Wednesday, October 28, 2009

REVIEW: Canon G11 – Finally near DSLR quality in a point and shoot package for under $500

 
The LCD image above is NOT simulated – it’s a real capture from my G11 pasted onto this exposure (not possible with one exposure)

For a very long time I have searched for a reasonably priced (meaning hundreds, not thousands) point and shoot camera that could be good enough for me to leave my big DSLR setup at home.  When I am out with the wife and kids for a family night out or entertaining out-of-town guests, I always get the evil eye when I toss the backpack in the car so an alternative solution was definitely in order!

While I was very happy with the Canon G9 at Disneyland, my conclusion was that it was crap at anything greater than ISO 100 (200 max). The G10 was even worse because it had more megapixels but the same small sensor. Sure it was fine in bright daylight, but once the light goes dim so did the results, leading me to think that P&S should really be referred to as POS.

I had really hoped that the Sigma DP1 or DP2 would get the job done, but they failed to live up to the specs which indicated they would be fantastic. Sure I’ve seen a few great shots from them here and there, but a hands on test revealed that the usability wasn’t there so it wasn’t the camera for me (or more importantly – my wife). The Panasonic DMC-LX3 was highly regarded but seemed no better than the G9 to me. Its replacement the Panasonic DMC-GF1 is indeed a strong competitor but cost $900, and truth be told it is just a smaller DSLR since you lens purchases are extra.

Introducing My Favorite Point and Shoot Camera

Canon G11 f/3.5 1/125 sec @ ISO 800 in Av Mode

I am pleased to announce that I've found the perfect Point and Shoot camera for me because it retains a solid performance from ISO 80 to ISO 1600, and it has all the features I want. It is also very well priced for what you get. I am very disappointed that the build quality of the G11 and feel it is inferior to its predecessors, but it is better than the average point and shoot build quality.

I’m totally comfortable with the size of the G11, but I realize for some it still isn’t really considered to be “pocketable”. For those looking for a more sleek and compact model but near identical image performance, Canon has the nice s90 waiting for you (the camera my wife wishes I would have bought instead). However, I wanted the extra physical (as opposed to digital) controls that the G11 offers and in practice I am not disappointed with my decision.

Let’s Start With Some Images

f/4.5 1/100 sec @ ISO 800 with negative exposure compensation in Av Mode

I’ve been super busy at my day job lately (working until 2 – 4:00 AM most days), so I’ve had little time to play with my new toy. However, I managed to find a couple short 10 minute breaks to snap off some shots. The results had me giggling like a school girl with joy because I love the quality and features of this camera. This thing is FUN and a true joy to use, and even advanced concepts (for most point and shoot users) like dialing in some negative exposure compensation to keep the purple flowers in the image above from being overblown is a piece of cake.

f/4.5 1/100 sec @ ISO 800 in Av Mode

The other cool thing is that getting a great isolated subject with a sweet bokeh is totally possible as seen in the picture of the ugly tree branch above. Not bad for ISO 800, huh?

A word about the images in this article

f/3.5 1/160 sec @ ISO 320 in Av Mode

Many of the images you see inline in this blog are what I call Enhanced where I’ve taken JPEG or RAW originals and performed my standard imaging workflow on them. I’ve done my own crop, alignment, noise reduction using Dfine (some, not all), curves, lab color, Color Efex skylight and/or foliage filters, and sharpening with Sharpener Pro. With one exception, there’s no other processing done to these shots so ugly leaves, distractions, etc… haven’t been removed or addressed. This is my typical workflow for blog images (excluding fashion where I invest much more time), so that is why these images are inline instead of their unprocessed versions.

With that said, I don’t want anyone feeling like I’m using smoke and mirrors and that the real images suck – they don’t. In fact they are so good, I’ve not only included the in-camera JPEG’s on my personal web site, but I’ve even included JPEG’s created with no processing from the RAW images (for the ones I shot dual format). Be sure to read the gallery and image captions at http://ronmart.smugmug.com/blog/G11 to learn more about the images (like the fact that they are nearly all hand-held shots).

f/4 1/1250 @ ISO 80 in Full Auto – © Moonhee Kim

I shot some photos in auto everything (aka full auto) and others in RAW+JPEG. The photos in those galleries are straight out of camera with zero processing (no cropping, straighten, align, or anything) so they show my poor photography skills, but you can use them to evaluate the image quality fairly well. Naturally I don’t have CR2’s up on smugmug, so the RAW is actually just an import into LR 2.5 and then an immediate export to JPEG 100% with no other non-default changes (well metadata embedded).

f/4.5 1/400 @ ISO 80 - FULL AUTO – © Moonhee Kim

Naturally the RAW images don’t have all of the noise reduction, sharpening, etc… that the in-camera JPEG’s have so the results are less interesting. However, detail is preserved so if you have better noise reduction and sharpening tools (read Nik Software) then you will get much better results doing your own intelligent noise reduction and sharpening as I’ve done with most of my images here – except the one below which only has minor Lightroom 2.5 enhancements plus a few extra leaves thrown around the edges courtesy of copy and paste in Photoshop.

f/4.0 1/20 @ ISO 800 Av Mode

The shot below was a lot of fun because I was able to play with most of the manual features of this camera. I put the camera in manual mode, rested it on a rock, and then set the timer for a 4 second exposure at f/8 and retained the quality offered by ISO 80. This image was taken at near dark conditions, so the bright sharp result was what I would expect from a DSLR, but have rarely seen pulled off successfully from the point and shoots I’ve owned.


4 seconds exposure f/8.0 @ ISO 80 Full Manual

A few full auto images

The way I want my wife to be able to use my G11 is to put it in full auto, or one of its “scene” modes and have it just do the right thing to get the shot. If I’m out with my kids playing and I want to get a quick snap of them doing something funny, I don’t want to have to think. I just want to point, and shoot – hence the name. Here’s an example shot (with zero processing) that I took of a sunset using the sunset mode:


f/8.0 1/2000 sec @ ISO 80 - Sunset Mode (no post processing)

While that shot won’t make Art Wolfe shiver in his boots, it is good enough to bring home to the wife and say “hey, check out the cool sunset we had at the park today”. Mission accomplished!

The shot below is a hypothetical situation where your teenager might have just cleaned his car and wants to take a picture of it at the park to show off his/her hard work. Well here’s a full auto snap at ISO 1000 that with a little minor processing looks fantastic in my opinion. I think any teen would be happy with this shot, and I can tell you this adult is pretty satisfied with it from a technical perspective (yeah, I know it sucks compositionally).

  f/4 1/20 sec @ ISO 1000 in Full Auto

In the image below, I was at the park with my son and we saw a bird resting on the wall to the camera right below. We got a nice close shot of it, but when it flew off I also snagged a shot if it flying away with a nice reflection on the water and a pretty fall background. No thinking required – just point, shoot, and move on. 


f/3.5 1/400 sec @ ISO 80 Full Auto (no post processing)

The shutter lag is still noticeable, and you won’t want this for little Johnny’s soccer game, but even shots of the wiggly baby in low light at 7:06 PM with no flash came out with only very minimal blur on the camera left hand. 


f/2.8 1/40 sec @ ISO 800 P Mode (no post processing)

What’s cool about the G11 though (and all G-series) is that you can put a real flash like the 580EX II on the hot shoe as I’ve done in the shot below. This sure beats using the nasty built-in flash which ruins images in my opinion and usually results in red-eye. While the results aren’t anything to write home about, it works. I think I’ll probably buy the more manageable 270EX flash for use with this camera, but fortunately most of the time I can take advantage of its high ISO performance and just leave the flash off as shown above.


f/2.8 1/40 sec @ ISO 800 Av Mode with 580 EX II flash

This last shot is why I want a point and shoot that can take a decent image.

While the white balance sucks, I really enjoyed the shot my wife took of me and my kids on a lazy Saturday morning. In the past she never would have picked up the huge DSLR, and even if she did, the shot wouldn’t have come out as she’s unsure of all of the settings. However, the G11 was handy so she just grabbed it and snapped a few shots and caught my shaving cream clad newborn smiling while my older kids looked on. This wasn’t staged and my son in the background is actually looking at the baby, even though it seems like he might be looking at the camera. 


f/2.8 1/100 @ ISO 320 Full Auto - © Moonhee Kim

Once again, I am glad I had the G11 so my wife could get the shot and I could clean it up a bit. Now if it could just do something about my bed head we’d be in business – perhaps we’ll get that in the G12!

What’s Not To Love


As bad as it gets – f/4.5 1/50 sec at ISO 3200

While you’ve probably figured by now that I really like this camera, there are definitely a few things not to love about it. Here’s my gripe list:

  • Auto White Balance sucks – I think one of Canon’s great strengths in its DSLR like is a fantastic auto white balance system, but in the case of the G11 that magic hasn’t been passed down. Granted, it isn’t totally horrible, but when you are used to DSLR’s you find yourself frustrated quickly. Fortunately it’s adjustable white balance modes work fairly well, and you can custom white balance so in theory this shouldn’t be a show-stopper.
  • Build Quality – While some might find the build quality of the G11 to be great when comparing it to other P&S models on the market, relative to its predecessors I feel the G11 is a step backwards. There is a very cheap plastic feel to it and the hollow arm of the rear LCD flip hinge makes me cringe because I know at some point I’m going to break that little thing like a twig.
  • Video – The lack of HD is unforgivable in this day and age, especially from Canon given their reputation for great HD video. This was the one thing that almost made me cancel my order. My experiment using the video resulted in modest performance that I’d call usable beyond what you might get from a iPhone 3Gs, but it’s nothing to write home about.
  • Optical Viewfinder – Simply put, its a joke. Of course, this is true of most point and shoots. Unless your battery is low and you are desperate, this thing shouldn’t be used.
  • Rear Wheel too overloaded – While it is cool that there is a lot of functionality that can be controlled from the same place, I frequently found myself in a hurry to change a setting (via pressing the center Func Set button), only to be annoyed when making changes that I accidentally activated the manual focus, macro or timer modes. This happens A LOT, so clearly there’s too much going on in this space. I think the s90 might actually have a good idea that could be useful here – another rotating wheel on the front by the lens.
  • RAW images show the truth – While I’m thrilled with the results of my G11, the reality is that it is still a tiny sensor camera and you can’t hide that in the RAW images. This means you’ll see noise in as little as ISO 200 and it will escalate from there, but the JPEG’s are processed to virtually noise free up to ISO 1250. What this means is that you’ll need noise reduction software if you are going to tinker with the RAW images. In addition, tiny sensors can’t resolve the detail of the huge sensors, so at 100% image quality isn’t going to compete with its larger sensor brethren. Canon’s done a fine job of in-camera processing to create a fairly usable image from the JPEG’s it creates, so for the majority of point and shooters this is a non-issue.
  • Dynamic Range is improved, but … – The colors are very good, but they aren’t big boy SLR quality. You’ll find yourself disappointed sometimes that the colors and shadows will crush a bit compared to what you’d get from a larger sensor. For most images, this will be a non-issue but there will be the occasional shot where you’ll think – dammit – i should have used the DSLR!

Do any of these change my opinion? NO! THIS IS A GOOD POINT AND SHOOT!

It isn’t a DSLR and that’s a good thing! I can carry it in my big pockets if I want to, but realistically a carrying case  is going to be more appropriate. You won’t be shooting images for iStockPhoto or Getty with it, but you will be able to get that picture of your anniversary dinner without having your wife give you the evil eye for hauling the DSLR into Chez Expensiviso.

What about the s90?

For a head-to-head comparison of s90 versus G11 features, visit this link on Canon USA. As of the time of this article, I haven’t tried one yet but I will be.

You can find excellent info on the s90 at DPReview, as well as the G11 but this review will focus primarily on the high ISO performance of photos from the Canon G11. I have a few friends who have offered to let me play with their s90’s, so I hope to do that and report to you with my findings in a future article. Stay tuned!

Conclusion

This camera will not replace your DSLR, but it will supplement it quite nicely when a smaller form factor is in order. It will take great memento shots which at the lower ISO’s probably will print quite nicely at 11x14 with zero distortion and up to twice that with no problem using products like BlowUp or Genuine Fractals (either of which will likely be used by your favorite online print company).

Go through your house right now and count the number of printed images of your own work that are greater than 16x24. If you have more than 3, then you might have some issues with the G11. If you have less, then odds are you’ll never really see any issues with this fine point and shoot camera.

I’ve printed nearly all of the images in this article on 4x6 prints using my sweet Canon PIXMA MP560 Wireless Inkjet All-In-One Photo Printer and even the nasty ISO 3200 image is totally acceptable. I could definitely send Mom pictures of the grandbaby and the Earth would continue to spin. As a result, I highly recommend the Canon G11 for those who have been waiting for a point and shoot that can perform very well at higher ISO’s.

Usage Recommendations

I recommend you turn on the creation of RAW images, and shoot in the Av mode with auto ISO as much as possible so you can have both nicely processed JPEG images and a RAW as a backup should you be unhappy with the default processing. Full auto mode will not create RAW’s, so I would limit the use of it (P can be used instead with less heavily processed results). I also recommend you avoid using the flash as much as possible. In fact, if you can swing it I would suggest getting a 270EX from B&H but stay away from the older 220EX as it cost almost the same and can’t be controlled via the camera menu system.

When shooting indoors, switch to Tungsten mode so that your JPEG’s white balance will be close to accurate as you can’t change it very easily after the fact (where again RAW’s come in handy). The Auto White Balance (AWB) isn’t that great, so using a preset or doing a custom white balance is worth your time.

This camera will go to ISO 800 pretty frequently, so check the image data after the shot. If you think you can pull off a lower ISO, then dial that in and try again.

Experiment with the many settings on this camera including the SCN mode. It works very well!

When shooting video, make 100% sure you’ve set your white balance properly for the environment or you’ll regret it later. Don’t forget to return to AWB after you are done with the video too so as not to ruin other shots later (don’t ask).

When using the great flip LCD to take a picture of you and your significant other, make sure to look at the lens and not the LCD or else you’ll look like an idiot as I do in the shot here (at an amazing ISO 1250).

Disclaimer

I purchased my G11 from Adorama at full price. I have not been solicited by anyone to do this review, but did it out of my sheer love of this cool new purchase I’ve made. I will receive a commission if you use the links in this article, so I ask that if you have found this information to be useful that you please support future articles by using my links.

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8 comments:

Bryce M. said...

Thanks for the helpful review - I just got mine at Best Buy yesterday and am axious to see how my initially positive impression holds up. I'll be taking mine to Hawaii later this month with the underwater housing.

r4i software said...

Beautiful photos. I've only owned a G11 since this morning but was compelled to write this review for two reasons. First, I am amazed at how well Canon listened to their customer base. People loved the G10. But the two biggest complaints/suggestions I've routinely heard are: 1. The high ISO noise is too obvious and noise filters blur the image. 2. I wish it had a flexible screen on the back. To those two complaints I would have added: It would be nice to have a better optical view finder with more accurate framing.

marie said...

Yes the AWB is not good, always wrong under tungsten, odd as my G10 was fine.

Shame about the plastic rear body and cheaper controls on rear as well as the loss of the great screen in favour of the twisty one.

Somehow I actually preferred the G10s feel and build, Some of the G11 improvements were not.

The AWB issue is a bit of a pain in a point and shoot

Ron Martinsen said...

Hi Marie,

I agree the AWB for tungsten could be better, so I frequently find myself using the Tungsten WB indoors. I can say that if you shoot raw then DEFINITELY get Lightroom 2.6 or ACR 5.6 as the improvement is drastic over how the RAW files were (incorrectly) interpreted with the earlier versions, so the colors were way off.

marie said...

I use the double option RAW+jpg so I know I can fix the WB later on the raws. I shoot jpgs too so that I can have instant access to pics for email or webposting. So for those to come out 'wrong' is a delay and irritation, I have set the shortcut button to WB, which helps a bit

Steve H. said...

Ronald,

Thank you very much for your review of the G11.

Would you please give your impressions of how this camera operates in black and white?

Thank you,

Steve H.

Ron Martinsen said...

Hi Steve,

I'm not a fan of in-camera B&W's so I always do mine in post processing (lightroom, photoshop, etc...). My favorite way to do B&W is with Silver Efex.

Here's an in-camera color JPEG

Here's an in-camera mono JPEG.

Here's a RAW converted to B&W JPEG using Nik Silver Efex and Sharpener Pro(discounts and reviews elsewhere on this site).

digital said...

nice info,thanks.