Canon PowerShot G9 digital camera review

The G-series of Canon compacts are Canon’s premium enthusiast-level compacts providing DSLR-like features and controls within a more compact and portable body. The G9 arrives amidst a marketplace packed to the gunnels with "affordable" DSLRs against which it will inevitably compete and yet … and yet … Canon has kept faith and produced a new model that has new features and some that have been replaced after they were removed from the G7.

The G9 is extremely well built, one of the best I believe in terms of build on the market at this level. But the more compact blocky design (over the bulkier G5 and G6 and heralded by the G7, which also lacked a handgrip and the very useful vari-angle LCD) is improved.

There’s more to hang on to now as a new rubber grip has been added to the front and although the vari-angle LCD is still not here on the G9, the new 3-inch colour screen is excellent and has a very wide angle of acceptance so both distinct improvements over the G7.

Having said that, the G9 is still really only an evolutionary step up, rather than radical new snapper, so it’s worth looking over what has changed from the G7. First up is a slightly larger 1/1.7-inch sensor with 12.1 effective megapixel resolution (the G7 had a 1/1.8-inch sensor) that’s an extra 2 million pixels over the G7.

Backing up (literally) the aforementioned grip on the front is a rear thumb rest (with integrated exposure lock control) helps keep things stable when shooting one-handed for example and slightly speedier focusing and shutter lag are welcome improvements. The face detection AF has seen improvements too and issues over focusing have been ironed out but the FlexiZone AF system will still hunt or have trouble on less contrasty subjects.

You now get red-eye reduction in playback mode and an Auto ISO shift system and now there are two custom white balance settings instead of one. However, in terms of overall features, there are not many other changes and so apart from the items tweaked as above and the key RAW mode, new sensor, and the screen changes, things are pretty much the same.

The G9’s other main features include the sharp 6x optical zoom lens (more on the lens later), ISO 1600 top sensitivity, and optical image stabilisation. You also get 25 shooting modes including a full suite of manual shooting modes, two custom settings, and a hot shoe for use of accessory flash units. Incidentally, another tweak is compatibility with Canon’s ST-E2 wireless flash transmitter, very useful for off-camera flash control in a studio, for example.

Image parameters (or My Colors) include vivid, sepia and black and white and a positive film setting that mimics the look and quality of slide film akin to the image parameters Fuji uses to mimic its Velvia and Provia film emulsions within its DSLR and high end compacts.

The "usual" array Canon capture technology is here of course and includes Canon’s most advanced DIGIC III image processing engine, iSAPS (or intelligent Scene Analysis based on Photographic Space) "expert system" that helps get the most from each shot you take (in theory).

There’s also noise reduction and that new Face Detection AF/AE/FE that certainly seems better than on the G7 as it is better equipped to deal with more challenging types of shot, such as faces in profile for example, and it’s certainly slightly faster and more reliable – even when faces are quite small in the frame.

A couple of disappointments are immediately apparent however, and the first regards the lens. Previous G-series models – before the G7 – had fast F/2.0 to F/3.0 optics, here, once again, the otherwise crisp 35-210mm, F/2.8 to F/4.8 zoom lens provides a very useful focal range. It sports optical image stabilisation, but has the same lens as found on the G7 we’ll see later if it can resolve the extra pixels on the new sensor. But image improvements have been made elsewhere.

The shadow noise apparent within images on the G7 has been better controlled on the G9, and as a result, there is a step up in terms of captured detail. However, the G7 failed to resolve more detail than the 7-megapixel G6 over which it had an extra three million pixels. Now, on the G9, the better image and noise reduction processing has helped but you’re still only getting the equivalent of around 10-megapixels worth of detail.

In terms of handling, the body has a modest rubberised grip and that thumb stop on the back otherwise the design is the same as the G7. The optical viewfinder is a bit blurry even with its dioptre adjustment and it’s blurry at all focal lengths, just like on the G7.

The top plate sports the excellent control layout that includes a neat ISO dial for direct sensitivity adjustment, a large mode dial for switching between the various scene modes (including the neat swirling animated menus and the cameras rotating adjustment dial, on the back) and the shutter and aperture priority and manual modes. A rather small and fiddly lens-zoom rocker switch joins this ensemble with the small, central-within-the-zoom-rocker shutter release nestling within.

The focus to shoot pressure on the shutter release has been sorted out and now there’s a distinct pressure gap that makes it much easier and more of a pleasure to use. And talking of pleasures, the new large screen means the controls have been even more squeezed, they’re clear and easy to use and the new thumb rest means, if you want to snap single handed shots, there’s now somewhere to rest your thumb without it interfering with the back plate controls.

A lithium ion battery pack (first introduced with the G7) gives a shooting capacity of around 240-pictures, the G7 shot around 220 but the older G6 had a 300-shot capacity, so still room for improvement here. One reason for this is the display cannot be switched off since it acts as an information screen even if you’re just using the optical viewfinder. Therefore, no matter what you do, it will always drain power, just not as much. Add in the larger screen though and you’re back to square one, well almost!

Images are stored on SD/SDHC/MMC external storage cards that slot into a port next to the battery under a flap on the cameras base. An AV-Out port and USB 2.0 port reside under a flap on the camera’s right shoulder and both these properly hinged and sprung flaps are suitably sturdy.

The advanced feature set will appeal to its target market of enthusiasts requiring a reliable but compact (read not a DSLR) high quality camera. Kit such as an active histogram display, the ubiquitous FUNC(tion) control for access to shooting parameters such as white balance, image quality settings and the like are all great to use.

The key G-series raison d’etre of high quality images that was omitted from the G7 has been restored here, namely RAW shooting. RAW plus JPEG is very nice to have too, of course and in terms of overall image quality, things have improved.

With the G7, image quality was good rather than great, but here I’m glad to report, it’s much better and not just because of the reduction in that shadow noise, detail is very good and noise well controlled up to ISO 400, but as you might expect, ISO 800 and 1600 are so noisy that you have to ask why has Canon crammed even more pixels onto an already photosite-packed sensor?

Another problem was noise reduction processing which does become evident (if you’ve switched it on) on your images as noise and fine image detail get removed together, so you have to watch out or put up with nosier images than perhaps you’d like at high ISOs.

Image stabilisation gives around a two and a half stop advantage and works very well with metering not putting a foot wrong on my tests. Focusing was a bit of a mixed bag. AiAF and Face Detection worked quickly and generally got things right, however the FlexiZone AF set up performed less well on lower contrast subjects and would simply not focus and beep annoyingly at me on some simple subjects.

Performance is nippy enough though with shutter lag and start up times very good indeed, the white balance (WB) has seven presets and easy to use custom settings, and performs well on the pre-set options (sunlight WB mode for sunlight and so on) but the auto WB struggles to get it right and images take on a warm “glow”. Setting the correct WB is therefore a must.

Flash performance is good (up to a 4m range at the wide end) and with the ability to use an accessory flash, opens up a lot of creativity. You can even use the built-in flash in continuous shooting, but the pre-flash metering increases shutter lag to a noticeable half a second.

A closest focus point in macro mode of 1cm provides excellent close up capability and means the lens is practically touching the subject. This is a problem if you need flash in macro work but the wireless flash adapter would help here, as it’ll allow firing of accessory flash units off camera. And although the apertures available are a little restricting, distortion (both barrel and pin cushion) are well controlled.

There is a lot of control on offer for colour, saturation and other parameters, so you have plenty of to hand if you need to play a bit more with results and bracketing, flash bracketing and a built-in neutral density filter all help out too.

Verdict

And so, the upgrade of the G7 that is the Canon PowerShot G9 has been fixed – to a degree. It’s the same price as the G7 at £330, so not cheap, but no more expensive and it is a better camera. The lens is sharp and crisp but could still do with the faster apertures of the G6 from a few years back with its impressive F/2.0 to F/3.0 maximum aperture range.

Nevertheless, in terms of control, features and build, the G9 is a cracker; image quality and performance are marginally better, overall, but the wisdom of crow barring in another two million pixels seems at odds with the cameras ethos, since the price you pay, even more noise, seems hardly in keeping with that same high-end, high image quality philosophy that the G-series of cameras represents.