Canon PowerShot G12 review

4.5 out of 5
£539

For

Image quality, JPEG and RAW capture, build, extensive feature set, multi-angle LCD, great control layout and handling

Against

High ISO noise problems, sluggish focusing, size, price

The G12 is Canon's new premium PowerShot digital compact and while it inherits most of the key feature of its predecessor, the G11, it also builds on these with some neat new equipment. The new kit includes a control dial on the front for enhanced handling, 720p HD movie capture, Hybrid Image Stabilisation and SDXC external storage compatibility.

The PowerShot G12 is a chunky beast and although blocky in style, the camera is replete with advanced shooting features. It also boasts retro-style controls across the top plate, one on the left for exposure compensation (+/- 2EV), and a nested double dial for shooting modes, including a full suite of manual controls as well as auto modes, dual custom settings and sensitivity settings up to ISO 3200, more on these later.

Of course, in terms of handling, you get the on/off button and a combined shutter release with lens zoom control, and each of these controls are sensibly placed and easy to use, particularly with illuminated indexes for the exposure compensation and ISO settings via orange LEDs; the on/off button is illuminated using an attractive green LED.

The squared off lines of the G12 are lightened by a slender handgrip that is designed to aid handling further along with the excellent 2.8-inch multi-angle 461,000-dot LCD that is great for composing and focus assessment too, but it's also a real boon shooting at high or low angles and is also great for close up work.

But it is the grip that worries us, as it's rather too small. The result, particularly when you use the new control dial on the front is the camera feels unsteady in the hand and while the shutter release is nicely weighted, as is the zoom lever surrounding it, the overall effect leaves you feeling less than confident, particularly about dropping the camera!

Cleverly though, you can set-up the camera so that you can use either the new front control or the rotating adjustment control on the camera back for adjustments, so there are multiple options available for using and handling the G12 and that's a big plus.

The G12 can be thought of as a professional snapper’s back-up or as an enthusiast's DSLR-lite snapper because its features and usability fit well within the DSLR bracket. Another significant aspect of the G12 is its excellent build quality, something that is characteristic of all the “Gs” and certainly the stocky build and strong design give it definite “walnut crackabilty”.

Other headline features include a crisp Canon 5x optical zoom lens, which has a versatile focal range offering a 28mm wide end with a 140mm full zoom. Lens distortion, overall, is not significant, but there's slight barrel distortion at the wide zoom.

The lens' aperture range still does not reach the dizzy, F/2 heights that were available to the old PowerShot G6, but with a maximum aperture range of F/2.8 to F/4.5 it still allows for some control over depth of field. 

One other element that's significant in terms of its inclusion is a “proper” optical viewfinder, which backs up the display. It's clear and crisp and has a good dioptre adjustment and while it’s certainly true it lacks the data feedback available on the display, it helps when trying to conserve power from the NB-7L rechargeable battery pack. Incidentally, even after almost a week of use, even in some very cold conditions, that battery is only just starting to show it needs recharging. 

Another of the new features is the 720p HD movie capture mode. The first question we had was “why not 1080p capture?” to which Canon retorts, that tech would make the G12 even more expensive than it already is, which seems sensible. But hang on, there are many less well-specified, less expensive digital compacts out there that have 1080p HD movie capture, but even so, the 720p mode the G12 has is still pretty good.

If you have a HD TV, the G12 has an HDMI port - this sits under a flap alongside an AV Out and USB 2.0 socket plus a port to attach a remote control - meaning you can watch video directly from the camera on your flat panel TV. The G12 can shoot superb quality moving images with sound via the built-in stereo microphones, but unfortunately the built-in ‘phones pick up unwanted sounds from motion, from moving your fingers on the camera and also the lens moving/focusing.

And talking of the lens, the G12 sports an adapted Hybrid Image Stabilisation providing up to 4EV of advantage for hand held shots, at least according to Canon. We feel that's a bit optimistic on our tests, but is still invaluable for keeping shots steadier than otherwise possible in low light or at longer zoom lengths, without reverting to a tripod. Another bonus of this Hybrid IS system is that you don’t need to delve into higher ISO settings as quickly as you might, and this helps keep at bay problems associated with high ISO image noise for longer.

It must be said that image noise is well controlled thanks to the new Canon HS system, but only up to ISO 800 because above that setting, things get to be trickier, although not drastically so. If you use the camera at ISO 3200 or the boosted ISO 12800 mode, however, let's just say don't bother! 

At the heart of the G12's image and video processing system lies Canon's DIGIC 4 processor. DIGIC 4 allows fast processing and better noise reduction and overall, improved image and HD video performance.

DIGIC 4 also powers some of the “intelligent” features found on the G11 such as i-Contrast, that increases the dynamic range in images to reveal better detail in shadows without losing detail in highlight areas. Like the G11, it works well and also contributes to another new feature, High Dynamic Range (HDR) shooting mode.

In HDR shooting, you need to mount the camera on a tripod because the camera takes three images, one each at a different exposure setting, exposing separately for highlights and shadows. It then combines the three images, in camera, to provide an image with details in areas you'd otherwise not be able to achieve in a single exposure.

In terms of control, the aforementioned top plate controls are great to use, the raised mode dial allowing fast changes of shooting mode (manual, aperture priority or full auto to name a few) to swift ISO changes. Ditto the exposure compensation, which can be quickly applied if you suddenly encounter difficult lighting situations. 

The shutter release is encompassed within the lens’ zoom control and while on the small side, the lever is very usable, while the shutter release’s dual pressures are well weighted though the first pressure, to get the camera focusing and metering, is quite light.

The back plate is dominated by the multi-angle screen, but also houses the other main camera controls. The playback and shortcut buttons (we set this to quickly adjust white balance, one critical tool lacking a hard button on the body) sit atop the screen either side of the optical viewfinder, the top right corner houses the extremely useful AE/FE lock button, something that when combined with the improved exposure compensation control makes the G12 very responsive. Each of the buttons are cleverly angled making their use even better.

The AF point control is one of four buttons that surround the camera’s rotating jog control, making it swift for menu or image scrolling. It also provides smart control for settings such as the superb 1cm macro mode, flash settings, manual focus activation and drive modes.

The nine-zone AF set up is comprehensive providing a mix of orthodox auto and manual focusing plus Face Detection AF, servo AF and a Tracking AF mode that can fix on, and track, faces in a shot. A customisable Self-Timer provides for multiple shots and adjustment of the time delay between 0- and 30-seconds.

The Face detection system in particular performs well, even on faces in profile and the Face Select & Track is remarkably accurate and very clever to boot. But what’s even better, with Face AF selected when you half press the shutter button, is that a magnified view of the detected face appears so that you can quickly check sharpness and even when detecting multiple faces, it seems to work rather well.

Our one concern about the AiAF focus system is when not detecting faces, tracking objects or focusing on close up subjects is that it is quite slow to react. And, if you leave the camera to select which of the nine active zones it will use, it does not always select the correct or intended part of the scene you want sharp. Switching to manual AF or simply using the Flexizone AF, where you can move and use just one AF point, helps mitigate some AF issues.

In terms of capture, the ability to shoot RAW and JPEG files provides scope for tinkering and getting shadow or highlight detail out of images later on PC, if you're not satisfied with all the other controls such as the HDR shooting or i-Contrast. Shooting RAW helps to pull shadow and highlight detail out and control noise problems more accurately, but the downside is the need to post process the images. All the same, RAW capture is a fundamental feature for the more enthusiast or pro photographer and a must-have feature for such a camera.

Images are captured and stored on a single SD, SDHC and the new SDXC high capacity cards, all stowed under the same flap on the G12’s base where the Li-ion battery resides.

Continuing with images, the metering and white balance (WB) are typically excellent. The metering deals with most subjects with aplomb, centre-weighted and spot metering provide extra control and flexibility if required, while the WB control is good too.

One slight gripe here is the auto white balance, as it struggled with mixed lighting producing a slight orange cast on, say, mixed indoor lighting. Using the correct WB for the lighting you're shooting in and for the more difficult situations, setting the custom white balance is fast and gives complete WB control.

Cracking colour capture is aided with an array of tweakable colour tools from extra vivid colour to a selective colour mode, and all let you tinker with colour for more creative effect if you desire. Of course there are a set of 19 scene modes that include a panoramic stitch assist, colour swap, fish eye effect and a mode to make subjects appear as though they're miniatures within the scene. All fun and all adding to the creative potential of the camera.

Another nice feature that builds further on the creative side of things is the addition of a built-in neutral density (ND) filter. ND filters help to balance high contrast scenes providing a better balance between highlights and shadows, or where you need to use slow shutter speed that would otherwise overexpose your shot. Added to that is an accessory filter ring that clips around the lens barrel and allows you to use additional lens filters such a circular polariser or UV filters. Other additional specialist optics can also attach to the 58mm accessory ring adding even more versatility.

And that really is the point of the G12, it is a camera offering the tools, features and versatility of a pro-level camera, but all within a package designed to facilitate all of that creative power without the bulk of DSLR system camera.

Although the Canon PowerShot G12 looks pricey, it's well specified, well made and able to produce some stunning results be they video or stills. While the AF responsiveness lets the side down a little it's an otherwise eminently capable camera that'll prove to be an ideal pro's backup or enthusiasts top model.

Verdict

While it's not without flaws, and it's not cheap, it's the creativity and versatility that are the watch words that really make the G12 - and the G-series cameras as a whole - ideal as pro's back up or an enthusiast’s photographic powerhouse.

The G12 certainly slips into that groove well enough, and the features are worth having if you're already thinking of buying. The G12 therefore should be a contender for anyone serious about photography, but without the desire for a larger system camera.