Prosumer features, questionable quality

Jul 15, 2005 (Updated Mar 9, 2006)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Great mix of automatic modes, photographic aids, and manual controls, proven user interfaces, software bundle

Cons:Poor auto focus, poor colour in low light

The Bottom Line: Good prosumer camera if purchased at the right price. Poor auto focus is a shame to Canon's reputation. But it takes good pictures when lighting is good.

True to my "going out of market" value system (see my Bose review), I bought Canon PowerShot G5 (G5 hereafter) February of 2004, when G5 was being replaced. Within three months, G5 was pulled off the shelf.

My wife is a prosumer when it comes to camera. She already had a Canon EOS-5 and had wanted a digital unit for a while. We decided that 5M pixels, though going out of prosumer market as a category, was sufficient. Although she really had her eye on Sony F717, the price was a little too steep. Besides, she felt more comfortable with Canon's features. We did check out G5 (and several other cameras) in our favorite electronics stores before, but the actual purchase wasn't planned.

That afternoon, we dropped into a U.S. west coast electronic chain and looked again at G5. As usual, there was a "sale" on G5. Still in hesitation, we walked in the Best Buy across the street. The same camera was selling for nearly $100 less. The salesman told us it was because G5 was being discontinued. We immediately decided to make the purchase. As usual, I declined pricey store warranty. As you can see below, this could be a mistake.

An interesting note about purchase: an important decision factor was the colour and look of the body. My wife's preference for prosumer gadget aside, we were once attracted to a store by a sale on Minolta (Z5 or the like, with 12x optical zoom). But my wife couldn't stand its rounded "uncamera-like" look. Sure Sony F717 doesn't look like a camera, but it's in a different body build. If it must look like a compact, it had to be square, sturdy-look and black, my wife insisted. Months later, my wife said she would have eliminated the silverish G6 (7M pixels) for this reason.

In less than two years, we took over 25,000 pictures under varied but non-extreme conditions. We do not regret our purchase (despite known defects for which we did not want to invoke warranty). This G5 has in fact become indispensable in our life, especially after the birth of our beautiful daughter. (Partially explains why we do not want to ship the unit back for warranty service.)

=== Ease of use ===

Canon has the reputation of making great electronic gears for cameras. My wife loves EOS 5 for its automatic features.

When Canon entered the digital field, they made sure user interfaces are familiar. (This contrasts Sony's sharp design differences between DCR-TRV460 and CCD-TR818.) Although the wheels and buttons in film and digital models cannot match, Canon did its best to maintain physical consistence.

Software interface also has significant consistence. This greatly eases up learning curve. My wife picked up basic features very quickly. I had not used Canon before (my film camera was a Yashica), and felt intimidated by EOS 5's bells and whistles. But after playing with G5 for a while, I now find EOS quite manageable (and enjoyable).

=== Features ===

Standard features include auto focus, motorized manual focus (no mechanic focus), auto exposure modes (Tv, Av, program), manual exposure, built-in meter, built-in flash, built-in timer, built-in consecutive shots, motorized 4x optical zoom (35mm-140mm in 35mm film equivalent, no mechanic zoom), macro mode up to 5cm, swivel colour LCD viewfinder.

G5 has a USB interface and a 2.5mm AV jacket. I never used the USB interface, rarely the AV. Unplug the card for transfer is much easier for me.

Less used features include preset modes (auto, portrait, scenery, night scene or backlit), two custom settings modes, and 320x240 15 fps video.

- Close-up (macro focus) down to 5cm (wide angle)-15cm (telefocus). This is not the greatest in the category, but already very useful.

- 1:2.0 (wide angle)-1:3.0 (telefocus) maximum aperture. Although this is nearly standard (or minimum) in prosumer digital cameras, it is useful. My wife misses 1:1.0 constant aperture in some (expensive) Canon SLR zoom lenses.

- 15s - 1/2000s speed range (up to 1/2500s at large apertures). Again, this is average at this level, but adequate. Compared with mechanic shutters, 15s is really long, perhaps in order to compensate for the lack of B and X shutters.

- Bracket exposures (in non-program modes), bracket focus (in manual focus). Each allows you to shoot three pictures with one click, the last two shots vary exposure levels or different object focuses from your meter settings. You can set the amount of variation to your liking. They help when the conditions are difficult to determine parameters precisely and when the opportunity is too precious.

- Uses Compact Flash card. CF card may not be the most popular nor the most, eh, compact. But it is far more popular than Sony's Memory Stick. (I nearly always mentally read the latter as "memory stuck". See my Sony DCR-TRV460 review.) You can now get 1GB of Compact Flash for under $50 some times. (Although I paid much higher price before that and thought I got a deal.)

- The bundled ArtSoft computer software and the panorama stitch utility are quite useful and easy to use. (As contrast, also see my Sony DCR-TRV460 review.)

=== Pros ===

I am not going into depth of each feature in the following, but will explain what worked for us and what not. A few notes about G6's significant differences (read deficiences) are also included.

- Easy access to AEL exposure compensation. In any automatic mode, you only have to press the 4-way button in the back once, then use the trackwheel to adjust level of compensation. Because I use Av mode most of the time, it is often necessary to under expose when my subject is a small highlight in large dark background.

- You can select white balance mode (auto, sunlight, shaded, flash, incandescent, fluorescent, and warm fluorescent) in a similar way. But I feel some other features are more critical for easy access.

- Easy access to a set of other features by pressing "Function" button in the back, then use the 4-way button and trackwheel. These includes ISO-equivalent sensitivity (50, 100, 200, and 400; G5 also includes an "auto" option, which I don't quite understand, as nothing seems to happen when lighting changes) and resolution (number of pixels, maximum being, of course, 5M). In the Function menu, you can also select one of 3 levels of JPEG compression, or select raw format which uses no compression. Note: JPEG compression is lossy, meaning you cannot revert to original data. So I set compression to "Super fine" by default. Canon uses a proprietary raw format that actually does a 2 to 1 lossless compression so you can save more raw pictures. But I never played with this format.

- Single-button metering mode toggle (focus-weighed, average, spot), shooting mode toggle (single-shot, continuous shot, and timer shot). Single-push macro mode on/off, manual focus (MF) on/off, flash on/off. All have their own buttons. These are things you don't want to look in a menu.

- Pictographic display of settings in top LCD, including ISO equivalent speed, AEL compensation, white balance mode (colour temperature), shooting mode, macro on/off, flash on/off, resolution, compression quality. This is not only handy when you don't want to open the LCD view finder (to save battery, for example), but also useful for quick review/confirmation when the LCD view finder is open but settings information has auto hid. (I think auto hide settings in viewfinder is a good idea.) You have to familiarize yourself with the pictographics, of course.

- Single-push exposure freeze in Av and Tv mode. This would be immensely useful when your subject is off centre, although I use this less frequently. G5 (and Canon in general) has other means to easily compensate for exposure, like multi-zone focus. But if you engage manual focus off centre, exposure freeze could be necessary. (See discussion in manual focus.)

- Focus lock - As with most auto focus cameras, you press the shutter button half way and the focal length is locked.

- Multi-zone auto focus. In G5, Canon extended their multi-zone auto focus to continuous adjustment, so you can move your focus zone to any place in 65% of the view. This offers tremendous flexibility, although it can be slower than discrete zones. You can base auto exposure on focus zone. (The other choice is centre.) That's why exposure freeze is not so critical. <<G6 note: G6 removed continuous adjustment. I think this is a reasonable move because 7-zones are granular enough for most use, but the speed gained is invaluable.>>

- Manual focus. G5's focal range is infinity to 10cm at the centre, continuous. When you engage manual focus, macro mode and off-centre focus zone are disengaged. So you may need exposure freeze if you use auto exposure and want to move your subject off centre after focus.

- Magnified view in manual focus. To compensate for the lack of sophisticated visual focus mechanisms found in SLR's, G5 has an option to magnify focus zone in manual mode. Although the "magnification" is digital, it is adequate in most cases.

- Dual auto focus indicator. G5 has a LED by the side of the optical viewfinder to indicate successful auto focus. If the colour LCD viewfinder is open, G5 also indicates successful focus by turning the focus zone border green.

- Dual low speed alert. When speed falls below 1/60, G5 has another LED to alert you. It also displays a shaky camera pictograph on the LCD viewfinder. This can be helpful when lighting is marginal, when you move in a shaded area, or when a small aperture was used previously.

- Flash hot shoe. G5 is able to sync with external flashes, although I never really used one. I think it's probably not a good idea to attach my wife's heavy flash on G5's weak-looking body.

- Built-in neutral density filter (ND). I believe that this is a digital function but it helps. I don't really want to spend money on add-on lenses for this type of cameras. Unfortunately, this function is deep in the menu. This is one of the features I'd like to have easy access, in place of white balance - even though I change white balance from time to time. <<Note on G6: G6 removed this feature, unfortunately.>>

- Colour LCD viewfinder. G5's display is excellent in contrast and brightness, very detailed.

- Preview mode. G5 lets you preview the effect of your settings by pressing the shutter button half way. Sometimes this can cause longer shutter lag, but very helpful most of the time.

- Information display in playback mode. You can press a single button to display all information (date, time, focus, speed, aperture, even histogram), partial information (date and time), or no information.

- Easy zoom and skim in playback mode. You can use the zoom control to have a close-up look of details in your picture by zooming in, or to browse through multiple pictures by zooming out. There is even a page skip mode that allows you to quickly jump a page. G5 even doubles the one-touch flash toggle as a skip/browse/view/zoom-out toggle.

- Front zoom control. Some cameras controls zoom function from hind, requiring use of thumb. G5's zoom control is in the front, using your index finger. I find this arrangement more stable. But G5's zoom control is on the right-hand side (shutter button side), meaning that you lose the ability to shoot while zooming for explosion/implosion effects. (Unless you engage timer shoot while zooming, a highly unlikely technique.) My reasoning is, motorized zooming is not fast enough for those special effects, so it's OK to go without if the camera does not offer mechanic zoom.

- Viewfinder protection. I do not find the viewfinder swivel particularly useful in shooting. But the face-in position after use is a valuable addition to the investment.

- Quick erase. G5 has an option to auto view for 2-10 sec. after shooting, which is on by default. (That's the "freeze" you see after shooting.) You can press one button to indicate your intention to erase the picture. This will freeze the picture forever until you confirm the deletion or cancel the action using another button.

- Reversal to raw format. For consumer use, JPEG is fine. But a JPEG file cannot be reverted to raw picture, so if your camera is in JPEG mode but you got an extraordinary shot that you want the highest quality, that'd be regrettable. Not with G5 if you act quickly. Within the live review period after a shot, you can press a button to save the picture in raw format.

- Panorama assistant. If you want to stitch multiple shoots together to make a panorama picture, you can set the exposure dial to panorama mode. After each shot, G5 will displace your last shot (reduced size) by half frame on the LCD viewfinder, and display current view (also reduced) in the other half, so you can match the two frames on the go. This is so much easier (and better) than to guess. (And cheaper than professional accessory.)

- Wireless control. G5 has two infrared sensors, one in front, the other on the right-hand side. This offers great flexibility, and is practical for use in lieu of a shutter cable. (G5 does not accept the latter.) Also see "Cons" section regarding an awkward situation. <<G6 note: G6 only has front sensor, useful only for self photographing. Again, this is unfortunate.>>

- Powerful built-in flash. The manual doesn't give a rating, but it feels like 15.

- Automatic flash exposure control. This allows use of flash without calculating/manually setting aperture. But G5 buries this toggle deep in the menu. For over a year I thought there was no automatic mode.

- Manual flash exposure compensation. In Av and manual mode, you cannot use AEL compensation to skew flash exposure level, because flash exposure is solely determined by aperture. G5 includes an interesting feature to reduce flash strength in 5 increments.

- Bracket exposures in Av and Tv modes. If you are uncertain about accuracy, you can set the level of bracketing (up to +/- 3 EV) for a set of 3 pictures.

- Bracket focus in manual focus modes. If you are uncertain about accuracy, you can choose a range of focus for a set of 3 pictures.

- Continuous shooting. (For its speed, I'd rather call this consecutive shooting.) A one-touch toggle allows you to change from single shot to continuous shooting mode, then to timed shooting. The rate is approximately 2/sec for the first few shots but it depends on the memory card and its use. After the first few, interval becomes much longer.

- Timed shooting. You can choose between 2 sec timer or 10 sec. The shorter delay can be a handy quick fix when you need to shoot at low speed but don't have remote handy.

- Interval shooting. You can choose how many total shoots you want, and how long the delay is between them. This is very useful if you are serious about shooting slowly changing scenes, such as budding flowers, creeping snakes, some slow chemical reactions, even hatching eggs.

=== Cons ===

Some of these problems are general; those related to individual equipment indicate quality issues.

- Slow and difficult auto focus. Canon has made a reputation of making great auto focus lenses. But G5 is terribly slow compared to EOS 5, and has great difficulty getting focus where EOS doesn't. OK, the comparison is not (completely) fair but Canon should do better.

- Inaccurate auto focus. (Could be individual.) I have quite a few pictures where the subject is in the focus zone but focus is obviously in the back. EOS 5 never has this problem.

- Shutter lag. Sometimes you think you have a perfect preview, but it takes several seconds before a picture is taken - and what you see (saw) is not what you get. I suspect that part of this is due to poor auto focus.

- Poor colour rendition in low light. As some reviewer noted, G5 makes good pictures only at sensitivity equivalent to ISO 100. Try to use higher sensitivity and the picture quality becomes poor, especially in chromatic aberration.

- Awkward optical viewfinder location. As many have noted, the lense trunk intrudes the view. Mainly for this reason, I rarely use optical viewfinder, even though I desire to. (Saves a lot of battery life.) <<G6 note: G6 eliminated this problem.>>

- Aperture range. Smallest aperture is 1:8.0, twice as large as a standard film camera's. This was one of our first complaints. But later we noticed that all cameras in this category can only do this. I still don't know if this is due to physical limitation (diffraction, due to smaller focal length used in digital cameras) or due to mechanical limitation (production).

- No viewfinder shade. Some models of Panasonic Lumix has a foldable shade that doubles as a protective cover. This makes shooting under bright sunlight easier.

- No mechanic zoom, no mechanic focus. I consider these serious omissions for a prosumer camera, even though other products of the same body build do not have these, either.

- No B, X shutters. Not that these are frequently needed, but any entry level 35 mm camera has them. This is partially compensated by longer maximum exposure (15 s).

- Loose noise from inside lense hood. (Could be individual.) G5 has an cylinder outside the lense hood that can make occasional noise. But even after taking this cylinder off, I still hear some noise when shaking the body. I fear that the lense is not installed securely.

=== Endes gut, alles gut - nicht! ===

One (big sour) pick on G5's ease of use.

- Counter-intuitive remote control mode. G5 must be in timer mode to accept wireless control, defying my intuition. And this detail is buried in one unmarked sentence in the midst of a 200-page manual.

Although all women agree that men possess nil intuition, my wife herself could not figure out why the camera did not budge when remote control was pressed - or "depressed" as auto makers insisted on saying. Heck. I was depressed when I missed the 15-day return/exchange window, trying every way to figure it out. I called Canon's help line. The Canon representative only wanted me to ship the unit back upon my own expenses, did not do any basic troubleshooting. I then brought the camera back to the retailer's service department. The technician, whom you'd expect to have been exposed to many digital cameras, played with it and couldn't figure the problem.

So for a year and half, we regretted declining the $50 store warranty that would have permitted us to obtain a satisfactory solution without all the shipping costs and loss of use. We decided not to pursue warranty but to accept the nuance. After all, would we have bought the camera if Canon had not built a remote control for G5?

Turns out Canon did not build the remote control with users in mind. The manual and other printed guides in the package explain at length how to place battery into the remote control, what functions it has, and how to aim the remote to the camera, but devote close to no space to a counter-intuitive setting. And when the manual mentioned it, it is in an unmarked corner. I found it only after I "rented" a G6 and noted that the new G6 has the same "defect". Then I combed through the manual again, and sarcastically learned that my remote had been perfectly functional.

Happy ending? Not totally. I understand that Canon did not want to enable infrared interface in normal shooting modes due to battery life concerns. But an ordinary user definitely would expect a remote to function that way. As a compromise, Canon could do two things. One, they could use a distinct "remote mode" to highlight the fact that remote control doesn't work "out of the box". Second, they ought to describe this "mode" thing with more prominence in the manual, even in the quick guide which already includes an explanation about how to place battery in the remote.

A big Boo to Canon on this point.

=== Comments ===

- Shutter lag is not the best in the category but I accept the fact that digital cameras generally suffer from this problem. If I need action, Canon's film camera is a better choice. This said, I really hated it when I had to miss my daughter's brightest moment.

- One thing my wife and I are wondering about is the size of the focus zone outline. It is about 5% of the entire view. How does spot metering work with such a zone? Does this affect auto focus, too?

- Continuous auto focus. This can be useful in certain point-and-shoot situations. G5 enables continuous auto focus by default. You can hear the motor noise constantly as you move around the room because the camera is trying to refocus as you move. Because G5 has a terribly slow auto focus, this result in even poorer response time. I always disable continuous auto focus.

- Auto shutdown defaults to 5 min. Although 5 min. appear adequate to save battery life in camcorders G5's LCD consumes so much energy, if you use the LCD, you'll find the battery life inadequate. <<G6 note: G6 gives 3 auto shutdown delays to save more energy.>>

=== Conclusion ===

In summary, Canon PowerShot G5 has many useful features and a great user interface. Now that we know G5 well, we would truly eliminate G6 from purchase candidates, because it eliminated several useful prosumer features. But G5's quality is questionable, compared with Canon's other cameras.

A word about my photo quality rating. Many reviewers noted poor quality at high sensitivity settings (low lighting), but still give the second highest rating, "makes good enlargement in all light conditions." G5 cannot make good enlarged photos under all light conditions if it can't handle low lighting effectively.

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