By Edward Taylor
For serious photographers, whenever we turn our attention toward small cameras, we want to know if we are able to do serious work with them. We all know that even a plastic toy camera can produce stunning art, but that is not what we mean. We want a camera that is responsive, flexible and has sufficient image quality—so that small size is an advantage, not a compromise.
Many of us T.O.P. readers have been excited about the prospects of a Decisive Moment Digital (DMD) camera—a small carry around camera that is responsive and has image quality near that of current DSLRs. As each new potential DMD is announced, excitement builds. My excitement about the Canon G10 was tempered by my belief that only a larger sensor could give me the kind of image quality that I seek, and I knew the sensor in the G10 was still small (1/1.7- inch CCD) and was crammed with even more megapixels (14.7) than its predecessor, the G9. We all learned a long time ago that increasing the pixel count alone is not the answer to image quality. The size of the pixels, as well as the processing engine, among other things, are even more important. In fact, many of us have become annoyed with the megapixel race, because, although it may be a good marketing tool for selling cameras to those who do not know any better, it does not answer the image quality concerns of the serious photographer. Has Canon found a way to get that DSLR image quality out of a small sensor with so many pixels?
The past is prologue
I have been using a Canon G9 (12 megapixels) for some time, and I think that, for me, it has been the best choice as an "all around" point and shoot camera. The G9 is responsive enough and compact enough. The photos from the G9 are detailed and technically quite good, but its image quality paled in comparison to that of my DSLRs. The quality problem seems to be at the pixel level and can easily be seen on screen. Pixels just look mushy or muddy and the images don’t pop the way those from my Canon 5D do. Even RAW files look slightly processed at higher magnification. Prints look pretty good, but I am still not satisfied. I also used a Sigma DP1 for a while. Unlike the G9, it has a much bigger sensor (APS-C size) and it shows. The image quality is quite spectacular at times, but inconsistent. I liked the DP1 at first, but I eventually stopped using it because it was too slow and I was missing too many shots.
Welcome the Canon G10
The Canon G10 is a solidly built camera. It feels good and looks good. It does not exhibit much fluff. It is meant for business. It is quiet and goes almost unnoticed in a crowd of people. These are all things that will make it attractive as a serious tool for serious photographers.
The G10 starts up quickly and is fairly responsive. Shutter lag is minimal. Focusing sometimes takes a little longer than I would like, but pre-focusing is possible by depressing the shutter button half way. If I miss a shot, it is rarely the G10’s fault. The image stabilization works well. The maximum shutter speed has increased to 1/4000 from the G9’s 1/2500. The battery is bigger than in the G9, and I can shoot all day without charging.
The G10 is noticeably bigger and heavier than the G9, even though their size specifications do not appear all that different. It is easily carried, though, and with a wrist strap (rather than the neck strap it comes with), it still fits easily in a jacket or coat pocket, but not in your shirt.
I really like the layout of the controls on the G10. I rarely have to use the menu while shooting. The ISO wheel is now under the Mode Wheel and there is an Exposure Compensation Wheel where the ISO wheel is on the G9. I use exposure compensation all the time now because it is so easy to get to. There are two programmable Custom Modes that are selected with the Mode Wheel and there is a Programmable Button on the back. The LCD has gone from 230,000 pixels to 416,000 pixels and is now useful for checking focus. I wish it would flip out.
Another change from the G9 is the lens. It has a shorter maximum focal length, but gets wider. Instead of the G9’s 35mm to 210mm (equivalent) lens, it has a 28mm to 140mm (equivalent) lens. The wider angle is frequently appreciated, and I rarely miss the longer telephoto on the G9. Its maximum aperture is ƒ/2.8 but it shuts down to ƒ/4.5 at full telephoto. Minimum aperture is only ƒ/8, so there is a neutral density filter that adds an additional 3 stops of light intensity reduction. I am pleased with the lens overall. It is sharp, has minimal distortion, and has almost no purple fringing.
I usually shoot RAW. I am not a big fan of Photo Professional (Canon’s RAW software). The G10 is not currently supported by ACR and this makes evaluation of image quality a little tougher. However, it is easy to see that Canon has done something amazing with all those pixels it crammed into that small sensor. In a well lit, well exposed photo taken at low ISO, the image quality is so good that I was caught off guard. I kept checking to make sure I was looking at the photos from the G10 and not my 5D or 1Ds. The images have plenty of detail, nice saturation, and definite "cropability." Even blown up to ridiculous proportions, the pixels are not so mushy. The photos also hold up well in post-processing. In the past, if I took a great shot with a point and shoot camera, I would always wish I had taken it with a DSLR instead, because I was sure the shot would have looked that much better. I am not so sure anymore. I no longer regret having used the G10 instead of my 5D. The image quality is that good.
There must be a catch, you say. Well, unfortunately there is. Under less than perfect conditions the G10 behaves more like the G9 and other small cameras. It is not as good as a DSLR with regard to low light performance, as the image quality deteriorates at higher ISOs. Shadow detail is not as good as it is in a DSLR, either. I should point out, though, that as an enthusiast, I am being a tough critic. The image quality may not quite match the 5D, but your average point and shooter would rarely find fault with the images from the G10. Only my photographer friends, after a careful look, could really differentiate the files from the G10 and the 5D. Even in less than ideal conditions, the images from the G10 are still pretty darned good.
For the last 6 months, the Sigma DP1 has been the gold standard for image quality in a pocketable camera. Even though I still like the images from the Sigma DP1 better for overall look, the significant resolution advantage of the G10 is hard to ignore.
Lately, there has been a lot of talk about convergence between still and video photography. I think many point-and-shooters have always appreciated the fact that they could capture a small video clip with their camera. After all, these cameras are mostly used to document family or personal experiences rather than to create fine art. Canon’s new 5D mark II has some amazing video capabilities, and I would have expected this trend to show up in all of Canon’s newer cameras. I was disappointed to find that the G10 no longer shoots "HD" video. The G9 could shoot video at 1024 x 768 pixels at 15 fps. The G10 shoots a maximum 640 x 480 pixels at 30fps. The G10 does not have the G9’s time lapse options either. In other words, it has fewer video options than the G9. I think Canon really blew it here, as any form of solid HD video capability would have been a strong selling point for a camera such as this.
There has been a lot of activity lately in the DMD arena. The new Micro Four Thirds systems seem really promising with small size cameras, larger sensors, and interchangeable lenses. Also, Sigma has announced that there will be a DP2.
Is the G10 a DMD? It does not fulfill all of Mike’s requirements, but it's getting close in many ways. Perhaps it depends on the needs of the photographer using it. Canon has now demonstrated that a small camera with a small sensor can provide the ergonomics, speed, flexibility, and image quality that would please most serious photographers.
Featured Comment by Steve E. Miller: "Man, no timelapse? I have found that function is what I use my G9 for more than anything. Some pretty cool examples can be found from a shoot that I have done in the commentary on my flickr page for the Autumn Arts portfolio.... Thanks Mike!"