Review: Canon PowerShot G9
Pros: Excellent build quality and feature set; very good image quality; high-quality, stabilized lens with 6x zoom range; support for Canon external flash system.
Cons: Terrible optical viewfinder; performance is a little sluggish when shooting Raw; ISOs above 400 are unacceptably noisy for professional shooterss.
Canon's PowerShot G-series has long marked the high end of Canon's non-SLR camera line. Despite the fact that the point-and-shoot and SLR markets differ, over the last few years, Canon has stripped some features from the G series, ostensibly in an effort to minimize the competition between its top-of-the-line point-and-shoot, and its low-end SLR. Nevertheless, the G series cameras have consistently offered excellent optics, image quality, and robust feature set.
The $449 Canon PowerShot G9 is the latest addition to the series and, for the most part, it differs little in appearance from its predecessor, the G7. Like that camera, the G9 is an attractive, metal-bodied, all-black camera with an extending 6x image-stabilized optical zoom (Figure 1).
Canon has long since done away with the flip-out screen that early G-series models had. That's a shame because the flip-out LCD was great for macro shooting, over-the-head shots, and surreptitious street shooting. However, Canon expanded the size of the screen from 2.5 inches on the G7 to 3 inches on the G9 (Figure 2). That larger size is probably the main reason Canon no longer makes a swivel screen.
Figure 2. The G9's LCD screen can display several screenfuls of information while shooting. Here, you can see the Live Histogram and a reference grid, in addition to the usual exposure information. Click on the image for a larger version.
The G9's most important changes are inside the housing. New stand-out features include the following:
- The ability to shoot in Raw mode
- Improved face detection autofocus, in addition to three other autofocus modes
- 1600 ISO and a dedicated ISO control on the camera body
- Support for Canon's wireless flash system
Finally, the resolution rose from 10 to 12.1 megapixels. The G9 still sports the DIGIC III processor, which delivers speedy performance and excellent image quality.
With its excellent image quality and full feature set, the G9 is a great option for hobbyists and shooters who want a point-and-shoot with room to grow. But, with the return of Raw format, support for external flashes, and its excellent image quality, people have been wondering whether the G9 is also a worthy alternative for the SLR shooter who also wants a smaller, lighter, point-and-shoot camera. Whether it's right for you depends on a few particulars, and on what and how you tend to shoot.
Design and Interface
If you've handled the G7, you'll notice a slightly different feel with the G9. As with its predecessor, the G9 is housed in an attractive metal/plastic body that is sturdy, solid, and looks and handles like a professional camera. Canon added a very slight molding to the G9's hand grip, which makes the camera easy to use with one hand. However, you'll still want to use the included shoulder strap when handling the camera.
At 11.3 ounces and measuring 4.2" x 2.8" x 1.7", the G9 is not as tiny as some point-and-shoots (even some point-and-shoots with similar features). Yet it's still a small camera that fits easily in a pocket.
Except for the top plate, the camera's body is all metal, resulting in a camera with a solid feel and a good amount of weight. The tripod socket on the bottom is metal, the USB and AV sockets sit behind a hard plastic, hinged door, and the hot shoe for the flash is all metal and very sturdy. The battery and SD card sit beneath a door on the bottom of the camera, which means you can't change them while mounted on a tripod. On a camera this small, though, there aren't a lot of options for where to position these items, and most people don't spend a lot of time using a point-and-shoot on a tripod.
The G9 has external dials for shooting mode and ISO, and external buttons for manual focus, flash mode, macro, burst mode, focus spot selection, auto exposure lock, and exposure compensation. These are all the controls you need for everyday shooting, so you'll rarely have to dip in to the camera's menu system.
However, the G9 also includes an extra customizable button you can easily program to control one of eight functions, including white balance, metering mode, IS mode, AF-lock, and neutral density filter. I'd love to have that customizable button on my Canon EOS 5D. However, Canon has curiously omitted the option to control image size and quality, which would have been a great convenience for quickly switching between Raw and JPEG.
The G9 provides two similar controls for navigating menus. A four-way rocker switch is surrounded by a spinning wheel. You use the wheel and rocker switch to navigate different types of menus. Which one you should use is not always obvious, and it may take some time with the camera before navigation becomes a no-brainer. While this probably won't cost you a shot, since critical features are on dedicated buttons, it can still be annoying at first.
The G9's 3" LCD is beautiful and provides a huge view. The screen's anti-reflective coating and wide viewing angle make it easier to see in bright light than many other on-camera LCDs.
Canon has done an excellent job updating an already-good design. It's difficult to explain just how appealing the G9's design is. The camera sports a lot of the same type of look as a classic rangefinder camera, while its sturdy build and heft make it very comfortable to hold and shoot with.
The G9 doesn't lack any important feature. Sure, it doesn't have WiFi, or some specialized features you'll find on other cameras, but when it comes to shooting and image quality control, the G9 has pretty much everything.
Shooting Modes. A complete suite of shooting modes, from full automatic to program, priority, scene, and full manual, lets you shoot the way you like, no matter what your skill level. Beginning shooters can start in full auto and work their way into more sophisticated modes as their photographic understanding improves.
The thirteen scene modes include all of the standard options, such as Sports, Landscape, and Sand and Snow, and Canon has augmented these with unique modes. For example, Color Accent lets you pick one color in a scene to preserve, and the camera software automatically knocks everything else to grayscale.
When you decide you want more control, you can move up to one of the G9's priority modes. Shutter priority gives you control of shutter speed, while aperture priority provides control over aperture. The control dial on the back of the camera lets you control the given parameter, and the G9 displays a very cool analog-like dial that's evocative of a shutter speed or aperture ring on a film SLR (Figure 3).
You activate the G9's Exposure Compensation control by pushing a single button on the back of the camera. You can then use the control wheel to cycle from -2 to +2 EV in third-stop increments. For users accustomed to higher-end Canon SLRs, this will feel very familiar.
The basic exposure modes on the G9 are well-designed and easy to control, no matter how you choose to shoot. Developing easy-to-use exposure controls on a small point-and-shoot is a challenge, and Canon has done a very good job with the G9. Critical adjustments are simple to access and easy to change.
Zoom and Optical Image Stabilization. The G9's stabilized 6x zoom is a luxurious addition to a camera this size. With a 35mm equivalent zoom range of 35 to 210 mm, the G9's lens has a focal length range that's closer to a much larger "ultra zoom" point-and-shoot. I would have been willing to sacrifice some of the telephoto power to get a wider angle on the short end of the lens, but that may not have been possible given the G9's size.
With an aperture range of f/2.8 to 4.8, it's not the fastest lens Canon has ever put on a G-series camera, but 2.8 is still very respectable.
The G9's optical image stabilization is excellent and a welcome addition to a lens with such a long telephoto end.
If you want to extend either the long or short end of the lens, Canon sells two attachments, a 2x teleconverter and a .75 converter, which gets you a wide angle equivalent of roughly 26mm. Both of these attach with a bayonet mount that's very easy to use.
Focus Modes. The G9 has three focus modes:
- A 9-point AiAF mode, where the camera chooses the focus point it thinks is correct. This is probably the mode that's most similar to other cameras you've shot with.
- FlexiZone, where you can choose your own point from 375 spots spread about the screen.
- An excellent Face Detection mode that identifies faces in the scene, assumes those are the subject, and chooses focus accordingly (Figure 4).
The G9 also has manual focus. Manual focus on a point-and-shoot is always a dubious proposition because it's so hard to see correct focus on an LCD screen. To aid manual focusing, the G9 enlarges the middle part of the screen so you can see fine detail. This combined with the G9's 3" screen makes manual focus actually practical. However, it's a slow process, one you'll probably reserve for complex set-up shots where you want to focus on a very particular location (or defocus a particular location). You can't easily manually focus on the fly, as you can with an SLR.
The G9 includes a lot of other features, many of which are standard point-and-shoot accoutrements these days, and many that you'll never use. Here are some of the handier ones:
- Live histogram
- Excellent red-eye correction that's visible in playback mode
- Audio annotations
- A slideshow feature complete with transitions. You can connect the G9 to a TV to view slideshows larger.
If there's a feature you think you need, the G9 probably has it, and has implemented it well.
Shooting with the G9 is a comfortable experience as point-and-shoot cameras go. I say that as if I have something against point-and-shoot cameras, and that's because I do. They're typically slower and yield lower image quality than SLRs. More importantly, they don't help me get the best shot because they usually lack decent viewfinders, shoot in a 4:3 aspect ratio, and rarely shoot in Raw.
The G9 improves on many of these areas so much that even finicky photographers might find it a good second camera for times when they don't want to lug an entire SLR kit.
Many of the more advanced features that a serious shooter wants are in the G9. It has a Program Shift mode for automatically cycling through reciprocal exposure settings for the current metering (Figure 5). It has good auto-bracketing for tough exposure situations. Its auto white balance is very good, and it has full manual white balance for tricky lighting. Best of all, the whole thing is wrapped in a package that lets you access these features easily and quickly.
LCD Pros and Cons. For the average point-and-shoot user, the giant LCD screen and excellent auto-focus modes make this a great camera. For the more serious shooter, the G9's LCD has some issues.
Like the point-and-shoot user, the serious shooter will appreciate the larger LCD both for framing and playback. However, using any LCD screen as a viewfinder has serious disadvantages. First, in direct sunlight, it's largely invisible.
Second, an LCD screen doesn't show the entire dynamic range of a scene. If there are dark shadows, the screen plunges those areas into darkness, obscuring all detail. Trying to compose with these details in mind becomes very difficult.
Finally, if you're shooting in extreme low light, an LCD viewfinder fails because the camera can't gather enough light to present a legible image on-screen.
When you look at the LCD screen on the back of a typical point-and-shoot, you can see only about 80% of the scene in front of you. I didn't really believe that the G9's viewfinder would be better than that, but I wasn't expecting it to be as bad as it is. Not only is the G9's coverage small, it's somewhat asymmetrical, so you don't know exactly where it thinks the edge of the frame is (Figure 6).
Because of the parallax shift between the viewfinder and the lens, this asymmetry varies depending on whether you're shooting wide or telephoto, but it's always bad.
Because the optical viewfinder doesn't show you everything the G9 is capturing, you'll probably you'll have to crop most, if not all, of the shots you take with the optical viewfinder to match what you thought you were framing.
For LCD viewfinder shooting to be viable, you also need in-viewfinder status displays. At the very least, you want to see shutter speed and aperture in the viewfinder. The G9 has no display of any kind.
I hoped that the G9 would provide me with a full-featured, Raw-capable camera with a professional quality optical viewfinder -- in other words, that it would be a viable small alternative to my SLR. Unfortunately, I'm still looking for that camera.
However, Canon has addressed pretty much all of my other concerns.
Raw Support. Because the G9 can shoot in Raw mode, you get all of Raw's major advantages: expanded editing latitude, the ability to recover clipped highlights, and white balance you can adjust after the fact. The G9 also offers a Raw+JPEG mode that lets you capture a Raw file and a JPEG at the same time. It's only a medium-quality JPEG, but it's nice to have the two-format option.
3:2 Aspect Ratio. I prefer the 3:2 aspect ratio of 35mm film to the 4:3 aspect ratio of the typical point-and-shoot. The G9 provides a cropped 3:2 mode that solves this problem. Because the camera has so much resolution, cropping a 12-megapixel image to 3:2 still leaves plenty of pixels for most work I'd do with this camera.
Autofocus. Autofocus is fairly speedy on the G9, but it's still slower than my SLRs. While this may not matter to new users, second-camera buyers should be prepared for a performance that's a little slower. It's not a deal-breaker, just something you'd need to learn to work with.
External Flash Support. For serious indoor work, you'll want something other than the camera's built-in flash. While the on-board flash is fine for simple fill situations, its range is limited, and it's positioned very close to the lens. Happily, the G9 supports the full Canon flash system, so you can use any of Canon's external flash units -- including wireless controllers -- to create complex multi-strobe lighting setups.
The G9 is a good performer, with decent read/write times, fast playback, and responsive menus. Since the camera has to extend its lens, it doesn't power up instantly, but it does prepare itself to shoot surprisingly quickly. And if you let the camera doze off to sleep mode, rather than shutting down completely, it wakes up very quickly, so it's almost always ready to shoot.
Shooting in JPEG mode is faster than in Raw. If you're accustomed to knocking out Raw images very quickly with an SLR, you might find the G9 a little sluggish.
I've been reviewing digital cameras since the first sub-megapixel Kodak models debuted in the mid-1990s. At that time, a lot of people said, "If we hit 4 megapixels, we'll be at 35mm quality." Whether they were right about the 35mm comparison, the idea of a 12-megapixel consumer camera was laughable. The goal in those days was more pixels.
And so it's strange that I now find myself pining for a camera with fewer pixels. Here's why.
Noise Annoys. When camera vendors increase the pixel count in a camera, they don't usually make the chip that holds those pixels any larger. As pixel count goes up, pixel size goes down. Because smaller pixels have a harder time gathering light, smaller pixels yield images that are noisier. (Many factors contribute to noise, but pixel size is fairly significant.)
The G9 shoots very good images, and I've been impressed with what it's produced -- for a small camera. In other words, I wasn't expecting a great image because of the physical limitations of the sensor. But a great image is what I'd like to have, and like other high-megapixel point-and-shoots, the G9 is hamstrung by the fact that its sensor is packed with 12 million pixels. If Canon had stayed with 6 or 8 million pixels, it might have kept the noise down.
One of the G9's great interface features is the ISO knob on the top of the camera, which makes it easy to change ISO on the fly. What's more, the camera has a built-in ISO Shift feature, which automatically changes ISO when the camera thinks you're risking camera shake. By automatically shifting ISO up, the G9 buys you some shutter speed latitude that can reduce camera shake.
These are all great features, except for one problem: The noise above ISO 400 -- and the dial goes to 1600 -- is completely unacceptable for a pro shooter.
Please understand that I'm not a noise maniac. Heck, I like noise. I even add it to some images. More importantly, I know that noise that's visible onscreen is often irrelevant because it won't show up in prints. That's not the kind of noise I'm talking about with the G9 at high ISO settings (Figure 7).
At 400 and below, the G9 is a bit noisy, especially in the shadows, but ISO 400 prints are still beautiful, and the noise that's visible isn't unattractive. If you pretend that that ISO knob only goes to 400, and you don't expect SLR-like quality, you'll rarely be disappointed by the G9's noise. What I find frustrating is that there could be a G9-like camera with lower noise, if it didn't include such a high pixel count. For the market Canon's aiming for, and for the way the G9 should be used, 12 megapixels in the same small sensor are too many.
Camera companies, listen up: You're not doing anyone a favor by piling on more megapixels without increasing pixel size.
The Good News. Aside from noise, the G9 takes very good pictures. I had some overexposure and highlight clippings when shooting in JPEG mode, but you could learn to expose around these problems, or shoot in Raw.
Color reproduction and white balance were both excellent, as was detail. Some G9 users have complained about chromatic aberrations, but I didn't see these problems.
Is It Right for You?
The G9 is not a perfect camera. If tiny size is your ultimate arbiter, there are other cameras. If you're a stickler for image quality, the G9 doesn't offer much that other highly regarded cameras lack. These days, very good image quality is not hard to come by.
But the G9 is a very good camera. It has an excellent feature set that's very well-implemented and is housed in a body that looks great and feels even better.
Although beginning photographers may be overwhelmed by the G9's plethora of buttons, controls, and features at first, it's easy enough to put the camera into a fully automatic mode that makes it very simple to use. You can then grow into the rest of the features as your skills improve.
My biggest complaints about the G9 are its lousy optical viewfinder and unacceptable high ISO noise. But if you're comfortable shooting with an LCD, want Raw capability and a full set of shooting options, and don't want to pay SLR prices or lug around a full SLR kit, the G9 is the point-and-shoot to buy.