the 5D. Can’t really claim that I detect any advantage to either the S90 and the 10G over the other in this very limited “test.”

  9. Thanks for the review.
    Does anyone know if you can shoot with different aspect ratios with the S90? It’s listing only 4:3 and I’m hoping this is not the case.
    I much prefer the 3:2 aspect that is more similar to traditional 35mm. The Panasonic LX3 offers this but I really wanted this S90 so I’m really in a quandry.

    Would greatly appreciate any information. Thanks.

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