Canon SD990 IS Review

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Basic Specifications
Full model name: Canon PowerShot SD990 IS
Resolution: 14.70 Megapixels
Sensor size: 1/1.7 inch
(7.6mm x 5.7mm)
Lens: 3.69x zoom
(36-133mm eq.)
Viewfinder: Optical / LCD
Extended ISO: 80 - 3200
Shutter: 1/1600 - 15 sec
Max Aperture: 2.8
Dimensions: 3.8 x 2.4 x 1.1 in.
(97 x 62 x 28 mm)
Weight: 5.6 oz (160 g)
MSRP: $400
Availability: 10/2008
Manufacturer: Canon
Full specs: Canon SD990 IS specifications

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Imaging Resource rating

4.5 out of 5.0

Canon PowerShot SD990 IS Overview

Overview by Mike Tomkins
Review by Mike Pasini and Stephanie Boozer
Review Date: 06/26/09

Canon's PowerShot SD990 IS digital camera replaces the company's previous PowerShot SD950 IS model as the flagship of the Digital ELPH lineup. The Canon SD990 retains the same 1/1.7-inch CCD image sensor size, but jams in more pixels to take the camera from 12.1 to 14.7 megapixels, along with upgrading the previous model's DIGIC III processor to a DIGIC 4 type that allows for servo-AF tracking.

The Canon SD990 retains the 3.7x optical zoom, ranging from 36mm to 133mm equivalent. Maximum aperture is f/2.8 to a rather dim f/5.8 across the zoom range. The Canon SD990's autofocus system now has improved face detection capability, and includes Face Detection self-timer that automatically takes a photo two seconds after an additional face enters the scene. The Canon PowerShot SD990 IS's LCD display measures 2.5-inches diagonally with a resolution of 230,000 dots, with improved contrast ratio.

ISO sensitivity ranges from ISO 100 to 1,600, and includes a high sensitivity scene mode which allows this to be boosted to a maximum of ISO 3,200. Shutter speeds are unchanged, ranging from 1/1,600 to 15 seconds. Metering modes include evaluative, center-weighted, and spot. The Canon SD990 offers a program mode, plus a fully manual mode where aperture and shutter speed can be selected. There are sixteen scene modes, and the Canon SD990 also offers a new Intelligent Contrast Correction function.

The Canon SD990 records movies with an H.264 MOV compression, a newer format that offers smaller file sizes for equivalent video quality. The Canon PowerShot SD990 stores its images and movies on Secure Digital cards, and includes a 32MB card (very small). The Canon SD990 also offers both NTSC / PAL video output and USB 2.0 High Speed computer connectivity. Power comes from a proprietary NB-5L lithium-ion rechargeable battery.

The Canon PowerShot SD990 IS began shipping in the USA from October 2008, priced at US$400 or less.


Canon SD990 IS User Report

by Mike Pasini

What's the first thing you should do when reviewing a new flagship camera in the popular ELPH line? Drop it, of course.

That's a rare (might even be even unique if my memory can be trusted) event for me, but it did prove one thing. The Canon PowerShot SD990 IS can take a hit. It wasn't a very abusive hit (just a soft drop to a carpet) but it was a typical one.

Reassuring as that might be, the real reason to consider the flagship ELPH is its long list of features. Features don't always interest the ELPH crowd, which would rather not wade through a review or tinker in photographic niceties, but that's the banner flagships like the Canon SD990 wave.

The Canon SD990 list starts with an almost ridiculous 14.7-megapixel sensor. It continues with a 3.7x optical zoom lens with optical image stabilization. Add a DIGIC 4 image processor to handle face detection (at different angles and as a self-timer trigger), servo autofocus (which continuously tracks moving subjects when you half-press the Shutter button), and intelligent contrast correction. And include a Manual mode that lets you set shutter speed and aperture, a first for a digital ELPH.

Look and Feel. The Canon SD990's shell has been redesigned from the SD950 that it so closely resembles, with an eye toward curves that should almost be called hips. Available colors are black or silver only (if you don't count the limited edition red model created to commemorate the 100 millionth PowerShot). And, like the SD950, the Canon SD990 is a bit bulky for anything called an ELPH. It's not what you'd call an ultracompact.

But the Canon SD990 is small and it does fit in your pocket. It is as comfortable as a bar of soap in your hand as you carry it around. The Canon SD990's slick surface is not friendly to sweaty grips but it does include a wrist strap that is more than handy.

There is no space for your thumb on the Canon SD990's back panel, but the buttons are very stiff so you won't accidentally press them when you grab the camera.

I managed to drop the camera by trying to stand it up on its side, like every other ELPH I've ever used. But this one is a lot less stable that way, even a bit worse than the SD950. There are four tiny pegs to stand on but the curved bottom and sides make it a little hard to find the flat spot, and the weight is not at that end of the Canon SD990.

The Canon SD990 does have some heft, which I like in a small camera. It helps stabilize the body when you press the Shutter button, so no complaint there, but it does detract from what has been one of the ELPH's major attractions: ultra slim and light weight design.

Canon has retained the optical viewfinder in the SD990. It's actually required by Quick Shot mode, which doesn't display the scene on the LCD. More about that below.

At just 2.5 inches, the Canon SD990's LCD seems a little small for a flagship camera. I'm getting spoiled by all those lovely 3.0-inch LCDs that seem to have become standard this year. The LCD does have 230,000 pixels, though.

Controls. I do like the Canon SD990's big Shutter button and the Zoom control that rings it, which is my preferred arrangement. You don't have to look for the Shutter button; and once you're finger falls on it, you know exactly where the Canon SD990's Zoom control is so you can compose your shots.

I wasn't as happy with the Canon SD990's Power button, finding it hard to depress. It's just too small for my fingers. When I press down, I'm applying force mainly to the top panel, not the little button. I resorted to a fingernail to home in on the little sucker.

The Canon SD990's Playback button can both power the camera on and power it off. The advantage to using the Playback button to turn the camera on is that it won't extend the lens, so you can just enjoying looking at your photos without worrying about the lens.

The Mode dial is simple enough with settings for Auto, P/M, Quick Shot, Scene, and Movie clearly marked by icons. It's stiff enough that you won't accidentally change modes, too.

The custom Share button (which I set up for EV because Canon didn't dedicate a button to EV) and the Playback button under the Mode dial are both stiff. It's a good thing because your thumb will be grabbing the Canon SD990 there. Display and Menu under the main control pad are also stiff and do what they always do on a Canon: change the LCD display options and take you to the main Menu settings.

The main control pad has the usual Function/Set button in the middle to access shooting menu options and confirm menu selection. And the arrow positions have their assignments as usual, too. Up accesses the Canon SD990's ISO settings (and rotates in Playback), Right accesses Flash modes, Down accesses the Release modes like the Self-Timer (and Erases in Playback), and Left accesses the Focus modes.

Just around the Canon SD990's navigator, however, is a chrome ring replacing the Touch control dial of the SD950. I'm getting less and less fond of these as a navigation tool. They are faster than pressing the arrow keys, but they are also hard to control. And sometimes they work, sometimes they are disabled.

In this case, I didn't make friends with the Canon SD990's rotary dial but it did come in handy in the new Manual mode, which probably explains the switch from the Touch control dial.

Lens. The Canon SD990's 36 to 133mm, f/2.8-5.8 3.7 optical zoom lens appears to be the same glass used on the SD950.

At wide angle, the corners are blurred, but at telephoto they remain nearly as sharp as the center. With just a 3.7x zoom range, barrel distortion at 36mm is just moderate and barely detectable at 133mm.

Chromatic aberration is strong at wide angle but much lower at telephoto.

And the Canon SD990 includes Canon's optical image stabilization for better natural light photography and improved performance with the 4x digital zoom.

Modes. My standing gripe about the ELPHs -- that Manual mode is just an Auto with a little fudging -- is hereby withdrawn for the Canon SD990. There is a real manual mode on the Canon SD990 that lets you set the aperture and the shutter speed yourself. There are only two f-stops to play with, f/2.8 and f/8.0, but there are quite a few shutter speeds.

To get into Manual mode, set the Mode dial to P/M and spin the control dial's outer ring until a big M appears on the screen. To access the shutter speed and aperture controls, choose EV from the Function menu (or do what I did and define the Share key as EV and press that).

To actually set the shutter speed, use the control dial's outer ring. A scale will appear above the current value (we couldn't capture it in the screen shot, unfortunately). To change the Canon SD990's aperture, use the Left or Right arrow keys.

Manual Mode. Both shutter speed (Tv) and aperture (Av) can be set.

Unfortunately, Manual mode on the Canon SD990 seems pretty lonely without Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority modes. For those, you still have to look at the G-Series or SX-Series Canons.

So what else is on the Canon SD990?

The usual Auto, the limited Program and an associated Manual, the new Quick Shot, Special Scene, and Movie modes. Scene modes include Portrait, Foliage, Snow, Beach, Sunset, Fireworks, Aquarium, Underwater, ISO 3,200 at 1600 x 1200 pixels only, Indoor, Kids & Pets, Night Snapshot, Color Accent, Color Swap, Digital Macro, and Stitch Assist.

Auto restricts what can be adjusted to image quality (JPEG compression) and image size. ISO can either be Auto or Auto Hi, Flash can be Auto or Off, Focus can be Macro or Normal. And my hunch is if you use Auto, you probably don't bother changing any of those.

Programmed AE lets you change everything but the Canon SD990's shutter speed and the aperture it seems. ISO adds fixed settings from 80 to 1,600, Flash can be forced on for fill flash (in combination with flash compensation), Focus adds Infinity and Manual. There is also EV, white balance, My Colors, Flash Compensation, Metering, Image Quality, and Image Size settings on the Function menu.

And in the Canon SD990's Programmed AE mode, you can slide right into Manual to adjust shutter speed and aperture.

Quick Shot Mode. The LCD displays only the camera settings. You have to use the optical viewfinder to frame your shot.

Quick Shot mode doesn't update the LCD, explaining why the Canon SD990 retains the optical viewfinder of the SD950. The LCD displays EV, ISO, Flash mode, and then a row of settings (white balance, My Colors, Shutter release mode, image quality, image size, flash compensation, and then a final row with a live histogram, status icons and warnings). In Quick Shot mode, the lens is constantly autofocusing so you don't have to half-press the Shutter button to avoid shutter lag. The idea is that this mode will get the fastest capture, perfect for sporting events or other live action scenes. Oddly enough, the LCD displays each captured image for review. Would you take your eye off the subject and away from the viewfinder to chimp at the shot you just captured? This does use the battery heavily (Canon says you'll only get 180 shots in this mode, so consider yourself warned).

The Canon SD990 also offers 12 Special Scene modes that include Portrait, Foliage, Snow, Beach, Sunset, Fireworks, Aquarium, Underwater, ISO 3200, Indoor, Kids & Pets, and Night Snapshot. Sunset wasn't on the SD950. In addition to those, you also get Color Accent, Color Swap, Digital Macro, Stitch Assist, and Movie mode.

Still image sizes include 4,416 x 3,312 (Large), 3,456 x 2,592 (Medium 1), 2,592 x 1,944 (Medium 2), 1,600 x 1,200 (Medium 3/Date Stamp), 640 x 480 (Small), 4,416 x 2,480 (Widescreen).

VGA Movie. An 11.8MB file lasting nine seconds. (Click to download .MOV file.)

Movie mode captures mono sound and H.264 format video in MOV files in either 640 x 480 or 320 x 480 image sizes, both at 30 frames per second up to 4GB or 60 minutes a clip. Optical zoom is not supported, though digital zoom is.

Unfortunately, even the flagship ELPH can't shoot HD video. Shooting video at 16:9 seems a lot more natural than shooting it at 4:3 as 640 x 480 requires. And when the day comes that you have a widescreen TV, that 4:3 video is going to look dated.

Menu. 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). After you pick a Record mode, just hit the Function button to see your shooting options. Hit the Menu button for general camera setup options any time.

Storage & Battery. The Canon SD990 takes an SD/SDHC card to store images. It can also accept MMC, MMC Plus, and HC MMC Plus cards. A 2GB card will hold about 306 high quality JPEGs or 23 minutes and 49 seconds of broadcast quality video.

A full charge on the Canon SD990's rechargeable lithium-ion battery delivers about 280 shots, according to Canon (unless you use Quick Shot mode, which cuts it to 180). 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 requirements 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.

Shooting. I took the Canon SD990 on a few long walks. It slipped easily into my coat pocket and was ready in a flash to shoot. If I'd had better control of the Power button, it would have been ready in half a flash.

I used Programmed AE most of the time (although I couldn't resist trying the new Manual mode). The doll shots, which you'll see in the Gallery section, were taken with the Canon SD990's ISO 3,200 Scene mode, which bins the pixels into a small 1,600 x 1,200 pixel image.

Wheel Covers. Chrome covers bleed into dark background [100 pct. crop].

Except for the doll shots, the Canon SD990's 14.7-megapixel sensor creates some very large JPEGs. I used Superfine image quality (minimal JPEG compression) and the 4:3 aspect ratio to get the largest size image, and that ranged from 3.1MB to 8.1MB in the gallery images. The full resolution images consequently load rather slowly.

I found the Canon SD990's color to be natural without the usual bumped-up saturation, although reds and blues are slightly oversaturated. You won't see much of that in the gallery shots, however, because they weren't taken in bright, sunny conditions.

Snout. A bleeding nose and some luminance noise in the foliage [100 pct. crop top; 50 pct. view bottom].

I shifted focus modes a lot, moving from Normal to Macro and back again. I also set EV to different values, defining the Share button to be the EV button since it wasn't available on the control dial. I didn't play around with ISO, leaving it on Auto, which shifted from ISO 75 to ISO 200.

And, of course, I was constantly zooming to compose the image. The zoom control on the Canon SD990 is very smooth, not jumping from one step to another. That makes composing a pleasure, if a bit fast. It doesn't respond to slight pressure by zooming slower like the SX200 IS, whose zoom steps from one focal length to the next. The Canon SD990's zoom is either zooming or not zooming.

Throughout my shooting experience, the Canon SD990 was a reliable and faithful companion. I liked what I saw on the LCD, although I wasn't thrilled that the scene was masked by settings icons until I half-pressed the Shutter button.

Evaluating the images, though, was another experience.

I was surprised to see how much lens flare intruded. You might expect a little fringing in the corners at wide angle, but how do you explain the wheel covers on the red car? I was also disappointed to see fringing on the edges of the orange rose, although I appreciated how the -0.7 EV held the color without losing the stone border below it.

Bug. Detail reveals a crane fly on the ornate window [100 pct. crop].

Perhaps the best shot was the ornate window. The Canon SD990 not only held the highlights very well but the detail from the 14.7-Mp sensor was enough to have captured a crane fly resting on the right side of the window frame. That's pretty remarkable.

And yet, the image of the bolt in the brick, one of my favorite compositions in the gallery, falls apart when viewed at full resolution. The shutter speed of 1/143 second is fast enough to freeze any camera shake in Macro mode so the blur evident in the corners is all the lens. At full resolution, it simply doesn't look as sharp as the thumbnails promise it to be.

And that was the rule rather than the exception. See the sculpture of the big cat on stone in the park. There's blooming from the cat's snout and the speckling of luminance noise in the metal and the stone and the foliage is disturbing.

Maybe, I thought, I've been looking at too many dSLR images lately. So I reviewed my Canon PowerShot SX110 IS gallery images. While there were certainly some of the same problems in those images, I preferred them.

Much of this (let's call them technical defects) disappear when you print the images. And just resizing them down a bit helps enormously, too. In fact, the doll images at ISO 3,200 don't show any evidence of these optical defects because the Canon SD990 resizes them to 1,600 x 1,200 pixels.

And while these defects are real, the problem is actually with viewing high resolution images more than with the Canon SD990. Examining 10-megapixel images and larger on your screen, as we noted in our Dogpatch story, "you have your nose to the glass at the candy store and are fogging the window. To properly evaluate 10-megapixel images and larger on your screen, they suggested, you should view them at 50 percent rather than 100 percent."

So in our cat snout shot above, we simulated a 50 percent view. That helps a lot of the noise in the foliage, and the blue flare glow above the statue's nose is less noticeable.


Canon SD990 IS Lens Quality

Wide: Sharp at center
Wide: Slightly soft upper right
Tele: Sharp in Center
Tele: Softest upper left corner

Sharpness: At wide-angle, the Canon SD990 IS' zoom becomes quite blurry in the corners compared to center, with the strongest blurring in the upper left. At full telephoto, however, details in the corners are only slightly softer than center.

Wide: Moderate barrel distortion; noticeable but not strong
Tele: Very little distortion

Geometric Distortion: Barrel distortion at wide-angle is moderate, but about average (0.8%), though it is noticeable in some images. At telephoto, pincushion distortion amounts to about one or two pixels (<0.1%), which is very low.

Wide: High, bright
Tele: Low

Chromatic Aberration: Chromatic aberration at wide-angle is a bit high, with bright green and magenta pixels visible (though strong blurring in the corners is also stretching the effect here). Telephoto, however, exhibits much lower chromatic aberration, with a few red pixels visible in the areas of black.

Normal Macro
Macro with Flash

Macro: In its Macro mode, the Canon PowerShot SD990 IS produced slightly soft details throughout most of the frame, with blurring becoming stronger in the corners and along the edges. Chromatic aberration is mainly visible along the top lines of the dollar bill. Minimum coverage area is 2.05 x 1.54 inches (52 x 39 mm). The position of the camera's flash and lens result in a very uneven exposure at this shooting range, with a strong hot spot in the top left and a shadow from the lens in the lower right corner.


Canon SD990 IS Image Quality

Color: Typical to Canon PowerShots, the SD990 IS produces bright, pleasing color, with slight oversaturation in the reds and blues (often more appealing to consumers). In terms of hue, cyans and yellows show some shifts, and some reds are pushed toward orange. Dark skintones are a little more saturated, but lighter tones are pretty close to accurate.


ISO: Noise and Detail: Detail is already a little smudgy at ISO 80, though chroma (color) noise remains in check until around ISO 1,600. As early as ISO 200, details become quite soft, with very low detail definition at ISO 400 and up. The Canon SD990 IS restricts resolution to 1,600 x 1,200 pixels at the max ISO 3,200 setting, but results are very soft (though luminance noise appears less obtrusive). See Printed results section below for more on how this affects printed images.

Wide: Bright
Tele: Slightly dim
Flash: The Canon SD990's flash works well at ISO 100 at wide-angle out to about 11 feet before it starts to dim, and then the decrease in intensity is slight. It starts out dim at six feet and gets dimmer at telephoto, unfortunately.

Our manufacturer-specified testing (shown at right) upholds Canon's claims for 15 feet on the wide-angle setting with the flash, though its a little dim at 7.5 feet at the telephoto end of the zoom. At both zoom settings the camera raised ISO to 250. Given the ISO 100 results, the Canon PowerShot SD990's flash should be sufficient in most situations.

Auto WB: Good, a hint warm
Incandescent WB: Too pink
Manual WB: Good, a hint cool

Incandescent: The Canon SD990 IS' Auto and Manual white balance settings handled our tungsten lighting test much better than Incandescent mode, with the latter rendering a very pink image. Between Auto and Manual, the choice becomes up to a slight warm or cool tint, though results are pretty good at both.

Printed: Pixel-peeping onscreen does not do the Canon SD990 justice. ISO 80 printed results look good at 16x20 inches with good color and detail. Even the corners look good shot at a middle focal length. Unfortunately, the lens flare shows up at this size, being the Canon SD990's main downfall. Any bright spot tends to glow at this size. It's not until 8x10 that this effect becomes less noticeable, regardless of ISO. Still, the Canon SD990 really does well in terms of detail as the ISO rises. ISO 200 still looks good at 13x19 inches, though ISO 400 starts to look a little soft. Switching to 11x14, however, brings ISO 400 back to usability. ISO 800 makes a good 8x10, and ISO 1,600 also looks decent at 8x10, though colors start to desaturate and shadows darken a bit. Detail gets sharper at 5x7.

And for the first time, a company's efforts to produce a high ISO by reducing resolution comes close to working. The ISO 3,200 Scene mode produces a 4x6 that is slightly soft around all edges, but running it through Photoshop's Unsharp Mask actually makes a decent 4x6-inch print. Kudos to Canon for being the first company we've seen make this mode usable for a real-world print.


Canon SD990 IS Performance

Shutter lag: Full autofocus shutter lag is good, at 0.50 second at wide angle and 0.60 second at full telephoto. Prefocus shutter lag is 0.085, not blazingly fast, but still fairly quick. Quick shot mode was difficult to test, because we couldn't control the shutter speed, but we managed to get a significantly faster time of 0.22 second.

Cycle time: Cycle time is slightly slow, capturing a frame every 2.0 seconds in single-shot mode, and every 0.73 second for a burst rate of 1.37 frames per second.

Flash Recycle: The Canon PowerShot SD990 IS' flash recycles sluggishly at 8 seconds after a full-power discharge.


Canon SD990 IS Conclusion

Despite our quibbles about image quality from its 14.7-megapixel sensor, the Canon PowerShot SD990 IS is a good quality digital camera overall. Corners are soft at full wide angle, with chromatic aberration, but that's to be expected in cameras of this size. Image quality is better at middle and telephoto focal lengths. Barrel distortion is moderate at wide angle, though almost non-existent at telephoto. Color from the Canon PowerShot SD990 IS is bright and vibrant, with only slight oversaturation in some reds and still pleasing. Luminance noise is a little high even at low ISOs, with soft detail as low as ISO 80. Cycle times are a little slow (not a surprise considering the amount of data coming off the sensor), but shutter lag is good. Lens flare also makes bright objects glow a little more than we like to see, a new problem we don't normally see from Canon cameras.

Printed results wipe out a lot of those criticisms. The lens flare is an issue at larger sizes, but becomes less noticeable at 8x10-inch print sizes. Luminance noise at lower ISOs is also not visible at even 13x19-inch print sizes, thanks to the 14.7-megapixel sensor.

As for functionality, the Canon SD990 is a great companion that breaks the ELPH mold with a Manual mode that lets you set shutter speed and aperture independently of each other. The Servo AF tracking of moving subjects is a refinement with real benefits, as is the improved face detection. And while the 14.7-megapixel sensor may have some issues, it does still bring home details you wouldn't have seen with your naked eye.

The Canon PowerShot SD990 IS is not just the new flagship ELPH, it's the best ELPH I've used. And that earns it a Dave's Pick.


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