Canon S90 IQ Compared to the Nikon D90

I went up to the Kerry Park viewpoint after the Ben Folds concert to get some shots of the city. I thought it would be good chance to test out the S90’s low-light performance as well, with an easy comparison to the D90, which I had with me as well. With a tripod set up, I started with the D90 and a Micro-Nikkor 60mm AF-S and moved on to the Canon S90. I shot from ISO 200 through ISO 1600 in RAW with the D90. With the S90, I shot from ISO 80 through ISO 1600, in both RAW and JPEG. I figure the S90’s the type of camera that could be used by both serious amateurs, who don’t mind post processing, and the more casual user, who simply wants great photos straight out of camera.

For now, I’ll set up some quick samples – the full set of ISO 80 – 1600 will have to wait to when I have a bit more time to process everything. I only used the RAWs from the two cameras for this example, with the D90 images processed in Capture NX2 and the S90 images processed in Canon DPP. The default noise reduction settings were used (none in NX2 and 2 Luminance and 4 Chrominance for DPP). No sharpening was applied to either set of photos.

So, without further ado, the canonical Seattle skyline shot.

Canon S90 at Kerry Park - ISO 80
Canon S90 – ISO 80. Click on the thumbnail for a 1600px wide version, or click here for the original size. Use sparingly, and be kind on my bandwidth!

Canon S90 at Kerry Park - ISO 200
Canon S90 – ISO 200. Click on the thumbnail for a 1600px wide version, or click here for the original size. Use sparingly, and be kind on my bandwidth!

Nikon D90 at Kerry Park - ISO 200
Nikon D90 – ISO 200. Click on the thumbnail for a 1600px wide version, or click here for the original size. Use sparingly, and be kind on my bandwidth!

And for a closeup (100% crop) –

Canon S90 at Kerry Park - ISO 200
Canon S90 – ISO 200

Nikon D90 at Kerry Park - ISO 200
Nikon D90 – ISO 200

Clearly, the Nikon D90 is pulling out much better image quality here. That’s to be expected. You can also see the difference in dynamic range between a compact camera sensor and the larger APS-C of the Nikon D90. At what ISO does the D90 have comparable quality to the S90 at ISO 200? I found it to be somewhere above ISO 800. The following is a 100% crop of the Nikon D90 at ISO 800.

Nikon D90 at Kerry Park - ISO 800
Nikon D90 – ISO 800

Compared to the Canon S90, there’s more detail here (probably due to the fact that some noise reduction was applied to the Canon S90’s RAW images in DPP), but noise levels are about the same. The D90’s ISO 1600 shot is significantly noisier than the S90’s ISO 200.

What can we take from this brief look at the differences in image quality from a large hulking DSLR kit compared to the Canon S90? There’s around a 2.5 stop (or slightly more) advantage for the Nikon D90 in this situation (I’m adding half a stop for the fact that some NR was applied to the S90 RAWs), but that’s also factoring in the 60mm AF-S lens used, which is a decently sharp macro. What I think is pretty interesting is this comment from a reader of my S90 review:

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

Andrew S

The D90 is probably close to a stop better than the D40 in low-light, which means the D40 is probably around 2 stops better in low light than the S90. That’s fairly decent performance out of a compact camera, that weighs less than the 200g+ kit lens that comes with the D40. With the fast f/2.0 lens at the wide-end, as Andrew S remarks, the S90 could get pretty close to a D40 kit’s performance. I’d argue that although there’s still a good half stop or more difference there, it shows that in certain circumstances, you can get pretty close. Of course, this is with some pretty wonky math and some assumptions of performance on my part (I’ve long since parted with my D40, so I can’t do any scientific testing), but I think it’s within a pretty small margin of error. I’d be very interested in seeing what the image quality difference is between the S90 and an older DSLR.

Again, as I mentioned in the review, I imagine the majority of users of the S90 will end up posting their photos on the internet, with a much smaller subset doing any printing. At any reasonable web size, say 1600px wide, as I’ve done for the linked images at the beginning of the post, noise really doesn’t play a part at ISO 200. From my brief look at ISO 400, it should be absolutely no problem either at 1600px. In fact, with DPP’s default 3 Luminance and 6 Chrominance NR, there is not much visible noise in this same scene at ISO 400 at 1600px wide. Very impressive.

And remember, everything I showed here is a baseline. I pretty much used every default; there’s more image quality to be squeezed out of the S90. I did my tests in this manner to keep both the S90 and D90 on a level playing field, from a post-processing point of view.


8 Replies to “Canon S90 IQ Compared to the Nikon D90”

  1. Many thanks for your review. I have been in the market for a decent compact camera. I own a Canon ID Mark II & good L glass. I wanted something small to carry to some functions but was very frustrated with the compacts out today. I had decided on the Pannie LX3 but couldn’t find it anywhere then I started hearing about the Canon S90. Well I ordered it 2 days ago , it is on back order & I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

    1. Yeah, the LX3 was my original choice as well, about half a year ago. I was never able to get my hands on one, but the S90, from what I can tell, was probably a better option for me (even smaller than the LX3!).

      I hope the wait for the S90 isn’t as fruitless as your wait for the LX3!

  2. I am not very happy with your Information.

    I just gave away my Canon G7 thinking about maybe switching to G11. Altough I liked the G7 very much, it was always compromise to me. Not “pro” enough for ambitious photography, not small enough for just to fit into a pocket (as long as I don’t want to wear funny trousers). Your solution to combine Nikon D90 and Canon S90 make both ends meet, but at what cost….


    So thank you very much

    1. Hi

      Thanks for your review.

      I was searching for a smal, pocket handle camera. I have already a G7 which is very good.

      G7 was the camera that I took when I didn’t want to be overloaded with a DLSR camera … but time passed and even the G7 became to large, I take him when i don’t want the DLSR, but I havn’t it anytime, anywhere.

      So I was searching for a very compact camera that I can take always with me.

      I hesitated between D-LUX4, LX3, GDRIII and DP1/2.

      The Canon is far smaller than the others, and it’s more polyvalent with it’s 28-105mm range. Which make it good for landscape and portrait (LX3 and DLUX4 stop at 60mm and I prefer 80mm for portrait)

      The Leica is near twice the price of the S90 (800$CAD vs 450S CAD)
      The LX3 suffer from a drawback with it’s len’s cap, and are larger
      The DP1/2 are far too big (5cm depth)
      The GDRIII can’t be found in Canada (I ignore why)

      Finaly, the S90 match the first criteria which make the difference : it fit in the pocket.

      I will say in complement that the S90 is not as good for macro than the G7, because it’s minimum MAP is at 5cm (1cm for the G7).

      Thanks for your review.

  3. Nice write up. However, you did not indicate other camera/lens settings that play important roles in picture quality. For instance, many lenses perform their worst at their extremes; e.g., f/3.5 produces blurry edges and poor tones when compared to f/8 on the same lens. This notion holds true for all lenses. Since you used a prime lens for this test, the focal length doesn’t really make a difference in image quality, but in a zoom lens it does.

    I suggest taking some sample photos with your D90 using different f-stops and focal lengths. You’ll be amazed at the difference in sharpness and tone depth.

    The Nikon D90 has the best performing sensor in the ASP-C class ( – it even beats out the new D300s.

    I am impressed with the S90s image quality, but having to use a tripod to capture that photo defeats the entire purpose of a pocket camera. If you’re going to carry a tripod, you might as well take your D90 around with you as well.

  4. “The D90 is probably close to a stop better than the D40 in low-light, which means the D40 is probably around 2 stops better in low light than the S90.”

    for a DSLR, this is primarily lens dependent, not camera dependent.

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