Review: Canon G12

If you’re looking for a high performance camera with great image quality, you should get a digital SLR, right?

Well yes, DSLRs are top-drawer picture-takers. But they’re bulky and they weigh a ton. They also aren’t exactly the most discreet cameras out there — put a long zoom lens on a DSLR and try to take it to a pro sporting event or a rock concert and, unless you have a press pass, you’ll be sent packing.

A far less conspicuous and more portable option is the Canon PowerShot G12, a compact, consumer-style 10-megapixel camera with the photo skills of a serious pro model.

Small cameras with advanced features are nothing new. In fact, with the advent of Micro Four Thirds models such as the recently released Olympus EPL-2, and the growing popularity of compacts with pro-style attached lenses such as the Panasonic Lumix LX5 — get-gadget’s 2010 camera of the year — these pocket rockets are all the rage right now.

Canon’s been making powerful, petite models in its G-series line for over a decade now, with the 3.3-megapixel PowerShot G1 premiering way back in September 2000. With the G12, we only get a handful of technical advances over its predecessor, the (duh) G11, but they’re enough to make a good camera even better.

For starters, let’s talk about what they didn’t change from the previous model and why it’s a good thing: the resolution of the imaging sensor. Nowadays, you can now get entry-level digital cameras with 16-MP sensors, but the G12 is stuck at 10 MP. This is progress? Absolutely.

Cramming too many pixels on an imaging chip the size of a fingernail means smaller pixels that absorb less light. The result is crunchy-looking photos full of ugly image “noise” when you shoot in low light without a flash. Most manufacturers think consumers are unaware of the negative effects of the Megapixel War, but Canon is ignoring the marketing grab and striving for quality instead.

Canon hasn’t messed much with the design of the G12 and that’s also a good thing. The abundance of external controls on the camera mean there’s no need to dig through menus to get creative. If you like changing the sensitivity of the imaging chip for low light shooting, a dial on top of the G12 lets you adjust the ISO setting in precise 1/3-step increments. No, you probably don’t need to go to ISO 250, but it’s cool that it’s possible with this camera. I also liked the control dial on front above the hand grip that lets you quickly change shutter speed and aperture with your forefinger.

One area where I was hoping for an upgrade with the G12 is the LCD screen. It’s still a flip-out, vari-angle display that helps you compose over-the-head or down-low shots, but it’s still only 2.8 inches in size. A bump to 3 inches would have been appreciated. The G12 also keeps its optical viewfinder, but it’s as tiny as a peephole.

Other pro-worthy features: an exposure dial on top of the camera; the ability to record your images as JPEGs or RAW, or both at the same time; and a rugged, overall build that feels like it can take a pounding. The G12’s 5x (28-140mm equivalent) lens is also excellent. It has built-in optical image stabilization for steadying shaky shots and boasts a maximum aperture of f/2.8, adding to its low-light prowess.

Less-advanced photographers might find all this to be overkill. And while there are some canned, preset scene modes on the G12 for beginners — Kids & Pets, anyone? — they’re tough to access with Canon’s antiquated menu system. I also found some modes (such as Miniature, which simulates the miniaturization effect of a pricey tilt-shift lens by blurring the top and bottom of your images) produced only so-so results.

The G12, like the previous model, did well in low light when increasing the sensitivity of the chip to ISO 800 to photograph a Revolutionary War–era fort in the late afternoon. Later, while shooting Vermont jazz band Mogani in its dim rehearsal space, increasing the ISO to 1600 yielded fairly decent results, with some pixelization due to image noise. At super-sensitive ISO 3200 though, photos turned borderline fugly.

In good light at moderate ISOs, however, such as with shots captured of fall foliage in Vermont, the G12 performed like a rock star, rendering pitch-perfect color without oversaturation and good edge-to-edge sharpness. Even on dull, overcast days — as during the recent snowstorms here in New York City — the G12’s photos had pleasing pop. If you want a little more pop though, try the Super Vivid setting which pumped up the volume in shots of a colorful street mural.

If you’re looking for the speed of a DSLR with the G12, you might be disappointed. I experienced a half-second or so of shutter lag for each shot, and even more so when fully zoomed in. It also took almost 2½ seconds shot-to-shot when the camera was set to Large/Fine JPEG capture mode. While this might not sound like much delay, when you’re trying to shoot a series of quick candids, it can potentially cause you to miss your shot. The G12 also felt slower than competing models such as the Panasonic LX5 and Sony NEX-5 and was much slower than even entry-level digital SLRs.

The quality of the video footage captured using the G12’s HD mode was impressive. (The previous model only offered standard-definition video.) Even in tough lighting conditions while shooting the Mogani band rehearsal, the high-def clips were crisp and rivaled what you can get with a pricey camcorder. The built-in stereo mic also produced surprisingly good sound. On the downside, maximum resolution of those clips is only 720p while some competing models can shoot 1080p. In fact, some of Canon’s lower-priced digital cameras can record in 1080p HD.

Also disappointing is that the G12 can’t zoom optically while recording video, only digitally, though Canon’s less expensive Digital ELPH models are able to.

Here’s a clip — keep in mind that the quality suffers a bit, becauseit has been compressed for embedding on this web page, but you get the idea.

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So while the Canon G12 isn’t perfect, its combination of superior image quality, advanced external control, very good HD capture with stereo sound, and a rugged build with a helpful flip-out screen make this camera an ideal choice for anyone wanting power and precision in a relatively small package. Canon hasn’t changed a heck of a lot in the G12 from the previous model but, as the old saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Photos, video: Dan Havlik/

See Also:

  • Canon EOS 600D Adds Flip-Out LCD, Video-Clips
  • Next-Gen Olympus Pen Hits the Micro Four Thirds Sweet Spot
  • Canon’s Pro-Grade Point-and-Shoot Aimed at Serious Shutterbugs
  • 102 Year-Old Lens on Canon 5D MkII
  • Olympus XZ1, a Pro-Level Compact Camera with Knobs On
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