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Canon PowerShot SD770 IS Review
by David Rasnake -  6/19/2008

With some high-profile, heavily hyped siblings around, it's easy for the Canon PowerShot SD770 IS to get overlooked. Sitting between exciting new interface designs and lots of new technology in the SD790 and 890, and the budget bomber SD1100 IS – follow-up to a camera that was on just about everyone's "best value" list – a close inspection of the SD770's spec sheet reveals it to be a bit of an odd duck. For a new camera, there's very little new here.

Canon PowerShot SD770 IS


On this score, though, the PowerShot SD770 has the potential to be an example of what Canon often does extremely well in its mid-level models: building comparatively simple point-and-shoots that draw on a proven collection of components and technologies. There may not be lots of awe-inspiring surprises waiting to be unearthed in the SD770's performance, but it's a reasonably safe bet that there won't be too many nasty ones lurking beneath the surface either.


FEATURES OVERVIEW

The Canon PowerShot SD770 IS is an ultracompact point-and-shoot with a 3x zoom lens and a 10.0 megapixel CCD imager. Functionally, the camera builds on Canon's legacy of placing lower-cost, lower-spec SD models in the 700 series. Stylistically, the camera is hyped as a return to the classic "box and circle" look of Canon's long-running ELPH compacts – a series of cameras that has roots all the way back in the dark ages of APS film (or, if you missed the irony, the mid-1990s).

The original ELPH (like the current Digital ELPH models, also known as the IXUS in Europe) was something of an engineering marvel in 1996, staking a claim as the smallest auto focus zoom camera at the time of its release. The ELPH lineage, which morphed into the Digital ELPH around 2000 and has come to be embodied in the PowerShot SD line, has continued to include Canon's latest ultracompact technology in its flagship models. But the SD770 represents a return to much of what the original ELPH was: a simple, pocketable camera built with no-frills snapshot capture in mind.

Yet at its core the SD770 is all modern. DIGIC III processing, optical image stabilization, and copious resolution form the technological backbone around which this compact is built. Though the SD770 gives up some of the higher-end models' more flashy soft features (face detection tools in playback, for instance), the benefits of upgraded processing – like improved speed all around, as well as Canon's nifty face tracking technology – are all here.

Sporting a three-position switch (with stops for playback, movie mode, and regular still-image shooting) and no physical mode dial, the SD770 takes a menu-based selection approach common among previous cameras in this line. The system is fluid, it works seamlessly, and if you're moving up from another Canon, your hands should feel right at home with the newest PowerShot.

As with many compact cameras these days, how many basic shooting modes the SD770 offers depends largely on what you define as "basic." Several options that most of us would classify as scene presets are included in the SD770's top-level shooting modes listing. At its most basic (as I define it, anyway), the Canon provides the following options:

 

Among the scene presets listed in the master group are Canon's usual Color Accent and Color Swap modes (which provide some interesting special effects to play around with), Night Snapshot and Portrait presets, and a Digital Macro mode (basically, an employment of digital zoom in conjunction with macro focusing distances).

While the list looks a little confused, the only truly arcane bit in this whole modes arrangement involves accessing the scene presets that aren't listed in the top-level grouping: you have to thumb past the presumably less-used Digital Macro, Color Swap, and Color Accent stops to get to the scene selection; once you get there, you also have to know that it takes pressing the "DISP" button to call up the list of presets. There's an on-screen hint to this effect, but it's subtle and may get overlooked initially.

While the playback menu is a pretty boring place on the SD770 compared to some of its competitors (you might call it "refreshingly simple" if you're of a different mind, however...), one bit of wizardry here is the incorporation of an orientation sensor. Want to view those portrait-orientation images using the full screen? Simply rotate the camera to portrait orientation; a sensor recognizes which way is up, and adjusts the image accordingly. Now there's a truly handy implementation of auto-adjustment technology.

For a detailed listing of specs and features, take a look at the specs table found at the bottom of the review.


FORM, FIT, AND FEEL

If Canon's phalanx of stylistically aggressive new SD models represents where the company is heading from a design standpoint, the SD770 makes an equal nod to where the Digital ELPH models came from. With squared off basic shapes, a familiar control arrangement, and the SD-signature prominent lens bezel, the SD770 joins the SD1100 as far and away the most "ELPH-like" of Canon's current SD offerings.

Styling and Build Quality

Construction of the SD770 feels extremely solid. The camera's lightly sculpted rectangular shape combines with a dense, thick overall feeling that suggests quality.

Canon PowerShot SD770 IS

The SD770's brushed metal case is the same regardless of whether you choose the silver or black color option: only the color of lens bezel changes. From a purely stylistic perspective, I much prefer the balance of brushed metal and chrome that our silver version exhibits.

Canon PowerShot SD770 IS

Surrounding the large-for-an-ultracompact shutter release button, the zoom toggle's raised center point makes the rotating switch easy to actuate in either direction with a single finger.

Out back, buttons and switches are all nice and large, with a gray matte finish and solid press/slide feel all around.

Canon PowerShot SD770 IS

In reviewing the SD890, I commented on how much I appreciated Canon's thoughtful integration of the A/V port cover into the total visual scheme of the camera. The same applies here: a chromed finish tops the rubberized port cover, blending seamlessly with the surrounding finish.

Canon PowerShot SD770 IS

No, it doesn't do anything to help the camera take better pictures, but carefully thought-out design touches like this further suggest (to me, at least) that Canon is at the top of its game where styling on the latest SDs is concerned.

Canon PowerShot SD770 IS

While the overwhelming feeling is one of quality, the SD770's battery door is unabashedly flimsy, and without a metal retaining pin to anchor the hinge I have serious concerns about the possibility of the door getting broken off during regular use.

Finally, the SD770 comes with the most heavily stylized battery charger we've yet seen from Canon – the only one of this year's new SDs to get such an upgrade.

Canon PowerShot SD770 IS

If you have an iPod fetish or live in an home that could double as showroom for the IKEA catalog, the seemingly misplaced industrial-design hipness of this accessory may be a selling point.

Ergonomics and Interface

There are so many different physical interfaces on Canon SD cameras these days that addled minds like mine can't hope to keep them all straight. The SD770 uses a variant that's very similar to what we saw on the SD1100, and much closer to what I'm used to from older Digital ELPHs (ELVs?) than the more cutting-edge and controversial control arrangements of the SD790 and SD890.

Moreover, a deck-of-cards shape, thickness, and profile don't do much ergonomically, but big buttons and plenty of grip space out front with no risk of covering the flash, AF illuminator, or viewfinder portal get it right all the same. The SD770 uses its back panel space without feeling cluttered – a smaller screen helps in this regard – and just about anyone who's picked up a camera in the last decade should have no trouble navigating this one.

It's more of the same in the menus, with the SD770 continuing Canon's legacy of knowing when to not mess with a good thing where menu design is concerned. A sidebar menu controls basic shooting parameters; key settings (flash, focusing controls, ISO) get their own dedicated access via the five-way controller. The main menu, comprising camera functionality settings and advanced shooting options, spans a mere three tabbed sub-menus. If you've been scared off by too-long menus with too many meaningless options in the past, you've come to the right place.

All in all, the SD770's simple yet effective design made shooting with the camera a refreshing exercise in minimalism. There's definitely something to be said for the route Canon has taken in this case, and the feeling of instant accessibility alone may be reason enough for some to choose the SD770 over the more feature-rich SD790 step-up model.

Display/Viewfinder

Like most SD models, the SD770 packs in a true optical viewfinder – albeit a tiny, dark, and inaccurate one. Inaccuracy is by far the most frustrating of the three issues here, with the viewfinder showing significantly less coverage than the SD770 is actually capturing along every axis except the top one. For carefully framed compositions that require no post-shot cropping, using the LCD instead is a must, but for continuous shooting with the subject near the center of the frame or for grabbing shots in tough light, my longstanding position that some viewfinder is better than no viewfinder still holds.

Canon PowerShot SD770 IS

Not so long ago, the SD770's 2.5-inch LCD would have been considered rather capacious. Not so these days, and if you're a sucker for maximum possible screen size, head straight up to the SD790 with its 3-inch display. Like most Canon screens, the SD770's didn't wow me with its contrast, sharpness, and vibrancy the way that displays on some high-end competitors have. Nor did I have to spend much time worrying about its accuracy where image reproduction is concerned, however: to a large degree, what you see on the SD770's monitor is what you get (though the screen can look a bit washed out and flat in high-contrast scenes, encouraging a bit more negative exposure compensation than is really necessary).


PERFORMANCE

If the SD770 isn't exactly a sprinter among pocket cameras, snappy performance (and in particular, quick AF performance) keeps the latest Canon just back of the class leaders in this regard. Though the flash isn't exactly a bright spot, combine good speed with a great battery and you've got an elegantly simple, pleasingly responsive pocket camera perfect for summer vacation shooting.

Timings and Shutter Lag

True shutter lag on the SD770 (press-to-capture time with the camera pre-focused) comes in at a quick but perceptible 0.06 seconds in our testing. If this could even be called a lag, AF performance more than makes up for it: in our standard wide-angle focusing test, the camera is able to lock focus and fire in a very respectable 0.55 seconds. No hunting. No drama. Just a simple press of the shutter and shots are captured almost immediately. With many small cameras still averaging much closer to a full second in this test, the SD770's rock solid AF consistency is worth noting.

Our SD770 dashed off an evenly paced 10 full-res frames in 6.8 seconds, and seems to be perfectly willing to continue at this rate for awhile. Working out to nearly 1.5 fps, the SD770 doesn't turn in blazing fast continuous shooting speed, but it's fast enough to (in conjunction with the camera's optical viewfinder) give the SD action shooting capabilities good enough for an occasional use, at least. (Note that continuous drive cannot be engaged in Auto shooting mode, and is only available with certain scene presets as well.)

The ability to draw a pocket-size camera quickly, fire it up, and grab an unfolding shot is one key benefit of a carry-everywhere ultracompact. To this end, the SD770 is able to power up, extend the lens, and grab that first shot in right at 1.8 seconds. Like most of the SD770's middle-of-the-pack hard numbers, there are faster cameras out there, but slower ones as well.

Lens and Zoom

Going back the SD770's 3x optic, I realized just how quickly I've become spoiled to the slight range advantage that the current slate of ultracompacts with 4x and 5x lenses offers. The truth of that "every little bit helps" mantra that we repeat about seemingly small additions to zoom range on newer cameras really isn't apparent until those little bits of improvement are then taken away.

Thinking about digital zoom on the SD770 to overcome the lens's slight range limitations? Don't. It appears to be one of the "old style" systems that use an interpolated reduction to create an image (by contrast, newer technology in some cameras reduces the number of capture pictures for cleaner digital zoom shots). The results have that grainy, "res-ed up" look that's everything most of us remember disliking about digital zoom.

Minimum focusing distance at wide-angle tests at just over an inch – not bad at all for an ultracompact.

Canon PowerShot SD770 IS

As noted, the SD770 also sports a Digital Macro mode, but as it uses digital zoom, results are predictably fuzzy.

Auto Focus

Auto focus options on the SD770 will be familiar to anyone who's used one of these cameras in the recent past: multi-area (what Canon calls AiAF) and center-area (with a selectable area size) modes, as well as a face detection mode that defaults to basic AiAF when no faces can be found. There's no continuous AF option on the SD770: once you half-press the shutter release, focal distance is locked accordingly.

As seen, AF speed is good for an ultracompact. AiAF can be a bit of a mess in this application, seeming to find a different set of preferred focus points every time you release and re-press the shutter button to lock focus. For this reason, I found myself preferring the SD770's slightly more responsive feel in center-area AF mode, but that's often my personal preference for compact cameras anyway.

I spent a little more time with the latest version of Canon's face detection system this time around, and I have to say that I continue to be impressed with how much this technology has improved – going from little more than an opportunity to write marketing copy to something that borders, at least, on being powerful enough to really help create better portraits in the span of about two years. Configure the SD770's function-selectable Direct Print button to control face selection in shooting mode and the usefulness ticks up even another notch.

In general, it's still no substitute for good basic photographic knowledge: I couldn't see much difference in white balance or exposure performance with this supposedly linked group of systems all enabled. But evaluating face detection solely on the merits of AF performance, the technology's ability to lock on to and track faces is a solid step better than it's ever been in the latest generation of compact cameras.

Flash

Nothing out of the ordinary here: the flash on the SD770 is fairly typical for a current compact, with limited power and poor unit placement causing the typical annoyances. Range is a paltry 11 feet with auto ISO enabled. Working with the ISO fixed at 80/100? Better hope a light burst of fill is enough to round out your exposure, because that's all you'll get. Exposure was consistently good, however, with few hotspots – even in tough lighting (dark room/light subject).

Yet again, full-power flash recycle times prove to be a minor thorn in another SD's side: the SD770 cranked out a quickest max power recharge time of 7.6 seconds. Though it's only a few seconds more than the average competitors in this size bracket, if you're trying to capture snaps in a dark room it can feel like an eternity.

On a more positive note, red-eye reduction worked flawlessly, and if the reduction lamp isn't enough, a post-shot automatic correction feature can be enabled in the main menu. Likewise, the flash avoids giving lighter skin tones an excessively cool look, even under mixed lighting.

Image Stabilization

One key separator for the SD770 when compared to much of its tiny size/budget price competition is Canon's decision to include optical image stabilization; indeed, the SD770 is billed as the thinnest Canon to offer IS to date. Presumably built around identical technology to what we've seen in other recent SD cameras, there's little to report with the IS system other than that it works. Outlandish claims about the number of stops of improvement these kinds of systems offer notwithstanding, the SD's technology is clearly and consistently good for at least two stops in most cases per my testing.

Battery Life

The SD770 uses a different (and apparently smaller) lithium-ion rechargeable pack than the bulk of its SD peers, meaning charger "swapability" if you own multiple Digital ELPH cameras is likely a no-go.

Canon PowerShot SD770 IS

Whatever the charging arrangements, the SD770 sips battery juice. The benefits of a smaller screen, less zoom travel, and a relatively low-power flash are all realized in power consumption that almost appears to be nonexistent: after three weeks of casual shooting and 250-odd snaps, the battery finally asked for a second charge, putting the SD770 pretty darn close to that CIPA standard of 300 shots when you consider that amount of playback and video shooting time involved.

Like many other cameras we've tested, power fall-off is not exactly linear with the SD770: the camera's power reporting is almost alkaline-like in the way it goes from having plenty of juice to none at all almost immediately. Maybe our brand-spanking-new test unit's battery hasn't quite been cycled in sufficiently?

All in all, though, the SD770's ability to go for a good long while without a charge while simultaneously not making concessions to larger size is a boon for shooters seeking a worry-free, eminently pocketable camera for travel or vacation shooting.


IMAGE QUALITY

Even with a target that emphasizes general consumers over photo enthusiasts, Canon has set a high image quality bar with the last few rounds of SD cameras. While it wouldn't be fair to say that the SD770 doesn't clear this bar, in light of technological advances elsewhere, it certainly doesn't inch it higher. Concerns with sensor and lens may get some serious shooters' feathers ruffled (especially those from the camp that likes to compare current SDs to the superior IQ performance of some previous models), but if you're an image quality snob, just keep reminding yourself: it's built to be a snapshot camera.

Exposure, Processing, and Color

As always, purists will find the SD770's default output to be both a little oversharpened and a little oversaturated.

Canon PowerShot SD770 IS

Mid-value blues show a saturation boost that's become characteristic of Canon's default processing. Beyond this, I felt like the SD770's shots looked even more heavily sharpened than I'm used to from Canon, with a bit more haloing on hard edges.

Canon PowerShot SD770 IS

It doesn't help that the SD770's sensor is a bit hairy, even at ISO 80. As always, though, these concerns largely fall into the territory of 100-percent view analysis, and users who are prone to getting overly concerned about this kind of minutia might be well advised to skip the entire ultracompact class anyway.

What might be of more concern to the average shooter is the clipped look that high-contrast scenes produce from the SD770. Fairly aggressive default contrast means the SD770 doesn't roll off highlights as smoothly as some competitors. The abrubt transition to clipping in the shot below was fairly typical of my experience with the SD770.

Canon PowerShot SD770 IS

If the SD770 appears to be slightly less forgiving than some compacts in holding onto highlight detail, however, it should be reiterated that no compact is particularly tolerant in this area. As is the case with the majority of the small-sensor cameras we test, slight negative exposure compensation (as there are really no metering area options – face detection excepted – with the SD770) is an excellent baseline to preserve highlights and up the overall punch in wide dynamic range situations.

Canon PowerShot SD770 IS

As with metering options, advanced processing controls for things like contrast and saturation are absent on the SD770. What the PowerShot does feature, however, is Canon's long (and growing) list of "My Colors" color mode options. Beyond the default setting, the two most useful options are almost certainly the high-sat/high-contrast Vivid preset, and the much more subdued Neutral mode.

Canon PowerShot SD770 IS
Vivid
Canon PowerShot SD770 IS
Neutral
Canon PowerShot SD770 IS
Black and White
Canon PowerShot SD770 IS
Sepia

A quick histogram comparison suggests that neutral helps smooth the highlight taper somewhat when compared to the default mode; this, combined with my preference for boosting saturation and contrast post-process rather than at the time of capture make it the most pleasing option for my particular shooting style.

Note that the SD770's My Colors options also include settings for darkening or lightening skin tones, a positive film emulator, and color accent modes that bring out either reds, greens, or blues.

White Balance

The SD770's auto white balance system clearly didn't know what to make of our incandescent studio lamp test, producing a shot shifted heavily toward brown/tan.

Canon PowerShot SD770 IS
Auto White Balance, 3200K incandescent light

Interestingly, though, this performance didn't always jive with real-world findings: while the SD770 always showed a twinge of color shift, like many systems we've looked at lately, the latest technology here seems to be extremely color-temperature sensitive – yielding pretty widely differing results under slightly different light.

Outside of some incandescent concerns, auto white balance performance was flawless everywhere else, keeping bright-white fluorescent illumination away from the green-blue end of the spectrum, and even imparting a fair amount of warmth in late-in-the-day shots. With the standard list of presets as well as a custom set option available, though, a shooter's safest bet is still to fine-tune based on specifics of the scene at hand.

Lens Faults

Even by the standards of ultracompact cameras, the SD770's optics don't exactly jump off the page: the camera's 3x range is further limited to some degree by less than stellar performance. Pincushioning at telephoto isn't a problem, but barrel distortion at the wide end of the lens is noticeable.

Canon PowerShot SD770 IS
Wide-Angle
Canon PowerShot SD770 IS
Telephoto

Additionally, the SD770's glass isn't tack sharp at all apertures, and gets appreciably softer in the corners – especially using wide apertures toward the wide end of the lens.

Canon PowerShot SD770 IS

Sample shots also suggest that the lens shows some pronounced vignetting at wide angle that seems to pop up throughout the aperture range.

Canon PowerShot SD770 IS

Finally, the SD770 is prone to some heavy chromatic aberration at times, taking the form of thick purple fringe in the typical problem areas.

Canon PowerShot SD770 IS
Original image
Canon PowerShot SD770 IS
100% crop

All in all, these complaints get at details more than large-level performance. General shooters making 4x6 prints of their snapshots – in other words, the SD770's core market – are unlikely to be troubled by most of this. That said, for picky photographers, several minor niggles with the SD770's lens detract from the level and cleanliness of extremely fine detail captured with this camera.

Sensitivity and Noise

The SD770 uses the same 10.0 megapixel sensor we saw in the SD890, and noise performance is, not surprisingly, similar through most of the range.

Canon PowerShot SD770 IS
ISO 80
Canon PowerShot SD770 IS
ISO 80, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot SD770 IS
ISO 100
Canon PowerShot SD770 IS
ISO 100, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot SD770 IS
ISO 200
Canon PowerShot SD770 IS
ISO 200, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot SD770 IS
ISO 400
Canon PowerShot SD770 IS
ISO 400, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot SD770 IS
ISO 800
Canon PowerShot SD770 IS
ISO 800, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot SD770 IS
ISO 1600
Canon PowerShot SD770 IS
ISO 1600, 100% crop

The SD770 is admirably clean through ISO 800, and only really begins to show the effects of extreme color flattening and loss of saturation at ISO 1600. Oddly, though, ISO 1600 appears decidely less smooth than what we saw from the SD890.

Canon PowerShot SD770 IS
Canon PowerShot SD770 IS, ISO 1600
Canon PowerShot SD890 IS
Canon PowerShot SD890 IS, ISO 1600

The most noteworthy difference between the two seems to be the amount of color noise, with the SD890 showing cleaner whites and blacks, as well as a bit more detail all around. Given that the cameras share not only a sensor, but also a processor as well, it's hard to guess why the difference between the two might be this pronounced.

Additional Sample Images

Canon PowerShot SD770 IS Canon PowerShot SD770 IS
Canon PowerShot SD770 IS Canon PowerShot SD770 IS
Canon PowerShot SD770 IS Canon PowerShot SD770 IS

CONCLUSIONS

I like the SD770 in no small part because I feel like it does arguably the best job of getting back to what Canon's whole ELPH compact camera concept was about in the first place: simplicity, style, and nice snapshots at a (compared to the higher-end SDs, at least) moderate price. And who can't get on board with that? The upgrades are logical, the price is right, and the styling is plenty chic.

Image quality here won't knock your socks off: a slightly weak lens, typical Canon compact processing, and so-so noise performance combined with a lack of manual controls mean most aspiring art photographers won't find the image quality or the creative control they're seeking here. For doing what it does best, though – grabbing quick, informal captures of friends and family in decent light – the SD770 is quite good, and brings a clean, refined approach that will easily win over casual shutterbugs who find many digicams intimidating.


In short, if you want to do more with your images than make album prints or share them on the web, there are probably better cameras in this price range – ones offering more features, and more refined images. But for capturing shots with the simplicity and ease that made point-and-shoots so popular in the first place, the latest basic Digital ELPH remains a solid choice.

Pros:

Cons:


Canon PowerShot SD770 IS Specifications:

Sensor 10.0 megapixel, 1/2.3" CCD
Lens/Zoom 3x (35-105mm) zoom lens, f/2.8-4.9
LCD/Viewfinder 2.5", 230K-pixel PureColor II LCD; optical
Sensitivity ISO 80-1600
Shutter Speed 15-1/1600 seconds
Shooting Modes Auto, Manual, Digital Macro, Color Accent, Color Swap
Scene Presets Portrait, Night Snapshot, Kids and Pets, Indoor, Sunset, Foliage, Snow, Beach, Fireworks, Aquarium, High Sensitivity
White Balance Settings Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Fluorescent H, Manual
Metering Modes Evaluative, Center, Spot
Focus Modes AiAF, Spot AF (Center or Face Detect and Track)
Drive Modes Normal, Continuous, Self Timer
Flash Modes Auto, Forced On, Forced Off, Slow Sync, Red-Eye Reduction
Self Timer Settings
10 seconds, 2 seconds, Off
Memory Formats SD, SDHC, MMC
Internal Memory
None
File Formats JPEG, AVI
Max. Image Size 3648x2736
Max. Video Size
640x480, 30 fps
Zoom During Video Not Specified
Battery Rechargeable Lithium-Ion
Connections USB 2.0, AV output
Additional Features Face Detection, Motion Detection, Optical Image Stabilization, DIGIC III Processor