Canon's legendary G series debuted all the way back in 2000, pretty much introducing the idea of the do-everything enthusiast point-and-shoot. Since then, many other manufacturers—Nikon, Panasonic, Samsung, and Olympus, to name just a few—have tried to muscle in on the idea, each with varying levels of success.
Over the past decade plus, the G-series has changed in ways both good and bad, but in recent generations most critics seemed to agree that the series was past its peak. Over the hill, washed up, wandering in the wilderness. But with the G15 (MSRP $499.99), it seems Canon might finally be back on track. A stunning new f/1.8-2.8 zoom lens is the centerpiece here, but it's paired with a rugged and intelligently designed body, as well as a great 1/1.7" 12-megapixel CMOS sensor.
With impressive build quality and intuitive controls, the PowerShot G15 suffers from only a few notable missteps.
The first thing you'll notice when you pick up the G15 is its heft: It's not big, exactly, but it has a pleasing density and a general feeling of substance that you rarely get from a compact camera. The textured front and rear grips are just grippy enough, and even the coating on the bare surface of the body itself has a decent amount of traction.
Button placement is excellent, for the most part.
Button placement is excellent, for the most part. The cleverly stacked shooting mode and EV compensation dials on the top plate are perfectly positioned to be adjusted with your index finger and thumb, respectively. The shutter release has a pillowy half-press before the firm click of the full-press, though the zoom ring encircling it is insubstantial and doesn't offer fine enough adjustment for our tastes. The rest of the buttons are wonderfully tactile. The rear command dial's placement is a minor concern—it makes it nearly impossible to turn without using two hands, and the left button is too close to the raised edge of the screen—but we adjusted accordingly.
The one thing we weren't able to adjust to was the front command dial's awkward location. Placed up against the extreme right edge of the body, it requires you to bend your index finger at a pretty unnatural angle to use it. Alternatively, you can again use two hands to give yourself better leverage, but that pretty much defeats the purpose of a quick adjustment dial. We also felt the dial was too recessed, and the actual action of turning it felt somehow off to us. In total, it's a weird aberration that nearly ruins an otherwise excellent ergonomic design.
But when you come right down to it, the truth is that most compact cameras handle badly. They're made to be as small as possible, not to fit your hand. So when we talk about handling, we grade on a curve. The best-handling compact cameras rarely approach the worst-handling DSLRs (or even the worst superzooms), but we don't expect them to. Their goals are simply different. The PowerShot G15 can't quite break out of this paradigm, but it does a remarkable job within the constraints of its class.
Aside from a bizarrely crippled video mode, the G15 offers a fairly generous selection of features.
While it lacks the trendier bells and whistles that have wormed their way into the market of late—such as WiFi, GPS, and touchscreens—the G15 offers a competitive feature set in its class. Its 12-megapixel sensor isn't groundbreaking, but its low-light sensitivity might be. Its video mode is crippled when it comes to manual control, but it records a beautiful moving image. Its expansive ISO range is top among its peers, and it makes the most of the added leeway with the addition of a super-bright f/1.8 lens.
That combination of a large, bright aperture and 5x optical zoom is indisputably one of the G15's most exciting features, bringing the G-series back to its fast-lens roots. The 28-140mm equivalent focal length is slightly disappointing, in that 24mm equivalent has increasingly become the standard on the wide end for advanced compacts, but the fact that the lens is still capable of f/2.8 at full telephoto is a triumph. A larger aperture not only allows the sensor to gather more light, which is helpful in dim shooting situations, but it also creates greater separation between your chosen subject and the background. This is commonly referred to as background blur, or bokeh.
The G15 features plenty of control.
The G15 features plenty of control, certainly enough to keep novices happy and confidently snapping while still serving those who want full manual control. While the G15 is no doubt geared toward these advanced shooters, the full auto mode also gives newbies a safe little sandbox to play in without mucking things up. For those who want to bridge the gap, the G15's inclusion of more creative modes—HDR, toy camera, etc.—allow them to take some riskier shots without feeling overwhelmed.
The G15 does well in an increasingly competitive high-end compact camera market, though it still lags behind the best of the bunch.
The G15 offers a very sharp sensor/lens combo, a lens with a wide maximum aperture on both ends of its zoom range, and excellent low-light sensitivity. Dynamic range is equally impressive, and the G15 excels at recording HD video, though it could do with more manual control.
If the Canon G15 came out two years ago, it would undoubtedly be the best high-end compact camera on the market. Luckily for consumers, this is 2012, and there are no end of fantastic high-end compact models for the G15 to compete with. We were very impressed by the overall image quality provided here, however. The G15's image quality was top notch, largely owing to its f/1.8-2.8 lens, which stays bright all the way through the 5x optical zoom range. Canon's JPEG processing provides great color reproduction and keeps noise to a minimum, but also suffers from chronic oversharpening that can leave nasty-looking halos around high-contrast objects.
Continuous shooting tops out a paltry two frames per second.
One area where the G15 struggles (along with most of its compact camera compatriots) is speed. The G15's continuous shooting mode tops out a paltry two frames per second. The only relief from this is the camera's High-Speed Burst HQ, which captures ten shots at full resolution in one second. It is certainly functional when you want to capture a brief snippet of motion, but its inability to track focus means you'll need to use a narrower aperture for greater depth of field.
With such incredible competition available in 2012, the G15 has a greater challenge than previous G-series models.
In some recent reviews, we've taken Canon to task for a lack of innovation in their consumer-oriented product lines. The ELPH 110 HS, PowerShot S110, and EOS Rebel T4i were all frankly lazy updates to well-worn camera concepts, and the time-battered T3 hasn't even gotten an update. So, going into our time with the G15, we had every reason to expect it would suffer the same fate. Happily, our expectations were well off the mark.
The G15 is an evolutionary upgrade—that much is true. But it's an evolutionary upgrade that does some truly exciting things, mostly to do with its remarkable new lens. The zoom itself is a conservative 5x ratio design (28-140mm equivalent), but what's exciting about it is its exceptionally bright maximum aperture. Starting at f/1.8 on the wide end and only dropping to f/2.8 at full telephoto, it has by far the most consistently wide aperture of any fixed-lens zoom camera. The result? Beautiful bokeh for a small-sensor compact and very good sharpness throughout its range of aperture settings and focal lengths.
Low-light performance is excellent, and that's due to a collaboration between lens and sensor. A bright maximum aperture paired with excellent sensitivity is a dream come true, and the G15 manages some truly impressive low-light, high ISO numbers, yielding solid dynamic range results as a result.
Still, even with all of this praise there's room for improvement. Oversharpening creates unnecessary image quality problems, at least when shooting JPEGs. Canon has also made a few odd choices with regard to the user interface (its awkward EV comp solution in video mode being the most egregious example). Ergonomically, the body is solidly put together, but we really couldn't get along with the front command dial, and the rear ring is difficult to operate one-handed. We wouldn't mind seeing the articulating screen from some previous G models make a return, either. Finally, while the G15's video quality was a very pleasant surprise, it's severely hampered by an almost total lack of manual control.
On the whole, we're thrilled with the G15's performance. It's a bold return to (most of) what made the G-series so great in the first place. In the future, we hope Canon will take a long hard look at the larger sensors found in some competing models and give some thought to merging the two tiers they've created with the G15 and G1 X, but for the time being, the company has set itself firmly on a path toward re-conquering the market.
In our labs, the Canon G15 helped to restore some of the venerable G-series' former glory. The G15's combination of a relatively large sensor and a bright f/1.8-2.8 lens yielded great image quality, with nice bokeh in our real world shots. Canon's processing has been tuned quite well in this camera, with the out-of-camera JPEGs looking vibrant and clean without the overprocessed, laminated look that so many compact cameras produce. The only real shortcoming was some oversharpening when shooting JPEGs at default settings.
There are more accurate Canon cameras, but the G15 still performs well.
Color accuracy is a strength of the PowerShot G15, but not an overwhelming one. The camera's best uncorrected color error value of 2.72 was recorded when shooting in the "Neutral" My Colors mode. As is typical for Canon's compact cameras, this best color mode was also the only one to report a sub-100% saturation score (92%). All of the other color modes cranked saturation up to at least 113%.
Like other PowerShots we've tested recently, the G15 showed the largest errors in its yellow and orange tones, which can be critical in reproducing skin tones. Cyan was another problem, but it's less critical. If you plan to shoot a lot of portraits, we recommend that you use either the Lighter Skin or Darker Skin color settings, which have much lower yellow and orange errors (at the expense of errors in other colors), or shoot using the Portrait scene mode, which probably employs these by default.
Heavy noise reduction keeps the grain in check, but discards quite a bit of detail, restricting maximum print size.
There are three high-ISO noise reduction options on the G15, but much to our chagrin, none of them is "off." By default, the camera is set to Standard NR, but there are also Low and High options available. With the default setting, noise levels start at 0.49% at ISO 80 and don't top 1% until ISO 1600. Even at ISO 3200, noise is kept to an impressive 1.69%, and the real-world results look just as good.
In short, the G15's noise reduction algorithms are among the best we've seen in this class at maximizing detail while minimizing noise. Things do fall off substantially at ISO 6400 and the maximum setting of ISO 12800, however, where you'll notice the camera taking more time after each shot to complete its processing.
At these higher settings, the images aren't really usable for more than drastically downsampled web shots, but up to ISO 1600 you should be able to get perfectly usable shots for most purposes. Compared to the competition, this is a very solid result. The G15 offers a full-resolution ISO 12800 option and suffers in the aggregate as a result of its extended sensitivity range, but at like-for-like ISO comparisons it performs at least as well as the Panasonic LX7 and Canon G12.
Beautiful HD video is hamstrung by a lack of any real control.
Under our bright lab lights, the G15 recorded extremely clear, vibrant, and smooth HD video. Artifacting and trailing were kept to a minimum, though the 1080p mode's set framerate of 24 fps is inherently more prone to trailing than faster framerates like 30 or 60 fps. However, we did notice quite a lot of rolling shutter (jell-o vision, as some call it) when shooting with the camera out in the real world, so we suggest shooting with a tripod and ball head if you want to capture the clearest possible video.
The G15 recorded extremely impressive video sharpness numbers, with 675 lp/ph of observed horizontal sharpness and 650 lp/ph of vertical sharpness in our bright-light studio test. These are remarkable scores for a compact camera, outdoing the mighty RX100 and its comparatively massive sensor. In low light, artifacting became markedly more apparent, which dropped sharpness a bit to 625 lp/ph, though trailing was still pretty limited. The camera's excellent low-light sensitivity helps here in other ways, too, preventing shadowed areas from being completely lost to darkness.
Edges look nice and defined by default, largely due to the overprocessing applied in-camera.
Every camera sharpens its JPEG images in-camera to some degree. Some models are transparent about it, giving you a sharpness scale for each "picture mode," while others can be sneaky. Like most other things in life, software sharpening is acceptable in moderation, but lately we've noticed an unfortunate epidemic of oversharpening sweeping the industry.
What does oversharpening look like? Well, it tends to show up most prominently as a dark line around high-contrast objects, almost as if someone has outlined them with a felt tip pen. Recent cameras like the Samsung EX2F and Canon's own ELPH 110 HS have recorded sky-high oversharpening figures in our lab testing, ranging as high as 150% of normal. The PowerShot G15 doesn't quite reach those heights, but it still hits about 130% at its worst, resulting in high contrast edges that look distinctly unnatural.
The G15 otherwise acquitted itself well in our performance tests. White balance was good-to-great in every scene, except when shooting with automatic white balance under warm incandescent lights. We found that the G15 preserved some measure of dynamic range, as well, though not as much as the Sony RX100 with its larger image sensor. We also were less than impressed with the speed of the G15, as its normal continuous mode topped out at just two frames per second, with a 10 fps burst option available.
Meet the tester
Ben is an experienced industry journalist who formerly served as Senior Editor of News and Features at Reviewed. He now contributes as a freelance writer and editor. Most recently hailing from the vast wilds of the American southwest, he is an avid photographer who is deeply disturbed by the lack of wide open landscapes in Boston.
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