Can Canon save the point and shoot?

Just when I was ready to send Canon off packing to the retirement home, it debuts one of the most creative cameras I saw at CES 2013 in Las Vegas. The PowerShot N is designed around a new square form factor with very few buttons, no conventional shutter release, and a tilting 2.8-inch LCD screen that occupies the entire back of the camera.

What prompted this departure from the traditional form factor and operation of point and shoots? Declining sales. In 2011 compact camera sales were down as much as 30 percent in some sectors. And those numbers didn’t improve in 2012.

One of the culprits identified for the sales slump was the increased adoption of smart phones. Their picture taking prowess and connectivity to social media sites simplified the user experience, demoting point and shoots to third-wheel status.

Knowing darn well that the iPhone and Galaxy S juggernauts are gaining popularity, why not build a gadget that enhances the photo capacity of existing mobile devices? With the PowerShot N, Canon has cleverly adopted the tack, if you can’t beat them, join ‘em.

As a first release in this new category of cameras, the PowerShot N makes an impressive debut. It uses one-touch WiFi connectivity to move high-quality images from the camera to a smartphone or tablet. It can create its own WiFi network, so you can work in the field as well as at home. And through design and software, it encourages creative picture taking. Added to all of this is an impressive optical zoom and smart looking packaging.

I found the combo altogether inspiring: the PowerShot N is truly useful and surprisingly hip. Let’s take a closer look at why.

Designed for creativity

When I asked Canon what the N stands for, the rep said, “New!” Then he added, “Plus, it reads N regardless of how you hold the camera, right side up or down.” That may sound a little cheeky, but in practice, that’s exactly how the device is designed to be used.

The photographer trips the shutter by pressing one of two metal rings that surround the 8X optical zoom (the other ring controls the zoom itself). This symmetrical design allows the shooter to hold the camera at a variety of angles to compose the image. This process is further enabled by the tilting 461,000-dot touchscreen LCD that swings out from the back of the camera.

Canon includes a Creative Shot mode to complement the flexible shooting capability of the device. When enabled, by simply sliding a switch on the side of the camera, the PowerShot records a series of bracketed exposures, then applies processing filters and crops to the image. The final outcome is five imaginative versions of the photograph. Keep the ones you like. Delete the others. You never really know what you’re going to get, but the examples I saw were quite good.

Created for a new generation

By this point, you can probably tell that this isn’t a camera for everyone. It isn’t supposed to be. And it’s this type of risk-taking that may help the compact camera segment survive in the smart phone era.

The PowerShot N doesn’t attempt to replace your smart phone or tablet (it works both with iOS and Android devices), but rather work with them. One of its three buttons, located on the side of the camera, is dedicated to connect to your device via WiFi. The other two buttons are used to turn on the camera and play back images. Once you pair the camera with your phone, the button should provide one-touch connectivity.

Canon enhances the pairing by offering a free app called CameraWindow that facilitates image transfer from the PowerShot N to your iOS or Android device. The thinking is that you can use your existing tools to share images to Flickr, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. It’s true that this adds an extra step to the process. Why not just shoot the pictures with your iPhone in the first place?

Canon is hoping that you’ll be lured by the picture-taking prowess of the PowerShot N to include it in your workflow. It offers 12.1 megapixels using a 1/2.3-inch sensor that’s larger than those in most phones. Combined with the company's most advanced Digic 5 processor and a 28-224mm optical zoom, you’ll potentially get better image quality than with your mobile device. The tilting LCD encourages low- and high-angle composition, something that’s not as easy with a smartphone.

Traditional photo capabilities

The PowerShot N offers plenty of basic photographic tools too. The ISO range is 80-6400. Canon’s Intelligent IS system allows the camera to choose the best image stabilization settings for the shooting conditions. Exposure modes include Intelligent Auto and Program. Effects options feature Toy Camera, Miniature, Soft Focus, and Monochrome. Basic settings, such as white balance, exposure compensation, and self-timer are easy to access via the touchscreen controls.

And then there is video. The PowerShot N includes both 720p and 1080p video capture. Plus it has a Super Slow Motion Movie mode. The LED light positioned on the front of the camera operates as a flash for still photography or as a movie light when needed.

Charged and ready for action

You can recharge the camera using its included USB cable to a wall charger or via connection to your computer. To help reduce the frequency of charging sessions, Canon offers a new ECO mode that provides 30 percent longer battery life when enabled. It accomplishes this primarily by dimming the screen when the camera has been idle for 10 seconds. All of this extends the battery life of your mobile phone too, because you’re using the PowerShot N for picture taking and experimentation, then only sending your favorite images to the mobile device for sharing.

Canon did switch to microSD for memory storage. That may be a disappointment for photographers who have a cache of standard SD cards. But space is at a premium with the PowerShot N, which measures just 2.37 by 3.09 inches and just 1.15 inches deep. It also doesn’t capture in RAW format—stills are in JPEG only.

New life for point and shoot photography

The Canon PowerShot N is a camera that you have to hold to truly appreciate. It prompts you to try different shooting angles and to literally play with your photography. If you feel like your images are in a rut, then slide this diminutive camera into your pocket and go explore the world. You might just find that there’s still a place in your photography for a compact point and shoot camera.

The PowerShot N should be available in April for $300. Two color choices will be offered, black or white. Canon plans on releasing accessories for the camera too.

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