Canon PowerShot SD3500 IS Review
by Howard Creech -  2/14/2011

Canon's SD series digicams are all about pocketable style and operational simplicity. These little cameras have been consistently popular with consumers since the first digital ELPH was introduced way back in 2000.

Canon PowerShot SD3500 IS

That's because they reliably deliver what consumers want in a point-and-shoot - an image capture device that makes great pictures, is easy to use, offers better than average performance, and is reasonably priced. The Canon PowerShot SD3500 IS is also one of Canon's only digital compacts with a touchscreen LCD.

The Canon PowerShot SD3500 IS is an attractive little digital camera that behaves much like every other Canon SD series digicam ever manufactured, but the resemblance ends there. The SD3500 IS looks more like a smartphone than the other members of its tribe.

Canon PowerShot SD3500 IS

It's a very well built little camera; fit and finish are impressive with good dust/moisture seals and the SD3500 IS is tough enough to go just about anywhere. This little digicam is a reasonably priced choice for someone looking for a compact point-and-shoot that is simple enough to appeal to a casual shooter. The SD3500 IS would not be a good choice for a couple with one advanced amateur photographer and one casual shooter.

Ergonomics and Controls
Just a few years ago virtually every point-and-shoot manufactured had an optical or electronic viewfinder. Not anymore - optical and electronic viewfinders are expensive to produce and Americans (who drive the world market in leisure electronic devices) like cheap products. Now we are entering phase two of the re-invention of the digital camera.

Canon PowerShot SD3500 IS

Digital cameras these days are smaller; almost all of them are driven by proprietary batteries, optical and electronic viewfinders are a thing of the past, Auto exposure is almost ubiquitous, and let's face it, touchscreens are the wave of the future. Consumers adore touchscreen electronic devices because they believe these nifty new toys are on the cutting edge of technology. Manufacturers love touchscreen devices because eliminating buttons, knobs, and switches lowers the per unit manufacturing cost thereby increasing the profit margin.

Anyone who has ever used a smartphone will feel right at home with the Canon SD3500's touchscreen. For casual users touchscreen controls may be OK, but serious shooters will probably avoid this camera and others like it. Buttons, knobs, and switches that allow shooters to quickly and precisely control camera operation are a basic requirement for more serious shooters. The SD3500 IS doesn't feature a mode dial, instead it utilizes a sliding Mode switch to change shooting modes. The SD3500's minimal dedicated controls are all arrayed along the camera's top deck and easily accessed.

Canon PowerShot SD3500 IS

Menus and Modes
The SD3500's menus are fairly logical and they are laid out in a straightforward manner, the problem is getting to them and navigating through them. The camera's touchscreen simply isn't sensitive enough to provide seamless interaction between user and device. Sometimes the screen needs two or even three taps to respond. Scrolling is very imprecise and it is not a rare event to zoom right past the function you are seeking. I found myself consistently avoiding the menus.

No manual control over exposure is provided - the Canon Powershot SD3500 is an auto-exposure only point-and-shoot. This digicam offers a very basic (and very limited) selection of shooting modes including:

Like most currently available point and shoot compact point-and-shoots, the SD3500 IS doesn't provide an optical viewfinder which forces shooters to utilize the LCD screen for all framing/composition, captured image review, touchscreen controls, and menu navigation chores. Most casual shooters (this camera's target audience) don't use optical viewfinders anyway, and in some shooting scenarios (macro, festivals, portraits), it is quicker and easier to watch the decisive moment come together on the LCD screen than it is through an optical (or electronic) viewfinder.

Canon PowerShot SD3500 IS

The Canon SD3500 IS's 3.5-inch LCD screen (461,000 pixel resolution) completely dominates the camera's rear deck - there's nothing else back there at all. The screen is bright, hue accurate, fluid, automatically boosts gain (brightens) in dim/low light, and it displays almost 100 percent of the image frame. The SD3500 IS's LCD screen performs adequately for framing, composition, captured image review, and menu navigation, but its performance as a touchscreen command pad is barely adequate.

Like all LCD screens, the SD3500 IS's LCD is subject to fading and glare in bright outdoor lighting. The DCR test lab objectively measures LCD peak brightness and contrast ratios to assist our readers in making more informed digital camera purchasing decisions. A decent LCD contrast ratio should fall somewhere between 500:1 and 800:1. An LCD with a contrast ratio within that range should be bright enough to use the LCD screen for framing and composition in outdoor lighting and it could also provide a better sense of real world color and contrast than would an LCD screen with a lower contrast ratio. The SD3500 weighs in on the low end of that range at 515:1. Peak brightness for the SD3500 IS (the panel's output of an all-white screen at full brightness) is 536 nits and on the dark side, the measurement is 1.04. For reference, anything above 500 nits will be fairly bright outdoors.

The default info display provides all the data this camera's target audience is likely to want or need. I do have a compliment for the designers of the SD3500. Once you select a function its icon remains along the edge of the screen - I used this nifty feature to provide direct access to the exposure compensation function.

The PowerShot SD3500 IS doesn't permit much user input into the image capture process. That lack of input limits camera potential for more serious shooters and those limitations are exacerbated by the imprecision of the touchscreen controls. SD3500 users should be able to capture the decisive moment in most lighting, but it will be harder for them to do so than it should be.

Shooting Performance
Timing (speed) is a major consideration second only to image quality in importance, when assessing digital camera performance. The SD3500 IS comes in right in the middle of the pack when compared to its competition, with the exception of the continuous shooting rate, where it comes in dead last.

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

Camera Time (seconds)
Fujifilm FinePix Z800EXR 0.01
Casio Exilim EX-S200 0.01
Canon PowerShot SD3500 0.02
Kodak EasyShare M590 0.03

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

Camera Time (seconds)
Casio Exilim EX-S200 0.17
Fujifilm FinePix Z800EXR 0.19
Kodak EasyShare M590 0.30
Canon PowerShot SD3500 0.45

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames Framerate*
Fujifilm FinePix Z800EXR 4 1.6 fps
Kodak EasyShare M590 3 1.0 fps
Canon PowerShot SD3500 0.9 fps

(no continuous shooting mode on the S200)

*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.

With regard to shutter lag, the SD3500 IS is competitive across the board since there actually isn't much difference between 0.01 second and 0.02 second. AF acquisition is a bit more troubling, since there is a significant difference (almost a third of a second) between 0.17 hundredths of a second and 0.45 hundredths of a second.

Exposure is automatically managed by the camera's 1/2.3-inch 14 megapixel CCD sensor driven by Canon's touted DIGIC IV processor, which combines most primary camera functions (image interpolation and processing, auto exposure, white balance, JPEG compression, gain control, and power management) in one chip to improve efficiency and processing speed.

The SD3500 IS's default evaluative light measurement system is dependably accurate in most lighting so casual shooters shouldn't have to worry about metering. More experienced photographers can opt for either Spot metering or Center-weighted Averaging metering for more demanding/creative compositions. Like all ultra-compact digicams, the SD3500 IS's has some dynamic range (from deep shadows to bright highlights) shortcomings because the diminutive1/2.3-inch CCD sensor can't capture the full tonal range. The default metering system is calibrated to preserve shadow detail at the expense of highlight detail and that built-in exposure bias results in occasional clipping (burnt out highlights).

The SD3500 IS features the same TTL Contrast Detection 9-point AiAF (Advanced Intelligent Auto Focus) system as its predecessor. 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 9 AF points is closest to the primary subject (closest subject priority) and then locks focus on that AF point. Users can also opt for the 1 AF point (center) option for classic portraits or traditional landscapes. In low light, a focus assist beam helps illuminate the subject for more accurate focusing.

The SD3500 IS's tiny built-in flash provides a minimal, but adequate selection of artificial lighting options - Auto, Red-eye Reduction, Auto Red-eye Correction, Flash On, Flash Off; FE lock, and Slow Synchro Maximum flash range (according to Canon) is about 11 feet. Flash recycle time is between 4.0 and 5.0 seconds with a freshly charged battery.

Canon PowerShot SD3500 IS

The SD3500 IS Optical Image Stabilization system reduces blur by quickly and precisely shifting a lens element in the zoom to compensate for minor camera movement. IS allows users to shoot at shutter speeds up to three f-stops slower than would have been possible without IS. Image stabilization can also be a very useful when shooting dimly lit indoor venues where flash is inappropriate. SD3500 IS users have four IS options - continuous IS, shoot only IS, Panning IS, and IS off.

The SD3500 IS is powered by a proprietary Canon NB-6L lithium-ion rechargeable battery. Canon says a fully charged battery is good for approximately 220 exposures, which seems fairly accurate based on my use of the camera. The included plug-in style charger needs about two hours to charge the battery. A back-up NB-6L costs about sixty bucks.

The Canon PowerShot SD3500 IS supports SD, SDHC and SDXC memory media formats.

Lens Performance
The SD3500 IS's 4x zoom starts at the equivalent of 24mm and goes to the equivalent of 120mm. Ultra-compact digicam zooms generally start at around (the equivalent of) 28mm, so a true wide angle POV (point of view) gives the SD3500 IS a slight edge over some of its competition. Although corners are a tiny bit soft at the wide angle end of the zoom they are noticeably sharper at the telephoto end of the zoom.

The SD3500 IS's f/2.8 maximum aperture at the wide end of the zoom is fast enough for almost anything this camera's target audience is likely to shoot, but the f/5.9 maximum aperture at the telephoto end of the zoom range is pretty slow - almost useless for anything other than shooting outdoors in decent light. Zoom operation is fast, smooth, and fairly quiet. Surprisingly, this lens exhibits virtually no barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from the center) at the wide-angle end of the zoom and essentially no pin cushioning (straight lines bow in toward the center) at full telephoto. Check out the photo below - shot at the wide angle end of the zoom - notice the edges of the two buildings are almost perfectly straight, with just a tiny bit of curve at the bottom.

Canon SD3500 Sample Image

Chromatic aberration is remarkably well controlled, but some very minor color fringing is present, especially in the color transition areas between dark foreground objects and bright backgrounds.

Colors are bold, bright, slightly over-saturated, and hue accurate, but native (default) contrast is a bit on the flat side. Here's a piece of advice for both casual shooters and photo enthusiasts alike who purchase an SD3500 IS: enable i-Contrast when you set your initial preferences and leave it on full time. I don't understand why Canon chose to have i-Contrast off as the default, but a major image quality problem with auto exposure only ultra-compact digicams is blown highlights and blocked-up shadow areas, both of which i-Contrast helps to ameliorate.

Video Quality
The SD3500 IS's HD 1280 x 720p at 30 fps movie mode can actually compete with a dedicated video camera and that could open up some interesting possibilities. In addition to the HD mode, SD3500 IS users can also shoot video at either VGA (640 x 480) or QVGA (320 x 240) resolution. Audio is recorded in mono. Like most digicams, the SD3500 IS can't be zoomed while in video capture mode.

The video clip which accompanies this review was shot in a poorly lit old South End hardware store with a mix of warm white fluorescent and window lighting.

Image Quality
Image files produced by Canon's point-and-shoots are optimized for the bold bright hues and slightly flat contrast that some veteran shooters refer to as Canon Color - the SD3500 IS doesn't stray far from that "family" formula. Native colors (default Canon color interpolation) are bright, hue accurate, and natural-looking, but visibly over-saturated. Reds are a little warmer than they are in real life, blues are a bit too bright, greens are more vibrant than those seen by the naked eye, and purples tend toward blue. Most casual shooters (the SD3500 IS's target audience) won't consider these minor color variations as faults. Although there is a slight tendency toward overexposure, the SD3500 IS produces reliably well-exposed and almost noise-free images outside in good light.

Images are detailed and unexpectedly sharp. In bright contrasty lighting highlight detail was occasionally blown-out. Overall, the SD3500 IS's image quality is on the high side of average for cameras in this class.

The SD3500 IS provides users with an acceptable selection of White Balance options, including Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Fluorescent H, and custom. Overall, the SD3500 IS's Auto WB system does a remarkably good job.

Canon SD3500 Sample Image
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light

The SD3500 IS provides a reasonable range of sensitivity options, including Auto and user-set options for ISO 80 to ISO 1600. ISO 80 and ISO 100 images are indistinguishable - both show bright colors, slightly flat native contrast, and very low noise levels. ISO 200 images were also very good, but with a little less snap.

Canon SD3500 Sample Image
ISO 80
Canon SD3500 Sample Image
ISO 80, 100% crop
Canon SD3500 Sample Image
ISO 100
Canon SD3500 Sample Image
ISO 100, 100% crop
Canon SD3500 Sample Image
ISO 200
Canon SD3500 Sample Image
ISO 200, 100% crop
Canon SD3500 Sample Image
ISO 400
Canon SD3500 Sample Image
ISO 400, 100% crop
Canon SD3500 Sample Image
ISO 800
Canon SD3500 Sample Image
ISO 800, 100% crop
Canon SD3500 Sample Image
ISO 1600
Canon SD3500 Sample Image
ISO 1600, 100% crop

Higher sensitivity settings show flat colors, reduced contrast, lots of noise, and fuzzy details. At the ISO 400 setting, noise levels are noticeably higher and there's a (barely) perceptible loss of minor detail. ISO 800 images are noisy, but not as noisy as expected - they should be acceptable for e-mail, Facebook and 3x5 inch or 4x6 inch prints. ISO 1600 images are way too noisy to be useful for anything other than record shots.

Additional Sample Images
Canon SD3500 Sample Image Canon SD3500 Sample Image
Canon SD3500 Sample Image Canon SD3500 Sample Image

Buying a digital camera is not as easy as it was in the early days of the digital imaging revolution, and that's good for consumers. Today's digital camera marketplace offers even more complex imaging products and shutterbugs of every stripe have more choices than they've ever had before, but sorting through the flood of imaging options available might give even the Dali Lama cause for frustration.

Once you've eliminated the cameras that are too big, too small, too complex, too simple, and too expensive, consider your short list very critically. If you own a smart phone, then you'll probably like the SD3500 IS, but if you don't like touchscreen devices, you probably won't like the SD3500 IS.