Canon PowerShot S90 Review


The rear of the camera is mostly taken up by a large, 461,000 dot, 3.0″ LCD display. With the half-VGA resolution, the images and interface appear crisply (most point and shoots still come with Quarter-VGA LCDs). To the right-hand side are the main controls, including the standard four-direction pad, a customizable shortcut button (which I have set to custom white balance), a review button, a display button and a menu button. The layout is standard Canon. The mode dial is above the controls, and below it sits a bump in the casing, presumably to help the holdability of the camera. The design needs it. The front of the camera is quite bare – there’s no grip, and the casing can become somewhat slick.

Canon S90 rear

A zoom toggle is placed around the shutter release button, and a power button and a ring function button are towards the center of the top panel. A flash housing to the left of the panel rounds out the top of the camera.

Canon S90 top panel

When I first picked up the camera, the shutter release didn’t quite fall naturally under my index finger. This was because I held the camera in both hands, with the right hand gripping only a small portion of the camera. In this position, my index finger landed somewhere between the mode dial and the shutter button. However, as I’m discovering that the camera is easily holdable in one hand one, I can shift my hand a bit to get a better grip, and the shutter release now falls under my index finger. The downside of this is that it’s nearly impossible to access the rest of the controls on the back of the camera, with this hand position. By comparison, the LX3’s shutter is closer to the left side of the camera, meaning the hand grip allows easier access to the controls on the back, with the thumb.

S90 and LX3 shutter placement
S90 on left. As you can see, the LX3 has a shorter edge to shutter distance than the S90.

One of the highlight features of the Canon S90 is its customizable control ring around the lens. Theoretically, this could be set to zoom, to mimic the feeling of ‘twisting’ the lens to set the focal length. I choose to set it (usually) to the default for each of the modes, such as aperture in Av mode. I figure there’s no need to duplicate the zoom functionality when the zoom rocker around the shutter release can’t be reassigned to another function. In the manual modes (Av, Tv, M), as well as Program Auto mode, other ring settings include ISO, White Balance, exposure compensation, or manual focus. It provides a satisfying click (like a physical groove) at each position. The control ring is a pretty cool feature, as it means one less dial or wheel is needed on the back of the camera to provide the same level of control.

Speaking of wheels on the back of the camera, Canon has put a control wheel around the four-directional button pad. While this means more functions can be performed without touching the menu system, it is unfortunately extremely finicky. The wheel is very loose and even pressing on the direction buttons can cause inadvertent scrolling. Furthermore, there are no ‘clicks’ to indicate how far one must spin to exact a change. I often find myself overshooting, simply because I have no idea how far I need to spin in order to get to the setting I want. From a handling standpoint, the control wheel is, by far, my biggest complaint about the camera.

Features and Functions

The ability to control how an exposure is taken was a key criteria in my search. Canon lists the following as supported shooting modes.

Auto, P, Av, Tv, M, C, Portrait, Landscape, Special Scene (Foliage, Snow, Beach, Sunset, Fireworks, Aquarium, Night Scene, Indoor, Color Accent, Color Swap, Kids & Pets, Underwater, Nostalgic), Night Snapshot, Stitch Assist, Low Light, Movie

With the aperture, shutter priority, and full manual mode, I have pretty much all the control I need. The Fuji F200EXR had a pseudo aperture priority mode, but only offered two aperture values for any given focal length, using a neutral density filter-like system. Not much control. The S90 gives a range of aperture control, between f/2.0 and f/8.0 at the wide end, and f/4.9 and f/8.0 at the telephoto end. Shutter priority allows shutter speed selections between 1/1600s and 15s.

Autofocus can only be set as center area or Face AiAF. Continuous AF Servo can be enabled to allow subject tracking. A manual focus mode is also available. When enabled, the center of the screen zooms significantly, to give you a better view of how in-focus the subject is. Three frame bracketing is also possible, allowing exposure or focus bracketing. That’s a pretty cool feature to have in this class of camera.

In the manual modes, RAW support is enabled. For now (as of October 18, 2009), you’ll need Canon’s DPP version 3.7, which comes on the CD, in order to fully work with the RAW files generated by the S90. Lightroom 2.5 seems to support the S90’s RAW format to an extent, but you won’t get autocorrection of the ample barrel distortion that is present at the wide-angle setting.

S90 size versus a Nikon 35mm AF-S lens
A DSLR may be able to product much higher quality images, but when a small prime is the same size or larger than the S90, you can justify the IQ sacrifice.

On auto, the camera continuously autofocuses, and is able to switch from normal range to macro mode automatically. In this mode, the only things you have control over are the flash mode and the image size. ISO, aperture, and shutter speed are all determined by the camera for you.

There’s also a bevy of scene modes, including Foliage, Snow, Beach, Sunset, Fireworks, Aquarium, Night Scene, Indoor, Underwater, and Nostalgic. Nostalgic is the only one I could see myself using, which desaturates photos from full-color all the way to high-contrast black and white, with different desaturation levels as you turn the lens ring control.

Finally, there’s pretty standard VGA video recording at 30 FPS. This can’t begin to compare with the HD (720p) video recording coming standard on many cheaper cameras these days. It’s a shame Canon didn’t include it in their latest PowerShot lineup (S90 and G11), but I’m not too bummed out about it. I rarely take videos, and those that I do take are just short clips; certainly, there’s no cinematic intention for them.


18 Replies to “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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *