My search is over.
When I first read about the Canon S90, back in August of this year, I held out hope that it was the pocketable camera I was looking for to complement my Nikon D90. The only thing pocketable I had was a Canon SD200 (yeah, ancient). By the time the S90 was announced, I had tried and rejected a Canon SD870IS, a Nikon P6000, a Canon G10, and a Fuji F200EXR; okay, that last one’s a bit of a lie. It’s been my point-and-shoot up until now.Â Â The SD870IS didn’t have the IQ or controls I was looking for, the Nikon P6000’s IQ was disappointing, as was its shot-to-shot performance (over 3 seconds between JPEGs, around 10 seconds between RAW), and the Canon G10 had good IQ and fantastic controls and performance, but was too large to fit in a pocket. That meant carrying a bag, in which case, I felt I might as well bring my DSLR. The Fuji F200EXR ended up being a compromise to myself. The low-light IQ was quite good, size was pocketable, but I sacrificed most of the manual controls I wanted.
So you might have gathered by now what my ideal P&S camera would be: small enough to fit in a pocket, have good image quality, especially in low-light situations, and give me manual control over exposure. The S90 hits all these points. I bought one on the first day it was officially available from Best Buy, October 11, so I’ve had some time to get a sense of what’s good and what’s not so great.
After a couple iterations of my search with the G10 and P6000, I realized that there was one criteria I simply could not sacrifice: size. I didn’t have a camera that could slip into a pants pocket and not freak people out when pointed at them, as a DSLR too often does. The G10, and to a lesser degree, the P6000, are serious-looking pieces of photographic gear, and can’t easily fit into a pocket.
The S90 measures 10cm x 5.8cm x 3.1cm. By comparison, the SD870IS, which I also tried, measures 9.2cm x 5.9cm x 2.6cm. The body of the S90 isn’t much larger than that of the SD870IS – the lens housing protrudes somewhat, making the dimensions a bit larger front-to-back than the SD870IS.
The S90 has a slightly smaller footprint than my Nokia E71, but is around 3 times the thickness.
From a size-performance standpoint, the main competitor of the S90 seems to be the Panasonic Lx3. Although 1.5 years old, the LX3 is still the reference point for the small, compact, high-performance camera. Its price, at least in North America, is a bit higher than the S90’s. The LX3 is advertised by Panasonic to be 10.9cm x 6.0cm x 2.7cm. However, this doesn’t seem to take into consideration the large lens protrusion, which brings the camera’s thickness to around 4cm. From a size standpoint, the S90 wins out by a fair margin, especially in the important thickness dimension. The S90 fits in a 28-105mm f/2.0-4.9 lens, which is slower, but covers a wider range than Panasonic’s 24-60mm f/2.0-2.8 lens.
As you can see, there’s a pretty significant difference in the size of these two cameras. The key thing here is that the S90 can pass itself off as just another point-and-shoot. I don’t feel like the group photographer or any sort of awkwardness when I carry the camera to a social event. That’s very important. It means a whole new range of photographs can be taken, with decent image quality.
The S90 has a metallic-feeling outer casing, and is generally well put together. There’s no flexing of the chassis and carries some heft (175g, without battery or SD card) to give the impression of quality as well. When the flash unit is enabled, it rises up from the body using a motor, and retracts (motorized as well) when flash is disabled. It feels very confident and there’s no wobble or weird sounds from the motor system.
The lens housing dominates the otherwise plain camera face. An autofocus assist light is just above and to the left of the lens. Otherwise, a couple logos adorn the front. Overall, it makes for a relatively quiet subject-facing design. There’s really nothing indicating serious camera equipment, hiding in the back.
Unlike the Panasonic LX3, there is no hotshoe. I presume Canon decided it simply isn’t what the targeted demographic is interested in. I don’t blame them. When I had the Nikon P6000, I tried mounting my SB-600 flash on it. It was comical. The flash head was about 2.5 times the volume of the camera and weighed 50% more. It wasÂ unwieldyÂ to hold and use. It mostly defeats the purpose of a camera as small as the S90, if its size is doubled by just about anything you could mount on a hotshoe.
On the left side of the camera are mini USB and HDMI ports. At the bottom of the camera is a sturdy feeling flap for the battery and SD card compartments. The S90 takes NB-6L batteries. Also on the bottom, at just about the centerline of the lens is a metal tripod mount.