Canon PowerShot S90 Review

Canon PowerShot S90

The Canon PowerShot S90 is a 10MP point and shoot camera, but it’s more than just another compact camera.  It symbolizes a return of the popular Sxx-series of cameras.  It boils down to a G11-junior with a portability bonus and, of course, the same RAW format capture.

Is it worth the price of admission? Read on to find out.

Canon S90 Key Features

  • 10MP CCD Sensor
  • 3.8x Optical Zoom
  • ISO 80-3200
  • DIGIC 4 Image Processor
  • RAW+JPEG Capture
  • 3-inch LCD
  • f/2 Max Aperture Lens

Canon S90 Handling, Ergonomics and Control

Canon PowerShot S90

At first glance, the Canon S90 is deceivingly ordinary.  Still yet, there is a classiness to the design that urges you to look a little deeper.  When you pick up the camera, you then realize that it is more substantial than many of the cheap plastic compacts out there.  The solid build quality is the first sign that S90 is a serious shooter.

While the black casing feels strong, there is, unfortunately, little to grab for a secure grip.  The rounded edges, especially on the right-hand side, are not helpful from a functional standpoint.  I would have preferred a slightly raised grip on the right side (like found on the Canon G11).

Another thing that caught me off guard when I first started using the S90 was the pop-up flash.  By using a pop-up design, Canon was able to distance the flash further from the lens – presumably to aid in red-eye reduction.  Additionally, the design maintains a clean appearance without  a flash bulb marring the front of the camera.  However, the location of the pop-up flash is exactly where users tend to grip point and shoot cameras.  So, when the flash is set to “Auto” it can result in a surprise the first few times you use it – or at least it did for me.

This pop-up surprise, along with the smooth design and grip, prompted a few drops in my early goings with the camera.  Fortunately, all were “safe” drops and not at any significant distance or onto hard floors.

Aside from few quirks with the grip of the camera (your mileage may vary), the overall design and controls are well done.  There are a couple of standout features that really set the S90’s controls apart from other point and shoot cameras.

First up, the front Control Ring around the lens serves to operate a number of camera controls and, to some extent, is customizable as to what functions it performs.  The Control Ring can change the aperture, shutter speed, focus, zoom, white balance, exposure compensation or ISO speed.  It’s a real pleasure to use and a nice, subtle touch on the S90.

Canon PowerShot S90

Next, there’s another ring on the back of the camera, which is use for quick setting changes and scrolling through images.  It’s a breeze to use, just like the similar dial on the Canon G11.

Keeping in the trend of carrying over the G11’s features, Canon only including VGA-resolution video recording for the S90 – not 720p HD video as is typically found in point and shoot cameras nowadays.  Just as perplexing, Canon found it necessary to include an HDMI-out port on the S90. Go figure.

Shooting With the Canon S90

Canon PowerShot S90

Grip issues aside, I can’t think of another point and shoot camera that I’ve enjoyed as much as the S90.  Unlike the G11, the S90 is totally pocketable.  As a result, it has gone everywhere with me for several weeks. This has led to many more candid shots than I would otherwise have because I generally carry a DSLR or nothing.

The controls are well-designed and responsive.  The short 3.8x zoom is almost a little too short, but the compact form-factor is worth the trade-off.

I was pleasantly surprise with how well the S90 handles indoor flash photography, which is, to me, the ultimate test of a compact camera.  The S90 does a solid job of coping with ambient light and providing some context for your flash images.

Red-eye does not appear to be a serious problem with the S90.  I detected few photos requiring post processing for red-eye removal out of the many flash images that I captured.  Perhaps there is something to that pop-up flash after all?

Shutter response is what I consider to be fast for a point and shoot camera.  I encountered no problems with missed shots due to delayed shutter actuation with the S90.

The zoom is not what I would call fast; however, it is competent.  Given that it only has a 3.8x magnification though, I expected it to be a bit faster.

Auto white balance is about par for the course with decent results in most lighting conditions with the exception of tungsten light, which produces a slight yellow tint.

Image stabilization works well in the Canon S90 and helps you use lower than normal shutter speeds, which in turn allows you to capture low light images that might not otherwise be possible.

Canon PowerShot S90 Image Stabilization

Below are a couple of crops from the above that I shot with IS turned on and off at the max zoom setting and 1/4s shutter speed.

Canon PowerShot S90 Image Stabilization

Shooting with the S90 is a joy for someone who normally uses a DSLR.  The big reason being that you always have the camera with you.  The other is image quality.

Canon S90 Image Quality

As with its big brother, the G11, the Canon S90 delivers pretty good image quality thanks to its 10MP sensor and the ability to capture images in RAW format.  The resolution isn’t going to be as high as other typical point and shoot cameras that offer 14+ megapixels; however, the overall quality of images will generally outshine what you get from the run-of-the-mill point and shooter.

Noise handling is above-average for point and shoot cameras; however, I found ISO 800 and above images quite noisy.  If you stick to small prints, Facebook and other web usage, you will be fine with the S90 throughout the ISO range.

Canon S90 Image

Below, you can see some 100% crops from the above scene at various ISO settings.

Canon S90 ISO Results

If you want to go above 8×10 prints with the S90, you’ll want to stick with ISO 400 and lower.  The chroma noise is just a little too rough at ISO 800 for larger prints.  If you are dedicated, you can squeeze a little more out of the S90 high ISO images by cranking up noise reduction at the expense of a little added softness.

If you are familiar with RAW format, you will appreciate the flexibility of the Canon S90 when editing files in programs like Adobe Lightroom and Apple Aperture.  If you aren’t familiar with editing RAW files and decide to pick up the Canon S90, you will be doing yourself an injustice if you don’t learn the power of working with this format.  With RAW files, you essentially get a digital negative with a wide range of exposure and editing possibilities.

Canon S90 Accessories

Canon PowerShot S90

Canon NB-6L Battery – The Canon S90 comes with one of these rechargeable lithium-ion batteries; however, if you’re going to be away from power for an extended period, you can pick up spares.

Memory cards – I used the basic Kingston SD cards in the Canon S90, which worked just fine.  No need to go all out on fast memory cards with the S90.  Cheap cards from reputable brands will work just fine.  The S90 is compatible with all SD and SDHC cards – but not SDXC cards.

Canon WP-DC35 underwater housing – If you’re into SCUBA or snorkeling, this is a pretty cool little underwater case from Canon that’s rated up to 130′.

Canon S90 Conclusions

Canon PowerShot S90

The Canon S90 is a photographer’s compact camera.  If you owned any of the recent Canon G-series cameras, you will appreciate the S90 as more of a compact version of that series.  The S90 delivers control and flexibility that has been taken away from the user in so many other compact camera models today.

While the Canon S90 will not deliver DSLR-quality images, it stands apart from the most of the point and shoot camera pack with solid image quality and exceptional control over exposure.  I can highly recommend the S90 as camera for those who want to get more out of their cameras, but maintain a compact go-everywhere size.

The Canon S90 is available from Photography Bay’s trusted retail partner, B&H Photo, at the following link:

Canon S90 at B&H Photo

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 Canon S90 Specifications
Image Capture Device
Type10.0 Megapixel, 1/1.7-inch type Charge Coupled Device (CCD)
Total PixelsApprox. 10.4 Megapixels
Effective PixelsApprox. 10.0 Megapixels
Focal Length6.0 (W)-22.5mm (T) f/2.0-4.9 (35mm equivalent: 28-105mm)
Digital Zoom4x
Focusing RangeAuto: 2.0 in./5cm-infinity (W), 12 in./30 cm-infinity (T)
Normal: 1.6 ft.-infinity/50cm-infinity
Macro: 2.0 in.-1.6 ft./5-50cm (W)
Autofocus SystemTTL Autofocus
Viewfinder & Monitor
LCD Monitor3.0-inch TFT color with wide viewing angle
LCD PixelsApprox. 461,000 dots
LCD Coverage100%
Aperture and Shutter
Maximum Aperturef/2.0 (W) - f/4.9 (T)
Shutter Speed15-1/1600 sec. (settable in Tv and M)
Exposure Control
ISO SensitivityAuto, ISO 80/100/125/160/200/250/320/400/500/640/800/1000/1250/1600/2000/2500/3200 equivalent
(Standard output sensitivity. Recommended exposure index)
Light Metering MethodEvaluative*, Center-weighted average, Spot**
*Facial brightness is also evaluated in Face Detect AiAF
** Metering frame is fixed to the center/linked to AF frame
Exposure Control MethodProgram AE, i-Contrast, Manual; AE Lock, Program Shift, Safety Shift, Auto ISO Shift
Exposure Compensation+/-2 stops in 1/3-stop increments
White Balance
White Balance ControlAuto*, Preset (Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Fluorescent H, Flash, Underwater), Custom
*The colors of faces are evaluated in AiAF
Built-in FlashAuto, Auto w/ Red-eye Reduction, Flash On, Flash On w/ Red-eye Reduction, Flash Off; FE lock, Safety FE, Slow Synchro
Flash Range1.6-21 ft./50cm-6.5m (W), 1.6-8.2 ft./50cm-2.5m (T) (when sensitivity is set to ISO Auto)
Recycling Time10 sec. or less (battery voltage=3.7V)
Flash Exposure Compensation+/-2 stops in 1/3-stop increments
Shooting Specifications
Shooting ModesAuto, P, Av, Tv, M, C, Portrait, Landscape, Special Scene (Foliage, Snow, Beach, Sunset, Fireworks, Aquarium, Night Scene, Indoor, Color Accent, Color Swap, Kids & Pets, Underwater, Nostalgic), Night Snapshot, Stitch Assist, Low Light, Movie
Photo EffectsMy Colors
My Colors Off, Vivid, Vivid Blue, Vivid Green, Vivid Red, Neutral, Sepia, Black & White, Positive Film, Lighter Skin Tone, Darker Skin Tone, Custom
Self-TimerActivates shutter after an approx. 2-sec./10-sec. delay, Face Detection Self-timer, Custom
Wireless ControlNot available
Continuous ShootingNormal: approx. 0.9 fps; AF: approx. 0.6 fps; LV: approx. 0.6 (Low Light: 2.1 fps)
Image Storage
Storage MediaSD/SDHC Memory Card, MultiMediaCard, MMCplus Card, HC MMCplus Card
File FormatDesign rule for camera file system, DPOF Version 1.1
Image CompressionNormal, Fine
JPEG Compression ModeStill Image: Exif 2.2 (JPEG)
Movie: MOV (Image: H.264; Audio: Linear PCM (Stereo))
Number of Recording PixelsStill Image: 3,648 x 2,736 (Large), 2,816 x 2,112 (Medium 1), 2,272 x 1,704 (Medium 2), 1,600 x 1,200 (Medium 3), 640 x 480 (Small), 3,648 x 2,048 (Widescreen), 3,648 x 2,736 (RAW), 1,824 x 1,368 (Low Light)
Playback Specifications
Playback Modes FileStill Image: Single, Magnification (approx. 2x-10x), Jump, Auto Rotate, Rotate, Resume, My Category, Transition Effects, Histogram, Index (4-130 thumbnails), Over Exposure Warning, Slide Show, Red-eye Correction, Trimming, Resize, Image Inspection Tool, i-Contrast; Movie: Normal Playback, Special Playback, Editing, Auto Rotate, Resume
Erasing Specifications
Erase ModesStill Image: single image, all images
Movie: part of movie, all of movie
Computer InterfaceUSB 2.0 Hi-Speed (mini-B jack)
Audio OutMonaural
OtherMemory card slot; direct connection to Canon and SELPHY Compact Photo Printers, PIXMA Photo Printers and PictBridge-compatible printers via camera's USB 2.0 Hi-Speed cable
Power Supply
Power Source1. Rechargeable Battery Pack NB-6L 2. Compact Power Adapter CA-DC10 (optional)
Shooting CapacityStill Image: approx. 220 shots*
Playback TimeApprox. 300 min. *LCD screen on. The above figures comply with CIPA testing standards and apply when fully-charged batteries are used.
Physical Specifications
Operating Temperature32-104°F/0-40°C
Operating Humidity10-90%
Dimensions (WxHxD)3.94 x 2.30 x 1.22 in./100.0 x 58.4 x 30.9mm
WeightApprox. 6.17 oz./175g (camera body only)
Number of Recordable Images        
Large (L)Medium 1 (M1)Medium 2 (M2)Medium 3 (M3)
File Size (KB)2,5651,2261,6207801,116556558278
Small (S)Widescreen (W)RAWLow Light
File Size (KB)150841,92091812,82515,390706353
Time of Recordable Movies  
Standard, Color Accent, Color Swap640 x 480320 x 240
30 fps30 fps
Movie Size (KB/sec.)1,316394
2GB23 min. 49 sec.1 hr. 13 min. 10 sec.
8GB1 hr. 35 min. 11 sec.4 hr. 52 min. 24 sec.
Note: N=Normal F=Fine SF=SuperFine
Storage Capacity varies depending on camera settings. This data is estimated from Canon's standard shooting conditions. Figures for Movie Mode represent total capacity of the particular media.