I must say I’ve enjoyed having this little black goober in my pocket. Herewith some words and pictures.

Did I say “little”? Here it is hanging out with my Nexus One. If you want a pocket cam, this would be one of those, no doubt about it.

Canon S90 and Nexus One

It has some irritants, but it does most things well enough while getting out of the way. In terms of ultimate image quality, I think it’s not quite up to the recently-deceased Ricoh GX100 at its very best. But it was hard to get the very best out of the slow, fragile, slightly-too-large Ricoh.

Here are a couple of larger-scale shots taken pretty well all-auto with plenty of light.

A park in Vancouver
· · ·
A tall building

Neither of these are challenging takes, but in both places it was nice to lean back, pull the little wee camera out of a handy pocket and just go “click”.

The Problem · It’s the ergonomics, in particular for people with great big meaty hands like mine, and I’ve seen a couple of reviews highlight it. There are two dials on the body and the camera makes it easy to assign them to whatever you want. It turns out there are two things you might want to adjust: the ISO and the exposure compensation. The latter is crucial because the camera’s sensor is fragile on the high end, it’s stupidly easy to blow out your highlights. I find myself wanting to crank things down all the time.

There are really two choices: Put the ISO on the cool funky ring around the lens and the aperture compensation on the fiddly dial on the back; or the other way around. And the problem is that it’s hard to hold the camera without jostling that dial at the back. So I’ve ended up with a few promising shots that ended up at ISOs ranging from 640 to 2000 (!), which is really asking this little teeny sensor to go further than one ought. The resulting graininess is not uninteresting, but also not appealing.

So I’ve ended up parking the exposure compensation on the too-accessible back dial, because those adjustments are reflected in the CRT and you can tell when you’ve accidentally cranked it.

Here are a couple of smaller-scale shots where things worked pretty well, even though this wood-grain is one of those accidental-high-ISO shots.

Mossy woodgrain with shadows

You might want to enlarge this trillium.


The reviewers have opined, and I tend to agree, that Canon’s industrial designers couldn’t resist the minimalist muse and thus left the camera without anything you can actually hold on to. A gentleman named Richard Franiec has addressed this failure with an S90 Custom Grip which has received kind comments from here and there; I think I shall have to get one.

Verdict · I learned pretty quick that the little Ricoh did two things really well: First, its “macro” was a little slow but had a steely grip on the close-up focus. Second, given sufficient light, it could capture an astonishing amount of detail and color.

The Canon, on the other hand, seems a generalist: Point it at pretty well anything in a ridiculously wide range of available-light variations and hey, you’ll get a decent picture. Plus it can get by in low light.

I suspect this is the last camera I’ll buy with a sensor this small; any number of really smart electrical engineers with Moore’s Law on their side are working on squeezing better sensors into smaller bodies, and I’m assuming they’ll win.

But in the meantime it’ll do.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: David Glasser (May 12 2010, at 00:56)

I guess you're mostly shooting in P mode or something more automatic? I mostly keep my S90 in Av mode and keep the lens ring adjusting the aperture; I put exposure compensation on the little dial on the back, and assigned ISO to the "S" button above it in the menu somewhere.


From: Michael (May 12 2010, at 06:07)

We have the G11 which I think is similar but bigger all round, I really love the hard dials on it, and it has a good grip. But it's not pocket sized.


From: John Cowan (May 12 2010, at 08:33)

I suppose the ideal camera is one that fits in your eye socket; at least it solves the problem of grip: the return of the monocle.


From: Greg Pfister (May 12 2010, at 08:36)

I've had good results with a pocket cam, too (a slightly older Canon). But one feature I miss desperately is a viewfinder. With diopter adjustment. These old eyes can only kind of just hope I'm shooting what I want; their focus on the LCD isn't wonderful. The alternative -- getting out readers, stashing their case, putting them on -- kind of defeats the purpose of whipping out a pocket cam for a spur of the moment shot.


From: Hanan Cohen (May 12 2010, at 08:50)

I own a Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ7 /ZS3.

I got an S90 for review and found it much inferior to the TZ7 at the ergonomics side.

I think the problem with the S90 is that it's the the first in the continued Powershot S series. The next one in the series will be great.


From: Kevin Gaudin (May 12 2010, at 14:29)

I have the S90 after trying most of the high end bridges and compacts available from sony/panasonic/canon at 2009 year end. The S90 was the only one which allowed me and my wife to take pictures of our children without the need of a flash.

With that camera pictures are always good, never blurry, in any light condition.

In full auto mode, it might burn a bit sometimes outdoor pictures... but indoor, it is really a relief for us to be able to take ambient, natural light pictures of that quality.


From: Cliff (May 12 2010, at 17:38)

I find a good mini-tripod works very well as a handle for these tiny cameras. "Good" isn't an oxymoron for these things either, I've learned. On Amazon the Vanguard is far far superior to the Sunpak.

Here is a pointer to a 30 second vid about it:



From: Nelson (May 12 2010, at 17:41)

That grip looks great, I just ordered one.


From: Kelvin Luck (May 12 2010, at 17:57)

I got an S90 a while back and love it. Enough control for many situations and it's great because it's always in your pocket! I found myself not even bothering with the DSLR most of the time...

I started a photo blog for the pictures I took with it... Was trying for one a day but have slowed down recently:



From: Mike (May 13 2010, at 19:22)

Are there some physics limits on the optics that limit the sensor size in compact cameras? These cannot be overcome via Moore's Law. The only "compacts" to try to incorporate larger sensors are not in fact compacts. They weigh twice as much and are twice as bulky as compacts.

I gave up on the "best camera is the one you have," and just use a digital SLR now, and try to anticipate photo opportunities. Compact digital cameras are just a pain to use. Bad in low light, shutter releases a second after you push the button ("decisive moment ... plus 1 second"), and so on.

Any digital SLR is fine. No research is necessary. It's the same as a CD player versus a record player. Once you go up to an SLR, your photos make a big jump, and only geeks care about the other details.


From: Rama Roberts (May 13 2010, at 21:19)

I'm fond of the Richard Franiec grip enough to blog about it myself:


However as someone who also has big hands, don't expect a much more positive hold. Its better, but its *not* going to feel like an SLR body, or anything approaching forgoing the wrist strap.


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