Canon PowerShot SD40 Digital ELPH Overview
by Dan Havlik
Review Date: 11/13/2006
Canon designers have intended the ELPH line to do double duty as a fashion accessory since these petite models started appearing in the hands -- and around the necks -- of the style-conscious ten years ago. These days, there are few cameras more stylish than the Canon PowerShot SD40 Digital ELPH, the colorful little shooter that is the replacement for last year's popular 5-megapixel Canon SD30. The SD40 upgrades its imaging chip to 7 megapixel while adding several key new features including Canon's fast and efficient DIGIC III processor, along with its new Face Detection AF/AE technology, which can detect and focus on up to nine faces in a frame just by half-pressing the shutter button.
The SD40 also expands its light sensitivity range from ISO 80 to up to ISO 1,600, with the increased ISO at the top end designed to reduced blur in low-light shots without flash. Other additions are less dramatic, including a Safety Zoom feature that warns you when you activate the digital zoom (which can degrade picture quality). The Canon SD40 looks a lot like the SD30, except that it's offered in a brand set of new colors -- an annual ritual for the marketing folks on this model. The four new colors for the SD40 are: a dark brown with gold accents known as Twilight Sepia; a hot pink called Precious Rose; a navy color known as Noble Blue; and a silvery Olive Grey. The Canon SD40 keeps the same 1.8-inch LCD screen as the SD30, which is quite a bit smaller than the 2.5-inch displays that are offered on many cameras these days.
Canon PowerShot SD40
by Dan Havlik
Still a Head-Turner. Though the Canon SD40 hasn't changed much in design from the previous model, it's still a head-turner. And while it's easy to make fun of the names of the colors this model comes in, the colors themselves are tastefully chosen and quite attractive. I don't know why more manufacturers haven't released their compact "style" models in cool colors. While it's not unusual to see a brushed black or a polished blue on some competing slim cameras, it's rare to find anything more adventurous. From experience, people really react to the look of the SD40, particularly the stylish hues. The Noble Blue model I was using at the recent PhotoPlus show in New York City received quite a few compliments, which is saying a lot since the show was packed with tons of other eye-catching equipment.Canon has eschewed the "ultra slim" category in favor of the candy bar cell phone look of the SD40. Measuring 3.8 x 1.8 x 0.9 inches (96 x 45 x 24mm) and weighing 4.3 ounces (122 grams) with the battery and SD card, the Canon SD40 is small enough for my tastes. The smooth brushed finish and very nice glossy metal pieces around the lens and the eyelet for the wrist strap, give the Canon SD40 a luxurious feel. This is definitely a camera you won't mind carrying around. Since it's not a card-like ultraslim model -- which I've always had a hard time holding -- the SD40 has good balance and is very easy to one-hand when taking pictures on the fly, especially because its steel shutter button is large enough for most fingers. The other buttons are quite small, though, and my big digits had trouble quickly changing settings.
Color Colors. The Canon SD40 comes in four new colors. While they may have silly sounding names -- Twilight Sepia, Precious Rose, Noble Blue, and Olive Grey -- they are very tasteful and attractive looking
Though I've never said this about a button before, I really hate the zoom control on the SD40. You zoom via the multi-function button on the back of the camera -- the top arrow zooms in while the bottom arrow zooms out. I was constantly searching for a small lever or wheel to zoom with even after several days of use. In playback, the top arrow lets you magnify a captured image up to ten times while the bottom button zooms out. Scrolling around a magnified image is tricky, though, requiring an extra tap of the Function/Set button to change modes; otherwise you will end up moving on to the next image. This configuration makes both Record and Playback navigation more difficult than they should be. Of course, the Canon SD40 is designed this way to save space on this very small camera, but I'd have preferred a zoom ring around the shutter button to this convoluted method.
Smallish Screen. One area where I wish the Canon SD40 had upgraded from the SD30 is in screen size. The SD40 keeps its predecessor's 1.8-inch display, which these days is just ho-hum, with most compact models offering screen sizes of 2 inches or more.
The display's resolution is 118,000 pixels which offers good rendering of images in live preview and playback. The LCD's Night Display function was also helpful, increasing screen brightness when shooting in dark conditions and making it easier to frame the subject. Not surprisingly, there is no optical viewfinder on this little camera, just the LCD.
The DIGIC Difference. For me, one of the most important improvements on the Canon SD40 is that it uses Canon's new DIGIC III processor. Canon's DIGIC processors have proven to be very effective over the years in eliminating lag in just about all aspects of camera operation. Until you try a model with a less-than-speedy processor, it's easy to forget what a difference a DIGIC makes.
In our tests, the Canon SD40 powered on and was ready for first shot in just one second, which helped me immensely when using the camera at a New York Knicks basketball game. Because a friend of mine was generous enough to let me fill one of her family's courtside seats at the game, the 2.4x zoom on the SD40 was just enough to photograph some of the players in action. Since I only wanted to use the camera periodically during the game -- I'm a rabid Knicks fan and didn't want to miss any of the action! -- the quick power-on let me fire it up when I needed it without missing a beat.
Shutter lag was also very minor on the Canon SD40, taking just 0.47 second to capture a shot at the full autofocus wide setting, and a lightning quick 0.018 second when you pre-focus by half pressing the shutter. Shot to shot, this camera was very impressive for its class, taking just 1.67 seconds per shot in Large Fine JPEG mode when averaged over 20 shots. Unlike some competing models, there was no early shutter penalty on the Canon SD40, which was a relief. (Some cameras refuse to snap another shot if you release and press the shutter too quickly in Single Shot mode.) Flash recycling time, however, was a little slow at 7.5 seconds.
Up & Down Image Quality. In most standard shooting situations with a stationary subject and adequate lighting, the Canon SD40 and its 7 megapixel sensor worked like a charm, capturing colorful images with warm tones, good dynamic range, and fairly good sharpness. Though color was a bit oversaturated, especially in shots of the players' jerseys during the Knicks games, that's not unusual for cameras in this class, which tend to punch up hues to make them more appealing to consumers.
I've had very good experience shooting at high ISOs with Canon's latest compact cameras, so I was expecting decent results with the SD40 above ISO 400. After shooting with it at the PhotoPlus trade show with dodgy overhead fluorescent lighting, and in a dim Madison Square Garden during the Knicks game, I have to say I was pretty disappointed with the amount of image noise produced by the Canon SD40 at ISO 800 and 1,600. Many shots were downright unusable even for 4x6-inch prints and smaller. Skin tones, in particular, had that icky mottled look that led one colleague of mine to remark that a picture reminded them of an old TV image when the antenna had been blown off the roof. Overall, chroma noise filled the shadows and the folds of dark clothing in many shots at ISO 800 and above. I've had good success with the ISO High auto setting -- which automatically cranks up the ISO in low-light situations while increasing the shutter speed -- on other recent Digital ELPHs I've tried out, but not so on the SD40, where shots came out quite noisy.Unfortunately, since the flash is rather underpowered on this little camera -- it's rated at between 12-inches and 6.6 feet at its widest focal setting -- low-light shooting in general was a frustrating experience with the Canon SD40. The small size of the LCD didn't help matters much, since I had no idea how much noise was in some of my shots until I looked at them later on a computer.
On a positive note, the camera's face detection technology was fun to use and worked well even when I was photographing the huge crowds during the recent New York Marathon. When the Face Detection AF/AE achieves focus, a little green box will appear around a face, and it was fun to lock in on the faces of groups of runners during the race as they breezed by. This wasn't the camera to cover fast-moving action, however, which was revealed in the many out-of-focus images I shot during the marathon.
Rockin' the Cradle. To charge up the Canon SD40, the camera is supplied with small white cradle which also enables Hi-Speed USB 2.0 for direct printing and image transfer. The cradle comes with a wireless remote for playing your images back as a slideshow on a television. While a cradle is a nice feature that some consumers enjoy, I would have preferred a small travel charger to increase the SD40's portability.
The camera includes 15 scene modes -- which includes five different movie modes -- though what's offered are very basic presets such as Portrait, Landscape, and Night Snapshot. Noticeably missing are such Canon stalwarts as Kids & Pets, Indoor, Foliage, Snow, Beach, Fireworks, and Underwater. Canon's My Color Modes are useful for changing settings to mimic various picture styles including sepia, B&W, or "positive film" which makes red, green, and blues more intense -- along with a host of other lighter, darker, and more vivid color settings -- but I've found using the unusual Color Accent and Color Swap features to be somewhat frustrating, with the results just mixed. In Color Accent you can pick a specified color in the LCD and have it retain its tone while the rest of the scene becomes black and white. Using Color Swap, you can switch colors in a scene so that an apple becomes purple and a green sweater becomes red. While these features are unique to Canon cameras, I continue to wonder how many people actually use them.
The Canon SD40 can capture movies with a maximum size of 640 x 480 at 30 frames per second. If the My Colors modes are your thing, there's a movie feature that lets you shoot with Color Accent or Color Swap.
One other special mode that's worth noting is the SD40's ability to shoot in 16:9 widescreen format for its still images so they can be played back on widescreen TVs. This appears to be a carryover from Canon digital camcorders which all have 16:9 modes now. Why Canon decided to import 16:9 Widescreen for its still images on the SD600 but not for its movies is a bit of a mystery.
The SD40 also adds a new My Category organizing feature. This lets you tag your images or movies with different categories such as People, Scenery, or Events or add them to a To Do list, though I could not find much use for this feature.
The Canon SD40's proprietary lithium-ion battery can capture approximately 190 shots on a single charge, according to CIPA standards, which is slightly below average for a camera in this class.
The Bottom Line. The small and snazzy Canon SD40 is a digital camera that puts as much importance on style as it does on picture taking. And while it wouldn't look out of place dangling from a wrist on a night out on the town -- or on the fashion runway, for that matter -- this model's 7 megapixel imaging chip and a host of new features such as Canon's speedy DIGIC III processor and helpful Face Detection AF/AE technology are designed to produce quality photos. In most basic shooting situations it does just that. Dim the lights and turn off the flash, though, and the SD40 struggles, despite being able to shoot at light sensitivities as high as ISO 1,600. In short, the SD40's noise issues are its Achilles' heel, especially considering that stylecams are very often used in low-light settings. Those who want to shoot nightlife with greater quality while maintaining a sense of style would do better with the Canon SD700 IS or SD 800 IS, whose optical image stabilization delivers far greater image quality, and allows you to shoot at lower ISO settings.
In the Box
The retail package contains the following items:
- Canon Powershot SD40 Digital ELPH
- Wrist strap
- Battery pack
- Camera station
- Compact power adaptor
- Wireless controller
- AV cable
- Interface cable
- 16MB SD Card
- CD-Rom Software
- Large capacity SD/MMC memory card. 512MB to 1GB offers a good balance for little money, given the 7.1 megapixel resolution
- Soft camera case
- Additional battery pack
As much as I love the style and ease-of-use of the Canon PowerShot SD40, image issues with this Digital ELPH, especially in low-light, make it difficult to recommend. While there's no questioning that the SD40 -- which comes in four cool new colors -- is still one of the snazziest compact models on the market, I was expecting a lot better image quality. Other Digital ELPHs from Canon I've tested out recently have been able to produce images with very acceptable noise levels even when shooting as high as ISO 1,600. With the SD40, however, many of the shots I took above ISO 400 were riddled with chroma noise in shadow areas, while skin tones came out blotchy and mottled looking. The weak flash wasn't much help either when shooting in low light.
These low-light deficiencies are a shame since in bright outdoor shooting conditions, the Canon SD40 performed well. The biggest plus on this model -- in addition to its fashion-conscious style -- is that it uses Canon's latest image processor, DIGIC III, which sped up overall camera operation while reducing battery drain and virtually eliminating shutter lag when you pre-focus. The SD40's Face Detection technology was also a lot of fun to use and was great for taking group portraits, with the camera able to lock in on up to nine people. The SD40 also had good dynamic range and produced relatively clean images in contrasty shooting situations. On the downside, the camera could have used a larger LCD, especially since many competing models have displays of 2 inches or more. So while Canon SD40 has a lot going for it in terms of looks and speed, image quality issues prevent me from making this a Dave's Pick.