Small sensor compact cameras are a dying breed. I give them 5 years at the most before becoming a niche product. They’re being squeezed from both ends. From the smaller end, cell phone cameras are getting bigger and better every day with the current champ being the 8mp camera in the HTC Incredible phone. Obviously megapixels do not equate to quality, but at Facebook resolutions, the quality difference between a good camera phone and a compact is minimal. Meanwhile, the quality difference between a compact and a DSLR is huge, even at small print sizes. The larger sensors on DSLRs (and mirrorless large sensor cameras) enable low-light performance and a shallow depth of field that’s impossible to replicate with a tiny sensor. The danger from that direction is the flock of Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable-Lens (EVIL) cameras. Or, if you like, Digital Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable-Lens (DEVIL) cameras. EVIL cameras are almost pocketable and they can match the image quality of most DSLRs while beating the pants off of small sensor compacts. Pants, actually, are exactly the reason I bought the Canon S90 even though I can see that it’s a member of a dying breed. If a camera is small, but too big to fit in my pocket, then it’s not small enough. For example, take a look at the new Sony NEX cameras. The camera body looks pocketable, but the lens is huge. There is a 16mm (24mm-e) pancake lens option and I’ll admit to that combination producing a bit of drool from me. Maybe I’ll wait and ask Santa for one at Christmas.
For now, I’m happy using one of the best small-sensor cameras ever made. At the top are probably this camera, the Canon G11, and the Panasonic LX3. The biggest thing that sets these cameras apart is the ability to shoot RAW. If you don’t know what RAW is, this article provides a good explanation. Simply put, a RAW file contains the original data captured by the camera, while a JPEG file has been compressed and processed according to the camera settings. For me, the two biggest benefits to shooting RAW are the ability to rescue files that have not been exposed properly, and having more control over noise removal. I tend to prefer detail with some noise in my photos while Canon and other camera manufactures prefer to smear out detail in order to remove as much noise as possible. Yes, chroma noise is ugly, but it can be removed without smearing details. Luminance noise just doesn’t bother me very much. In use, the JPEGs from the camera look fine to me up to about ISO400, but in RAW I can get results that I’m very happy with up to ISO800.
One of the reasons the S90 has decent noise performance is that Canon wisely chose to sit out during this round of the megapixel race and focus instead on image quality. The S90 shares its sensor with the G11, which miraculously has less pixels than it’s predecessor with 10mp instead of the whopping 14.7mp in the G10. What this means is better low-light performance and an added bonus of about 40% smaller file sizes. The sensor is bigger than what is found in most compact cameras at 1/1.7″, but it’s still tiny compared to a micro 4/3 or APS-C sensor.
The lens is great, mostly for its f/2 aperture at the wide end. A larger aperture means a lower ISO, which is extra important when dealing with a small sensor. I end up using the camera as if it had a 28mm prime on it. As you zoom in, the maximum aperture drops to a very slow f/4.5, and the lens seems to be a little softer on the long end.
I love the minimalist design of this camera. There’s not a single unnecessary crease or bulge. I find that this is one of the very few digital cameras that is possible to admire as an object. Some have complained about the lack of a grip on the right side. While it would probably benefit from one, I can’t say that it makes that much of a difference on a camera this small and light. For such a small camera, the S90 is a pleasure to use. It has the control wheel on the front that got everyone buzzing when the camera was released. There is a second control wheel on the back that is adjusted using your thumb. Both control wheels and a custom button can be set to control just about anything. The front wheel has a nice feel to it and it clicks into place with discrete stops as you rotate it. Unfortunately, the back wheel has no discrete positions and spins freely. Be careful what you set this wheel to control because you will change it without meaning to. It’s amazing that such a small thing has caused me a lot of annoyance when using the camera. Still, if you fiddle with the settings enough you can set up the camera to be very usable.
Image quality is better than I’ve ever seen in a small sensor camera. That said, after editing images from the S90 for a while and being quite pleased with the quality, I was stunned when I returned to editing images from my A200. The S90 is perfect for a go-anywhere camera. It works great as a backup to my A200, but certainly not as a replacement.
Even though it’s aimed at enthusiasts, the S90 would make the perfect camera for the not-so-digitally-savvy. It works just fine in auto mode and it doesn’t have very many buttons and menus to clutter things up and confuse an inexperienced user. Plus, there is plenty of room to grow into more of the manual settings. If you are concerned more about responsiveness and image quality than size, look elsewhere (DSLR or EVIL). Otherwise, I highly recommend it.