April 19, 2012

review: Canon PowerShot G1 X

A good all-around walk-about camera is something I’ve been looking for, for a while now. The Fuji X100 is arguably the most desirable of the compact cameras on the market right now, but only has a fixed lens … and some auto-focus issues in low light. But there are a number of other serious compact cameras on the market now.

As I mentioned in my recent review of the Fuji X10, this year is going to be an exciting year with all the major D-SLR releases from Canon and Nikon, as well as some high-spec mirror-less cameras. The  Canon G1 X (B&H) and the Fuji X-Pro-1 (B&H) and Sony’s two cameras, the Sony NEX-5N (B&H) and Sony NEX-7 (B&H), all looks really good options for photographers who are serious about their  photography, but want more compact options.

I’ve had a loaner Canon G1 X (B&H) for the past few weeks, to see how I like it. What interested me most about the G1X is that the sensor size is just smaller than the Canon’s APS-C sensor. The larger sensor promises better image quality.

But a camera is quite often more than the sum of the parts – it should have a feel that appeals to the photographer.

Features and Spec of the Canon G1 X

They key features and specs are:

  • 14.3 megapixel CMOS Sensor
  • 3.0″ LCD Screen that flips out
  • high quality zoom lens,  (35mm equivalent: 28-112mm)
  • lens aperture: f/2.8 (wide) – 5.8 (tele)
  • Hybrid Image Stabilizer
  • Optical Viewfinder
  • 1080p 24 fps Full HD Video
  • High Dynamic Range Scene Mode
  • native aspect ratio is 4:3

… and a bunch of exposure modes, metering modes and white balance modes. And such.

Some of these specs are standard for any camera these days, such as 1080p video. I don’t think we’ll ever see a camera (or smart phone) on the market that doesn’t offer 1080p HD video.

The optical viewfinder is entirely under-whelming if you’re used to something as “oh wow!” as the optical viewfinder of the Fuji X100. There is a diopter adjustment, but as much as I am a photographer used to looking through a viewfinder, with the G1 X it was more convenient to just look at the back of the camera.  The optical viewfinder only shows 80% of the frame, and the lens barrel obscures part of the frame. Really not wonderful.

The lens has a sweet range. Very useful, but the widest aperture at the longer focal lengths become f5.6 and this drops the shutter speed much lower … exactly when you need the faster shutter speed to compensate for the camera shake inherent in using longer focal lengths. The Fuji X10 (B&H), has an f/2.0 – f/2.8 aperture, but with a much smaller sensor.

In using the camera, I found the Image Stabilization to be quite effective.

Oh, and there is a minutely small pop-up flash too. But we won’t mention this.

Handling of the Canon G1 X

If you’re used to the Canon G12, then you’re going to feel right at home with the G1 X. The top plate will immediately be familiar, and also feel familiar. The G1 X isn’t much larger than the G12, except that the G12 lens retracts more.

The LCD screen flips out, making it easy to get images with the camera held high, or from low angles.

The button layout is fairly logical, and easily understood.  The one button that was oddly placed for me, is the “Play” button which is recessed from your fingertip’s touch unless the LCD screen is flipped out.

The camera is comfortably chunky in your hands, and it is as compact a camera as you could make a camera be with this size sensor and lens. The lens retracts so that the camera is only 2,6″ long on the lens’ axis.

The ‘S’ button there on the left-hand side, is a customizable button with which you can access and change any one of 16 settings, including White balance, Drive Mode, Self Timer, ND filter, Aspect Ratio, RAW / JPE, AF Lock.

There is a knurled knob in the front to change the shutter speed when in Tv mode. In Av model, this affects the aperture.  However, when you’re shooting in manual exposure mode, the front knob controls the shutter speed (still), and the aperture value is changed via the rotating dial on the back. Typical of Canon D-SLRs as well. Simplicity.

Simplicity.  Yet, this is a camera where you would need to delve into the manual to figure out all the settings. For example, the focusing modes.

Focusing modes

AF Frame Mode
- FlexiZone – where you can change the position and size of the AF area, and then lock focus.
- Face AiAF – the camera detects faces, and then focuses.
- Tracking AF – for action photos where your subject is moving.

The AF-point zoom feature is interesting. If you hold the shutter button down (without tripping the shutter), an enlarged view of the focused area appears. Nice enough to see if your subject is in focus. However, this feature also interferes with your composition, since part of your subject is now obscured by the enlarged portion. You need to enable / disable this in the menu.  Easy enough to access, but it’s one of those things – this feature is handy, until it isn’t. Then it’s just in the way … but you need to go into the menu to disable it.

Setting the AF Frame Mode, is one of those things where you’d have to go through the manual.

Which brings us to the Auto-Focus performance of the Canon G1 X 

For me, it felt like the camera took a bit too long to grab focus. Since Canon appears to be aiming this camera at the serious photographer market, it just felt to me that the AF wasn’t up to par compared to the build quality of the camera.

Also the maximum shooting rate is a mere 1.6 frames. Very slow for a mirror-less camera.

There is an AF assist beam which helps in low light. However, this is the kind of thing I immediately disable on any camera. And the beeping. Ugh!

While the G1 X does take the Canon speedlites, you only have TTL control in one of the Auto exposure modes.  With manual exposure mode on the camera, you lose TTL flash. That just doesn’t make sense.

Be aware that the G1 X doesn’t focus particularly close, unless if you flip into the Macro Mode … where the AF performance goes down even further.

From the spec sheet:
Wide angle : 1.3′ (0.40 m) – Infinity
Tele setting: 4.3′ (1.31 m) – Infinity

Video:

In playing around with the Video recording mode, it was frustrating that you couldn’t set aperture / shutter speed or ISO to change your exposure. Not even the Exposure Compensation dial on the top of the camera applied. To change your exposure, you have to hit the Exposure Lock Button ( * ) and then dial your exposure compensation via a new menu on the screen. Not entirely intuitive. Once again, it is one of those things you have to delve in the manual for.

The Video quality looked good though.

Image Quality of the Canon G1 X

Now, the sensor is the most attractive thing about the Canon G1 X. The sensor, as mentioned, is slightly smaller (20%) than the APS-C sensors on the Canon D-SLRs. But the pixel count of the G1 X is slightly lower. So this would imply that the image quality from the G1 X should rival the crop-sensor D-SLRs from Canon.  As an aside, the G1 X sensor is 4 times later than the sensor of the Fuji X10.

Elmira is the same model that I used for my initial review of the Canon 5D Mark III high-ISO performance. Using a camera like the Canon G1 X for this type of portrait photography on location, felt clumsy though because I am much more used to working with an SLR. The image quality is great though. This was shot at 800 ISO. The high-resolution file can be downloaded from here. (I did use the healing brush on a few skin blemishes.)

The aperture I used was (according to the EXIF data), f5.8
Now, with a smaller sensor, the apparent depth-of-field is affected. So this would be equivalent to about f11 on a full-frame SLR. Which means, that if you like shallow depth-of-field, you need to look elsewhere than a compact camera.

A camera like the Canon G1 X is much more suited to general photography. A camera to walk around with and explore places with. I strolled along the Highline in Manhattan, grabbing a few frames of people and my surroundings there.

I was able to hold the camera up high over my head, using the flip-out LCD screen to get the composition I wanted. (Shot in manual exposure mode.)

Playing around with how the sun fell on the front of the lens, so I could get flare. The lens seems to be quite resistant against flaring. Even here, it kept the contrast. Impressive.

Again, shot in manual exposure mode to get the exact exposure I want. One quirk of the camera, it remembers your specific ISO for manual metering mode … which could be different than your chosen ISO for the Auto exposure modes.

So it might even make sense to have your camera set to Auto ISO with the camera to P mode … but have a specific ISO setting for Manual exposure mode when you flip into full manual control of your exposure.

The high-resolution file can be downloaded from here.

Moving further afield than the Highline …

The Jessy Carolina Hot Mess, busking in Washington Square Park. (Jessy Carolina is out of frame here.)

The high-resolution file can be downloaded from here.  (100 ISO)

I was quite happy with the results from this camera – the images looked good.

The G1 X also offers in-camera processing of images via Image Effects … something I didn’t play with, but these are options if you enjoy messing with the images in-camera.

There’s a range of effects you can apply to images:
- HDR (where the camera takes 3 images, and combine them for greater tonal range)
- Toy Camera Effect
- Fish-Eye Effect
- Poster Effect
- Nostalgic
- Monochrome
and more.

Canon G1 X – the final verdict

The Canon G1 X was a camera that I was quite keen to try out. The promise of superb image quality from a compact camera is very appealing.

The image quality certainly is there. 800 ISO looked very good, and even 1600 ISO looked good. The lens delivers, and I couldn’t see any softness or anything that bothered me.

The controls and user interface is for the most part quite intuitive, but you will have to go through the manual to get the most out of this camera.

For $800 this camera is positioned at an interesting intersection – low enough in price and with great image quality, to appeal to the serious photographer who wants a camera to carry around. But for a little bit more money, an entry-level SLR with kit lens could be had. A tough decision to make.

You can order the Canon G1 X from B&H via this affiliate link.

 

{ 10 comments. } Add a Comment

1 Mark Coons April 19, 2012 at 9:42 am

I picked up the G1X when it came out to use as my general purpose (translation: anytime I leave the house without a DSLR) and have mostly enjoyed using it.

I like the lens and the quality of images it and the sensor create. Much better than my G10. The focusing learning curve frustated me at first and probably will again as I will go long stretches when I don’t use this camera. I definitely need to turn off the AF-point zoom, it really irritates me and I’ll look that up tonight!

Which brings me to my main complaint with this camera and that is the manual. I’m getting along in years and still appreciate a paper manual. I understand they are trying to hold costs down but come on, how much can the manual cost? When I am out with my camera I like to have the manual in the car (or bag if I have one) in case I have questions about how to do something. That’s kind of hard to do when you need a computer to do it.

Thanks for the review Neil!

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2 Cameron April 19, 2012 at 11:58 am

Thanks for the review Neil. I think these high spec compacts carry a lot of potential, but by offering so much camera, they wind up being kind of disappointing in actual use due to functionality and usability quirks (or being so different from DSLRs that they’re difficult to use seamlessly). I once had a G11, but wound up selling it for many of the issues you cite in your review of the G1X (slow auto focus, high f-stop at telephoto end) making me think that despite a larger sensor, the camera is still going to be frustrating for non-sensor size reasons and make me long for a DSLR. In my mind it makes more sense to get something like a Canon S100, whose physical size and sensor size are so much smaller, that it doesn’t bring with it DSLR expectations nor suggest it will provide a DSLR experience that it ultimately can’t deliver. What it does deliver therefore remains impressive, and whatever functionality frustrations I have will be answered with a “what did you expect from a compact point-and-shoot?”

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3 Neil vN April 19, 2012 at 6:15 pm

… which is why I still think my iPhone 4s is the best walk-about camera that there is. It even plays music, and has my calendar, and I can surf the web on it and check my emails and text … and it even has a built-in flashlight for when I need to see in the dark. All of this, AND 1080p video. Mind-boggling.

Neil vN

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4 Joram April 19, 2012 at 7:55 pm

The picture quality is much better than my Canon 30D with a kit lens.

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5 Kim-Sung Jie April 20, 2012 at 5:57 am

I purchased this camera in March 2012 specifically for my overseas holiday to Asia. I already have a couple of SLR’s (Canon 5D Mk2 & 400D) but they are just too heavy and bulky to carry around and especially on a holiday when you consider baggage weight restrictions.

The image quality is excellent and probably even better than my old 400D SLR. The camera itself is easy to use and to handle.

Overall, I’m very happy with the camera. If you need a good holiday or travel camera the Canon G1 X will be more than up to the task.

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6 Gordon Cahill April 23, 2012 at 7:04 pm

I have been so close to getting one but I can’t get past the awful close focusing distances. I’ve always liked the way that I can have a decent camera on hand that just lets me collect the little details of a day. In this area the Canon fails brilliantly. Such a shame. So close, yet so far.

Gordon

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7 Fuzzy April 30, 2012 at 9:48 pm

I too was excited about the larger sensor, with the expectation of better high ISO performance and wider dynamic range. It does that. But I’ve been disappointed in the lens’ sharpness. Maybe I have a dud, but my old G9 was sharper. My ancient Olympus 8008 is even sharper.

It’s no longer pocketable, but I can deal with that. But lack of sharpness makes me lukewarm to the $800 I spent on it.

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8 Ann Steward May 11, 2012 at 8:43 am

Thanks, Neil!! I have had th e G9 as my on the go camera FOREVER. After about 59,000,000 snapshots and spending about seven years in the bottom of my purse, it does need replaced. I will have to get one of these little #s to replace the G9.

That little G9 has persevered through living in my purse so I have to commend Canon on making SOLID p&s!!

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9 Alberta May 16, 2012 at 2:48 am

Hi Neil, I’m curious, have you ever thought of using m43 as your backup camera for wedding?

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10 Neil vN May 18, 2012 at 4:53 pm

Alberta … I am hesitant having a camera as a backup that isn’t a “proper” fully fledged DSLR. I can just imagine someone’s main camera body dying on them … which would leave them flustered and panicky, and then having to deal with a camera that just wasn’t quite up to the task in the first place. Not a good situation to be in.

I’d therefore still recommend using the right tools for the job. If the m43 cameras weren’t up to the task in the first place, then they wouldn’t be the best choice as a back-up camera.

Neil vN

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