Perfect Travel Cameras:
Canon Powershot G Series Review

Pha That Luang in Vientiane, Laos

Contents

Between DSLRs and Compacts: A Compromise

Every photograph we’ve taken on our zig-zag home, from Shanghai to Cape Town, is the handiwork of our Canon Powershot G10. It’s an in-betweener, a compromise between power and portability, but Claire and I love ours. It doesn’t fit easily into a pocket, but we carry it on long walks without noticing its weight, and pull it out subtly, without intimidating people or drawing attention to ourselves. It’s a compact, not a DSLR; used well, outdoors or in plenty of light, its photographs meet the exacting standards of glossy magazines; in low light, we have to crank up the ISO and slow the shutter speed down to a crawl, producing images with blurred subjects or too much noise.

We bought it in 2010, not long after we decided to set off again. We knew we wanted a camera that could shoot RAW, uncompressed images when we started our hunt through Shanghai’s cavernous camera markets. Words we had written between England and China, during our first overland journey, were accepted by South Africa’s top travel magazine, but the accompanying photos were not. They were well composed, we were told, but too small, and we did not want to repeat the disappointment of rejection. Initially, we looked at the most portable DSLRs on the market, like the Olympus E-420. When a shop assistant pulled it from a box and gave it to us to handle, the Olympus didn’t have the right heft. We were embarking on an overland journey of over 40,000 kilometres. In places with muggers and pickpockets, it would draw attention to us. It would need its own bag, with a space for its detachable lens, and because it was the smallest DSLR around, it was not actually that powerful. The G10, when we found it, made more sense: it had a 5x optical zoom, which would make photographing far away wildlife difficult, but gave us enough reach for most other situations. It was kitted out to be used manually, with an ISO dial on its top and easy access to F-stops and shutter speeds, but on the automatic setting it worked just like a point and shoot. In the beginning, that’s how we used it. Our results in auto were respectable, but the G10 invited us into manual, and turned out to be a good teacher.

Claire is still learning, but I now use it almost entirely in manual. We’re proud of our photographs, especially some of our photo essays, like Luang Prabang: The Elements of Heritage and Bubbling Over, which captures something of the sensory overload we experienced at the largest gathering of women in the world. I occasionally wish that I had a DSLR, but at the low-end, in a similar price range, they don’t offer significantly more power or clarity. An aperture with a wider range is what I would want most. If the G10’s went lower than F2.8 in low-light, moving subjects would be easier to keep sharp. If it went higher than F8.0 in sunlight, my photographs would have greater depth of field, but lugging around a high-end DSLR, with a zoom larger than 5x, would make me feel even more out of place in simple villages, where refrigerators and televisions are rare, and I think I might often wish that I was carrying my G10 instead.

The Powershot G10 has since been superseded by Canon’s G11, G12 and G1 X. All the cameras in the Powershot G range are designed with the same goal in mind: cramming as much power as possible into a compact. Canon’s progress has not been entirely smooth. The G10’s 14.7 megapixel CCD sensor, for example, was replaced with a smaller 10 megapixel sensor in the G11 and G12. The G1 X has a 14.3 megapixel CMOS censor, of the same kind found in Canon’s low and mid-range DSLRs, but a narrower lens. The wide 28–140 mm lens that comes with the G10, 11 and 12 is among my favourite of its features. Canon’s progress with the G range’s video quality has been steadier: my G10 shoots video at 480p, the G12 shoots at 720p and the G1 X at 1080p.


Photojournalist Gary Knight talks about setting up the G10 to imitate a 35mm camera.

Any compact is a compromise, but sometimes professional photographers need an in-betweener too. Last year, during the Arab Spring, the freelance photographer John D McHugh used a G12 to photograph protests in Bahrain. In an interview posted to the BBC’s Viewfinder blog, McHugh gave the same reasons for his choice that I have, here:

When protests started in Bahrain journalists rushed to the island kingdom. But soon they were being detained at the airport, some were held for 16 hours, and their professional filming and photographic equipment was being seized. So when I travelled in, I brought the smallest kit I could, a small handheld HD video camera that looks like a phone, and a compact Canon G12, that shoots stills and video…With my unobtrusive compact camera, I shot these photographs and recorded audio, barely noticed by people. There was an air of hope, of expectation and the small camera made me inconspicuous, allowing me to capture moments that wouldn’t have been possible if I was working with my usual kit.

Like journalists, tourists are conspicuous, and a chunky DSLR with a long, nosy lens only makes you stand out more. Just as there were moments McHugh could only capture with his G12, there are moments that call for a DSLR, like wildlife photography, but for photographing sites and scenery in sunshine, the Powershot G series cameras rival most DSLRs. For photographing people, they are in some ways even better, and it is photographs of people that capture the magic of travel best. A travel camera, on a long trip, is a tool you will use almost every day. If I had chosen to travel with a bulky, invasive camera, I think I would easily have found it a burden, and as often as not, I’d have left it at my guesthouse. Luckily, I didn’t. I carry my G10 everywhere, and it is the photographs I have taken at unexpected moments, when a festival procession suddenly snakes its way down the streets of an old town, that I cherish most.

Canon Powershot G Series Comparison Table

The Canon Powershot G10, G11, G12 and G1 X cameras side-by-side

Powershot G12Powershot G11Powershot G10
Release DateApril 2012September 2010October 2009October 2008
Sensor
resolution, size, type
14.3 MP
4352 × 2248
1.5″ CMOS
10 MP
3648 × 2736
1/1.7″ CCD
10 MP
3648 × 2736
1/1.7″ CCD
14.7 MP
4416 × 3312
1/1.7″ CCD
Lens zoom, aperture28–112 mm (4×)
f/2.8–5.8
28–140 mm (5×)
f/2.8–4.5
28–140 mm (5×)
f/2.8–4.5
28–140 mm (5×)
f/2.8–4.5
Image processorDIGIC 5DIGIC 4DIGIC 4DIGIC 4
LCD screen
size, subpixels
3.0″ vari-angle
920,000
2.8″ vari-angle
461,000
2.8″ vari-angle
461,000
3.0″ fixed
461,000
Size
W×H×D
(mm)
117 × 81 × 65112.1 × 76.2 × 48.3112 × 76 × 48109 × 78 × 46
Weight
(body, g)
492351355350

Examples taken with our Powershot G10

The pictures below were taken in Luang Prabang in Laos and Trivandrum in India with our Powershot G10. I chose them to illustrate the camera’s strengths and weaknesses, not because they are the best examples of our photography. I haven’t tweaked them in Photoshop either, and if you want to see prettier pictures, you should take a look at our photo essays.

The examples below need some explanation. The most important thing to bear in mind is that the G10 takes extremely large photographs – photographs larger, at full resolution, than many DSLRs. Its 14.7 megapixel sensor captures images at 4416px × 3312px, or 155.79cm × 116.84cm, and the noise captured by this large sensor at low light was part of the reason Canon put a smaller, less noisy sensor into the G11 and G12. That said, it’s rare to want to display or print photos at roughly a metre and a half  on either side, and when you reduce the size of an image, and put it through noise filters in a photo editor, the problem becomes much less noticeable.

There are two versions of every photo, one framed as I intended when I took it and one cropped to give an idea of noise and clarity at full resolution. Clicking on each image will open up a larger version. They’re in order of available light, from least to most.

Brahmin Boys at the Attukal Pongala Festival in Trivandrum India

Brahmin Boys at the Attukal Pongala Festival in Trivandrum India

The boys above were moving quickly through the Attukal Devi Temple, in a procession that culminated with them offering themselves to the goddess as surrogate sons. My ISO was set to a relatively high 400 and my aperture, at F2.8, was as wide-open as it could be. With the G10’s built in flash, I brought down the shutter speed to one sixtieth of a second, so the fidgeting, fast moving boys wouldn’t be a blur. At the size above, the noise is hardly noticeable; if you click on the image, you can see it clearly.

A boy smiling at he proceeds through the Attukal Devi Temple

A boy smiling at he proceeds through the Attukal Devi Temple

This is a section of the same photograph, cropped to give some idea of noise at full resolution. It’s bad – so bad that it’s surprising how disguised it is in the first picture, which is only smaller and hasn’t been through a noise filter.

A statue of Hanuman, the monkey god, inside the Attukal Devi Temple

A statue of Hanuman, the monkey god, inside the Attukal Devi Temple

The vibrant colours inside of the Attukal Devi Temple only added to the sensory overload of the Attukal Pongala Festival. The photograph above was taken in similar light to the photograph of the boys, but because the subject was static I could turn off the flash, crank the ISO down to 200 and, with the aperture still at F2.8, get my shutter speed down to one sixth of a second – or ten times slower than I used for the boys making their way to the temple’s shrine. The colours are bright, everything is clear and with a small adjustment to its contrast in Photoshop, it’d be a pleasing photo.

Hanuman close up, with the temple's brightly painted ceiling in the background

Hanuman close up, with the temple's brightly painted ceiling in the background

You can barely see noise or blur at the size above. Open up the larger version and you can just make it out, but a small adjustment of the ISO, from 400 to 200, has already made a remarkable difference.

Dusk at Wat That Luang in Luang Prabang

Dusk at Wat That Luang in Luang Prabang

The photograph above was taken in the day’s last light. I couldn’t have taken it without the G10’s wide-angle lens, because there was a drop behind me and I couldn’t go further back. You can see what it looked like after I put it through Photoshop by going to our photo essay on Luang Prabang’s complex heritage. My ISO was at 80, as low as the G10 can go, and my aperture at the camera’s maximum of F8.0. The shutter speed was one sixth of a second again, so I didn’t need a tripod.

The eponymous that, or stupa, at Wat That Luang

The eponymous that, or stupa, at Wat That Luang

At full size, there is very lttle noise, but with a high-end DSLR, you’d get more clarity and a much better depth of field.

The Peace Stupa at Wat Phol Phao, outside Luang Prabang

The Peace Stupa at Wat Phol Phao, outside Luang Prabang

The final example is of the road leading up to Luang Prabang’s Santi Chedi, or Peace Stupa. I had my settings at the G10’s optimum again – ISO 80 and F8.0 – but because it was midday and the sun was shining straight down on the stupa’s golden roof, my exposure time was only one 320th of a second.

The tip of the Peace Stupa at Wat Phol Phao

The tip of the Peace Stupa at Wat Phol Phao

Again, the depth of field at full size is not perfect, but look at the play of light on the tree branches and the bright blue of Laos’ sky. You could easily print this photo off at full size and few people would guess that it was taken with a compact that was first released more than two years ago.

Buy the Powershot G1 X or G12 from Amazon

The Canon Powershot G1 X

The Canon Powershot G1 X
The Canon Powershot G12

The Canon Powershot G12 X
Amazon US DescriptionThe PowerShot G1 X digital camera will inspire advanced amateurs who have embraced the G-Series to explore new realms of photographic expression, and give pros an excellent camera that complements their creative demands. The new 1.5-inch High-Sensitivity CMOS sensor approaches DSLR size, with a light-sensitive area that’s approximately 6.3 times larger than that of the PowerShot G12 digital camera. The new 14.3 Megapixel sensor, combined with a new lens and DIGIC 5 Image Processor, creates the HS SYSTEM that delivers image quality previously impossible in a compact camera, with beautiful blur, lower noise, and extraordinary resolution in low-light shooting and can shoot at ISOs of up to 12800.

Read more about the G1 X at Amazon»
The PowerShot G12 is an intelligent, compact camera which not only gives you full manual control but also aperture and shutter priority - making it the perfect model if you're after the precision and flexibility of an SLR in a more compact design. It features a 5x wide angle (28mm) zoom with optical Image Stabilizer and ground- breaking Hybrid IS technology for significant blur-reduction - so you can shoot at longer focal lengths and in lower light conditions without the need for a tripod.

Read more about the G12 at Amazon»
Amazon USBuy Now: $799.00*Buy Now: $419.00*
Amazon UKBuy Now: £597.00*Buy Now: £364.99*
Amazon DEBuy Now: €795,95*Buy Now: €422,95*

*Price at time of research

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