DigitalCameraReview.com
Canon PowerShot SD950 IS Review
by J. Keenan -  3/9/2008

When last I visited with a Canon SD camera wearing a 900-something number, it was the SD900 with a 10 megapixel sensor, 3x optical zoom and no stabilization. My latest houseguest is the Canon PowerShot SD950 IS, and it's amazing what those two extra letters can do for camera utility and desirability. But there are other incremental changes in the 950 to give it a bit more separation from the 900, and the letters are only part of the story.

Canon PowerShot SD950 IS
(view large image)

 

Still, the question arises if the improvements are significant enough to cause folks who like the 900 to trade up, or attractive enough to bring new believers to the flock.


FEATURES OVERVIEW

The SD950 IS features a 3.7x optically stabilized lens (up from 3x on the 900), Canon's Digic III processor, face detection technology, manual red eye correction, a nominal 80 to 1600 ISO sensitivity range (with a "3200 ISO" shooting setting available in the "SCN" mode, albeit at drastically reduced resolution), and a 2.5-inch monitor. The camera also receives a 12.1 MP sensor, up from 10 MP on the 900. Canon includes a lithium battery and charger, USB and A/V cables, CD-ROM software, a wrist strap, and a 32MH MMC Plus memory card with each camera.

While the SD950 IS includes a "manual" setting on its mode dial, potential users should understand this camera is an automatic P&S that does not provide the traditional aperture/shutter priority or fully manual exposure options that constitute what is typically referred to as "manual" controls. There are four primary shooting modes

For a detailed listing of specifications and features, please refer to the specifications table found at the bottom of the review.


FORM, FIT, AND FEEL

Canon's SD line has stayed true to the general deck-of-cards-shape and body size that dates back to the Canon ELPH film camera of 1996. Proportions may vary a bit, but today's SD cameras could easily pass for their original sibling. The SD950 IS is an eminently light and shirt pocket-portable compact.

Styling and Build Quality

The SD950 IS comes packaged in a handsome titanium clad body with chrome accents. As much as I like composite materials, the titanium body of the SD950 IS just seems to exude a feeling of robust and quality construction.

Canon PowerShot SD950 IS
(view large image)

Buttons, dials and switches have a solid feel to them, and the battery/memory card cover opens and closes simply with a reassuring click.

Canon PowerShot SD950 IS
(view large image)

The body has received some subtle contouring on its front in areas where the fingers of both hands fall naturally while holding the camera, but otherwise bears a striking resemblance to its predecessors.

Canon PowerShot SD950 IS
(view large image)

Ergonomics and Interface

Despite the overall smooth finish of the body, one-handed holding of the SD950 IS seemed reasonably secure – some credit for this must go to that contoured shape. The shutter button falls naturally under the right forefinger, and whether using a one or two-handed hold, the fingers of both hands find a comfortable grip that doesn't interfere with the lens, flash, viewfinder, or other camera controls.

Although the camera back is dominated by the monitor, buttons and dials located here have ample spacing to ensure no unintended activations when using another control. One such button is the playback button, which allows the user to quickly jump between the shooting screen and image review. The "function set" button and surrounding touch control dial allow rapid flash, macro, continuous shooting settings, ISO and scene setting selection, depending on the overall shooting mode. These SD950 IS external controls permit a good number of "shift on the fly" changes to image settings without resorting to internal menus.

Display/Viewfinder

The SD950 IS features a 2.5-inch, 230,000 pixel LCD monitor that is adjustable for brightness in 15 increments. The monitor provides virtually 100 percent image coverage, but even at the brightest settings can be difficult to use in direct light, particularly if smudged by fingerprints.

Canon PowerShot SD950 IS
(view large image)

There is an optical viewfinder that provides a live view for the optical range of the lens, but the view stays at the longest optical telephoto view once zooming enters the digital mode. Viewfinder accuracy looks to be in the 70 to 80 percent range, so users should remember that images composed via the viewfinder may have extraneous subject matter around them.


PERFORMANCE

The SD950 IS offers reasonable speed and utility in its operations and is in general a pleasant camera to use from a casual shooting standpoint.

Timing and Shutter Lag

Shutter lag with focus acquired averaged .1 seconds – the camera seemed to react quickly to fully depressing the shutter button. Shutter lag without focus acquired ran about .45 seconds.

Single shot-to-shot times (shoot, write, re-acquire focus, and shoot) ran about 2 seconds. Continuous shooting produced five shots in about 2.5 seconds.

There was no noticeable change in either single or continuous shooting mode times when using a high-speed (SanDisk Extreme III) SD card versus a SanDisk standard card, and in-camera write times did not seem to be influenced as well.

Lens and Zoom

The SD950 IS features a 3.7x optically stabilized zoom with a 35mm equivalent range of 36 to 133mm. At the wide angle end, the lens provides a fairly fast maximum aperture of f/2.8, but things begin slowing immediately once the lens begins to zoom in before reaching a fairly slow f/5.8 at the other extreme. There are seven stops between wide angle and telephoto, and each is best selected by a brief thumbing of the zoom lever.

There is a 4x digital zoom available, but image quality suffers. The digital zoom cannot be disabled by the user, but there is a pause and change of color in the monitor zoom readout before/as the zoom transitions from optical to digital. Inadvertent use of the digital zoom will require a fair amount of inattention on the part of the user.

Here's what that focal range looks like in the real world:

Canon PowerShot SD950 IS
Full Wide (view large image)
Canon PowerShot SD950 IS
Full Telephoto (view large image)

 

Auto Focus

The SD950 IS provides three AF frame options: center (the default setting), face detect, and AiAF. Center uses the center AF frame to establish focus; face detect permits the camera to detect the presence of a face and use that to establish focus; AiAF detects the subject and highlights the AF frame using any of nine AF points to establish focus. Selecting the appropriate AF frame can make life with the SD950 IS much simpler.

I found center worked best for me. AiAF would be fine in a simple shot, but with multiple subjects or potential subjects the camera would not always select the "subject" I wished to use as the focal point. Likewise, face detect is fine if you have faces, but it will drive you nuts if you inadvertently have it set and are trying to shoot a scene with no faces. It will seek out something in the frame that becomes the "face," but if what it selects and what you are looking to focus on coincide, chalk that up to a happy coincidence.

Initially, I was having trouble getting macro shots to come out in proper focus. Finally, resorting to the user's manual fixed that in a hurry – the SD950 IS has a minimum macro focus distance at wide angle of two inches. Follow the rules and the camera does a good job, but don't get too close.

Canon PowerShot SD950 IS
(view large image)
Canon PowerShot SD950 IS
(view large image)

 

Flash

Flash performance was good in the SD950 IS, with recycle times in average conditions running about 2.5 seconds – typically situations where there is outside illumination and the camera is shot in "auto" modes that allow it to vary ISO sensitivity. Users should be aware that under extreme conditions where a full flash discharge is triggered, recycle times exceeded 8 seconds (I set the camera to manual mode in order to fix the ISO sensitivity at 80, and shot images in a closed and pitch-black garage at night). For its part, Canon will say only that recycle times are "less than 10 seconds."

The camera illuminates an orange red-eye reduction lamp before firing the flash if red-eye reduction is enabled (a default setting), but the feature may be disabled via internal menu. Red-eye correction is available in the camera for manual use to correct defects should they occur.

Image Stabilization

A much-welcomed feature, the SD950 IS employs optical stabilization (via a moving lens element). Stabilization may be selected for continuous operation, when shooting only, or to dampen up and down motions when panning the camera. Continuous is the default setting and a good choice for overall use.

Battery Life

Canon rates the battery in the SD950 IS for about 240 shots in typical use. I shot about 150 images without the battery "fuel gauge" moving off "full," and was approaching 200 images with the gauge at 2/3 full. Between 200 and about 230 images the gauge went from 2/3 to blinking red. As it turns out, the 2/3 reading means "recharge the battery soon for extended use." Blinking red is exactly what it implies – recharge the battery now. In short, battery life is as advertised, but the gauge drops off quickly as the battery level drops. Carry a spare for all-day shooting sessions.


IMAGE QUALITY

The SD950 IS is the seventh Canon P&S I've reviewed here at DCR.com, and the previous six all offered good image quality and color. Nothing's changed – the SD950 IS does a good job producing quality images.

General Image Quality

Overall image quality is quite good, with pleasing sharpness and resolution. There is no way to alter the sharpening characteristics of the camera internally, but images can always be post processed should the user so desire.

Canon PowerShot SD950 IS
(view large image)

Canon PowerShot SD950 IS

 

As mentioned earlier, one of the advantages of that 12.1 MP sensor are large files that lend themselves to aggressive cropping should the need arise. The lens on the SD950 IS isn't long enough to get us really close to the surfers in the full frame shot below, but some serious cropping yielded the relatively close up shot at about 192 ppi – not excellent print density, but not bad.

Canon PowerShot SD950 IS
Original (view large image)
Canon PowerShot SD950 IS
Cropped (view large image)

 

If you can fill the frame with your subject, the SD950 IS won't disappoint in the image quality department.

Canon PowerShot SD950 IS
(view large image)
Canon PowerShot SD950 IS
(view large image)

 

Exposure, Processing, and Color

Evaluative metering is the default setting and does a good job overall of establishing exposure; there are center-weighted and spot metering options available. While it would still lose some highlights in extreme high contrast situations, the SD950 IS seemed to be biased a bit towards underexposure in most high contrast situations. This is certainly preferable to the alternative – if the image retains highlights, shadow areas can often be post-processed to achieve a more pleasing overall image. Lost highlights, on the other hand, are best fixed by importing new data from another part of the image.

The tendency to underexpose also has the effect of deepening color saturation, and was a trick often employed by folks shooting slide film to enhance its color. The photo that follows appears as it came out of the camera, with a highlight-saving exposure, and after a one-button post-processing fix to bring out detail in the darker areas of the image.

Canon PowerShot SD950 IS
Original (view large image)
Canon PowerShot SD950 IS
Post-Processed (view large image)

 

Default color on the SD950 IS a bit deeper and richer than it appears to the naked eye – the "neutral" setting in the "My Colors" menu more closely approximates real life in this regard. Here are examples of some of the color options available in the My Colors palette:

Canon PowerShot SD950 IS
Default (view large image)
Canon PowerShot SD950 IS
Neutral (view large image)
Canon PowerShot SD950 IS
Vivid (view large image)
Canon PowerShot SD950 IS
Positive Film (view large image)
Canon PowerShot SD950 IS
Black and White (view large image)
Canon PowerShot SD950 IS
Sepia (view large image)

 

White Balance

The default auto white balance setting on the SD950 IS does a pretty good job with most natural light as well as the flash. Auto WB shoots a bit warm with incandescent light, but the tungsten setting handles incandescent nicely. A custom WB option is available.

Lens Faults

Overall performance of the SD950 IS lens is quite good. There is barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from center of image) present at wide angle, along with some image softness and a bit of light falloff at the corners of the frame. Lens performance at the telephoto end is good across the frame, with no indication of pin cushioning (straight lines bow in toward center of frame). The shots that follow show barrel distortion in the photo of the block wall, and a couple of real world examples.

Canon PowerShot SD950 IS
(view large image)
Canon PowerShot SD950 IS
(view large image)
Canon PowerShot SD950 IS
(view large image)
 

 

Chromatic aberration (purple fringing in high contrast boundary areas) is present, although it requires a 200 percent enlargement to become objectionable.

Sensitivity and Noise

Increasing the pixel count on any particular sensor typically results in poorer high ISO noise levels, but the SD950 IS sensor is dimensionally larger than most other P&S sensors, with the result that despite the 12.1 MP count, the SD950 IS exhibits noise characteristics on a par with most other cameras in the class.

Canon PowerShot SD950 IS
ISO 80 (view large image)
Canon PowerShot A590 IS
ISO 100 (view large image)
Canon PowerShot A590 IS
ISO 200 (view large image)
Canon PowerShot A590 IS
ISO 400 (view large image)
Canon PowerShot A590 IS
ISO 800 (view large image)
Canon PowerShot A590 IS
ISO 1600 (view large image)

 

Canon PowerShot SD950 IS
ISO 80

Canon PowerShot SD950 IS
ISO 100

Canon PowerShot SD950 IS
ISO 200

Canon PowerShot SD950 IS
ISO 400

Canon PowerShot SD950 IS
ISO 800

Canon PowerShot SD950 IS
ISO 1600

 

ISO 80, 100 and 200 crops are largely indistinguishable, with real world photos even more so. Noise grows progressively worse in the crops at 400, 800 and 1600, with the largest apparent increase between 800 and 1600. The real world shots, particularly at their smaller sizes, look better than their cropped counterparts would suggest, with 800 being acceptable and 1600 usable in a pinch.

Additional Sample Images

Canon PowerShot SD950 IS
(view large image)
Canon PowerShot SD950 IS
(view large image)
Canon PowerShot SD950 IS
(view large image)
Canon PowerShot SD950 IS
(view large image)

 


CONCLUSIONS

The SD950 IS offers an interesting mix of features that at times seem at odds with each other – a wonderfully compact and lightweight camera wielding a big 12.1 MP sensor matched with a somewhat pedestrian 36-133mm focal length lens with image stabilization, but no manual controls. Truth be told, Canon has improved this camera over its predecessor by the addition of image stabilization, as well as a higher resolution sensor with comparable noise performance. The lens won't get you close to distant subjects, but it does now cover the 85 to 135mm focal length range many 35mm film shooters favor for portrait work. Image and color quality remain first rate. Focus acquisition and shutter lag are reasonably quick, and flash performance is good, with normal recycle times of only a few seconds.

Outside of the big sensor, there may not be any particular category that the SD950 IS leads the pack in. Image stabilization and a 2.5-inch monitor, for example, are as common as fleas on a dog's back. It's when you add up the sum of its parts that the true worth of the 950 begins to shine through. This camera doesn't do anything poorly, and does a host of things quite well. That should be enough for most folks.

Pros:

Cons:

 

Canon Powershot SD950 IS Specifications:

Sensor12.1 megapixel, 1/1.7" CCD
Lens/Zoom3.7x (35-133mm) zoom, f/2.8-5.8
LCD/Viewfinder2.5", 230K-pixel TFT LCD; Optical Viewfinder
SensitivityISO 80-1600 (3200 in High ISO scene mode)
Shutter Speed15-1/1600 seconds
Shooting ModesAuto, Manual, Movie, Scene
Scene PresetsPortrait, Night Snapshot, Kids and Pets, Indoor, Foliage, Snow, Beach, Fireworks, Aquarium, Underwater, High ISO
White Balance SettingsAuto, Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Fluorescent H, Custom
Metering ModesEvaluative, Center, Spot
Focus ModesFace Detection AF, Multi-point AiAF, Center AF
Drive ModesNormal, Continuous
Flash ModesAuto, Forced On, Forced Off, Slow Sync, Red-Eye Reduction
Self Timer Settings
10 seconds, 2 seconds, Custom (1-30 seconds)
Memory FormatsSD, SDHC
Internal Memory
None (32 MB card supplied)
File FormatsJPEG, AVI
Max. Image Size4000x3000
Max. Video Size
1024x768, 15 fps
Zoom During Video Not Specified
BatteryRechargeable Lithium-Ion
ConnectionsUSB 2.0, AV output, DC input
Additional FeaturesFace Detection, Optical Image Stabilization, DIGIC III image processing, titanium finish