Canon PowerShot G12 Review

The G12 is Canon's newest premium PowerShot digital compact. It inherits many feature of its predecessor, the G11, but builds on these with neat new equipment including a new control dial on the front, 720p HD movie capture, Hybrid Image Stabilisation and SDXC external storage compatibility. Doug Harman finds out if it's any good...

The G12 can be thought of as a professional snapper’s back up or as an enthusiast's DSLR-Lite model, because its features and usability fit well within the DSLR bracket and is resplendent with its excellent build quality, a characteristic it must be said of all the “Gs” and makes the camera one you’re not going to be afraid to carry around where ever you go. 

But the G12 is bigger than you might think and rather blocky in style but is replete with advanced shooting features, boasts retro-style controls across the top plate with, on the left, exposure compensation (+/- 2EV), and to the right, a nested double dial for shooting modes, including a full suite of manual controls as well as auto shooting and dual custom settings; sensitivity settings up to ISO 3200 join the fray, more on which later.

Handling is excellent overall with the on/off button and a combined shutter release with lens zoom control and each of these are sensibly placed and easy to use, particularly with illuminated orange LED indexes for the exposure compensation and ISO settings; the on/off button is illuminated using an attractive green LED.

The G12’s squared off lines are softened by a slender handgrip to aid handling and the excellent 2.8-inch multi-angle 461,000-dot LCD that's great for composing and focus assessment too. It’s also great when shooting at high or low angles or for close up work. 

The handgrip, however, is too small, particularly when you use the new control dial on the front is the camera, as it just feels unsteady in the hand thankfully the well-placed shutter release is nicely weighted, as is the lens zoom lever surrounding it.

Cleverly, the camera can be set up to use either the new front control dial or the rotating adjustment control on the camera back for adjustment of settings and the like; its always good to have multiple options available for using and handling the camera and canon has done a fine job of including them here.

Other key features include a crisp Canon 5x optical zoom lens, which has a versatile focal range offering a 28mm wide end and a 140mm full zoom. Lens distortion, overall, is not significant but there's slight but noticeable barrel distortion at the wide end of the zoom. 

The lens' aperture range still does not reach the dizzy, F/2 heights available to the old PowerShot G6, but with a maximum aperture range of F/2.8 to F/4.5 it still allows for control over of depth of field so there's a modicum of control, but Canon has never pushed the boat out on the lens like it once did with the much older G-series models such as the aforementioned G6. It must be a cost thing again...

Another significant element in terms of its inclusion (and many digicams today lack this elementary feature)  is a “proper” optical viewfinder, which backs up the display. It's clear and crisp and has a good dioptre adjustment – for use without specs – and while it’s certainly true it lacks the data feedback available on the display, it helps when trying to conserve power from the NB-7L rechargeable battery pack, which is good for around 300-shots.

Other new features include the 720p HD movie capture mode. The first question I had is “why not 1080p capture?” Canon claims that the increased tech needed would make the G12 more expensive still, but hang on, there are many less well-specified, less expensive digital compacts out there that have 1080p HD movie capture, so, the 720p mode on the G12 could be improved in order to keep it inline with the other photographic Joneses.

Owners of flat panel HDTVs will be pleased to note the G12 has an HDMI out port sitting under a flap alongside an AV Out and USB 2.0 socket, plus a port to attach a remote control. The HDMI out port allows you to watch HD video directly from the camera on your flat panel TV, controlling the whole lot from the camera too.

The G12's moving image quality is superb, but sound, via the built-in stereo microphones, is less so as unfortunately the built in ‘phones pick up unwanted noise from the sound of your fingers moving on the camera and also the lens moving/focusing, which is a tad disappointing.

Talking of the lens again, the G12 sports an adapted Hybrid Image Stabilisation system within the lens providing up to 4EV of advantage for hand held shots, according to Canon. I feel that's a bit optimistic, on my tests I'd say it's around two or three (at best) stops, but is still invaluable for keeping things steadier than otherwise possible in low light or at longer zoom lengths, without reverting to a tripod, for example. And this Hybrid IS system means you don’t need to delve into higher ISO settings as quickly as you might either, helping keep at bay problems associated with high ISO image noise.

It must be said however; image noise is well controlled – to a point – thanks to the new Canon HS system, because above ISO 800 noise gets progressively worse, although not drastically so. If you use the camera at ISO 3200 however, or the boosted ISO 12800 mode, let's just say, erm, avoid if possible.

Count Your DIGICs
At the heart of the G12's image and video processing system lies Canon's DIGIC 4 processor providing fast processing and improved noise reduction particularly for the HD video performance.

DIGIC 4 also powers some of the “intelligent” features such as i-Contrast that increases the dynamic range in images to reveal better detail in shadows without loosing detail the highlight areas. Like the G11, it works well and also contributes to another new feature, High Dynamic Range (HDR) shooting.

HDR shooting combines a series of exposures shot at under and overexposed settings (automatically) and the “as metered” setting and combines them together to get detail in all areas of the shot (deep shadow and bright highlights) otherwise unobtainable in a single shot.

You’ll need to mount the camera on a tripod because the three images might otherwise be taken at a slow shutter speed, for example, so you won’t be able to hand hold it even with the IS switched on.

In terms of control, the aforementioned top plate controls are great to use, allowing fast changes to shooting modes such as manual, aperture priority or full auto to name a few as well as swift ISO changes. The same applies to exposure compensation, which can be quickly applied for difficult lighting situations.

The back plate is dominated by the multi-angle screen and houses other key camera controls. Playback and shortcut buttons (the latter I set up to quickly adjust white balance because there’s no direct button on the body, which is a shame) sit atop the screen either side of the optical viewfinder. The top right corner houses the AE/FE lock button, something that when combined with the improved exposure compensation control makes the G12 extremely responsive and each button is cleverly angled for easier use too.

Focusing and Face Detection AF
The AF point control is one of four buttons surrounding the camera’s rotating jog control, the latter ideal for fast menu or image scrolling. It also provides smart control for settings such as the impressive 1-cm macro mode, the flash settings and manual focus activation and the drive modes.

There are nine AF zones in all; set up is comprehensive providing a mix of orthodox auto and manual focusing plus Servo AF and Face Detection AF, which performs really well particularly its Face Select & Track mode. The latter can fix on and track faces in a shot and does so very well indeed while a customisable Self-Timer provides for multiple shots and adjustment of the time delay between zero and 30-seconds, which is very handy.

Even better still, when you half press the shutter button in Face AF mode, a magnified view of the detected face appears so that you can quickly check sharpness. Face AF is excellent, even when detecting multiple faces it seems to work well.

I had a problem with the AiAF focus system however, when not detecting faces, tracking objects or focusing on close up subjects, it was simply too slow. And, if you leave the camera to select which of the nine active zones it will use, it does not always select the correct or intended part of the scene you want sharp. Switching to manual AF of simply using the Flexizone AF (you can move and use just one AF point anywhere on the screen) does help mitigate some AF issues.

In terms of taking photos, the ability to shoot RAW and JPEG provides great scope for tinkering and getting shadow or highlight detail out of images later on PC – if you're not satisfied the HDR shooting or i-Contrast effects – while RAW capture is a fundamental feature for the more enthusiast or pro photographer and in truth it is a must have for such a camera as this.

Images are captured and stored on a single SD, SDHC and/or the new SDXC high-capacity cards all stowed under the same flap on the G12’s base where the Li-ion battery resides.

Metering and white balance (WB) are excellent too, the metering deals with most subjects well enough, centre-weighted and spot metering give extra flexibility if required while the WB control is good also. One slight gripe in WB is the auto white balance struggles in mixed light producing a slight orange cast, something that's common to Canon and many other manufacturers models.

Set the correct WB for the lighting you're shooting in, however, and or use the custom white balance mode if things are really tricky and you have complete and quick WB control for any situation.

Leading on from the WB is colour capture, which is excellent here and supported by a host of tweakable colour tools (from extra vivid colour to a selective colour mode that allows you to isolate just the red in an image for example,) all there to give you more creative control and creative effects.

As do the 19 scene modes on offer that reinforce your snapping choices including panoramic stitch assist, colour swap, fish eye effect and a mode to make subjects appear as though they're miniatures within the scene, which is fun and so this all adds to the creative potential of the G12.

Interestingly, the addition of a built-in neutral density (ND) filter that is there to help you iron out and balance high contrast scenes by providing a better balance between highlights (such as a very bright sky in landscape shot) and shadows or where you need to use slow shutter speeds that could otherwise overexpose a photo. It's a superb feature and something that while it does drop the amount of light hitting the sensor, saves on the hassle of carting a screw-in lens accessory around.

Having written that, there's a 58mm accessory filter ring that clips around the lens barrel as well, and this allows the use of additional lens filters such a circular polariser or UV filters and additional specialist optics that can all be attached to the G12 adding even more versatility.

And that really is the point of the G12, it is a camera offering the tools, features and versatility of a pro-level camera within a package designed to bring out all of that creative power and bring it to bear on your subjects, but without the bulk of DSLR system. The Canon PowerShot G12 does look pricey, it's true, but it's well specified, well made and able to produce some stunning results.

While not without flaws such as the AF responsiveness which is a little problematic in an otherwise eminently capable camera. The G12 is not cheap either but the camera's creativity and versatility are key and make the G12 – and the G-series cameras as a whole – ideal as pro's back up or an enthusiast’s photographic powerhouse.