DigitalCameraReview.com
Canon PowerShot SD990 IS Review
by David Rasnake -  12/31/2008

The Canon PowerShot SD990 IS, the latest flagship ultracompact in Canon's well-known Digital ELPH line of pocket cams, was rolled out just before the holiday buying season got underway in an effort to tempt buyers with a camera that simultaneously offers impressive specs but few frills.

Canon PowerShot SD990 IS


While not exactly minimalist in its approach, the retro styled SD990 definitely doesn't have the outlandish array of options afforded by many of its competitors at the high end of the market. Selling for some over $300, the SD990's makes its sales pitch not with boatloads of soft features, but with one very large statement: 14.7 megapixels. That's right: this camera makes images with higher pixel counts than many DSLRs are offering. 

The marketing hype surrounding this kind of resolution builds up some pretty high expectations for the SD990's images. But as we've all learned in the last few years, the connection between megapixels and image quality only extends so far...

FEATURES OVERVIEW
FORM, FIT, AND FEEL
PERFORMANCE
IMAGE QUALITY
CONCLUSIONS
SPECIFICATIONS

FEATURES OVERVIEW
The Canon PowerShot SD990 IS is Canon's highest resolution ultracompact to date, featuring a 14.7 megapixel sensor derived from the advanced G10 compact. A 3.7x stabilized Canon lens handles optical chores on this PowerShot, and there's a 2.5 inch PureColor II LCD and an optical viewfinder out back.

The SD990 is one of the first ultracompacts to enjoy the benefits of Canon's latest processor, DIGIC IV. Most notably, face detection has been improved to provide more accurate recognition of faces in profile and better tracking. Canon is also boasting substantive improvements to noise reduction algorithm, making the latest PowerShot SD model more flexible than ever when making images in low light in theory – though in practice, huge resolution (which often increases noise as a side-effect of more pixels fitted into spaces of similar size) presents some challenges to this claim.

Likewise, Canon is the latest manufacturer to advertise a form of dynamic range correction or shadow/highlight control. In this case, Canon's DIGIC IV powered Intelligent Contrast Correction (or i-Contrast) "automatically improves image quality in high contrast shooting situations," according to the manufacturer. The truth in the field is a little more complex, with i-Contrast's limited range of adjustments showing little impact in all but the most high-contrast scenes. Then again, this unobtrusive approach may be just what some shooters are looking for.

In terms of basic shooting modes, the SD990 has a few tricks up its sleeve not usually enjoyed by models in Canon's Digital ELPH series. Basic shooting modes on the SD990 are as follows:

Like most Canon PowerShots, the SD990 doesn't offer a plethora of playback options. There's a basic slideshow tool, and several layouts for scrolling through pictures. In terms of filters and other in-camera editing, the SD990 does add a few niceties – the ability to apply My Colors processing settings, red-eye correction, and even i-Contrast post-capture, for instance.

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

Styling and Build Quality
Canon hasn't exactly thrown their staid, conservative design mantra out the window with the PowerShot SD990, but this camera clearly continues the changes that began about a year ago in the company's PowerShot SD line.

Canon PowerShot SD990 IS

As always, this high-end SD's materials – an alloy shell with brushed metal accents – scream "premium," but there's a slightly more playful, curvaceous look about the SD990 than last year's version, the SD950, sported. The blacked out variant that we had in for review looks especially striking – a nice change from Canon's classic silver exteriors, though you can get the SD990 in silver as well if that's your preference.

Canon PowerShot SD990 IS

Construction quality is simply excellent, with tight fitment, solid port covers and doors, and no discernible body flex.

Canon PowerShot SD990 IS

Overall, even after some time with the SD990, I've struggled to find fault with Canon's build quality and design choices for this model. The camera is at once sleek enough to fit into a pocket and durable enough to take anywhere, providing an ideal balance of portability and ruggedness for an ultracompact model.

Ergonomics and Interface
The SD990 is deceptively heavy, with its metal case adding heft and a dense feel not often observed in pocket cameras. In hand, though, the SD990's subtly contoured body is as easy to hang onto as its predecessor, with fingers falling naturally to the important controls.

Canon PowerShot SD990 IS

In spite of some light restyling, Canon didn't really do anything to dress up the SD990's interface: the camera uses the same basic, very intuitive physical control arrangement found on the SD950, with a combined four-way controller/scroll wheel, a mode dial, and a handful of other dedicated buttons. The loose feeling scroll wheel can present the occasional frustration when you're trying to precisely dial in a setting, but beyond this, there's an ergonomic harmony and a clear logic to the SD990's layout.

Canon PowerShot SD990 IS

Canon hasn't significantly overhauled the basic look of their on-screen interface in years, making it easy to move up from an older PowerShot to this model. Primary shooting settings not afforded their own dedicated button are accessed through Canon's familiar sidebar menu.

Canon PowerShot SD990 IS

The SD990 does provide one unique interface option presumably designed to attract DSLR shooters seeking a pocket camera. The camera's Quick Shot mode shooting option claims to provide shorter lag times, as noted previously, but it also offers a unique-for-an-ultracompact interface that makes the SD990 much easier to deal with when shooting with the optical viewfinder.

Canon PowerShot SD990 IS

In Quick Shot mode, the live preview is disabled. In its place, Canon provides the comprehensive settings read-out seen above – very much the same kind of easily accessible settings info found on many DSLR status displays. Plus, the dark default screen background makes shot composition that much easier to see through the viewfinder.

Display/Viewfinder
Which brings us to the subject of the SD990's viewfinder itself. Like many PowerShot models, the SD990 features a linked optical viewfinder in addition to its LCD, allowing you to compose shots without using the screen. While the viewfinder itself is cramped, fairly inaccurate, and, of course, doesn't provide a through-the-lens view for confirming focus, for shooting in bright light or taking shots of fast-moving subjects, it's a helpful addition.

Canon PowerShot SD990 IS

As the flagship of the PowerShot SD fleet, Canon's 900-series SD models have often mystified me: presumably to make room for an optical viewfinder, the company has resisted the trend of putting bigger, more high-res screens on its nicest ultracompacts. The SD990 uses the same 2.5 inch, 230,000 dot LCD that the SD950 provided, and while the screen itself remains vibrant, fluid, and perfectly adequate for most tasks, a 2.5 inch display seems hardly worthy of a $350 camera these days. I'm glad that Canon chose to keep the viewfinder in, but it seems a little design work could have finessed a crisp 3.0 inch screen into roughly the same form factor and kept the viewfinder intact.


PERFORMANCE

Timings and Shutter Lag
Although it's virtually identical to the SD950, the SD990 benefits from Canon's most up-to-the-minute processing technology. Hence, we weren't surprised at all to find that Canon has quickened the pace a bit compared to the previous model.

Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)

Camera Time (seconds)
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500 0.02
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T700 0.02
Canon PowerShot SD990 IS
0.03
Canon PowerShot A1000 IS 0.04
Fujifilm FinePix F60fd 0.05

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)

Camera Time (seconds)
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T700 0.23
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500 0.40
Fujifilm FinePix F60fd 0.42
Canon PowerShot A1000 IS 0.46
Canon PowerShot SD990 IS 0.55

The more appreciable drop is in shutter lag, where the SD990 vies with class leaders and cuts the former model's number by more than half. AF acquisition times are about the same as before, although the ace up this camera's sleeve is Quick Mode: enable the viewfinder-only setting and the camera also appears to engage (if the sound is any indication) continuous focus, which registered times as low as 0.17 in this measure on our test setup.

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames Framerate
Fujifilm FinePix F60fd 3 2.5 fps
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T700 10 1.6 fps
Canon PowerShot SD990 IS 1.4 fps
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500
1.4 fps
Canon PowerShot A1000 IS 5 1.4 fps

Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.), as tested in our studio. "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.

Canon has seemingly made it a point to slightly undersell the continuous shooting performance of their models of late, and the SD990 comes in slightly better than advertised, exceeding 1.4 fps by a small margin (though not a full tenth) and continuing at the speed apparently infinitely

Auto Focus
The SD990 offers three AF frames: center, auto multi-area (which bears Canon's AiAF branding), and face detection. There's no user-controlled focus area option – meaning none of these settings will let you move the focus area as desired using the four-way controller. To make up for this, Canon has included the same manual focus technology that we've seen on these cameras in the past, using a sliding distance scale on the screen and the up/down directional controls for adjusting focus. It's imprecise and can be slow to use, but it's certainly better than nothing.

Testing the camera primarily in the center-area AF mode with servo AF (continuous drive) disabled, I found the SD990 pleasant to use and basically flaw-free in good to adequate light. The SD990 will hit the expected snags in low light, where the camera often seems to guess in front of the actual subject, and there's often an extra motion or two when focusing toward the telephoto end. So it's not a DSLR when it comes to focus reliability – no surprises there – but in total, the SD990 is a step ahead of most of its competition, and only has to bow to some of Sony's faster (but less reliable) Cyber-shots on speed.

Lens and Zoom
To me, the SD990 often seems to contradict itself: on the one hand, here's Canon's premium ultracompact, with the bells, whistles, and high-end build that comes with the territory. But then on some key specs, this SD is as commonplace as any entry-level ELPH model.

Take, for instance, this PowerShot's lens. It's a 3.7x model, covering a very typical 36-133mm and optical stabilization. Maximum aperture throughout is fine, but nothing more. Construction quality is, again, fine. The lens can be a little slow to pick up when you first hit the zoom toggle, but otherwise there's nothing I can find to complain about from a usability standpoint either.

Similarly, macro capabilities are fine. With close focusing down to about two inches, you won't get in for those extreme close-ups (as the following shot shows).

Canon PowerShot SD990 IS

But lock is pretty consistent assuming you're able to target your subject with the AF frame.

But for a camera in this price class, this optic's range and performance simply don't impress. Panasonic has their wide-angle premium models, Sony their ultra-thin T series with its internally contained zooms. But the PowerShot SD990 is just normal, capable of taking moderately wide to moderately telephoto pictures and nothing more. In use, the SD990's lens certainly won't offend you; however, it probably won't inspire you either.

Flash
Whereas many competitors offer flash coverage to somewhere just beyond 10 feet at wide angle, the SD990 covers a stout 15 feet or so at roughly equivalent focal lengths. Beyond this, even, hats off to Canon for recognizing that the majority of pictures taken with many ultracompacts are flash pictures, and tricking out this model accordingly: you'll find a full complement of flash modes (including slow sync and red-eye reduction) in the SD990's menus, plus the ability to comp flash exposure +/-2 EV right in the quick-access sidebar menu.

Taking the SD990 along as my pocket camera for CES, I had the opportunity to shoot a ton of flash shots. Invariably, the Canon was composed and reliable, with most flash frames slightly underexposed with no appreciable or consistent blown highlight issues.

Canon PowerShot SD990 IS

As always, the SD990's little kick of extra power compared to most of its direct competition takes a toll on flash recycle times. The SD990 took 8.2 seconds to recharge a full power burst in our test – not terribly slow, but not the five or six second times seem elsewhere, either.

Image Stabilization
The SD990 features optical image stabilization, meaning an element in the camera's lens is shifted to compensate for camera motion and ensure clearer shots at slow shutter speeds. Like most Canons, the SD990 has a list of IS system options that includes the ability to engage IS continuously, only immediately prior to the shot, or in a special mode designed for panning shots in which the system stabilizes vertical motion but doesn't interfere with horizontal movement.

Canon PowerShot SD990 IS
IS disabled

Canon PowerShot SD990 IS
IS enabled

In our typical IS evaluation, the latest Canon SD models continue to be among the more effective options when it comes to AF performance. The above shot shows the impact of shooting with the SD990' IS system engaged at slow shutter speeds – 1/15 in this case.

Battery
Cranking out some over 250 shots per charge in our testing, the SD990 edges toward the top end of the group in terms of battery life. With judicious choices and use of the preview-disabling Quick Shot mode, it's not unreasonable to foresee getting 300 frames or more from a single charge of the SD990's 1120 mAh pack.


IMAGE QUALITY
Reading the SD990's specs sheet, you'll quickly figure out that this camera is about one thing: high resolution. Specifically, 14.7 million pixels per capture, putting the SD990 in some rare company among the handful of roughly 15 megapixel compacts currently available.

Canon PowerShot SD990 IS

Opinions on the new sensor, which the SD990 shares with the G10, have been mixed: at a distance, the shots are crisp and contrasty, but up close, you'll find a distinct lack of edge detail. Some of this is undoubtedly processing, but it's also fair to say that even with the headroom afforded by all of that extra resolution, you may or may not be getting shots from the SD990 that are quantitatively better on the whole than those from lower-res SD models.

Hence, the great overarching contradiction of the SD990's image quality: you can take much bigger shots, but it's open question whether, given the increased noise and softness that comes with a more densely packed sensor, you can effectively use these extra pixels to produce final images that are observably better than what other cameras with lesser sensors provide.

Exposure, Processing, and Color
The SD990's sensor-side capabilities may not impress, but Canon tries hard to make up for the imager's weakness with excellent, vibrant processing that looks like what previous PowerShots have offered up. At default settings even, prints from the SD990 look rich and vibrant, with a nice balance between contrasty/consumer and neutral/faithful image tones.

Canon PowerShot SD990 IS
Vivid

Canon PowerShot SD990 IS
Neutral

If you're seeking more control, the SD990 sports Canon's My Colors menu as well, which provides a number of preset processing "looks" for fine-tuning your images. The above Vivid and Neutral settings show off the wide range of processing – from heavily keyed-up to very smooth – that the SD990 is capable of.

In spite of leaving Canon's new but only questionably useful i-Contrast feature engaged, exposure with the SD990 was more of a mixed bag. Subtlety isn't always this model's forte, with a stronger tendency to clip highlights and elide delicate shadow details than we've seen in previous SD models. Worse still, the SD990's dynamic range limitations seem to increase rapidly as you move up through the sensitivity range, making muddy, blocked up shadows a common occurrence as low as ISO 200.

White Balance
Teasing out even acceptable auto white balance performance under the single most troubling light type – incandescent – can be a challenge for any small camera, and the SD990 is certainly no exception to this rule.

Canon PowerShot SD990 IS
Auto White Balance, 3200K incandescent light

We've gone back and forth on the question of whether Canon's new DIGIC IV processor, used in the SD990 and most of the other recent releases from Canon, makes appreciable improvements in auto white balance performance over its predecessor: in some cases, the answer appears to be yes, though in our controlled white balance test, the SD990 is only slightly better than its predecessors at neutralizing warm casts. As is almost always the case, while the SD990's white balance inconsistencies all around aren't terrible, performance invariably improved when using the appropriate light-specific preset instead.

Lens Faults
The SD990's 3.7x zoom does a fine job of keeping distortion at bay – due, no doubt, to its middle of the road focal length range.

Canon PowerShot SD990 IS
Wide Angle

Canon PowerShot SD990 IS
Telephoto

At both full wide angle and full telephoto, straight lines hold fairly close to straight, though there's just a slight but clearly visible outward bow at the edges of the frame at the wide end.

Thankfully, the SD990 resists the serious purple/blue fringing concern in contrast boundary areas presented by many point-and-shoots. There's a slight bit of chromatic aberration at wide angle when shooting at f/2.8, but as with the barrel distortion above, it's really doesn't intrude based on our experience with the camera.

Overall, this lens's greatest downfall is neither distortion nor fringing, but some overall softness that struggles to do the camera's high-res sensor justice. Even with the aperture stopped down, it seems that things just never completely sharpen up like we'd hope with the SD990.

Sensitivity and Noise
Based on our previous experience with this sensor, we had some idea of what to expect in this category. The SD990 offers a standard sensitivity range of ISO 80-1600, and as before, high ISOs on the SD990 prove to be not as bad as they could be given the number of pixels.

Canon PowerShot SD990 IS
ISO 80
Canon PowerShot SD990 IS
ISO 80, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot SD990 IS
ISO 100
Canon PowerShot SD990 IS
ISO 100, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot SD990 IS
ISO 200
Canon PowerShot SD990 IS
ISO 200, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot SD990 IS
ISO 400
Canon PowerShot SD990 IS
ISO 400, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot SD990 IS
ISO 800
Canon PowerShot SD990 IS
ISO 800, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot SD990 IS
ISO 1600
Canon PowerShot SD990 IS
ISO 1600, 100% crop

With that said, a 100 percent view shows that line edges start looking ragged and dark areas show a messy patchiness almost immediately. Even ISO 80 has more noise than would be preferable, and by ISO 200, the issue is in full swing. Interestingly, the jumps from here on up don't degrade as significantly step to step, with ISO 400 and ISO 1600 looking surprisingly similar. But to picky shooters, that will say more about the SD990's softness problem at ISO 400 than its success at ISO 1600.

As with the G10, I also find myself more than a bit put off by the amount of color loss that the SD990 shows early on: by ISO 400, desaturation is noticeable, making the first couple of sensitivity settings your only true "safe range" for capturing maximum vividness.

Additional Sample Images

Canon PowerShot SD990 IS Canon PowerShot SD990 IS
Canon PowerShot SD990 IS Canon PowerShot SD990 IS
Canon PowerShot SD990 IS Canon PowerShot SD990 IS
Canon PowerShot SD990 IS Canon PowerShot SD990 IS


CONCLUSIONS
The secret to Canon's dominance in the world of small cameras is really no secret at all: the PowerShot line has long been perceived to offer both performance and image quality that are superior to anything else out there. And the SD990 exemplifies the design ethos that has fueled this idea: for a camera in this price class, the SD990 doesn't have a lot of flashy features. Premium construction and a few crucial upgrades aside, it's a back-to-basics ultracompact that serves up straightforward performance that's easy to manage.

But what happens when the image quality isn't quite so obviously superior? That's the dilemma faced by potential SD990 buyers. For all of this camera's performance successes, the images are, to put the matter plainly, a little ragged looking at 100 percent view. The argument that most shooters will never need to take advantage of all of the SD990's 14.7 million pixels notwithstanding, the fact is that while you get all of the disadvantages of huge resolution (better stock up on memory cards...), you really don't get any image quality advantage here when compared to Canon's excellent 10 megapixel SD models.


With the same sensor as the G10, the SD990 suffers from many of the same image quality concerns, though a weaker lens on this model only further serves to soften things up at the pixel level. Of course, the SD990 also does a lot of things right: it has a great focus system, decent exposure control, and processing that's pure Canon. But on images alone, the SD990 doesn't seem to live up to the full potential that might have been realized had Canon opted for less resolution.

Pros:

Cons:


SPECIFICATIONS

Sensor 14.7 megapixel, 1/1.7" CCD
Lens/Zoom 3.7x (36-133mm) zoom lens, f/2.8-5.8
LCD/Viewfinder 2.5", 230K-pixel PureColor II LCD; optical viewfinder
Sensitivity ISO 80-1600
Shutter Speed 15-1/1600 seconds
Shooting Modes Auto, Manual, Program, Scene, Quick, Movie
Scene Presets

Portrait, Night Snapshot, Kids & Pets, Indoor, Foliage, Snow, Beach, Fireworks, Indoor, Underwater, Digital Macro, Color Accent, Color Swap, Stitch Assist

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
Internal Memory
None
File Formats JPEG, MOV
Max. Image Size 4416x3312
Max. Video Size
640x480, 30 fps
Zoom During Video No
Battery Rechargeable Lithium-Ion
Connections USB 2.0, AV output
Additional Features Face Detection, Motion Detection, Optical Image Stabilization, DIGIC IV Processor