The G9 is the latest edition of Canon's camera line geared towards serious photo enthusiasts. It is quite nicely specced - 6x zoom (35-210mm, in 35mm equivalent), Image Stabilization and all the manual controls that have characterized this series since 2001. Thanks to popular demand, RAW is back in this camera. In addition, in true Spinal Tap fashion, the camera provides ISO 1600 and also low-res ISO 3200. All this in a 12MP sensor.
I purchased the Canon G9 to complement to my DSLR, not as a replacement. It was meant to be my camera of choice when I didn't want to be burdened with a heavy camera bag or when I wanted to be discreet. It was also meant to serve as a carry-around camera, for use when an unexpected photo opportunity presented itself. Within this sphere of usage, I still need high-quality results - top-notch large prints (A3 minimum, 16x20 preferred), and ability to sell the image through my stock agency. So the G9 would have to deliver here as well.
My review of this camera on the above factors. And I definitely won't be listing all the specifications, buttons, screens, menus and features of this camera (life is too short for that drudgery). I will, however, evaluate how well this camera works as a tool for serious photography under certain conditions. I used this camera for actual photography (not test charts) - as with all my photography, I shot in RAW and processed the images using my preferred workflow. My evaluation of the camera is based primarily on this, although I did shoot some test images to evaluate noise.
So, as they say, let's get it on!
BODY SIZE, LAYOUT & ERGONOMICS
The Canon G9 is quite compact but has a good assortment of buttons festooned on its top and back.
A large DSLR-style dial on the top of the camera lets you select your shooting mode - Auto, Program Shift, Aperture Priority (Av), Shutter Priority (Tv), Manual, Video, Panoramic Stitch Mode and Scene. A rotary dial on the back lets you adjust 1 of your 2 exposure parameters (shutter or aperture). Press a button, and this dial now controls the other parameter or sets exposure compensation. Easy. I would have preferred 2 separate dials, just like in the mid and pro DSLR bodies - and frankly, I dont see why it would have been so hard to have a small dial in the front of the camera, under the shutter button. But to be fair to Canon, no small compact camera that I can think of has 2 dials either, and this method does work quite well, especially once you get used to it.
There are dedicated buttons for locking focus and exposure, for switching between different AF modes as well as moving the AF point around, for flash, for manual focus, for macro focus and for timer shooting. That's pretty good - no wading through menus and such to change these settings. ISO even has its own dial. Other commonly-used shooting parameters, such as metering mode, file type, flash compensation, etc. can be pulled up by pressing the FUNC button - this has been standard on Canon compact cameras for quite a few years and is a very nice touch, as it virtually eliminates the need to delve into the main menu structure while shooting.
And if you so inclined, you can use the camera's hotshoe to attach any EX-series or compatible flash. Through an adapter ring, you can also add on a 0.75x wideangle converter or a 2x telephoto converter. Of course, if you are going to be adding all these accessories, you might as well just use a DSLR, but it is nice to have the option to expand this setup.
There is a viewfinder. It is pretty grim by DSLR standards but surprisingly useful, nonetheless. I stuck to using the LCD panel, but this optical finder can actually be used (eg, in case external glare makes it hard to see the screen). That being said, I used the camera in the bright desert sun of Jaisalmer, and never had any problems with glare. The LCD screen, incidentally, appears to be polarized - if you wear polarized sunglasses, it appears completely black. So you must remove your shades in order to use it.
Camera uses SD cards and the same NB-2LH batteries as the Rebel series. I would have preferred CF and BP-511s but whatever... it isn't the end of the world. Battery life is comparable to other Canon cameras - excellent. For my shooting style, I can easily go quite a few days without recharging.
So from an ergonomics point of view, I have no problems. This camera is one of the better-handling compacts I have encountered, matching - and in some aspects, even edging - the Panasonic LX-1 in usability.
Let me digress a little here. The word "image quality" is much bandied about, but what exactly does one mean by image quality? The typical Internet usage refers to sharpness & detail as the primary indicators, with distortion and chromatic aberration being secondary indicators. Based on this, image quality is reviewed through intent shooting of test charts, brick walls and sign posts. Now, if only test charts, brick walls and sign posts won competitions and sold in large quantitites, that'd be great.
In real world images, unless you have an absolute dog of a lens, distortion (barrel or pincushion) is virtually impossible to detect. Chromatic aberration exists, and may even be noticable in high-contrast shots (you know, the ones you typically avoid as a photographer, especially with a limited dynamic-range compact camera), but it is easily fixed in post-processing. Detail is nice to have, but I find small-sensor digicams to be somewhat limited in their ability to resolve fine details - so if you really want excruciating detail, you should be using a DSLR, or even better, medium or large format.
I can hear you wondering whether I have any standards for optical quality whatsoever... well yes, I do. While I dont care if you can count eyebrow hairs in 100% crop mode, I do want my images to look sharp when printed. I want it to clearly convey what I want to convey. I also want a reasonably decent dynamic range in the sensor, so that I am able to capture more than a few measly stops of contrast. So how does the camera perform in this regard?
Well, as far as sharpness goes, very well. Between the 12 megapixels and a fine lens, there is plenty of resolution to go around. Take this image, for example:
Now look at the 2 following 100% crops from this image:
Center & side crops
Given what a small area of the total image these crops represent, this is very good optical performance indeed - you are looking at the equivalent of a closeup of a 55" x 41" print (sort of, anyway). In fact, this is more than adequate for all photographic uses to which you can put the G9. Let me take it a step further: if you cannot take sharp, detailed images with this camera, you will not be able to take sharp, detailed images, period.
My actual shooting experience with this camera echoes the results of the test shots. I still think that small-sensor digicams don't match the tonal range, smoothness and fine details of DSLRs, especially with landscapes, but the image quality from this camera is certainly very, very good. I have 2 excellent A3 prints taken from this camera, and I am pretty sure I can go to 16x20 as well. What more can you ask for?
Ah, ISO 1600 - on a tiny chip packed so tight with megapixels that they keep falling off. Before even getting into this test, my prediction was: ISO 80 - great, ISO 200 - very good, ISO 800 - usable and ISO 1600 - don't make me laugh. To test it, I put the G9 on a tripod and took a few shots of the wall of a beachside restaurant I was sitting in, at various ISOs. ToRAW+L JPEGs. Then I processed each of the RAW shots using my usual workflow to see what sort of results I would get.
The above is the test image. Zero photographic value and far too close to test charts for my liking, but I wanted to do this test a little more rigorously for it to be useful to readers, and this was convenient. C'est la vie. The following are crops of the highlighted area
Here are the 100% crops from the RAW file, converted as-is with no noise reduction or sharpening:
And here we see 100% crops from the in-camera JPEG, set to Vivid Saturation, which is why the tonality is off (my mistake - I didn't realize this till later), but with sharpening and contrast set to their default parametrs:
Lastly, here are 100% crops from the RAW file, processed with Noise Ninja and with some sharpening applied in Noise Ninja, but no other sharpening:
The unprocessed RAW files are indeed terrible. But they don't matter, as no one in their right mind would use a high-ISO RAW shot unprocessed.
Let's look at the JPEGs instead - the camera's build-in processing does a pretty good job up to ISO 400 and then noise sets in drastically. Keep in mind that Canon has historically always gone easy on the in-camera noise reduction, which is better as it gives the user the option of cranking it up more if they want - given this, I think ISO 800 is a very workable setting if you can live with some noise in the image and are willing to do some post-processing. I wouldn't shoot ISO 1600 in JPEG and expect to make large prints, however.
RAW, on the other hand, is a very pleasant surprise. ISO 1600 is more than usable for serious shooting. You can expect to make large prints at ISO 1600 - you will indeed lose some detail in the noise reduction process and still get some noise in the image, but (a) it will not be nearly as objectionable as it looks on the screen and (b) a little bit of noise in the image is not the end of the world. Remember the world of photography before the advent of Provia 400F? Remember those old, grainy, high-contrast B&W ?
Let's put this in perspective here. Compact cameras are NOT designed for use in low-light situations (the Fujis notwithstanding), and anything you get here is a plus. Which is why I have been quite happy with my Panasonix LX-1 the last couple of years. However, the Canon G9 actually makes ISO 1600 a viable shooting choice. With it, you can actually use your camera in low-light situations (where you really SHOULD have been carrying your DSLR) and get a very usable shot indeed - far better than you'd normally have a right to expect.
Yes, this reduced noise does come at the expense of some detail. But in the real world, what sort of situation would cause someone to shoot at ISO 1600 and expect super-detailed shots? High-detail tends to be the realm of landscapes, which can be shot on a tripod at lower ISOs. High ISO generally means trying to freeze action or a moment - and superfine detail in such cases does not make or break the image.
I am very pleasantly surprised.
HANDLING IN THE FIELD
As far as I am concerned, this is where compact cameras either live up to their billing or fail to meet expectations. It isn't just a matter of quality - I find it very hard to get into the proper mindset for photography with most modern cameras. The Panasonic LX-1 was the first compact camera I came across that truly felt like a "real" camera, and which I was able to use for serious work - a standard that even the Canon G6, an otherwise fine and ergonomically sound camera, was unable to attain. So the Canon G9 was going up against a really tough benchmark.
Well, I was pleased to find that the G9 was indeed up to the challenge. In some ways, it was actually easier to use and operate than the LX-1 - setting exposure was actually faster on the G9 than on the LX-1. While I would have preferred a control dial in the front of the camera, to be accessed by the right index finger, the rear dial and button method works quite well once you get used to it a little. Having a separate ISO dial is an absolute winner (and long overdue!). With this arrangement, setting the parameters for exposure takes next to no time.
Additional creative control is very intuitive as well.
The shutter half-press and full-press are nicely distinct. Half-pressing the shutter button leads to quick and decisive auto-focus, and overall lag is greatly reduced as well (especially compared to the otherwise-fine Canon G6). The exposure lock button is located right where Canon DSLR users would expect it to be - accessible via the right thumb. The focus point is very easy to move via a direct-access button and the 4-way trackpad on the back of the camera.
Thus, it is easy to set and lock exposure, and equally easy to move the focus point around or lock focus/recompose - all of these functions are directly accessible via buttons and can be accessed without taking your eyes off the scene. The camera sits solidly in the hand with just enough bulk to feel comfortable and steady. Overall, in terms of handling, the G9 does indeed better the LX-1 when it comes to shooting ergonomics. I still have a special spot in my heart for the geshtalt of the LX-1 which the G9 does not match, but objectively speaking, the G9 is indeed a slightly better camera when it comes to handling.
The camera also offers a manual focus mode. The center of the LCD enlarges to show an expanded view of the subject. I find it completely useless. Even with the expanded view, I was unable to judge critical focus. This is not a problem specifically with the G9, but with this genre of cameras in general. A 3" LCD is simply not up to the task of showing critical focus. So stick to auto-focus. While on the subject of focus, one nice feature of the G9 is that it has a "focus review" mode - after you take a shot, the camera expands the part of the image that was under the AF sensor. Neat and a quick way to see if you have nailed the focus.
As far as dynamic range goes, it is respectable, but not great - about the same or perhaps half a stop better than previous generation compacts (I will test this more rigorously and update this as soon as I can). Canon has taken steps to improve its exposure algorithms because burn-outs have been reduced, which atleast improves the perception of improved dynamic range. Still, for serious use, try not to shoot a scene combining bright light and medium to strong shade.
Lastly, the sturdy body and retractable lens make this an ideal camera for tossing into a cargo pant pocket, daypack or purse. A note of caution - I used the camera in the deserts of Jaisalmer and for a few days after that, the iris that covers the retracted lens would not close completely. This only happened intermittently and was possibly due to some sand being stuck in the iris blades, but it is worth noting nonetheless. After a few days, the problem went away and has not come back since.
In conclusion, I am very happy with the camera. Subjectively, it didn't "wow" me with its handling the way the LX-1 did, but in terms of actual usage, it is very competent and definitely should be on your list if you are in the market for a compact camera for serious photography.
Note: I will be putting a gallery of images taken with the G9 online by January 13th.