Canon PowerShot S90 Review

Price

For $429, you can get a Nikon D40 kit, or for slightly more, a Canon XS/D3000 kit. For a point and shoot, the S90 is about as pricey as it gets (short of some Ricohs and Leicas). However, the S90’s price justification is in its size. You can’t always carry even a relatively compact D40 with you – you certainly can’t fit it in any normal-sized pocket. From the sample photos I’ve seen of the G11, the S90 has 90%+ of the image quality, a faster lens at the wide end, and is half the volume. When you get up to G11, I can’t help but think about the Olympus E-P1 or Panasonic GF-1. With a camera of that size, I want a larger sensor, period. Lots of manual controls are fantastic for usability, but when the images that come out of it are of the same quality as something less than half the size, I become uncertain of its justification, especially as it’s priced even higher than the S90, at $499.

Let’s put it this way, the S90 isn’t cheap, but in particular for a camera this small, with this level of performance, I believe it to be justified.

Conclusion

It’s clear that the S90 is popular. Over at the DPReview forums, nearly every second thread in the Canon section has to do with the S90. Perhaps an even better indication of the camera’s visibility is the amount of chatter about the S90 in the Panasonic section of the forums as well! LX3 owners far and wide are becoming defensive; there’s really no need for them to be, considering the 1.5 year old camera is just now being matched by something from another manufacturer. Best Buy, Amazon, and Adorama are all out of stock, for the moment, at the MSRP price, although B&H still has some available.

Canon PowerShot S90

I haven’t run into deal-breaker issues yet with the Canon S90. It satisfies all my main requirements: size, image quality (relative), and manual controls. If you’re looking for a higher-end point and shoot that gives you room to grow into photography, take a look at the S90. If you’re looking for a pocketable complement to your hulking DSLR kit, like I was, take an even closer look at the S90.

Pros:

  • Size – it’s small enough to fit into a pants pocket
  • Inconspicuous – you could nearly pass this off as your friend’s Canon Elph.
  • Full set of manual controls
  • RAW
  • Very good image quality for a camera this size (especially higher ISO)
  • Fast lens at the wide end (f/2.0)
  • Lens ring control – adds a whole dimension of control, in a very smart/efficient way
  • Fantastic high-resolution 3.0″ LCD
  • Reasonable focal range (28mm-105mm)
  • Generally well-built

Cons:

  • Relatively pricey for a small-sensor digicam
  • Holdability isn’t optimal – a bit slippery
  • Shutter button is placed too far inboard – doesn’t naturally fall under the index finger
  • Lens gets somewhat slow at the tele-end (f/4.9)
  • Control wheel on the back of the camera is too loose
  • No hotshoe

Find out all the specifications of the Canon PowerShot S90 on Canon’s website.

COMMENTS

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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