The Canon PowerShot SD450, a 5-megapixel update to the Digital Elph, has more in common with its 4-megapixel SD300 sibling than it does with the top-of-the-line 7-megapixel SD550. Instead of the slightly larger, curvier body found in its higher-resolution stablemate, this Elph has the same boxy, ultracompact frame as the SD300 and shares virtually every other spec except resolution. What you get for your extra money is improved image quality--and that might be enough.
The differences between the SD450 and the SD400 that came before it are very minor, the most notable being an increase in LCD size, from 2 inches to 2.5 inches. The new model offers the same strong performance, unrelenting burst capabilities, and great battery life. If you're looking for an ultracompact snapshot camera and don't need manual controls, lots of scene modes, or a powerful electronic flash, this model may lure you into the Canon fold. The Canon PowerShot SD450 looks good and feels good in your hands. It won't create an unsightly saggy pocket at a lightweight 5.8 ounces and with dimensions of 3.4 by 2.1 by 0.83 inches. Although large hands may have trouble curling around this tiny package, a two-handed grip is your best bet for getting a steady shot, because your index finger operates both the shutter-release button mounted on the top surface as well as its concentric zoom lever.
Canon manages to pack a lot of components into a limited amount of space. For example, the front surface hosts the 3X zoom lens, which retracts flush behind a protective cover when powered down; a tiny microphone; the focus-assist lamp; an electronic flash; and the optical viewfinder window. The bottom edge includes an honest-to-gosh metal--not plastic--tripod socket and a cover for the battery and SD/MMC memory card. One side edge has a flip-up access door for the I/O connectors.
Other than a recessed power button and a green LED power light on top, all the key controls are bunched on the right side of the back panel, next to the 2.5-inch LCD. The most common settings can be adjusted with the four-way cursor pad, pressing Up to switch between spot, center-weighted, and evaluative metering; or Down to cycle among single-shot, burst mode, and a 2- to 10-second self-timer. The Left key selects normal, landscape, or macro focus, while the Right button activates autoflash/forced on/red-eye/slow sync/forced off speedlight modes.
There's no mode dial on the SD450. Jumping from picture review to movie to photo mode is accomplished with a three-way sliding switch, while scene options are invoked from a menu that pops up when you press the Set/Function button in the center of the four-way cursor pad. The function menu also provides access to key controls, such as exposure compensation (plus or minus 2EV in 1/3EV steps), ISO (50 to 400), compression ratio, and resolution.
A separate menu key pops up three pages of choices for shooting, setup, and customization, and there's a Display button to cycle among LCD status/preview options, while a small button marked with a dot activates printing and sharing features. The Canon PowerShot SD450's feature set is, like its SD400 predecessor's, a quirky mix of minimalist-basic features with a few interesting add-ons. For example, only six scene modes are available, but one of them is an underwater option that's useful with an optional Canon waterproof housing. The remaining five range from the mundane (Portrait, Night Snapshot, Kids/Pets, Indoor) to the unusual: a digital macro option that uses the zoom lever to expand a user-selectable portion of the image to fill the frame. There's also a clever My Colors mode that lets you increase the saturation of red, green, or blue hues; darken or lighten skin tones; swap colors; desaturate all colors but one; and adjust the color balance. Unfortunately, there's no sports/action mode, nor is there any manual control over shutter speed or f-stops, which would have leveraged this camera's great burst capabilities.
The 3X zoom offers a good compromise between wide-angle view and telephoto reach, with a 35mm-to-105mm range (35mm-camera equivalent), but the limited number of zoom steps made choosing the right focal length a jerky, hit-or-miss proposition. The good news is that the nine-point or center-spot autofocus system works well down to 1.2 inches, although you'll need to use the LCD for framing, because the tiny optical viewfinder is woefully noncorrected for parallax.
You can choose evaluative, center-weighted, or spot metering, and Canon has added the ability to link spot metering to an autofocus point in this model. The camera will automatically select shutter speeds from 15 seconds to 1/1,500 second and apertures from f/2.8 to f/4.9. Automatic noise reduction kicks in for exposures longer than 1.3 seconds. As is common with ultracompact cameras housing a tiny battery, Canon conserves juice by underpowering the flash unit, limiting it to 11.5 feet in wide-angle mode and just 6.6 feet at the telephoto setting, when ISO is set to Auto.
This Powershot also offers useful playback options, including magnification from 2X to 10X, automatic or selectable picture rotation, a histogram, and voice annotation of photos. You can also play photos back in a slide show on the SD450.
One quirky feature is this Elph's high-speed 60-frame-per-second mode, which can shoot half-speed slow-motion at 320x240 resolution for as long as 60 seconds. Opt for near-TV-quality 640x480 clips with monaural sound at 30fps, and you can shoot until your memory card fills. The Canon PowerShot SD450 uses the company's Digic II DSP to boost performance to impressive levels. Shutter lag was quick at 0.5 second under high-contrast lighting and still respectable at 1.1 seconds under low-contrast lighting with focus assist switched on. A time-to-first-picture clocking of just 2.2 seconds means you won't wait long to snap off that impulse shot, and you'll be able to keep shooting every 1.62 seconds thereafter, or 3.01 seconds with flash.
Burst mode was a joy to use. You can shoot full-resolution photos until your trigger finger tires; we filled up our memory card with 143 shots in 110 seconds at a 1.3fps clip. When we dropped down to 640x480 resolution, the SD450 plugged away at 1.7fps for 3 full minutes before we halted the test.
Battery life from the 760mAh lithium-ion cell was also excellent, scoring 782 shots from a single charge, half of them with flash, and intermixed with plenty of zooming, picture review, and card formatting to eat up juice. A flashing red indicator appeared to warn us about 50 shots before the power pooped out, but there was nothing else to signal the waning battery before that.
The LCD viewfinder works better under dim lighting situations than it does in bright sunlight, as direct illumination tends to wash out the display. Even though there was ghosting when the camera or subject moved, the LCD is still a better choice for framing than the inaccurate optical viewfinder, which shows only 82 percent of the subject area. The Canon PowerShot SD450's image quality is marginally better than that of its 4-megapixel sibling, the SD300, and the same as that of its predecessor, the SD400. This camera produced photos that were sharper than the SD300's, but other 5-megapixel cameras in this class have done better, particularly at the telephoto zoom position. On the plus side, there was a good range of detail in shadows and highlights, although it was often masked by JPEG artifacts. Color saturation was somewhat muted at the default setting, and there was a tendency toward yellow casts in flesh tones.
Chromatic aberration cropped up as purple fringing around backlit subject matter, and noise, not much of a problem at ISO 50 or ISO 100, was quite evident at the high end of the sensitivity range (ISO 400). While the flash provided even illumination beyond its nominal distance range, thanks to an automatic ISO boost, the resulting photos were accompanied by excessive noise. In addition, the red-eye-reduction feature didn't seem to have much effect on reducing red eyes.