Musings on Photography

That little Misunderstood PowerShot G9

Posted in Canon Powershot G9 by Paul Butzi on January 11, 2008

Yesterday I happened to look at the stats page for this blog and was struck by the fact that, all of a sudden, the Canon PowerShot G9 is responsible for a large proportion of the search engine delivered hits on the blog. The level of those G9 related hits has been growing for some time, but it’s really taken off after this post titled PowerShot G9 Accessories.

The G9 is a funny camera. It’s gotten quite a few lukewarm reviews, like this one from MacWorld which says:

Canon’s G series has converted many a serious film shutterbug to digital photography. Launched in 2000 with the PowerShot G1, the sturdy G line helped establish digital photography as something more than a novelty. But judging from the latest entry, the Canon PowerShot G9, the line may have outlived its usefulness.

Make no mistake—this serious-looking black brick of a camera is capable of producing great images. But the G9 is out of sync with the marketplace, offering few compelling advantages, and some distinct disadvantages compared to cheaper point-and-shoots and comparably priced DSLRs.

[…] On the plus side, the odd little rotating ring on the G9’s main control button makes this one of the few point-and-shoots with a usable manual-focus option.

The G9 falls short in other areas, however. Most recent models similar to this one are superzoom cameras that cover a range from wide-angle to extreme telephoto. The G9’s lens starts out at a relatively modest 35mm and extends to 6x optical zoom, but a mere 4x digital zoom.

Too bad the author (David Becker) doesn’t seem to realize that, by using that ‘odd little rotating ring’ on the back, Canon produced a user interface that managed to meld the point and shoot line with Canon’s digital SLR line. To someone who’s been using a high end digital camera, that ‘odd little rotating ring’ makes the user interface instantly recognizable. I’m stunned to read a review of a camera that mentioned digital zoom except in the context of describing how easy or hard it is to turn the feature off, much less a review that seemed to think that 4x digital zoom is a disappointment.

Another strange passage from Becker’s review:

Add in some odd design and control choices—ISO settings are elevated to a separate rotating knob on the top of the camera, but you’ll need to dig through the menu to alter a basic function like image stabilization—and it’s tough to make a case for the G9’s $500 price tag. You can spend $150 less and get an equally capable point-and-shoot, such as the Samsung NV11 (). Or, you could spend $50 more for a DSLR with all of the above plus a significantly broader aperture range and versatility, which will allow the camera to grow with your skills.

Ok, I just have to disagree that having the ISO setting on a dial on the top of the camera but having to drill through a menu to turn image stabilization on and off is an odd design choice. And saying that you can spend $50 more and end up with a DSLR is sort of missing the point – it’s like saying “Why would you pay $5500 for a Leica M8 when you can buy a DLSR for one tenth the price?”

Ok, enough whining about this particular review, which I will admit is a cherry-picked example of WWW camera review badness. My larger point, here, both in mentioning the stream of G9 related search queries that land on this blog, and in mentioning the stream of bizarre reviews of the G9 is that the G9 is a nice little camera that is at risk of being Seriously Misunderstood.

The G9 is not a camera that appeals to photographers who are just starting out (although I’d claim it would serve handsomely in that role). Those photographers are more likely to buy low end DSLRs, just as Becker suggests. And it’s not a camera that appeals to the point and shoot purchaser, who no sooner would buy a camera because it records in RAW mode than they’d buy a camera that has no built-in flash.

The G9 is a camera that’s probably being bought by folks who already have DSLRs. They’re looking for something small, durable, and reasonably lightweight, with image quality high enough that they don’t look at every frame and wish they’d made it with a better camera. They want a fit-in-the-pocket camera that doesn’t disappoint with respect to image quality. Becker gets this part almost right, saying

The main market for this camera seems to be serious photographers who don’t want the clutter, expense, and weight of a DSLR. But with SLRs hitting price points of $500 and weighing less than a pound, those arguments don’t hold much water anymore. Instead, the G9 is likely to succeed mainly on looks—the styling invokes the classic rangefinder cameras of the pre-digital era—and brand loyalty.

What Becker is missing is that the G9 seems to be a pleasant surprise – a combination of a small, light camera with a decent sensor (perhaps a bit noisy), a pretty good lens, and RAW capture. It’s a camera that appeals to the photographer who not only knows what shutter speed, aperture and ISO are but how they interact, and expect the user interface to allow easy changes to those critical settings even at the expense of hiding control of image stabilization in the menus.

Lately I’ve gotten several requests that I do some sort of serious comparison of image quality between my EOS-5d and the G9, all of them from photographers I know and whose work I hold in high regard. [I have just such a comparison planned, and it’s waiting on delivery of the tripod plate for the G9, which got held up for a bit but should arrive shortly] I’d just point out that if the camera is getting the attention of these folks, it’s not the market mis-read that so many of the reviews that categorized the camera as ‘one of the few point and shoots with a usable manual’. It’s really more a nice, small digital camera with good image quality that happens to have a green ‘auto’ setting as well as the aperture priority, shutter priority, and manual settings. And I’d point out that I have people ask me my opinions about various camera models all the time, but the only other camera I’ve ever had anyone ask me to compare to a high end SLR in terms of image quality was the venerable classic, the Contax T3.

15 Responses

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  1. Colin Griffiths said, on January 11, 2008 at 2:24 pm

    I totally agree. I liked my G7 so much that I donated it to my wife and bought a G9! When I take this camera out, often when I’m out cycling, I never feel like I’m compromising myself. There is not another camera in the marketplace that I could say that about, at least not for me.

  2. Andrew said, on January 11, 2008 at 2:29 pm

    Apparently, the G9 is hard to find these days because of a high demand for the camera. As you point out, people with DSLRs have been craving something like it – small and easily pocketable. Adding RAW (to the G7 to make the G9) really caused the camera to take off.

  3. Erik said, on January 11, 2008 at 2:46 pm

    I think the fact that it seems like it’s permanently sold out at B&H, and I can’t find anyone selling it with even the slightest discount except fly-by-night places means it’s not being overlooked.

    I may have to resort to paying full list price at a local store I dislike in order to get one.

    This wasn’t the case back before Christmas. People had it in stock then.

  4. Martin Doonan said, on January 11, 2008 at 2:53 pm

    “But with SLRs hitting price points of $500 and weighing less than a pound…” don’t know what size pockets he has but I’ve not yet found a pocketable SLR.
    The G9 could well come into my possession as the other camera that I promised myself I wouldn’t buy.

  5. Rosie Perera said, on January 11, 2008 at 3:05 pm

    Several people I know are wanting one of these now. I’ve been having fun with mine but I can’t use it for serious art photography. The part about “a decent sensor (perhaps a bit noisy)” goes by so quickly in your review that one hardly notices it. But that’s a killer for a camera, in my opinion. I like crisp photos. The noise isn’t a big deal in holiday snapshots, or that photo of the funny bumper sticker of the car in front of me that I just have to take while I’m stopped at a red light. But otherwise, this certainly won’t be replacing my 5D on any major trips where I’m hoping to come back with some showable images. I was hoping maybe it would help me avoid the carry-on luggage limitation problem, but nope. Now if Canon were to come out with something like this but with a CMOS sensor… (although I’m learning that it’s not just as simple as CCD vs. CMOS).

  6. Ed Richards said, on January 11, 2008 at 5:50 pm

    When you do your test, make one criteria what an 8×10 looks like at different ISOs. When I shoot film and printed black and white silver, I thought 8×10 was big enough for a print. Maybe it still should be.:-)

  7. Dave Kosiur said, on January 12, 2008 at 2:47 pm

    According to the G9 manual, you can assign any options in the Rec. menu to either of the custom settings saved in C1/C2 on the dial. That means you can turn off IS and save that as one of the custom settings. Now, all you have to do to turn off IS is turn the settings dial on top of the G9!

  8. Ann said, on January 14, 2008 at 7:26 am

    Is there any other decent camera this size with a hot shoe? My DSLR is a Nikon, but with my Pocket Wizards, I can use my SB800 flash. Rear-curtain sync (or whatever Canon calls it), off-camera lighting, and I’m still only toting 2 pounds. The G9 goes everywhere I go when I don’t have the D2X and I love it.

  9. Dave Beckerman said, on January 15, 2008 at 10:10 am

    I bought the G9 yesterday. I love it. I’ve used Canon’s for my non-film work for a long time – and this is my favorite one for most of the reasons that everyone knows. One day and it feels like an old friend already.

  10. Charlie H said, on January 15, 2008 at 1:06 pm

    I came very close to getting a G9. The big box website assured me it was in stock and I made the arduous drive over to the store only to find that they had lied. I would have ordered one online that evening but I put my mits on Canon’s other little offering, the SD870, and I thought to myself, hmm, a pants pocketable little camera, with a wider angle of view. Now I don’t know what to do. ch

  11. mike jago said, on January 19, 2008 at 6:27 am

    The G9 hit the UK high street today in a big way. It features in the latest Argos (summer!) catalogue at GBP299.99. There’s a G9 near you folks!


  12. Malcolm said, on January 20, 2008 at 8:54 pm

    I can’t believe you wrote exactly my thoughts on the G9. I love my 5D, but the G9 sees a lot of use these days. Unless I’m making 16X24 prints, the G9 really holds up, especially at low ISO.

  13. Blue said, on January 28, 2008 at 10:11 pm

    Got mine around a week ago. I use it every day. It’s my go everywhere camera, my street camera, and my ghetto camera. It backs up my Olympus E400 2 body kit just great. I love the tone this little camera produces. It’s almost persuaded me to move to Canon for all my gear. Almost.


  14. soo said, on December 6, 2008 at 1:03 pm

    I have the G9 and love it for all of the reasons mentioned above plus one. If you have arthritis in the hands or carpal tunnel syndrome or anything similar, a large DSLR is out of the question, but the G9 is doable.

  15. kcjewel said, on March 24, 2009 at 6:11 pm

    very nice article. i’ve owned a G9 for a year and purchased it only to find out if i could make the switch from film. it has me sold and now i’m ready to buy a DSLR, but i will still carry my G9 with me everywhere i go!!

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