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Canon PowerShot A50Canon's "Digital ELPHs" goes megapixel plus - great picture quality, superb portability!
Review First Posted: 7/10/1999
|Compact, rugged case|
|2.5x Optical Zoom Lens|
|Great low-light ability (up to ISO400)|
|Panorama support, including 2x2 matrix!|
The Canon PowerShot A50 is a logical extension of their earlier A5 and A5 Zoom models, upgrading the sensor resolution to a full 1.3 megapixels, while maintaining the same compact, "go anywhere" all-aluminum body. The enhancements go far beyond just an increase in sensor resolution though, as the images are in every respect superior to the earlier A5 models, and indeed are very much at the top of the 1.3 megapixel class: Colors are bright, saturated, and accurate, shadow detail is excellent, and the exposure range is unusually broad. Couple this with a compact body reflecting the design of Canon's tremendously popular ELPH film cameras, and an aggressive price point, and you have what we believe is a sure winner.
One of the features we look for and report on in digital cameras for consumers
is a compact form factor: A camera that takes great pictures, but spends its
days in a drawer at home does little good! The PowerShot A50 should never suffer
that fate though: At only 4.1 x 2.7 x 1.5 inches (103 x 68 x 37.3 mm), it's
one of the smallest cameras we've tested. Weighing only 9.2 ounces (260g) without
batteries, or 12.2 ounces (344g) with, it's also light enough to carry in a
pocket without feeling lopsided. As a final touch in the portability department,
it has an automatic metal shutter that slips over the retracting zoom lens when
the camera is shut off, protecting the lens from harm, and neatly avoiding the
perpetual problem of the lost lens cap. Despite its small size, we found the
A50 comfortable to grip, and easy to shoot with one-hand. (Although operating
the zoom controls while holding it with one hand did feel a bit precarious.)
The 1.3 megapixel sensor produces bright, sharp 1280x960 images, and this was one area where we found significant improvements from the earlier A5 series: We felt that the color produced by the A50 was some of the best we've seen in a digicam: Bright, clean, well-saturated, and accurate. About the only fault we could find with the A50's image quality was a somewhat high contrast, contributing to a tendency to lose highlight detail: In general, you want to expose digital camera images to preserve the highlights (like slide film, in the conventional photo world), and this is particularly true of the A50. Images are stored on the supplied 8 megabyte CompactFlash card using JPEG compression, with large/fine images occupying anywhere from 300 to 500Kbyhtes, depending on image content and how well it compressses. Like other Canon digicams, the PowerShotA50 also has an optional "CCD Raw" capture mode that compactly stores the raw data from the CCD in an uncompressed format, at about 1.5 megabytes per image. The resulting files must be opened using Canon's host software, but this has the advantage of providing uncompressed image storage in about a third the space that would be required by standard TIFF files.
The sensor's light sensitivity is rated at ISO 100, although it supports a special "binning" mode at the 640x480 resolution level that quadruples its sensitivity to ISO 400. Normal shutter speeds range from 1/6 to 1/750, but two low-light modes ("slow shutter" and "night shooting") allow for automatic shutter speeds as slow as 2 seconds. The camera does quite well under low levels of illumination, easily handling light levels as low as EV 7, and producing usable images (albeit requiring a fair bit of post-exposure modification) all the way down to EV 5. The automatic exposure system was very accurate in our tests, but a manual adjustment range of +/- 2EV in 1/3 EV increments is also provided. An on-board flash works from the minimum macro-mode focusing distance out to 8 feet (2.5m) in telephoto mode, or 11 feet (3.5m) in wide-angle mode. A number of white balance settings are available, including automatic and the usual range of manual options.
The PowerShot A50's lens is a 2.5x optical zoom, covering a range of 35mm-equivalent focal lengths from 28-70mm. This range is shifted a bit toward the wide-angle end relative to many other digicams, which should make the A50 a natural choice for applications such as real estate, involving a lot of indoor shooting. In our testing, the lens appeared to be of particularly high quality, with very low distortion and chromatic aberration. The maximum lens aperture ranges from f/2.6 at wide angle to f/4.0 at telephoto, but th documentation doesn't state what the minimum aperture is. The camera has both optical and LCD viewfinders, and you can turn the LCD off when not needed, to (dramatically) increase battery life. The optical viewfinder is about typically accurate among digicams we've tested, while the LCD finder registers 95% of the final image captured by the CCD.
The Canon PowerShot A50 brings a new level of functionality to the ultra-compact digicam market: With excellent image quality, 1.3 megapixel resolution (as sharp as any we've tested), and a true optical zoom lens, it's a full-function digital camera in a very compact package, and with an aggressive price to boot. The rugged all-metal body, complete with automatic metal lens cover, makes for a camera you can confidently toss in any pocket or purse and bring along. Highly recommended!
At only 4.1 x 2.7 x 1.5 inches (103 x 68 x 37.3 mm) and 9.2 ounces (260g) without
the battery pack or 11.2 ounces (344g) with it, the PowerShot A50 is one of
the most compact cameras we've tested to date. It has a rugged all-metal (aluminum)
case, as well as a metal carrying-strap attachment, and a metal tripod socket.
Overall, the design conveys a feeling of solidity and quality.
One nice touch we particularly appreciated was the automatic lens cover that slides shut over the telescoping zoom lens when it retracts into the camera body as the A50 is shut down: No lost lens caps, and no smudged/scratched lenses! (The photo at right shows the camera front with the lens cover in place. The whole design is both very appealing, and very conducive to just dropping in your pocket to bring along anywhere. The compact flash card compartment is accessible from the side of the A50, meaning you can get to it even while the camera is mounted on a tripod. As is common though, the battery compartment opens from the bottom, requiring the camera to be removed from a tripod when the battery needs changing. (See the later section on power, for a description of the optional power adapter.)
Control layout is fairly conventional, with most operating controls accessible
to the right hand, although a two-handed approach is needed to navigate the
LCD menu system. As we'll describe in greater depth later, the PowerShot A50
makes fairly extensive use of LCD menus for setting camera operating characteristics:
We'd found ourselves wishing for a little more control from the top-panel LCD
readout, without having to burrow into the LCD menus.
Despite its small size, we found the PowerShot A50 easy to operate, thanks in part to the excellent ergonomics of the little raised pushbuttons Canon uses: They're very easy to actuate, with a positive breakaway "click" action when pressed. While we could operate the camera fairly easily with one hand, its small size and fairly high density (weight to volume ratio) left us more comfortable with a two-handed grip. Overall, we have a few minor quibbles about the user-interface design, but found the overall design to be tremendously appealing: This is a digital camera that even the non-gadget-freak members of your family will appreciate!
Like most digicams these days, the
PowerShot A50 includes both optical and LCD viewfinders. The optical viewfinder
is a bit "looser" than most, showing only 80% of the final picture
area at the wide-angle end of the zoom's range, and 78% at the telephoto end.
The LCD viewfinder also crops slightly, showing about 95% of the final image
at all times. We also found the optical viewfinder to have a slightly low eyepoint
and no dioptric correction, making it a bit awkward for eyeglass wearers. (Only
a bit though: We had no real problems using the optical viewfinder with eyeglasses,
but would have felt a little more comfortable if we hadn't had to actually touch
our eyeglasses to the viewfinder bezel.) The image at right shows the approximate
areas of coverage provided by the optical (red lines) and LCD (green lines)
viewfinders, relative to the final image area.
The LCD brightness can be adjusted via a menu option, but we're happy to report that the A50 has one of the brighter and higher-resolution LCD screens that we've tested. (Actually, the issue is less one of brightness than contrast: The A50's screen seems to wash out less in bright light, not so much because the white areas are brighter than those on other cameras' screens, but because there's less glare reflected from the dark areas.) As noted earlier, Canon doesn't give a specification for the number of pixels displayed by the A50's LCD, but it's clearly (no pun intended) one of the sharper units we've seen. Besides its brightness and sharpness, the A50's LCD also has one of the highest refresh rates we've observed: Even fairly fast-moving objects stay sharp and in-focus, making the camera idea for pictures where there's a lot of action going on. (The ideal camera for the "soccer mom?")
The PowerShot A50's lens is a true optical zoom, with a focal length range equivalent to that of a 28-70mm lens on a 35mm film camera. This is a bit wider than the lenses on most digicams, meaning that it won't get you quite as close to your subjects as some other cameras, but will do a better job of fitting everything into the frame in tight quarters. (Combined with an excellent low-light capability, this suggests that the A50 would be an ideal choice if a lot of your shooting is done indoors.) As part of its excellent low-light performance, the lens is a fairly "fast" one, having a maximum aperture of f/2.6 at wide-angle, and f/4.0 in telephoto mode. The lens is an autofocus design, with a normal focusing range of 20 inches (51 cm) to infinity, and a range in the separate macro mode of 6.7 to 20 inches (17 to 51 cm). The zoom position is controlled by a rocker control in the upper left-hand corner of the camera's rear panel.
The PowerShot A50's zoom control achieves a good balance between speed and "settability", apparently allowing the focal length to be set continuously anywhere within the lens' range. We haven't been tracking this, but some cameras afford less-smooth control over lens focal length, seeming to prefer a relative small number of discrete steps, rather than a continuous range. The A50's lens seems to allow a continuous range of settings, but does have a slight "backlash" at the wide and telephoto ends, depending on the direction you're zooming in: If you're moving from telephoto toward wide-angle focal lengths, the lens will "back up" a tiny amount after you've released the zoom control, while the lens is in the telephoto half of its range. (Once you get into wide-angle territory, this behavior disappears.) Likewise, as you move from wide to telephoto focal lengths, there's a similar "backlash" while you're in the wide-angle range. Overall, this effect is much less severe than we've seen in some cameras, but it does make (very) precise framing with the zoom a bit more difficult. We don't see this as a huge problem though, particularly when adjusting your shooting position by as little as a foot or so will compensate for any hesitation in the zoom mechanism.
In keeping with Canon's long experience and reputation for optical quality in the film camera world, the lens on the A50 appears to be of very high quality. Chromatic aberration (seen as a color "fringing" on high-contrast objects near the edges of the field of view) is virtually non-existent. Geometric distortion is also fairly low, ranging from 1.1% barrel distortion at the wide-angle end of the lens' range to no measurable distortion (either barrel or pincushion) at the telephoto end. (While we only measure geometric distortion at the end of the lenses' range, an informal test seemed to show that the barrel distortion vanished fairly rapidly as we moved away from the widest-angle setting of the lens.)
We gave this feature it's own heading, because low-light focusing has become such an issue with digicams lately. Cameras with through-the-lens contrast-detect autofocus systems (which generally produce the most accurate results with good lighting) have a hard time finding the optimum focus when the scene lighting is low. A very few cameras (the PowerShot A50 being one) provide a focus-assist light when there's not enough ambient light available to focus with. In the case of the A50, this light is provided by a small incandescent bulb internal to the camera, which casts a pattern of light and dark vertical bars onto the subject when the light level is less than ~EV 10 or 11. This lets the camera focus accurately in complete darkness, a very nice feature. (The one possible downside is that it would prevent truly candid shots under low light. For our part though, we'll take well-focused non-candids any day!) This autofocus-assist worked very well, as even shots taken in the very darkest of settings were perfectly focused.
The PowerShot A50 exposure system covers an unusually broad range of illumination for a digicam in its price range, although we're a little puzzled by Canon's specifications in this area. Canon claims a "metering" range for the camera of EV2 to EV16.5. This is both a narrower range and one skewed toward lower values than our own calculations would indicate. Although Canon doesn't specify an aperture range for the A50 (and indeed no aperture value is recorded in its JPEG file headers), even the maximum aperture of F/4.0 at the telephoto end of the lens' range, combined with the ISO 100 light sensitivity and minimum exposure time of 1/750 second translates to an EV value of roughly 18.5. At the low end of the range, an exposure time of 2 seconds at ISO 400 (in low resolution mode) and the f/2.6 maximum wide-angle aperture translates to an exposure level of about EV5. (In our own tests, the A50 appeared to work well down to a minimum exposure level of about EV 7, with usable results as far down as EV5. ("Usable" here means that we could extract fairly good-looking, albeit somewhat noisy images from the camera's pictures, using Photoshop or some other image editing program to adjust the brightness and contrast.) While we don't have a formal test for measuring maximum EV levels, some playing around with a bare 60-watt light bulb seemed to indicate that the A50 works fine up to at least EV21.5.
As noted earlier, the camera normally operates at an ISO value of 100. In low-resolution mode, it can combine groups of 4 adjacent CCD pixels into a single, virtual, "super pixel," with four times the light sensitivity. This results in an ISO rating of 400 for this operating mode. Interestingly though, it appears that the camera's manual exposure-adjustment feature works by boosting or cutting the amplification in the camera's electronics. Thus, when you increase or decrease the exposure with the manual exposure compensation adjustment, the shutter speed (and presumably the lens aperture) remain the same, despite the evident increase or decrease in the brightness of the captured image. Thus, it seems the A50 can actually behave as though it has an ISO sensitivity of 400, even in high-resolution mode, albeit at some cost in increased image noise. Another oddity is that the ISO 400 of the low-resolution mode doesn't seem to translate into a lower absolute light capability, but rather to shorter exposure times at the same minimum light level. We found that the maximum exposure time for low-resolution (ISO 400) shots appeared to be one second, and the low-resolution mode didn't appear to extend the ultimate minimum light level any lower than that of the high-resolution mode. On the other hand, at higher light levels, the exposure times were definitely shorter, making hand-held shots more practical.
We've mentioned the A50's manual exposure-compensation adjustment several times now, and this is one area where we initially had a minor quibble with the unit's creators, in the realm of user-interface design: We find ourselves using exposure compensation fairly frequently with digicams, and so like to have the controls for it quickly accessible. On the A50, this function appeared to be consigned to the LCD menu system, requiring several button-presses to access it. We were thus very pleased when we read the manual and discovered that you can access the exposure compensation immediately, just by pressing the "Set" and "-" buttons simultaneously. This is a great shortcut, and very practical in actual use. (The A50 has several shortcuts like this: We highly recommend you take the time to read the manual!) However you choose to activate the exposure-compensation function, the display is very functional, showing both a "live" view of your subject with the current compensation applied to it, and a scale from -2 to +2 in 1/3-unit increments showing the currently-selected compensation level. The process of making these adjustments is a little slow though, as the camera pauses for a second or so after each incremental adjustment, before allowing you to move the control further.
Continuous (Burst) Mode
To capture fast-changing action, the A50 provides a "continuous" shooting mode, in which the image size is automatically set to small, and the camera continuously captures images at roughly 1.2 frames per second until it runs out of buffer memory - 10 frames or so for the higher-quality compression setting, 15 frames for the lower-quality one.
Like most digicams these days, the PowerShot A50 provides several preset white balance options, in addition to the default automatic mode. Available settings include Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Fluorescent, and Tungsten. White balance settings tend a bit more toward art than science with digicams, in that you often want the camera to NOT remove all the color cast of the original lighting, to preserve more of the "feeling" of the scene. Thus, there's a range of acceptable behavior for camera white-balance controls, ranging from more to less aggressive in their removal of color casts. Overall, the white balance of the A50 tends more toward the less-aggressive end of the scale, leaving more of the scene coloration in the final image than we'd prefer in most cases. We liked its handling of scenes with relatively little color cast, but would have preferred a more neutrally-colored final result in our indoor portrait shot. To its credit though, even under strongly-colored lighting, the camera produces image files with plenty of data in all three color channels, making it fairly easy to clean up the images in an image-editing program after the fact.
The PowerShot A50's built-in flash is fairly typical in its capabilities, providing auto, always-on, always-off, and red-eye reduction modes. It has a range of 8 feet (2.5 meters) with the lens at the wide-angle end of its range and 11.5 feet (3.5 meters) at the telephoto end. It also throttles-down very well for shooting in macro mode, with Canon rating it for use all the way in to 6.7 inches (17cm). This agreed with our own experience. We did find in our own experimenting with it that it's worthwhile to play with the white-balance settings when using flash in conjunction with strong artificial ambient lighting -- Often, using a manual white-balance setting along with the flash will produce more pleasing results than the auto option.
Like most digicam internal flash units, the strobe on the PowerShot A50 fires twice for each shot: A pre-flash to determine exposure and white-balance settings, and then a second time for the actual exposure itself. Thus, you'll need a special slave-sync (such as the unit from SR Electronics) that triggers on the SECOND flash, to synchronize external strobe units with it.
Shutter Lag Time/Cycle Times
When you press the shutter release on a camera, there's usually a lag time before the shutter actually fires. This time is to allow the autofocus and autoexposure mechanisms time to do their work, and can amount to a fairly long delay in some situations. Since this number is almost never reported on, and can significantly affect the picture-taking experience, we now routinely measure it. (Using a hand-tweaked animated GIF image providing an on-screen count-down in tenths of a second.)
The A50 had a bit longer shutter lag than most digicams we've tested, depending somewhat on the camera/subject distance. At greater distances (where the lens mechanism had less distance to travel to achieve proper focus), shutter lag was about a second, very much on a par with other cameras we've tested. On the other hand, when the subject was much closer (a couple of feet, for instance), the shutter lag increased to about 1.6 seconds. When the camera was pre-focused by half-pressing the shutter button prior to the exposure itself though, the shutter delay dropped to only 0.2 seconds for all cases, a pretty typical performance.
The other important time interval in digital photography is the cycle time, the minimum time interval between successive exposures. The A50 performed quite well in this respect: It appears to have a fairly sizeable RAM buffer to help it process images quickly. We measured the minimum cycle time at roughly 4 seconds for large/fine pictures, decreasing to about 2 seconds for small/coarse pictures. These are very respectable times for a 1.3 megapixel digicam!
Overall, the PowerShot A50 is about as responsive to the shutter control as other digicams, except at rather short camera/subject distances. Picture-to-picture cycle times are better than most other competing cameras.
Other times: Startup - ~5.8 seconds. Switch to play mode, high-res picture
~11 seconds. Shutdown ~ 4 seconds.
User Interface & Controls
As noted earlier, the PowerShot A50 is operated by a combination of external controls and a fairly extensive LCD menu system. Major camera operating modes are selected via a "Mode Dial", an increasingly common user-interface design that we like for the simplification it brings to the menu structures. (By separating major camera modes, the Mode Dial allows the menus for each mode to be less complex.) In addition to the Mode Dial, there are three buttons on the top of the camera (flash/-, self-timer/+, and the shutter button), and a rocker toggle and four buttons on the camera's back. The rocker toggle controls the zoom lens, and the four back-panel buttons are respectively labeled Set, Menu, Macro/Jump, and LCD/Video. The top-panel Flash and Self Timer/Continuous Buttons also double as + / - buttons that you can use to scroll through menu options on the camera's LCD Panel.
The operational buttons are well-placed and easily accessible, and actuate cleanly with a positive "breakaway" action. (A minor point, but the pushbutton operation, spacing, and "feel" is about as good as we've seen anywhere: Other digicam makers would do well to study the design!) The top of the camera includes the Display Panel, a small icon-oriented LCD readout providing information on camera status and control settings. Information displayed there includes battery level, number of images remaining on the CompactFlash (CF) card, and different icons that represent camera settings, such as picture quality and flash modes.
The back of the camera contains a through-the-lens (TTL) optical viewfinder
and a 2-inch LCD Panel. You turn the LCD Panel on and off using the LCD/Video
button just next to the viewfinder. There's also an LCD menu option-one of the
setup options-that lets you adjust the LCD brightness to suit your needs. (Boosting
the brightness definitely helps readability in bright light, but will also run
your batteries down about 10% faster.) To Canon's credit the "brightness"
control actually does control the brightness of the backlight, as opposed to
merely tweaking the LCD contrast setting.
The left side of the camera contains a Digital port for connecting to a PC, and a Video port for connecting to a television for viewing images. The right side of the camera houses the slot for insertion of the camera's CF card. Readers familiar with other digicam designs will doubtless ask at this point where the external-power socket is: There isn't one! The optional power adapter instead uses a dummy battery with an attached power cord that inserts into the camera's battery compartment! - See our subsequent discussion of Power for more on this unusual arrangement.
Depending on which mode you select with the Mode Dial, pressing the Menu button on the rear of the camera displays a sequence of menu options specific to that mode. Pressing the Set button confirms any menu selections you make. The operating mode also affects the operation of several of the control buttons on the camera. On the top panel, the Flash button is only active when in Program Mode (auto flash operation is set by default for Auto capture mode), and the Self Timer/Continuous button only accesses the Continuous mode when in Program capture mode. Likewise, on the camera's back, the Macro/Jump button selects the Macro option for close-up shootinng when in either capture mode (Auto or Program), and jumps through images in the camera memory in groups of 9, when either playback mode (Play or Multi).
One general quibble we initially had with the user interface of the PowerShot A50 was that it seemed awkward to erase images from the memory card once captured. From record mode, it takes a rotation of the mode dial and seven separate button-presses to erase the image you've just captured(!). This proved to be another case where reading the manual was useful though: You can delete the current image in Play mode simply by holding down the Set button while simultaneously pressing the "-" button.
In this section, we'll review the functions of each of the PowerShot A50's buttons, controls, and menu options.
Sets the mode in which you want to operate the camera. The Mode Dial has seven positions, including Lock (Off). The seven operating positions are:
A two-stage shutter button is positioned directly on top of the camera. Pressing the shutter button halfway sets the focus, exposure and white balance settings for the current capture conditions. Fully depressing it captures the image and stores it to the CF Card. (As with most digicams, half-pressing the shutter button before the actual exposure drastically reduces the shutter lag time for action shots.)
Flash/ - Button
Continuous/Self-Timer/ + Button
Allow you to zoom in and out on the subject/area being captured. Pressing the "single-tree" side of the button zooms in on the subject, and pressing the "three-tree" side of the button zooms out.
Selects the menu option currently displayed on the LCD Panel. Used in conjunction with other buttons to access options without resorting to the menu system:
Camera Modes & Menus
Following is a description of the major camera modes, and the LCD menu options associated with them. (These were mentioned briefly above, while discussing the operation of the Mode Dial.)
Closes the lens cover and turns off the power to the camera.
Used for taking pictures under average conditions. In Auto mode, the camera determines whether or not flash is needed, and the focus, exposure, and white balance are set automatically depending on the conditions under which you capture the image. In Auto mode, the image quality setting is automatically set to the Large/Fine setting (1280 x 960, minimum JPEG compression).
Pressing the Menu button in Auto Mode displays the REC menu (shown at right), which offers the following options:
In this mode you can change the flash setting and the picture-taking mode (Continuous or Single) manually. Like Auto mode, the focus and exposure settings are chosen automatically by the camera, but here, you can fine tune the exposure setting through an LCD menu option.
Pressing the Menu button in Program mode also displays the REC menu, but with more options available for selection (as shown at right):
Stitch-Assist mode provides special support for capturing separate images that will later be merged into a single panoramic image using the PhotoStitch software included with the PowerShot A50. When capturing images in this mode, the LCD displays the previously captured image so that you can match the next image with the previously captured one. You can choose from three different types of sequence matching depending on the image that you want to compose: Horizontal, Vertical, or 2 x 2 matrices. You select the sequence matching pattern when you first place the camera in Stitch-Assist mode.
Pressing the Menu button in Stitch-Assist mode displays the same Rec menu options outlined above in the Program mode section. The only difference is in the size/quality settings: You cannot capture an image using the CCD RAW image-quality setting.
In Play mode you can review the images one at a time on the LCD Panel after you capture them. When this mode is selected via the Mode Dial, the LCD Panel activates and displays the images currently stored on the CF Card. Besides viewing images on the camera's LCD Panel, you can also view them on a video monitor using the video cable included with the camera.
Pressing the Menu button while in Play mode displays the Play Menu (shown at right), which contains the following options:
In Multi mode you can review multiple images on the LCD Panel on or a television using the video cable included with the camera. When you switch the camera to Multi mode, the LCD Panel activates and displays images currently stored on the CF Card in groups of nine. You can use the + / - button to scroll through the images and select an image on which to perform an operation. (View at full size, delete, or order prints from it, as described above.)
Pressing the Menu button in Multi mode displays the Play menu, showing the same options and choices available in Play mode. Any menu option chosen applies to the image currently selected when the option is invoked. The currently selected image is highlighted with a green border.
When you want to connect the camera to a PC for downloading of images, you first need to place the camera in PC mode. PC mode enables the Digital port on the side of the camera for image transfer to your PC. You can transfer images to a PC running Windows '95/'98/NT 4.0 (! - NT support is rare, kudos to Canon for including it!), or to Apple Macintosh computers. Utility software to access the images from the camera is included on the CD bundled with the camera.
Image Storage & Computer Interface
The PowerShot A50 uses CompactFlash (CF)
memory cards for image storage, and comes equipped with an 8 MB unit. Canon
officially claims that the A50 supports memory cards from 4 to 48 MB in size,
but that's probably because that's the range of sizes they sell under their
own brand. CF cards are very upward-compatible, so it's likely that any CF cards
up to the current maximum size of 96 MB (July, 1999) will work just fine.
The CompactFlash card on the PowerShot A50 is hidden behind a hatch on the right-hand side of the camera, as viewed from the back. (See photo at right.) A latch on the back panel releases the hatch, and the card can then be popped out by pressing an eject button. A caution though: If you press firmly, the card will literally "pop" out, ejecting onto the floor if you're unprepared. A gentle press on the other hand leaves the card in the camera, requiring fingernails to get it out. We suggest holding the camera in a position to facilitate catching the card as it ejects, and pressing firmly...
The A50 stores images in one of two sizes (1280 x 960, and 640 x 480), with two JPEG compression levels available at each size, plus a proprietary uncompressed "CCD Raw" format for the large image size. The camera also apparently supports a "CIFF" format, which we frankly hadn't heard of previously. (If anyone knows what this is, EMAIL us!) The table below shows the approximate file sizes, compression ratios, and storage capacities on the furnished 8 MB memory card for each of the file formats. (All figures except for the CCD Raw format are approximate, as the JPEG file size will vary based on the amount of detail in the original image.)
For computer interface, the A50 sports
a conventional RS-232 serial port on its side (see photo at right), and can
thereby connect to systems running the Mac OS or Windows '95, '98, and NT. (This
last is a fairly rare feature amongst digicams: Although Microsoft tells us
it's going to be the "next big thing", so far few digicam manufacturers
have chosen to provide support for Windows NT.) When connected to our fairly
standard Windows '98 machine (350 MHz Pentium II), we found that a 298 KByte
high-resolution file transferred to the host in 63 seconds, for a transfer rate
of 4.7 KBytes/second, about typical of serial-connected digicams.
Like many digicams these days, the PowerShot A50 provides a video output signal, so you can view captured images on a TV (provided it has a raw-video input jack). The US/Canadian model we tested produced an NTSC signal: Presumably European units support the PAL standard. One nice feature of the A50 when running a "slide show" via the video port is that you can rotate pictures in memory. Thus, images shot in "portrait" mode can be displayed with the proper orientation on the TV monitor. - This is a very useful feature that we'd like to see on more digicams.
On the down side, the video signal isn't active when the camera is in either capture mode (Auto or Program). This means you can't use an external monitor as a viewfinder, although this may not be an issue for anyone but studio photographers. (Funny, isn't it, how we view a feature like this as lacking, when nothing like the function ever existed in the film world!)
The power supply of the PowerShot A50 is a bit different than most digicams.
It ships with a 2CR5 lithium battery (non-rechargeable), which they claim should
be good for about 70 shots with the LCD display on, 500 shots with it off, or
100 minutes of image playback. Given the high cost of the 2CR5 batteries, we
wouldn't recommend them as a normal power source, but they make an excellent
backup, given their exceptional shelf-life.
Alternatively, Canon sells a NiMH battery pack/recharger/power adapter kit separately for the camera, as their model number NP-100. The battery in this kit has a capacity of only 650 mAh, a rather low rating when compared with a set of 4 AA NiMH cells (which typically provide about 1300 mAh). We were surprised then, by how well the Canon battery pack seemed to last in actual use. (Canon claims it has a capacity of 70 shots with the LCD on, 280 with it off, and 70 minutes of image playback.) We suspect that the discrepancy between its capacity in mAh and it's apparent longevity in the camera may have to do with the total energy it provides: AA NiMH batteries produce a voltage of 1.2v each, or 4.8v for a set of four. The Canon battery pack though, puts out 6 volts, a 25% increase in voltage. Since power is the product of voltage and current, the 650 mAh of the Canon battery should be more equivalent to AA cells with a capacity of 813 mAh: While still not up to a set of AAs, it isn't as far behind as you'd initially think. The A50 also appears to be a fairly low-power camera, relative to other units we've tested (see below.)
An interesting component of the optional battery pack/charger setup is the power adapter ("DC Coupler") it includes. This gadget looks like a battery pack with a tail - it fits inside the battery compartment, with the "tail" feeding out through a small sliding hatch on the side of the camera. We saw a similar system in the earlier A5 model, and generally like it: There's no way the power cord could accidentally pop out of the camera jack. On the other hand, you'll want to be careful not to trip over the power cord, as it'll yank the tripod over before it pulls loose from the camera!
We've just recently begun measuring actual power consumption of digicams, to try to introduce some objectivity to the topic. Now, rather than vague impressions of how long a camera can run on a set of batteries, we'll be able to see just how much power the cameras use in each operating mode. Overall, the A50 had lower power consumption in non-LCD and image-playback modes than other cameras we've checked recently. Other operating modes appear fairly typical. (We've tested several of the recent 2-megapixel digicams, but haven't reported on them as yet, wanting to develop a consistent approach first. From this point on though, we should be featuring power consumption figures pretty regularly.) Here's a table showing power consumption in various modes ("mA" means "milliamps", or 1/1000 of an ampere of current):
|Capture Mode, w/LCD||
|Capture Mode, w/o LCD||
|Half-pressed shutter, no LCD||
|Memory Write (Transient)||
|Flash Recharge (Transient)||
|"Sleep" Mode (Auto power-down)||
In looking at these figures, it seems that Canon's claim of 70 minutes of continuous
playback is fairly conservative, given the battery's rating of 650 mAh (that's
milliamp-hours, or 650 milliamps for an hour). The raw capacity of the battery
would suggest that it should be able to power the camera in playback mode for
a full 100 minutes or so (650mAh divided by 380 mA, times 60 minutes/hour).
This shortfall is typical of digicams, due to their very high current drains:
Most battery life-tests are performed at the so-called "0.1C" rate,
with a drain of 1/10th of their capacity. In the case of the Canon battery,
this would correspond to a test load of 65 mA, less than 20% of the load the
camera itself draws in playback mode. Overall, Canon's battery-lifetime claims
seem pretty reasonable, given the measurements we made.
IMPORTANT NOTE: We're embarassed to report that the same power-interlock switch that momentarily stymied us with the PowerShot A5 did the same to us on the A50! The battery-compartment cover has a "lock" slider next to it (see photo at right) that keeps it from accidentally opening. It turns out this lock is also a power switch: The camera won't turn on unless it's in the "locked" position! Don't be fooled (as we were for at least a few moments) into thinking that the camera is dead after you've first installed the battery: Check the lock to make sure it's not preventing battery power from reaching the camera!
Canon is unusual in the amount of private-labeled software they provide with their cameras. We're generally a bit leery of private-label programs, but Canon's are excellent. The overall application suite favors the Windows operating system, but all key functions are available on the Mac as well. Commercial applications bundled with the PowerShot A50 include Adobe's PhotoDeluxe version 3.0 for Windows and version 2.0 for the Mac, and Ulead's PhotoImpact 4.2 (Windows only).Canon's own products in clude the panorama and matrix-stitching program PhotoStitch (version 2.3 for both Windows and Mac), an unusual "album" photo-organizer program called TimeTunnel (version 2.4 for Windows, 1.6 for Mac), SlideShow Maker (version 1.3 for both Windows and Mac), an application for assembling slide shows to upload back to the camera for playback via the video output, and ZoomBrowser version 1.1 for Windows only. In addition, there are TWAIN drivers for the PC, and a Photoshop acquire module for the Mac, both version 2.4.
We didn't try all of the applications, but did play with the TWAIN drivers and ZoomBrowser on the PC a fair bit. Overall, these are very functional programs, and we liked the level of photo management that ZoomBrowser provided. The screen shot above shows the main ZoomBrowser screen, which provides a range of capabilities, essentially a mini-database program for image organization.
This shot shows the user interface of the TWAIN acquire module used by ZoomBrowser,
and also for importing images from the camera into other applications.
The TWAIN acquire module is used by ZoomBrowser as the means to acquire images from either the camera directly or from disk. Many other programs on the Windows platform can also use TWAIN to acquire images without passing through ZoomBrowser or an imaging application as well. Important note: We found that the TWAIN driver produced somewhat different color and tonal characteristics when importing from the "CCD Raw" formatted image files than the camera produced in its own JPEG-formatted ones. This could be very useful for more professional applications, as we felt that the color from the TWAIN/CCD Raw images was a bit less-saturated and more natural, and the tonal range a bit greater than in the camera-produced JPEG files. (See the discussion below under "Test Results.")
A screenshot of the unique "Time Tunnel" image-organizer: Images appear spiral away into space, distance along the "tunnel" indicating distance in time when they were originally taken. (Definitely one of the more unusual software interfaces we've seen.)
This is a shot of the PowerStitch panorama/stitching application. It appears to work quite well, and will stitch horizontally, vertically, or in 2x2 matrices, to boost the effective resolution of the camera to something closer to 4 megapixels. The shots shown on-screen here show widely different exposures, due to the clouds that were racing by that day, casting intermittent shadows over the scene.
The SlideShow Maker program (shown above) was probably the least-compelling of the lot, but does solve the problem of uploading images back to the camera for a slide show that have been modified by other applications. (Most imaging programs use a different variant of the JPEG standard than do digicams, so photos that have been manipulated on the PC won't display again on the camera.) SlideShow Maker circumvents this problem by re-processing images back to the camera's format.
As always, in Imaging Resource reviews, we encourage you to examine the Sample Pictures for the PowerShot A50, and form your own conclusions about its suitability to your needs! Our comments here are a condensed version of those on the Pictures Page itself.
The previous A5 digicam from Canon was a great little camera, and it produced
excellent images relative to other cameras on the market at the time of its
introduction. We were surprised then, by how much better photos from the A50
looked! The PowerShot A50 produced some of the best-looking images we've seen
from any 1.3 megapixel camera to date! Colors are bright and saturated, yet
difficult "memory" colors like Caucasian skin tones are natural and
not over-saturated. Resolution is excellent, and the camera's low-light capability
is excellent as well.
The only criticisms we could find on the PowerShot's images is that they tend to be a bit contrasty, losing highlight detail a bit faster than some of the competition, and the camera really likes greens. - This last characteristic shows somewhat in the "House" and "Far" shots, in which the grass adopts an unnaturally bright hue. Other than the greens however, color from the PowerShot A50 was exceptionally accurate, with excellent saturation in strong primaries, but superb handling of delicate pastels as well.
We were very interested to find though, that the TWAIN driver (and presumably
the Photoshop acquire module as well) handles color from the CCD Raw files rather
differently. Here's a couple of samples of the "Far" shot, both direct
from the camera's own JPEG, and as filtered through the TWAIN driver, from the
"CRW" uncompressed raw CCD data file. (You can click on either thumbnail
to view a full-resolution image.) The differences are quite striking, with the
CRW version having color that we'd judge as being closer to the original. Interestingly,
the TWAIN/CRW file also appears to do a better job of holding highlight detail,
as seen in the fine detail of the pine-tree branches against the sky. Overall,
the TWAIN/CRW handling of color and tone appears very similar to that of Canon's
higher-end Pro70 digicam. This is a very interesting behavior, in that one camera
can be used to produce two very different color/tonal responses. We'd say that
the camera's "native" color is well-suited to most non-professional
uses, in that it results in very bright, snappy images, with well-saturated
colors and great visual appeal. On the other hand, the TWAIN/CRW route produces
images that are likely to be more pleasing to professionals, looking for more
"accurate" color, and lower contrast overall. We've been waiting to
see one of the digicam manufacturers produce a camera with options for multiple
"looks" in its pictures (sort of like the differences between major
film emulsions): Perhaps the PowerShot A50 is a first move in that direction
by a major manufacturer. Regardless of whether the provision for two entirely
different color/tone balances in the same camera was accidental or deliberate,
we applaud Canon for providing it! We look forward to the day when users can
select from a range of "film types" in their digital cameras, matching
color- and tonal handling to their specific tastes and picture-taking needs
Turning to more conventional aspects of image quality, the PowerShot A50 performed very well in the resolution department, with visual resolution approaching 650 lines per picture height horizontally and 600-650 vertically: Clearly the equal of any other 1.3 megapixel digicam on the market (June, 1999)(!) We also found the A50's lens to be of unusually high quality, producing almost no chromatic aberration regardless of focal length, and with only moderate barrel distortion (1.1%) at the wide-angle end of the lens' range, dropping fairly rapidly to zero as the lens was zoomed toward the telephoto end.
As noted earlier, the optical viewfinder on the A50 is a bit "looser" than most, showing only 80% of the final image area at the wide-antle end, and 78% in telephoto. The LCD viewfinder also crops the image area slightly, showing about 95% of the final image in both telephoto and wide-angle modes. The overall view of the optical finder is biased upward slightly across the focal length range, while that of the LCD is well-centered. You'll thus need to shoot a few frames to develop a sense of what's actually being recorded, particularly when using the optical finder. Flash uniformity is somewhat lacking at the wide angle end of the focal length range, but very good at the telephoto end.
Macro performance is about in the middle of the pack, with a minimum capture area of 3.5 x 2.6 inches (88 x 66mm) - some recent digicams have extended macro performance into the "micro" arena, but the A50's capabilities are likely to be sufficient for all but the most zealous of macro shooters.
The PowerShot A50 did very well in our low-light tests, producing very good pictures down to a light level of EV7 (that's pretty dark), and "usable" images as far down as EV 5. (These latter ones required substantial adjustment in Photoshop after the fact, however.) The ISO 400 rating of the A50's low-resolution mode seemed to produce shorter exposure times, but not any decrease in the ultimate low-light limit.
Overall, the PowerShot A50 is an excellent 1.3 megapixel digicam, it's usefulness further enhanced by its diminutive size, all-metal case, and built-in lens shutter. Picture quality is really the equal of any other 1.3 megapixel digicam out there, and its physical design will help insure that it gets packed along to capture every photographic moment. We'd like to see the optional battery/adapter/charger kit included in the basic package, but even purchased separately, the complete package is still a very good value relative to competing products. The A50's excellent picture quality and rugged design make it a nearly ideal "family" camera, encouraging active use, rather than being consigned to a safe resting place in a drawer at home. A big thumbs-up!
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