Tradition dictates that anyone looking for a really compact Canon should buy themselves an IXUS. That line has recently returned to its roots, in the shape of the IXUS 510 HS, with its sharp corners, glossy finish and truly compact body. Already, though, it's facing competition from within the Canon camp, in the shape of the PowerShot A4000 IS.
This sibling rival is just 10mm longer, 3mm taller and 4mm fatter. Although its lens provides only an 8x zoom against the IXUS' 12x, it's less expensive and boasts 60 per cent more pixels on its sensor.
The Canon PowerShot A4000 IS can be bought from around £100 online.
Features and design
It's been designed very firmly with beginners in mind, with a dedicated help button on the back of the body that walks you through the various controls and explains what each one does.
There are two shooting modes -- auto and scene. The former lets you choose the size of your stills and movies, while the latter opens up a wider range of settings, including exposure (ISO 100 to ISO 1,600, plus an Auto setting), compensation (+/-2EV in 1/3EV steps), white balance, single or continuous shooting and three self-timer options.
Switching out of Auto lets you pick a scene mode, with dedicated shortcuts for portraits, low light and a fish eye effect, among others. These include a Live View Control that lets you adjust brightness, colour temperature and saturation using on-screen sliders.
The smartest mode is the face self-timer, which puts the camera into a regular timed shutter release but only starts to count down when it spots that a new face has entered the scene. This would let you pose your family while you took care of the camera, so you could then wander slowly into the scene to be included in the shot -- no more rushing in, as is the case with regular 2 or 10-second countdowns.
Naturally, all composing and reviewing is done on the 3-inch rear LCD screen. This is fine-grained and detailed and it updates smoothly, but you'll want to turn up the brightness as the halfway setting is tricky to see in bright, direct sunlight.
The lens is equivalent to a 28-224mm arrangement on a regular 35mm camera. That represents an 8x zoom at full telephoto, by which point the maximum available aperture is f/5.9, widening to f/3.0 as you zoom back out to wide angle. Both of these are pretty much what you'd expect in a camera of this size, but the inclusion of an 8x zoom in so compact a body is impressive and certainly increases the A4000 IS's appeal.
It's quick to find focus and the lens is sharp across the majority of the frame, but examining the corner of a shot reveals some fall off. This is caused by these parts of the lens having to bend the incoming light to the most extreme degree to focus it on the sensor. For that reason, it's not uncommon to see some degradation in the level of detail in the corners of an image, but its more pronounced here than I would have hoped.
Despite this, I didn't find chromatic aberration to be too great an issue. This is an unwanted colour fringing along sharp contrasts, caused by the lens not quite focusing each wavelength of incoming light in sync with the others.
It's evident on the branches of the tree in the shot below, but not to so obvious a degree to be cause for great concern.
Sensor and sensitivity
The sensor is a 16-megapixel 1/2.3-inch CCD delivering 4,608x3,456-pixel images. That's an awful lot of pixels on a small chip. Unfortunately, there is some noise evident in images, even at comparatively low sensitivities.
I performed my tests with the A4000 IS set to fully automatic, using the automatic white balance and sensitivity settings to emulate the way in which most of its intended users would shoot.
Even in bright, direct sunlight, it had a tendency to set its sensitivity at ISO 200 or higher. Consequently, there was some dappling.
The shot of the town hall below, for example, was initially exposed at ISO 200, and it's possible to make out noise in the brickwork and the white stone archways. When repeating the shot a couple of seconds later under identical conditions and without changing any settings, the A4000 IS increased its sensitivity to ISO 400 and the noise was more pronounced. The brickwork and tiles were less easy to make out in darker areas as the details were slightly smoothed.
By the time it reached ISO 800, noise became more of an issue when examining the frame at 100 per cent magnification. This can be seen clearly in the shot below, taken under a pier.
Colours were accurate throughout my tests, with the A4000 IS producing really punchy results that were consistently true to the original subject matter.
Even when shooting directly towards the sun, which naturally increases the contrasts and darkens off shadows as it compensates for the increased background lighting, the A4000 IS performed well in reproducing what was visible to the naked eye.
Likewise, when shooting a still-life composition under studio lighting, the results demonstrated excellent colour reproduction. As it was able to keep its sensitivity fairly low, the level of grain was minimised, although it's still evident when examining fine detail such as the writing on a food tin.
I repeated the test using only the available ambient light in my studio and it increased its self-selected sensitivity to ISO 800. There was a commensurate decrease in the quality of the result. The fur on a child's toy was less clearly rendered, with considerably more noise evident across the frame. Levels of detail were degraded, particularly in darker subject matter such as the wooden box of spices at the centre of the frame.
I performed the test for a third time with the aid of the on-board flash. This enabled the A4000 IS to reduce its sensitivity to ISO 400, which helped it to recover some of the lost detail. The fur was clearer, for example, but there was some unevenness in the illumination with the corners of the frame darker than the centre.
The A4000 IS shoots video at 1,280x720-pixel resolution, at 25 frames per second, which is the entry level as far as HD is concerned.
I performed my tests by the coast in a gentle onshore breeze. With no option to cancel out wind noise, the sound of the passing breeze was audible on much of the captured footage. It's also worth noting the soundtrack is recorded in mono.
It's not possible to use the optical zoom while filming, so there's no issue with the sound of any lens motors whirring in the background. You're restricted to using only the digital zoom, but this compromises the video quality, so it's best to leave off touching the zoom while shooting film. You can use the optical zoom when composing your shot before you start, of course, but you won't be able to zoom out until you stop recording.
It compensates smoothly for changes in the level of available light, but where there were stark contrasts in the footage, such as light showing between the legs of a pier, light streaked into the darker areas of the shot where it shouldn't have been visible.
The A4000 IS is a neat compact camera that's incredibly easy to use and, as such, will appeal if you're a photography beginner -- particularly if you can't afford an IXUS.
But it's not without issues. There's more noise in the results than I'd like to see when shooting in well-lit conditions, and the fall-off in focus towards the corners of the frame is a little more pronounced than it ought to be.
Fortunately, the A4000 IS is very reasonably priced at around £120 from mainstream stores and as low as £100 online. However, it's worth bearing in mind that cameras fall in price fairly rapidly, so keeping an eye on a slightly older model, such as the PowerShot SX150 IS, which currently retails for around the same price, may pay dividends.
The latter has a lower resolution (14.1 megapixels) but a longer zoom, which means you'll have less reason to crop your photos when you download them from the camera. It also performed very well in my tests late last year.