DigitalCameraReview.com
Canon Powershot G9 Review
by Howard Creech -  9/25/2007

Before the advent of affordable digital SLRs, prosumer/enthusiast point and shoot (P&S) digital cameras were the driving force behind the exponential expansion of the digital imaging revolution. Canon digital cameras have been at the forefront of that high tech surge since the introduction of the iconic Powershot G1 in 2000.  Canon’s "G" models have always been aimed squarely at demanding photographers who want a responsive and relatively compact general-use digital camera with SLR like performance.  The new Canon Powershot G9 is the sort of elegant, very capable, and completely self-contained imaging tool that Henri Cartier-Bresson (if he were still with us) might have used to capture the "decisive moments" of the 21st century.  

canon powershot g9
(view large image)

 

NUTS & BOLTS

Viewfinder/LCD

The G9 features an even smaller optical viewfinder than its predecessors, but since most current point and shoot (P&S) digicams don't provide an optical viewfinder anymore, even a cramped optical viewfinder is better than no optical viewfinder.  Parallax correction is not as good with the G9 as it was with the G7’s optical viewfinder – up real close what you see through the tunnel-style eyepiece is definitely not what you get.  The G9's lens barrel is visible through the optical viewfinder on the left side of the image frame at the wide-angle end of the zoom.  There is a diopter correction adjustment for those who wear eyeglasses. 

canon powershot g9
(view large image)

The G9 features a fixed 3.0 inch TFT LCD screen (the G7 had a fixed 2.5 inch LCD screen).  Screen resolution is a very respectable 230,000 pixels (the G7’s slightly smaller LCD screen boasted 207,000 pixels). G9 LCD screen images are bright, sharp, hue accurate, very fluid, and the display gains "up" (automatically brightens) in dim lighting - users can also manually boost LCD brightness. The LCD screen shows 100% of the image frame and, due to Canon’s very good anti-glare coating, is useable even in bright outdoor lighting.

The LCD info/status display provides a wealth of information, probably more data than most of the G9's target audience is likely to want or need. There’s also a user selectable Grid Line gisplay (to help with composition) and the best orientation sensor I’ve seen to date - rotate the camera to vertical orientation during review and the image rotates too (and morphs to fill the screen - so photographers who shoot a lot of verticals (like me) can check their compositions on the full screen rather than reduced in size and scrunched into the center of the screen in the horizontal orientation position.  The G9 also provides a real-time (live) histogram display that converts the image area into a graphic representation of the composition - making it easy for shooters to spot (and correct for) under or over exposure.

The G6 (like its predecessors) provided a tilt-swivel LCD screen and many users really liked that feature. The G9 is the second "G" model with a fixed LCD screen - the G7 was the first.  I think the G9’s fixed LCD screen makes it pretty clear that the tilt-swivel LCD screen of earlier "G" models is not coming back.

Zoom/Optics

The G9 features the same f/2.8-f4.8/7.4mm-44.4mm (35mm-210mm equivalent) 6X zoom that graced the G7. Construction is 9 elements in 7 groups with 1 (double-sided) aspherical element to minimize optical distortion and Canon’s SR lens coating to reduce flare, ghosting, and chromatic aberration.  When the camera is powered up, the zoom automatically telescopes out of the camera body. When the camera is powered down the lens is fully retracted into the camera and a built-in lens cover slides over the front element. Zooming is fast, very smooth, and quiet with 14 steps from wide angle to telephoto.

The zoom exhibits very minor visible barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from the center of the image frame) at the wide-angle end of the zoom range, but there is no visible pin cushioning (straight lines bow in toward the center of the image frame) at the telephoto end of the zoom. There is some very minor softness in the corners, but no visible vignetting (dark corners). On close inspection, there is some very minor chromatic aberration (color fringing) visible in high contrast edge/color transition areas, but it is managed surprisingly well.

canon powershot g9 sample image
(view medium image) (view large image) Enlarge this late dusk Moonflower shot to full size and (if you look closely) you’ll notice some very minor colored fringe at the edge demarcation between the black background and the white petals of the flower – that’s absolutely outstanding optical performance for a digicam zoom.

Contrast is a bit flat, slightly lower than average.  Shadow detail is very good and highlight detail is slightly better than average.  I thought noise might be a problem with resolution boosted to 12 megapixels (the G7 was a 10 megapixel digicam), but Canon’s new 1/1.7" image sensor appears to handle this increase nicely and noise seems to be (in my opinion) better managed than it was with the G7.  Macro performance is excellent – minimum-focusing distance (in macro mode) is just short of half an inch - more than close enough for pollen dusted bugs and frame filling flowers.

canon powershot g9 sample image
(view medium image) (view large image) Note the impressive detail in the wings and thorax of this Monarch butterfly

Serious shooters usually ignore digital zoom because it doesn’t actually provide any useful extra zoom reach; in fact digital zoom just magnifies the center of the image frame, which degrades picture quality.  The G9 provides users with a way to get a little extra zoom without the grainy washed-out look characteristic of digital zoom images. Canon calls this feature Safety Zoom and it works by using a smaller area at the center of the image sensor (creating a narrower angle of view) which allows the G9’s 6X zoom to grow to (up to) 24X, but at progressively lower maximum resolutions.  For those who don’t mind digital zoom, the G9 features a built-in 1.5X/2.0X digital Tele-Converter allowing users a way to gain some extra telephoto reach, but the trade off is compromised image quality.   Users who need even more reach, more width, or the ability to use photo filters can purchase the optional Canon lens adapter and mount auxiliary wide-angle and  telephoto lenses or 58mm filters.

Optical Image Stabilization (OIS)

It seems image stabilization is practically universal anymore and the G9 is no exception.  Canon’s proven optical image stabilization system automatically compensates for camera movement by quickly and precisely shifting lens elements to counter shaky hands - allowing users to shoot at shutter speeds up to three stops slower than would have been possible without OIS.

OIS is especially useful outdoors (when shooting handheld) at full telephoto where even minor camera shake is magnified exponentially. Image stabilization can also be very helpful when shooting indoors - where higher shutter speeds may not be possible or would result in dark images with poor shadow/highlight detail. In addition, Image stabilization combined with higher ISO sensitivity dramatically increases exposure options in low/natural light and dimly lit indoor venues where flash use is prohibited.

I shot several outdoor test images (handheld) first without IS and then with (shoot only) IS enabled - trying to duplicate, as nearly as possible, my original shot. My stabilized images were consistently sharper than my un-stabilized shots. The G9’s optical image stabilization system works very nicely, but it won't neutralize abrupt camera movements, blur caused by too-rapidly-moving subjects, or the streaky look of overly fast panning.

The G9 provides three IS modes (plus off) - in continuous mode OIS is engaged full time.  OIS can be also engaged just prior to exposure (called shoot only mode) which is equally effective and uses substantially less power, or for Panning (which only stabilizes up and down motion) for horizontally panned images.

Auto Focus (AF)

The G9's DIGIC III driven AiAF (Advanced intelligent Auto Focus) TTL Contrast Detection AF system is very fast and dependably accurate.  The camera automatically analyzes the scene in front of the lens and accurately calculates camera to subject distance to determine which of the 9 AF points is closest to the primary subject and then locks focus on that AF point, even when the subject is not centered. Users can select AF point size (standard or small). 

The G9’s improved Face Detection AF/AE technology allows users to just point the camera at the subject(s) and press the shutter button halfway - the camera will locate, lock on, and track up to nine faces in the image frame. Face Detection AF selects the optimum subject based on Canon’s ISAPS (Intelligent Scene Analysis based on Photographic Space) technology and then optimizes all exposure parameters to determine the best exposure, just before the image is recorded. Face Detection AF/AE can also be used when recording video clips (with AF and all exposure parameters adjusted continuously for moving subjects). The G9’s FDAF can now automatically adjust for flash exposure and, when the new Face Select and Track function is enabled, shooters can lock on and track one face in a crowd of up to 35 people.

In aperture priority, shutter priority, and manual mode, the G9 relies on Canon’s proprietary Flexizone AF which defaults to the center focus point or permits users to manually shift that AF point around the central two thirds of the frame for maximum compositional control.  The G9 also provides Auto Focus Bracketing (AFB). Enable AFB and with a single push of the shutter button, the camera captures three exposures in rapid succession marginally shifting the focus for each (one just slightly in front of the optimum focus point, one at the optimum focus distance, and one just slightly behind the optimum focus point), virtually guaranteeing at least one correctly focused image even in rapidly unfolding action situations.  AF and OIS work together very nicely in good light, but sometimes fail to mesh quickly in more challenging light.

The G9 also provides an AF assist beam for quicker and more accurate focusing in dim/low light.

Manual Focus (MF)

The G9 provides a fairly standard distance/scale manual focusing mode. 

Flash

The G9's built-in multi-mode flash (Auto, Red-eye reduction auto, Red-eye reduction on, Red-eye reduction off, slow synch, first curtain synch effect, Face Detection Flash, Macro Flash, and off) provides a nice range of artificial lighting options. Maximum range (according to Canon) is about 10 feet.  Flash exposure can be adjusted up to +2/-2 EV (in one-third-step increments) or flash output can be reduced from full power to 2/3 or 1/3 power.

The G9 sports a dedicated hot shoe for mounting external Canon flash units and/or the Canon ST-E2 wireless transmitter. Flash sync with Canon Speedlights is 1/500th of a second. In manual mode flash output can be adjusted incrementally (3 steps).

File Storage/Memory Media

The G9 stores images to SD/SDHC/MMC memory media, but provides no internal image storage.  Canon includes a 32MB starter card.  

Image File Format(s)

The G6 supported both JPEG & RAW image file formats, but Canon chose to eliminate the RAW mode on last year’s G7 and that ill conceived corporate decision resulted in a very vocal consumer backlash – The "Powers That Be" at Canon saw the writing on the wall and restored the RAW function on the G9.  RAW Images are saved exactly as the image sensor recorded them, without any compression, interpolation, or processing.  G9 users can save images in JPEG, RAW, and RAW+JPEG formats.   

Connectivity

USB 2.0HS, A/V out, DC in.

Power/Battery Life

The G9 draws its power from Canon’s NB-2LH 7.4v 720mAh re-chargeable Lithium-ion power pack (the same battery that powers Canon's Digital Rebel XTi/EOS 400D). Canon claims the G9 (with a fully charged NB-2LH) is good for up to 240 exposures (full time LCD use) and while I didn’t keep track, that number seems a bit optimistic to me.   The G9’s battery life is pretty good, but not as good as I expected.  The included charger needs about 90 minutes to re-charge the battery.

EXPOSURE

The G9 provides users with a full slate of exposure options, including: Auto (P&S mode), Program (the camera determines shutter speed and aperture setting, but users can adjust most other exposure parameters), Shutter Priority AE, Aperture Priority AE, Manual, and 2 Custom (user) exposure modes. The G9 also provides 16 Scene modes (portrait, landscape, night scene, sports, night snapshot, kids & pets, indoor, foliage, snow, beach, fireworks, aquarium, underwater, ISO 3200, color accent, and color swap). The camera evaluates the scene in front of the camera using iSAPS (Intelligent Scene Analysis based on Photographic Space) and an on-board database of standard scene types and then compares that information with the specific scene’s subject distance, white balance, contrast range, lighting, and color (just before the image is recorded) to determine the best exposure. Canon’s iSAPS technology works hand in glove with the DIGIC III processor and AiAF auto focus system to produce dependably accurate exposures in all scene modes.

canon powershot g9 sample image
(view medium image) (view large image) The G9, in Program mode, correctly exposed this image of a 106 year old native limestone bridge in Cherokee Park

Very light or very dark subjects can often fool digital camera light metering systems into underexposing or overexposing images.  The G9's (direct access) exposure compensation function allows users to incrementally adjust exposure over a 4 EV range (+/-2 EV in 1/3 EV increments) to compensate for difficult lighting by quickly and easily lightening or darkening images.

The G9’s Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB) function permits users to capture three images with one push of the shutter button, each at a slightly different exposure setting. One image slightly over the base exposure setting, one image at the camera selected base exposure setting, and one image slightly under the base exposure setting – essentially guaranteeing at least one correct exposure.

Movie Mode

The G9's AVI movie mode allows users to record video clips at 640x480 @ 30 fps (up to 4GB or 1 hour) or 1024x768 @ 15fps (up to 4GB or 1 hour) – and several lower resolution video options, and Time Lapse at 640x480 @ 0.5/1fps with playback @15fps. 

The G9 can also be used to record audio notations (up to 60 seconds) with still images or as a digital audio recorder (recording duration - up to 120 minutes). The G9’s built-in microphone features a digital wind filter for recording outdoors.

Metering

The G9 (like its predecessor) provides three light metering options: evaluative, center-weighted averaging, and spot. Evaluative (default) metering assesses several areas of the image and then selects the optimum aperture/shutter speed combination. Center-weighted metering biases exposure on the central portion of frame (great for classic landscape shots and travel images - where the subject is likely to be centered). Spot metering reads only a tiny portion of the image frame allowing users to bias exposure on the single most important element in the composition. When spot metering is enabled, the metering spot can be set at the center of the frame or linked to the active Flexizone AF point, allowing the photographer to align the AF target on the most important element of the composition and tie the camera’s metering to that same spot.

White Balance (WB)

The G9 offers users a useful range of white balance options, including TTL Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Fluorescent H (for daylight-balanced fluorescents), Flash, and two Custom WB modes. The G9’s Custom settings permit users to manually set white balance with a white card (wall or ceiling) or a gray (neutral) card. The ability to save and re-call two Custom WB settings makes it easier for users to move back and forth between scenes with fundamentally different lighting (for example indoors and outdoors).

Sensitivity/ISO

The G9 provides a very good range of sensitivity options including Auto, High ISO Auto, and user selectable settings for 80,100, 200, 400, 800, and 1600 ISO. The G9, like its predecessor, and unlike most of its competition provides direct access to sensitivity settings – turn the ISO dial on the camera’s top deck and change the sensitivity – just like photographers used to do in the old days - before menus.


ISO 80

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

 

In-Camera Image Adjustment

The G9 provides shooters with a very useful range of built-in photo tweaks including: contrast, hue (color), saturation (color intensity), and sharpening. The G9's "My Colors" mode provides several creative color options: Positive Film (mimics slide film color, saturation, and contrast), Neutral Film (mimics print film color, saturation, and contrast), Lighter Skin Tone, Darker Skin Tone, Vivid Blue, Vivid Green, Vivid Red, Color accent (shifts images to B&W, except for one user selected color), color swap (allows users to switch one color for another), custom color (users can adjust color balance for red, green, blue, and skin tones +/-2 arbitrary steps in 1 step increments), and Photo effects (vivid or neutral color saturation, low sharpening, sepia, and B&W).

The G9, like its predecessors, provides a very useful built-in Neutral Density (ND) Filter. ND filters reduce the volume of light striking the image sensor, allowing photographers more creative/control options when ambient light is too bright or when a higher shutter speed would be problematic.

Controls, Design, & Ergonomics

canon powershot g9
(view large image)

The G9 is a relatively compact brick shaped P&S digicam that reminds me of the classic Leica CL/Minolta CLE mini-rangefinders of the late seventies and early eighties. Like the little Leica, the G9 is a very capable general use camera. The elegant pro black G9 is more evolutionary than revolutionary – on the surface it looks virtually identical to the G7 and under the hood it is essentially an updated version of its predecessor.

The G9 is heavier than expected.  Build quality is excellent – the camera is robustly constructed (metal alloy shell over a metal alloy frame), weather/dust seals appear to be more than adequate and the camera is clearly tough enough for anything short of extreme climates and combat zones.

Controls are well laid out, logically placed, and quickly become intuitive.  I especially appreciated Canon's FUNC (function) menu, which provides direct access to the most commonly adjusted exposure parameters.  The G9’s 4-way compass switch provides the familiar up/down-left/right-and center buttons, but Canon didn’t stop there, the G9’s compass switch is surrounded by a rotary jog dial for fast easy back and forth image review/comparison and direct access to exposure compensation adjustments. When users must resort to the G9’s menus, they are straightforward, eminently logical, and easily navigated.  Canon’s third generation DIGIC III processor nicely manages all primary camera functions (AF, AE, image processing, power management, etc.) to consistently produce images that are optimized for sharp resolution, balanced contrast, low image noise, and hue accurate color.

canon powershot g9
(view large image)

canon powershot g9
(view large image)

canon powershot g9
(view large image)

PERFORMANCE

Image Quality

The G9’s image quality is (in my opinion) noticeably better than the G7’s – and that isn’t due to the insignificant 20 percent increase in resolution.  Outdoor images are dependably well exposed and color is consistently hue accurate, but slightly over saturated.  Reds are very warm, blues are a tad bright, and Caucasian skin tones are very slightly ruddy.  All my images showed balanced, but slightly hard contrast. There is some negligible chromatic aberration (purple fringing) visible in high contrast color transition/edge demarcation areas, but overall chromatic aberration is amazingly well controlled. 

Shadow detail is very good. Highlight detail is also pretty good, but I did notice some minor clipping (burnt out highlights). Noise management is remarkably good, considering the unavoidable fact that small high pixel count sensor arrays generate lots of noise.  Eliminating that noise effectively is a delicate balancing act – if camera manufacturers employ noise reduction too aggressively image detail starts to disappear - most visibly in hair, fur, grass, etc.  The G9 manages to remove luminance (brightness) noise with amazing efficacy, but the camera doesn’t do quite as well when managing chroma (color) noise. 

canon powershot g9 sample image
(view medium image) (view large image) Enlarge this sunset grab shot (cropped slightly to remove an extraneous detail) to full size and you’ll notice some visible chroma noise in the open sky areas.

Images shot at ISO 80/100 (ISO 100 images are virtually identical to ISO 80 images, I couldn’t detect any visible difference) showed extremely low noise levels. At ISO 200 noise levels begin to rise a bit, but the images are still excellent. Noise at ISO 400 is lower than average and surprisingly well managed. The G9’s ISO 400 images (unlike much of its competition) are eminently usable.

canon powershot g9 sample image
(view medium image) (view large image) This indoor ISO 400 shot of my cat (on his chair) turned out much better than I expected 

ISO 800 images are noticeably noisy, but a bit better than expected – ISO 1600 images were much too noisy, effectively useless for anything critical. I didn’t try the High Sensitivity (ISO 3200) scene mode. 


(view medium image) (view large image) The G9 also does a pretty good job with night shots - handheld, program mode, ISO 800

Shutter Lag/Timing

The G9 is a very quick digital camera, but it doesn’t seem to me to be any faster than the G7.   Shutter lag shouldn't be a problem in most shooting situations - shutter fire is essentially real time, appreciably faster than most of the G9’s competition. AF lag is basically non-existent in good lighting and shorter than average in lower light. Depress the shutter button halfway and the camera focuses almost instantly. Write to card and shot to shot times are about the same as the G7.

canon powershot g9 sample image
(view medium image) (view large image) I tracked this BMXer through his run and tripped the shutter about a ¼ second before he hit the peak of his jump – the G9’s AF and OIS systems did the rest.

Technical Specifications

A Few Concerns

I really don’t have any concerns with the G9, but I do miss the G6’s large handgrip - the "more about style" mini-handgrip of the G7/G9 might look better, but it doesn’t provide much added stability. 

Conclusion

As recently as two years ago many digital camera industry insiders were predicting the imminent demise of top of the line (read expensive) prosumer/enthusiast digital cameras due to the introduction of affordable entry-level digital SLRs – those dire prophecies clearly haven’t come to pass.  The G9 has a few warts, but at this point in time and when compared to the other cameras in its class - the G9 is as good as it gets.  If that’s not enough, RAW is back, the G9 is more powerful, it has more features, and it’s cheaper (MSRP) than its predecessor.  
 
Pros

Image Stabilization, 6X zoom, 12 megapixels, RAW mode

Cons

Nothing of any consequence