The Canon PowerShot S90 is designed for photography enthusiasts and it carries a hefty price tag to prove it. It also has some of the best controls you’ll find on a compact camera for manual and semimanual shooting modes. Its lens and photo quality are top notch, too. Actually, about the only thing that’s unimpressive with the S90 is its performance; those searching for digital SLR speed in a pocket camera probably won’t be happy. But, aside from a few other minor criticisms, the S90 is a first-rate compact camera for advanced amateurs.

The S90 looks fairly innocuous; it’s a textbook Canon box-and-circle design. The body is completely flat for a minimalist appearance, but it gives you nothing to grip. The black metal casing doesn’t make it any easier to hold onto either. The S90′s finer design points revolve around the excellent wide-angle f2-4.9 lens and its manual and semimanual shooting controls.

Around the lens is a new Control Ring that can be assigned to handle changes to aperture, shutter speed, focus, zoom, white balance, exposure compensation, or ISO. (A button on top lets you speedily change what it controls.) The ring rotates with firm, pleasing clicks so it’s easy to select settings accurately and it makes using the camera quite fun. The opposite can be said about the Control Dial around the directional pad on back. This dial works in tandem with the Control Ring to change settings quickly. For most of the shooting modes, it defaults to exposure compensation; however, in Scene mode, it changes the scene type you’re using. However, it moves much too freely and can result in accidental changes. Otherwise, the combination of the two rings is great and makes for swifter changes than you’ll get on other compact cameras.

On top of the body is a small flash that automatically pops up and retracts when turned on and off. The S90 is also compatible with Canon’s add-on HF-DC1 flash unit. There are mini-HDMI and USB/AV outputs under covers on the right camera’s right side. And, well, the rest of the design is similar to the majority of Canon’s PowerShot lineup. The buttons are nearly flush with the body and everything’s packed close together, which might upset some users.

There are no less than 25 shooting modes available on the S90. The bulk of these are specialty scene modes; 17 in all and none of them are out of the ordinary for PowerShot models. There is also an Auto mode that is pretty much Canon’s reliable scene-recognizing Smart Auto feature. There is a Low Light mode that drops the resolution to 1,824×1,368 pixels (2.5 megapixels), but allows for a sensitivity of ISO 12,800. A VGA-quality movie mode is on the dial as well, so HD fans are out of luck. Plus, you can’t use the optical zoom while recording, not that there’s a lot there to use.

The remaining shooting modes put more and more settings under your control: Program AE, Shutter priority, Aperture priority, Manual, and Custom. The last mode lets you assign a frequently used set of shooting options and settings to the C position on the mode dial. To go with it, you can register up to five commonly used menu items to a My Menu tab in the main-menu system.

Other advanced options include exposure bracketing and focus bracketing that will take one photo at a manual focus position and then one each at preset positions nearer and farther; manual white balance correction; and raw or raw plus JPEG capture. There are 45 shutter speeds from 15 seconds to 1/1,600 of a second and 14 aperture values–f2 through f8. You also get a selectable range of 17 ISOs between ISO 80 and ISO 3,200. The amount of tweaking available is great for a compact camera and the control layout makes it reasonably fast and painless.

Performance is the weakest aspect of the S90, and, overall, it’s not that bad. It’s just that if you’re expecting the fast performance of a digital SLR, you’ll be disappointed. From powered off to first shot is 1.8 seconds and it’s the same from shot-to-shot when shooting in high-quality JPEG; shooting raw the time extends to 3.4 seconds. Continuous shooting and saving in JPEG is about 1 frame per second. The S90′s shutter lag is likely to be the sticking point for some because it’s really no better than an average point-and-shoot: 0.5 second to focus and capture in bright conditions. The good thing is that it’s nearly the same in low-light conditions at 0.6 second.

The S90′s photo quality is impressive for a compact camera. However, like most of Canon’s PowerShot line, ISO 400 is about the limit before you start seeing softening of fine detail. On the other hand, its photos have minimal noise and its noise suppression isn’t heavy to the point of destroying all detail until ISO 3,200. The S90 lives up to Canon’s improved low-light performance claims. Its colors are also consistent through to ISO 1,600 so usable photos at small print sizes are possible.

The lens is sharp and consistent from edge to edge. There’s a small amount of barrel distortion at the camera’s widest 28mm-equivalent position. The zoom is short on this camera–3.8x–so there was no reason to expect to find any pincushion distortion and there wasn’t any. What was visible was some chromatic aberration that was a below average amount in high-contrast situations where you expect to see it, but it’s noticeable in prints of 8×10 inches or larger (especially if you’re sensitive to seeing it). Its color quality was excellent for coming from the little compact. Also, exposure and white balance were also generally very good from the S90, though as typical from pocket cameras there was highlight clipping.

Canon markets the PowerShot S90 as “the perfect everyday camera for people who are serious about great photography.” This is close to on point, though I would change it to perfect everyday compact camera. The lens, controls, and shooting options make it a fine choice for enthusiasts. The S90′s photo quality is on par with the best PowerShots, too, which is to say generally excellent. However, the S90s performance makes it best suited for portraits, landscapes, and the like–but not for fast-moving subjects.

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