Canon's bargain priced new PowerShot A480 may be the 21st century equivalent of the Kodak "Brownie," an inexpensive, simple to use camera that was, for it's day, very compact. It was tagged with the slogan "you push the button and we'll do the rest" - Brownie cameras were mailed back to Kodak after the film was exposed. Once the workers at Kodak processed the film the camera was returned to its owner accompanied by a set of cheap prints and loaded with a fresh roll of film. Suddenly, photography was accessible to the masses.
The Canon Powershot A480 may be the Brownie of the new millenium, but this digicam for the masses is much smaller, much faster, substantially more capable, exponentially more powerful, and much simpler to use than it's illustrious ancestor.
BUILD AND DESIGN
The robustly constructed metal clad polycarbonate bodied A480 is actually a rather plain looking little digicam - those looking for stylish and trendy won't find it here. The camera's brick-shaped body feels substantial in the hands, but it is lighter in weight than expected and twenty-five per cent smaller than the A470, the camera it replaces.
My last two test cameras covered the extremes of Canon's "A" series range - the A2100 IS (the most expensive "A" series model) and the Powershot A480 (the cheapest "A" series model). What was most interesting about the two cameras was not their differences, but their similarities.
Canon is the most modular of the major camera makers and their product development folks have a standing inventory of proven components to draw from when designing new digicams. The A480 is a good example of just how well this design philosophy works - it isn't simply a stripped down A2100 IS. While the back-to-basics little A480 may not look much like the other members of Canon's "A" tribe, it handles and performs very much like them and includes many features found on Canon's more expensive models.
Ergonomics and Controls
The A480's minimal user interface is uncomplicated and straightforward with reasonably sized, clearly marked buttons. The control array is classic Canon - meaning everything will be familiar to anyone who has ever used a Powershot camera.
The Compass Switch (four-way controller) and FUNC button provide direct access to the camera's most commonly changed/adjusted features (like white balance, metering, flash settings, and macro mode). My single complaint with the A480's controls is that the exposure compensation function is part of the func menu. With the A2100 IS the dedicated exposure compensation button is at the North (top) position of the compass switch - making minor exposure adjustments (incrementally lightening or darkening images) easier and more instinctive.
Experienced shooters will have no difficulty using the A480 right out of the box and even first-timers should be able to capture impressive images after a short familiarization with the camera and a brief scan of the user's manual. The auto-exposure only A480 permits users to almost effortlessly capture images that are optimized for sharpness, balanced contrast, and bright colors.
Menus and Modes
The PowerShot A480's menu system is logical, easy to navigate, and remarkably simple. Push the dedicated menu button (located under the compass switch) and the "Camera and Setup" sub-menus appear.
The A480 provides a fairly basic selection of shooting modes - here's a breakdown:
Interestingly, the A480 provides neither a Landscape scene mode nor an Action/Sports scene mode.
Many casual photographers never use optical viewfinders and like many current point and shoots, the A480 eschews an optical viewfinder. The A480 relies on the 2.5 inch 115,000 pixel LCD for framing/composition, captured image review, and menu navigation chores (the A2100 IS has a much sharper 230,000 pixel 3.0 inch display). The A480's LCD screen is relatively bright, hue accurate, fairly fluid, and automatically boosts gain in dim/low light. The user-enabled LCD grid-line display is a nice (and for me) very useful touch.
LCD screens are subject to fade in the glare of bright outdoor light and the A480's screen seems to fade worse than average. There were a few times with the A480 when I couldn't see anything at all for the glare/reflections from the LCD screen. Severe glare coupled with the A480's somewhat grainy LCD screen meant there were times when I could barely discern my subject.
Timing (operational speed) is one of the two most important considerations when assessing digital camera performance - the other is image quality. The PowerShot A480 comes in right about the middle of its class, speed-wise. I was able to shoot skateboarders and BMX bikers and (with a little practice) most doting parents should be able to capture junior's first touchdown or Janie's game winning home run. Speed-wise, when compared to its more expensive sibling (the A2100 IS) the A480 holds up pretty well.
Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)
|Canon PowerShot A2100 IS
| Pentax Optio E70
|Canon PowerShot A480
|Nikon Coolpix S620||0.07|
|Casio Exilim EX-Z150||0.22|
AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
|Nikon Coolpix S620
|Canon PowerShot A480
|Canon PowerShot A2100 IS
|Pentax Optio E70||0.79|
|Casio Exilim EX-Z150||1.15|
|Nikon Coolpix S620||3||1.7 fps|
|Casio Exilim EX-Z150
|Canon PowerShot A2100 IS
|Canon PowerShot A480
|Pentax Optio E70
* 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.
The PowerShot A480 features Canon's older TTL Contrast Detection 5-point AiAF (Advanced Intelligent Auto Focus) system rather than the 9-point AiAF system featured on the A2100 IS. In all exposure modes the camera analyzes the scene in front of the lens and then calculates camera to subject distance to determine which of the 5 AF points is closest to the primary subject (closest subject priority) and then locks focus on that AF point.
Users can also opt for center (1 point) AF for classic portraits or traditional landscapes. The A480's Face Detection function is available as an AF option. Once the A480 detects a face (actually, up to 9 faces) the camera will lock on the subject and continually adjust focus, exposure, and white balance. In low light a focus assist beam helps illuminate the subject for more accurate focusing.
The A480's built-in multi mode flash provides an acceptable selection of artificial lighting options, including Off, On (fill flash), Auto (fires when needed), Red-eye Reduction, and Slow Synchro. Canon claims the maximum flash range is a bit less than 10 feet (3 meters) which appears to be a fairly accurate claim - based on my very limited flash use.
The A480 (like all A-series Canons) is powered by two alkaline, NiMH, or lithium AA cells. Battery life will depend on the type of batteries used. Canon claims the A480 is good for 200 exposures with a fresh set of OTC alkalines. I rarely keep track of the number of exposures shot before the batteries go dead, but I'd say a more accurate "real world" assessment would be something like 150 to 180 exposures.
The A480 sports a slightly slower than average f/3.0-5.8, 6.6-21.6mm (37-122mm equivalent) 3.3x zoom. When the camera is powered up the zoom extends automatically and when the camera is powered down the zoom is fully retracted into the camera body and a built-in iris style lens cover closes to protect the front element.
Zooming is fairly smooth and lens operation is relatively quiet. The A480's zoom displays some corner softness, but no vignetting (dark corners). Center sharpness and detail are surprisingly good, especially for such an inexpensive camera. Barrel distortion (at the wide-angle end of the zoom range) is well controlled and that's impressive since barrel distortion is a common fault with small, highly complex digicam zooms. Pincushion distortion is essentially invisible at the telephoto end of the zoom.
Minimum focusing distance (in Super Macro mode) is 0.4 inches, or 1 centimeter.
Image stabilization (IS) has become almost ubiquitous these days, but the A480 doesn't provide IS and some folks may consider that a deal breaker. Since the A480 is primarily an outdoor camera I don't consider the lack of IS to be a major fault - especially in a camera that costs less than $130.00. Like many current digicams, the A480 features what camera salesmen optimistically call digital anti-shake.
Canon's Motion Detection technology automatically charts camera and subject movement and then utilizes the motion/movement data from both sources to determine how much to boost sensitivity (between ISO 80 and ISO 800) to help counter camera/subject movement. Motion Detection works, after a fashion, but as sensitivity (ISO) increases noise levels rise exponentially.
The A480's 30 fps VGA (640X480) movie mode won't compete with a dedicated video camera, but it will do nicely for generating e-mail video attachments for friends and family. Like most cameras, the A480 can't be zoomed while in video capture mode.
The A480's images were actually better than I expected and compared favorably with the images generated by the much more expensive A2100 IS I recently tested. Canon's point and shoot image files are optimized (image interpolation) for bright colors and slightly hard contrast. Veteran shooters refer to this "family" hue identity as Canon Color - reds are a little warm, blues are a bit bright, and greens are a tad too vibrant.
What I found most interesting while assessing/comparing color accuracy is that the A480 does a better job with purple than its more expensive sibling (the A2100 IS). Purple, especially royal purple, is very hard for many compact digicams to replicate - most tend to shift toward blue, but a few shift toward red - so shooting purple subjects (like my heirloom President Tyler Morning Glories) provides a very good way to test hue accuracy.
The A480, unlike its more expensive sibling, does not seem to have a tendency toward slight overexposure. Outdoors, in good light, the A480 produces reliably well-exposed almost noise free images. Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is higher than average, particularly visible in the color transition areas between dark foreground objects and bright backgrounds. Overall, the A480's images show bright colors, impressive detail, and surprising sharpness.
The A480 provides an adequate selection of White Balance options, including Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, and Fluorescent H, and custom. The A480's auto white balance setting does a dependably good job outdoors. Indoors, like most point and shoots, the A480 (in Auto WB mode) struggles.
Auto White Balance, 3200K incandescent light
Colors are noticeably warmer than real world colors under incandescent light, noticeably cooler than real world colors under fluorescent light, and a bit strange under mixed lighting (window light, incandescent, and fluorescent). Check out the sample below - the rose below should have been a classic hot pink.
Sensitivity and Noise
The A480 provides a decent range of sensitivity options, including Auto and High ISO Auto (incorporating Motion Detection Technology) settings, as well as user-set options for ISO 80 to 1600. ISO 80/100 images are essentially indistinguishable - both show bright colors, slightly hard native contrast, and low noise levels, but there is visible noise/graininess (at full size) even at ISO 80/100.
ISO 80, 100% crop
ISO 100, 100% crop
ISO 200, 100% crop
ISO 400, 100% crop
ISO 800, 100% crop
ISO 1600, 100% crop
ISO 200 images were also very good, but show a bit less snap. At the ISO 400 setting (and higher) noise is noticeable and there's a perceptible loss of fine detail.
Additional Sample Images
When veteran photographers think of entry-level cameras, they often tend to dismiss such cameras because they are cheaply made and generally designed for amateurs. That's too bad, because inexpensive doesn't necessarily mean inadequate. The cameras many famous photographers carried during the first half of the twentieth century were actually pretty basic image making tools -especially when compared to today's digitals with auto exposure and auto focus. The mechanical cameras used by earlier generations of photographers were cumbersome and slow, but that didn't stop Life magazine photojournalists, Magnum shooters, and F64 club members from creating some of the most enduring and expressive art of the twentieth century.
With the PowerShot A480 there really isn't anything new or exciting to discuss, but there really isn't anything to complain about, either. After two weeks of carrying the A480 around with me pretty much full time I believe that this digicam does more than any other camera in its class - and it does it very well for less than a hundred and thirty bucks. The A480 is fairly basic, but it delivers consistently and dependably decent images with only minimal input from the individual behind the camera.