First introduced in September 2000, Canon's PowerShot line is undoubtedly one of the oldest families of expert compact cameras still in production. Though not all the models have been great, the G series has been a big success over the years - with some frustrating times along the way, such as the intermittent disappearance of the tilting display and RAW mode and zoom lenses with narrow apertures and so on.
With its stabilised 5x wide-angle zoom, new 10 Megapixel sensor, and tilt-and-swivel display, the PowerShot G11 is aiming at perfection - but is it too ambitious?
The PowerShot G11 is a serious, imposing camera, and Canon hasn't really tried to make it unobtrusive and light. The G11 is meant to be taken seriously: this is a compact that takes 'real' photos. The camera is intended to feel reassuringly solid, though the finish is still a little too 'plastic' looking for my taste and the surface of the handgrip is too smooth to grasp firmly. Given the price of this expert compact, some people would certainly have expected a more comfortable frame.
But let's not split hairs - the G11 is still a high-end camera with careful design, with an exposure correction dial and a double click wheel for quickly selecting ISO sensitivity and exposure mode. Other features are less exceptional, but there is direct access to many settings (choice of AF focusing point, exposure metering, flash, macro, etc.) Other options can be changed via the menus. The G11's graphical interface is as usable as ever and now has handy contextual help.
So, the G11's design is a success, except for one detail... but it's an important one: the scroll wheel. The dial is very convenient for quickly navigating menus or browsing shots. But you have to be able to turn it, and that's not always easy. It's thin and set right up against the edge of the display surround. The result is that your thumb catches on it at each turn of the dial, which makes it harder to use. Look at it as the price you pay for the luxury of using a large, swiveling display (see inset)... There's still an optical viewfinder. It's still just as imprecise (75%), but at least it's there.
The G11 is a responsive camera overall, but not in all departments. Startup is quick, and so is focusing, but saving images is slow, and so is burst mode, which has trouble topping one frame per second. In burst mode with continuous focusing, bursts are even slower.
Focusing in low light is assisted by a white lamp that's quite harsh and not very discreet. The autofocus system has only a single focusing point - ensuring good reactivity - that can be moved around the display easily.
After a race among camera makers to see who could offer the most pixels, the G10 had been crowned the camera with the largest number of pixels, with no fewer than 14.7 million photodiodes. That has changed with this G11, whose sensor has 'only' 10 Megapixels. But this 'step back' is not such a bad thing, since the benefit is better processing of electronic noise - the sensor's surface area is identical (1/1.7 inches), but the density is lower on the G11. Each individual pixel is also larger and can collect more light. The sensor technology has also been changed, also with the purpose of better photon capture, but Canon is remaining very enigmatic about this development.
But the proof is in the pictures, where the G11 does indeed perform better than the G10. The improvement is quite visible - you gain approximately one EV with the G11. On an A4 print, the difference is also visible, but with the G10's higher definition, coloured grain is very fine and the distinction of the G11 is less pronounced. But in any case, the images we took were very impressive up to 400 ISO and even 800 ISO in certain cases. Beyond that point, digital smoothing quickly became too evident. The colourimetry is good and the colours are nicely saturated. You won't need to retouch your shots to make paper prints. Shots are often a little underexposed, but as is always true of small sensors, brigher areas easily become over-exposed.
The quality of the lens is excellent; detail was excellent at full aperture and over the entire surface of the image. In wide-angle (28 mm), we noted slight barrel distortion, but it was nothing serious and went away with the zoom. Chromatic aberrations were well contained overall. The macro mode is still just as good, with focusing at 0 cm.
The flash is a little weak, but it's possible to use a Canon Cobra flash with the accessory shoe. Optical stasilization also remains very effective, with a few images blur-free at 1/2 s and a good series at 1/6 s.
Compare the Canon PowerShot G11 to other digital cameras in our Product Face-Off
One of the biggest frustrations of the G series has been the unexplained disappearance of various features. With the G11, the absence of 720p HDTV video is one of those little disappointments. The definition is still stuck at 640 x 480 pixels, and the associated options go with it - there's no stereo sound and no microphone input, no optical zoom during shooting, and no autofocus. Video shot by the PowerShot G11 is encapsulated in a .MOV file with a recent compression codec, H.264.
The G11 up against the competition
The PowerShot G11, along with the Panasonic LX3 and Ricoh GRD III, is an excellent camera, but the main competitors in this price range are compacts with interchangeable µ4/3 lenses, which have both a larger, more sensitive sensor - meaning greater latitude in terms of depth of field - and, by definition, the possibility of choosing a lens to fit the shooting situation.
The Panasonic DMC-LX3 has a slightly more user-friendly interface and an intelligent auto mode that make it less elitist and less tech-oriented. Its lens allows in more light, but has a shorter zoom range, and using manual modes is less convenient due to the lack of dials.
The Ricoh GR Digital III can also open wider (it can go below f/2!), but lacks a zoom - it uses a fixed focal length. Its only concession to automation is a program mode that's straight out of the 1980s, but its dial-plus-toggle interface is very effective in manual mode.
But the Panasonic DMC-GF1 is undoubtedly the competitor that can give expert compacts a run for their money. It's bulkier, granted, but the fact you can swap lenses at will and the image quality its large sensor provides are huge advantages. What's more, like the LX3 it has an iA mode for the man in the street, but also an interface that's very practical when you switch off the automatic modes via a click wheel.
- Good design with plenty of access to settings
- Quality images up to 800 ISO, RAW mode
- Rotating screen is back
- Autofocus is responsive in most situations (assist lamp)
- HDMI output, flash shoe compatible with Canon accessories
- No HDTV video mode
- Optical viewfinder not accurate, but at least it's there
- Burst mode too slow
- Battery life limited to 300 shots
Like the Panasonic LX3, the Canon PowerShot G11, remains benchmark in the world of expert compacts. It stands out for its careful design, swiveling LCD display, versatile, stabilised zoom and good image quality. Unfortunately its outdated video mode offers no HDTV quality or optical zoom. The swivel display is what saved it its fifth star.