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Canon SD800 / IXUS 850 review

Way back when photography was still a slow and laborious process with film to be processed and smelly chemicals to be handled, the highlight of the year used to be when camera manufacturers launched their new models just in time for Christmas. In the digital era though it seems as if its Christmas all year round, with new models being released seemingly every week. Canon for instance have just launched their 27th Elph model to date, the 7.1 Megapixel Digital IXUS 850 IS or SD800 IS Digital Elph as it is called in some markets. As we have come to expect from Canon, this ultra-compact again combines stylish design with superior build quality and exceptional performance.

frontal view of SD 800IS rear view of Canon SD 800IS

New features on the Canon SD800 are a true 28 mm wide angle zoom lens; optical image stabilisation; ISO 1600 sensitivity and new face detection technology. Besides these cracking features it supports SDHC memory cards, comes with improved battery life and VGA movie recording with file sizes of up to 4Gb.

Using the Canon SD800

As you would expect from a camera in this class, its ultra compact size is small enough to fit any trouser pocket or the smallest handbag with ease. With all major controls neatly arranged around its all metal body, the look of this Digital Elph SD800 IS has more in common with a stylish cigarette box than a digital camera. But that appearances can be deceptive is soon discovered when you switch it on. Pressing the on/off button, which is fitted flush with the top plate, brings the camera alive in under a second. When capturing images Canon's AiAF 9-point multi-zone autofocus system is arguably the fastest and most accurate on the market and in good lighting sharp focus is almost instantaneous. Even in low light the system can still focus thanks to a powerful AF light with a range of around 4 to 5 metres. The large 2.5" LCD screen with 207,000 pixels is exceptionally bright and sharp. Its wide viewing angle and anti-reflective coating make it easy to frame your images and therefore the tiny optical viewfinder will hardly see any use at all. When shooting in dark conditions, the camera automatically brightens the LCD screen so that you can make out your subject.

Whereas on earlier Elph models controls were considered to be a bit minute by some, switches and buttons on the Canon SD800 IS are just the right size for comfortable handling. No worries of breaking your finger nails or accidentally pressing the wrong buttons here.

Seeing that the SD800 is designed as a fully automatic point and shoot camera for social use, the discerning photographer should still find ample handy functions with enough options to express his/her creativity. Most parameters can be adjusted to suit diverse image situations or personal preferences. With the exception of the Long Shutter mode for night shots in the Function menu, there is still no manual option to adjust apertures or shutter speeds. The camera’s many scene modes - ten in total - will help you find the optimum camera settings in most circumstances though. Again these are fully automatic and the only parameters you can change are flash, exposure compensation or file size. In preview a histogram can be displayed to provide detailed exposure info for advanced users. A new feature on the Canon SD800 is the face detection technology which automatically finds any human face in the frame, focuses on it and sets the exposure accordingly.

fill in flash

Apart from a fully automatic setting, which is perfect for point and shoot operation, the so called Manual setting effectively unlocks all menu options and allows full ISO control, choice of five flash modes plus continuous or single shot operation. Pressing the centre button on the 4-way switch opens up the Function menu, which offers further options such as control over white balance or colour settings, three metering options plus exposure compensation over two steps in 1/3EV increments. Image sizes range from a whopping 3072x2304 pixels to 640x480 for email use. There is even a widescreen option of 3072x1728 pixels.

We like the fact that more and more compacts nowadays provide a wide ISO range, which allows the use of faster shutter speeds under low lighting conditions, thereby reducing the risk of camera shake or subject blur. The Canon SD800 is no exception here with an effective ISO range of 80 to 1600. We found that image quality was excellent and virtually noise-free until you get above ISO 400 where noise slowly starts to manifest itself. It is only when you use 800 or 1600 ISO that noise is clearly prominent and some loss of image detail is evident. For small postcard size prints however it would still deliver a satisfactory image, although for high quality results or poster size prints it will be best to stick to the lower ISO settings.

Should there be a risk of camera shake when capturing images in low light, a red camera icon starts flashing in the LCD, indicating the shutter speed used. You can then decide to select a higher ISO setting or find some camera support. You could also use the Optical Image Stabilisation function which should provide around 2 to 3 stops of extra hand-held shooting resulting in sharper photos. It works through a floating lens element that compensates for camera movement through an unsteady hand. Several OIS options are available. The Continuous mode activates the system when you half press the shutter so you can compose images without camera shake. The "Shoot Only" option turns OIS on the moment the actual picture is taken, whereas the "Panning" mode compensates for up and down movement allowing you to track a moving subject horizontally. Of course the system won't help in freezing a fast moving subject nor can it compensate for serious camera movement. Fact remains that it provides a very useful help which results in sharper images in many situations.

The SD800 has the conventional five flash modes including red-eye reduction. As is common with built-in flashes on compacts, red-eye remains a problem and the Canon SD800 is no different in this respect. Using the conventional anti red-eye function does not help as this poses its own problems, with subjects looking away after the pre-flash has fired or alerting them so that the "decisive moment" is over before the picture is actually taken. It's good to see therefore, that the SD800 has a wide ISO range to capture images in low light, avoiding the need to use flash until lighting conditions get really dim.

The slow sync flash function on this camera is hidden in the menu and not on the jog dial with the other flash functions. The Night Snapshot function however comes a close second in the way it performs. It uses a longest shutter speed of 1/8 sec in combination with flash, so that some ambient light is recorded. This makes it ideal for indoor shots under dim room lighting, although for best results you should keep the camera perfectly still or find a steady hold to support it.

In the Canon SD800 box

With the usual set of cables, straps and manuals we get Canon's Digital Solutions Disk version 29, which shows that Canon has again managed to make some improvements over older versions. It contains utility programs such as ZoomBrowser EX 5.7 and PhotoStitch 3.1 for stitching panorama images. Especially ZoomBrowser is a very user-friendly program for fast image transfer and labelling and organising your photos. The 32-page manual explains the basic camera settings to get you started, although for advanced guidance on the more complex camera functions, you should consult the enclosed CD-ROM.

Performance of the 1120mAh NB-5L lithium-ion battery is excellent thanks to the more power efficient DIGIC III processor. The new processor should offer a 12% improvement in battery life making it possible to capture about 270 images with one charge. It will take about 2 hours to get the battery back to full power again.

Optional accessories for the Canon SD800 include the WP-DC9 waterproof case, which allows underwater use of up to 40 metres. If you need more flash power there is the High Power HF-DC1 external slave flash, which attaches through the tripod mount and synchronises with the Elph's built-in flash. To power the camera without draining the battery an AC adapter is available for continuous shooting.

full size image ISO 100 full size image ISO 400 full size image ISO 800 full size image ISO 1600
Image Quality

The SD800 IS has a f/2.8-5.8 28-105mm 3.8x optical zoom lens which uses Canon’s UA lens technology that permits a longer zoom capability in a smaller amount of space. Seeing that most zoom compacts start at 35mm at their widest setting, the 28-105mm range is a real bonus, ideal for landscapes, big group shots or tiny interiors. As usual with Canon optics this lens is of very high quality and produces excellent results with good sharpness across the image and moderate barrel distortion at wide angle. There is some slight corner softness but this will hardly be noticeable in day to day photography. As already mentioned focusing is super fast and accurate, no doubt helped by the small AF assist light on the front, which doubles as a visual count down light when using the self timer.

The Canon SD800 has a macro function with a minimum focusing distance of 3cm at wide angle or 30cm at telephoto. This should allow for extreme close ups of objects with minute image detail.

full size image muted colours full size image normal colours full size image lively colours full size image positive film

Colour rendition is very good with nice punchy colours. Colour settings can be tweaked in a number of ways, should you desire different results from the standard settings. It is possible to opt for lively or neutral colours with or without extra contrast, sharpness and saturation, but it is also possible to boost certain primary colours such as red, blue or green independently. The camera can compensate for darker or lighter skin tones and there is a black & white or sepia option. Interesting is the "positive film" setting which promises results more alike conventional slide film.

We were especially impressed by the Digital Elph's exposure system, which handled all image situations brilliantly. Even severely backlit images with the sun right in front delivered well balanced results. Although extreme highlights did burn out, the rest of the image possessed enough detail and colour for a pleasing result. We did notice some slight colour fringing in these extreme contrast situations but it was not more than we expected. Flare is very well controlled on this cracking lens as well.

AWB daylight WB

Automatic White Balance was used in most test images and although it did an excellent job, our forest images came out rather cool. To accentuate the golden colours of backlit leaves and trees in the autumnal woods, we preferred Daylight or Cloudy settings which gave warmer results. Custom White Balance lets you use a white or grey card for accurate colour under unusual lighting.

Conclusion

After two weeks and more than 1000 pictures, we have to say that the Canon SD800 is a very compelling camera that should be seriously considered if you are looking for a quality compact. Several handy functions add greatly to its versatility. The fact that it has a 28mm wide angle zoom will widen its appeal among landscape shooters. The new face detect technology together with optical image stabilisation makes for happy snapshots, whereas the wide ISO range will come in handy in indoor shots without flash.

In fully automatic mode the Elph can be used by every member of the family and will deliver excellent results every time, while the discerning photographer can make creative use of the camera's many advanced functions. Taking into consideration the Canon SD800’s durable construction and easy to use interface combined with a stylish and compact body and you will have to agree with us, that Canon has once again produced a winner. Let’s see what Elph number 28 has in store for us next season . . .


Additional information: Canon SD800 / IXUS 850 product details and other reviews
November 22, 2006

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