The Canon PowerShot G15 has had a lot of time to ponder its market position. It's been two whole years since the launch of the previous G12 model, and it's used that time wisely - the G15 is smaller, sports a new design and simultaneously crams in a far brighter aperture f/1.8-2.8 28-140mm equivalent lens.
Good job too, as the abundance of large sensor, high-end compacts and relatively small-bodied compact system cameras with high-spec lenses has shaken up the camera market in its entirety in the past couple of years.
Is the PowerShot G15 still the small-yet-stacked photographic equivalent of Bruce Lee or is it now a representative of an ageing memory of what once was the best of the best; is there still a market for this camera type?
Let's face it, the G-series has never been a small, svelte camera series. It's built itself on big, burly, bulky "manliness". But is that still what photographers want in a world of ever-shrinking designs?
We don't think so, and neither does Canon. The G15, while still not exactly shrimp-like in scale, sure does trim back the fat. It's smaller than its predecessor by quite a margin, though this comes at the expense of the tiltable LCD screen, which is replaced by a fixed panel 3-inch, 921k-dot version. Oh, and there's no touchscreen to make up for it.
Canon has managed still to squeeze the same 85 per cent field-of view-optical viewfinder into the G15's design though. We do have qualms about such a limited field-of-view and lack of any visual focus or settings feedback, as ever, but at least this is one range that's sticking to its guns - there are very few other compact cameras with built in viewfinders available on the market.
Just take a look at the Nikon Coolpix P7700, which axed its P7100 predecessor's viewfinder for the sake of size. Though perhaps the G15 should have taken a gamble with a 100 per cent field-of-view electronic viewfinder instead.
The Canon G15's new layout updates the dual stack mode dial of its predecessor by repositioning the dials. They still overlap, but the split is more ergonomic in design - the main mode dial sits forward, while the exposure compensation dial lips slightly over the rear for easy thumb access. However, there's no ISO dial to be found in this model - again a sacrifice on account of overall body size - but its position on the rear d-pad means it's still easily accessible.
As well as a front thumbwheel, the rear d-pad doubles up as a rotational pad so the camera can be controlled much like a DSLR in its manual and priority modes. Despite a comfortable rear thumb rest, the distance between the two dial-like controls does feel like a teeny bit of a stretch in the hand, more so for small hands.
It's not all about viewfinders, screens and buttons of course. Key to the G15 is its lens, which now offers an f/1.8-2.8 maximum aperture across the 28-140mm equivalent range. Think about it: a smaller body camera, with a brighter aperture lens. That almost defies logic, but in the best possible way from a user point of view - it makes for a better product all round.
The bright aperture lens is exactly the kind of feature that Canon needed to give the G-series a boost to shout about. Look at the top-tier G1 X, for example, which has an f/2.8-5.8 28-112mm equivalent lens.
Sure, the sensor's far, far larger in that model, but the additional control that the G15 is capable of almost makes it the preferable choice of the two.
There are also a bundle of other cameras out there looking to attract attention away from the PowerShot G15. Think Samsung EX2F, Panasonic LX7, Fujifilm X10 and Sony RX100 to name but just a few, all of which are currently more affordable than the Canon G15's £529 asking price. That price may well be this PowerShot's biggest hurdle.
The price also puts the camera in contention with compact system cameras, and here's where things get a little more complicated. A Panasonic GF5 with a pancake lens, for example, isn't that much bigger than the G15, costs less, and opens up scope for additional lenses in the future.
But we do think that there's still room in the market for a camera breed such as the G15. It's made all the right moves to improve itself in almost every way, and doing so has certainly paid off.
Part of the decision making process when coming to buy a camera is just how well it performs. Of course image quality is also crucial - we'll come to that later - but previous Canon G-series models have been rather lackadaisical when it comes to matching up to competitors' performance.
Not so for the PowerShot G15. As per other recent Canon compact cameras, this G-series is swift in startup, use and autofocus departments.
It's that last part that will be of major interest, as the G15 is nothing short of stunning. In our tests we found the G15 locked onto subjects with ease, but it was the way it dealt with focus in low light that impressed the most - it's up there with the very best of the best.
Autofocus options come in three flavours. There's an auto multi-area mode with optional face detection priority; a central-only subject tracking option; or our most used setting: the user-defined single point AF. The latter mode opens up a single point that can be toggled between small and medium size and positioned around the majority of the screen, save for the outer-most edges.
We do think that a touchscreen would have made the likes of subject tracking far more useful, or quick finger-led focus point repositioning could have also been achieved yet faster. But, alas, it's not to be in this G-series model.
The brighter aperture lens is matched with a maximum 1/4000th second shutter. That's quick by compact camera standards, but if bright light is still too much as you'd like to use a wider aperture for that blurred background effect then a built-in neutral density (ND) filter often comes to the rescue. It cuts out three stops of light which can make all the difference - just don't forget that it's on if not needed!
Elsewhere there's a 2.1 frames per second burst rate which is, frankly, a little slow compared to the competition.
Furthermore we found a "black out" issue where the screen is still on but doesn't show a live preview. It requires a reset from within the menus to fire the camera back up again, and this happened a couple of times during testing.
Image Quality & Movie Mode
There's a lot of talk about camera manufacturers reaching the saturated limit of what's possible from current imaging sensors. But that doesn't stop the G15's 12-megapixel, 1/1.7-inch sensor from delivering high quality goods.
Canon's HS system and Digic 5 processor combine to produce images from ISO 100-12,800 at full size, limited to ISO 1600 when using the Auto ISO setting.
Images in either JPEG or raw formats look colourful, sharp and striking straight from camera. Exposure is on the money and, even when it's not, the ability to quickly shift the exposure compensation dial to the rear makes light work of setting up to re-shoot.
As with any camera image noise isn't absent, but it's well controlled throughout the Auto ISO range. We did find shots upwards of ISO 3200 to be a little soft due to processing, and the top tier ISO 12,800 setting is a step too far to be of much use.
But come down the ISO range and things are impressive when viewed at full size. Even ISO 640-800 shots snapped handheld at a gig returned great results (see image below).
Some JPEG artefacts are visible, but the clarity of shots is considerably beyond that of most compact cameras on the whole. Here's the same shot cropped in to 100 per cent size:
Part of this is thanks to not only the bright maximum aperture range but the image stabilisation system too. It makes hand-held shooting in all manner of conditions far more stable, and that's reflected in the final images.
Movie mode is an upgrade over its predecessor, now (finally) capable of 1080p capture. However that option is only available at 24fps, rising to 30fps at 720p resolution. Although there's an NTSC/PAL setting in the menu, there's no capacity to shift to 25fps as far as we can see.
During movie capture the 5x optical zoom is available, but it does move at a crawling pace. Not necessarily an issue for movie capture in order to keep things extra smooth, but it is really rather slow.
Autofocus and exposure is also handled by the camera irrelevant of which shooting mode is selected on the main mode dial. So movie mode is certainly more limited than some competitor cameras, though we don't suspect most buyers will be in on the G15 for its moving image capacity - this is one top camera that's all about the stills.
The Canon PowerShot G15 is an undeniably impressive compact camera. It's not going to suit all tastes on account of its bulky, larger-than-average build, but for those after full control and both exceptional performance and image quality then there are few other places to look that deliver to this level. It's a seriously good compact, bolstered by a superb wide-aperture lens and image stabilisation system.
Far from being a breed of camera that's had its day, this photographic ninja's redesign helps it deliver the photographic equivalent of a one inch punch - it's small, powerful and impossible to argue with. We didn't quite see it coming; the G15 is the best G-series compact camera that we've ever seen. Full stop.