Canon PowerShot S90 Review

Image Quality

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 2,736 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.

Canon S90 high ISO

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. 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.

Night at Westlake Center
Westlake Center at night, Seattle, WA

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.


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.

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