This is my Canon PowerShot S90 and G11 review and comparison.
As I have had both the G11 and the S90 for nearly two weeks now and used them both daily I am posting nothing more then a simple (but long-winded) overview of my opinion about these two cameras along with the differences I observed between them; I suspect there are others considering a decision between them and this information may be useful. Don't consider it as anything more.
For reference I work primarily as a consultant but also provide photography services and training to my employer and our clients. I have (extensive) experience working with the vast majority of Canon and Nikon DSLRs and with Canon and Sony compacts going back nearly 10 years.
There are no sample images in my review, primarily because they never satisfy readers to some extent. There are many, many samples on the internet already and more importantly if you are considering these cameras yourself, take a memory card down to your camera store and shoot some samples from both cameras to review prior to your decision making.
The S90 and the G11 were released at the same time both containing a new 1/1.7" format sensor (7.6mm x 5.7mm) that is designed to produce more dynamic range then previous generation and capable of a native ISO3200.
The advances of these sensors alone is quite an achievement, while many P&S (Point and Shoot) users will not really notice a difference (because the existing camera generation applies such significant noise reduction smearing) advance amateurs and those who shoot RAW will immediately be able to distinguish the capabilities provided by the new sensor.
The G11 is the next in line of the G-Series of cameras and provides a full range of external controls and features that can be appreciated by any photographer.
The S90 is the next in the line of the premier S-Series, which was often thought abandoned after the 2005 release of the S80. Generally, the S series attempts to capture as many of the features and controls found on the G-Series and package them into a smaller and more portable size. In reality there are trade-offs made between the two cameras, most of which I hope to discuss below.
Exterior & Handling
Both cameras are extremely well made, making generous use of metal on the exterior casing. Both cameras have sections made from plastic but the finish is nearly indistinguishable from the metal. I could find no complaints about the build quality of either camera.
G11 Exterior & Handling
The G11 follows the G-Series line but is larger in almost every dimension. Because of the articulating LCD the camera depth is increased about 5mm compared to the G10. It length is also increased by about another 5mm. For those who found the G10 to be snug in a pocket, the G11 will not be any easier to carry.
The articulating LCD on the G11 is a mixed blessing. For many this brings a lot of flexibility for positioning the camera and still being able to easily view the LCD. For others it simply adds weight and bulk, and more steps for setup and tear down. The manual states the LCD should remain in the closed (face-in) position when not in use, which means you may find yourself compelled to pulling out the LCD every time you power on and closing it every time you power off, although the less concerned among us will just leave the LCD in the 'face-out' position in between use.
One small gripe I had about this is that the design of the housing behind the LCD has two small rubber bump stops, and when the LCD is placed in the 'face-out' position it is not level or flat with the back of the camera, it is actually still angled about 5 degrees. It also is protruding further outwards in this position by an additional 3 or 4mm versus the 'face-in' position, worrying me a bit the LCD could catch on items but in use was never a problem. I have seen articulating LCD designs where the entire door is in the same position regardless of the LCD being fade-out or face-in and thought it would have been a small thing the designers could have done considering the camera is designed to be so compact to begin with.
The G11's optical viewfinder is as good, if not better then the G10. I usually need a good -2 diopter correction and the G11 had no problem accommodating that. Parallax renders the viewfinder nearly useless for anything closer then 6 feet (or 2 meters) but beyond 10 feet (3 meters) it seems to be mostly accurate from a center-on-center view and covered around 70% of the captured frame.
There is not much to say about the hot-shoe other than the G11 has one and the S90 doesn't. Meaning you can use accessory flashes with the G11 relatively easily, whereas with the S90 you will have to use additional flashes strictly in an optical-slave configuration.
The G11 uses a 'white' LED for its AutoFocus assist, which I noticed is brighter and has more range then the G10's previous green, or the orange LED on the S90. However, I can say without a doubt my 'live' subjects both considered the G11's LED significantly more irritating, even from distances of 10 feet or further. I would keep it limited to when I know I was shooting still subjects indoors, otherwise I would keep it turned off (as well as for the Flash's red-eye reduction mode which 'beams' people to reduce their pupil size).
The rubber grip on the G11 is probably about the best I have used yet on the G-series. It is comfortable and has excellent traction, more then the G10.
One thing I noticed was that the buttons and the rear control dial seem to be more 'squished' to the right to accommodate the LCD. Additionally they set the buttons to protrude a bit more so they can be more easily used with gloves on. The problem I had with this is that when I was holding the G11 with one hand my palm just below my thumb would always hit the menu button on accident, using it for a full day of shooting at the zoo there is no doubt that I missed a few shots because of this. On the other hand with the G10 I could never press the Shortcut button or playback button, and while the G11's were easier to press, I still felt that these buttons were too far recessed for the frequency that I use them.
Something that happened to me quite a few times was a major camera lag when switching into playback mode, or out of it. It seemed to be the worst when I was pressing the playback button just as the Image Review timeout was occurring, and the screen would go black for almost a complete second before bringing me back to the playback. Sometimes it would occur when I was giving the shutter a half-press to return to shooting and I would get a black screen for an extended period of time. What makes this odd, is I cannot reproduce this behavior on the S90, and I tried. I put the camera's side by side and would shoot, wait, press playback, then half press shutter and at least 1 out of the 3 times the S90 was already focused before the black screen on the G11 turned off. There is something involved with the G11 that was causing this frustration and I was never able to pin it down.
The zoom control is also a source of frustration. First of all there is a lag time between when I can feel that I have made contact within the control 'switch' and when the lens actually begins moving, especially if it is immediately after a previous button press elsewhere. This lag exists on G10, as well as the S90, but it was definitely worse on the G11. I couldn't exactly narrow down why, but I noticed it improved when I turned off the continuous AF and IS. I think the camera sometimes is busy trying to do something and it adds a delay to the zoom response. I don't have exact timings, but I would say in general the G10 and S90 have about a 100ms 'reaction' time to zoom changes, but the G11 from time to time would have a 300-400ms 'reaction' time. Additionally it was easy to over-change your zoom, often I knew I wanted to go exactly one or two 'zoom-steps' in either direction but when I would attempt to just 'hit' the zoom quickly it would jump two or three steps instead of just one, while other times it would give me just the one I asked for. I know I make this sound like its a big deal, and its really not, its just something that affected me and I though about bringing up.
One last item, which is honestly pretty odd, is that when the lens is extended, the 'middle' lens barrel has a chrome ring around the last few mm of it. Its not noticeable when retracted, but when out and especially in bright lights (sun) it was essentially a mirror and could cast some extreme reflections on those around me. I thought this was completely unnecessary and honestly looks out of place on the camera. The G10 has this ring in a shiny black.
The S90 is a bit of a diversion from the past S-series designs. Compared to the previous S40-S80 it has no closing door and it changes form factor from the 'brick' style to a more pocket-friendly 'deck of cards' shape, similar to the original S10/S20. It uses a matte black finish on all sides and has no silver or chrome pieces aside from the lettering. The buttons follow the same finishing and are recessed but with a slight raised edge, they would seem more difficult to use but in practice I had no problems.
The S90 uses a 3" LCD on back which is very bright and viewable even in direct sunlight, however I find it odd that the resolution was limited to 461K compared to the 920K used on Canon's other 3" LCDs. However in use I could find no real appreciable difference between them, the 461K resolution was sufficient enough to avoid feeling like the images are 'pixelated' by the display itself. I had to set the brightness on the LCD to -1 because often it was so bright that it over-represented the image brightness.
The front of the camera has the programmable control ring which surrounds the lens. It would be an understatement to call this an incredibly useful feature. As a DSLR shooter I find it very natural to have a control at that location, further the ring has full click-stops which give a very positive location and prevent any accidental changes. It can be programmed to perform a number of functions from controlling ISO, EC, Manual Focusing, White Balance, and Zoom steps. By default I kept it on the Zoom steps as it lets you quickly go between 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, and 105mm equivalent focal lengths; also when in this mode the camera will retain it's zoom setting between power down and power up. Having it in Manual Focus mode would allow you to jump instantly out of auto focus into manual focus where each click-stop is the minimum change the camera can make in focusing.
The rear of the camera has a control dial that is not click-stopped. This has obviously been a concern to some because it can be easy to make accidentally changes by making a quick swipe over the ring. In practice this never occurred, my thumb was always placed into the notch below the control dial with the corner of the camera resting in my palm, allowing me to comfortably shoot with a single hand. But as I described with my accidental 'Menu' button pushes of the G11, this is really a highly subjective issue that really depends on how one holds and uses either camera.
The zoom control felt better then the G11s as it has less 'dead space' between the swing and it was easier and quicker to jump zoom 'steps'. The shutter button was one thing that really stood out. I easily prefer the S90's shutter button over any other compact I have ever used and even more so then many DSLRs. It has a very positive stop at the first level with an easily predictable amount of force need for a complete depress, I found that I never 'accidentally' released the shutter when I was just trying to pre-focus which could happen to me from time to time using the G11 with only one hand. The amount of travel to reach the partial press is also equal to that of the complete press. I easily feel that without this shutter button the 'single-handed' usability of the camera would be compromised.
The flash is also a bit of a surprise to most people, especially when used in an automatic mode. It has a motorized pop-up and retraction and if you are only holding the camera with your left hand and have a finger over the flash, you can accidentally drop the camera. Fortunately I always hold the camera with my right hand, or at least with the wrist strap on. In general I keep the flash turned off and only engage it when I know that I want it, thus its never been a problem for me.
The only other gripe I have is that when holding the camera for extended periods of time I get some fatigue due to the way its held. I keep my thumb in the notch below the control dial, pointer finger on top, and press the camera into my palm just below my thumb and use my remaining fingers in front of the camera. Generally this is fine, but at times those remaining fingers start to slide. It was because of this that I found there is a very nice grip made by Richard Franiec made from solid aluminum that provides just the additional amount of leverage needed by those front fingers to reduce fatigue. (I found information on this grip at http://www.kleptography.com/rf/#camera_s90 )
This subject is covered in lots of detail elsewhere on the internet, alas:
Both cameras are highly capable. I shoot with both the 5DMkII and D700 along with other DLSRs and I can definitely say the G11/S90 come closer to DSLR quality then any other compact I have used (however still a ways away).
(These opinions are strictly in regards to the RAW captures, and do not apply to the in-camera JPG captures.)
At base ISO of 80 images are almost noise free, but more importantly I can usually capture about 8 stops of dynamic range. For a camera of this class it is unheard of, to compare the best I could get from my G9 and G10 was just over 7 stops. It is important to note that the evaluative metering has a strong tendency to over-expose in outdoor and bright situations. By default during the day I use both cameras at -2/3 EC, and if its in bright sun I will go even to -1 1/3 or -1 2/3, sometimes even -2 EC. I pretty much had to use the same level of EC with the G10 and G9 so I'm not surprised here, but what I am surprised by is the amount of data I can recover. I can generally recover around 2/3rds a stop from the highlights and a good full stop from the shadows at base ISO, which is easily twice what I could recover from my G10 RAWs.
At the higher ISOs, basically anything over 400, these cameras show a solid 1 stop improvement, if not more over the G10. From what I can tell, images I have captured at ISO 800 on the G10 show the equivalent level of detail in the G11/S90 shot at ISO 1600; perhaps more importantly the Dynamic Range (and color fidelity) of G10's ISO 800 image is matched up to ISO 2000 on the G11/S90. I feel more comfortable shooting the G11 at ISO 3200, then I do shooting the G10 at ISO 1600. No matter what way you look at it, above ISO 400 the G11/S90 will give you a minimum of a full stop of improvement over what the previous generation gave us.
I should point out that these 'advances' will not be apparent to a casual user, especially one who shoots JPG and/or uses Auto mode the majority of the time. Many of the capabilities of this sensor are 'lessened' by the in-camera post-processing and will leave some scratching their head over what the big deal is. If it is not your intent to post-process your images from RAW you will be paying a significant premium for either of these cameras in comparison to the minor improvements you will actually 'see' in your images compared to other compacts. On the other hand if your like me and shoot RAW almost exclusively you will easily find the benefits provided by these new sensors.
There is a 'High Sensitivity' Mode which allows you to shoot in ISO as high as 6400, however this a completely automatic mode that only lets you shoot tiny 2.5Mp sized JPG images. From what I can tell the image is actually made at ISO 3200 and is underexposed and boosted by the Digic processor before going through a downsampling (or pixel binning?) to help reduce the effect of noise. The effect is useful, especially to those who don't do their own post processing, however I was able to achieve nearly identical results by underexposing in RAW and downsampling to the same resolution afterwards.
Optically the S90 has a notably higher level of distortion in the 28-32mm range, frame edges and corners are also showing major field curvature so you have to pay attention to subjects in the edges of your frame. Often I would shoot at 28mm just to use the f/2 aperture, but then crop out the edges, and still end up with a 7 or 8MP file that could be printed at 11x13. The G11 does a better job at being rectilinear at these wider focal lengths, but also has some minor distortion and field curvature.
The S90 has a faster initial lens configuration beginning at f/2 at a 28mm equivalent focal length compared to the G11's f/2.8. The S90 retains an advantage until the 50mm equivalent where they both are equal at f/3.2. At the 65mm equivalent the G11 becomes faster by about 1/3rd a stop. This is important to consider because if you plan to shoot only at these long focal lengths, the S90 no longer has an advantage, quite the opposite it is slower then the G11. In actual use, for indoors low light I would choose the lowest (absolute) aperture versus (or before) any choice in focal length, thus the S90 was my goto camera.
From 35mm onwards I found the resolution and detail of the two cameras to be indistinguishable. At times I would have frames that showed a slight difference and when I would reshoot them I would discover it was usually due to a difference in the focus. I should mention that with both cameras I noticed the resolution detail (or micro contrast?) seem to drop off a bit beyond the 85mm equivalent. I didn't spend too much time trying to figure it out, it wasn't enough to concern me or make me feel like I should avoid those focal lengths, but I did feel that the sweet spot was in the 35-85mm range on both cameras.
Note that I already compared the focal length settings and maximum apertures of each camera here - https://photography-on-the.net/forum/showthread.php?t=783126
I could find no difference in the effectiveness of the optical Image Stabilization between each camera. Both cameras have extremely effective implementations. IS is a difficult thing to measure because for one thing it has a shutter speed 'floor' at which no matter how wide you go, will not provide any further improvement due to the limitation in the movement distance and frequency in the IS gyros. In this case, with either camera, IS gave me 'mostly' sharp shots as slow as 1/15s at the 28mm setting. If going by the rule of 1/FL then you would normally use 1/30s for 28mm, the IS only provides 1 stop of hand-holdability at that focal length. However at the telephoto end the story changes. On the S90 I could shoot at the 105mm end at 1/20s which is a 2 2/3rds stop improvement, and on the G11 I could shoot at 140mm at 1/25s which is also a 2 2/3rds stop improvement. These numbers are better then I got with the G10, or nearly any other Canon compact, and are more in-line with what I find on Canon's EF Lens IS implementations. Very impressive to me.
Both cameras have accurate autofocus, they are fast among other compacts but still slow compared to a DSLR. I didn't have any problems with the speed of the focus, only because if it couldn't lock focus it would give up and let you know in less than a second.
Both cameras have the option to use a Face-AiAF which is a mode that allows it to automatically find faces in the scene and attempt to focus on them. To me this was unpredictable and of little value, but to someone who needs to be able to actually just point and shoot the camera will at least make a valiant attempt at focusing on the people as opposed to a background or worse foreground element.
Aside from the Face-AiAF, the G11 allows you choose both where, and the size of the focus point, whereas the S90 only allows you to use the center focus point, since this is contrast-detect focusing I found it odd that the S90 would have this limitation, but I guess it is typical for Canon. In either case I found myself most comfortable using the center focus point at the smallest setting and then using a shutter half-press to lock focus and then recomposing.
I used servo autofocus a few times while indoors and while it functions well its not as versatile as I had hoped. The limitation of the S90 only having a center focus point here means that your composition may not be what you want because whatever you are tracking is always in the center of the frame. In practice this limitation was not a big deal for me because when something was moving I tended to keep it in center automatically by 'instinct'. Chasing my two year old around using Servo AF resulted in a keeper rate of about 60%, which is a bit low but still significantly better then if I tried to re-focus every frame.
As I mentioned before, both cameras tend to over-expose in bright or sunlight conditions. Outdoors I routinely used -2/3rds as a starting point and would adjust from there. Indoors 0EC worked perfectly for most situations.
Spot metering was very accurate, and I found myself using it quite often in difficult lighting situations. With the G11 having a button dedicated to changing metering modes, this is notable thing I missed from the S90.
The S90 allows you to choose from Auto ISO or manually select your ISO in 1/3rd EV stops from 80 to 3200. I found this to be a significant advantage over the G11 which only allows you to make full stop changes using the ISO control dial on top. The G11 will still use 1/3rd EV stop ISO values in Auto-ISO, but they are not manually selectable.
Flash works relatively well, but has a tendency to be too hot (overexpose). I usually start with -2/3rds Flash EV and adjust from there. In manual mode you have 3 flash power levels and flash sync speed is a very useful 1/500s.
The G11 has some impressive capabilities to use Canon's Speedlites, while with the S90 your only option is to forgo TTL-II and use any flash/strobe that works as an optical slave.
I have actually read some comments about the S90's flash retraction injuring or pinching someone's skin, out of curiosity I tried quite a few ways to pinch myself and was unsuccessful. While that doesn't mean it cannot happen, I would not be too concerned.
Both cameras can capture 480p (640x480) video at 30fps, I'm not great at describing the differences in video but when viewed on my 47" 1080 HD Television the videos from the S90 and G11 are as good or slightly better in almost all aspects then those I can get from a Flip MinoHD which is recorded at a higher 1280x720. The Flip however seems to do a slightly better job at keeping the noise down in low-light, as it can be quite visible in the G11/S90 videos in very dark situations.
They also do not provide you with any indication of what you have focused on when you pre-focus prior to recording, so care must be used to avoid having very close subjects (compared to your intended subjects) in the frame when pre-focusing.
Image Stabilization is active when recording which is very nice and works extremely well.
You cannot change optical zoom, but you can change digital zoom while recording, at the far end (5.7x-6.4x) it tends to pixelate and fall apart, but it is good up to 2.9x, and acceptable up to 4.6x.
One thing I cannot help but mention is that previous G-Series cameras at least recorded in 1024x768 at 15fps. Back then the word was that the Digic III processor didn't have the horsepower to encode the higher resolution at 30fps. Today we are stuck with nothing larger then 640x480 at 30fps and I know I have heard a few times unsubstantiated claims its because the 'sensor' doesn't support the HD video. As far as I am concerned until I find evidence otherwise, I simply believe that the reason we don't have HD video is by design.
The G11 uses the usual NB-7L while the S90 uses the NB-6L. Both batteries need some 'breaking in' out of the box, each time I used them until the camera 'complained' and then recharged them, and I would got more shots and use after each charge cycle until about the 4th cycle. I would take approximately 1 photo for every 30 seconds the camera was powered on, based on that usage I could get appx 150-200 from the S90 and 300-400 from the G11. I could feel pretty confident that for a normal outing or event or day trip that a single charged battery was more then enough juice. For a vacation trip where I would be away shooting almost the entire day, I would take a single spare charged battery for each camera.
Notes & Tips
While the G11 has a dedicated AEL button, the S90 can also do both AEL and AFL. One way is to assign the function to the shortcut button, but by default this is not necessary. To quickly lock exposure, frame your scene and half-press the shutter to obtain exposure and hold, at that point press the UP (or EC) button inside the rear control dial and it will lock your exposure. You will notice this because an Asterisk ( * ) will be displayed on the screen, and if you turn the control dial either left or right you can change the 'program' while maintaining the same exposure (in P mode).
You can lock focus on either camera by focusing on your subject using the shutter half press and while holding, press the MF button (left) in the rear control dial.
Additionally, while you are M mode and have selected either your shutter speed or aperture (and have that item highlighted) you can frame your shot and half-press the shutter and hold, then press the UP (or EC) button and the camera will automatically set the other variable to the achieve the correct exposure. For example, I have 1/80s set and Aperture at f/2.8 at ISO 800 in M mode, but the scene is about 1 stop underexposed; if I keep the aperture value highlighted and half-press the shutter and hold, then press the UP (or EC) button the shutter speed will automatically drop to 1/40s to achieve the correct exposure.
I use Adobe Lightroom to process the RAW files, and sometimes DPP just to compare between the two. As of this writing Adobe only has beta support for both cameras. I have created some camera profile calibrations to be used with Camera Raw or Lightroom at this link - https://photography-on-the.net/forum/showthread.php?t=783102
What the G11 has that the S90 does not:
-Faster lens from 65mm to tele
-Longer telephoto 140mm (versus 105mm on S90)
-Closer Macro capability at 1cm (versus 5cm on S90)
-Faster maximum shutter speed at 1/4000s (versus 1/1600s on S90)
-Faster continuous shooting 1.1fps (versus 0.9fps on S90)
-Optical viewfinder (app. 70% coverage)
-Dedicated ISO and EC dials
-Hot shoe and compatibility with TTL-II Speedlites
-AF assist light is white LED and brighter (orange on S90)
-Dedicated AEL and Metering buttons
-Click-stop rear dial control (over no click-stops on S90)
-Adjustable AF point & dedicated button to adjust
-Larger Battery capacity (about 300-400 shots based on my experience, versus 150-200 on S90)
-Larger size with a rubber grip
What the S90 has that the G11 does not:
-Faster lens up to 50mm
-Selectable 1/3rd EV ISO Speed settings
-Programmable Front Control Ring with Click-Stops
-3.0 Inch LCD
-Motorized retracting flash head
-Smooth-wheeling rear dial control (opposed to click-stops on the G11)
-Much smaller size, yet still can be held comfortable in one hand
-Appx half the weight of the G11
While the past 5 years have seemed to bring mostly single stair-step improvements for most of the compacts, and in some cases even less than that, it is nice to see the Canon hasn't completely abandoned the compact segment. I feel that these two cameras will be more popular among DSLR shooters then the previous generation as their image quality is quite a leap forward.
For those who skipped right to this section, it is of my opinion that these camera's do not equal Micro 4/3rds DSLR quality, much less APS-C quality, but they are a significant improvement from previous compact quality. Countless times I have been less then satisfied with the output of my G9/G10 at what I thought would be an 'OK' ISO of 800, when you have a DSLR capable of producing great looking photos at ISO 1600 it is difficult to pick up a camera that shouldn't be used above ISO 200. The G11 and S90 have bridged that gap. Where I was comfortable shooting at ISO 1600 on my DSLR I can now use ISO 800 on the G11/S90 and not worry.
For those particularly that are considering the S90 to replace your compact camera, I should mention that if your not the type who is going to use RAW capture, exposure compensation, manual focusing, or Av and M modes, then the premium attached to the S90 becomes significant as you are paying almost twice the price of other compacts for only a modest increase in dynamic range and low-light usability. If on the other hand you are a shooter that can appreciate what the G-series brings to compact photography, but would like it in a smaller package then the S90 is indeed powerful option.
After my time with both cameras it was very difficult to decide on just one. I have been an adamant G-Series user since at least the G9 and couldn't imagine skipping the G11, but there was a few reasons that swayed me to the S90. Probably the biggest was that it is the smallest (of the two) and can slip into any pocket. The G11 is a tad more difficult to pocket then the G10 was, and that wasn't something you could fit in a pants pocket. Second was the f/2 lens on the S90, nearly half my photography is indoors under low light and a full stop advantage, even only at one focal length, is still a full stop advantage. I can't say I was happy with an articulated LCD, while I agree it gives you more options to using the camera I have to admit I was just a bit bothered with always having to flip it out from being stowed. I choose to keep the S90 and I am extremely happy with it, but if the S90 didn't exist I think I could be just as happy with the G11. In either case it means more options for us the photographers using them!