Canon PowerShot SD780 IS Review
by David Rasnake -  3/9/2009

Just to make this clear from the beginning: the Canon PowerShot SD780 IS isn't going to beat out more advanced point-and-shoots when it comes to pure photographic power. When it comes to specs, the SD780's 3x zoom and 2.5 inch LCD may be forgetable, but the fact that it's only 0.7 inches thick is worth remembering.

Perfectly sized for backpackers and club-goers alike, the SD780 may emphasize compactness, but it doesn't ignore the need for a small camera to take great pictures, either. And to this end, the new camera brings image stabilization and a host of other buzz-worthy features to Canon's slimmest SD model to date. A truly shirt-pocket ready camera with image stabilization, Canon's latest face detection and other processing technologies, and 720p video? Sign us up.

The tiny SD780 sports a 2.5 inch LCD, the same 12.1 megapixel sensor used across the majority of the 2009 SD line, and a 3x zoom lens. Canon's latest generation DIGIC IV image processor is also featured on this auto-exposure only model, as is the manufacturer's latest-generation optical image stabilization technology.

Here's a quick rundown on some of the other tech features on board the SD780:

This collection of functions is a feature set designed to help the user transition seamlessly between different shooting settings, giving the SD780 a take-it-anywhere appeal. The SD780 is also designed to put more creative options in the shooter's hands, including color accenting and panorama photo stitching.

Video Capture
As noted above, the SD780 is one of many new models in this year's line to feature 720p video capture. Overall, video from the SD780 looks nice, though users are presented with limited options for controlling video exposure beyond the most basic settings.

Audio quality is not as impressive, sounding like a typical still camera recording in most cases. Also, the SD780's small form factor makes it easy to accidentally and unknowingly cover the microphone, as it sits just beneath the lens.

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


Styling and Build Quality
If you're like most consumers, the SD780's styling is probably what really grabbed your attention with this camera. Streamlined and understated, the SD780 shares some in common with other PowerShot ELPH models, but goes its own direction with single-color finishes and interesting hues. If you thought Canon only made silver "box and circle" point-and-shoots, think again.

Earning recognition as the smallest Canon ELPH model to date, the SD780 breaks new ground for Canon in terms of device footprint as well. At only 0.7 inches thick, the SD780 fits easily in a shirt or jeans pocket, breaking away from the "deck of cards" form factor that has defined most of Canon's SD cameras.

The alloy-clad SD780 is solidly built, with the kind of attention to detail that Canon's design department is known for. The interestingly located HDMI port cover (it's a form-following panel above the four-way controller) and battery door are both a little flimsy for a camera in the $250-plus class, but otherwise this SD's clean lines and recessed controls feel like they could stand up to some serious abuse. Buttons give a solid, positive click when pressed, and even the interesting, surface-integrated zoom toggle seems to be made from dense brushed metal.

For a pocket cam, my one concern about the SD780's build has to do with how easily its finish picks up scratches. After riding around in both my pocket and my briefcase for a few weeks, the SD is already showing some minor wear from inadvertent contact with coins and keys. Best to get a small, form-fitting case or skin for the SD780 if you're concerned about appearance over the long haul.

Ergonomics and Interface
Canon has been getting increasingly experimental with its interfaces - both the physical control arrangements, and the menu systems - on each successive round of PowerShots. It's a bit surprising, then, to find a control system that's very "traditionally Canon" on the SD780.

The SD780 uses a tiny but manageable four-way controller to both navigate the menus and provide dedicated access to functions like exposure compensation and flash mode. A three-way switch selects from the SD780's Smart Auto, program/scene, and movie shooting areas, meaning there's very little possibility that a novice shooter wanting to shoot only in auto mode would have trouble finding the right settings again.

Menus are likewise laid out just like those from previous PowerShot models, with most basic functions controlled from a sidebar quick access menu (called up by pressing, of course, the FUNC button), and more in-depth settings managed in a series of page menus. Canon's on-screen interface remains one of the most transparent and easy to comprehend control systems out there, and those with any camera experience should feel completely comfortable shooting with the SD780 in less than an hour with the camera.

For shooters with larger hands, the SD780's small form factor may or may not be an advantage: predictably, the buttons can be a bit challenging to navigate. That was our only real ergonomic gripe with this SD, however - surprising, since tiny cameras often sit somewhere between "uncomfortable" and "unstable" on our scale of ergonomic difficulty. With its slightly rounded form and well-placed zoom toggle, the SD780 is really neither.

Making it all fit on a camera as small as the SD780 involves some compromises, and thus we weren't surprised to find a 2.5 inch LCD out back, instead of the 3.0 inch units more common in cameras in this class. A 230,000 dot display, the screen's generous viewing angles and overall smoothness were, if not class leading, certainly more than sufficient. Color accuracy is quite good as well, and the screen seemed very close in presenting overall exposure as well.

Canon has updated its display coatings to a new technology that repels fingerprints better than previous efforts (thank you, Canon!), but also seems to scratch somewhat easier. The screen is definitely easier to clean, and even light scratches seemed to buff out with a little work. Still, a cautious approach to toting your SD780 or an aftermarket screen protector would proabably be advised.

The SD780 is also endowed with what has to be the smallest optical viewfinder yet on a PowerShot model. The linked viewfinder is, not surprisingly, a good ways from accurate, and is small enough that shooters who wear glasses will likely need to remove them to get close enough for a decent through-the-finder view. As always, though, having a viewfinder beats not having one, especially in bright sun or for taking action shots.


Timings and Shutter Lag
The SD780 benefits from Canon's latest-generation processing not only in the many new and updated soft features that DIGIC IV provides, but also in the overall performance boast seen with the latest processor.

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

Camera Time (seconds)
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T700 0.02
Canon PowerShot SD780 IS
Nikon Coolpix S560 0.04
Fujifilm FinePix F60fd 0.05
Casio Exilim EX-Z150 0.22

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

Camera Time (seconds)
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T700 0.23
Canon PowerShot SD780 IS 0.32
Fujifilm FinePix F60fd 0.42
Nikon Coolpix S560 0.61
Casio Exilim EX-Z150 1.15

No, those times aren't misprints. In our lab tests, the SD780 proved to be lightning fast off the draw, whether you're able to prefocus the camera or not. Shutter lag times were short enough to make response essentially instantaneous, and everywhere but in low light, the SD780 was able to acquire focus lock and capture an image in well under half a second. All in all, the SD780's numbers line up almost perfectly with what we saw from another DIGIC IV PowerShot: the SD880.

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames Framerate
Fujifilm FinePix F60fd 3 2.5 fps
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T700 10 1.6 fps
Casio Exilim EX-Z150
13 1.3 fps
Canon PowerShot SD780 IS 0.8 fps
Nikon Coolpix S560 5 0.7 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.

Continuous shooting performance came in just above advertised, at some under one frame per second. It's a slightly disappointing number for a camera that handles well otherwise in the speed department, but the fact that the SD780 can shoot at this rate until the card is full gives it at least one advantage over some of its competition.

Auto Focus
The SD780 has two basic auto focus modes: Face AiAF (which combines face detection and Canon's automatic multi-area AF mode), and a center-point AF mode. There's no user-selectable area mode; serious shooters using the SD780 as a snapshot cam may be frustrated by this omission, but Canon's AiAF system is savvy enough for typical snapshooting just the same.

Improved face detection in the SD780 is capable of tracking a bunch of faces without lag, and incorporates an even more accurate tracking system for following faces in a frame. I played with new technology on several ocassions, mostly shooting in the locked-down Smart Auto mode, and was nonetheless impressed with just how fluid the SD780's ability to keep a lock on subjects is.

Likewise, users can enable Canon's Servo AF continuous focus system in certain shooting modes, allowing the camera to track moving subjects. The system, which is great for action shooting in particular, wasn't as reliable as the camera's face-based tracking, requiring the occasional front-to-back focus movement to re-find subjects. That said, other than potential concerns about battery drain, we found Servo AF reliable enough in most cases that it makes sense to simply turn it on and leave it there for taking snapshots.

Lens and Zoom
A 3x, moderate-wide to moderate-tele zoom lens was the standard optical choice for several generations of pocket cameras, but advancements in the last year or so have made lenses like the SD780's 33-100mm equivalent zoom somewhat pass. Still, the SD780's lens isn't, if memory serves correctly, a "parts bin special" derived from some previous model, but an all new, optically stabilized design.

Range and aperture speed (maximum aperture is f/3.2-5.8) will likely leave some shooters longing for more - especially if you're trying to take telephoto shots indoors with the SD780's f/5.8 max aperture at 100mm. But the trade off in this case is physical size: in its fully extended position (which comes at both full wide and full tele), the SD780's lens only sticks out about three-quarters of an inch from the front surface of the camera body, meaning the SD780 doesn't give up much of its size advantage with the lens ready to shoot.

Like the rest of the camera, the two-segment lens barrel is solid, and appears to made primarily of alloy materials rather than plastics. Our only performance gripe - besides the aperture limitations, of course - is some slightly notchiness: a mere six steps take you from one end of the range to the other, making precise framing in zoom shots tricky at times.

The SD780's flash emitter is tiny, sitting just above the lens, and the flash itself offers up tiny power to go along with it. Maximum stated range is listed as 11 feet when the camera is given automatic control over sensitivity. This has been the going rate on flash power for awhile among Canon's small cameras, but in practice it means that if you like to keep ISOs low (below 200, say) to improve image quality, plan on having five feet or less or working distance depending on ambient light. In short, it's powerful enough for social snapshots (even with ISO locked down), but don't expect to fill a room with it in most cases.

Flash modes on the SD780 are basic, with a slow synchro setting joining the basic auto, on, and off options. The SD780 uses its AF assist lamp for red-eye reduction, along with a built-in red-eye correction post-shot tool that can be set up to process images automatically after the shot.

Canon claims the SD780's flash recycle comes in "10 seconds or less," and this fits with our testing: the camera took 7.7 seconds to recharge after a full-power burst, putting it somewhere in the middle of the small-camera pack in terms of flash recycle.

Flash exposure was predictable and solid, with preference to slight underexposure and no strange cast imparted to skin tones assuming you dial in your white balance correctly (or let either the white balance correcting face detection system, or Smart Auto mode, do its thing).

Speaking of Smart Auto mode, I did notice one strange flash-related glitch with this setting: in certain situations, even after confirming that flash was enabled, Smart Auto mode would preference extremely low shutter speeds (as low as 1/10 of a second) over firing the flash. This odd behavior was one of the few times I ever found it necessary to override the Smart Auto system's decisions by jumping into program auto instead.

Image Stabilization
The SD780 features Canon's latest lens-integrated stabilization system, which uses a shifting lens element to compensate for camera motion. Four basic modes - Continuous, Shoot Only, Panning, and Off - allow the system to be tailored to any shooting situation (shooting sports, for instance, where Panning mode prevents the IS system from coming into conflict with the necessary subject-following motion of the camera).

Canon's new technology claims to provide several stops of sharpness improvement, and while manufacturers' claims about IS often seem a little optimistic to me - maybe it's just my especially unsteady hands - I found the SD780's system to perform nicely in difficult environments. I even carried the camera around on the show floor during PMA, and in spite of less than ideal lighting, I was able to get some crisp 1/15 shutter-speed shots, and even a few at 1/10 that were usable.

The SD780 uses an extremely thin and lightweight 760 mAh lithium-ion pack for power. Not surprisingly, the battery's small size and relatively low output limited the SD780's power depth to somewhere around 200 shots in our testing. Best to pack along a spare battery, especially if you intend to take advantage of the SD780's video capabilities.


The SD780 utilizes Canon's 12.1 megapixel sensor, shared in common with many of Canon's new PowerShot offerings for this model cycle. The 14.7 megapixel imager used in Canon's flagship PowerShots has been less than popular with critics, and in some ways, the new sensor shares some of the same irritations - most notably, graininess and noise at even the lowest ISOs.

Canon PowerShot SD780 IS

All in all, though, casual shooters won't likely drill down into the SD780's huge images enough to notice its weaknesses, and while it may not rival Canon's 10-megapixel-and-under cameras for smoothness, the SD780's sensor/processor combo still captures the essence of a Canon image: vibrant, crisp, and contrasty.

Exposure, Processing, and Color

The SD780 exhibits typical Canon default processing, showing off deeply saturated (right up to the point of clipping, in some cases) greens and blues, hard sharpening, and lots of contrast.

Canon PowerShot SD780 IS

It's a look that photo enthusiasts may not favor, and if you do a lot of post-processing with your images, you'll probably want to dial back the SD780's default vividness a bit. But for print-ready images - especially outdoor shots - the SD780 delivers.

Exposure and metering were rock solid as well. In testing the SD780's Smart Auto mode, I spent more time than usual shooting without the option of exposure compensation control, but other than a few typically difficult situations (backlit scenes, mostly), I rarely noticed its absence with this model - a testament to the consistency of the SD780's default multi-area metering. (Note that unlike in Smart Auto mode, shooting in program mode unlocks the option to compensate exposure +/-2 EV, as well as select from among multi-area, center-weighted, and spot metering settings.)

Speaking of backlit scenes, the SD780 features Canon's i-Contrast dynamic range tool. The option, which automatically lightens shadows without affecting highlights, is subtle at best, working fairly well for strongly backlit human subjects, but having little impact on general shots with wide dynamic range. Its unobtrusive nature may well be a benefit, though, as there's very little reason we could find to ever turn the option off.

The SD780's features a wide array of color/processing presets, accessible under the My Colors control in Canon's quick access menu.

Canon PowerShot SD780 IS

Canon PowerShot SD780 IS

Canon PowerShot SD780 IS

The default, vivid, and neutral settings shown above cover the basic range of adjustments, but Canon has also included presets common to its higher-end PowerShots for shifting skin tones, and even a custom option for manually dialing in sharpness, contrast, and color.

White Balance
Canon's auto white balance systems have improved by degrees over the last few model cycles, and we found the SD780's AWB setting to be a competent performer almost everywhere - it even handled late evening light adequately well.

Canon PowerShot SD780 IS
Auto White Balance, 3200K incandescent light

Of course, incandescent light remains an issue for the SD780, though a well-tuned preset. as well as an easy-to-use user-set white balance option, smoothed things out in this area.

Lens Faults
The SD780's 33-100mm zoom proves to be a decent compromise, providing excellent center sharpness in the lower half of its range. Edges show some definite softening, though it's not severe enough that casual shooters are likely to notice.

Distortion is also a relative non-issue with the SD780's lens: in spite of its moderately wide range at the wide-angle end, there's essentially no barrel distortion, and the lens is free of an observeable pincushioning at telephoto.

Canon PowerShot SD780 IS
Wide Angle

Canon PowerShot SD780 IS

Distortion may not be a problem at telephoto, but the SD780's performance does suffer in terms of sharpness from around the midpoint of the zoom range on out. Given the camera's narrow apertures (f/5.8 maximum at full telephoto) on the long end of the zoom combined with its small sensor, it's hardly surprising to see diffraction-induced muddiness in tele shots with the SD780.

Canon PowerShot SD780 IS

Likewise, users who like to get up close and personal with their shots will notice some chromatic aberation in boundary areas. Neither situation is likely going to give casual shooters pause, but for photo enthusiasts considering the SD780 as a pocket cam, they're worth noting.

Sensitivity and Noise
To be honest, after the weak performance from Canon's 14.7 megapixel sensor in this area, our expectations for this model were low as well. With that standard, we generally found what we expected: at ISO 80, shots are relatively clean, but noise (or more apporpiately, the evidence of noise reduction) ramps up in a hurry from ISO 100 on up.

Canon PowerShot SD780 IS
ISO 80
Canon PowerShot SD780 IS
ISO 80
Canon PowerShot SD780 IS
ISO 100
Canon PowerShot SD780 IS
ISO 100
Canon PowerShot SD780 IS
ISO 200
Canon PowerShot SD780 IS
ISO 200
Canon PowerShot SD780 IS
ISO 400
Canon PowerShot SD780 IS
ISO 400
Canon PowerShot SD780 IS
ISO 800
Canon PowerShot SD780 IS
ISO 800
Canon PowerShot SD780 IS
ISO 1600
Canon PowerShot SD780 IS
ISO 1600

By ISO 800, the SD780's pictures are noticeably fuzzy, and while ISO 1600 doesn't lose much detail beyond this, it's definitely softer than we'd like. All of that said, Canon's noise reduction generally keeps mottling out of dark areas - at the expense of strong edge definition.

How to evaluate the SD780's noise performance, then? On balance, the camera is really no worse than average given its resolution and sensor size, but it's certainly no better either. Pixel peepers will likely be less inclined to give the SD780 a run given this weak showing, but even so, decent noise control that keeps ISO 1600 images usable for small prints or web display leaves us willing to cut the SD780 just a little slack in this regard.

Additional Sample Images

Canon PowerShot SD780 IS

Canon PowerShot SD780 IS

Canon PowerShot SD780 IS Canon PowerShot SD780 IS

Canon PowerShot SD780 IS

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Canon PowerShot SD780 IS Canon PowerShot SD780 IS

Look at the SD780's specs sheet basics - 3x zoom, 2.5 inch LCD, tiny viewfinder, and few controls designed to appeal to advanced shooters - and its list price of just a shade under $300 looks hard to justify. Shoot with the camera for a little while, though, and you'll quickly figure out that this is a device that proves to be much more than the sum of its parts. Streamlined in every sense to fit with the kind of casual, memory-capturing shooting that most of us engage in most of the time, the SD780 is a camera that churns out great pictures without fuss.

But Canon hasn't ignored the fact that a camera at this price point needs something to set it apart from the general picture taking pack, either. In this case, that something is size, with the SD780 taking up less square space than a credit card while remaining impressively thin at the same time. With great styling cues and excellent build, gadget fans will no doubt find the SD780's solid, ultra-reliable photographic performance to be just the icing on the cake.

We certainly wish the SD780's lens was better, in terms of versatility and performance, and Canon's very aggressive processing is a "love it or hate it" proposition for most. Assuming the street price lands where we expect it to, though, this is one surprisingly versatile, surprisingly small, and - considering all of this - surprisingly affordable little ultracompact.