Canon's New Powershot SD500 may be the ultimate Micro-Cam
The Bottom Line
The Canon Powershot SD500 provides a near perfect balance of excellent image quality, tough as nails durability, ultra-compact size, and intuitive ease of use.
One of the digital imaging revolution's most fascinating high-tech product developments was the ultra compact digital camera. Canon has dominated that very popular marketing niche since the first micro-cams hit store shelves and the new Canon Powershot SD500 continues that tradition. The SD500 offers consumers 7 megapixel resolution, a fully retractable 3X optical zoom, a tough as nails stainless steel body, and point & shoot ease of use --- all stuffed into a body small enough to be dropped into a shirt pocket. Canon's little pseudo spy cam is almost as cool as the highly modified Aston Martin DB4GT that "Q" issued to James Bond in Goldfinger and much more practical than the Personal Rocket Pack 007 used in From Russia with love.
The new SD500 is the flagship of Canon's SD digicam family. Like its siblings, the SD500 is built around Canon's second-generation DIGIC II processor. Canon's second generation DIGIC II Processor (Digital Imaging Integrated Circuit) combines image processing, power management, and most primary camera functions (Exposure, White Balance, JPEG compression, gain control, and most "auto" functions) in one chip to efficiently manage camera operation. DIGIC II image files are also optimized for sharp resolution, balanced contrast, lower noise, and bright colors. The SD500 adds the 7 megapixel CCD sensor from Canon's upscale G6/S70 models plus a slightly longer zoom and a bigger battery making it marginally larger and slightly heavier than its siblings, but the size differences are negligible.
NUTS & BOLTS
The SD500 (like its siblings) features a tunnel style coupled (zooms with the lens) optical viewfinder. The SD500's optical viewfinder is pretty squinty and only covers about 80% of the image frame, but it is bright and quite sharp. There's no diopter correction for eyeglasses wearers.
The SD500 also features a 2.0" (quite large for a micro-cam) LCD screen that's fairly bright, color accurate, and fluid. The SD500's LCD screen (unlike its predecessors) gains "up" (automatically brightens) in dim lighting. The SD500's (almost) full info LCD screen displays shooting mode, exposure compensation, white balance setting, ISO setting, flash setting, the light metering option selected, resolution/compression data, and a histogram (to help evaluate dynamic range in saved images). The LCD screen (which shows almost 100 per cent of the frame) is more accurate for framing and composition than the tiny optical viewfinder, but full time LCD use will drain the S500's battery more rapidly.
The SD500 features an f2.8-4.9/37-111mm (35mm equivalent) all-glass 3X zoom lens. When the camera is powered up, the lens automatically extends out from the camera body. When the camera is powered down the lens is fully retracted into the camera body and a built in lens cover slides into place to protect the front element of the lens. The SD500's 3X zoom exhibits noticeable barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from the center) at the wide-angle end of the zoom range, some minor softness in the corners, and very minor pin cushioning (straight lines bow in toward the center) at full telephoto. Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is visible in high contrast color transition areas, especially at maximum aperture. Zoom operation is fast, smooth, and fairly quiet.
The SD500's 9 focus point AiAF (Advanced intelligent Auto Focus) system quickly analyzes what's in front of the camera and automatically decides which of the 9 AF points is closest to the primary subject (utilizing closest subject priority) and then locks focus on that AF point. Savvy shutterbugs can manually line up a specific AF focus point with the most important element in the image (like the face or eyes in a head and shoulders portrait). Users can turn AiAF off and the SD500's AF system defaults to the center AF point for traditional looking landscapes, classic portraits, group shots, etc. The SD500 provides an AF assist beam for quicker and more accurate focusing in dim/low light.
The SD500's built-in multi mode flash is slightly larger and about 15 per cent more powerful than those of its siblings. It provides auto, auto with red-eye reduction, flash on (with red-eye reduction -- for portrait fill), flash on (fill), slow synch, and flash off settings. Maximum flash range (according to Canon) is 9.0 to 15 feet, which seems a bit optimistic --- 8 feet is probably more realistic. Anything beyond 10 feet is going to be fairly dark, unless shot against light colored backgrounds with lots of ambient lighting.
The SD500 can use Canon's nifty new HF-DC1 External Slave Flash (developed for the A520/A510 series), which I unfortunately didn't get to try.
The SD500 utilizes SD (Secure Digital) memory media. SD cards are substantially smaller (and generally faster) than the CompactFlash (CF) media used in most Canon digicams. Canon includes a 32MB starter card.
Image File Format
USB 2.0 and A/V out
The SD500 utilizes a (slightly) larger NB-3L lithium-ion battery than the NB-4L lithium-ion battery that powers its siblings. This larger battery does punch up power depth somewhat, but realistically Micro cam batteries (since they must be very small) can't store as much power as larger batteries. Based on my (admittedly unscientific) tests a fully charged NB-3L should be good for 120 -- 150 exposures (full time LCD use, occasional flash use, and very limited review). Micro-Cam users rarely resort to the optical viewfinder and most insist on reviewing every image they shoot, so mileage may vary substantially. Shooters who plan on using the SD500 during extended trips or for daylong shooting sessions are advised to purchase a back up battery. The included charger needs about an hour and a half to juice the NB-3L back to full power.
The SD500 has a remarkably simple and highly sophisticated auto exposure system that provides an incredibly broad range of exposure options including Full Auto, Scene modes (portrait, foliage, snow, beach, fireworks, underwater, indoor, kids & pets, & night snapshot), Manual mode (which is not a real manual mode since the camera always controls aperture), Movie mode (640x480 @ 30 fps up to the capacity of the installed SD card and a "Fast Frame Rate" of 320x240 @ 60 fps for up to 60 seconds), and Stitch Assist mode. Canon's exclusive iSAPS (Intelligent Scene Analysis based on Photographic Space) technology produces consistently exceptional 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 then compares that information with the specific scene's subject distance, white balance, contrast range, lighting, and color (just before the image is recorded) to determine the best exposure. The SD500's auto exposure system does more than just average exposure data so images are consistently better than those shot with similar microcams from other manufacturers.
The SD500's evaluative metering system (the camera's CPU divides the image frame into zones and separately evaluates each zone to determine the best shutter speed/aperture combination) consistently renders accurate exposures in all but the most difficult lighting situations. A Spot metering option biases exposure on a small area at the center of the frame (useful for back lit subjects and high/low contrast subjects), and the center-weighted option allows savvy users to create traditional looking landscapes and classic portraits.
The SD500's White balance system provides a fairly standard, but adequate selection of color balance settings including TTL Auto, daylight, cloudy, tungsten, two fluorescent modes, and a custom mode.
TTL Auto, and settings for 50, 100, 200, and 400 ISO (35mm equivalent).
In-Camera Image Adjustment
The SD500's My Colors mode provides 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, black & white). Shooters can also adjust Exposure compensation ( /- 2EV in 1/3 EV increments) or opt for the Long Shutter (1-15 seconds) mode.
DESIGN, CONTROLS, & ERGONOMICS
The SD500 is a stylish ultra compact point & shoot digicam that's only marginally larger and slightly heavier than its SD family siblings. The tough stainless steel body makes the SD500 an almost perfect choice for anyone who wants a camera that can be taken along everywhere and used in just about any above water environment. The new SD500 has a very sophisticated feature set that should appeal to travelers, gadget guys/gals, hikers/bikers, casual photographers, and extreme sports aficionados who value style, compact size, super fast operation, and point & shoot ease of use.
Canon's second smallest Digital Camera (the SD200/300/400 are smaller) provides an almost perfect balance between the physical constraints of miniaturization and the creative/technical design limits imposed by form and function. The user interface is intuitive and uncomplicated with logical and easily accessed controls. Most users will have no difficulty using the SD500 right out of the box.
Resolution: 7 megapixels (3072X2304)
Lens: f2.8-4.9/37-111mm (35mm equivalent) all-glass zoom
Viewfinders: Real-image optical & 2.0" LCD
Auto Focus: TTL AiAF nine-point autofocus system
Metering: Evaluative, Center-Weighted, or Spot
Exposure Compensation: Yes /- 2 EV in 1/3 EV increments
White Balance: TTL auto and presets for daylight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent, fluorescent H, and custom (manual)
Sensitivity: Auto and ISO 50, 100, 200, & 400 (35mm equivalents)
Memory Storage Media: SD cards
Image File Format: JPEG
Connectivity: USB 2.0 & A/V out
Power: Rechargeable NB-3L Lithium-ion battery
MSRP - $499.00 Street Price - $450.00-$499.00
32MB SD card, NB-3L lithium-ion battery, Battery charger, Wrist strap, AV/USB cables, Software CD-ROM, User's manual, and software manual (both printed)
Canon WP-DC70 waterproof case, Canon HF-DC1 external slave flash, AC adapter, and a soft camera case.
In the Field/Handling & Operation
The weather here in Kentucky has been pretty typical for this time of year with some warm pretty days followed by cold gray rainy days. My Friend (who sells and distributes photographic equipment) showed up the Saturday after St. Patrick's Day with a brand new SD500. We both thought the SD500's compact stainless steel body looked very cool, sort of like a modern day version of Rollei's precision built little 35S.
We set up a macro stage (a large cardboard box with the top and front panels cut away) and spread out a collection of brightly colored plastic beach toys on a white background. After auto white balancing the camera we shot the brightly colored red, green, blue, purple, orange, and yellow plastic shapes. The SD500's colors were well saturated and consistently accurate. The camera's White Balance handled the test pretty well, though we both noticed a very slight warm cast (which is not unusual with consumer digicams). The SD500's performance in this test was virtually identical to similar tests we've done with other Canon digicams.
After finishing our color test we took the SD500 out to shoot some "street" shots of the green bead bedecked and somewhat bedraggled characters returning from the St. Patrick's Day Parade. Our local St. Patrick's Day celebration has a much more provincial flavor than those in New York and Boston. It is a much more proletarian event (usually held the Saturday after St. Patrick's Day) with spectators and participants making up for their lack of sophistication with an abundance of enthusiasm. We spent about an hour shooting revelers wandering back and forth (mostly between Irish Pubs) along Bardstown Road.
The SD500 produced consistently solid images of the parade fans, especially considering how dreary and gray the weather was. Caucasian skin tones in our outdoor tests came out a bit warm, but that may have been more a result of the brisk breeze, the mid forties temperatures, and green beer than anything relevant to the camera's performance. The SD500 is surprisingly fast in operation and shutter lag is almost non-existent.
Sunday morning was much prettier, with blue skies and temperatures in the high 50's so we headed for the scenic loop in Cherokee Park to shoot runners, in-line skaters, and dog walkers (and look for signs of Spring). After a couple of hours shooting folks having fun in the Park we cruised up to the Cherokee Triangle to shoot some of the just starting to bloom Japanese Magnolia trees and Forsythia bushes.
After finishing up near the Statue of General Castleman we drove over to Cave Hill cemetery (the Derby City's oldest graveyard) The first things to bloom in Louisville each Spring are Daffodils, Hyacinth, Crocuses, and Witch Hazel. We drove around Cave Hill's twisty two lane roads stopping whenever we saw anything that looked Spring like. We also shot 19th century native limestone grave markers and Victorian monuments and some of the hundreds of ducks and geese that live around the cemetery's small central lake. The resident waterfowl are quite tame (since most of the folks they see have bags of stale bread in hand) making them very easy to photograph up close. It was a real treat to be out shooting with the nifty little SD500 on one of those wonderful early spring days (with absolutely perfect front lighting) that we often get this time of year in the Ohio Valley.
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Image quality should always be the number one consideration when assessing camera performance --- stylin' and the "cool" factor are great, but in the final analysis it's a camera. After reviewing the images we'd shot over the course of our SD500 test we both agreed that the outdoor images were consistently well exposed (we didn't shoot anything indoors), the color was great, and the overall image quality was nothing short of amazing (for such a tiny camera). We printed two 8X10's (a scenic shot from Cave Hill and one of our people shots from the St. Paddy's parade) with an Epson Stylus Photo 2200 (on Epson photo paper) and both showed very good resolution, vibrant color, great highlight and shadow detail, and a very nice dynamic range. Caucasian skin tones are a bit warm (typical for amateur cameras) and reds and blues are (slightly) over saturated (which is also typical). White balance is pretty accurate, especially so for such a tiny camera.
The little SD500 consistently delivered image quality that was consistently very good to excellent. ISO 50 is definitely the little camera's sweet spot, although ISO 100 images are also excellent. Noise levels begin to rise noticeably after ISO 100 (for consumer level digicams more megapixels plus higher ISO sensitivity settings equals more noise). ISO 200 images are still acceptable, but show a visible loss of detail due to pattern noise. ISO 400 images are so noisy they look almost mushy, which is somewhat off-putting.
The SD500 is very fast, conspicuously quicker than its competition. The boot-up cycle, shutter lag, shot to shot times, and write to card times are all shorter than average. Canon's newest Digital Elph is fast enough for just about anything. It is doubtful SD500 shooters will be able to freeze pro basketball players in mid dunk, but keeping up with infants and toddlers should be a snap (no pun intended).
A Few Concerns
The LCD screen is a little dim. The SD500 (like all micro-cams) has red-eye issues. The camera's tiny size imposes design constraints that can't be overcome -- with cameras this small it is not possible to physically separate the flash and the zoom sufficiently to avoid, essentially, having the lens and flash on the same plane. Photographers who shoot lots of portraits may want to invest in Canon's optional HF-DC1 external slave flash. Finally, chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is a bit higher than average, especially in high contrast color transition areas (especially noticeable at maximum aperture) and ISO 400 images are much too noisy.
Canon's little SD500 is a revolutionary imaging tool that pushes the boundaries of product development right to the cutting edge where the upper limits of current resolution technology meet the potential limits of miniaturization. With the introduction of the SD500 Canon has achieved one of the two symbolic holy grails of the digital imaging revolution (the other is an affordable high performance dSLR). Photography has always been about compromises so there will never be a perfect camera, but the new Canon Powershot SD500 comes tantalizingly close. It is (for now) in a class all by itself.
Fast, stylish, ultra compact, user friendly, very good image quality, and ISO 50
Mediocre battery life, red-eye problems, chromatic aberration, and noisy ISO 400 images