Canon’s new Powershot A710 IS digital camera – The Mini Gee delivers
A few years back Canon’s design team responded to a major challenge; create a basic, inexpensive, easy to use, high performance digital camera that would appeal to a broad market demographic. The result was Canon’s “A” series; a group of digicams that adopted features and technology from Canon’s upscale “S” and “G” series models and packaged them in a practical and rather dowdy uni-body. “A” series digital cameras have provided very good performance, superb ergonomics, best-in-class functionality and usability, tough as nails durability, and reliably excellent image quality since the introduction of the groundbreaking little A20 in 2001. The new A710 IS is the first “A” model to feature optical image stabilization (OIS).
NUTS & BOLTS
The A710 IS's tunnel style coupled real-image optical viewfinder is sharp, fairly bright, and imminently useable - but it is a little squinty and only covers a bit more than eighty percent of the image frame. There’s no diopter adjustment for eyeglasses wearers.
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The A710 IS’s 2.5" low-resolution (115,000 pixels) TFT LCD screen is a bit grainy, but it is relatively sharp, bright, hue (color) correct, and fluid. It automatically boosts gain in dim/low light and provides a very useful playback histogram display that converts the image area into a graphic readout of the tonal distribution in captured images.
The A710 IS features an f2.8-f4.8/5.8mm-34.8mm (35-210mm 35mm equivalent) all glass 6X zoom. When the camera is powered up the lens extends automatically and when the camera is powered down the zoom is fully retracted into the camera body and a built in iris style lens cover closes to protect it.
The A710 IS’s zoom exhibits moderate barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from the center) at the wide-angle end of the zoom range, but there is no visible pin cushioning (straight lines bow in toward the center) at the telephoto end of the zoom. There is some very minor softness in the corners, but no visible vignetting (dark corners). Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is well controlled, but visible in high contrast color transition areas. The A710 IS’s zoom is relatively fast and fairly quiet.
Auto Focus (AF)
The A710 IS features the same dependable TTL Contrast Detection 9 focus point AiAF (Advanced intelligent Auto Focus) system as Canon’s other digicams. In all automatic exposure modes the camera defaults to the AiAF system which analyzes the scene in front of the camera and then calculates camera to subject distance to determine which of the 9 AF points is closest to the primary subject and then automatically locks focus on that AF point (closest subject priority), even when the subject is not centered in the viewfinder. Users can also turn off the AiAF and default to the center focus point for classic portraits or traditional landscapes. In aperture priority, shutter priority, and manual mode, the A710 IS utilizes Canon’s proprietary Flexizone AF which defaults to the center focus point or permits users to manually shift that AF point around the central two thirds of the frame for maximum compositional control.
The A710 IS also provides auto focus bracketing (AFB). With a single push of the shutter button, the camera captures three exposures in rapid succession marginally shifting the focus for each (one just slightly in front of the optimum focus point, one at the optimum focus distance, and one just slightly behind the optimum focus point), virtually guaranteeing at least one correctly focused image, even in tricky lighting. The focus distance interval can be adjusted, allowing for exact spacing and precise focus no matter what sort of image is being shot. The A710 IS's auto focus is very fast and consistently accurate, essentially real time with pre-focusing and almost instantaneous from scratch.
Manual Focus (MF)
The A710 IS permits users to turn off the AF system and focus manually. The A710 IS’s MF mode utilizes a fairly standard distance/scale (stepped scale focusing) method. It is not very quick or particularly easy to use, but it does provide users with a bit more control when critical focusing is important. In MF mode focus is adjusted incrementally (using the up/down buttons on the compass switch). The camera superimposes a distance scale on the LCD screen for focusing accuracy and the center of the image is enlarged as an aid to determining precise focus.
Optical Image Stabilization (OIS)
The A710 IS’s optical image stabilization system automatically compensates for camera movement by gyroscopically shifting lens elements to counter the effects of shaky hands. OIS allows photographers to shoot at shutter speeds up to three stops slower than would have been possible without OIS. For example, if a shutter speed of 1/500th of a second is required to avoid the effects of camera shake (without OIS) a digicam with OIS can capture a reasonably sharp image of the same subject, everything else being equal, at 1/60th of a second. OIS provides an especially important benefit when shooting handheld outdoors in good light at full telephoto - where even the slightest camera movement is magnified exponentially. Image stabilization can also be very helpful when shooting indoors - where higher shutter speeds may not be possible or would result in dark images with poor shadow/highlight detail. In addition, image stabilization combined with higher sensitivity settings dramatically increases exposure options in low/natural light and dimly lit indoor venues where flash is prohibited. The A710 IS provides three IS modes: Continuous (IS is on full time), 'Shoot only' (IS is only activated when the picture is taken) and Panning (IS only stabilizes up and down motion) for horizontally panned exposures. Full-time IS dramatically shortens battery life – the shoot only mode uses much less battery power.
The A710 IS's built-in multi mode flash is a fairly standard unit. Flash options include: Auto (fires when needed), On (fill flash), Red-Eye Reduction, and off. Canon claims maximum flash range is just over 11 feet, but real-world (effective) flash range is about 8-10 feet. The A710 IS also provides limited flash compensation capability via the flash output setting (low, medium, or high). There’s no hot shoe for external flash units, but Canon's optional HF-DC1 auto (slave) flash unit extends coverage down to 28mm and maximum flash range to about 30 feet.
Like virtually all compact digicams the A710 IS’s weak built-in flash is positioned too close to and on essentially the same axis as the lens, so redeye is going to be an ongoing problem. A710 IS users can generally defeat redeye by disabling the flash and turning on the IS system – three extra stops (slower shutter speed) should cover most lighting situations and naturally lit portraits always look better than harshly lit flash portraits. The built-in flash is basically useless in tight (closer than 12 inches) macro shooting. Recycle time for the A710 IS’s built-in flash (with fresh batteries) is between 5 and 7 seconds – and that’s pretty slow.
The A710 IS saves images to Secure Digital (or MMC) memory media. Canon includes a 16MB starter SD card. A710 IS purchasers should factor the price of a much larger SD card (512MB minimum) into their final cost calculations.
Image File Format(s)
USB 2.0 High Speed, A/V out, and DC in
The A710 IS, like its predecessor, is powered by two (2) alkaline, NiMH (Nickel Metal Hydride), or lithium AA cells. I used the A710 IS heavily for almost a month under a variety of conditions mostly in Auto or Program mode with shoot only IS always engaged. The optical viewfinder was used almost exclusively for composition and the LCD screen was used primarily for review. The A710 IS is (according to Canon) good for 360 shots with full time LCD use and up to 900 shots using the optical viewfinder - when high capacity rechargeable NiMH AA's are loaded. The A710 IS’s power management is remarkably good. I got 71 exposures with the included alkalines before they bit the dust and while I didn’t keep precise track of the exposures captured with a pair of 2300 mAh NiMH rechargeable AA batteries, I never ran out of juice.
The A710 IS recycles the versatile, effective, and remarkably simple auto exposure system that’s made “A” series digicams so popular with consumers. Exposure options include Auto (Point and Shoot mode), Program (Auto exposure with user input), Aperture Priority mode, Shutter Priority mode, and full manual mode. Shooters can also opt for the A710 IS’s Scene modes (Portrait, Landscape, Night Scene, and Stitch Assist/panorama plus Special (SCN) Scene modes including Night Snapshot, Kids & Pets, Indoor, Foliage, Snow, Beach, Fireworks, and Underwater). Canon’s exclusive iSAPS (Intelligent Scene Analysis based on Photographic Space) technology produces consistently very good to excellent exposures in all scene modes. The camera instantly matches the scene in front of the lens with an on-board database of known scene types and just before the image is recorded, compares that information with the specific scene's subject distance, white balance, contrast, dynamic range, lighting, and color and then automatically optimizes all exposure parameters (aperture, shutter speed, white balance, sensitivity, etc.) for the specific image type selected.
A710 IS users can record video clips (with mono audio) at 640x480 @ 30 fps with duration limited to 1GB (about 8 minutes). The A710 IS can also record up to 60 seconds of fast frame rate QVGA (60 fps) video clips and several lower resolution video options. Consumers seeking more comprehensive video options should check out the (DIGIC III equipped) SD800 IS, SD900, and G7 which permit recording up to 4GB/1 hour video clips. The A710 IS provides a voice-notation mode that allows users to add audio notes (up to 60 seconds).
The A710 IS's default evaluative metering system is consistently accurate in all but the most difficult lighting, but there is a very slight tendency toward over-exposure. Like all Canon digicams, the A710 IS’s evaluative/default metering system is calibrated to preserve shadow detail at the expense of highlight detail. That built-in exposure bias results in occasional clipping (burnt out highlights). Newbie photographers won't have to worry about metering, as long as they stay in Auto or Program mode and more experienced photographers can opt for either Spot metering or Center-weighted Averaging metering for more demanding/creative compositions. When Spot metering is enabled, the metering spot can be set to the center of the frame or linked to the active Flexizone AF point, allowing the photographer to meter on the spot location that coincides with the most important element of the composition (like the eyes in a head and shoulders portrait) and link the camera's AF system to that same spot --- a very useful option.
White Balance (WB)
The A710 IS provides both beginners and experienced users with an adequate selection of white balance options. WB settings include TTL Auto, Day Light, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Fluorescent H, Underwater, and a custom WB (manual) mode. The custom WB (manual) mode allows more experienced shooters to use a white card (or white wall or ceiling) to insure accurate color by adjusting WB to match ambient lighting. In good outdoor lighting the A710 IS’s auto white balance setting works almost perfectly – colors are hue accurate and slightly oversaturated. Indoors or in dimmer lighting the A710 IS’s Auto WB setting is a bit less accurate – colors flatten out noticeably and hue (color accuracy) is occasionally a bit “off” – Auto WB exposures captured under incandescent (tungsten) lighting show a warm slightly orangish color cast.
The A710 IS provides an excellent range of sensitivity options including Auto, High ISO Auto, and user selectable settings for 80,100, 200, 400, and 800 ISO. The tiny high pixel density sensors found in most digicams generate more image noise than larger less crowded sensors, like those found in dSLRs. Built-in noise reduction (NR) blurs away the worst of image noise, but it also blurs away image detail (check hair in portraits, pet fur in snapshots, and foliage in scenics) - so digicam designers must balance managing visible noise with preserving fine detail. Canon’s approach to noise reduction is to preserve detail first and eliminate noise second so Canon digicam images “look” a bit softer than those produced by the digicams of some other OEMs. Canon images can be sharpened, post exposure, with preserved detail intact – but once detail is lost (via NR) it can’t be recovered.
Images shot at ISO 80 looked best, with extremely low noise levels – ISO 100 images are identical to those shot at ISO 80, there is no discernible difference. At the ISO 200 setting noise levels begin to rise a bit, but the images are still very good to excellent. ISO 400 images are noticeably noisy, but still usable (up to 5x7 inches) with lots of detail. ISO 800 images were better than expected, but way too noisy and a little soft.
(view medium image) (view large image) This ISO 400 image was shot indoors under mixed artificial lighting and heavy-overcast early evening daylight. There is some minor color shift (reds are a bit flat and cooler than they should be) in addition to the overall graininess and noticeable chromatic aberration (purple fringing).
In-Camera Image Adjustment
In-camera image adjustment options are often overlooked by casual digicam purchasers, but more advanced shooters know the ability to make subtle color/contrast/sharpness adjustments “in-camera” is an effective way to overcome minor exposure problems. A710 IS users can tweak contrast, hue (color), saturation (color intensity), and sharpening. The A710’s "My Colors" mode provides several creative color options: Positive Film (mimics slide film color, saturation, and contrast), Neutral Film (mimics print film color, saturation, and contrast), Lighter Skin Tone, Darker Skin Tone, Vivid Blue, Vivid Green, Vivid Red, Color accent (shifts images to B&W, except for one user selected color), color swap (allows users to switch one color for another), custom color (users can adjust color balance for red, green, blue, and skin tones +/-2 arbitrary steps in 1 step increments), and Photo effects (vivid or neutral color saturation, low sharpening, sepia, and B&W).
Very light or very dark subjects can trick light metering systems into underexposing or overexposing images. The A710 IS's exposure compensation function allows users to subtly adjust exposure parameters over a 4 EV range (+/-2 EV in 1/3 EV increments) to compensate for difficult lighting and subject/background reflectance/non-reflectance problems or to compensate for environmental exposure variables (by quickly and easily lightening or darkening images).
CONTROLS, DESIGN, ENGINEERING, & ERGONOMICS
The A710 IS is a very traditional looking little camera, a bit larger, smoother edged, and slightly less chunky than the A700 it replaces. It features a polycarbonate body shell (with a nice handgrip) over a metal alloy frame. "A" series Canon’s are well known for their practical control layouts and the A710 IS doesn’t deviate from that winning formula - controls are logically placed and all shooting functions are easily accessed (the most commonly changed functions are accessed directly via the FUNC menu).
Though it lacks the really long zoom of Canon’s superb S3 IS, the fashionable pocketability of Canon’s diminutive SD900, and the near pro performance of the new G7 - the Canon Powershot A710 IS is one of the most impressive general use digital cameras introduced recently and easily the most remarkable “A” series digicam introduced to date. Experienced photographers will have no problem using the A710 IS right out of the box – beginners should be able to shoot consistently decent images after a short familiarization run with the camera and a quick scan of the user’s manual.
16MB SD card, 2 AA Alkaline batteries, wrist strap, USB & A/V cables, software CD's, printed manuals.
Canon Battery charger and rechargeable AA NiMH batteries, AC Adapter, Lens Adapter (permits the use of 58mm filters and accessories), supplemental lenses (wide, macro, & Tele), Waterproof case, HF-DC1 slave flash, and soft camera case.
The A710 IS’s dynamic range is impressive for a P&S compact digicam and image quality is dependably very good to excellent. Images (with IS engaged) are reasonably sharp, and contrast is balanced - with highlights and shadow detail preserved nicely. Colors are hue accurate, bold, and slightly over saturated, but never garish. Noise management is very good at ISO 80/100 and better than average across the rest of the A710 IS’s sensitivity range. Image quality faults include a slight tendency toward over exposure, some highlight clipping, and minor chromatic aberration (purple fringing) in high contrast color transition areas – minor chroma noise (blotching) is visible in brightly lit scenes with lots of sky.
The A710 IS is a very quick digital camera, equal to or faster than any other camera in its class and faster than some more expensive digicams. Start up time is under two seconds, which is pretty snappy for a digicam that must extend a 6X zoom. Shutter lag is basically a non-issue with the optical viewfinder, but using the LCD screen as a viewfinder will add just enough lag (when shooting action) to require the shooter to anticipate the peak moment by about a quarter of a second. The zoom needs about 3.0 - 3.5 seconds to travel from the widest setting to the maximum telephoto setting. AF lag is typically less than one second in good light and shutter fire is essentially "real time" with pre-focus. Shot-to-shot times are also noticeably better than average (1.5 –2.0 seconds), but if the flash is used shot to shot times extend to 8-10 seconds. Write to card times are very quick (less than 1 second for a 7 megapixel Super Fine JPEG) even when using a standard SD card – hi-speed cards will lower write to card times slightly.
A Few Concerns
The A710 IS’s faults are remarkably few - the price is a bit high (especially for an “A” series digicam), red-eye will be an ongoing problem for informal/environmental/street portrait shooters, the on-board flash is a slow to re-cycle, the 6X zoom exhibits some noticeable corner softness, and there is some very minor chromatic aberration visible in high contrast color transition areas. There is a slight but consistent tendency toward over-exposure in bright outdoor lighting in all Auto modes.
The A710 IS retains everything that made the A700 a best buy digicam and adds the one element that was missing; optical image stabilization - making an already excellent digicam substantially better. I’ve used every “A” series Canon digicam since the A20 and I’ve enjoyed all of them for their winning combination of usability, practicality, functionality, dependability, durability, and excellent performance for price ratio. The A710 IS is an almost ideal general use digital camera that will appeal to everyone from beginners and casual shooters to advanced amateurs and even pros looking for a dependable high-performance personal pocket camera. It’s like a mini S3 IS with a big dose of G7 attitude. The A710 IS is my hands-down favorite digital camera of 2006, and I predict consumers will buy this digicam in amazing numbers.
7 megapixels, 2.5" LCD screen, 6X optical zoom, full manual controls, and AA batteries
Slow/weak flash, some corner softness, a slight tendency toward over exposure, and minor chromatic aberration (purple fringing)
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