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Canon decision bodes well for raw photo fans

Canon restores support for unprocessed "raw" images to its high-end compact camera, the PowerShot G9, a decision that's good news for photo enthusiasts.

The people, bless their hearts, have spoken.

Canon PowerShot G9
Canon PowerShot G9 Canon USA

As reported Monday, Canon will restore raw-image support for its G line of compact cameras when its new $500 PowerShot G9 goes on sale in October. Raw images, the unprocessed data from an image sensor, retain a lot of information that's otherwise thrown away when cameras convert sensor light into a JPEG image. Raw images are useful for tasks such as correcting underexposure, enhancing tonal subtleties and tweaking color balance for different lighting conditions.

Raw images are not for everyone. They're bulky, usually proprietary, and photographers have to spend time staring at a computer to convert them into more portable, universal, standard formats such as JPEG. But for a lot of enthusiasts--in particular, those who have grown accustomed to shooting raw with increasingly widespread SLR cameras--a compact camera that lacks raw support is somewhere between a bummer and a showstopper. Raw image support was a top desire I encountered when interviewing people for a story about dearth of compact cameras for the SLR crowd.

The absence of raw support was particularly notable in the PowerShot G7, given that its predecessors supported raw and the G line is geared for sophisticated buyers who appreciate its manual controls, fast performance and hot shoe to mount an external flash. Canon's decision to remove raw support was unpopular.

Asked why raw support was restored, Canon spokesman and tech guru Chuck Westfall had two words: "Popular demand."

As a raw shooter myself, I'm delighted with the decision, even though it doubtless means more software hassles and support expense for Canon. In particular, I hope it sets a precedent: Canon is the dominant camera maker--both compact and SLR--so it's plausible that competitors such as Nikon will follow suit. Panasonic, Ricoh and Olympus already offer some raw support, but not as much as I'd like. And perhaps Canon will expand raw support to other compact models, such as the super-zoom PowerShot S5 IS.

However, until we see the detailed camera reviews, it won't be clear how much advantage over JPEG the G9's raw images will offer. That was certainly a concern when I asked Westfall last year about why Canon removed raw support from the G7: Because increasing megapixels means pixel size gets smaller, sensitivity is degraded. "The net result is that even if the G7 offered raw image capture...there would be no discernible improvement in image quality compared to...Superfine JPEG mode," Westfall said.

The G9 offers 12.1 megapixels compared with 10 for the G7, so the shrinking pixel size is still an issue. However, new generations of sensors often decrease the amount of sensor area lost to electronics so that more light can be gathered, and Westfall said the G9's sensor is actually "slightly" bigger than the G7's--0.59 inches diagonally instead of 0.56--so there's a bit more surface area to work with.

Other differences between the G7 and G9 include improved face detection, which helps with focus and exposure; the built-in ability to correct red-eye; better support for Canon Speedlite external flashes; and a larger LCD screen.