Canon PowerShot SD900 Digital ELPH Overview
by Mike Pasini
Hands-On Preview: 11/26/06
Full Review: 01/15/07
The Canon SD900 Digital ELPH features a compact, stylish case with rounded horizontal edges, and a retracting lens to make it pocket-friendly. The Canon SD900 includes a 10 megapixel imager, and a Canon-branded 3x optical zoom lens covers a fairly standard range of 37-111mm equivalent, a moderate wide-angle to moderate telephoto. Exposure is fully automatic, but the user can tweak it with 2.0EV of exposure compensation, and three metering modes to handle difficult lighting, while 11 scene modes keep the camera approachable for beginners.
A long-exposure mode in the Canon SD900 ELPH also lets you manually set exposure times as long as 15 seconds, and a large 2.5 inch LCD display plus an optical viewfinder -- rather rare on digicams these days -- helps frame images on bright days.
The Canon ELPH SD900 also sports a rather wide ISO sensitivity range, from 100 to 1,600 with a special scene mode offering ISO 3,200 equivalent, for better performance in dim lighting.
Canon also manufactures a line of photo printers, and prides themselves on the level of integration between their cameras and printers. The Canon SD900 is PictBridge capable, so is able to print to any printer that supports PictBridge directly, without the need for a computer in the middle. When connected to a Canon printer, though, you can set paper size, print quality, and a number of other parameters, capabilities lacking in basic PictBridge connections.
Canon PowerShot SD900
by Mike Pasini
Intro. Megapixel counters will be drawn to the 10 megapixel sensor on the Canon SD900, the most yet on a Digital ELPH. But there are three other cool new features on this little ELPH worth noting.
Canon has tweaked their already quite competent low light performance with a high ISO of 1,600. But they didn't stop there, adding a Scene mode that shoots a small image size at ISO 3,200, too. It's a wonder they put a flash on this thing.
Being able to shoot without flash in ordinary room light means no red-eye. And if you take lots of pictures of people, that's enough reason to like the Canon SD900. But it has an even more compelling argument with Canon's new Face Detection ability. Half press the shutter and the SD900 will show a focus target on the nearest face it finds. No more focusing on the wall between two heads.
The Canon SD900 can also tag your images with one of several categories as you shoot or after. Either way, you can organize them before you transfer them to your computer, which strikes me as a very bright idea.
The compact size of the titanium Canon SD900 makes it ideal for travel. You never have to worry about the shutter or aperture on an ELPH, but you can tweak exposure by playing with the ISO, something you may want to do in dark churches or museums. And battery life is generous enough you can rely on it for a day's outing.
Design. Even if you never look at the Canon SD900 to see its gorgeous titanium exterior, you'll appreciate the way it feels in your hand. It looks bulky, but it actually fits your palm quite comfortably, lending a feeling of security as you travel around with it. So don't let the shape put you off.
The titanium shell wraps smoothly around the body, raising up slightly to frame the 2.5 inch LCD and to set a dial or button. You can stand the SD900 up on its end or its side, and I found both useful.
Its weight falls in the middle of the pack among compact digicams, but that's a good thing. A little heft helps stabilize a small camera.
Like previous ELPHs, it's comfortable not only to carry but to shoot with, easily managed with just your right hand. The Canon SD900's new Mode dial design has a sculpted face that makes it easy to switch modes with just your thumb. And the Touch control dial can be set so it detects light pressure on any of its control points. The Display button has been moved up, just under the Mode dial, which has the benefit of leaving the Menu button all by itself under the Touch control dial, where you won't confuse it with anything else.
There's no real front or back grip, but the shell of the Canon SD900 is designed with a slight but helpful bulge in front and the Mode dial actually wraps around your thumb on the back. So, while you can't see the grip, your hand naturally finds it and you feel it. Very clever.
I can't say enough about the large shutter button, ringed with the Zoom lever. It doesn't protrude but is always easy to find.
While it's a great point-and-shoot design, it's also very well suited to travel (which is a bit more demanding). You hardly ever have to worry about exposure options. Just attach the Canon SD900's wrist strap, charge the battery and put a large SD card in it, and off you go. You'll come back with great shots every time.
Display/Viewfinder. The Canon SD900 has both a large LCD and an optical viewfinder, a rare paring these days. The advantage of the optical viewfinder is undeniable. In bright sun when you can't see what's on the LCD or in darkened venues where a bright LCD is not welcomed, an optical viewfinder lets you get the shot. As Luke noted when shooting the test shots, the SD900 sports "another truly awful viewfinder," but having one is better than not having one. True, it shows about 80 percent of what the sensor will capture, but that's enough to center the subject and get the shot.
At 230,000 pixels, the 2.5 inch LCD on the Canon SD900 enjoys a bit more resolution than its cousin on the SD700. That's good news. Also good news is the extremely wide angle at which you can still see the full color image on the LCD. It approaches 180 degrees (which, of course, is unattainable), so you can hold the camera over your head or drop it below your belt and still compose your shot. That's something you can't do with an optical viewfinder.
Performance. The closer you look at the Canon SD900's performance numbers, the more impressed you are. It ranks above average (and well above) for startup time, shutdown time, autofocus shutter lag, prefocus shutter lag, cycle time, and download speed.
The only categories it ranks average in are its flash cycle time, weight (which I find advantageous), and its 3x zoom (which is pretty much the standard zoom ratio these days). The Canon SD900's 3x optical zoom is buttressed by a 4x digital zoom.
Considering how powerful the flash is, having an average cycle time is a miracle. My informal shooting around the house impressed me by how well the flash lit up even large rooms.
Luke also pointed out the SD900 has "exceptional low light focusing ability. Very few point-and-shoot cameras will go below EV3 without the assist light." Finding focus can be a real headache even with an SLR. But the Canon SD900 has very little trouble. Toss in Face Detection autofocus and it's probably the most reliable focus I've ever used.
One thing that surprised me was how hard it was to get a sharp shot at 1/30 second. The camera shake warning, a red hand, was constantly waving at me on the LCD as I went around in the rain to take a few outdoor shots. It seems like 1/60 second was the best I could do with the Canon SD900.
There's no Shutter Priority mode, so you can't help yourself that way. Nor is there an Aperture Priority or Manual mode. The "M" Camera mode on the Mode dial is really a Programmed Auto that lets you set options other than Image Size and Compression, which is all Auto lets you do (apart from selecting between Auto and High Auto ISO).
So to avoid camera shake, I tapped into the SD900's ISO option. The first trick was to select High ISO, rather than Auto ISO. That told the Canon SD900 it was fine with me if it used a higher, noisier ISO to avoid camera shake. The second trick was to simply select a high ISO (like 1,600). That results in much noisier images, but gives you the most depth of field in addition to a safe shutter speed. And noise can be dealt with in software. I used Imagenomic's Noiseware Professional plug-in to clean up the noise on the ISO 1,600 shot of Marti, a detail of which (showing her eye) appears here. Your printer may average out the otherwise grainy appearance of high ISO shots, too. So don't be too quick to reject them.
But the Canon SD900 has yet another ISO trick up its sleeve with an ISO 3,200 Scene mode. The trick is that it captures a small image at 1,600 x 1,200, doing a little averaging of its own. But if it lets you get the shot (say, in a dark interior), how can you complain?
The Canon controls and menu system have, by now, evolved into a package that's really comfortable to use once you learn how to play the game. In Auto, you don't worry about the buttons at all. In M, just hit the Canon SD900's Function button to see your options. Hit the Menu button for setup options.
The Touch control dial, when activated, displays a small version of itself on the LCD. But it can be easier to read than the little icons on the dial itself. It magnifies whatever option your thumb is on. That seems to be the real advantage because you still have to click the dial to access the settings.
The lens tests below speak to the sharpness of this optic, slightly revised from previous ELPHs. Chromatic aberration was there at wide angle, but less than I'm used to seeing. Distortion at wide angle was minimal, too. And at telephoto, neither were noticeable.
The Canon SD900's Macro performance was a delight, too. You don't have to get right on top of a subject to shoot macro. I engaged it for most of my full frame flower shots to capture the texture of the petals, for example.
Movie mode jumps up to HDTV with a 1,024 x 768 pixel mode but captures just 15 fps, half the broadcast standard of 30 fps (available at the 640 x 480 pixel option).
That 16:9 wide aspect ratio is also available for still shooting (but without digital zoom). It's somehow a more pleasing aspect ratio to me, more the shape of your two eyes than the 4:3 ratio (or even the traditional 3:2) that frames a print so well. And having 3,648 pixels of horizontal detail to fill that frame with sure doesn't hurt one little bit.
A full charge on the Canon SD900's battery delivers about 230 shots, according to Canon. If you turn off the LCD (an option since you have an optical viewfinder) that jumps up to 700. So if battery power is running low, turn off the LCD to extend shooting time. Playback is good for six hours, Canon claims. That far exceeds my performance for a day's shooting.
Shooting. I make a habit of avoiding Scene modes. It's hard to see on the LCD just what they've done and the manual often doesn't disclose anything either, except in very broad terms.
But I couldn't resist two Scene modes on the Canon SD900.
The first was Portrait. Face Detect is on by default in Portrait mode, though you can set it in any mode but Movie. Shooting faces is a bit of a problem for test shots (everybody wants to be paid for some reason), but you don't actually need a starving artist to pull this trick off. Face recognition identifies the triangle of two eyes and a nose (mouths can often be obscured) so it doesn't work with profiles. But it can detect, for example, a framed portrait. It was fun trying to fool it, but it was dead on. If it can't find a face, it focuses anyway.
But you'll love this the next time you want to take a picture of two people standing side by side in front of Mount Fuji, say. Instead of focusing on Mount Fuji and blurring the faces of the people who are the real subject of the shot, Face Detect finds the faces and isn't fooled by Mount Fuji. Without Face Detect, you have to cheat the camera left or right to focus on one of the faces, half press the shutter button to lock focus, swing back to recompose the image and then fully press the shutter.
The beauty of Face Detect is that it really works. You can rely on it to find the heads facing you in the picture. And that's a real convenience.
The second Scene mode I couldn't resist was ISO 3,200. I didn't realize right off the bat that the image size was reduced to 1,600 x 1,200. But that's a fair trade off, still good enough to print an 8x10 at 150 dpi, which is all your inkjet really needs.
The neat thing about this Scene mode isn't so much the high ISO speed as it is the color it captures. Usually the higher you push your ISO the less color you get. You can see that in our crop of Marti's eye. But the ISO Scene mode retains very rich color (our pink flower was shot at ISO 3,200). There is some noise artifacting, but not the usual grainy effect. Instead, it seemed more an artifact of averaging values (from what I presume is the full 10 megapixels of data). And, once again, Noiseware Pro took care of it.
Being able to shoot at that speed makes it easier to get a sharp image and gets more of the scene in focus, too, by extending depth of field.
The Canon SD900's Category feature seems, at first glance, like something no one needs. It's bad enough to have to keyword images to organize them on your computer (so nobody really does). Why let that nuisance into your camera too? Especially if no other software knows about it.
Well, the advantage -- which can be compelling -- is in organizing playback options in the camera. And those can include slide shows and PictBridge printing as well as image searching (using the Jump feature) and management (like erasing). The preset categories are People, Scenery, Events, Categories 1 to 3, and To Do. An image can be assigned more than one category, too. If you use the Auto Category option in the Record menu, this can happen as you shoot. Otherwise, you can assign categories during playback.
Another favorite feature, although an oldie, is Grid display. For some reason my gyroscope is off a bit and I have a hard time taking level shots. Having the grid display on the LCD helps a lot. The dark gray lines are really not obtrusive and help compose images too if you play by the Rule of Thirds.
But if I ever meet the guy who concocted Canon's rotation "feature," I will shake more than his hand. It "suggests" rotation, setting an obscure tag in the header, but doesn't actually do it, so sometimes your images look rotated and mostly they don't. It really wouldn't be a big deal to actually rotate the images. To avoid confusion, I leave this feature off.
And I can't help repeating that I miss a real Manual mode plus Shutter and Aperture Priority. But for that, I just have to go to Canon's A-Series. I do wish Canon would enable EV compensation in Auto mode, however. It was surprisingly easy to blow out the highlights even on an overcast day. Adjust EV would have helped.
Appraisal. Canon's Digital ELPH series is designed for the person who doesn't want to worry about shutter speeds and apertures to get good pictures. If Auto mode doesn't do the trick the Programmed Auto (M) accesses options like White Balance, EV compensation, and Metering. And if that's too much trouble, there's a healthy selection of 11 Scene modes to solve almost any problem.
That ease of use is reflected in the SD900's cleverly sculpted titanium shell, which seems to have an invisible grip, and its simple control layout. And it extends to features like Face Detect autofocus and a special ISO 3,200 Scene mode that doesn't sacrifice color to sensitivity.
The SD900 is an excellent performer no matter what aspect you consider, with superior focusing and low light performance matched with a powerful flash that doesn't make you wait all day to recharge. And with a day-long battery, you couldn't ask for a better traveling companion.
- 10-megapixel CCD
- Real-image optical viewfinder
- 2.5-inch color TFT LCD monitor with 230,000 pixels
- 3x, 7.7-23.1mm lens, equivalent to a 37-111mm lens on a 35mm camera
- Maximum 4x digital zoom
- Automatic exposure control, with Long Shutter mode for longer exposures
- Shutter speeds from 1/2,000 to 15 seconds
- Maximum aperture of f/2.8 to f/4.9, depending on lens zoom position
- Spot, Center-Weighted, and Evaluative exposure metering
- White balance (color) adjustment with seven modes, including a Custom setting
- Built-in flash with six modes
- SD memory card storage, 32MB card included
- Power supplied by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack (charger included) or optional AC adapter kit
- Canon Digital Camera Solution Software v29.0
- Print/Share button for direct image transfer and printing
- Pure titanium shell sculpted in Canon's Perpetual Curve design
- DIGIC III image processor with face detection technology
- Adjustable ISO settings up to 1,600, plus Auto and ISO HI settings, and an ISO 3,200 Scene mode
- 16:9 Widescreen still image capture mode
- 11 preset Scene modes
- Five Movie modes with sound, with 1,024 x 768 XGA mode at 15 fps
- Continuous Shooting mode
- Stitch-Assist panorama mode
- Infinity, Macro, and Digital Macro focus modes
- Customizable "My Camera" settings
- Two- or 10-second Self-Timer for delayed shutter release, plus custom timer with multi-shot feature
- Sound Memo option for recording captions
- My Colors menus for color adjustment
- Unusual Color Accent and Color Swap features for special effects in still images or movies
- DPOF (Digital Print Order Format) and PictBridge compatibility
- USB cable for connection to a computer (driver software included)
- A/V cable for connection to a television set
In the Box
The Canon SD900 ships with the following items in the box:
- Canon SD900 digital ELPH camera
- NB-5L lithium-ion battery pack with cover
- CB-2LX Battery charger
- 32MB SD memory card
- WS-700 Wrist strap
- IFC-400PCU USB cable
- AVC-DC300 AV cable
- Canon Digital Camera Solution Disk v29.0 software CD
- Operating manuals and registration card
- Large capacity SD/MMC memory card. (These days, 512MB and 1GB cards are a good tradeoff between cost and capacity.)
- Small camera case for outdoor and in-bag protection
Canon Accessories for the SD900 include:
- High Power Flash HF-DC1
- Side Pack PSC-1 carrying case
- Metal Neckstrap
Featuring a 10 megapixel CCD, 3x optical zoom lens, and well-designed user interface, the PowerShot SD900 Digital ELPH updates the popular PowerShot line with a compact body style that is well suited for travel. Exposure remains under automatic control, and its 11 pre-programmed scene modes help with more tricky subjects. It's a very responsive camera, with low shutter lag in daylight conditions, and excellent shot-to-shot speeds. It also sports very good battery life, a very capable Movie mode, and excellent download speed. Finally, Canon makes a line of accessories including a slave flash, and even an underwater case for it as well, expanding your options beyond what you'd normal expect from a compact digital camera. The bright 2.5-inch color LCD monitor is excellent for framing and reviewing shots, and the overall design and layout of the SD900 is user-friendly and hassle-free. If you're looking for a good, take-anywhere camera with great versatility and good color and tonality, the Canon SD900 deserves a close look. No question, a Dave's Pick in its category.