Canon PowerShot SD950 IS Overview
by Mike Pasini
Review Date: 11/17/07
The Canon PowerShot SD950 IS Digital ELPH features a compact, stylish case with rounded edges and a retracting lens to make it pocket-friendly. The Canon SD950 includes a 12.1 megapixel, 1/1.7-inch imager and a Canon-branded 3.7x optical zoom lens. It covers a fairly standard range of 35-133mm equivalent, a moderate wide-angle to moderate telephoto. Exposure is fully automatic, but the user can tweak it with 2.0 EV of exposure compensation and four metering modes to handle difficult lighting, while a generous 11 Scene modes keep the camera approachable for beginners. A long-exposure mode in the Canon SD950 IS also lets you manually set exposure times up to 15 seconds, and a large 2.5-inch LCD display plus an optical viewfinder -- rather rare on digicams these days -- is a handy alternative for framing images.
The Canon ELPH SD950 sports a rather wide ISO sensitivity range, from 80 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 Digital ELPH SD950 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.
Shipping since September, the Canon SD950IS Digital ELPH retails for about US$450.
Canon PowerShot SD950 IS User Report
by Mike Pasini
Intro. Feature creep, feature creep, trick or treat? Halloween may be behind us, but goblins and ELPHs never quite go away. We liked the Canon SD900 quite a bit for its compact titanium shell and don't-worry-just-shoot capability. In the PowerShot SD950 IS, Canon has updated its 10-megapixel sensor with a 12.1 megapixel sensor and added image stabilization to the increased range of 3.7x optical zoom, up from 3x.
The PowerShot SD950 IS is an ELPH, though, so you still don't get manual control. But do you care? The DIGIC III processor with Canon's face detection autofocus (which also sets exposure and flash) delivers wonderful images with no work. That -- and the striking good looks of that titanium shell -- are the hallmarks of the ELPH line.
If the Canon PowerShot SD950 is a little fatter than the sleekest digicams, it still slips as smoothly as a bar of soap into your hand, ready when you are to capture an image. On a recent trip the only reason I didn't pick up the Canon SD950 was a feeling of obligation to use the other review cameras I'd taken along. It's hard to resist an ELPH.
Look and Feel. It may be built like a brick, but it doesn't feel like one. While it's a bit thicker than the sliver-like ultracompacts of some competitors, it feels like silk as you palm the PowerShot SD950 IS and slip it out of your pocket. And it's actually a bit smaller than it looks.
Except for the battery compartment door on the bottom, the body design of the PowerShot SD950 IS is very similar to the SD900. That door now hinges next to the tripod mount rather than along the front edge of the case.
The Canon PowerShot SD950 IS's shell is curved a bit differently, particularly at the base, and the back gained one more button when Playback mode moved off the Mode dial onto a button of its own. Why? So you can program it to switch into Playback (the default), run a slide show, or record a voice memo. The latter two are really temporary conveniences (full-time they're more inconvenient). But I did observe to my delight that the Playback button will actually turn the camera off as well as power it on. Genius at work, there.
There are a couple of things to note (or quibble about) with the PowerShot SD950 IS's design. One is that the standoffs on the short end are a bit narrow, so the camera easily wobbles on an uneven surface (like bricks). Good thing the shell is tough titanium. Another is that the Canon 950 IS's chrome rubber door on the USB port really doesn't open far enough to let you connect a USB cable. You have to insist.
It isn't the lightest ultracompact around, but we like a little heft in a little camera. It helps stabilize the PowerShot SD950 IS as you press the Shutter button.
Like previous ELPHs, it's comfortable not only to carry but to shoot with, easily managed with just your right hand. The Canon SD950 retains the SD900's Mode dial design of 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, making one-handed operation a little easier. Some people don't like that, but I do.
The PowerShot SD950 IS's Display button has been moved down, joining the Menu button just under the Touch control dial. Above the Touch control dial, the new Playback button joins the Share/Print button.
There's no real front or back grip, but the shell of the Canon SD950 is designed with a slight but helpful thinning in front and raised lettering, while on the back the Mode dial actually slips under your thumb with a couple of semicircular grips. 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 PowerShot SD950 IS's large shutter button, ringed with the Zoom lever. It doesn't protrude but is always easy to find. If I were king, there would be a law requiring large shutter buttons with big Zoom levers around them.
While it's a great point-and-shoot design, the PowerShot SD950 is also very well suited to travel (which is a bit more demanding). You hardly ever have to worry about exposure options (unless, like me, you've changed them). Just attach the Canon SD950 IS's wrist strap, charge the battery, put a large SD card in it, and off you go. You'll come back with great shots every time.
Display/Viewfinder. The Canon SD950 IS 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 (it can happen even on the SD950 IS) 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 PowerShot SD950 sports "yet another truly horrible optical viewfinder from the Canon SD series," 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.
I confess, however, that I never used it. It just doesn't tell you as much about what's going on as the LCD.
At 230,000 pixels, the 2.5-inch LCD on the Canon SD950 enjoys the same resolution as its predecessor. 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 lower it below your belt and still compose your shot. That's something you can't do with an optical viewfinder.
Pity there's no live histogram on the PowerShot SD950 IS, but there is a grid display to help align horizons. And Playback mode does offer a histogram display.
The Canon SD950's lens is new to the ELPH line, a 3.7x optical zoom, giving it a little more reach with a 35mm equivalent of 35 to 133mm. Maximum aperture is generous at wide-angle with f/2.8 but a little slow at telephoto with f/5.8.
But the big change is inside the PowerShot SD950's lens with optical image stabilization. There are two things image stabilization does for you. It steadies the image at long telephoto focal lengths (in this case, the 3.7x optical plus the 4x digital zoom). But it is probably even more useful in low light, letting you hand hold the camera at shutter speeds which normally exhibit camera shake. That's a big deal when you factor in the f2.8 wide-angle focal length and the ISO 1,600 sensitivity built into the PowerShot SD950 IS. Canon is matching Panasonic's challenge, outfitting its entire line with optical image stabilization while other competitors try to sell a digital equivalent that merely raises ISO and turns on the flash. Bravo to Canon.
I took a series of shots one evening just to show off what the PowerShot SD950 IS's image stabilization can do. The room was lit by nothing more than 60 watt bulbs (well, the fluorescent equivalent, which is a lot lower). ISO was set to High ISO, limiting it to ISO 800. And I got sharp shots with shutter speeds as low as 1/15 second, something I can't hand hold. Even in Macro mode (like my shot of the Grape Goddess) my shots were sharp.
Considering that I couldn't do better than 1/60 second with the Canon SD900, that's easily a two stop improvement, and a great argument for upgrading to the PowerShot SD950 IS.
Interface. The Canon controls and menu system are comfortable to use once you learn how to play the game (which seems to change a little on each model). In Auto, you don't worry about the buttons at all. In Manual, just hit the Canon SD950's Function button to see your shooting options. Hit the Menu button for general camera setup options any time.
The PowerShot SD950 IS's Touch control dial, when activated, displays a small version of itself on the LCD. It magnifies whatever option your thumb is on, the active option. That's a real advantage with one-handed operation.
Modes. If I have a standing gripe about the ELPHs (it's true, I do), it's that Manual mode is just an Auto with a little fudging. There is no manual mode on an ELPH. You can't set the aperture and the shutter speed yourself. I used to think that wasn't so bad because there weren't a lot of f-stops to play with anyway, but there are more all the time. And quite a few shutter speeds, too. If you want manual, though, you'll have to look at the G-Series or the A-Series Canons.
In the PowerShot SD950 IS's Camera M mode, your images can be subjected to the My Colors option that provides Vivid, Vivid Blue, Vivid Green, Vivid Red, Neutral, Sepia, Black & White, Positive Film, Lighter Skin Tone, Darker Skin Tone, and Custom conversions. You can also adjust White Balance and EV.
Besides Auto and Camera M, the Canon SD950 IS offers 11 Special Scene modes that include Portrait, Foliage, Snow, Beach, Fireworks, Aquarium, Underwater, ISO 3200, Indoor, Kids & Pets, and Night Snapshot. In addition to those, you also get Color Accent, Color Swap, Digital Macro, Stitch Assist and Movie mode.
Storage and Battery. The PowerShot SD950 IS takes an SD/SDHC card to store images. It can also accept MMC, MMC Plus, and HC MMC Plus cards.
A 128MB card will hold about 23 high quality JPEGs or a minute's worth of broadcast quality video. So you'll want a much bigger one. At least 2GB.
A full charge on the Canon SD950 IS's rechargeable lithium-ion battery delivers about 240 shots, according to Canon. If you turn off the LCD (an option since you have an optical viewfinder) that jumps up to 580. 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.
There is an optional AC adapter available. The AC Adapter Kit ACK-DC30 could come in handy if you do much tripod shooting.
Performance. Like its predecessor, the Canon SD950 IS has impressive performance figures. It ranks above average for an entry-level digicam for startup, shutdown, combined wide-angle/telephoto autofocus lag (both of which were pretty close), pre-focus lag, download speed (thanks to USB 2.0 Hi Speed), and LCD size.
Flash recycle time of 7.4 seconds was below average, but think of that as nothing more than an indication of a powerful flash. And optical zoom at just 3.7x and weight scored only average marks.
Those are very good numbers all around, a report card I'm coming to expect from Canon digicams. And certainly our shooting experience bore them out.
Shooting. Looking at my gallery shots with the PowerShot SD950 IS, I have to confess I was pretty hard on it. Shooting from an airliner, in the dim light of a restaurant, in bright sunlight but at ISO 1,600, in utter darkness (and Macro mode). What was I thinking?
I was thinking this little camera can handle everything. I'm going to forget everything I know, have a good time and see what happens.
Some nice things happened. Even the mistakes were interesting (and I've included a few in the gallery). But I do want to point out that I'm the guy who made the mistakes, not the Canon SD950 IS. It was my fiddling with the camera that led to the unusual effects, not the basic automatic operation of the PowerShot SD950 IS.
Still, it makes you wonder if someone shouldn't rethink "automatic." Metering a scene and setting the aperture and shutter speed isn't enough when you've got such a wide range of ISO options and intelligent focusing like face detection handy. Wouldn't it be nice if Scene modes didn't have to be picked by anyone other than the camera?
Meanwhile back in reality, the PowerShot SD950 IS provides an intriguing 4,000 x 2,248 pixel wide screen mode that I really wish were also available in Movie mode. But it's just for stills. That's an aspect ratio I'd pick a lot, but this time around my scenes called for a more traditional 4:3 aspect ratio. Maybe one day Boeing will make an airliner with 16:9 windows.
Movie Mode is strictly a 4:3 aspect ratio, as I said. The PowerShot SD950 IS can shoot 1,024 x 768 movies at 15 frames per second (which is a good enough frame rate and saves card space). And you can tap into the 4x digital (and silent) zoom, too. But that's not going to fill an HDTV's 16:9 aspect ratio. So what good is all that resolution? Not much good. Might as well just shoot 640x480, really. It's a moving image. You can't sit there and lick the detail in each frame. Aspect ratio is far more important. Unless, of course, you expect to snip frames from the video as stills later.
I did like the time lapse option in Movie Mode, which takes a shot every second or two (your choice). That would be on every camera, were I re-elected king. It's a good way to put your tripod to use.
I also like the new twist on checking your image provided by the Image Inspection Tool in Playback mode. Let's say you used face detection as your autofocus method and the PowerShot SD950 IS identified three faces in the image. Press Display in Playback until you see a thumbnail of your image in the top left corner with boxes over the three faces and a magnification of what's in the active box in the lower right corner. Press the Set button to switch between the boxes (or faces) and use the Zoom lever to magnify the inset. You can also scroll around the inset with the arrow keys. That really helps evaluate an image on the spot, so you can do something about any problems right away.
Image Quality. I really don't have any serious complaints about the image quality of the Canon SD950 IS. Would that all digicams were as good, really. I was especially pleased with the color capture of some dramatic scenes that ranged from neon signs to gathering storms. "That's it!" I'd say after looking at the shot in the LCD. And later, looking at it on the monitor, I'd nod appreciatively -- something that doesn't always happen.
One thing I learned, however, is that your choice of ISO setting can make this dicey. My shots of a chapel interior with Auto High as the ISO setting persuaded the camera to try to capture shadow detail when what I was really after was the highlight detail of the stained glass. I had to crank EV down to -2 to get close to what I wanted and even then the Canon SD950 was cranking the ISO up to 400. I got my color, but I think I might have done better using Auto ISO, which would have restricted ISO to 200.
As happy as I was with color, luminance was another matter. I suppose you can say this about any over-megapixeled sensor whose data is processed automatically in the camera, though. Look at SD950IShSLI0100.JPG to see what I mean. There just isn't much detail in the braided white cloth (bottom right). Compare that to the Canon G9's shot where there's excellent detail.
Then look at the SD950IShMULTIW.JPG and SD950IShMULTIT.JPG test shots to see the chromatic aberration in the corners. That's pretty serious, at least in the lab. Can you detect it in a live scene? Yes, take a look at YIMG_3710.JPG and you'll see plenty of purple fringing in the top right corner. Is that really a problem, though? No, I don't think so. The purple fringing I see around the yellow leaves merely heightens the contrast between them and the blown out sky. It substitutes, as a painter might, for black -- inside the edge of the object. Resolution, shown in that same image, is very good at around 1,700 lines by our very conservative estimate, and there's no extinction at 2,000 lines.
With an ISO sensitivity of 1,600 at full image size, the Canon SD950 IS can take shots in even dim available light. Using the High ISO option, rather than Auto ISO lets the camera go as high as ISO 800 to avoid camera shake. You can take the SD950 IS even further by manually selecting 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.
Noise can be dealt with in software. I used Imagenomic's Noiseware Professional plug-in to clean up the noise in several portrait shots I wanted to print. Your printer may average out the otherwise grainy appearance of high ISO shots if you make small prints, too. So don't be too quick to reject them.
I almost think Canon expects you to handle the noise tradeoff between color and detail in software. They've sacrificed some color to hang onto as much detail as possible with the PowerShot SD950 IS. That looks pretty grainy when you pull it up on your screen (the word "horrible" would not be too severe). But what you're really seeing is luminance data. Shoot in black and white mode to prove it to yourself, which will eliminate chrominance noise. Applying a little noise reduction to your color shots and optionally adjusting the levels to bring back some color will deliver a quite realistic rendering of a scene at an ISO color film was never able to achieve.
My favorite example is a shot of great grandmother bottle-feeding the newborn. I set the PowerShot SD950 IS's ISO to 1,600 and fired a few inconspicuous shots. Normally, I'd have to use flash, which is distressful to newborns, who can't focus and don't have a clue what flash (or anything else) is. And worse, greatly annoys great grandmothers who know exactly what you're up to. But a high ISO caught the two of them sharply with enough luminance data to run Noiseware on it and make a lettersized print that was just the ticket. If I had a complaint it would be that the baby's face looked too smooth. But you might (jealously) say that anyway, really.
One of the problems of using a high ISO like 1,600 is forgetting to reset it. Which I can do without even thinking about it. I left a few of my mistakes in the gallery so you can see the effect. It's almost painterly, the camera forced to use up to f/14 and a 1/1,287 shutter speed in daylight. That there even is an f/14 in a little camera like this is noteworthy.
Like the Canon SD900, the PowerShot SD950 IS has 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, you can't complain. I preferred shooting at 1,600 and handling noise later, though. I just got better images doing it myself.
That does cut against the ELPH grain, I realize. Automatic is automatic. But in that case, don't worry. You won't be looking at most of your high ISO images at full resolution. They'll be resampled down to fit your screen for a slide show or Flickr for online viewing. And you'll certainly love them on the LCD. Just don't be alarmed if you happen to see them full resolution.
The PowerShot SD950 IS's Resolution, which is otherwise quite good, didn't hold up too well with digital zoom, as my zoom range shots show. It wasn't an atmospherically optimal day, sure, but I was hoping to bring home more detail with a 12.1 megapixel sensor than I actually did.
Appraisal. Canon's Digital ELPH series is designed for anyone who doesn't want to worry about shutter speeds and apertures to get good pictures. If Auto mode doesn't do the trick, there are 11 Scene modes to deal with almost any problem. For the adventurous, Camera M mode accesses basic options like White Balance and EV compensation.
That ease of use is also reflected in the PowerShot SD950 IS's cleverly sculpted titanium shell, which seems to have an invisible grip, and its simple control layout. And it extends to features like optical image stabilization, Face Detect autofocus and a special ISO 3,200 Scene mode.
The Canon PowerShot SD950 is an excellent performer no matter what aspect you consider, with superior focusing and low light performance matched with a powerful flash. And with a day-long battery, you couldn't ask for a better traveling companion.
- 12.10-megapixel sensor
- 3.7x optical zoom (35-133mm equivalent)
- Digital zoom up to 4x
- Both optical and LCD viewfinders
- 2.5-inch LCD
- ISO 80 to 3,200
- Shutter speed from 15 to 1/1,600 second
- Maximum aperture of f/2.8 at wide-angle and f/5.8 at telephoto
- Spot, Center-Weighted, and Evaluative exposure metering
- White balance adjustment with seven modes, including a Custom setting
- Built-in flash with seven modes
- SDHC/SD memory card storage
- 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
- Five Movie modes with sound, with 1,024 x 768 XGA mode at 15 frames per second
- Continuous Shooting mode
- 11 preset Scene modes
- 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
- USB 2.0 Hi-Speed
- 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 PowerShot SD950 IS ships with the following items in the box:
- PowerShot SD950 Digital ELPH Body
- Lithium Battery Pack NB-5L
- Battery Charger CB-2LX
- MMC Plus Card MMC-32MH
- Wrist Strap WS-700
- Digital Camera Solution CD-ROM
- USB Interface Cable IFC-400PCU
- AV Cable AVC-DC300
- Large capacity SD or SDHC memory card. These days, 2-4GB is a good tradeoff between cost and capacity.
- Small camera case like the PowerShot PSC-55 Case for outdoor and in-bag protection
- High-Power HF-DC1 external flash
- Waterproof Case WP-DC19 for shooting down to 130 feet
Featuring a 12.1 megapixel CCD, 3.7x optical zoom lens, and well-designed user interface, the PowerShot SD950 IS Digital ELPH has 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. The Canon SD950 IS is 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 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 normally 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 SD950 is user-friendly and hassle-free. Printed output is astonishingly good, producing impressive 16x20-inch prints, and even ISO 400 shots are good at 11x14. If you're looking for a good, take-anywhere camera with great versatility and good color and tonality, the Canon SD950 deserves a close look. No question, the Canon PowerShot SD950 is a Dave's Pick.