DigitalCameraReview.com
Canon Powershot SD870 IS Review
by Mary Margaret -  10/8/2007

I became almost uncontrollably depressed watching Maria Sharapova’s early exit from the US Open, but one thing relieved my anguish: they continued to run her Canon PowerShot commercial throughout the rest of the tournament.  Why did this assuage my sorrow?  Maybe because - just like Maria - I too am guilty of taking millions of pictures of my dog Mackenzie.  Or, it could have been that I was anxiously awaiting my chance to review the Canon PowerShot SD870 IS and the commercial just happened to be so inspiring?

canon powershot sd870 IS
(view large image)

 

Whatever the reason for my newfound excitement, I got the SD870 IS in the mail and immediately started taking pictures of Mackenzie in various poses (close up with stick, carrying stick, sitting with tongue out, sitting and licking lips, etc.).  The first thing I noticed was the size and quality of the LCD screen. 

canon powershot sd870 IS sample image
(view medium image) (view large image)
canon powershot sd870 IS sample image
(view medium image) (view large image)

The SD870 is equipped with a 3 inch amorphous silicon TFT 230,000 pixel screen.  Without an optical viewfinder, it is essential that the LCD screen provides a clear and accurate representation of the shot.  It is becoming increasing popular with P&S designs to “ixnay” the viewfinder in exchange for a larger LCD screen.  For example, my own PowerShot SD850 IS is equipped with both an optical viewfinder and a 2.5 inch LCD screen, but I rarely use the viewfinder because it is so small and I can hardly compose a shot through such a small field of view.  The 3 inch LCD makes a huge difference and I do not miss the viewfinder on this size and type of camera.  

canon powershot sd870 IS
(view large image)

The SD870’s larger 3-inch LCD screen is so vital to what the consumers of this kind of product demand.  The screen becomes a convenient lens for taking quality pictures in the wide variety of conditions that life will throw at you, a mode for inspiration, and a quick reference for review—all at once.  In my case this translates into being able to:

  1. Easily and quickly choose from several pre-set modes: whether I am taking pictures of my dog, out for a night on the town in D.C., or on an outdoor adventure
  2. View in-the-moment how camera angle, sun positioning, and settings that I choose will change the outcome of the shot and the coolness of the resulting photo
  3. Review and delete pictures with ease (i.e. if I don’t look good from a certain angle, I want to be able to review in case I need a retake.  Then I can immediately delete unbecoming shots before they make it to download phase.)

Indeed, a quality LCD helps compensate for so many photographic skills that don’t seem as accessible in the moment you want to capture the shot  I am not saying the camera doesn’t have the features or flexibility to keep up with your creative license—but most of us are in the market for a point-and-shoot for its combination of convenience, style, and quality.  Let’s take a look at how this cutting-edge P&S is able to demonstrate grace under pressure while it serves up aces to become among the elite in its class.

CAMERA ELEMENTS: Body, Features, Design

During the course of the review, I will sometimes refer to my personal SD850 IS because the comparison highlights some seemingly minor but significant feature/design changes.  While I (by a small margin) prefer the look and feel of my silver SD850, the SD870 scores higher on functionality.  Many of the features are the same, but the SD870 is easier to use because of the placement of key features and, of course, the LCD screen. 

For example, I mentioned the importance of being able to easily review pictures I have taken (or others have taken of me) so I can decide whether more need to be taken.  With the SD870, the play button stands alone on the back of the camera for easy playback without having to exit a shooting mode.  In contrast, with my own SD850 I have to switch out of picture taking mode (into play mode) in order to review a picture, then remember to switch back.  It’s a small design change, with major benefits—especially for the compulsive reviewer-re-taker.  In general, this feature on the camera makes it easier to navigate back and forth between the modes.  To get out of review (play mode) you simply tap the shutter button.

On the other hand, one change I do not like on the SD870 is the on/off key right next to the shutter button.  Consider how many times you have asked someone to take a picture with your camera.  While the shutter key is more prominent and raised, someone unfamiliar with your camera is just as likely to press the on/off switch by accident.  Then, you have to set up the camera and shot again while they wait anxiously to make the eight o’clock show.

A mere 5.5 oz., the SD870 comes equipped with 3.8x IS (image stabilization) capabilities and an 8 megapixel lens.  With a range of 4.6mm at maximum wide angle to 17.3mm at maximum telephoto—a 35mm film equivalent to 28mm (wide) and 105mm (tele)—the digital zoom can magnify up to 15x in combination with the optical zoom.  The image of the dragonfly below illustrates the combined effort of the SD870’s IS feature and digital macro zoom capability. 


(view medium image) (view large image)

The camera’s silver front also contains the built-in-flash, AF assist beam, red eye reduction lamp, and self timer lamp. 

canon powershot sd870 IS
(view large image)

The 3 inch LCD screen covers the majority of the SD870’s black backside.  To the right of the screen there is a column of buttons.  At the top is the convenient (above-mentioned) play button underneath which is a print/share button for use when connecting to a computer or printer.  Below that is an indicator light which may turn green, blinking green, orange or blinking orange depending on certain conditions. 

Under the indicator light is a function/set button encircled by a dial which offers easy access to ISO, flash, macro, self timer settings (in shooting modes), trash, and jump settings (in playback modes).  This function dial also serves as the up/down right/left keys and when you circle your finger counterclockwise around the outer edge, it gives you quick access to shooting modes.  For example, if I am in SCN mode and I circle my finger around the dial, an enlarged version of the modes I can choose from (in this case: Night snapshot, Kids&Pets, Indoor, Foliage etc.) will appear on the LCD screen.  As I continue to circle my thumb around and around, I simply stop at the mode I want and it takes me into that mode.  It is similar to the dial on an iPod, but not as sensitive or easy to use.

This dial takes some getting used to, and can sometimes be frustrating because you may think you chose one mode and it takes you to another.  But once you figure out the right sensitivity you will find yourself navigating quickly from mode to mode.

The top of the camera has a mode switch, on/off button, and the shutter button encircled by the zoom lever.  The mode switch, from left to right, puts you in movie mode, SCN mode, and shooting mode.  In shooting mode, this lever zooms in (telephoto) and out (wide angle).  When used in playback mode, it zooms in (magnifies image up to 10x) and out on an already taken photo.

canon powershot sd870 IS
(view large image)

The bottom of the SD870 has a mount for a tripod or externally mounted flash and the opening for the SD card and the rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack NB-5L. 

canon powershot sd870 IS
(view large image)

canon powershot sd870 IS
(view large image)

The right side of the SD870 has a metallic silver wrist strap mount and under a digital terminal cover there is access to the AV out—where you connect cords to printer/computer/TV. 

A few more Comments on the LCD Screen

The LCD monitor, in addition to being the sole viewfinder for taking pictures and a playback screen, displays all sorts of information.  If the info displayed becomes distracting when shooting, you can simply hide it by pressing the DISP button.  The various symbols are self-explanatory.  When I am unsure what a symbol or message represents, I refer to the user guide which offers detailed information on the meaning of all the symbols and how I can configure the associated settings.  While most people tend to ignore user guides, it is especially helpful with the SD870 since there are so many settings to choose from and features you might otherwise fail to take advantage of. 

I absolutely love the auto rotate function, which uses an Intelligent Orientation sensor to detect if you rotate the camera on its side (vertically).  Therefore, if you take a picture and rotated the camera when shooting, the camera will automatically display it upright on the LCD screen when you review the picture so you do have to constantly rotate your camera (or head) if you were scrolling through several images.  If for some reason you do not like this feature, you have to option to turn it off.

Lens/Focus/Zoom

I had fun with the 4.6-17.3mm lens (as discussed earlier and illustrated with close-ups of insects).  Of course, I took about 50 pictures of the praying mantis(sample images below)—only 5 of which were in focus—which is usually the way it goes when zooming in on a small animal. 

The SD870 has three focusing modes: face detect, AiAF and center focus.  Face detect looks for faces on which to focus.  AiAF detects a subject and highlights frames from 9 points in order to determine appropriate focus settings.  Center focus uses the center of the image as a reference for focus. When attempting to focus on a subject a frame will appear when the shutter button is pressed down halfway.  This frame will change color to indicate if the camera has achieved focus or is struggling to focus.  Sometimes the AF settings will have trouble detecting faces or the subject you want in focus, in which case you can lock the focus then recompose the image. 

In addition, the SD870 comes fully equipped with image stabilization capabilities—hence the IS in Powershot SD870 IS.  I can’t imagine myself choosing a P&S without IS.  IS helps combat camera shake that result in blurry images (often occurring in low-light situations w/o flash or when zooming in on far off objects).  This function can be set to Off, Continuous, Shoot Only, and Panning.  While Continuous mode allows you to constantly check the blurriness on the real-time LCD screen, Shoot Only engages the IS function only when the picture is taken.  Use Panning mode if you are taking pictures of subjects moving horizontally. 

Memory Media and Image File Size/Formats

The SD870 can save images to a SD, SDHC, MultiMediaCard, and MMCplus memory cards.  The size and type of memory card you opt to use with the SD870 will determine the amount of files you can store before having to format the camera.  Furthermore, the specific image size/compressionsettings and shooting conditions will affect the actual quantity of images you can store.

The camera saves images as JPEGs in the following sizes: Large (3072x2448), Medium 1 (2592x1944), Medium 2 (2048x1536), Small (640x480), Postcard (1600x1200), and Widescreen (3264x1832).  Sound memos are recorded as WAVE (monaural) files.

Connectivity

The SD870 has USB2.0 Hi-Speed (mini-B) Audio/Video output (NTSC or PAL selectable). 

Power/Battery Performance/Power Saving Function

Using battery pack NB-5L, a fully charged SD870 will take approximately 270 pictures or 6 hours of use (according to manual based on CIPA standards).  Remember that these figures vary with shooting conditions, settings, and especially if you are shooting movies. 

The battery performed very well for me—and I take a lot of pictures.  Just like a cell phone, remembering to charge the battery when you are not using it is the hardest part.  You shouldn’t have an issue keeping it powered for use—unless of course you are planning a long hiking trip where you will not have access to an outlet.

Another feature I really like is the power saving function which shuts off the power when the camera use is inactive for a certain amount of time.  You have the option to  change or turn off this feature. 

Included

The SD870 comes with:  (1) Battery pack NB-5L with terminal cover; (2) Battery Charger; (3) 32MB SD memory card; (4) Interface cable; (5)AV Cable; (6) Canon Digital Camera Solution disk (software for downloading images to computer); (7) Warranty card;  (8) User Guides; and (9) Wrist strap

THE PICTURE TAKING EXPEREINCE & PERFORMANCE

Auto Mode

Auto mode is the most convenient way to take still pictures using the camera’s default programmed automatic settings.  In other words, the camera chooses the flash, exposure, and ISO settings—you can still choose the image quality and size using the FUNC. button.  Even though it chooses settings, you can still tweak them a bit: you can turn on/off flash, switch into macro (for close ups), chose between AUTO ISO and AUTO HIGH ISO and set up the self timer from the mode dial. 

After taking several (hundred) pictures of my beautiful Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Mackenzie, I maintained my commitment to the ad that inspired my initial excitement about reviewing a PowerShot camera.  Thus, with Maria Sharapova’s advice in mind, “Make every shot, a power shot,” I decided to bring the SD870 on my all-day rafting adventure on the Shenandoah River.  As soon as we arrived at the rafting company, I was already snapping away while we waited for the rest of the group.  I was in another world, just having fun experimenting with the SD870’s auto modes. 

At one point someone spotted a Praying Mantis and I was immediately on the spot, creeping in on the little creature, staring back at his wary eyes with the 3.8 zoom lens.  I wanted to see what this camera could do, and was trying to capture him from every angle.  Just inches away, I quickly figured out how to turn off the sound so he wouldn’t get spooked.

canon powershot sd870 IS sample image
(view medium image) (view large image)
canon powershot sd870 IS sample image
(view medium image) (view large image)

I’m not sure anyone really understood why the weird girl was lying on her stomach in the middle of the gravel parking lot.  My embarrassed boyfriend had to peel me away and threaten to confiscate my camera so I would hurry and sign the rafting waiver. 

So we are grouped up getting the pre-river lecture on safety and I am off to the side making my friend Brian pose for pictures with Johnny Blue—the faded blue bus with fireball decals.  I’m pretty sure when they recommended we leave behind all valuable electronic devices, they were talking to me, but I was too busy enjoying the camera—and there is no way I was about to leave it behind and miss out on such good material.

canon powershot sd870 IS sample image
(view medium image) (view large image)

Alternate Modes

Other shooting modes on the camera allow you to choose pre-set modes for different types of scenes and shooting conditions.  If I switch into the main shooting mode using the mode switch on the top of the camera, the mode dial provides access to: Auto, Manual, Digital Macro, Color Accent, Color Swap, Stitch Assist left, and Stitch Assist right modes.  The Color Accent and Color Swap can be especially fun and conveniently creative because you can experiment with the colors right on your camera.  Color Accent allows you to choose a color directly from the image you see on your LCD screen to remain in-color while the rest of the image is black and white. 

canon powershot sd870 IS sample image
(view medium image) (view large image)

Color Swap allows you to choose one (and only one) color to be switched to another color of your choice.  For instance, if I take a snapshot of an image in AUTO that I really like, I will switch into these modes and take a few shots.  Again, the LCD screen allows you to see how these settings look real time, so if the picture looks too cliché, I don’t have to waste my time pressing the shutter button and reviewing.  ISO will adjust to try and compensate for an increase in noise, but in some conditions it is impossible to fight the increased noise level. 

canon powershot sd870 IS sample image
(view medium image) (view large image)

In the SCN mode (mode switch on camera top), you can choose from several modes that default to the most appropriate setting for the scenes: Portrait, Night Snapshot, Kids&Pets, Indoor, Foliage, Snow, Beach, Fireworks, Aquarium, and Underwater.  Going along with the convenience theme of a p&s, these modes offer easy access to settings when you have to make in-the-moment decisions and do not have time to fool with advance settings. 

Floating adventurously down the river, I was capturing some really fantastic pictures….

canon powershot sd870 IS sample image
(view medium image) (view large image)
canon powershot sd870 IS sample image
(view medium image) (view large image)
canon powershot sd870 IS sample image
(view medium image) (view large image)
canon powershot sd870 IS sample image
(view medium image) (view large image)

….that is…before it slipped momentarily out of my fingertips into the shallow but none-the-less completely submerged state.  Luckily, the memory card and battery evaded any damages, but the lens would no longer function.  Oops, maybe I should have paid attention to the rafting company’s advice.

And yes, this probably also could have been avoided had I:

  1. Worn the included wrist strap.
  2. Actually put it in the dry bag (not a good option since it seems rather difficult to take pictures through a plastic bag).
  3. Left it at home and taken pictures in dry conditions, such as more pictures of my dog Mackenzie
  4. Used an optional (sold separately) waterproof case

Image Quality Settings

You can increase the image quality by adjusting the compression ratio of images.  There are three image quality settings: Superfine, Fine, and Normal.  I was satisfied taking pictures in Fine mode.

Movie Mode

In addition to still images, the SD870 can record movies.  Movie image data is saved as Motion JPEG while audio is saved in WAVE (monaural) format.  The movies can be taken in several modes including Standard, Compact, Color Accent, Color Swap, and Time Lapse.  Standard mode will let you take movies up to 4GB as long as you have a memory card that large.  You can also engage digital zoom while shooting movies in this mode.  Use compact mode if you need the data size to be small—to send in an email, for example. 

Time lapse is a neat feature that takes pictures on an interval of your choosing for 2 hours, and then compresses that data.  This mode would best be used from a fixed perspective of something moving such as clouds in the sky) or a growing flower.

In the standard, color accent, and color swap shooting modes, movies can be recorded in 640x480 pixels (30frames/sec.), 640x480 pixels (30 frames/sec. LP), and 320x240 pixels (30 frames/sec.).  In compact mode, which records for up to 3 minutes, movies are recorded at 160x120 pixels or 15 frames/sec.  In Time Lapse mode, which can record up to 2 hours, movies are recorded at 640x480 pixels: 1 frame/sec. in intervals of 1 sec., .5 frames/sec. in shooting intervals of 2 sec. and 15 frames/sec. during playback. 

Exposure Compensation

With the SD870, you can manually adjust brightness within the range of -2 to +2 in steps of .3.  This is adjustable in the majority of shooting modes, and none of the movie modes. 

Light Metering

Three exposure metering settings are available on the SD870: Evaluative, Center Weighted Ave. and Spot.  Evaluative uses several factors to interpret complex lighting situations and “evaluate” for the best result.  Center Weighted averages light across the frame, giving more weight to the center of the composition.  Use Spot when you want to take a picture with a subject smack in the middle of the image. I prefer and was satisfied with using the camera’s default Evaluative mode because it works to provide the most comprehensive exposure.

I took several pictures of this wonderful male specimen and wannabe model from all sorts of angles: backlit, front lit etc. and the camera did a good job of adjusting to these changes.  See Brian’s modeling portfolio below taken in auto mode using Evaluative metering.

canon powershot sd870 IS sample image
(view medium image) (view large image)
canon powershot sd870 IS sample image
(view medium image) (view large image)
canon powershot sd870 IS sample image
(view medium image) (view large image)
canon powershot sd870 IS sample image
(view medium image) (view large image)

White Balance

For the most part, the SD870 determines the WB setting based on the mode you are using.  However, if you are unhappy with the color reproduction, you can alter WB settings: Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Incandescent, Florescent, Florescent H, and Custom when shooting in Manual, Digital Macro, and Stitch Assist (still images) and Standard, Compact and Time Lapse (Movies).   I felt the AWB did a decent job of producing natural looking colors and adjusting to the varying conditions. 

Sensitivity

In Auto, Manual, and Digital Macro mode, the ISO (sensitivity to light) can be adjusted. Auto, 80, 100, 200, 400, 800, and 1600 can be chosen.  Remember lower ISO’s are generally used in bright sun/clear days, where as higher ISO can help compensate for darker conditions, overcast skies, low light when you do not wan to use flash or to avoid blurry subjects.  Increasing ISO basically increases the camera’s shutter speed.  It is also important to remember that increasing the ISO also increases noise in images.  However, the SD870 has some features that attempt to address this problem.

For one, the SD870 will automatically apply noise reduction settings when you shoot in high ISO speeds.  Also, this camera offers further noise reduction assistance with an AUTO ISO Shift feature that alerts you when need to increase the ISO to avoid a blurry image. 

Flash

The SD870 is equipped with built-in-flash.  Users can simply let Auto decide if flash is needed, chose Red-eye reduction, FE lock, or Slow Synchro.  In Manual and Digital Macro modes FE lock allows you to lock flash exposure settings for a subject and still adjust the composition as you wish.

Color

Shooting in one of the SD870’s My Color modes offers a variety of color-enhancing options such as: Vivid, Neutral, Sepia, B&W, Positive Film, Lighter Skin Tone, Darker Skin Tone, Vivid Blue, Vivid Green, Vivid Red, Custom Color, or off.  If you choose the Lighter Skin Tone setting, make sure there are no other light skin tones elsewhere in the frame—they will change also!

In-Camera Adjustment: Playback & Erasing

There are several options for viewing and even editing photos on the camera itself.  From jumping to a certain category of images from the press of a button on the back of the camera, organizing photos, editing your movie clips, rotating images, red-eye correction, resizing images, adding sound clips to images, protecting certain images to deleting images—this camera offers several adjustments you can make before you even download the images to your computer.  Its fun to show others a days worth of photos, and with the SD870 you can make a slideshow with neat transition effects.

If you want to skip downloading images to your computer entirely, with DPOF print feature you have the option of choosing from the camera which images (and quantity) you want to print directly from your memory card.   

CONCLUSION

If you are looking for a cutting edge P&S with the latest features—this camera has a lot to offer.  While I don’t find it as stylish as other models, the Canon SD870 IS is extremely user friendly, has numerous auto settings for almost any condition, has convenient buttons for easy camera navigation and performs well for its class.  I would feel confident taking this camera on out with friends or to my Dad’s 50th birthday party—because of what it can do for its size and because the SD870 will do most of the thinking for me in situations when I can’t, don’t want to, or don’t have time to.  The IS adds to its versatility and convenience—you can take close ups of small insects, use it indoors at a nightclub and capture shots that would otherwise be completely blurry without a tripod. 

I’m pretty sure I would think twice before taking it anywhere close to a body of water without purchasing the waterproof case—I would have liked to be looking at a 3.8x  magnified image of a praying mantis on my 3inch LCD screen instead of looking through Canon’s warranty information.


(view medium image) (view large image)

Pros:

Cons: