Canon SD900 Review

 
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Canon PowerShot SD900 Exposure


Color

Saturation & Hue Accuracy
Good overall color and hue accuracy, slight oversaturation in blues, undersaturation in yellows and yellow-greens.

In the diagram above, the squares show the original color, and the circles show the color that the camera captured. More saturated colors are located towards the periphery of the graph. Hue changes as you travel around the center. Thus, hue-accurate, highly saturated colors appear as lines radiating from the center.

Most consumer digital cameras produce color that's more highly saturated (more intense) than found in the original subjects. This is simply because most people like their color a bit brighter than life. The SD900 does oversaturate the red and blue tones slightly, though not nearly as bad as usual. We found its color pleasing on a wide range of typical subjects. Where oversaturation is most problematic is on Caucasian skin tones, as it's very easy for these "memory colors" to be seen as too bright, too pink, too yellow, etc. Here, the SD900 performed well, with only slight warmth.

The other important part of color rendition is hue accuracy. Hue is "what color" the color is. The SD900 showed small color shifts relative to the correct mathematical translation of colors in its subjects, but overall had more hue-accurate color than most consumer cameras we test. Oranges move toward yellow. Cyans and purples move toward blue, probably to create good sky colors.

Sensor

Exposure and White Balance

Indoors, incandescent lighting
Warm casts with both Auto and Incandescent white balance settings. About average exposure compensation required.

Auto White Balance +0.7 EV Incandescent WB +0.7 EV

Color balance indoors under incandescent lighting was just a bit warm and reddish in Auto white balance mode, while the Incandescent setting resulted in a more yellow color balance that actually looked more pleasing overall. The SD900 required a +0.7 EV exposure compensation boost to get a good exposure, about average for this shot. Overall color is a bit dark and yellow here, making the blue flowers very dark and purplish. (A very common outcome for this shot.) Our test lighting for this shot is a mixture of 60 and 100 watt household incandescent bulb, a pretty yellow light source, but a very common one in typical home settings here in the US.

Outdoors, daylight
Good color balance overall, with fairly bright colors. Heightened contrast under bright outdoor conditions.

Auto White Balance, +0.7 EV Auto White Balance, Auto Exposure

Outdoor shots showed better than average exposure accuracy, though with notably high contrast under harsh sunlight. Strong highlights tended to produce slight underexposures, as in the house shot above, with a limited midtone range, but exposure accuracy was still better than average when compared to many other consumer digicams. Overall color looked pretty good, with bright reds and blues that nonetheless didn't look too overdone.

See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images

Resolution
High resolution, 1,400 lines of strong detail.

Strong detail to 1,400 lines horizontal Strong detail to 1,400 lines vertical

Our laboratory resolution chart revealed sharp, distinct line patterns down to about 1,400 lines per picture height, with extinction at around 2,000. (The camera produced slight color artifacts at lower line frequencies though, visible in the full-sized res target shots.) Use these numbers to compare with other cameras of similar resolution, or use them to see just what higher resolution can mean in terms of potential detail. Beware that while you might be able to make out what looks like distinct lines at numbers higher than those we've mentioned here, the camera is just doing its best to continue interpreting the lines.

See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images

Sharpness & Detail
Sharp images with excellent detail. Minor blurring of detail from noise suppression in areas of subtle contrast.

Slightly fuzzy definition of high-contrast elements, but not bad considering the high resolution. Subtle detail: Hair
Noise suppression tends to blur detail in areas of subtle contrast, as in the darker parts of Marti's hair here, though again the high resolution somewhat mitigates the softening.

The Canon SD900's images are relatively sharp with just a little softening, probably due to noise suppression. There is little evidence of edge enhancement, however, which means that some of this softening could be recovered with a tool like unsharp mask in Photoshop. (Edge enhancement creates the illusion of sharpness by enhancing colors and tones right at the edge of a rapid transition in color or tone.)

Noise-suppression systems in digital cameras tend to flatten-out detail in areas of subtle contrast. The effects can often be seen in shots of human hair, where the individual strands are lost and an almost "watercolor" look appears. The crop at far right shows this somewhat, with both darker and lighter areas of Marti's hair showing limited, blurry detail; though individual strands are visible where a lighted strand passes in front of a darker shadow area. On balance, the SD900 shows less detail loss to noise reduction at low ISO settings than average, but more at high ISOs. This 10 megapixel sensor is relatively noisy, so noise suppression is expected.

ISO & Noise Performance
Moderate noise at the normal sensitivity settings, but very high noise and strong blurring at the higher settings, especially at ISO 1,600.

ISO 80 ISO 100 ISO 200
ISO 400 ISO 800 ISO 1,600

The SD900's lower ISO settings produced low to moderate noise, with only slightly blurred detail in the dark areas. (As noted above, better than average in this respect.) However, starting at ISO 400, image noise begins to dominate areas of fine detail, and starts to destroy skin tone, producing an unflattering purple cast. ISO 800 images are decent, not that far removed from the 400 image in terms of detail, but there's a more stippled look. At ISO 1,600, noise is so strong, blurring so significant, and the purple cast so pronounced that resulting images are not useful for printing without post-processing, except at the smallest sizes (see the Output Quality section below for more).

Extremes: Sunlit and low light tests
High resolution with good overall detail, but high contrast limits both highlight and shadow detail. Limited low-light capabilities, but sensitive enough to capture bright images under typical city street lighting.

+0.3 EV +0.7 EV +1.0 EV

Sunlight:
Because digital cameras are more like slide film than negative film (in that they tend to have a more limited tonal range), we test them in the harshest situations to see how they handle scenes with bright highlights and dark shadows, as well as what kind of sensitivity they have in low light. The shot above is designed to mimic the very harsh, contrasty effect of direct noonday sunlight, a very tough challenge for most digital cameras. (You can read details of this test here.)

The SD900 had a hard time with the deliberately harsh lighting in the test above, producing high contrast with washed-out highlights and deep shadows. Shadow detail is limited, with the effects of noise suppression evident in the form of smudged detail in deep shadow areas. The camera required a slightly less than average amount of positive compensation at +0.7 EV, making its metering a bit more accurate than most in this particular test. (In "real life" though, be sure to use fill flash in situations like the one shown above; it's better to shoot in the shade when possible.)

 

  1 fc
11 lux
1/2 fc
5.5 lux
1/4 fc
2.7 lux
1/8 fc
1.3 lux
1/16 fc
0.67 lux
ISO
79
Click to see SD900LL00803.JPG
2.5 sec
f2.9
Click to see SD900LL00804.JPG
5 sec
f2.9
Click to see SD900LL00805.JPG
9.9 sec
f2.9
Click to see SD900LL00806.JPG
16 sec
f2.9
Click to see SD900LL00807.JPG
16 sec
f2.9
ISO
100
Click to see SD900LL01003.JPG
2 sec
f2.9
Click to see SD900LL01004.JPG
4 sec
f2.9
Click to see SD900LL01005.JPG
8 sec
f2.9
Click to see SD900LL01006.JPG
16 sec
f2.9
Click to see SD900LL01007.JPG
16 sec
f2.9
ISO
200
Click to see SD900LL02003.JPG
1 sec
f2.9
Click to see SD900LL02004.JPG
2 sec
f2.9
Click to see SD900LL02005.JPG
4 sec
f2.9
Click to see SD900LL02006.JPG
8 sec
f2.9
Click to see SD900LL02007.JPG
16 sec
f2.9
ISO
400
Click to see SD900LL04003.JPG
0.5 sec
f2.9
Click to see SD900LL04004.JPG
1 sec
f2.9
Click to see SD900LL04005.JPG
2 sec
f2.9
Click to see SD900LL04006.JPG
4 sec
f2.9
Click to see SD900LL04007.JPG
8 sec
f2.9
ISO
800
Click to see SD900LL08003.JPG
1/4 sec
f2.9
Click to see SD900LL08004.JPG
0.5 sec
f2.9
Click to see SD900LL08005.JPG
1 sec
f2.9
Click to see SD900LL08006.JPG
2 sec
f2.9
Click to see SD900LL08007.JPG
4 sec
f2.9
ISO
1600
Click to see SD900LL16003.JPG
1/8 sec
f2.9
Click to see SD900LL16004.JPG
1/4 sec
f2.9
Click to see SD900LL16005.JPG
0.5 sec
f2.9
Click to see SD900LL16006.JPG
1 sec
f2.9
Click to see SD900LL16007.JPG
2 sec
f2.9

Low light:
The Canon PowerShot SD900 performed well on our low light test, with good color from the Auto white balance setting. At the lower ISO settings (80 and 100), images were bright down to 1/8 foot-candle, which is about 1/8 as bright as average city street lighting at night. From ISO 200 to 1,600, images were bright down to the lowest light levels we test. The camera's autofocus system also worked very well, able to focus on the subject down to the 1/8 foot-candle light level unassisted, and well past the darkest light level we test with the AF assist lamp enabled. Keep in mind that the long shutter times here absolutely demand the use of a tripod or other camera support to get sharp photos. (A useful trick is to just prop the camera on a convenient surface, and use its self-timer to release the shutter. This avoids any jiggling from your finger pressing the shutter button, and can work quite well when you don't have a tripod handy.)

NOTE: This low light test is conducted with a stationary subject, and the camera mounted on a sturdy tripod. Most digital cameras will fail miserably when faced with a moving subject in dim lighting. (For example, a child's ballet recital or a holiday pageant in a gymnasium.) For such applications, you may have better luck with a digital SLR camera; but even there, you'll likely need to set the focus manually. For information and reviews on digital SLRs, refer to our SLR review index page.

Flash

Coverage and Range
A useful flash range, and moderate orange cast with incandescent lighting. Our standard shots required +0.7 EV compensation.

37mm equivalent 111mm equivalent
Normal Flash, +0.7 EV Slow-Sync Flash, +0.7 EV

Flash coverage was rather uneven at wide angle, and still uneven at telephoto. In the Indoor test, the SD900's flash underexposed our subject at its default setting, requiring use of +0.7 EV exposure compensation to get reasonably bright results. Even here, the exposure is a little dim, with a noticeable orange cast. The Slow-Sync flash mode also needed +0.7 EV, though it resulted in more even lighting (and a stronger orange cast).

Flash Range: Wide Angle
6 ft 7 ft 8 ft 9 ft 10 ft 11 ft
Click to see SD900FL06W.JPG
1 sec
f2.9
ISO 100
Click to see SD900FL07W.JPG
1 sec
f2.9
ISO 100
Click to see SD900FL08W.JPG
1 sec
f2.9
ISO 100
Click to see SD900FL09W.JPG
1 sec
f2.9
ISO 100
Click to see SD900FL10W.JPG
1 sec
f2.9
ISO 100
Click to see SD900FL11W.JPG
1 sec
f2.9
ISO 100
12 ft 13 ft 14 ft 15 ft 16 ft
Click to see SD900FL12W.JPG
1 sec
f2.9
ISO 100
Click to see SD900FL13W.JPG
1 sec
f2.9
ISO 100
Click to see SD900FL14W.JPG
1 sec
f2.9
ISO 100
Click to see SD900FL15W.JPG
1 sec
f2.9
ISO 100
Click to see SD900FL16W.JPG
1 sec
f2.9
ISO 100

Flash Range: Telephoto
6 ft 7 ft 8 ft 9 ft 10 ft 11 ft
Click to see SD900FL06T.JPG
1 sec
f5.0
ISO 100
Click to see SD900FL07T.JPG
1 sec
f5.0
ISO 100
Click to see SD900FL08T.JPG
1 sec
f5.0
ISO 100
Click to see SD900FL09T.JPG
1 sec
f5.0
ISO 100
Click to see SD900FL10T.JPG
1 sec
f5.0
ISO 100
Click to see SD900FL11T.JPG
1 sec
f5.0
ISO 100
12 ft 13 ft 14 ft 15 ft 16 ft
Click to see SD900FL12T.JPG
1 sec
f5.0
ISO 100
Click to see SD900FL13T.JPG
1 sec
f5.0
ISO 100
Click to see SD900FL14T.JPG
1 sec
f5.0
ISO 100
Click to see SD900FL15T.JPG
1 sec
f5.0
ISO 100
Click to see SD900FL16T.JPG
1 sec
f5.0
ISO 100

At ISO 100, flash power remained fairly bright to the 16 foot test distance at wide angle but falloff began about the 13 foot test distance with telephoto.

Manufacturer-Specified Flash Range
Wide Angle Telephoto
Click to see SD900FL_MFR170WAXXXX.JPG
17.0 feet
Auto ISO
Click to see SD900FL_MFR100TAXXXX.JPG
10.0 feet
Auto ISO

Our standard test method for flash range uses a fixed setting of ISO 100, to provide a fair basis of comparison between cameras. We also capture two shots using the manufacturer-specified camera settings, at the range the company claims for the camera, to assess the validity of their claims. In the shots above, the SD900 seems to perform exactly as Canon says it will, producing good exposures at the rated distances with its ISO set to Auto. The range is understandably limited, given the small flash and small lens, but seems to be boosting its ISO to only about 400. This produces greater flash range, but at the cost of higher image noise. In Auto ISO mode, the SD900's flash photos suffer somewhat from anti-noise processing, but are still usable at small print sizes.

Output Quality

Print Quality
Good print quality, great color, crisp prints at 11x14 inches, usable ones at 13x19. ISO 800 images are still usable at 8x10 inches and great at 5x7 and 4x6. Higher ISOs are only (barely) suitable for 4x6 inch snapshot prints.

Testing hundreds of digital cameras, we've found that you can only tell just so much about a camera's image quality by viewing its images on-screen. Ultimately, there's no substitute for printing a lot of images and examining them closely. For this reason, we now routinely print sample images from the cameras we test on our Canon i9900 studio printer, and on the Canon iP5200 here in the office. (See the Canon i9900 review for details on that model.)

The Canon SD900 produced crisp prints at 11x14 inches, and somewhat softer but still acceptable ones at 13x19. There is some evidence of chroma noise at these sizes, especially in the shadows, even at ISO 80. This is a sign that the 10 megapixel sensor is showing the flaws that we knew it would, flaws we've also seen in the Canon A640 and more in the Canon G7. As always, the real test of print size came at the higher ISO settings. Here, the SD900's ISO 400 images were soft and overprocessed when printed at 11x14 inches, but quite acceptable at 8x10 and great at 5x7 and 4x6. ISO 800 images were noisy but acceptable at 8x10. ISO 1,600 and 3,200 were acceptable at small sizes, and decent if you appreciated what they were: a shot you'd never had gotten without a tripod at the lower ISOs. They were also usable if processed with a good anti-noise filter, but only intermediate photographers will bother trying to improve these images.

Color-wise, the Canon SD900 did pretty well, with bright but natural-looking color and good-looking skin tones that go somewhat purple at higher ISOs.

Bottom line, low-ISO shots from the SD900 look very good and hold together well at large print sizes, but its high-ISO images are a little rough.

 

The images above were taken from our standardized test shots. For a collection of more pictorial photos, see our Canon PowerShot SD900 Photo Gallery.

Recommended Software: Rescue your Photos!

Just as important as an extra memory card is a tool to rescue your images when one of your cards fails at some point in the future. We get a lot of email from readers who've lost photos due to a corrupted memory card. Memory card corruption can happen with any card type and any camera manufacturer, nobody's immune. A lot of "lost" images can be recovered with an inexpensive, easy to use piece of software though. Given the amount of email I've gotten on the topic, I now include this paragraph in all my digital camera reviews. The program you need is called PhotoRescue, by DataRescue SA. Read our review of it if you'd like, but download the program now, so you'll have it. It doesn't cost a penny until you need it, and even then it's only $29, with a money back guarantee. So download PhotoRescue for Windows or PhotoRescue for Mac while you're thinking of it. (While you're at it, download the PDF manual and quickstart guide as well.) Stash the file in a safe place and it'll be there when you need it. Trust me, needing this is not a matter of if, but when... PhotoRescue is about the best and easiest tool for recovering digital photos I've seen. (Disclosure: IR gets a small commission from sales of the product, but I'd highly recommend the program even if we didn't.) OK, now back to our regularly scheduled review...

Not sure which camera to buy? Let your eyes be the ultimate judge! Visit our Comparometer(tm) to compare images from the Canon PowerShot SD900 with those from other cameras you may be considering. The proof is in the pictures, so let your own eyes decide which you like best!

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Note: For details, test results, and analysis of the many tests done with this camera, please click on the tabs at the beginning of the review or below.

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