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Improved low-light quality with latest S90 & G11 compact camera’s?

UPDATE: dpreview: dpreview G11 review and Imaging-resource reviews here: Iimaging Resource S90 review and Imaging Resource G11 review

Nowadays you can get high quality pictures with digital compact camera. However in one area quality gradually dropped over the years: dim and low-light. With increasing resolution every year noise gradually kept increasing at high ISO. And with many compact camera’s nowadays noise is often even visible in daylight pictures.

This year is the first time that Canon didn’t increase resolution with the G11 but actually lowered resolution to 10MP. The previous G10 model has 15MP (note Fuji lowered megapixels earlier). The increase in megapixels didn’t translate anyway to much higher resolution so 10MP should still be plenty for most. Canon claims 2 stops improvements with the new G11 and the new more compact S90. Did they achieve it? I don’t have either the G11 or S90 but I found a comparison from someone comparing G7 (3 year old model) with G11 (link to all images: http://www.cig.usa.canon.com/ph/OPA/VisitorDetailImage.do).

One caveat with this comparison is that those aren’t truly very low-light images and I’ve seen more visible noise in G11 night shots at high ISO. That said for ISO comparison they should be adequate.

See here 1:1 crop comparison at ISO800 (shutter and focal times virtually same):

 

At first sight the G11 is much better. But if you have done some post processing before you notice artifacts that look a lot like noise removal. So let’s compare G11 with G7 with software noise removal:

I only did here quick basic noise removal and perhaps this can be further improved but the result is already fairly similar to the G11 now. The G11 still holds an edge but difference isn’t quite as dramatic as it was.

Now let’s compare ISO 1600:

That difference is much bigger and noise removal can’t save the G7 image:

Now let’s compare ISO 800 to ISO 3200 which would correspond to the claim that it is 2 stops better:

So I don’t think 2 stops is quite accurate looking at this specific comparison.

Conclusion

Up to ISO 400 the G11 and G7 are very similar. At ISO 800 the G11 holds a slight edge and at ISO1600 there’s a huge improvement. However I’d say rather 1 stop improvement than 2 full stops. For very low-light you do have now full resolution ISO3200 which isn’t pretty but it might still be usable for small prints. Here’s the complete ISO3200 image:

One downside with the new G11 and S90 compared to the older models is the removal of the superfine JPG compression mode. Which means you also get little bit more JPG compression artifacts. It may not be visible in all pictures but I did notice it in several pictures. A workaround would be to use RAW mode but that requires some additional work afterwards to convert to JPG.

S90 compared to G11?

As mentioned I don’t have either camera but I found couple of comparisons from people having both camera’s. From those images image quality looks similar but the G11 holds a slight edge. In small prints it may not be that visible but it’s noticeable to me on screen. Couple of differences:

  • G11 has slightly better image quality in general (S90 applies more sharpening but resolves less detail in some pictures)
  • G11 has flip-out LCD screen
  • S90 is more compact
  • S90 has faster F2.0 lens but practically speaking I didn’t see a difference (e.g. image wasn’t brighter or better quality)

Here are some 1:1 crops comparisons (click on picture to see 1:1):

See more images here including comparisons with few other camera’s: http://thoots.zenfolio.com/

One downside with both the S90 an G11 is no 720p movie mode which you see now on several new camera’s. It’s not that 720p movie mode on new compacts really rival a good camcorder (sound, stabilization, poor panning CMOS wobble effects) but it would still have been nice to have that option.

Other camera’s for low-light?

I saw couple of high ISO Sony WX1 pictures compared to LX3 and S90 and performance is similar to the S90. However in daylight I thought the pictures looked pretty bad. The LX3 looks pretty good in daylight and has more dynamic range but surprisingly in low-light it didn’t quite do as well compared to S90/G11. It does apply less noise removal but still you can’t quite see more detail always. This is a guess but I think the explanation is partially the JPG compression used. So potentially RAW images would beat the other 2 camera’s.

If you need to have great and better low-light performance then SLR will still beat easily compacts. In-between are the micro 4/3 format SLR’s which also do fairly well in low-light like the E-P1. But they are still not very compact unless you use a very shallow fixed lens.

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