Packing 12.1-megapixels in a 1.09-inch thick body, the Canon SD950 IS offers
big performance in a pocket-sized package.
The Canon PowerShot SD950 IS ($399, street) combines some of the best features of the Digital Elph line into one killer pocket digicam. An update to Canon's previous SD900 flagship Elph, the 12.1-megapixel SD950 IS offers a 2-megapixel gain on its 10-megapixel predecessor while adding an expanded zoom range and three optical image stabilization modes.
The camera's design is similar to its predecessor, with similar control placement and the same 2.5-inch, 230,000-dot LCD display. The screen is bright and crisp, making it easy to check focus and image details. Canon includes an optical zoom viewfinder, allowing the photographer to compose shots without using the LCD and wearing down battery life. Optical viewfinders are increasingly rare on pocket point and shoots, so this is a nice feature.
The camera's f/2.8-5.8, 36-133mm (35mm camera equivalent) 3.7x optical zoom lens offers optical image stabilization and is great for shooting at the camera's widest focal length. At the longest focal length, the lens's maximum aperture of f/5.8 works wonders when shooting in bright daylight or with a flash, but even after bumping up the ISO, it's difficult to capture a sharp high-resolution image in low light, even with image stabilization.
The camera's controls are intuitive and should be familiar to veteran Canon Elph users, but easy to use for newcomers as well. A menu button at the lower right corner launches the camera's setup menu, providing options to activate Face Detection, red-eye flash, after shot review, image stabilization modes, and more. The menu also has options to format the memory card, modify power-saving features, and to activate the camera's Touch Icons, which display your current position over the Touch Dial.
The Touch Dial is, you guessed it, sensitive to touch, but is more of a gimmick than a practical addition. Moving your finger around the touch dial brings up a screen overlay of the Touch Dial layout, with a larger display of a control option as you move your finger over it. I didn't find the Touch Dial useful, however, and turned off the screen overlay after a few hours of use.
In addition to the dedicated camera control buttons, a user-configurable button comes in handy, allowing the user to assign it to exposure compensation, white balance, or display overlay, among other options. I set the button to display overlay, which displays a 3x3 rule of thirds grid over the LCD image, which is helpful for composing shots.
Although ISO, white balance, and exposure compensation can be manually adjusted in the camera's manual mode, aperture, shutter speed, and focus cannot. This is a disappointment considering the camera comes with a price tag that's comparable to cameras offering much more manual control -- including some more affordable Elphs.
The camera's autofocus worked well even in low light when used with the focus-assist lamp. Face Detection identified subjects easily, even at a distance of about 20 feet. The camera automatically focuses and exposes on faces in the frame when Face Detection AF is enabled in the camera's setup menu. While Face Detection works well with head on shots, the camera is unable to recognize faces shot from the side.
The SD950 IS offers 11 scene modes, accessible by turning the camera's mode dial to the "SCN" position. Scene modes include Portrait, Foliage, Snow, Beach, Fireworks, Aquarium, Underwater, ISO 3200, Indoor, Kids & Pets, and Night Snapshot. These different scene modes work well to adjust exposure and white balance depending on the scene selected. Though the camera doesn't offer a sports shooting mode, photographers can select from single frame or a continuous shooting mode, which fires at 1.5 frames/sec until the memory is full.
While it expands the usability of the camera in low light situations without flash, the ISO 3200 mode produces low-resolution (1600 x 1200 px) images that are so noisy they're virtually unusable. I found that noise became a problem after ISO 400; so if at all possible, try to avoid shooting with anything higher. Because the SD950 IS uses the same sensor and Digic III processor as the Canon PowerShot G9, expect JPEGs from the SD950 IS to have similar characteristics as the G9's JPEG results.
The camera's built-in optical image stabilization will allow you to capture steady images in low light without bumping the ISO up to unusable levels. For a camera at this price point, optical image stabilization is expected, but it's still nice to be able to carry a camera in your pocket equipped with such a handy tool. The feature enables you to easily capture sharp images even in low light situations without popping the built-in flash.