Canon PowerShot S90 Review
by Andy Stanton -  11/5/2009

The Canon PowerShot S90 is the latest of the "S" series point and shoot cameras that Canon created in 1999 when they released the PowerShot S10. The S10 had more features, better construction and better image quality than Canon's other small digital cameras. The "S" series continued for several years, gathering a reputation for sophistication, through the S80 in 2005. Then Canon stopped releasing them; it appeared that the "S" series was at an end. However, over the past year there were rumors that Canon was bringing back the "S" with an innovative small camera optimized for low light performance. The result was the PowerShot S90.

Canon PowerShot S90

As it turns out, the S90 is good in low light, for a non-DSLR camera, and packs in plenty of other interesting innovations. It has the same 10 megapixel 1/1.7 inch sensor as the PowerShot G11, which DCR's reviewer, Jim Keenan, recently stated produced the best image quality of any compact digital camera he'd ever reviewed. Hopefully this is an additional sign that camera manufacturers have decided that it's time to end the megapixel race, at least as far as point and shoot cameras are concerned.

The PowerShot S90 is also equipped with a very fast f/2.0 lens - fast than the f/2.8 maximum aperture of most high quality point and shoot cameras, including the G11. Theoretically, this means the S90 can shoot at lower ISOs in dim conditions. It has Canon's latest DIGIC IV processor. It also has an interesting control ring around its 3.8x zoom lens, can shoot in RAW, and has manual exposure controls including aperture and shutter priority. While the S90 is fairly expensive for a point and shoot camera, it's priced less than the G11. Let's take a closer look at this interesting and innovative little camera.

The Canon PowerShot S90 is a fairly small camera with a smooth finish that makes it easy to slide in and out of a pocket or a purse. It has a combination metal/plastic exterior that feels pretty solid. It measures 3.9x2.3x1.2 inches and it weighs 6.17 ounces - not an ultracompact, but comfortable to carry.

Canon PowerShot S90


The bottom of the camera contains a metal tripod mount and a sliding plastic door to the memory card/battery compartment. Separate compartments for the HDMI and A/V ports are located on one side and covered by sturdy plastic latches. I get the impression the S90 would survive a few drops (though you really don't want to drop a fine, expensive camera like this now, do you?). The camera comes in black only.

Canon PowerShot S90

Ergonomics and Controls
The S90 is fairly heavy for its size. While its 1.2 inch width and thumb rest at the rear makes it possible to get a good grip, its surface is slippery, so it's not a camera you'd want to shoot with one hand.

Canon PowerShot S90

At first glance the S90 looks very simple. Its front is smooth and uncluttered, without a visible flash. Around the lens is a control ring that users can assign one of many different shooting functions. Next to the lens is the auto focus assist lamp and a pinhole for the microphone. The top of the camera contains a pop-up flash, which, when set to auto, will pop up when the camera's processor believes it to be required. The flash can also be set to always off or always on. The top also contains the on/off button, the shutter button with wraparound zoom control, a circular selector dial and a button called "ring function" which enables you to assign functions to the lens control ring.

The rear of the S90 is largely taken up by its 3.0 inch LCD. To the right of the screen is a four-way circular control panel that also has a control ring around it. Pressing up accesses exposure compensation, right the flash controls, down the self-timer and delete (in photo review mode) and left the camera's macro mode. The function/set button in the center of the panel accepts menu selections and brings up the function shortcut menu. Around the panel there are buttons for displaying information on the LCD, activating the menu, printing images and reviewing photos and movies. The rear of the camera also contains the speaker and thumb rest.

Canon PowerShot S90

Canon provides a comprehensive 179 page user guide. While I don't mind looking at a user guide on the computer, it's comforting to have a paper copy with you while out taking pictures, especially when you're just getting to know your camera.

Menus and Modes
The S90 uses Canon's two menu system - a main menu accessed by the menu button and a shortcut menu accessed by the function/set button. The main menu contains of three columns - one for shooting settings, one for camera settings, and one for any individual menu settings you choose to register. The function shortcut menu contains numerous options. You can opt to have the menu choices accompanied by a brief explanation.

The top circular selector dial interacts with the menu system, with different menu options becoming available depending on the mode selected by the dial. Here are the shooting modes available to users of the PowerShot S90:

The S90 has a 3.0 inch LCD with very high resolution (461,000 dots) that can be adjusted to five brightness levels. The screen is bright, colorful, sharp, and fluid. In case you couldn't tell - I really enjoyed using it. The S90 does not provide a viewfinder.

Canon PowerShot S90

The PowerShot S90 is a fine camera in every respect, with quick and responsive performance, excellent image quality outdoors and very good image quality indoors as well. It's a very appealing camera to those who want close to DSLR image quality in a small, pocketable package.

My only qualm about the S90 is that its optical zoom is very limited. With many very good compact ultrazoom cameras available, from Canon and others, equipped with 10x and 12x optical zooms, why should a consumer settle for a compact camera with only 3.8x optical zoom that's considerably more expensive? A shorter zoom range could mean better control over lens distortions, so keep reading to see if the trade for a smaller zoom pays off.

Shooting Performance
The S90 starts up and shuts down in only a second or two. There's about a three second delay between pictures, but after 15 consecutive shots the camera did not stop to write to the memory card. As shown in the table below, the S90's shutter lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused) was 0.02 seconds, or virtually non-existent. Its auto focus acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus) was 0.53 seconds, about average for a point and shoot camera. The S90 is slow in continuous shooting mode, managing only 1 frame per second, but the number of pictures it can take in that mode is limited only by the memory card capacity.

Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)

Camera Time (seconds)
Fujifilm FinePix F70EXR 0.01
Canon PowerShot S90 0.02
Kodak EasyShare Z915 0.05
Nikon Coolpix S620 0.07

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)

Camera Time (seconds)
Nikon Coolpix S620 0.28
Fujifilm FinePix F70EXR 0.42
Canon PowerShot S90 0.53
Kodak EasyShare Z915 0.94

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames Framerate
Fujifilm FinePix F70EXR 3 2.6 fps
Nikon Coolpix S620 3 1.7 fps
Kodak EasyShare Z915 3 1.6 fps
Canon PowerShot S90 1.0 fps

The S90 has a fairly powerful flash. Canon specifies a range of 1.6-21 ft. (50cm-6.5m) at wide angle and I found this to be the case. The flash can be set to auto, flash on, flash off and slow synchro, which slows shutter speed to brighten the background. The menu also has a setting for red eye reduction, which uses the auto focus assist lamp. I found flash recharge time to be short, not more than five seconds.

The S90 uses the NB-6LD rechargeable lithium-ion battery which Canon says should last for 220 shots. After shooting 154 photos and four videos the battery still had plenty of life.

Lens Performance
The S90 uses a Canon lens with a focal length of 6.0-22.5mm , f/2.0-4.9 (35mm equivalent: 28-105mm). The lens can focus as close as 2.0 inches (5cm) in macro mode. Lens sharpness is very good, with only minor softness in the corners. I noticed a small amount of chromatic aberration.

I also observed minor barrel distortion at wide angle and pincushion distortion at maximum zoom.

Canon PowerShot S90
Wide angle

Canon PowerShot S90

Video Quality
The S90 records movies at two resolutions, 640x480 and 320x200, both at 30 frames per second. The movies are smooth with good color. While optical zoom isn't available in movie mode, I found that digital zoom did a good job. It's kind of surprising that Canon did not include HD capability, considering the relatively high cost and overall quality of the camera. Quality of the lower-res video capture, however, is very good.

Image Quality
The S90 produced some very good images - sharp with strong colors. Contrast was good with infrequent overexposure in strong light, which is a problem with most point and shoot cameras. Even indoors the camera performed well and I enjoyed being able to take pictures in low light situations without having to use the flash.

Canon PowerShot S90 Canon PowerShot S90

The PowerShot S90 has white balance settings for auto, daylight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent, fluorescent H, flash, underwater and a user-defined custom. I mostly used auto white balance though occasionally I found that auto was a bit yellow under incandescent light and used the tungsten setting.

Canon PowerShot S90
Auto White Balance, 3200k incandescent light

Exposure bracketing is available if the lighting is tricky and you're not sure whether the camera is exposing the photo correctly.

Canon PowerShot S90 Canon PowerShot S90 Canon PowerShot S90

Image quality is very good through 400 ISO, with some softness present at 800 ISO and more at 1600 ISO, though I found pictures at 1600 ISO to be very usable. There's a slight flattening of color up through ISO 1600, but not so much that small prints at the higher ISO settings can't be used.

Canon PowerShot S90
ISO 80
Canon PowerShot S90
ISO 80, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot S90
ISO 100
Canon PowerShot S90
ISO 100, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot S90
ISO 200
Canon PowerShot S90
ISO 200, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot S90
ISO 400
Canon PowerShot S90
ISO 400, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot S90
ISO 800
Canon PowerShot S90
ISO 800, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot S90
ISO 1600
Canon PowerShot S90
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot S90
ISO 3200
Canon PowerShot S90
ISO 3200, 100% crop

It's important to emphasize that since the S90 has a maximum aperture of f/2.0 it will be able to take photos at lower ISOs than other point and shoot cameras.

Additional Sample Images
Canon PowerShot S90 Canon PowerShot S90
Canon PowerShot S90 Canon PowerShot S90
Canon PowerShot S90 Canon PowerShot S90

I enjoyed taking pictures with the PowerShot S90. It takes excellent photos outdoors and very good pictures indoors as well. It has a high quality lens with minimal distortion. Leaving the flash off in most low light shooting situations was another bonus. It features excellent build quality and is quick and responsive.

Canon's smart auto mode works well, but the S90 has so many options it won't be long before most users migrate to its program and manual modes. The lens control ring may seem like a gimmick but it does make it easier to fine tune your shots once you take the camera out of auto mode.

I would have liked more optical zoom, and I'm surprised that Canon did not include HD movie capability. However, that doesn't take away from the fact that the S90 is an excellent point and shoot camera - one of the best around.