With the warm weather finally here, there’s no better time to pop a camera in your pocket and take on the world—or at least capture it on SDHC cards. Canon continues to dominate the point-and-shoot market and with models like the 12-megapixel PowerShot SD970 IS for less than $350, it’s easy understanding why. The compact aim-and-forget has just about everything a casual shutterbug needs including a terrific 3-inch LCD screen and the ability to grab HD video clips. Now should you rush out and buy it? We’ll let you know soon enough…
Features and Design
We’ve always liked the curvy lines as well as the classic box and circle ELPH design. The SD970 IS continues the lineage and it’s attractive, but the wow factor is a bit muted since this styling has been around over a decade. At least it’s not the proverbial silver Altoids container! In this case the front has a silver metallic finish while the back is bronze colored. The camera is 3.73 inches wide, 2.24 high and 1.04 deep; it weighs 6.6 ounces fully loaded. This one can easily be put in your pocket and carried wherever, whenever.
The key feature on the front is the 5x zoom which extends when you power up; it has a built-in lens cover when turned off. The zoom equates to 37-185mm, not quite a true wide-angle (28mm) but fairly close. The tele end is definitely powerful enough. Although we prefer the 28mm as found in the new SD960 IS ($329); that 12MP camera only has a 4x zoom and a smaller LCD. The SD970 IS, like all Canons with the IS designation, means the lens has optical image stabilization to help remove blur from your shots. And it does a good job doing that. Also on the front is a flash, an AF assist lamp, an embossed Canon logo and model numbers.
The top features a pinhole mic, a four-pinhole speaker, a mode switch, on/off button and shutter surrounded by the wide/tele toggle control. The camera is really aimed at the point-and-shoot crowd so there isn’t a large mode dial with a half-dozen options and scene modes. Here you choose between auto, program and movie. Auto is Canon’s Smart Auto which guesses what type of subject is front of it and adjusts the camera accordingly. It works well. Program gives you access to the basics such as metering, white balance, ISO and 15 scene modes. There are no adjustments for shutter speeds or aperture, so if that is a critical consideration look for another camera. The movie mode lets you shoot at 1280 x 720 at 30 frames per second, true HD. The optical zoom does not work in movie mode and only a 4x digital zoom is available. Quality suffers as a result.
The back of the camera has one of its highpoint features—an excellent 3-inch LCD rated 461K pixels, far better than the typical 230K found on other aim-and-forget digicams. The screen worked well in a variety of lighting situations including dim rooms and direct sunlight. It’s a real plus and something that sets it apart from competitors.
To the right of the screen are the typical controls but Canon jazzed the keys up by giving them triangular shapes. Of course, you’ll also find the typical four-way controller with center Set button and a ring around the edge used for scrolling through menus. The buttons handle direct printing, playback, display and menu. On the controller the compass points offer access to exposure compensation, flash, delete/self timer and macro/landscape. It’s a pretty basic system and something you’d pick up in about 90 seconds. If you’re confused, written descriptions appear on the LCD as you move through the options. A supplied 164-page owner’s manual explains anything else you need to know.
On the right side are compartments for the mini HDMI out and USB. The bottom of the Made In Japan digicam has a tripod mount and compartment for the battery and optional SDHC cards.
What’s In The Box
The PowerShot SD970 IS Digital ELPH comes with a decent bundle: camera, battery, plug-in charger, wrist strap, USB and A/V cables and a 164-page owner’s manual. There’s no mini HDMI cable so put that on your list for direct playback of HD clips on a big screen. The CD-ROM contains Canon’s Digital Camera Solution Disk (vers. 46.0) with ZoomBrowser EX 6.3, PhotoStitch 3.1 for PC along with ImageBrowser 6.3 and PhotoStitch 3.2 for Mac. You also get software starter and printing guides on the disk as well.
After loading a charged battery and a 4GB high-speed card, it was time to start shooting.
Performance and Use
The easy-to-handle SD970 IS takes 12-megapixel images meaning it saves 4000 x 3000 pixel JPEGs. Since this is a point-and-shoot camera for under $350, you can’t expect fast response. At 1 frame per second in burst mode forget crisp action photos even though it has the company’s latest DIGIC 4 processor. This digicam is for someone who methodically takes a shot at a time. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this—thinking about your subject and composing an attractive image is actually a good thing. That said if you want a rapid burst mode (3-plus fps), a D-SLR is the way to go but be prepared to spend lots more and having to carry a much bulkier camera.
We started off in Auto, moved to Program then took some HD movies. We enabled grid lines and intelligent contrast which adds detail to objects in shadows (similar to Nikon’s D-Lighting). Subjects taken included a night baseball game, scenic landscapes and people shots at family functions, the typical stuff you’d want to record and share.
Before getting into the results we’ll note the camera is very, very easy to use. Canon updated the menu system and, coupled with the onscreen descriptions, everything is self-explanatory. Even those cavemen of commercial fame will have no problems making the most of the SD970. Ease of use is one thing and coupling it with excellent picture quality makes for a nice package. The baseball game we attended moved from daylight to night. The camera had no problems picking up the nuances in the skies, the bright primary colors of the scoreboard signs and i-contrast helped in the shadows. Unfortunately, even in Kids/Pets mode, the camera couldn’t “freeze” action and there was lots of blur of running players, thrown balls and so on. This is not a camera for grabbing split-second action as we’ve stressed so please keep that in mind, if you’re seriously considering this model.
Like every digicam worth its pixels, the SD970 has face detection and it did a fine job capturing smiling faces with accurate skin tones and no “devil eyes.” Although we’d prefer a true wide angle, it did a reasonable job handling group shots.
The camera has a native ISO range of 80-1600 with a special setting for 3200 in Program. Usually ISO 400 is the max for digicams but here 800 was reasonably noise-free but 1600 and 3200 were pixilated messes—avoid these settings at all cost. The camera has the typical scene modes (beach, fireworks et al) as well as panoramas and zoom blur and creative light effects to add some different touches to basic snapshots. They’re OK but a good, nicely framed shot with saturated colors is really all you need—and this camera provides them.
As for the 1280 x 720 HD videos, quality was pretty weak. The optical zoom does not work in movie mode so a 4x digital zoom is employed. And like every digital zoom the results really suffered. Do not use it unless absolutely necessary. Sharing on the web might be OK but watching clips on a 50-inch screen is a bust.
Canon added a feature called Active Display that has us scratching our heads. Here you shake the camera in playback mode and it advances a frame at a time. The engineers must’ve had too much sake the night before when they thought that one up!
When it comes to point-and-shoot digicams it’s hard topping Canon’s better PowerShots. You’ll get fine snapshots but realize the SD970 IS is not the speediest camera on the block and if you’re into shutter speeds and f/stops this is not the right choice. The vast majority of casual photographers just want to aim-and-forget and the SD970 IS does a fine job for that task. You’ll like the colors and easy operation. You won’t be too thrilled with the videos on a big screen though. We’d like to see this newer camera selling for less than $299 but then again we’re inveterate bargain hunters. When it hits that price put it at the top of your list.
- Rich, saturated colors
- Solid 5x image stabilized zoom
- Superior 3-inch LCD screen (461K pixels)
- Drop-dead easy to use
- Pokey 1 fps capture
- No f/stop, shutter speed adjustments
- Only digital zoom with HD video