Canon G9X Mark II Review - Visions of the future

A practical, usage focused review of the Canon G9X Mark II.

What is it?

If you wanted slick product photos to drool over this review is going to severely disappoint you.

Canon’s smallest 1 inch sensor pocket camera. It’s cheaper and smaller than the G7X II. It also has less controls. I have been using one almost daily since October of last year. As such this a review based on my needs and how I use this camera. It is not a review of its objective value or image quality. There will be no pixel peeping or fancy graphs full of numbers.

Note on lens length in camera settings: I’ve included the settings for each photo. The lens of the G9X II is reported in the EXIF file as being 10.2-30.6mm. If an image says 30.6mm this means that the image was taken with the lens at full zoom, and if it says 10.2mm this means the image was taken with the lens in it’s default state at it’s widest setting and so fourth.

All photographs unless otherwise state were taken with the G9X II.

What do I use it for?

To keep in my pocket when I’m walking around. I really don’t like fiddling around with a smartphone to take photographs. This camera plus case fits easily into my jeans pocket. This, along with it’s large sensor, is it’s greatest strength. This is what makes it more versatile than just using your phone, while still being actually pocketable compared to its beefier counterparts.

C/M | f/5 1/1250s ISO 125 17.17mm

How do I use it?

I only shoot RAW images. I cannot really comment on its JPEG capabilities as I haven’t use it and I probably never will. I do not think Canon has done a great job optimising this camera. A RAW file that has been processed with care will almost always look better than the JPEG preview. This is quite different from my Nikon D7100 or my older Canon G10 where sometimes the JPEGs look just fine. This isn’t really a problem for me because I like to take time with my images.

Escape the eclipse | f/4.5 1/800s ISO 125 21.36mm

Metal | f/4 1/160s ISO 125 14.88mm

Furthermore shooting RAW is essential if you want to create monochrome images. Any colour of black and white filter you can imagine can be applied in post as the RAW file contains all of the colour information captured by the sensor. Editing a jpeg is more like editing a print, while editing a RAW file is more like a negative. Even if you shoot colour, shooting RAW is worth it for the control it allows you in post over colour balance. Furthermore the jpegs produced just aren’t that great. They are overly sharp and the colours seem a little off. The black and white profiles included are quite bland. This is a shame as shooting only monochrome jpegs might be a fun way of emulating the simplicity of shooting film. The truth is that you will simply not get the most out of this camera if you decide to shoot only jpegs.

Nimbus | f/4.9 1/320s ISO 125 30.6mm

Little Lord | f/4.91 1/250s ISO 125 27.11mm

Blasphemy!

With this camera I mostly shoot in P (Program) or Av (Aperture priority) mode. In P mode the ring around the lens controls exposure compensation. In Av mode it controls the aperture setting. To change the exposure compensation setting in Av mode you can either tap it’s icon on the touch screen or tap the ring function icon and then turn the ring.

The “quick setting” menu. Previously just called settings, this menu is revolutionary in that it allows you to access key shooting settings quicker than the options menu,

This need to tap the touch screen to change the function of the ring makes quick operation in M (Manual) mode unintuitive. More on this in the frustrations section below. Because of this I don’t usually use M mode unless it’s a situation where I can take my time, like a macro or a landscape. Fleeting moments aren’t going to wait for you to finish fiddling around with this thing in Manual mode.

For this reason I usually use Auto-ISO as well, with the range set from 125 to 800. I set it manually if I want to use something higher or if the exposure metering sets it unnecessarily high for some reason.

Other important functions such as activating the macro focus mode can be accessed via a “quick setting” button which makes an on screen menu appear. This is customisable in that you can add and subtract from the somewhat arbitrary functions that Canon will allow you to add to the menu.

On P mode I usually have the exposure compensation set to -0.3 all the time. This is because this camera, at least the one I have, usually overexposes the highlights. In this mode operation mostly involves turning the ring to compensate for the metered exposure.

In all modes I use intelligent autofocus. Although it initially seemed less precise than the basic autofocus setting, most problems involving it getting the focus wrong can be solved by tapping on the screen. This reduces the focus point to wherever you’ve tapped. In this mode it will even track the focus to this point.

Manual focusing is a nauseating experience. The camera’s small size means the focus point will always be moving around, and the lack of a viewfinder means you’re not going to be able to push it against your eye to stabilise it. Furthermore the clicky wheel feels weird. Tapping the screen also results in moving camera body somewhat and thus the focus. Manual focus is only really useful for macro images when you want to focus on the closest possible spot and then move the camera itself to obtain focus, or when the camera is on a tripod. Don’t use manual focus as a regular thing with this camera unless you’re the kind of delusional masochist who equates suffering with fiddly controls with the quality of their art. I love shooting fully manual, but with my DSLR, not with this.

f/4 1/100s ISO 125 10.2mm

f/11 1/250 ISO 125 10.2mm

Other useful functions include a time lapse mode that can take photographs at a set interval for a set amount of time. The camera can also be charged directly via a USB battery pack, meaning it could potentially take photos continuously for quite a long time. This could potentially create some magnificent results if someone took the time to edit the raw files.

There are also a whole bunch of cheesy scene modes that I have absolutely no interest in using. I guess it might be able to stitch panoramas and a bunch of other things too.

The video quality would be alright if it had a higher bit rate. The quality while ok at first seems to fall apart when there’s a lot going on. Furthermore interacting with the ring or touch screen is loud and interruptive. Don’t buy this camera if you’re primarily interested in making videos.

Images and videos can be reviewed by pressing the play button on the top. This leads to a gallery that can be navigated using the ring or by swiping the touch screen. This gallery can be accessed via this button even when the camera is off. An extremely useful function as this allows you to review your images without having to extend your lens.

Post processing workflow

I transfer the RAW files directly onto an iPad using a lightning to USB adapter and a micro SD card reader. The wireless connection via the Canon Connect app only transfers JPEGs, and in the case of RAW files, the JPEG preview. The app does have its uses though, as it allows you to see the camera preview in real time as well as allowing for remote control of the camera.

I edit the raw files on the ipad version of Lightroom. VSCO and Darkroom do not apply basic lens correction to the files and as a result the entire workflow is unfeasible. Interestingly this problem also reveals the extent of the sacrifice Canon has made in stuffing such a long lens into such a tiny body while keeping costs low. The distortion at the wide angle when viewing the raw files in these apps is extreme and reminiscent of analog “toy” cameras with plastic lenses. I could see some cases where this effect might be desirable so in some ways it’s a shame that there is absolutely no way of controlling it. Opening the files in these partially compatible apps shows the distorted view while Lightroom shows a corrected version as the baseline even with lens correction turned off.

A RAW file edited in Lightroom. This photo was shot wide open. Even with lens correction turned off, Lightroom still applies some correction.

This is the same image (unedited) opened in VSCO. Note the extreme distortion.

Snapseed makes it seem like you’re editing the raw file but I’m pretty sure it’s actually just the embedded JPEG preview. I like editing photographs on the iPad because it feels more like manipulating a print. You can hold it up, view it from different angles, etc in a much more intuitive fashion than a laptop.

All photos are then backed up to Google Photos automatically. I also periodically copy the contents of the SD card onto a external drive connected to my desktop PC.

Frustrations and issues

Canon seems awfully proud of the cameras touch screen interface. It is extremely useful and is legitimately more intuitive for certain functions like choosing your focus point. However one of the main reason you’d consider getting this camera is if you, like me, dislike smart phone photography. And what’s one of the main issues with smartphone photography from a usability perspective? Too much of the interaction occurring on in the touchscreen.

To make things a little easier, Canon does allow you to set the record button to another function. The only problem is that the only really useful one is ISO. Exposure compensation, aperture, shutter speed, these extremely key settings can only be changed via interaction with the touch screen. The wheel around the lens will change whatever is initially selected, but switching in between them requires tapping a special ring function icon.

Wow I can’t wait to change this button to various useful settings!

Oh…

The camera is quite tiny even inside a case.

All Canon needs to do is allow the record button to be set to swap the function of the ring and the usability of this camera would go up immensely. Why the option isn’t already there is a mystery that can perhaps be attributed to this forced delegation of duties to the touch screen. Another useless button that can’t be customised is the WIFI button on the side of the camera. I never use the WIFI options so this button goes unused while my sweaty hands fumble around with the touch screen.

This could easily be fixed via a firmware update. However what would really make this camera perfect is the addition of more physical controls. That and a higher quality lens. Canon could create something really special if they took this camera seriously. I’d love to see a 1 inch or larger sensor compact in this form factor with at least two physical dials and a sharp (even if short) lens. Leave the tilting screens, excessive megapixels, and all those other nice to haves for the larger bodies. Focus on image quality, ergonomics, durability, and physical controls. There would simply be nothing else like it on the market.

Miscellaneous tips

Oasis | f/4 1.250s ISO 125 13.76mm

  • Turn off digital zoom. This applies to pretty much all digital cameras. You never want to use this. This is like cropping the photo but worse because you’re losing the original.

  • Use the self timer to take shake free images. Really useful when taking long exposures etc. Alternatively connect it to the app and use your smartphone or tablet as a remote. Then cry when you find out you can’t use the app to transfer raw files cos Canon can’t make its mind up about you.

  • Turn off the auto-focus light. It’s not that useful in most situations and nobody wants to see that in their face.

  • Set the record button to ISO. The best we can do for now to reduce unnecessary screen interaction until Canon updates their firmware to include more options.

  • Cameras focus easier on contrasty edges, so tap somewhere there is a clear differentiation between colours if you’re having trouble achieving focus.

  • There seems to be a lot of distortion at the wide end. The lens is sharpest in the centre and soft around the edges. Take photos zoomed in a little if you want better edge detail. In Lightroom I like to sometimes set the Distortion slider under Geometry from +1 to +4 to get rid of the slight fish eye effect.

  • This camera seems to blow out the yellows sometimes. Try pulling them back using the HSL slider for Luminance.

  • There is also a lot of fringing sometimes under certain light conditions, turning on lens correction and reduce chromatic aberration is a must.

  • Play around with all the settings and go into all the menus, there isn’t much to this camera but it helps to be familiar.

  • Experiment with the custom modes. This is actually quite versatile and you can make a few interesting combinations. It can even remember things like how far the camera is zoomed in. For example I set mine to approximate a 50mm focal length.

  • Use the play button to review images without extending the lens. Might save it from unnecessary dust exposure.

  • Turn off the startup image. Unless you like wasting time being reminded that the Canon camera you’ve bought is in fact a Canon I suppose.

  • Get a small case or at least a lens cap. Just because it fits in your pocket doesn’t mean that your pocket is a safe place for delicate cameras.

  • You can use your thumb (of the hand holding the camera) to tap the screen to adjust exposure comp etc or to hit the ring function swap button. This leaves your other hand free to turn the ring.

  • Referencing the on-screen histogram is a more information rich way of gauging exposure than the exposure meter itself. If the graph clips right, your highlights are blown, if it clips left, you’re missing some shadows.

The Company | f/4.5 1/320s 20.14mm

Family | f/71.10 1/1000s 13.95mm

Conclusion and thoughts

At the end of the day I enjoy using this camera quite a bit. It makes me look forward to everyday things that would be otherwise quite mundane. The world is full of beauty and interesting shapes and textures, and this camera allows you to capture it all with acceptable quality and relative ease.

Truly pocketable large sensor compact cameras with tangible physical controls are the future. I believe they represent something our slippery smartphones will never truly replace.

B &P | f.4.90 1/320s ISO 125 30.6mm

Right now the budget section of this niche seems to be filled by the G9X Mark II but this may change. The release of the Ricoh GR III has bought down the price of the older GR II quite a bit, but is still limited by its fixed (but much sharper) lens. Then there is Canon’s own G7X II which seems like a more capable camera in all aspects except for the fact that it’s a bit larger and heavier. It seems to be about the size of the G9X II plus case. I don’t know about you, but I’m not gonna risk keeping a non-weather sealed compact in my front jeans pocket without a case. The telescopic lenses on these compacts suck in dust like crazy. The slight step up in size is quite similar to offerings from Sony (RX100 series) and Panasonic. In an ideal world I’d probably just have a combination of them if I could as each option has a different strength. But if I had that much money, why would I settle for any of that anyways. I could perhaps hire a minion to carry around my gear for me.

f.4.90 1/250s ISO 125 30.6mm

f/2.0 1/30s ISO 125 10.20mm

Beyond the usual suspects there are many options from Leica and other manufacturers, with some going for truly ludicrous prices. If you’re new to photography and want to spend more than 1k, you might as well get an interchangeable lens system or at least something with a larger sensor. The dollar to image quality ratio isn’t exactly going to be 1:1 with these fixed lens systems. Even a beginner DSLR will ultimately have better image quality than these compact cameras. Indeed for the price of the G9X II you could probably get yourself a pretty killer beginner DSLR kit from either of the big brands. If you want to learn how to operate a camera manually definitely go for that option over this or other compact cameras. The same thing applies if you’re interested in taking portraits, live music photos, wildlife photos, or long exposures at night. A beginner DSLR with a suitable lens will easily beat even the most expensive of these compacts.

You get the picture. There are larger cameras with better lens quality / image processing, and more controls, but what use are they if you’ve left them at home. Mirrorless cameras are smaller than DSLRs sure, but that isn’t going to fit into your pocket either. You could get a strap, but who wants expensive camera gear rattling around your neck when you’re trying to get your groceries?

A phone would work in a pinch, but what if you don’t want to see notifications, unlock a screen, and open some sophisticated camera app? That does not spark joy.

So I suppose more so than this camera itself, I’m recommending this type of camera system. Perhaps I am biased because I leaned photography using my mothers Nikon Coolpix 3200. Trying to push that small point and shoot to it’s absolute limit is one of the things that made me fall in love with photography.

In a similar vein, it was via the Canon G10 that surf and underwater photography finally became available to me. It allowed me to capture images I am still quite proud of at the fraction of the cost of even a basic underwater DSLR set up. And before that I used a friends A630 in a “dicapac”, basically a sealed plastic bag with a lens port, and hoped for the best. Two of my biggest sales were from random inquiries from some people that wanted to license images from each of these cameras.

One was from a company who wanted to use this image from Raalhugandu as a wrapper for some kind of energy bar.

Imma | Raalhugandu, Male’, Maldives | (2008)

An image with the Canon A630.

The other was from Robert Longo who wanted to license this image from the Malé City swimming track. I think he wanted to draw it at some point in his monochrome style. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as validated as an artist.

Untitled | Male’ City Swimming Track, Male’ Maldives | (2009)

Digital compacts have obvious limitations, but if what I’ve described sounds appealing to you, then don’t be afraid to have a look at the options. Don’t be afraid to look at older cameras like the original G10 either. It was around that time that digital compacts started to become seriously good. Some of these older cameras can be had for the fraction of the price of current models and will still provide a much nicer experience than using a gigantic smartphone.

Kuda Ayya & Fuku | Raalhugandu, Male’, Maldives (2009)

Another image from the G10. The Maldives’ best surfer and body boarder in the same photograph. I managed to get this one published in Action Asia (August 2013).

Also in this form factor are a huge variety of film cameras that offer varying degrees of manual control. One of my favourite cameras of all time is the Vivitar Ultrawide & Slim. A plastic piece of junk that has has a fixed focal length, aperture, and shutter speed. But it also didn’t need batteries and was totally mechanical so it didn’t matter if it was in your pocket during a rainstorm.

Vivitar Ultra Wide & Slim + Cross Processed Expired Kodak Elite Chrome 100. No post processing. (how’s that for natural?!) | Male’, Maldives (2008).

Cameras have changed but light has not. It’s better to get what you can and enjoy photography rather than wait for the ultimate to magically appear. The best camera after all, is the one you have with you.