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Canon PowerShot S400 Digital Elph review: Canon PowerShot S400 Digital Elph

Canon PowerShot S400 Digital Elph

Denny Atkin
6 min read
Canon's PowerShot S400 melds the ultracompact, cigarette-pack-sized design of the PowerShot S230 with the higher-power 3X optical zoom--36mm to 108mm, in 35mm-camera terms--found on the S400's bulkier predecessor, the S330. Toss in an increase to 4-megapixel resolution, Canon's DIGIC image processor, an extended movie mode with sound, and the best red-eye reduction we've seen on a compact model, and you have an appealing camera in an equally attractive package. Though the S400 lacks many of the manual settings and other advanced features of Canon's larger cameras and some competing ultracompacts, this Digital Elph's excellent image quality and convenient size suit it for a broad variety of snapshooters. As ever, we appreciate the design of the Digital Elph series, which is exemplified in the Canon PowerShot S400's small body and intelligently laid-out menus and controls. Canon has managed to shave a couple of ounces from the S330's battery-and-media-equipped body, allowing the 8-ounce S400 to qualify as an ultracompact like the S230. And it does so with only one slight change: The mode dial--though a bit small and hard to turn--moves from the top of the camera to the back. The S400 also uses a stainless-steel body with a new Cerabrite finish that Canon claims will reduce the possibility of scratches.

The S400's mode dial is a bit hard on the fingers, though we like its location.

As with other Digital Elph models, Canon uses the limited space intelligently.
The mode dial, the four menu buttons, and the four-way navigation pad put the most frequently used functions within reach of a button press or two. When you do need to get to the menus to access functions such as exposure compensation, you'll find the single-level menus easy to understand and navigate. If you turn off the camera or spend more than a few seconds in playback mode, the lens retracts, and its automatic cover engages, protecting it from scratches and fingerprints. The LCD remains unprotected, however, so be sure not to toss the S400 in your pocket with your keys. The feature set of the 4-megapixel Canon PowerShot S400 squarely targets the pocket-snapshot crowd, but surprisingly, it lacks the sophisticated scene modes that have become so popular in this class of camera. It supplies four shooting modes: Auto, Manual, Stitch Assist (for creating panoramas using multiple photos), and Movie. With the camera in Manual mode, you can adjust exposure compensation, white balance, ISO speed settings (50 to 400), and effects (vivid or neutral color, low sharpening, sepia, and black and white). You can also choose among three metering modes and two continuous-shooting modes. There's no manual focus, however; you get only an automatic nine-point AiAF, which automatically selects a focal point, and standard center-point focus.
Experienced photographers will find the lack of shutter- and aperture-priority settings frustrating at times--you can choose only a long-shutter-speed mode. In fact, the S400's inability to display exposure information for a scene caused us immense annoyance. Additionally, the S400 lacks a quick-review option. Less bothersome, it can't save raw or uncompressed TIFF files, only JPEGs. But we saw no serious compression artifacts at the highest resolution with JPEG quality set to its maximum level of SuperFine.
This camera falls behind the curve for movie capture, though. Although the S400 has an internal speaker that the S230 lacks, it unfortunately omits the S230's--and much of its newest competitors'--ability to capture video at 640x480 resolution. Instead, the S400 can record three-minute clips of 320x240-resolution Motion JPEG AVI video, at 15 frames per second (fps) with sound. You can also add voice annotations of up to 60 seconds to still images.
To complement its composite-video output, the S400 features an automated slide-show mode that lets you use the Print Order feature (the DPOF standard) to select and rearrange photos for display in the show. And as with most Canon cameras, you can print directly to compatible Canon printers.

With one of our test units, we noticed some blank pixels.
The Canon PowerShot S400 performs very well for a 4-megapixel model. It powers up and extends its lens in slightly less than three seconds, and Canon's DIGIC processor delivers responsive performance for most operations. The nine-point autofocus does a great job of properly focusing even when the primary subject is off-center or under low light. Shutter lag is perceptible but minimal in standard shooting modes, and shot-to-shot time runs a moderate four to five seconds. The S400 can capture up to 2.5 shots per second in high-speed burst mode; we managed 50 sequential shots with no slowing in this continuous-shooting mode. Even after cranking up the file size to its maximum, we still managed 14 sequential shots before the S400 began to slow. However, at that size, the capture rate came closer to 0.7 fps.

On a fully charged battery, the S400 shot more than 500 pictures with heavy LCD and moderate flash use while never giving a low-battery warning.
The 1.5-inch LCD provides 100 percent coverage of your shot, and it remains sharp and vibrant even in bright outdoor lighting. As is typical in the S400's class, the optical viewfinder shows about 85 percent of the total image; atypically, it displays very little distortion.
The S400's enhanced red-eye reduction works dramatically better than in earlier Digital Elphs. Because of the proximity of the lens to the flash, pocket cameras are very prone to causing red-eye in living subjects; we found red-eye in most S230 and S330 flash shots. In comparison, the S400 had red-eye in a very small percentage of shots; it even worked in photos of infants, who are among the most susceptible of subjects.

There's relatively little noise in shots taken with the ISO 100 setting.
In typical use, the Canon PowerShot S400 produces very good photos, with few sacrifices in quality relative to larger consumer cameras. Canon's DIGIC image processor and iSAPS scene-recognition technology impressed us, delivering a higher-than-average percentage of shots with proper exposure and accurate white balance. Its images look much sharper than average, on a par with its sibling the PowerShot S45, and our test shots had excellent detail in the midtones, with no obvious clipping in the highlights or shadows (thanks to a post-processing induced compressed dynamic range). As with most Canon cameras, the S400's automatic white balance produces an overly orange cast under tungsten lights, but the tungsten white-balance preset and manual correction handled tungsten-lit scenes very well. Furthermore, the camera's metering system and flash ably handled our side-lit test scene, delivering even illumination without blowing out the lighted area.

Thumbs up for the S400 on its dynamic range and color rendition.
Shots taken at the ISO 50 and ISO 100 settings display relatively little noise compared with those from competitors, subtle enough that you really notice it in only solid-color patches. Unsurprisingly, images captured at the faster ISO 400 speed show much more noise. We also spotted some minor barrel distortion at the S400's widest angle of view, as well as some pincushioning at maximum zoom, but it's nothing you're likely to notice if you don't make a hobby out of photographing graph paper. We did see some chromatic aberration--purple fringing, that is--in typical problem areas, such as along the edges of exceedingly bright highlights. This shouldn't be a significant problem unless you plan to crop in close on those spots.

The S400 takes some of the sharpest images in its class.
The S400's movies look surprisingly good when shot outdoors or in bright indoor lighting. But because the flash isn't active in movie mode, clips shot in dim light end up muddy and pixelated.

Canon PowerShot S400 Digital Elph

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 8Image quality 8