Canon PowerShot SD850 IS Review

Canon PowerShot SD850 IS

“If someone was to ask me which digital camera they should buy for everyday snap shooting, I would recommend the Canon SD850.”
  • Excellent portraits; all-around good photos
  • Few manual options; slow cycling with flash

Summary

It rarely surprises me when I see market research stating Canon is the number-one global digital camera manufacturer. The company just knows how to make cameras that take photographs that are better than good. And although they charge a premium to other makers, consumers keep gravitating to them when they place their credit cards on the counter simply because the digicams do the job. An excellent case in point is the 8-megapixel PowerShot SD850 IS Digital ELPH, a compact point-and-shoot camera I’ve been using awhile. In fact, with 10MP D-SLRs readily available at arm’s length such as the Olympus E-510 and Canon Digital Rebel XTi, it’s the ELPH I pop into my pocket for everyday snapshots and even some memorable events such as birthdays, pool parties and the like. And I’m rarely disappointed with the final prints. However, all is not paradise with this ELPH as we soon shall see…

Features and Design

The SD850 IS looks just a shade better than the zillions of silver-bodied aim-and-forget digicams for sale. It has rounded edges, some metallic accents and the classic “box and circle” design featured on ELPHs for over a decade. It’s nice but it’s definitely getting a bit tired. Canon’s a pretty conservative company so I shouldn’t expect pink or red cameras from this crew. When you think about it, I’m glad they put their resources on picture-taking rather than sparkly bling but that’s another story…

The front is dominated by a 4x optical zoom that sits in the middle of the circle. It extends when you power up and closes up neatly when you power down. The lens is tad more powerful than most point-and-shoots, giving you a 35-140mm focal length compared to the usual 3x 35-105mm. It’s a nice plus when you want to bring your subjects tight but I’d like it to be a little wider (28mm) for shooting landscapes and in tight corners but that’s just my preference. Also on the front are a flash, a pinhole mic, an AF Assist lamp and a porthole for the viewfinder. A few unobtrusive logos are here as well but they’re nicely understated. In case you were wondering what the IS stands for, it’s Image Stabilization and Canon uses the preferred optical version to help eliminate blurry images. You’re going to pay a little more for this but to me it’s a very worthwhile investment.

This camera measures only 3.56 x 2.22 x 1.04 (WHD, in inches) so the 2.5-inch screen dominates the rear real estate. The LCD is rated 230K pixels, a solid spec and it holds up under most conditions, even bright sunshine. There’s always the tiny viewfinder available in case the screen totally wipes out, a good failsafe option. Next to the viewfinder is a very awkwardly designed on/off button. Rather than placing it on the top, Canon engineers put it above the top right corner of the screen. It takes a sharp nail to operate it and is a bit of a pain. It’s not a deal breaker but let’s hope they fix this with the next generation.

This camera measures only 3.56 x 2.22 x 1.04 (WHD, in inches) so the 2.5-inch screen dominates the rear real estate. The LCD is rated 230K pixels, a solid spec and it holds up under most conditions, even bright sunshine. There’s always the tiny viewfinder available in case the screen totally wipes out, a good failsafe option. Next to the viewfinder is a very awkwardly designed on/off button. Rather than placing it on the top, Canon engineers put it above the top right corner of the screen. It takes a sharp nail to operate it and is a bit of a pain. It’s not a deal breaker but let’s hope they fix this with the next generation.

You’ll also find the four-way controller with center Func./Set button and three keys to change the display, access the menus and Direct Link to send images to a printer without a PC. The four-way controller is very familiar with the points of the compass giving access to the flash, ISO (Auto, 80-1600), single or burst mode (1.3 fps) and macro/landscape options. You won’t find anything super sophisticated here since that’s not for whom or what this camera is intended. In homage to the iPod, you can run your finger on the dial and the icons will change but this is eye candy, not really functional. Nice try, but the folks in Cupertino don’t have much to worry about.

On the top of the right side is the main mode dial that gives you choices for playback, auto, manual, scene modes (11 of them from Portrait to Underwater) and video (640 x 480 pixels at 30 fps). As noted, there are no aperture- or shutter priority settings but in Manual you can change exposure compensation, white balance, swap colors
adjust the metering, compression rates and resolution. That’s pretty much it. Remember this is primarily a camera for snapshots—good ones at that—but still snapshots.

On the top of the camera is just the shutter and wide/tele zoom lever (no on/off, unfortunately). There’s a compartment for A/V and USB outs on the right side. The bottom has a tripod mount and compartment for the battery and SD/SDHC card slot.

Since this camera has no internal memory, Canon supplies a 32MB SD card but this is so small you should budget another $20 USD for a 1 gig edition. In the box you’ll also find the usual straps and cables, battery and charger along with a Canon Digital Solutions CD ROM Ver. 30.2 with programs to import files to your Mac or PC and perform basic editing chores. There’s plenty of printed material too including a basic guide, a 162-page owner’s manual as well as a software starter guide. This is a solid offering and all of your questions should be answered with this collection. Kudos to Canon since they don’t force you to carry a laptop to access the owner’s manual on a PDF file.

After charging the battery, popping in a 4GB SDHC card, it was time to hit the streets and start clicking…

Canon Powershot SD850 IS
Image Courtesy of Canon

Testing and Use

The Canon PowerShot SD850 IS is good to go in less than two seconds, once you can stab the poorly placed on/off button. The camera has a very basic but intuitive menu system—you won’t see any fancy images or written descriptions explaining the settings; that’s what the owner’s manual is for. This camera is really targeted to the snapshooter and most don’t go beyond Auto so this is ruminating about a problem that doesn’t even exist so forgive me for rambling on.

In my typical fashion I started in Auto, moved to the scene modes and the few manual options available. In Auto, the camera is fun to use. This summer I’ve attended a number of parties, indoors and out, and took dozens of snaps of smiling faces. The SD850 IS has Face Detection, as do so many other cameras. With it, the camera adjusts exposure and focus when it identifies a human face or a group of people. This is a terrific feature that’s implemented well for this target user—or anyone else who wants nice photos of their friends and family.

Going beyond smiling faces I added many landscapes as well as indoor shots to the 4-gig card—I didn’t even come close to filling it halfway! Before getting to photo quality I want to talk about overall response. This is a point-and-shoot 8-megapixel camera so if you’re looking to shoot sports or running kids, this digicam may not be the right one for you. Its top speed is 1.3 frames per second without the flash. Using the flash, you definitely have to wait several seconds for the camera to recharge. This isn’t a big deal if you’re shooting portraits or landscapes but action sequences aren’t this digicam’s strong suit. If you need the speed, definitely think D-SLR.

After downloading images it was time to make some 8.5×11 full bleed prints. For the most part the prints were quite good although there were a few misfires (just a few) when the camera didn’t focus properly during indoor party scenes. The vast majority were spot on and there was surprisingly little red-eye given the many faces I shot—obviously Canon’s version of Face Detection is among the best available. As for outdoor images, I didn’t have a complaint—other than speed which I discussed. This camera is for taking one shot at a time with a slight breather in between. For example, it couldn’t capture my cat walking through the grass but he looked like a Friskies poster kitty when at rest. Photos taken indoors were high-quality as well except when I pushed the ISO to 800; it’s the rare point-and-shoot camera other than a few Fujifilms that handle digital noise well at those nose-bleed levels. Colors were very accurate, even strong reds with very little loss of detail. I was very happy with my prints—and they were straight out of the camera with no tweaking whatsoever.

Canon Powershot SD850 IS
Image Courtesy of Canon

Conclusion

If someone was to ask me which digital camera they should buy for everyday snap shooting, I wouldn’t hesitate—the SD850 IS is the pick. It’s compact, light, easy-to-use, has optical image stabilization and—most of all—takes very good photographs. You can pick one up for around $350 USD and this should drift down slightly when the SD870 IS arrives for $399 USD in September. This new one has a 3.8x optical lens starting at 28mm and a 3-inch LCD (no viewfinder). Play with them both and make your personal choice between the two—you’ll see why Canon is the top dog in the digicam playpen.

Pros:

• Excellent picture quality
• Optical image stabilization
• Just a good all-around camera

Cons:

• Not geared for action photos
• Poorly positioned power key
• Slow cycling with flash

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