The PowerShot SD970 IS becomes the twelfth Canon compact digital I've reviewed for this site, and the previous eleven have established the line as generally providing good image and color quality and overall decent performance.
The cameras seem to follow a measured but steady progression of feature upgrades and improvements as technology advances, rather than opting for a dramatic "break the mold" departure from past practices such as Casio's EX-F1 and its 60fps still shooting ability. Whether by accident or design, Canon's recipe must work as the company claims to have moved over 22 million units worldwide in the first 10 years since the ELPH nameplate reached the market in May 1996.
The SD970 IS looks to continue the trend. A gently sculpted metal body housing a 5x optical zoom with optical stabilization, 3.0 inch monitor, 12.1 megapixel sensor, 1280x720 HD video capability and Canon's current generation Digic 4 processor positions the camera with all the right stuff to compete in its class. Will the SD970 IS live up to the expectations of it created by its predecessors? Come along as we find out.
BUILD AND DESIGN
With its cigarette pack/deck of cards shape and size that is virtually a universal constant for compact digitals in the 3 to 5x zoom class, the SD970 IS at a distance could easily pass as an offering from any number of manufacturers. Closer examination shows the all-metal body is solid and appears well put together.
New users will be forgiven if at first blush it appears Canon has left off a means to attach the provided wrist strap to the body - the attachment point sits flush on the right end of the body between the HDMI and AV ports, but it's easy to overlook.
A metal tripod socket reinforces the overall impression of robust design and build.
Ergonomics and Controls
With a 3.0 inch monitor dominating the camera back, Canon still managed to locate four control buttons and the control dial back there as well, but the layout is well designed and spaced so conflicts are virtually nonexistent. The index finger of the right hand falls naturally to the shutter button in either horizontal or vertical shooting formats, and the other fingers of the right hand pose no problems to camera components.
The same can't be said for the left hand, depending on your hold. For me, the left index and middle fingers sitting atop the camera body feel more secure, and that tends to be my natural grip. On the SD970 IS the flash sits at the front upper left corner of the camera body, and I find my middle finger positions itself partially over the flash in most cases. A simple "left thumb on the bottom and index finger on top" hold fixes the problem, so if that happens to be your natural grip, no worries. Folks like me who tend to put a lot more fingers into the hold may need to get used to adjusting that a bit.
More and more compacts are coming out with controls that allow the user to start shooting video by means of a single button push from any shooting mode. The SD970 IS doesn't have that feature per se, but there's a handy work-around: the camera allows the user to "register" certain camera functions to the direct print button on the camera back that can be called up with a single push. If you only register video, you can start recording by pushing the direct print button no matter what shooting mode you're in. A second push of the direct print button or full push of the shutter button stops recording.
Menus and Modes
The SD970 IS proved straightforward in its presentation of shooting options: a three position mode switch atop the camera body allows the user to select auto, shooting or video modes.
Auto mode uses Canon's smart auto technology that "intelligently selects the proper settings for the camera based on 18 predefined shooting situations".
Shooting mode requires the user to access an internal menu to select from 19 shooting options, including program, portrait, foliage, snow, beach, sunset, fireworks, creative light effect, aquarium, ISO 3200, indoor, kids & pets, night snapshot, color accent, color swap, digital macro, long shutter, zoom blur and stitch assist.
Video allows capture of movies in HD 1280x720 (30 fps) or Standard Definition: 640x480 or 320x240, both at 30 fps. Limits are 4GB or 29 minutes 59 seconds for HD and 60 minutes for SD. As I mentioned above, you can initiate video capture via the direct print button if the video option has been registered to that button.
Shooting and setup menus can be accessed via the menu button; when in a shooting mode, pressing the function button brings up a menu of any available user-modifiable settings for that particular mode. Even for someone unfamiliar with Canon compacts, a little surfing with the menu and function buttons should make things fairly clear, even in the absence of the user's manual.
The 3.0 inch LCD monitor boasts a 461,000 dot composition and is adjustable for five levels of brightness, but even so, it can be difficult to use for image composition in direct sunlight. Monitor coverage is 100%. There is no viewfinder.
Canon ad copy touts the SD970 IS as "the ultimate in design and feature-set." I'd consider that a bit more accurate if there were manual controls and a RAW shooting option, but the camera is clearly targeting an audience that wishes to minimize user involvement in the image capture process and does a credible job in that regard. The automatic shooting options leave little in the way of user inputs except in Program mode, where white balance, ISO sensitivity and some color choices are added to the image size and compression options.
While the SD970 IS lacks the manual controls some shooting purists might crave, its performance numbers should keep all but the pickiest compact digital users in a pleasant state of mind. Shutter lag comes in at about .03 seconds and press to capture with no pre focus at about .5 seconds. AF acquisition time in good light runs about .4 to .5 seconds, and there is a focus-assist lamp for dim conditions. AF time lengthened a bit at full telephoto, but was still quite good. The camera powers up and displays a focus icon in about 1.5 seconds and I was able to get off a shot in about 2 seconds after power up.
Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)
|Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T700||0.02|
|Nikon Coolpix S230
|Canon PowerShot SD970 IS
|Pentax Optio P70||0.05|
|Casio Exilim EX-Z150||0.22|
AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
|Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T700||0.23|
|Canon PowerShot SD970 IS||0.47|
|Nikon Coolpix S230||0.51|
|Pentax Optio P70||0.87|
|Casio Exilim EX-Z150||1.15|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX37
|Nikon Coolpix S230
|Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T700
|Casio Exilim EX-Z150
|Canon PowerShot SD970 IS||∞||1.1 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.). "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.
Single shot-to-shot times ran about 2 seconds (with a SanDisk Extreme III 20MB/sec. card) and continuous shooting right at 1 fps at full resolution. The camera held steady at this rate through 21 captures, at which point I terminated the exercise. Focus and exposure settings are established for the first shot of the sequence and applied to all subsequent captures until the shutter button is released.
Canon reports battery life as approximately 270 shots, and my experience seemed to correspond fairly closely. The camera uses a rechargeable Li-ion battery, so carrying a spare or two is prudent on all-day shoots since you can't just drop in AAs and carry on.
Flash range is listed at 11 feet at wide angle and 6 feet at telephoto, and the flash seemed to make those figures even at 100 ISO in normally lit conditions. Flash recycle times with fresh batteries could run up to about 4 seconds with partial discharges - often the camera was ready to go as soon as writing was completed and the shooting icon came back on screen- and as long as 10 seconds with full discharges. The camera will not allow you to capture another image with the flash enabled until it fully recharges. Flash exposure and color fidelity were good across a range of distance from the subjects. Here are four examples:
The SD970 IS zoom lens covers a 35mm equivalent focal range from 37 to 185mm. This is a bit longer at both the wide and telephoto ends of the lens than many competitors, and here's what that range looks like:
Maximum apertures for the lens are a bit disappointing - a somewhat slow f/3.2 at wide angle and f/5.7 at telephoto. The lens shows softening in the corners at wide angle, but edges are pretty good; telephoto is pretty good across the board. There is some barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from center of image) at wide angle and a bit of pin cushion (straight lines bend in toward center of image) at telephoto.
Barrel Distortion, Wide Angle
Pin Cushion Distortion, Telephoto
Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) may be present in high contrast boundary areas, but the effect is relatively muted. Focus range for macro purposes ranges from .8 inch to 1.6 feet at wide angle.
The SD970 IS lens turned in a very good performance overall.
The HD video produced by the SD970 IS was quite good for a non-dedicated video camera, particularly since I was able to directly compare with another digital with 720p capability. The camera cannot be zoomed while capturing video (actually, it will zoom but focus doesn't follow) as the first video demonstrates.
The camera microphone was also overpowered by the ocean breeze, but does a pretty good job in still conditions. In the second video you can hear birds in the background and a duck quacking as it flies over at the end of the clip. There is an HDMI terminal that permits the user to display video directly on a HD TV.
I was very happy with the stills produced by the SD970 IS. Image and color quality at default settings were accurate and pleasing, and sharpness seemed about right for my taste. Good thing, as there are no in-camera or menu sharpening options available.
The camera sets "auto" intelligent contrast correction (IC) as a default, but there are high, medium and low settings available for post processing images in the camera. Here is a dusk shot of an Anna's hummingbird taken with "auto IC" and flash, and the same image post processed at the high IC setting.
The camera also has a 20x digital zoom and 1.5 and 2.0 digital tele converters. Here's what the 5x optical shot looks like compared with the TCs and the 20x digital.
5x optical zoom
1.5 Tele Converter
2.0 Tele Converter
20x Digital Zoom
Auto white balance did a pretty good job across a range of lighting conditions including flash, daylight and overcast, but shot quite warm under incandescent light in the studio. In addition to auto there are daylight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent, fluorescent H and custom WB settings.
Auto White Balance
Exposure was generally good with the evaluative metering method (the default setting), but the camera could and did lose highlights on some contrasty scenes on occasion. In this regard the performance was pretty much typical for cameras of this class.
The SD970 IS doesn't break the mold in the ISO noise arena, but it might be a hair better than many of the others in the class as ISO levels climb past 400. ISO 80 and 100 crop shots are quite good and hard to tell apart, with 200 just a tiny bit worse than the first two.
ISO 400 shows some increased deterioration over 200, but not much, and 800 seems to drop off less compared to 400 than we usually see. ISO 1600 displays a more dramatic downturn as a crop but looking at the whole images at small size doesn't look too bad, which allows good flexibility for ISO settings if your needs are limited to small prints or e-mail. The 3200 ISO shooting mode option produces a 2 megapixel file that is best suited for postcards or e-mail only.
ISO 80, 100% Crop
ISO 100, 100% Crop
ISO 200, 100% Crop
ISO 400, 100% Crop
ISO 800, 100% Crop
ISO 1600, 100% Crop
Additional Sample Images
Canon announced the SD970 IS and nine other compact digitals this past February, and if our review model is any indicator of the quality and performance of the others, Canon's got a batch of winners on their hands. The SD970 IS would seem to appeal to folks primarily interested in capturing images without too much effort on their part, as the lack of manual exposure controls leaves user inputs rather limited, but shutter and AF performance are good and image quality and color fidelity are first rate. It's not too big a stretch to believe that good performance and image quality may trump the desire for manual controls (or a RAW shooting option) in the minds of many more "hands-on" types looking for a camera in this class.
There's not much to dislike with the SD970 IS. The 37mm wide angle isn't all that wide, so users will have to get further away from large subjects to get them all in the frame. On the other hand, the 5x zoom translates that 37mm into 185mm at the telephoto end, which helps get you a bit closer to distant subjects than most others in the class. And, as Canon is quick to point out in their ad copy, that 12.1 megapixel sensor offers "amazing resolution and editing" possibilities that effectively make that 185mm shoot even longer than it is.
OK, some folks may cover the flash with their finger(s) until they get a feel for the camera, and full discharge flashes can seem like they take forever to recharge as the timer ticks closer to 10 seconds. The microphone in video mode doesn't handle wind very well and you'll swear that 5 to 7 knot breeze is really more like Category 5, but think of the dubbing possibilities that open up.
Bottom line: this is an excellent camera overall and one that would be on my short list were I in the market for something of this class.