Can This Compact Camera Deliver DSLR-Quality Images?
The Canon PowerShot G1 X is the first compact Canon camera to offer a nearly DSLR-sized sensor, and is a huge leap in the evolution of the company's flagship G line of system compacts. Can it deliver images that would please DSLR users? Let's find out!
The Canon PowerShot G1 X takes its place as the flagship of Canon's line of compact cameras, even though it is larger and heavier than the Canon PowerShot G12 it's also smaller and lighter than any DSLR, and DSLR users will definitely want to give this camera a serious look. The G1 X is the first Canon compact to be built around a larger 14MP 18.7x14mm sensor that is about 80% the size of the APS sensors found in Canon's digital SLRs. Despite the fact that it looks like a G-series compact on steroids, the G1 X is a different animal.
- Large 1.5-inch (18.7mm x 14mm) 14.3 megapixel CMOS image sensor
- DIGIC 5 image processor with 14-bit RAW processing
- 4x (28-112mm 35mm equivalent) f/2.8-5.8 optical zoom lens
- Optical image stabilizer
- 3-inch 922k dot flip-out LCD monitor
- Optical viewfinder
- Compatible with Canon Speedlite flashes for additional creative lighting options
- Aperture priority (Av), Shutter priority (Tv) and full manual (M) exposure shooting modes
- ISO range 100 to 12800
- Neutral Density (ND) Filter
- Electronic Level
- Creative filters
- High Dynamic Range (HDR) mode
- 1080p Full HD Stereo Movie Shooting with Dynamic IS and Powered IS
- Up to 32 Scene Detection technology
- Smart Shutter modes including wink, smile and face self-timers
- Built-in HDMI-mini terminal
With the introduction of the Canon PowerShot G1 X, hopes for an interchangeable-lens compact camera from Canon may have been dashed—at least, for now—but expectations were that the camera would deliver killer image quality. The specs are certainly impressive enough, with an ISO range of 100-12800, a 4x f/2.8-5.8 optical zoom lens, and all the familiar knobs and dials a knowledgeable photographer wants and can find on previous G-series Canons. And no surprise here: It shoots full HD movies. Has Canon delivered the ultimate travel camera for pixel peepers? Let's find out!
The Canon G1 X (right) looks like the G12 on steroids.
The Canon G1 X vs. the Canon G12
What does the G1 X provide, besides the extra heft, over the less expensive G12? Obviously, the larger sensor (and higher resolution) top the list, along with the expanded ISO range. But there's more: higher-resolution movies, a 3-inch, 920k dot resolution monitor (vs. the G12's 2.8-inch, 461k dot screen), and a CMOS sensor (the G12 has a CCD). The G12, however, is around half the price of the G1 X, is smaller, has much closer macro focus (within an inch vs. around 10 inches for the G1 X). So if DSLR-level resolution is not a high priority for you, you may want to consider the G12 instead. If resolution is a priority, and price is not so important, read on.
As is true with previous G-series models, the Canon G1 X has a hot shoe and is fully compatible with Canon's flash system, including the Canon Speedlite 430EX II shown above.
In the Hands
Grasp the Canon PowerShot G1 X and one of two things will happen: Either you'll think “gee, this is awfully big and heavy for a compact camera” or “gee, this is incredibly small and light for a camera with such a large sensor.” And you'd be right on both counts. The G1 X is bigger and heavier than most any compact currently on the market, but for a photographer whose interest in the balance between portability and image quality tilts towards the latter, it's not so big or so heavy, and it's certainly smaller and lighter than a typical DSLR. Let's call it a substantial compact camera. The rubberized hand grip is easy enough to comfortably grasp and the camera feels well balanced. It feels especially comfortable when held in two hands, with the lens base cradled in the left hand for extra stability.
The front of the camera is dominated by the zoom lens, which has a base that is just about as wide as that of a typical Canon EF lens. By doing this, I wonder if Canon might be laying the groundwork for a future interchangeable-lens system that would be compatible with their EOS lenses. It doesn't seem like such a stretch. A knurled dial surrounding the lens base can be removed to accommodate add-on tele and macro converters. The only thing the lens is missing is some kind of a hood to protect it from errant light sources. Above the hand grip is a front control dial which can be used to navigate the menu and adjust various controls, depending on the settings chosen in the back of the camera.
The camera's top plate shows its solid G-series chops: A pop-up flash sits next to a hot shoe that can accommodate any Canon flash, such as the Canon Speedlite 580EXII—and you can control external flash wirelessly. Moving to the right is the mode dial, which lets you select movie, filter mode, scene mode, auto, program, Tv (shutter priority), Av (aperture priority), Manual exposure, or two custom settings. The mode dial is surrounded by the exposure compensation setting ring, which lets you adjust exposure +/- 3 stops in 1/3-stop increments. The zoom control surrounds the generously-proportioned shutter release and an on-off button completes the top.
Menus and navigation
The G1 X's basic navigation system is similar to the G12, with a few new features added. The camera control menu. The Function Setting button gives you quick access to the most frequently-accessed features, such as white balance, color intensity, bracketing, burst mode, flash output adjustment, the built-in ND filter, aspect ratio, choosing between JPEG and RAW, and image size. A Dynamic Range control adds shadow detail to an image, and the amount of this control can vary—you probably want to keep it at a lower setting if you're shooting at a higher ISO, to avoid overdoing the grain in the boosted shadow areas.
The above settings are for when the mode dial is set at P. Turn the mode dial and press the Function Setting button at different mode dial positions and the choices will change relevant to the chosen mode. For example, when in the creative filter setting the Function Setting button accesses all of the special effects, which you can scroll through. These effects rival those found in Olympus and other recent cameras, and include:
HDR: The camera shoots 3 shots in sequence and combines them, creating a high dynamic range image. Be sure to keep the camera mounted on a tripod for this mode.
Nostalgic: Gives images a film-like look, including grainy black-and-white and four degrees of color saturation which are controlled by the front control dial.
Fish-eye effect: Applies the fun-house mirror look to your photos. Want to make a fashion model look fat? Use this!
Miniature effect: Blurs the top and bottom of the scene and keeps the center sharp.
Toy Camera: Adds vignetting to the edges of the image and changes the color hue of the image so it's either bluish, sepia, or neutral.
Monochrome: Changes the image to black-and-white, but also has cyan and sepia options.
Super Vivid: Exaggerates colors.
Poster Effect: This claims to give an image a “posterized” look, although the results I got simply looked grainy.
Color Accent: Selects one color (center the image on the color you want to keep and press the shutter release halfway, then recompose) and the rest of the image becomes black-and-white. This took some mastering.
Color Swap: Changes one color for another within an image. Again, tricky and not perfect, but fun to play with.
The Tools menu has typical settings that you set once if at all. In most cases, you'll want to leave the default settings as they are. These include volume, LCD brightness, turning off on-screen help, power save and more.
Finally there's a star to indicate My Menu Settings, which lets you select five camera functions that are most important to you and puts them on your screen so you don't have to plow through the menu structure to find your most-used settings. This can be very useful if you have a certain way of shooting. For example, if you need to control flash output power a lot, you can put flash settings in the My Menu and it's right there.
The flip-out screen let me shoot from just a couple of inches off the ground. The fact that the shot was dominated by a big, light overcast sky might have caused a lesser camera to underexpose this scene, but the G1 X's on-board evaluative metering handled it with aplomb.
In the Field
The G1 X is a fun and easy camera to use, but in the hands of experienced photographers it is very customizable—and still fun and easy to use! If you are used to a DSLR or have an earlier G model and are upgrading, you'll feel right at home with the control layout, which is very similar to that of its predecessors. Adjusting EV was a breeze, and navigating through the various filters, scene modes and manual controls was intuitive. I had at least 75% of the camera's features mastered within a few minutes, and with the help of the manual was able to figure out the rest within a few hours. (Don't let that last clause scare you: Most shooters won't need to know the remaining 25% of this camera's features.)
The flip-out monitor's resolution was excellent, and its larger dimensions allowed me to get a pretty good idea of what I was looking at. As is typical of most LCD finders, images were hard to see in direct sunlight. I appreciated the flip-out finder, and used it to get the camera down low to photograph some flowers that popped up in this late winter's unseasonably warm weather. In review mode, you can use the tele/wide zoom control to zoom into the picture in 10 steps, and you could easily check grain and focus. The various view options range from simple (no info) to everything (image, lots of exposure and meta data, and an enlarged section of the image inset). The Display could be set to show basic info or superimpose a “golden thirds” grid, a digital level, and a histogram, or you could turn the display off and just use the optical viewfinder.
The optical viewfinder is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it's there. Most compact cameras these days have no optical finder. Being able to press the camera against your face as you look through the finder give the camera more stability than holding the camera a foot away, which you are forced to do when all you have to compose the picture is an LCD monitor. And the finder zooms as the lens zooms. On the other hand, it is a squintfinder: it is very small, and doesn't cover the entire area of the image. It probably covers around 70-75%. If you want exact edge-to-edge coverage, you need to rely on the LCD. I hope Canon (and any other maker of cameras with optical zooming finders) can develop a better optical viewfinder because if a consumer is going to shell out $800 for a camera, the optical finder should have a full view.
The lens delivered bright images with good contrast. Flare was moderate to average; I recommend investing in the Canon LH-DC70 Lens Hood for PowerShot G1 X to minimize flare. Another negative is the camera's close-focus capabilities. It basically focuses no closer than a foot away at its widest setting. That's OK for general shooting but it means no macro. There is a remedy, however: Canon will soon be offering the Canon FA-DC58C 58mm filter adapter for the G1 X, so you could add any 58mm close-up filter such as the Canon 58mm close-up filter and get closer.
That said, I found the camera easy to carry around and wasn't bothered by its extra weight or size. Its controls are logically placed and easy to operate. The resistance of the mode and EV adjustment dials were just right, although I found myself accidentally changing settings a bit too easily with the back-of camera dials and buttons.
Handheld at 1/100 sec at f/4 in open shade at ISO 100, this shot tells the story: The G1 X delivers tack-sharp results.
The Canon G1 X is not an action camera: Even when I chose manual everything (which usually reduces or eliminates lag time) I found the camera had a lag time of as long as a second—an eternity when shooting sports, or for street photography. It is a camera that's built for a slower-paced form of photography that require good image quality: Portraiture, landscapes, travel, and architecture, for example. And since these photographic fields practically demand excellent image quality...
Image Quality Courtesy DxOMark Labs
Overall Score: 60
Color Depth: Excellent
Dynamic Range: Very Good
Low-Light ISO: ISO 644
Now we come to the G1 X's most compelling argument for a place in your camera bag: Image quality. When talking about the G1 X's image quality, comparisons are important, so let's compare it to its immediate predecessor, the G12, and a current DSLR with a just slightly larger sensor, the 60D. As expected, the G1X's overall image quality score (60) far outpaced the G12 (47) and lagged just slightly behind that of the 60D (66). Its color depth likewise falls between the two other cameras, although its dynamic range lags behind both models by about a half stop at its lowest ISO, but then remains close to the 60D's performance the rest of the ISO range while the G12's falls off rapidly. Its image quality is excellent for all practical purposes through ISO 800, and lags about half a stop behind the 60D while the G12's image quality starts deteriorating by ISO 200. ISO accuracy is excellent, with virtually no variation between the stated and measured light sensitivity.
The G1 X's signal to noise ratio remained within a decibel of the 60D's at all ISOs while the G12's was consistently at least 5 dB lower. Overall, DxOMark's tests showed that the Canon G1X offers image quality comparable to DSLRs at just about all ISOs and is far superior to the G12—and in fact, superior to virtually all other compact cameras—at all image quality measurements.
ISO comparison photos
My backyard fence served as a test subject with enough variety of detail, plain swaths of color and light and shadow to get a good sense of this camera in the field. Let's zoom in...
100% detail at ISO 100 shows no visible noise.
Same at ISO 400.
Finally, at ISO 1600, a bit of noise creeps in but on objectionably so.
By ISO 12800, the top speed, digital noise is obvious but remarkably well controlled.
Conclusion and Recommendation
The Canon PowerShot G1 X is arguably the highest-resolution self-contained compact camera on the market, easily rivaling the kind of image quality you can get out of a DSLR. Is that enough to earn it a place in your camera bag? If you are looking for a camera that can deliver killer image quality in low light but doesn't require you to deal with interchangeable lenses or the bulk of a DSLR, the G1 X is the new king. The only non-interchangeable lens compact camera that comes close is the $1,200 Fujifilm X100, which delivers spectacular quality but costs $400 more—and has a prime lens rather than the G1 X's modest zoom.
I see the Canon PowerShot G1 X as an ideal general-purpose travel camera for serious photographers who are tight on space and are weight conscious but want top-notch image quality. It offers enough flexibility to let you shoot nighttime scenes with outstanding quality, and lets you go where few compact digital cameras have gone before, while delivering high-fidelity images in bright daylight that rivals DSLRs. If you've been a Canon G-system fan but have been pining for better image quality, the G1 X is a quantum leap in image quality.