Oct 23, 2009

Canon S90 Review

Canon released the S90IS digital camera in October 2009, and as I was looking to upgrade my 5 year old camera, decided it was worth a shot. I picked it up at Best Buy for list price of $429 less a 10% coupon and a $20 Canon loyalty rebate for a total of $397 including tax, plus $32 for a 16gb SDHC memory card. The following are my impressions after using the camera for a week.


A big selling point of this camera is its size. Although not as small or as light as some of the most miniature SD-series PowerShot cameras, the S90 should fit comfortably in almost any pocket with its smooth edges. Minor annoyance: the wrist strap does not have a size adjustment on it, so you can’t tighten it around your wrist. This piece of plastic probably costs less than a cent and ought to have been included.


The 3.0” LCD is bright and sharp. All information is displayed prominently without getting in the way of the image. As the screen sits flush with the camera back (it is not recessed at all), I recommend applying a screen protector to prevent scratches. The optical viewfinder is a welcome omission on the S90 – they are so small on point and shoot cameras as to be functionally worthless, yet they add to the camera’s size and weight.


At first I found the front control ring a little awkward, as you can’t get a grip on it in quite the same way that you would an SLR lens’ focus ring, nor does it turn smoothly (it clicks in place at each stop). Another is that once you’ve used the control ring to adjust your settings, you have to move your hand back to the camera’s body to hold it prior to taking the picture. For making quick adjustments, I prefer the rear control ring located next to the LCD. It turns smoothly and you can move it with your thumb while your finger is on the shutter. Fortunately the camera lets you quickly reassign the control wheels using a button on the top of the camera. The camera gives you a wide degree of freedom to adjust its settings and the controls make it possible to quickly adjust shutter, aperture, white balance, and ISO. Sure, you could leave it in Auto and get decent pictures, but you’ll be missing out on this camera’s potential to deliver great shots.

Lens and Image Quality

Other websites have posted more detailed test shots than I ever could so I’ll leave that to the professionals. However, I will say that my unscientific tests indicate that image quality is very good, not DSLR level but getting close. The camera really shines in low light due to the f2.0 lens and image stabilization. You do have to keep an eye on the ISO, however, as noise starts to creep in above 400, although shots are usable up to 1600. The camera starts up quickly, the lens pops out, and it’s ready to shoot in less than a second. The 28mm wide angle view is a nice step up from my old camera’s 36mm lens, but I do wish it were a few degrees wider, as Panasonic and Samsung now offer cameras at 24mm and 25mm. I ran software called ExposurePlot on all of my old photos and it revealed that I use wide angles for about 80% of my shots, with mid-range and zoom for the rest. As is standard on most compact cameras today, the lens is protected by automatic shutters. Autofocus is fast and shutter lag is minimal. Unfortunately, there are no threads for adding filters or a wide/zoom lens adapter. The S90 supports shooting in RAW and comes with software (Canon Digital Photo Professional) to interpret its RAW output. I am not very familiar with editing RAW files, so I’ve set the camera to record RAW+JPEG files.

Build Quality

The tactile sensation of the camera in your hands is decent but could be slightly better. The front of the camera is metal (aluminum) but the top and bottom are plastic. A common problem is that there is a tiny amount of flex or a clicking noise when you hold the camera by the upper left corner, behind the flash. At 7.0 ounces with battery and memory card, Canon has obviously tried to keep weight down, but the camera feels slightly less sturdy as a result.


The flash automatically pops up when necessary and retracts if you turn it off. The flash location is a little bit uncomfortable since that is naturally where I would put my left hand to hold the camera. I would've preferred that the flash was built in to the casing rather than popping up, as it can be startling if your finger is in the way when it opens (or closes). I can't comment on the actual quality of the flash at this point - but then, one of the main reasons to get this camera is that you shouldn't need to rely on the flash as much as one with a slower lens.

Sample Photos

I don't have any shots worth posting yet, but a good source is the Flickr S90 Users Group.


It's doubtful that anyone buys the S90 for its video features. The S90 only offers video at standard VGA resolution (640x480) when HD video (720p) has become the standard. Additionally, no zooming or focus adjustment is possible while recording video. If you want a camera with a better balance of still image and video recording features, I'd recommend the Panasonic DMC-ZS3.

Extreme Conditions

An inexpensive option for rain/snow/sand/underwater shooting is the Dicapac WP-410 waterproof case, available for about $30 (much cheaper than the Canon underwater housing). It’s sort of a Ziploc bag on steroids. They have several models but this one seems to fit the S90 just fine. Note that you may have to zoom in from 28mm to avoid vignetting with the case.


Panasonic's DMC-LX3 is clearly Canon's target for the S90. Released in 2008, the LX3 quickly became a favorite of photographers looking for above average quality in an affordable point and shoot package. A year later, the LX3 is still in short supply and often sells out at MSRP (potentially indicating poor supply chain management at Panasonic). The LX3 offers an uncommonly fast (f2.0) and wide (24-60mm) angle lens and a 1/1.6" sensor allowing for greater low light performance. The S90 responds with a slightly less wide lens, although more zoom (28-105mm), and a 1/1.7" sensor. Image quality comparisons between the two cameras are subject to much scrutiny, but neither camera seems to have a clear advantage. Some argue that the LX3 has more detail while others are enamored of the S90's color. With an extra year of R&D under their belts, one has to wonder why the S90 lacks some of the LX3's features, such as 720p video, that have become standard on cheaper cameras. And why doesn't the S90 have a clear lead in image quality? On the other hand, the S90 is small enough that you could forget that you have it with you, while the LX3’s size pushes the boundaries for a “pocket” camera. And many lament the LX3’s use of an old fashioned manual lens cap.

As mentioned above, a slightly cheaper option than either the S90 or LX3 is the ZS3, which offers a nice wide angle lens (25-300mm) and better video recording features. However, you will trade off some image quality for your still photos, especially in low light.


Is the S90 the perfect camera? No. I have a few minor things that I would change if I could. But it is an excellent camera, one of the best currently on the market if you’re looking for image quality, low light performance, versatile focal lengths, and manual controls in a compact form factor. Sure, you can find smaller cameras, and you can find cameras with better image quality (micro four-thirds comes to mind) but overall the S90 is a terrific balance between the two. Highly recommended if you’re looking to move beyond the ordinary point and shoot snapshots but don't want to lug a DSLR around.


neil said...

Canon S90 IS is one of Canon high-end / advanced Canon Powershot compact camera. Its unique characteristics are slim, low profile body with great noise control in high ISO plus 28-105mm f/2-f/4.9 bright zoom lens.

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Chris said...

I think the fact that the LX3 regularly sells out at MSRP has nothing to do with "poor supply chain management" and a lot more to do with good marketing and keeping them slightly hard to find, a lot like Nintendo did with the Wii or Ty did with Beanie Babies.

Chappy7 said...

I am a huge fan of Canon, having the powershot camera and then upgrade to the dslr.

Always love Canon cameras.


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