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Canon PowerShot SD870 IS Review

Canon PowerShot SD870 IS
“As I said with the SD850 IS, I will heartily recommend this camera to anyone looking for a solid aim-and-forget digicam.”
  • 8MP; 3-inch LCD; wider-angle shooting
  • Not many manual options


Canon recently unveiled a raft of new cameras ranging from the pretty ordinary to the totally over-the-top, a 21.1-megapixel D-SLR. The EOS-1Ds Mark III, due in November, costs nearly eight grand and is clearly targeted to pros and hedge fund operators. Something more reasonable for the mortals among us is the new $399 USD SD870 IS that’s available now. This 8MP point-and-shoot model is a variation of the recently reviewed SD850 IS (LINK), a camera I really liked—and still do. There are a number of relatively key differences between the two—and we wanted to see if the newer model was worth the extra money. Read on and you’ll find out…

Features and Design

The SD870 IS Digital ELPH is a compact point-and-shoot 8MP digicam measuring 3.65 x 2.32 x 1.02; just a hair larger than SD850 IS although it weighs slightly less (5.5 ounces versus 5.82). In either case, you won’t break your back carrying these digicams. However, I did find the SD850 IS to be more attractive with its metal accents. Both feature the “box and circle” design ELPHs have sported since 1996. The SD870 IS tested featured the black inner circle with matching black accents on the sides and back. It’s also available with a silver circle, if that’s your option; it would be mine since the black edition is a bit old-fashioned looking in my opinion.

When looking at the front, one of the biggest differences is the missing viewfinder port on the SD870 IS. This new digicam only has a 3-inch LCD rated 230K pixels to view and review your shots instead of the SD850’s 2.5-incher and a tiny viewfinder to help out if the screen wipes out. I held the SD870’s screen to a bright lamp and in direct sunlight and did not have a major problem so I didn’t miss it a bit. In direct sunshine, it was a bit difficult to see the subjects but I could still see most of my target–unlike other screens that completely obliterate. Another major difference is the lens—and it’s a big one in my view. This model has a 3.8x optical zoom that starts at a much wider 28mm and reaches 105mm in 35mm terms. Although the SD850 has a 4x zoom, its range is 35-140mm. I much prefer the wider angle for shooting portraits and landscapes but that’s my preference. You might like the extra telephoto range—this is why camera makers sell dozens of different models, to satisfy a variety of needs. The SD870 satisfied me. Also found on the front is the flash, AF Assist lamp and a few inoffensive decals and an embossed logo.

One of my biggest gripes with the SD850 was its poorly placed on/off switch located on the back next to the LCD screen. Here Canon goes with the traditional placement on the top next to the shutter button. It’s tiny but raised so it’s easy to feel. Surrounding the shutter is the wide/tele control, a speaker and the main mode switch. Here you change between Auto, Scene and Movie modes. On the right-hand side you’ll find a compartment for USB and A/V out and the bottom has the slot for the battery and SD card. There’s a tripod mount as well.

The rear of the camera is dominated by the 3-inch LCD rated at 230K pixels. Although it smears as you move quickly between subjects, once it settles down, colors are quite accurate and I love the extra viewing area compared to the 2.5. The main controls are to the right of the screen and they’re the usual, found on almost every digicam—playback, menu to adjust the main functions and display to clear the screen of icons and numbers. There’s also a four-way controller with center Function/Set button. The four points let you change ISO (up to 1600), the flash, macro, and burst or self-timer. The camera is rated 1.3 frames per second, which isn’t too bad, and it worked pretty close to that rate, even with the flash firing off.

The SD870 IS comes with typical solid Canon kit. Since there’s no internal memory, the company supplies a puny 32MB card—definitely budget for a 2 gig card. I used a Panasonic 2GB class 6 card for testing. You also get the usual cables and wrist strap, rechargeable battery and charger. Also included are a 242-page Camera User Guide, a software starter guide, a Direct Print User Guide and a Digital Camera Solution Disk (ver. 31.0) with basic editing and browsing tools for PC and Mac. Once the battery was charged, it was time to start taking pictures.

Canon Powershot SD870 IS
Image Courtesy of Canon

Testing and Use

In less than 2 seconds, the digicam is ready to shoot as the lens quickly extends from the body. I started in Auto mode at top resolution (3264 x 2448 pixels, SuperFine) then proceeded to move to Manual. I kept the optical Image Stabilization set to Continuous so it was always on but there are Shoot Only and Panning options. With “only” the IS kicks in when you press the shutter while panning concentrates on removing the shakes from up and down motion. The IS system is quite good and it helps in almost all lighting conditions but especially indoors with the flash off.

In Auto the camera is quite responsive with quick movement through the 3.8x optical zoom. It also focuses quickly with help indoors thanks to the AF Assist lamp. While at a picnic I took many shots of very colorful playground gear and kids having fun on slides using single shots and continuous mode. Many images were also taken of smiling faces. The SD870 IS has Face Detection that helps capture properly exposed photos of human faces. Just as the SD850 IS and other Canons I recently used, this technology does a very good job, about the best among competing systems from the major manufacturers.

As mentioned the camera does not have a viewfinder—just the 3-inch LCD screen. I did not find this to be a handicap—nor should I say a physical challenge? Yes, in direct sunshine I couldn’t distinguish the colors (even adjusting brightness) but I definitely could see what I was shooting. For me the tradeoff is worth it but you should try it out before you buy. The camera has grid lines which are especially helpful with the large screen for capturing level horizons.

What really made my photographic week was the 28mm lens. Ever since taking my first photographic baby steps with an old Pentax film camera, I’ve always loved wide-angle shots. There’s something about that slight distortion I like for almost every subject—especially landscapes and portraits. You give up a bit on the long end compared to the SD850 IS but I’ll take that tradeoff any day of the week. And it seems I’m not alone with that opinion since Panasonic and Olympus also have “gone wide” with many new models. Again this is my preference—you may think it’s not worth spending another moment discussing it. Just play with one the next time you’re in the store—that’s all I ask…

After using some of the 10 typical scene modes, it was time to move into Manual (don’t worry, this won’t take long!). Since this is primarily an aim-and-forget camera, there are very few manual adjustments. You can adjust exposure compensation, white balance, type of metering and My Colors. With it you can make an image B&W, turn red to blue and other foolish stuff like that. Forget about changing the aperture—if that’s your inclination look at the new 12MP Canon G9 for $499 USD. The camera does, however, let you take long exposures up to 15 seconds.

Canon Powershot SD870 IS
Image Courtesy of Canon

Testing Cont’d

Once my expeditions were done, it was time to download the images make some 8.5×11 full bleed prints with no tweaking. Since I liked the output of the SD850 IS it’s not surprise I was happy with the prints from the SD870 IS since the innards are basically the same (imager and processor). The shots taken of the strong primary colored-equipment in the playground were very good, with bright yellows, reds and purples all looking very close to the real thing. The Face Detection circuitry did a fine job as well. All is not perfect since some shots taken with strong backlight were not properly exposed in straight Auto.

I also took a number of indoor shots in a dark corner with available light. The camera had no problem focusing, thanks to the AF Assist lamp. Once I defeated the flash, I bracketed the ISO from 80 through 1600 to check for image noise. At 1600, the photos were filled with digital noise by the bucketful—forget about letter-sized prints. However, 800 was better than I expected although still noticeable with 400 better still. Although useable, I’d still try to keep the ISO as low as possible—this holds true for any point-and-shoot digicam. High megapixels on small imagers means digital noise no matter how you slice it. On a more positive side, the OIS did a very good job minimizing blur when shooting without the flash.


Since this is a fairly new camera, the SD870 IS is selling for just slightly less than $399 USD list, while the SD850 IS costs under $350 USD. For this reviewer, the 28mm lens makes it worth the difference; the larger LCD screen is just icing on a yummy cake. As I said with the SD850 IS, I will heartily recommend this camera to anyone looking for a solid aim-and-forget digicam. The photos are very accurate and the vast majority of shooters will be more than thrilled with the results. And that 28mm lens definitely brings out the Diane Arbus in all of us.


• Nice 28mm wide angle lens
• Superior point-and-shoot photos
• Solid 3-inch LCD screen


• No aperture control
• Digital noise at high ISOs

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