DigitalCameraReview.com
Canon PowerShot SD4000 IS Review
by Jim Keenan -  6/3/2010

Announced on May 11, 2010 for an end of the month entry into the market, the Canon Powershot SD4000 IS Digital ELPH carries more than just that mouthful of a name and the highest MSRP in Canon's self-described SD line of "performance and style" compact digitals.

Canon PowerShot SD4000 IS


The really big news with the SD4000 IS lies in the 10 megapixel sensor and 3.8x optical zoom lens which offers a 28 to 105mm focal range (35mm equivalent). Here's what that focal range looks like at the beach:

Canon SD4000 Test Image
Wide Angle 28mm

Canon SD4000 Test Image
Telephoto 105mm

Sound like fairly mundane specs for a compact digital? Read on.

That sensor is one of the new back-illuminated designs that have begun popping up in compact digitals of late. Very generally, backside illumination involves placing the light sensor for each pixel on the back side of the entire sensor wafer instead of on the front side along with other circuitry.

Isolating the sensors from the circuitry reportedly increases sensor efficiency (signal to noise ratios) since the absence of the circuitry contributes to less scattering of light before it can reach the image sensor. My first experience with a back-illuminated compact digital was Nikon's P100 ultrazoom, and it appeared to have improved ISO noise performance in the higher sensitivity ranges over its predecessor, the Coolpix P90.

As for the SD4000's lens, it features a maximum aperture of f/2 at wide angle, making it at least a stop faster than just about any other compact digital on the market. Canon calls this combination of fast lens with the new design sensor the HS (high sensitivity) system. The camera also features Canon's Digic 4 processor, a 3.0-inch LCD monitor, 720p HD video, auto and scene shooting options along with partial manual controls, and smile detection technology.

There is no internal memory, but the camera can accept SD/SDHC/SDXC, MultiMediaCard, MMCplus, HC MMCplus or Eye-Fi memory media. Canon includes a lithium-ion battery pack and charger, wrist strap, AV and USB cables, "getting started" user's manual and CD-ROM software with each camera. Let's see what that fast lens and new sensor technology have to offer.


BUILD AND DESIGN
Our SD4000 IS review unit featured a matte black finish overall with glossy black highlights on some panels and controls. The main finish has a slightly rough texture to it, almost like a very fine grit sandpaper. Generally rectangular and sized about like a deck of cards, the body has a number of subtle curves and rounded edges incorporated into its design, and its metal construction gives the camera a solid feel. The camera will also be offered in silver, red and white bodies.

Canon PowerShot SD4000 IS

Canon PowerShot SD4000 IS

Ergonomics and Controls
Canon has placed the SD4000 IS flash at the upper left edge of the front of the body, a location that invites fingers of the left hand to obstruct the flash during two-handed holding. Truth be told, the camera is small enough so that was probably the best available location, but flash shooters, you've been warned. Otherwise, the body has been sculpted and rounded so most folks should be able to come up with a fairly comfortable and secure grip. This camera is easily shirt pocket portable.

Canon PowerShot SD4000 IS Canon PowerShot SD4000 IS

Control layout on the SD4000 IS is simple and sparse - the mode switch, power button, zoom lever and shutter button sit atop the camera body, with the monitor, playback and menu buttons and the control dial (with its associated functions) taking up the rear. Not a lot of dedicated function buttons on the SD4000 IS - you're going to be scrolling through menus to make changes to camera settings in most cases.

Menus and Modes
Folks familiar with Canon compacts should feel right at home with the SD4000 IS, and those of you who aren't will find a largely intuitive menu system. The mode switch atop the camera body selects movie, shooting or auto capture mode. From there, the function button in the control dial brings up an available list of settings based on the particular mode chosen.

Display
The 3.0-inch LCD monitor of the SD4000 IS is of about 230,000 dot composition and is adjustable for five levels of brightness. It can be difficult to use for image composition and capture in some bright outdoor conditions. Coverage is approximately 100%. There is no viewfinder.

Canon PowerShot SD4000 IS

PERFORMANCE
Do a fast lens and a high-tech sensor ensure happiness in the standard compact digital world? They do, up to a point...

Shooting Performance
The PowerShot SD4000 IS presents a focus frame about 1.75 seconds after power up, and I was able to get off a first shot in about 2.75 seconds. Single shot-to-shot times ran about 2.5 seconds (with a class 10 SanDisk Extreme SDHC card) and continuous shooting came up at about 2.9 frames per second - well short of the 3.7 fps Canon claims as the maximum for the camera.

We tried changing settings in the camera and even reset to default values, but 2.9 was the best we could manage with class 6 and class 10 memory media. The camera just keeps shooting (I quit at 32 shots with the SD4000 IS showing no signs of stopping), just not at the speed we hoped to see. The high speed burst (2.5 megapixel resolution) managed a rate of about 7.6 fps until I quit after 33 shots. Better, but still about 1 fps below Canon's reported top speed for this mode.

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

Camera Time (seconds)
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX7 0.01
Canon PowerShot SD4000 IS 0.01
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS7 0.02
Nikon Coolpix S8000 0.05


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

Camera Time (seconds)
Nikon Coolpix S8000 0.26
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX7 0.27
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS7 0.39
Canon PowerShot SD4000 IS 0.57

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames Framerate*
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX7 10 11.2 fps
Canon PowerShot SD4000 IS 2.9 fps
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS7 3 1.8 fps
Nikon Coolpix S8000 10 1.2 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.

Shutter lag was good at 0.01 seconds. AF acquisition times in good light left a bit to be desired, coming in at about 0.57 seconds. Times predictably lengthened in dim light, but in a fashion that seemed par for the class.

The SD4000 IS has a flash range of 12 inches to 20 feet at wide angle, 1.6 feet to 6.6 feet at telephoto, with ISO set to auto. Recycle time is listed as "10 seconds or less" - our review unit recycled in about 6.5 seconds on partial discharges and about 8.5 seconds with full discharges and the camera battery toward the high end of its charge.

Canon PowerShot SD4000 IS

For those of you who need to fire off several flash shots as soon as the camera is able, the SD4000 IS allows you to go to a half push immediately after a flash shot, and will perform AF and give you the flash ready lamp as soon as the flash is charged. If you don't do the immediate half push the camera will review the previous shot and not show you flash status until you initiate a half push.

Canon SD4000 Test Image Canon SD4000 Test Image
Canon SD4000 Test Image Canon SD4000 Test Image

Canon lists battery life as 250 shots, which puts the SD4000 IS high on the list of cameras that need several batteries for all-day shooting sessions.

The camera has a rather useful playback menu that allows the user to go back to captured images in-camera and apply new settings such as "my colors" palette options or intelligent contrast (IC) adjustments to expand the camera's apparent dynamic range. While the camera is limited to an "auto" IC setting in the shooting menu, the user may select auto, low, medium or high levels of adjustment in the playback menu.

Lens Performance
The SD4000 lens displayed barrel distortion at wide angle, along with a bit of light falloff and softness in the corners. Telephoto was largely distortion free, and apart from some fairly slight softness in the corners was pretty consistently sharp across the frame.

Canon SD4000 Test Image
Wide Angle 28mm
Canon SD4000 Test Image
Telephoto 105mm

There is some chromic aberration (purple fringing) present at both ends of the zoom, but it takes fairly close scrutiny at 300%+ enlargement to be apparent in most cases. Overall, the lens did a credible job.

And it's the lens that is the lynchpin of Canon's HS system in this camera. While the lens is a fast f/2 at 28mm, by the time you've zoomed to about 35mm maximum aperture is down to f/2.8, still pretty quick but now in the range of the competition. Still, that stop is worth a lot - all else being equal, the ability to shoot at f/2 instead of f/2.8 just doubled your shutter speed. Faster shutter speeds help minimize camera shake when hand-holding, and camera shake can be a major contributor to blurry images. Or, that extra stop just cut your ISO sensitivity in half - you can obtain the same exposure with half the sensitivity by virtue of being able to shoot at f/2 instead of f/2.8.

Even if the back-illuminated sensor had no impact on image noise, you've picked up a stop based on lens aperture alone. Any noise gains realized by the sensor design are like icing on the cake.

Video Quality
Movie quality of the SD4000 IS was good. The camera has a CMOS sensor, but rolling shutter effect is minimal at all but greatly exaggerated pan rates designed to elicit the effect. The camera records audio in stereo and if you change the composition of the shot during video capture the camera will automatically adjust focus, brightness and tone. You can zoom while shooting, but the camera will record this and other operating sounds. Canon recommends a class 4 or faster memory card and clip length is limited to 10 minutes.

Image Quality
Images out of the SD4000 IS at default settings were pleasing as to color fidelity and sharpness, but I ultimately ended up increasing in-camera sharpening by 1 step as every so often I'd get a shot that looked just a bit soft for my taste. Manual shooters have a good range of sharpness, contrast, saturation and other image adjustment options.

Canon SD4000 Test Image Canon SD4000 Test Image
Canon SD4000 Test Image Canon SD4000 Test Image

Canon users will be familiar with the "my colors" palette of 12 color options for image capture - here are the six main options:

Canon SD4000 Test Image
Off
Canon SD4000 Test Image
Vivid
Canon SD4000 Test Image
Neutral
Canon SD4000 Test Image
Positive Film
Canon SD4000 Test Image
Sepia
Canon SD4000 Test Image
Black & White

The SD4000 IS IC setting that is off by default may be enabled to an "auto" setting that seeks to expand the camera's apparent dynamic range. Here's the mission fountain with IC on and off (and a little lens flare when I pointed the camera just a bit too close to the sun). The auto correction in the shooting menu is fairly strong yet still produces a believable image.

Canon SD4000 Test Image
Intelligent Contrast Off
Canon SD4000 Test Image
Intelligent Contrast Auto

With 10 megapixel resolution the SD4000 IS can produce an approximately 12 x 9 inch image at 300 dots per inch (camera files are output at 180 dots per inch, about rock bottom for decent print work). Here's a shot cropped to 12 x 8 inches that still comes out at about 237 dots per inch, a good quality print density.

Canon SD4000 Test Image
Original
Canon SD4000 Test Image
Cropped

I used auto white balance for the review and found it fairly accurate overall, although it shot warm in the studio under incandescent lighting. There are daylight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent, fluorescent H and custom settings available.

Canon SD4000 Test Image
Auto White Balance, 3200k incandescent light

Exposure metering was via the evaluative metering method, which Canon calls suitable for standard conditions including backlight. There was a tendency to lose highlights in some high contrast situations, a fairly common occurrence in this class of camera, but overall the method was reliable and accurate. Center-weighted and spot metering options are available.

ISO performance in the SD4000 IS was interesting not only for the performance at the individual sensitivities but also for the overall high ISO performance. The SD4000 IS was quite clean and hard to tell apart at the 125 and 200 sensitivities - indeed, I shot this review at 200 ISO for all manual shots just to get that extra portion of a stop in shutter speed. ISO 400 has a hint of noise creeping in and 800 shows a bit more. ISO 1600 continues downhill but not dramatically, and 3200 follows suit.

Canon SD4000 Test Image
ISO 125
Canon SD4000 Test Image
ISO 125, 100% crop
Canon SD4000 Test Image
ISO 200
Canon SD4000 Test Image
ISO 200, 100% crop
Canon SD4000 Test Image
ISO 400
Canon SD4000 Test Image
ISO 400, 100% crop
Canon SD4000 Test Image
ISO 800
Canon SD4000 Test Image
ISO 800, 100% crop
Canon SD4000 Test Image
ISO 1600
Canon SD4000 Test Image
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Canon SD4000 Test Image
ISO 3200
Canon SD4000 Test Image
ISO 3200, 100% crop

Here's a set at the various sensitivities shot outside the studio.

Canon SD4000 Test Image
ISO 125
Canon SD4000 Test Image
ISO 200
Canon SD4000 Test Image
ISO 400
Canon SD4000 Test Image
ISO 800
Canon SD4000 Test Image
ISO 1600
Canon SD4000 Test Image
ISO 3200

The SD4000 IS seems to have a fairly constant rate of decline in image quality due to noise from 800 to 3200, rather than a decline marked by a big jump in deterioration between a couple of sensitivities, which seems to be the case with most other compacts. I think any of the sensitivities can get by for small images or web work if need be, but even with the back-illuminated sensor, compact digitals continue to be hamstrung by small physical sensor size when it comes to noise performance as sensitivities rise.

Additional Sample Images
Canon SD4000 Test Image Canon SD4000 Test Image
Canon SD4000 Test Image Canon SD4000 Test Image
Canon SD4000 Test Image Canon SD4000 Test Image
 

CONCLUSIONS
The SD4000 IS arrives with a lot of fanfare directed primarily towards its back-illuminated sensor and fast (at wide angle) zoom lens, and these are certainly the hardware that will distinguish this camera in the crowded field of 3 to 5x compact digitals.

The lens gets shooters an extra stop of shutter speed or a reduction in ISO sensitivity (at wide angle) and the sensor seems to provide a bit better than average compact digital noise performance in the high ranges along with a more linear progression of noise onset than I've come across in other compacts. So, you'll be able to hand hold in dimmer conditions a bit better than most other compacts (if you shoot at wide angle). Image quality and color fidelity are typical of a Canon compact, and that's darn good.


The camera is primarily an auto shooter, but Canon has included three of the four manual exposure modes just in case, leaving out only the fully manual option. Video quality at 720p is quite good, and the camera will autofocus automatically if scene composition changes or zooming occurs. Clip length is a bit limited at 10 minutes. The replay menu has some useful image fix-it options.

AF acquisition time was a bit slow, the flash is positioned so fingers will be able to obstruct it easily and the speed advantage of the 28mm wide angle lens is largely gone by the time you've zoomed it to 35mm. The SD4000 IS may not be blemish free, but it's still an awfully good competitor in a very crowded field.

Pros:

Cons: