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Did Canon's resolution reduction strategy pay off?
Canon flew in the face of common wisdom—or did they?—when they followed up the 14MP G10 with the 10MP G11. Does this mean better image quality at higher ISOs? Let's take a look. (Updated with DxOMark Lab Test Results)
• 10 megapixel sensor
• 28-140mm f/2.8-4.5 lens (35mm equivalent
• Macro focus to 0.4 inches
• JPEG, RAW image capture
• Optical viewfinder
• Flip-out 2.8-inch LCD monitor
• Scene detection technology
• Optical image stabilization
• Explanatory menu
• Servo AF/AE
• Optical viewfinder crops out much of the view
• Long list of menu items to scroll through
• Video capture is not HD
Best Suited For
Snapshooters, serious photographers who want a light camera with manual control and relatively low noise levels.
Canon continues to refine its G-series of flagship compact digital cameras, but some might wonder if the G11 is a step forward, or a step back. After all, the pixel count was rolled back from the G10’s 14MP to 10MP—a pixel count we haven’t seen since the G8. And Canon brought back the flip-out finder, a feature that disappeared, to the displeasure of many, with the G6, nearly five years ago.
The flip-out LCD monitor returns, making its first appearance on a Canon G camera since the G6.
In fact, the G11 is, unmistakably, a huge step forward for Canon. By pulling back the number of pixels, Canon made room on the sensor to make each pixel bigger—1.9 microns instead of the G11’s 1.6—and this, at least theoretically, should result in a modest reduction in digital noise at higher ISO settings when combined with the oh-so-slightly larger 1/1.7-inch sensor. Canon brought back the flip-out LCD but made it bigger (2.8 inches) and higher resolution (460K dots) than the flip-out LCD they used in the G6.
Modern amenities that make the G11 a truly cutting-edge camera include Face Detection, servo Autofocus and Auto Exposure for instant camera-readiness, a souped-up Digic 4 image processing engine, optical image stabilization, macro focusing to within half an inch of the surface of the lens, and built-in scene detection technology which identifies the kind of scene you’re photographing and automatically chooses the best scene mode.
The G11 retains all the features that have earned the G line its reputation as the go-to compact for serious photographers looking for a carry-anywhere rig: Manual focus and exposure control, an extensive array of accessories that include compatibility with all of Canon’s TTL flash units and several focal range extension optics, and an optical viewfinder. The G11 retains the same lens as the G10, providing a 35mm equivalent coverage of 28-140mm, with optical stabilization.
Familiar feel: Top plate is virtually identical to G10, with a couple of shooting modes added. Overall, it's a comfortable layout for traditionalists.
In the hands (look and feel)
If you’ve already handled an older G Canon, you’ll be happy to know that, when you hold the G11 in your hands, there are no surprises. Controls remain logically placed and easy to get to, and in general the camera just feels solid. The control dials atop the camera click authoritatively and the knurled surface provide a solid grip. Control buttons on the back of the camera have been enlarged slightly so you no longer feel like you’re pressing chicklets. Otherwise, control placement is just about identical to the G9 and G10.
As with all previous G’s, the G11thankfully has a zooming optical viewfinder, but unfortunately Canon has not solved its downfall, which is that it only allows you to see about 77% of the scene and crops out the rest, while the LCD monitor shows 100%. I would not rely on the optical finder for composing a photo, but would look through it at the moment I take a picture in order to create natural camera stabilization that comes by pressing the camera to my face. Also, as the finder is not parallax corrected, nor would I expect it to be for macro shooting. But I do hope Canon has a more accurate optical finder on its to-do list for the next G-eneration.
I did find myself pressing the control wheel accidentally with my thumb since space where the thumb goes in the back is a bit tight.
The camera, at 12.5 oz., is just a bit heavier and larger than most cameras that call themselves compact, and the camera’s girth has increased slightly to accommodate the flip-out LCD.
In the field (operation and responsiveness)
Many street shooters have adapted the G range of cameras as a kind of low-budget alternative to a Leica. While the G11 is not as instantaneous as a Leica M9, for instance, the shutter lag has been noticeably reduced. If you’re shooting in manual exposure and focus manually, there is virtually no lag time.
Adjusting aperture and shutter speed manually in manual mode is a bit awkward: shutter speed is adjusted by rotating the control dial. To change to aperture control, you must press the metering mode button. If you press this button again, it changes from average to center-weighted to spot metering. Moving into Macro or changing the flash setting is easy—just press the clearly marked control on the four-way toggle switch in the back.
But if you choose to fly on auto-everything, you won’t be disappointed as the camera’s exposure system, with its underlying scene detection technology, managed to handle a wide variety of lighting situations with aplomb.
But what about image quality? Read on!
Low speed sharpness: At ISO 80, images were tack-sharp.
Mixed light...OK. The G11's Auto White Balance (AWB) served up mixed results...this shot was a mix diffused daylight through a window and direct incandescent bulbs, and looks good. Other shots taken at the same time were too blue.
Flip-out, rotating viewfinder allowed me to grab this almost-ground-level shot.
Flare was well controlled, with only minor artifacts that you can see in this late afternoon shot.
The G11 really strut its stuff in low-light shooting situation at a friend's Bar Mitzvah party at Powerhouse Studios in East Hanover, NJ. This was shot at ISO 1600, no flash!
Experimental effect: Shooting at ISO 800 in slow-flash mode, I was able to experiment. Most compact digital camera pix would fall apart at this speed, but this looks pretty good!
In both informal and more formal testing I found image quality to be outstanding for a compact camera. While the G11 doesn’t approach DSLR image quality, it sets a new standard for compact cameras with small sensors. At ISO 100-200, digital noise is virtually nonexistent, and barely noticeable at ISO 400. Some digital noise was apparent at ISO 800 but it was fairly well controlled and I would feel comfortable doing street photography at this speed. At ISO 800, by the way, images looked spectacular when shot in black and white. By ISO 1600 digital noise is obvious, but you can nevertheless get an acceptable 4x6 print at this speed. At ISO 3200, the results are OK for web use, but that’s about it.
Image sharpness is excellent throughout at both wide angle and tele settings, although there was some purple fringing at the edges of the image when at the widest setting. Vignetting was very well controlled throughout the zoom range. Flare was moderate throughout the zoom range, but more pronounced at the tele end. Noticeable pillow distortion disappears by middle of zoom range.
Image quality detail shots
The setup: At a local coffeehouse in Highland Park, NJ, I found a compliant subject. Glued to his computer over a cup of Java, he didn’t budge as I shot a set of hand-held ISO test images. This was shot at ISO 200 in JPEG mode. Note the pillow distortion of the top of my computer at the bottom of the frame.
Speed demon: The first thing I did, of course, was to turn the ISO dial all the way to 3200. Why? Because I COULD! Quality? Not great, but good enough in an emergency.
Surprising detail: Do you see a significant difference between the 100% enlargement JPEG detail on the left and the shot on the right? The one on the left was shot at ISO 200…the one on the right, ISO 800! There was little difference from ISO 80-400, and very minor graininess at 800. Noise became pronounced at ISO 1600.
Image Quality: DxOMark Lab Test Results
While I was impressed with the JPEGs produced by the G11, the DxOMark test results, which are based on RAW image readings alone and are summarized at right, show a less significant improvement and point to how hard the G11's on-board grain reduction is working. Surprisingly, the G11's pixel size has only increased from 1.7 to 2 microns, not a major change. Low-light ISO has gone from 157 (G10) to 169 (G11) has improved but not dramatically so. Based on Dx0's results, the highest recommended ISO should be 200 when shooting RAW files—and as you can see above, the results are quite different when shooting JPEGs.
The camera shows accurate ISO sensitivity; the actual speed is virtually identical to the indicated speed, while its two most recent predecessors, the G10 and G9, were slightly less accurate. Dynamic range jumps a full stop, with an 11-stop range, compared to the G10, while color depth has improved slightly.
There’s always room for improvement, and I see two areas that could be made better. The first is the squinty viewfinder, as explained above. The second is the control layout, which is better than most cameras, but manual controls should be a bit more prominent for photographers who know how to use them. In the case of the G11, the percentage of knowledgeable photographers who use the camera is likely to be higher than for your typical compact. Finally, in an era where HD Video is expected of more advanced cameras, the G11’s video is merely VGA. But I wouldn’t let any of these complaints hold me back from buying this camera.
Conclusion and recommendation
Ultimately, it all comes down to image quality and performance, and in both of these areas the G11 excels compared to other cameras in its size class. I found the camera easy to operate and up to almost every challenge I threw at it, getting it right even when I tried weird stuff like flash with long exposure in rapidly-changing disco lighting. Even in subdued light shooting at ISO 800 I found image quality to be a pleasant surprise and made some nice 8x10-inch prints if images shot at that speed that look quite good especially for a camera with a small sensor.
Canon got it right by reducing pixel count in order to improve overall image quality, and the result, the G11. If you’ve been looking for a good all-around camera that will fit in on the street and in the coffeeshop (as well as at family gatherings), I heartily recommend the Canon G11.