Camera Review: Canon PowerShot SD950 IS

Packing 12.1-megapixels in a 1.09-inch thick body, the Canon SD950 IS offers big performance in a pocket-sized package.

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Camera-Review-Canon-PowerShot-SD950-IS

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.

The camera has three optical image stabilization modes: "Continuous" is always active, even before the shutter is pressed. This is helpful for seeing the effect of the camera's image stabilizer while composing an image but is more of a drain on battery life. The camera's "Shoot Only" mode activates image stabilization once the shutter release has been pressed. A "Panning" mode activates image stabilization on only the vertical axis, ideal if shooting subjects moving horizontally, such as a runner or car along a track.

The PowerShot SD950 IS offers several movie modes including a high-resolution 1024x768 px capture mode that records video with sound at 15 fps. This slower frame rate proved adequate during in-camera review, though video was slightly choppy on our computer. Bringing the resolution down to VGA (640x480px) allows the photographer to capture video with sound at 30 fps. At this resolution, you can take advantage of the camera's 4x digital zoom, though optical zoom cannot be activated while recording. (Use the 4x digital zoom at your own risk, however, as your image quality will suffer. We suggest picking a focal length and sticking with it for the clip duration.) A combination of optical and digital zoom can be used as long as optical zoom is set before recording. Lower resolution modes are also available as is a time-lapse mode that captures VGA images at 1- or 2-second intervals.

The camera's flash works well for its size, capturing well-exposed group shots in low light. Red-eye reduction wasn't always effective, as some of my subjects had red eyes despite being captured with red-eye reduction active, but this can easily be corrected in the camera's playback mode. (More on that below.) Users can select from three flash modes: On, Off, or Auto. Images can also be captured with flash in conjunction with the camera's slow synchro mode, which continues exposing the frame even after the flash has fired -- think of a portrait in front of the Eiffel Tower at night; without this mode, the structure would barely be visible -- but keeping the shutter open longer allows for the background exposure. Use a tripod, or you're likely to have squiggles even with Image stabilization!

PLAYBACK MODES

The camera's playback mode has some very cool features. In addition to the usual slide show, erase, resize, and color modification options, the playback mode offers an effective red-eye correction feature as well. This makes up for the camera's inconsistent red-eye flash performance by automatically locating red-eye in the picture and effectively removing it. The user is presented with options to overwrite the existing file, save as a new file, or cancel after removing red-eye. What matters most is the end result, and the SD950 IS can consistently produce a red-eye free image after correcting in the playback mode even if not captured that way by the camera.

The playback mode also provides a voice memo feature as well as an option to record stand-alone audio files at 44.100kHz, 22.050kHz, or 11.025kHz, until the card is full. With the included 32MB card, for example, you can record just over 6 minutes at the 44.100kHz setting or 24 minutes at the 11.025kHz setting. Depending on the output audio quality desired, you may be able to select a lower quality level, just as you can bump down image resolution to conserve space. CD-quality mp3 files are recorded at 44.100kHz, and in my tests, audio quality recorded at this level was exceptional while audio recorded at the 11.025kHz setting was comparable to that of a telephone call. Also in the playback mode is an option to configure the camera's play button to play back single images, all images as a slide show, or to launch the camera's sound recorder. Canon also provides standard DPOF printing functionality.

IN THE FIELD

In the field, the camera performed well in most standard situations. I took the SD950 IS with me on a daytrip to Cape May, NJ, leaving my DSLR at home. If you're the type of photographer who likes to get creative with their framing, you're going to have to get creative with figuring out how to get the camera to expose and focus correctly. Without the ability to manually set exposure or focus in the camera's manual mode, it may be necessary to recompose an image after taking a proper meter reading and establishing a focal point. You can set the camera's AF Lock by establishing a focal point then pressing the macro/landscape button while holding the shutter button halfway, but learning to do so requires a bit of digging through the camera's manual.

Image quality was fantastic as ISO 80, 100, and even 200, but began to suffer at ISO 400 when viewing the image at 100% on a computer. Noise became overwhelming at ISO 800 and above, so avoid these higher ISO modes if possible. If using the manual ISO, be sure to check the ISO setting when light conditions change so you're not shooting a midday beach scene at ISO 400! And the Image Stabilization should help keep shots sharp, even at lower ISOs in lower light.

Although the camera offers a variety of scene modes, I prefer leaving the camera in manual to maintain as much control over the image as possible. For photographers looking for ease of use rather than complete creative control, however, the SD950 IS will be sure to please, offering all the essential scene modes (with a sports mode being the only notable exception).

Stitch Assist mode, which assists the photographer while photographing panoramas, is a handy feature. Activating the mode allows the photographer to take sequential shots while maintaining focal length, exposure, and focus and provides a portion of the previous image captured, enabling the photographer to match composition with the previous image. Canon also includes their PhotoStitch application for assembling the captured images into a panorama using a Mac or PC. When capturing a panorama, it's key to frame your scene loosely as portions of the image edges may be lost when using the PhotoStitch application to line up your images -- but you'll get huge, print-worthy output files once PhotoStitch works its magic.

I really had a blast shooting with this camera. Even with good lighting conditions at the beach town of Cape May, the camera's image stabilization came in handy when shooting at longer focal lengths, as the maximum aperture at the camera's longest focal length of 133mm (35mm equivalent) is f/5.8, just over two stops higher than the overall maximum aperture of f/2.8. Images were crisp and generally well exposed, and while the housing feels nearly as durable as a solid piece of metal, the lightweight pocket cam didn't weigh me down. The LCD was visible even in bright sunlight and focus was fast in all situations with a negligible shutter delay after focus was established. When using the flash, shot-to-shot time was a bit sluggish, but not painfully slow. The battery never showed any signs of wearing down despite hours of shooting and review with the built-in LCD. The camera has a CIPA rating of 240 shots with the LCD on and 580 shots when you keep it off. Overall, Canon hit the mark with their SD950 IS, providing optical image stabilization, 12.1-megapixels, and overall good performance in a slim, rugged, pocket-sized package.

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This image, captured at the camera's longest focal length, shows good exposure and sharpness. 1/400 at f/5.8 @ ISO 80.Photo By Zach Honig
Canon-PowerShot-SD950-IS-This-image-shows-good-ex

Canon-PowerShot-SD950-IS-This-image-shows-good-ex

This image shows good exposure of the American Flag and in the shadows, though some clouds and the all-white flag are blown out. Details are sharp throughout. 1/125 at f/8 @ ISO 80.Photo By Zach Honig
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Canon-PowerShot-SD950-IS-Colors-in-this-image-th

Colors in this image, though dull, are accurate. The image is properly exposed for the low-key scene and shadow detail is good. 1/250 at f/5.8 @ ISO 80.Photo By Zach Honig
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Canon-PowerShot-SD950-IS-Reflected-details-thoug

Reflected details, though distorted by the car door, are in focus and properly exposed in this tricky exposure and focus situation. 1/125 at f/2.8 @ ISO 80.Photo By Zach Honig
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Canon-PowerShot-SD950-IS-This-image-is-properly-e

This image is properly exposed and sharp with good color balance and saturation. 1/800 at f/5.8 @ ISO 80.Photo By Zach Honig
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Canon-PowerShot-SD950-IS-Noise-is-visible-though

Noise is visible though not distracting until viewed at print-sized in this high ISO image. A fast aperture combined with ISO 800 and image stabilization kept the stairs sharp despite the slow shutter speed. 1/15 at f/2.8 @ ISO 800.Photo By Zach Honig
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Canon-PowerShot-SD950-IS-Exposure-and-focus-are-d

Exposure and focus are dead on in this image as details in the foreground and background are all sharp. Colors are accurate though the red in the lighthouse has an unrealistic magenta tint. 1/200 at f/8 @ ISO 80.Photo By Zach Honig
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Canon-PowerShot-SD950-IS-The-image-is-properly-ex

The image is properly exposed for the house and sky, though some white details are slightly blown out. Colors are very accurate throughout and all details are sharp. 1/320 at f/8 @ ISO 80.Photo By Zach Honig
Canon-PowerShot-SD950-IS-The-blues-in-this-image

Canon-PowerShot-SD950-IS-The-blues-in-this-image

The blues in this image are oversaturated and the shadow areas of the image have a bluish tint as well. Details are sharp and the image is properly exposed with few overblown highlights. 1/250 at f/5.8 @ ISO 80.Photo By Zach Honig
Canon-PowerShot-SD950-IS-This-image-shows-good-ex

Canon-PowerShot-SD950-IS-This-image-shows-good-ex

This image shows good exposure and accurate colors. The necessary details are sharp and because of the close focal distance and wide aperture, the image has a shallow depth of field. 1/125 at f/2.8 @ ISO 80.Photo By Zach Honig
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Canon-PowerShot-SD950-IS-Details-are-sharp-and-no

Details are sharp and noise isn't overbearing in this ISO image. Exposure is accurate as most of the details in the image are properly exposed. Shadow detail is very good in this shot.. 1/500 at f/11 @ ISO 400.Photo By Zach Honig
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Canon-PowerShot-SD950-IS-This-colorful-image-has

This colorful image has great exposure, focus, and color balance. Shadow areas have great detail. 1/60 at f/2.8 @ ISO 80.Photo By Zach Honig
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Canon-PowerShot-SD950-IS-Details-are-lost-to-nois

Details are lost to noise in this ISO 800 shot. Image stabilization combined with a high ISO resulted in a fairly sharp image despite the slow shutter speed. 1/13 at f.2.8 @ ISO 800.Photo By Zach Honig
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Canon-PowerShot-SD950-IS-This-image-shows-sharp-d

This image shows sharp details and good exposure. The camera exposed for the clouds and there isn't a single overblown highlight in this image. Colors are fairly accurate though the image has a bluish tint. 1/1250 at f/4.5 @ ISO 100.Photo By Zach Honig
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