tl;dr: Is this the SLR owner's dream pocket camera? Almost! It will do for now, but a tiny bit better lens and image sensor would make it perfect.
The Canon PowerShot G11 comes from a long line of G-series advanced-amateur digital cameras, and is very much like the most recent PowerShot G10 in all the best ways, but differs a little bit by improving on one of the G10's greatest weaknesses: the image sensor. Another major win for the G11 is the fold-out swivel screen, which comes in very handy at many of the events at which I (and many other SLR owners) will be using the camera.
Let's start with a brief overview:
- The G11 has a 10 megapixel image sensor, which is 1/1.7" large (16mm x 9.4mm)—one of the largest in a consumer point and shoot camera, but a far cry from the generous 23.6mm x 15.8mm DX sensor on my D90 (more sensor area = better light gathering = less noise). This image sensor drops 4 megapixels from the G10, but that's a good thing - the images come through with less noise.
- The G11 has a tilt-and-swivel 2.8" LCD display, with 461,000 pixels (nice and bright, sharp, and easy to read).
- The G11 has plenty of control dials on top, and buttons to access most any important setting without diving into menus. (MAJOR plus from me - it's like using my old manual Minolta X-700 SLR).
- The G11 has a paltry, but acceptable optical viewfinder. It won't get any awards, though - you can see the lens sticking out, and it only shows about 80% of the imaging area (!).
- The G11 is black and svelte, especially compared to a small DSLR like my old D40. Definitely pocketable, though nowhere near the slim-and-trim feel of a Canon IXUS/S-series camera.
- The G11 has a pretty nice 5x optical zoom lens (equivalent to 28-140mm) which starts at f/2.8 on the wide end. Not the best speed, but it's pretty sharp around the edges in my tests, and can hold it's own indoors, with proper shooting technique. The optical IS (Image Stabilization) is helpful, too.
- The G11 has a flash hot shoe on the top, which allows you to either mount an external flash or remote control any number of flashes. See Strobist for some creative strobe lighting ideas.
The reason I bought the G11 was to substitute for my Nikon SLR system while I was vacationing in Rome. I had no idea what kind of battery life the thing would get, so I went on a limb and didn't buy an extra... I just made sure I had the charger and the appropriate European power adapter on hand! Turns out, I could go three days in Rome, recording videos, taking pictures, and reviewing them, with one charge!
Camera Body and Handling
The body's face is made of sturdy metal, while the rear and many other parts are some sort of strengthened plastic (it survives being banged around in the pocket quite well—make sure you turn in the swivel screen, though!) and it's a little fatter and wider than an iPhone or iPod Classic.
Taking pictures is a breeze, one-or-two handed, and the viewfinder is tolerable. I took about a quarter of my pictures one-handed with the viewfinder alone, trusting in the camera's metering (which could be a little better in cloudy conditions!), and didn't really have a problem. Just wish the lens didn't take up 5% of the frame!
The swivel screen helps you take candid portraits very easily!
The swivel screen is solid, and feels a heck of a lot more fluid than the old flip-out screen I had on the Canon G2 (I have used the G1, G2, G3 and G6 before).
The shutter button is kinda small, but is not hard to get used to. The command dials on the top (one for exposure, one for ISO) are not too easy to switch one-handed (the surface coating scratches your finger if you're not careful), but are great additions to this camera. I have my qualms about any retractable-lens camera, but that's what you get when you go this small.
SLR-User's Dream All-Around Camera?
I shoot weddings, events, portraits, and nature pictures with my Nikon SLRs. I've used the D3, D300, D90, D200, D70, D40 and Canon 5D mark II, Rebel XT, and a plethora of other point-and-shoot cameras. I have really fallen in love with the feel, the sound, and the image quality (even up to ISO 800-1600) from the higher-end Nikons, so I am judging the G11 against them (handicapping it, of course, due to it's much lower price, fixed lens, and small image sensor!).
Pretty good, even at ISO 200. I'd stick to ISO 80-200 on this camera.
From a strictly image-quality perspective, the camera's images at ISO 80-200 feel like shooting on the D90 from ISO 200-800 - there's always a tiny bit of grain, even in the lowest ISO images, with the best lighting conditions. It's definitely nothing to get worried about, but I don't know if I would use the G11 for professional portraits—except as a quick backup camera. (I only shoot in RAW mode, so I don't know how JPEGs would compare. Does anyone shoot JPEG anymore?).
It's still hard to judge the shutter delay on the G11. I've been spoiled with 20-40ms response time on the DSLRs, and also a pretty high rate of fire in any mode. The G11 is a bit slower, and I've missed a few action shots due to this delay. I also can get peeved by the ~1 second delay between pictures... but these are small quibbles for me.
The 5x zoom lens is pretty nice—it goes from relatively wide (can't quite fit the whole colosseum, but it's wide enough for my purposes) to tight for short distances. The DOF (depth of field) isn't that great either, but you can't expect too much out of a tiny image sensor.
So, would this substitute for my D90? In a pinch? Yes. As a convenient travel camera? Definitely yes! As my normal body? Definitely no.
I like the thing, but will use it mostly for small events and vacations, or as a quick backup to my D90 when I don't want to lug it around with a 70-200 f/2.8 and 50mm f/1.4 (my two favorite lenses).
You want to shoot video with a digital photo camera? Tsk tsk. Few people actually (should) care about the video on this thing. (Just like few really care about video on the D90).
If you really want to know, it does okay at 640x480 (480p), but no HD for you. I don't care. I take video for memories. If I'm going to produce a major Hollywood film, I'm going to get the right gear. Here's a set of clips from around the city:
As of today (October 18, 2009), neither Apple nor Adobe have released updates to allow the G11 RAW files (.CR2) to be opened by Photoshop, Aperture or Lightroom natively. To import the RAW files into Aperture, I'm using Adobe's free DNG converter (it takes almost any camera RAW file) and converting everything to a .dng file before importing. You need the latest beta version to open G11 CR2 files.
View the Roma image gallery on Flickr, highlighting some pictures from Rome (taken on the weekend of 17 October, 2009). Judge for yourself!