Canon Powershot SD850 IS Review
Building on the success of the popular SD700 IS and SD800 IS from last year, the Canon PowerShot SD850 IS now holds the "top of the line" spot in the "stabilized" Digital ELPH series. While it shares very similar features to the SD700 IS, like a 4x optical zoom lens, optical IS (Image Stabilization), TTL AiAF 9-point autofocus system, VGA (640x480, 30fps) sized movie mode with sound, as well as an almost identical body (they actually share the same dimensions), the SD850 is upgraded with more resolution at 8-megapixels, has a broader ISO range (80 - 1600), adds another scene mode, and several of other handy features. Like all of the Digital ELPH models, the SD850 offers an exposure mode to suit the needs of almost anyone. The simple point-n-shoot Auto mode is great for beginner, while the 11 pre-programmed scene modes allow you to be a bit more creative. And, there's also Manual mode, which is much like Auto, however now the novice user has access to various exposure settings like ISO, Metering, White Balance, Color modes, etc.
As stated before the SD850 and SD700 share and almost identical body, measuring just 3.52 x 2.28 x 0.99 inches. This is what I would consider and ultra-compact, as it can fit in almost any size pocket or purse. However, despite being so small, it fit well in my large hands, thanks to the enlarged/curved right hand side. Controls are well placed and natural, and as always, we especially like the zoom controls being mounted around the shutter release. Another feature that I felt was "cool", was the ability to set the Print/Share button as a dedicated Movie mode shutter release in record mode. This means you can capture video without having to rotate the mode dial to the Movie mode position. The menu system is logically organized and will be very familiar if you've ever owned a Powershot model before. The LCD is the same size (2.5-inch) as the SD700's, however I noticed that this display offers more resolution (230K pixels compared to 173K.) While it does take up a large percentage of the back of the camera, I was glad to see Canon continues to "squeeze" a small optical viewfinder in above it; something that comes in handy when trying to conserve battery life or following fast moving subjects. This is a high-quality display that worked great in almost any lighting. Outdoors it has very few angles which reflected the sun thanks to the anti-glare covering, and in lower lighting (like your living room, etc), it "gains up" nicely, allowing you to see your subject for framing. The AF-assist lamp also helps illuminate your subject in these conditions. Like we saw with the SD700 and SD800, this display is a magnet for fingerprints.
Shooting performance was very impressive, with power up until the first image captured measuring only 1.5 seconds! Shutter lag, the delay between depressing the shutter button and capturing an image, was almost instantaneous (less than 1/10 of a second) when pre-focused, and only 1/10 second including autofocus. In single frame drive mode, the shot to shot delay averaged 1.3 seconds without flash, and between 2.5 and 3.5 seconds with flash depending on subject distance. Using the continuous (burst) mode, I was able to capture 10 Large/SuperFine JPEG images in 6 seconds, surpassing Canon's claim of 1.3fps. This was also with no full- buffer slowdown. When shooting in burst mode, the LCD only briefly displays the last image captured, making it difficult to follow moving subjects; you'll achieve the best results by using the optical viewfinder in these situations. Our tests were done using a Lexar 1GB SD card, Manual mode, Large SuperFine quality, preview off, flash off, and all other settings at default (unless otherwise noted.) Times may vary depending on lighting conditions, camera settings, media, etc.
I was pleased with our image quality results using both Large Fine and Superfine settings. While we always recommend using the highest quality settings available, if your on a trip or in a bind and need don't have much space on your memory card, switching to a lower quality setting will allow you to capture more photos. That said, when shooting outdoors, the SD850 captures beautiful images that with good exposure and rich colors. Images are also sharp, however I did notice a bit of edge softness present along the left hand side of the frame. Image noise is average for a consumer model, just remember it will become more noticeable in your photos as you increase the sensitivity. Like so many consumer cameras nowadays, the SD850 features optical IS (Image Stabilization), which will help you capture sharper hand-held shots (and movies) in marginal lighting conditions where you would normally need to use the flash.
Unlike most consumer models that feature the typical 3x zoom, the SD850 features a nice Canon 4x optical zoom lens. It offers greater versatility in composing your shots than most in its class, with a 35mm equivalent focal range of approx. 35mm - 140mm. At the 35mm wide angle extreme, you'll be able to capture nice landscapes and group portraits, while the telephoto capabilities will help fill the frame with your subject for close-up portraits or macro shots as well as bring your distant subjects a bit closer. Overall, I noticed moderate amount of barrel distortion at full wide angle, but relatively no pincushioning at telephoto end. Chromatic aberrations (purple fringing on highlight areas) were also very well controlled, with only slight traces around subjects with extreme contrast (highly reflective objects, etc.)
When shooting in marginal lighting, like indoors, the SD850 does very well. While the flash has an average range of about 11 feet at wide angle (ISO auto), I found it does well when capturing close-up portraits from about 5 feet away using the mid telephoto end of the zoom range. If you need more power, be sure to check out the Canon HF-DC1 external flash unit, which delivers proper illumination up to approximately 30 feet, at all zoom positions! One feature that seems to be coming standard is some sort of Face Detection AF technology. When ever a human subject (or picture of a family member) enters the frame, the Face Detect AF locks on almost instantly. Some manufactures models have a delay (as long as 2 or more seconds) to find and lock onto your subjects face. This in not the case with the SD850. Overall, I found our portraits turned out nice with sharp facial detail and natural skin tones, thanks to Canon's blazing fast Face Detection AF system.
There are several Movie mode choices to choose from. Standard offers selectable resolution (640x480 or 320x240) and frame rate (30fps or 15fps.) You can also choose from Compact (160x120), Fast Frame rate, Color Accent, Color swap, and Time Lapse, which allow for more creative recording. As usual, our movie results were good with minimal compression artifacts and the AF system does well with moving subjects. Because sound is recorded, the optical zoom may not be used while you are recording, but can be preset before starting.
Power is supplied by a tiny NB-5L 3.7v 1120mAh proprietary Li-ion battery pack. Canon claims you can capture up to 230 shots with full-time use of the LCD. I was able to capture about 85 images and conduct other testing without any indication of low battery warning. Canon includes a very compact and portable AC charger that takes about 90 minutes to charge a fully depleted pack. The charger plugs directly into any 100-240V AC outlet and has fold-away prongs, which are very convenient when traveling etc. As always, we recommend you purchase at least one extra pack and keep it charged and ready at all times; especially if you're going on vacation or to a family reunion.
Bottom line - we have loved Canon's Digital ELPH's since the debut of the S100 back in 2000. And, the SD850 continues their tradition of stylish and durable cameras that capture great photos with fast performance and loads of appealing features (optical IS, 8-megapixels, 2.5-inch LCD, etc.) With 8-megapixel of resolution, the printing possibilities are almost endless, from tightly cropped 4x6s to huge poster size prints! With and MSRP of US$399 or less, it may seem a but more expensive than many other 8- megapixel modes, however, I feel it offers an outstanding value for such a versatile pocket-rocket.
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