The dream of every travel photographer is a small, lightweight camera that is easy to carry, easy to use and makes high-quality photos. The Canon Powershot G11 digital compact camera does all of that. It’s almost a dream come true.
So far, I haven’t found a compact camera that doesn’t leave me longing for my full-sized SLR. Sure the point-and-shoots are easy to lug around and it’s better to be armed with a small camera than none at all. But, after using one of these pocket-sized machines for a while, you’ll miss a lot of features you’ve taken for granted on your SLR (fast auto-focus and 6 frames-per-second, for example).
Keeping that in mind, I found the Canon Powershot G11 a capable performer when compared to its diminutive brethren. And in some ways, it even stacks up well against a good SLR like my workhorse Nikon D300.
I’m planning to purchase a new compact camera soon. To see the three contenders (there were four, but Nikon has discontinued the P6000), read my previous article, The Lightweight Photographer: Four Compact Cameras for the Pro or Serious Amateur.
I’ll be writing more about traveling light. You can find all the articles in this series by clicking here: The Lightweight Photographer.
Canon Powershot G11 – Real World Review
I’ve been working with the G11 for the past month or so; using it as I would my big-rig SLR on a typical travel project. That’s the real world part.
I want to find out how it works in the hands of a photographer. I’m not much for testing every little feature or detailing the entire specification list. For that kind of thoroughness, see the Resources section below.
My most important criterion for any camera, compact or not, is the quality of the image. Any camera I use must be capable of producing a publication-quality image acceptable by my stock photography agency.
The photos from this camera look excellent to me, but what would my stock agency think? They’re known to be sticklers on technical details; I’ve had photos turned down before that were created with my big SLR cameras. Any softness or noise in an image is grounds for immediate rejection.
I am happy to say that all ten of the G11 images I submitted were accepted. That includes one taken at night using ISO 800 and some post-processing noise reduction in Adobe Lightroom. The other accepted images range from ISO 80 to ISO 200. I’ve included some in this article. You can click the images to see them larger. See all ten online at Alamy.com.
Raw vs. JPEG
While I prefer the flexibility of the raw format, I spent one night with the G11 shooting nothing but jpegs. The large jpegs are 3648 pixels by 2736 pixels. The G11 can also be set to capture raw plus a large, high-quality jpeg.
The ISO 800 photo I mentioned earlier- it’s a photo of the Grinch character – was captured as a large JPEG. I was quite surprised at the quality of the image when I looked at it later in Adobe Lightroom. Even the dark areas had very little noise. And what noise there was looked like film grain, so it wasn’t objectionable. The in-camera noise reduction does a good job.
Handling and Size
Even though the body is all plastic, the Canon Powershot G11 feels solid.It does seem pretty fragile when the fully-articulating rear LCD screen is swung open. You’ll have to be careful when using the LCD that way.
The G11 is a large camera. It won’t fit in a shirt pocket, but does fit in my cargo pants pocket. The camera weighs 15-ounces fully loaded with strap, battery and card.
Most of the time, I carry it in a small Tamrac belt pouch. Mine is 6-inches tall, 1-1/2-inches deep and almost 4-inches wide. It’s just the right size to hold the camera with its attached strap and the instruction manual, but not the battery charger.
I love the knurled knobs on the top of the camera for ISO, shooting mode (manual, Av, Tv and the like), and exposure compensation. They all click firmly into place, yet because of their relatively large size and rough texture, they’re easy to turn.
What the knobs won’t do is turn on their own when they brush up against your clothing. I an sensitive to this issue because my old Nikon D70 would constantly change from aperture-priority to manual-exposure or some other mode I wasn’t expecting. I’ve ruined many a photo this way.
The buttons and knobs on the rear are a different story. When I began using the camera, I held it as I would my D300: I let my thumb wrap naturally around the back of the camera. My thumb and palm ended up resting on the main control dial where they would inevitably change settings. I often found myself wondering how I ended up in manual-focus or self-timer mode (two of the controls handled by the rear dial).
Especially troublesome is the exposure-lock button which is positioned where your right thumb wants to rest. Push that accidentally and you’re sure to ruin your next photo. To turn it off, you’ll have to push some other button or take a photo. The trick is a revised grip which avoids these buttons. Not as natural a feel, but comfortable enough.
Using the G11 on a tripod can be problematic. Because the tripod mounting hole is right next to the battery/SD-card door on the bottom of the camera, it’s impossible to change either the battery or the card while the camera is on the tripod. And if you mount a quick-release plate on the camera, you’ll have to remove that too. Since I use Really Right Stuff plates, that means I’d have to reach for a hex wrench every time I want to change cards or batteries. I don’t often use a tripod, so I’ll leave the quick-release plate off until I need it. (UPDATE: Really Right Stuff makes an L-Bracket to fit the G11 which does allow access to the battery compartment while the bracket is mounted.)
The optical viewfinder is a nice addition. Very few compacts have one. Although it covers only about 77% of the image area, it comes in very handy when photographing action or in bright light where you can barely see the image on the LCD screen. Its dioptric adjustment allows me to match it to my contact-lens-corrected vision.
The optical viewfinder zooms with the lens and, at the wide-angle setting , you’ll see the tip of the lens in the viewfinder. Since it only blocks a small fraction of the lower part of the viewfinder, it doesn’t affect its usefulness. And once you’ve zoomed out just a little way, it’s no longer an issue.
The Canon G11 is the only pro-quality compact camera with a fold-out LCD. Evey camera should have one.This feature alone may make the G11 the best buy of the compact camera world.
I often shoot over crowds by holding the camera over my head or compose low-angle photos with the camera resting on the pavement. With my SLR camera, this is a hit-or-miss affair: since I can’t see the viewfinder, I never know what I’ve got until after the photo is taken.
Wit the G11, it’s easy to twist the LCD so you can see it no matter the angle. I usually keep the LCD tucked up against the body just like the rear LCD on any other camera. But at a moments notice, I can flip it out and rotate it. It rotates 90-degrees down for overhead shots and a full 180-degrees the other way so you can take a self-portrait while watching yourself on the LCD. For storage, it flips closed with the LCD screen fully protected.
With its bright lens and low-noise sensor, the quality of photos taken in dim light is very good. The lens opens to f/2.8 at the wide-angle end of it’s zoom range (28-140mm in 35mm film equivalent) and f/4.5 at the telephoto end.
ISO ranges from 80 to 3200. I haven’t used ISO 1600 or 3200, but as I mentioned before, the G11 captures photos with low noise at ISO 800 and below. This is quite an improvement over my old Panasonic Lumix LX2 which is a bit noisy even at its lowest ISO of 100. It’s successor, the Panasonic Lumix LX3 may have improved high-ISO performance. I’ll find out when I review it next.
Buttons and Controls
When evaluating cameras, ease-of-use is a biggy. The last thing I want do to is to have to search through umpteen menus to change common settings. The G11 meets my expectations in most areas.
First, the bad news. Formatting or erasing a card in the Canon G11 is a bit tedious. They both require nine or ten button presses. This is an operation that I’ll be performing every day when I travel. On my Nikons, it’s a matter of holding down two buttons for a couple of seconds. Why can’t it be as simple with the G11? Canon, if you’re trying to protect me from accidentally erasing my card, thanks, but I can handle the responsibility.
Other functions are handled better:
- Changing the focus point involves pressing one button (the AF Frame Selector) and rotating the rear control dial. Or you can click on the control dial – it acts as a joystick when clicked – for finer movements.
- ISO has its own dedicated knob on the top of the camera, so changing ISO is really easy.
- Metering mode has its own rear button. Push it and use the control dial to move between evaluative (Nikon calls this matrix), center-weighted and spot.
- Exposure compensation has its own dedicated knob. Now, that’s a pro feature! It has a range of plus or minus 2 stops in one-third stop increments.
- Four points on the control dial allow easy access to manual focus, macro mode, flash settings and the self-timer.
- In the center of the control dial is a small and ubiquitous button that you’ll use all the time: the hip-sounding func set button. Press this once and you have easy access to settings for:
- white balance
- “My Colors” which allows you to see in black-and-white on the LCD. You can also choose other modes designed to mimic various film types such as vivid, positive and a few others. Unfortunately, this does not work when shooting raw or even raw plus jpeg.
- flash compensation
- the built-in neutral density filter (reduces aperture or shutter speed to simulate a 3-stop ND filter)
- shooting mode (single-shot or two types of continuous shooting)
- image size and quality (raw and six different jpeg modes). Another button press allows you to choose fine or normal quality for the jpegs.
Customize Your Camera
The Canon G11 allows you to extensively customize the way your camera works. It also allows you to save your commonly used menu settings for instant recall with a single button click or turn of a dial.
- Two custom settings modes (C1 and C2). These two custom modes couldn’t be simpler to us. Turn the mode dial on top of the camera to activate them. You might use C1 for action photography and C2 to shoot small jpegs for the web. Once you set them up, one turn of the dial changes a slew of settings instantly. When you’re done, turn the dial back to Av (if you’re an aperture-priority photographer like me) to return to your regular settings.
- My Menu. Up to five commonly used settings can be stored in this menu which can be set to be the first menu to appear when the Menu button is pressed. The other two non-customizable menus can still be reached by scrolling to them. Some of your choices here are quite useless – who uses digital zoom or blink detection? – but I did find five that I may use frequently:
- Flash Control. I’ll use this a lot, but it’s easier to get to – two button presses instead of three – by clicking the flash button and then the menu button.
- IS Mode. Image stabilization is buried in the regular menu, so now I’ll be able to turn it on or off quickly.
- Record RAW+JPEG. I might use this mode at times. It’s also deeply buried in the regular menu.
- AF-assist Beam. Turn the focus-assist light on or off.
- Servo AF. Press the shutter half-way and continue to auto-focus so you can follow moving subjects.
- The Shortcut button. This is the small button marked with an S on the rear of the camera in the upper left. I set mine to focus lock which is the only one of the ten choices that seemed useful. Now, while I am photographing, I can lock focus by pushing the S button and move the camera to recompose without it re-focusing.
The LCD display is large and bright and it displays a lot of info about your photographs. By pushing the Display button (DISP) you can cycle through several pages of info about your photograph (two in shooting mode and three in playback) or turn the LCD off altogether.
The information that is displayed is fully customizable, so one page might show nothing but the image while another might show exposure settings and such. You can choose to display grid lines for keeping your horizons level, a histogram, and a couple of others options.
My favorite view is Focus Check. While reviewing an image, you can see the focus point for that photo and zoom in to check for sharpness. You can also scroll around the rest of the image to check focus. No more excuses for fuzzy photos.
The built-in flash does an excellent job as fill-flash when the flash compensation is dialed down two-thirds of a stop. I’d avoid any other use of the built-in flash. Since it’s so close to the axis of the lens, using it as your main light is sure to give you that unpleasant deer-in-the-headlights look.
Setting the flash is pretty easy. There is a dedicated flash button where you can turn it off and on. Then, you can set:
- Flash Mode – auto or manual.
- Flash Exposure Compensation – when flash mode is auto, set this in 1/3-stop increments in a range of plus or minus two stops.
- Flash Output – in manual mode, set output to minimum, medium, or maximum.
- Slow-Synchro – the shutter stays open after the flash to capture some of the ambient light.
- Shutter Sync – 1st- or 2nd-curtain (flash fires at the end of the exposure instead of the beginning)
- Red Eye Lamp – if you have to use the built-in flash for portraits, turn this on.
- Safety FE - exposure is adjusted to avoid blowing out highlights
Pop on an external flash, such as the Canon 580 EX II, and you’ll immediately notice two things. The first is how ridiculous this setup looks: the flash is bigger than the camera! The rig is top-heavy but, fortunately, the flash does make a nice carrying handle. You can hold it with your left hand while your right holds the camera.
The second thing you’ll notice is that the external flash works beautifully. The extra distance between flash and lens improves the look of your photos tremendously. And you can bounce it: something that’s impossible with the built-in flash. While the G11 does not support every feature of Canon’s more advanced flash units, the G11 does communicate with the external Canon flash to create beautiful exposures.
What about us Nikon owners? Will we need to buy a Canon flash to use with our new G11?
Technically, the answer is no. My Nikon SB-800 flash mounts on the Canon hot-shoe perfectly. However, none of the camera-settings data is transmitted from the camera to the flash, so the power of Nikon’s i-TTL flash system is unavailable. You’ll have to set the flash to manual or auto (A) and make sure you don’t block the sensor with your hand. You’ll also need to manually set the zoom, aperture, and ISO – or in manual mode, the flash power – on the flash.
You can use the SB-800 in wireless remote mode if you set it to the SU-4 setting. The SB-800 will sense the light from the G11’s built-in flash. I set the G11 flash to manual and minimum power to allow it to trigger the SB-800, while preventing it from adding much light to my scene. An off-camera flash cord, such as the Nikon SC-28 TTL Remote Cord, also works with the SB-800 and the G11.
I was able to get some nice photos using my SB-800, but if I thought I’d be using an external flash often with the G11, I’d buy a Canon flash for it.
The Good, the Bad and the Indifferent
The Canon Powershot G11 has a lot going for it and a few areas that are lacking. Let’s recap the pros and cons, mention a few other features and explore some of the G11’s idiosyncrasies.
- High-quality images: both raw and jpeg.
- Solid construction that feels good in your hands.
- Lots of buttons and dials dedicated to common functions.
- Optical viewfinder.
- Fully-articulated LCD screen.
- Very little noise up to ISO 800.
- Good high-speed continuous shooting: 8 raw images in 10 seconds.
- Excellent lens specs: 28-140mm zoom with aperture range of f/2.8 to f/8
- Shutter speeds from 1 second to 1/4000 in most modes.
- Built-in Neutral Density filter (-3 stops) allows panning with motion blur in bright sunlight.
Focuses quickly for a compact camera.
- Good battery life.
- Flash sync at up to 1/2000
- Image stabilization.
- Easy-to-set flash compensation.
- Even easier exposure compensation setting.
- Sophisticated manual focus options.
- Custom white balance.
- Fast continuous shooting (for a compact).
- Sophisticated flash hot shoe.
- Accepts an optional shutter release cable (RS60-E3 Remote Switch)
- Several ways to store custom user settings.
- Panorama Stitch Assist helps overlap your images while you’re shooting.
- Poorly located tripod mount prevents access to battery or SD card when using a tripod.
- VGA-quality movie mode is strictly for amateurs.
- Buttons on the left side easy to change inadvertently.
- Not quite pocket-sized.
- Focuses slower than an SLR (all compacts have this problem).
- Erasing/formatting the SD card takes too many button presses
- No filter threads on the lens.
- No BULB mode in manual exposure (15 seconds maximum exposure time).
- No black-and-white mode when shooting raw.
- Lousy users manual – nearly impossible to find what you’re looking for.
- Battery takes nearly 2-1/2 hours to fully charge.
- Face recognition – might be nice for family snapshots, but that’s about it.
- Blink detection – another nice snapshot feature.
- Quick Shot Mode – a superfluous semi-automatic mode.
- Digital zoom – no self-respecting photographer would ever enable this feature.
- Scene modes – fun to play with, but superfluous for an experienced photographer.
- Low light mode – boosts ISO up to 12,800 but only for low-quality jpegs.
Canon and other manufacturers offer a lot of accessories for the G11. You’ll need an extra battery and a camera pouch or bag for sure. How about lens adapters to increase your zoom range? Click on any of the products below to learn more about them and check prices:
- Read other articles in my series about traveling light: The Lightweight Photographer.
- For a thorough review of the Canon Powershot G11 from a more scientific point-of-view, check out dpreview.
- Canon’s website has plenty of information about the G11 including sample photos here: Canon Powershot G11.
- Thanks to my good friend, artist Mary-Ella Keith for lending me the Canon G11 for testing.
The Canon Powershot G11 can create professional-quality images. It’s easy – and even fun – to use. The only thing keeping me from running out to buy one right now is its size. What I really want is something I can slip into a shirt pocket when I wouldn’t otherwise carry a camera. The search goes on.