Product Review: Canon PowerShot G12

December 6, 2010

By Dan Havlik

The Canon G12 looks almost exactly like it’s predecessor and that’s a good thing.

The 10-megapixel Canon PowerShot G12 doesn’t break much new ground nor is it a huge step forward from its predecessor, the Canon G11, which was released only a year ago. The G12 is, however, one of the best advanced compact cameras on the market now, running neck-and-neck with my other current favorite in this category, the Panasonic Lumix LX5 (reviewed here last month).

If I had to pick a winner, I’d go with the LX5 but only by a whisker. I really loved that model’s extra wide lens—24mm maximum—with its fast f/2.0 maximum aperture. But the G12 has many of its own virtues including a fabulous 2.8-inch vari-angle, tilt/swivel LCD screen (same as was on the G11), and a couple of key new features including (finally) a 720p HD video mode with stereo sound, more precise exterior ISO controls, tracking autofocus, an electronic level function, and in-camera HDR (High Dynamic Range) processing.

Otherwise, it’s pretty much the same flagship PowerShot G-series camera we all knew and loved from last year and that’s a good thing. The G11 was so well received when it came out last year—we named it Compact of the Year for 2009 and it ended up on many other “Best of” lists—it’s already produced some imitators. Last month I reviewed the 10.1-megapixel Nikon Coolpix P7000, and while I really liked that camera (especially compared to the previous model), I found it looked suspiciously similar to the Canon. But as I said in this column last month, imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery.

Digital cameras that resemble rangefinders are all the rage right now which must be flattering to Canon’s G-series designers since the last several iterations have sported that same classic RF-like look. Also, G-series cameras continue to keep their “throwback” optical viewfinders intact, even though they’re teeny-weenie in size. Of course the G12 and its predecessors aren’t true rangefinders but they do have a rugged, discreet style that makes them suited to a variety of low-key shooting situations.

Case in point: I was trying to decide whether to bring the G12 or the Nikon D7000 (also reviewed this month) digital SLR to shoot a performance at a high-profile concert venue in New York City. I didn’t have a press pass for this particular event and was hoping to be as inconspicuous as possible. Though the D7000 can shoot 1080p and would likely give me better video quality, I decided to go with the G12. I’m glad I did. The camera fits nicely in a jacket pocket and pulling it out to shoot the show drew no attention. I doubt I could’ve pulled that off with the D7000.

The G12 is also rock solid; it feels like a small black brick and, as with previous models, has an abundance of external control that lets you change settings on the fly. In particular, I like that Canon has added more precise 1/3-stop adjustments on the ISO dial on top of the camera. (While you might not always need ISO 250, you’ll be glad it’s there.) Another great addition is the control dial on front of the camera just above the handgrip which is a carryover from Canon’s DSLRs. In the G12’s manual modes you can use it to quickly change shutter speed and/or aperture.

Otherwise, the G12 is pretty much a dead-ringer for the G11 and I’m happy Canon didn’t mess too much with the formula. Some genius decided to drop the swiveling screen from the G-series back in 2006 and it took many angry complaints from photographers to get it back with the last model. My one gripe about the screen on the G12 is that it would’ve been nice to increase the size to 3-inches for this upgrade. (Images still look sharp on it thanks to 461,000 pixels of resolution.)

Also, would it have killed Canon to increase the zoom a bit on the newer model, preferably on the wide end? As it is, it’s the same optically stabilized 5x (28-140mm equivalent) lens that was in the G11. It’s worth noting that this is one major area where Nikon’s P7000 eclipses the G12; the Nikon camera has 7x (28-200mm) lens with ED glass elements to cut down on chromatic aberrations.

The other area I’d like to see Canon upgrade its future G-series PowerShots is the imaging chip size. While it’s great they’ve kept the megapixels steady on the G12 at 10 megapixels, the sensor is the same 1/1.7-inch sized chip from the previous model. Consequently the camera still struggles with noise at ISO 1600 and above in low light without a flash. Some day Canon or Nikon (or both!) will put a DSLR-sized sensor in one of their compact cameras and the earth will literally shake.

I’d also like to see them increase the processing speed a bit. While the G12 was much faster out of the block and shot-to-shot compared to the Nikon P7000—thanks to Canon’s DIGIC 4 processor—it’s not as snappy as the Panasonic LX5 or even the Sony NEX-5 (reviewed in August) which, it should be noted, uses a DSLR-sized APS-C imaging sensor.

I’ve also got mixed feelings about the video capabilities of the G12. I love that they’re finally offering HD video recording in this camera but it’s only 720p, not 1080p like some of the competition. (In fact, some of Canon’s own consumer digital cameras can shoot 1080p.) Another disappointment is that the G12 still can’t zoom optically while recording video, only digitally, though the company’s lower-priced Digital ELPH models can.

Despite these omissions, the 720p video I shot at the performance was of excellent quality and the new stereo recording capabilities of the G12 are a much-appreciated upgrade. There are also few compacts on the market right now that can beat the still image quality of the G12 at up to ISO 800. Pros will also like that this camera can record in JPEG or RAW or both at the same time.

So while it may not razzle-dazzle like all the Micro Four Thirds and other mirrorless interchangeable lens compacts out there right now, the Canon G12 is a dependable sharpshooter.

Canon hasn’t changed a whole heck of a lot with the PowerShot G12 from the previous model and that’s a good thing. Canon’s G-series cameras have long been the standard bearers in the advanced compact category and with the addition of 720p HD video and several other notable features to the G12, there’s a new top dog in town. If there are some disappointments with this camera—only digital zooming during video capture, noisy images at ISO 1600 and above—the G12 is still a solid, small camera that should comfortably find space in any pro’s bag (or coat pocket).

Canon PowerShot G12

Pros: Solid, rugged and highly usable compact design; shoots 720p HD video with stereo sound; plenty of external control including more precise ISO adjustment; in-camera HDR processing

Cons: Images noisy at ISO 1600 and above; no 1080p HD video capture; can only digitally zoom during video capture

Price: $499