Ever wondered how many digital ELPHs variants - or Canon digital IXUS as they are known outside the US - there are available today? I have to admit I lost count somewhere along the way, but I believe there must be over a dozen different models by now. Starting with the conventional film ELPH and APS variants of several years ago, Canon have moved on to release their fourth generation in the Digital ELPH series. One thing they all have in common is that they are built like a tank, full of features and small enough to take with you on all your travels. The Canon Powershot S400 Digital ELPH discussed here is no different in that respect. In the process of making the ELPH series even smaller, Canon have had to switch from using Compact Flash cards to SD memory cards in their latest models. The Canon S400 still uses the widely available Compact Flash card though.
Using the camera
Holding the camera you can't fail to notice that it is a solid piece of engineering built to do what it is meant to do - take quality pictures. This 4 megapixel model (2272 x 1704 pixels) comes equipped with a 3 x optical zoom lens equivalent to 36 - 108 mm with a maximum aperture of 2.8 - 4.9. Inside is Canon's DIGIC image processor, which was specifically developed for use in digital cameras. It combines the job of image processing and camera control in one chip, thereby handling nearly every camera function from JPG compression to auto focus, exposure, white balance control and most other in-camera functions. That it works can be seen in Canon's latest series of Powershot cameras, which offer faster and more powerful AF, longer battery life and faster image processing times. Although there are few manual settings and advanced features as opposed to Canon's larger cameras, The ELPH's excellent image quality and convenient size will surely suit a broad
variety of snapshooters as well as more advanced photographers.
The Canon S400 comes in stainless-steel with a new scratch resistant Cerabrite finish. Its controls are well laid out and easy to use. On the top you will find the power on/off button together with the shutter release and Canon's by now familiar zoom control around it. On the back there are the mode dial, the record/play mode switch and a 4-way control. Below the 1.5" high resolution LCD you will find 4 further buttons to activate menu settings, display options and certain manual camera functions. What I like is that the 4-way switch is in fact 4 separate little buttons laid out in a circular way. A very nice idea from Canon as it will avoid making the wrong menu choice by pressing the wrong end of the control, as is so easy to do on cameras of this small size. The Canon S400 has a helpful focus assist light to aid focusing in dim lighting conditions, together with a solid metal socket for connecting the camera to a tripod.
It takes a good 2.5 seconds before the camera is ready to take pictures. Press the shutter release button halfway and the camera's 9-point AiAF autofocus system locks focus in a little under one second. Shutter lag times are low and not really noticeable while shot-to-shot speed is excellent as well. After presing the shutter, the camera is ready to take the next shot in just under 2 seconds.
An intelligent orientation sensor detects whether an image has been recorded in landscape or portrait format. When in playback mode the images are then shown the right way up without the need to rotate the camera for viewing. Similarly when using Zoom Browser or other image software, vertical or horizontal picture orientation is automatically detected and images are displayed the right way up.
Customising the startup screen, beeps, and phony shutter sounds is possible should you desire so, but apart from automatic program mode and stitch asist mode there are few possibilities of choosing manual exposure settings on this camera. Pressing the 4-way controller up or down sets metering and drive mode while pressing left or right sets focus and flash modes. Of the 4 separate buttons below the LCD, the "Function" button on the right will probably be used most by creative photographers, since this sets certain manual settings such as ISO (50 - 400 and auto), white balance, exposure compensation, image quality and size, as well as long shutter speeds of up to 15 seconds. It also doubles as the image delete button in playback mode.
If you like shooting night pictures, you will appreciate the "long shutter" option with speeds of up to 15 seconds. To ensure the best possible image, noise reduction is automatically applied when shutter speeds are longer than 1,3 seconds. For action shots or continuous shooting, the high-speed burst mode can capture up to 2,5 shots per second. There is no possibility of manually setting shutter speed or aperture, but we believe that this feature will hardly be missed by those consumers this camera is aimed at.
The Canon S400 can also record movies with sound of up to 3 minutes long. In addition there is a built-in speaker for audio playback, as well as a voice memo function that lets you record 60 seconds of sound with any captured image.
In the box
The Canon S400 comes complete with an 840 mAh lithium-ion battery, a very compact battery charger, 32Mb Compact Flash card, USB and AV cable plus Canon's by now legendary 160-page user guide and a wrist strap. For downloading images and performing minor organisations and corrections, Canon have included their Digital Camera Solutions Disk V12 with their much improved Zoom Browser EX 4.1 together with Arcsoft Camera Suite 1.2. As an extra accessory an underwater case is available for those snorkeling addicts who want to take their Canon S400 underwater.
Installing the software is easy. Canon's Digital Solutions Disk leads you through the install process by asking you all the relevant questions about what you would like to have installed and what not. Their new version of Zoom Browser now automatically and quickly updates the image directories everytime the program is opened. In older versions this had to be done manually every time and image had been renamed or changed by another program. Also its user interface is much more user-friendly now.
Downloading the images will start as soon as the camera is connected through the USB port and turned on. The camera window will open to select images for downloading and to choose where you would like them stored on your hard disk. You can opt to have you images copied or moved. The latter option automatically erases your memory card while downloading the images to your computer. As soon as downloading is finished the camera window closes and Zoom Browser opens to show the relevant image directory.
The camera's metering works faultlessly and difficult lighting situations are handled with ease, delivering clean and well exposed images every time. Clicking the sample images on this page will enlarge them to reveal how good the automatic exposure really is and show the terrific amount of image detail the camera records. It may be worth noting that none of the sample images used here have been manipulated or tampered with in any way - what you see here is what the camera delivers.
All images taken with this camera show excellent detail in the midtones, with no obvious clipping of highlights or shadow areas. Color saturation is really excellent with strong reds and blues. Skin tones are accurate and automatic white balance is very good under virtually all lighting conditions. The lens is extremely sharp and puts in a good performance for such a compact digicam. At wide angle there is some minor barrel distortion as well as some pincushioning at maximum zoom, although it appears to be less than some other compact digicams. Some chromatic aberration is present as purple fringing along edges of exceedingly bright highlights but nothing that I would consider a problem.
In display mode a histogram can be shown to assess the contrast range of the captured image, but there is no information about aperture or shutter speed used. Most users however will simply leave the camera in program mode and let the camera do the thinking. That is indeed what we did most of the time, to find out what the Canon S400 is capable of and just how good Canon's DIGIC processor really is. Note the sample images taken in difficult lighting conditions such as the images of the fair at night, or the cows in the morning mist. Both of these were taken in automatic program mode as well.
For anyone who wants a very portable and extremely durable camera it's hard to beat the Canon ELPH Series. Canon was the first to manufacture these small but very functional cameras and they continue to make the best even better. Their Canon S400 is a worthy contender in the compact digicam class, as it is a very stylish camera that delivers almost perfect results at the expense of manual exposure control. Although other Canon camera's (such as the S45) may have full manual control and perform just as well, they are much bigger and heavier. This one has the advantage that it fits easily into the smallest pockets and thus makes an ideal weekend or holiday camera. The Canon S400 may not be the latest Canon ELPH camera anymore, but personally I would definitely prefer this one over the more recent models because of its longer zoom lens and the possibility of using cheap and widely available Compact Flash cards instead of the more expensive SD memory cards.
Go out and get one while they are still available . . .