There are countless point and shoots that can fit in my pocket on the market; however, there are extremely few that offer the image quality I’m looking for. Most digital compacts pour on the noise reduction at around ISO 400, in order to combat excessive noise levels. The Canon G10 was usable at ISO400, which was impressive given the 14.7MP sensor. The Fuji F200EXR produced borderline usable images at ISO800 at 6MP in many conditions.
Canon, after racing ahead with the G10, has scaled back the resolution of its top-end point and shoot sensor. It’s still the same 1/1.7″ size CCD sensor as the G10, but is now ‘only‘ 10MP. That still equates to 3,648 x 2,736Â pixels, far larger than anything you’ll want to post on Facebook. 🙂 With slightly larger photosites than before, the S90 is better in low-light situations. It’s easily usable at ISO800 in low ambient lighting conditions. Below is a shot of my night table, with my ancient alarm clock and an “I’m a PC” lanyard I picked up at the Microsoft Company Store. The ambient lighting was provided by only my lamp, and no noise reduction was performed on the image whatsoever. It was resized down to 2048 pixels wide. I’m impressed.
Beyond that, ISO1600 starts seeing the effects of relatively strong noise reduction, but you could still get away with it. I would not suggest anything higher. With a usable ISO800 and the fast f/2.0 lens at the wide end, what you’re able to capture without using flash opens up significantly.Â I’ve shot more than a few social activities with a point and shoot, where there was no option but to use the onboard flash. Furthermore, even at ISO200, noise would creep in, and noise reduction would start blurring detail. Not ideal. I’m excited about some upcoming social venues to really stretch out the S90’s legs.
To be expected from a 1/1.7″ sensor, low-light performance is still nowhere near most DSLRs. However, it’s at the point where the image quality will be more than acceptable for web viewing, where the majority of the photos from the S90 will find themselves. There is a Low-Light mode, which I have yet to try. It limits the size of the photos that can be taken, but allows ISOs up to 12800 (I expect a watercolor painting from a sensor of this size) and could perhaps help low-light image quality even more.
I’ll write up another post detailing high ISO performance, along with a comparison with a Nikon D90 in the near future. I want to keep this review as real-world as possible, without getting into too much measurebation. One potential concern regarding JPEG images is the removal of the SuperFine compression option. Most JPEG images from the S90 at the highest ‘Fine’ mode are only around 2.0-2.5MB. That’s pretty small for 10MP of image data. I’ll try to investigate this further down the road. In the meantime, RAW is always ready to serve.
UPDATE: I’ve posted up the first part of the in-depth image quality investigation. Head on over to read more!
The S90 starts up fairly quickly, but takes a couple seconds to shut down and retract the lens, slower than most point and shoots that I’ve used. However, in shooting mode, everything’s snappy. Shot to shot time in single shot mode is about 2 seconds. In continuous shooting mode, you can get about 1.5FPS with JPEG, and closer to 1FPS with RAW. This is with a Lexar Professional 133X SDHC, which can achieve about 20MB/s write. For the purposes of a point and shoot, this is more than ample performance. Sports shooters look elsewhere.
Perhaps just as important in a camera built for the demographic that wants a small, inconspicuous camera, the rest of the interface, and especially playback mode, is very smooth. There’s nothing more frustrating than showing friends some photos and have the camera choke up while scrolling through them. Clicking back and forth on the four-direction pad presents a nice fade-in, fade-out effect for playback. Scrolling the control wheel gives a fly-in/out effect. Scroll faster and you enter a horizontal-scroll interface, where you can quickly go through photos linearly. Canon acknowledges the importance of a nice playback interface in these more social cameras. Even scrolling through RAW photos is no problem at all for the Digic 4 processor.
Refresh rates on the LCD while composing photos is excellent, too. Even in very low light, the wide-angle refresh rate is flawless. Only by around 50mm does some lag and tearing in the preview start to appear. You probably won’t be happy shooting sports in low light with the S90.