If I was Canon it would be very tempting to sit on my laurels and just soak up the cash. Luckily, to their credit, they take being up with the best seriously. So they reacted fast to the recent bounce in the enthusiast compact market when better pictures suddenly won out over tedious spec racing. The G11 was launched with a dramatic 5 megapixel cut over the G10 and now the G12 refines that response to the 'fewer but better pixels' movement. The G series has always made a great case for keeping your serious shooting compact and since Canon have decided to stay clear of competing in the micro system market, this is their middle sized enthusiast offering.
The point of a compact is that it's all you need in one place – if want to carry extra lenses you're ready for an SLR or a Micro system camera. I think that's the cross over point. So the G12 is trying to span the gap between compact and the interchangeable lens world, which makes for some tough comparisons.
Locked and loaded
The G series have always been unashamedly rectangular and the angular aesthetic might be a little brutal for some but does capture some cool, mechanical film era cues. It suffers in tactile nostalgia compared with the retro, techno fetish of the Olympus E-P1, but there's no shame in that. The exterior is busy, with 19 separate controls, but they're pretty well placed - leaving room to hold on securely.
I expected the G12 to be heavier but there's nothing wrong with its build, much more impressive than Canon's smallest SLRs. I was most struck by the slim and elegantly shaped flip and twist screen which feels not in the slightest degree flimsy, which is a real achievement (read more about vari-angle screens here). The body is a very well made mix of pressed steel, brushed aluminium and engineering plastic. The Henry Ford friendly colour scheme blends all three together with only the slightest compromise around the battery door.
The boxy body means it can hide a honking battery for a compact - the size most small SLRs take - so battery life should be awesome, the official CIPA rating is 370 shots. Of course a second battery is top of the to do list as always and if you're tempted to shoot RAW you'll be wanting a big, fast SD (or SDHC or SDXC) card too.
Do touch those dials
The G12 is enthusiast focussed and proves it by bringing out more rotary goodness than I've experienced since I last built a Lego racing car. It has no fewer than 6 dials, though admittedly the dioptre adjustment is just a guest on this list. It really does want you to get tweaking. Some work better than others but I never condemn attempts to offer more control.
Lets start with the best one: the exposure control dial on the top left is a great idea – clear and obviously better than some two or three stage finger gymnastics. It was a bit stiff on my box fresh example and sadly it tempts you to slip your finger over the flash. The front finger dial is new over the G11 and a straight lift from an SLR (I prefer thumb wheels but that's just personal preference). The ISO ring which sits on top below the mode dial is a nice idea, although you'll have to pause thoughtfully between shots to adjust it between finger and thumb. In fact all three of the top dials are a quite thin and stiff, but at least they won't change mysteriously in your bag. My least favourite is the narrow wheel around the cursor pad. These are tough to do well, as I said in my E-P1 review, it's too easy to spin them by mistake and fiddly to use them at all. Unfortunately, having it has also cramped the cursor pad. I'd turn it off. Surprisingly for a camera with so many dials it's missing one I recently enjoyed - the one around the lens from the S95. Instead the knurled ring on the G12 is a cover for a bayonet base which allows it to take a funky extending filter adaptor.
Underwater inside knowledge
All these dials are fine on land but for a while now they have presented a problem underwater. It has proved impractical to make some of them accessible through the Canon housing. The good news is that there's a work round so this isn't such a big deal. When the 'S' (Shortcut) button is held down the cursor buttons will control the parameters which the front and rear dials would alter. If you're using manual mode underwater it may make sense to also map the 'S' button itself to flash power. The physical differences between the G12 and G11 are so small that the same WP-DC34 case suits both.
Shooting for the moon
After a few minutes play I was already impressed, I was finding clever options and interesting features all round. HDR was the highlight of the scene options that popped up – it brackets and combines three sequential shots to grab highlights and deep shadow details. You'll need a tripod or a very steady hand to keep the three shots aligned. There's a built in spirit level so wonky landscapes should be a thing of the past!
The sensor inside the G12 is Canon's new HS 10 Megapixel chip with high hopes and ambitious specs – ISO up to 12800 is offered. Canon's recent compacts have been trying to catch up with Panasonic's LX series which still have the edge, treading a very clever path between controlling noise and losing detail in low light. Comparisons aside, the G12 is excellent in low light, these new high end compacts are a revelation if you have a model from even a few years ago.
The candle light mode worked a treat in the patchy lighting of my living room and looked fantastic on the 2.8” LCD monitor. Close inspection reveals an admirable attempt, using reduced res to allow pixel binning. Noise is kept low, colour fidelity is good but photos aren't as vibrant as the LCD suggests. There's no comparison with an E-P1, etc but for a compact it's excellent. Technical comparisons are for nerds anyway, printing these shots flattens the noise and they are perfectly usable.
Some of the controls that would normally be grouped have been broken up which, while admirably focussed, leaves you digging for some choices – for example the timer button doesn't step on to the motor drive options like 99% of other cameras. There's a programmable shortcut button at the top left of the back panel, to my mind drive mode was one of the more useful options so I used it to reinstate what I missed under the timer button.
The fun aspect ratio options allow you to shoot 4:3, 3:2, 16:9 and Cartier Bresson style 1:1, sure everyone knows how to crop but framing natively does help composition. Of course that's via the display; the optical viewfinder is a godsend on a bright day but can can only show the standard 4:3 ratio.
Probably the biggest news on the G12 is that, finally, it can shoot HD video. Canon have chosen to offer 720P rather than either of the more exciting sounding 1080 options, but in truth either form of HD video is such a leap over the VGA res its predecessor offered, that it's churlish to quibble. It stores video as Quicktime .mov files at about 160MB/min – more card hungry than MPEG-4 but easier to edit.
Is there anything I can't change?
The two axis shooting menu is as easy as ever, and the best way to access important parameters which aren't sitting under a button. The deeper Config menus are extensive for a Canon but stop short of what I'm used to. There's lots of exciting sounding options but I felt the choices they led to could have been wider. The basic menu layout is being stretched to the limit here with just two long pages of options which sometimes branch off into more choice. I think Canon need to freshen their GUI if they want to make navigation a pleasure but the 460k pixel screen itself is a treat. In quick shot mode the display turns into an SLR style control panel and you're made to use the optical viewfinder – hardcore shooting!
Part of the new formula for an enthusiast camera is a great lens. Panasonic have made quite a fetish of theirs and working with Leica has paid dividends for them. The G12 faces some tough competition from the LX5, its lens doesn't have that German designer label and more to the point is a stop darker. Snob value aside, it's still an excellent lens with a very useful 5x range from 28 to 140mm equivalent. Panasonic still have the enthusiast edge on glassware though with their Leica badged 3.8x marvel a worthwhile 4mm wider – however it only just qualifies as a portrait device reaching a modest 90mm. In fact the lens on the S95 is a better match for the LX5; just as bright, longer but not as wide. It's a tough choice.
The aperture choice ranges from f2.8(wide) or f4.5(tele) to f8.0 (for both) which may seem limited but unusually the G12 includes an internal neutral density filter for more light management options – laudable! Macro performance is good, with the greatest magnification at the widest setting which can focus at 1cm. It's hard to light so close and the small flash casts a shadow when you're less than 6”/15cm away. With the flash very near to the lens centre line the option to auto correct red-eye is welcome. Normally the flash is TTL controlled but for grown ups you have the option of manual flash control too. This only offers 3 power levels, which is a bit mean but it's great for triggering external units, and there's a proper hotshoe too.
I always appreciate playback control on a button rather than a dial or slider – as it means you can jump straight back to shooting with a jab on the shutter. The on screen gallery has a very thorough selection of info on tap and a cool Mac-esque slide in/out affair which no doubt looks great via the HDMI port – although sadly there's no cable in the box. The full size JPEGs might seem quite small, but in fact the file sizes are very variable and will bulk up when there's lots of detail in shot. There are just two compression settings but fast RAW handling, for a compact, makes up for that.
The G12 is in a tight spot, beset below by excellent smaller cameras which can do almost as much and the SLD or Micro system cameras above which can offer more. Luckily there's room for everyone and it will suit a considerable number of keen photographers. I think it sits a bit uneasily in an SLR shooters bag, it isn't really quite small enough and the S95 and LX5 both make a very strong case as the pocketable backup or smart night out compact. The system cameras are a mixed bunch. The Sonys don't match the control of the G12 but most Micro 4/3 bodies can in spades and all romp away when it comes to high ISO performance and creative depth of field control.
The G12 admirably suits some niches with gusto. As a hard working camera it's big enough and has proper control by the bucket load – it doesn't have the limits of many low end SLRs and in many ways it makes better sense than those as a starter enthusiast camera. The lens is excellent and for most people would cover everything they want to shoot. It offers near SLR quality to people who don't want bulk but need control. If you'd never consider anything but a kit lens then the G12 covers most bases. If you find the ends of what the G12 can do you'd probably want to jump to a mid range SLR or enthusiast SLD.
Would there be days I'd pick this up for a day out? A resounding yes, for the days when you want a sure fire sharp shooter but can't face lugging an SLR. Perfect for the enthusiast with small hands or luggage space and the flip screen makes for a subtle street shooter.
The best bit? It's a great size for shooting. For many who want a Canon option but find SLRs too bulky and compacts too small it's just right - the Goldilocks choice!
|Build||8/10||Better than most basic SLRs|
|Handling||7.5/10||Lots of controls, good to hold - could feel nicer, rambling menus|
|Image||9/10||Great for a compact – Canon's instant punch and great colour|
|Value||7/10||Caught in the middle of a turbulent market|
Overall score: 8/10
Serious camera for sensible photo folk.