Canon Powershot SD4000 IS review: Canon Powershot SD4000 IS

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The Good Very good low-light photo quality; nice lens; fast continuous shooting.

The Bad Most shooting modes buried in the menu system; fewer shooting options compared with similar competing models.

The Bottom Line A bright, wide-angle lens and a high-sensitivity sensor add up to very good low-light photos and fast performance for the Canon PowerShot SD4000 IS.

7.2 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 7
  • Performance 7
  • Image quality 8

Canon's PowerShot S90 is one of the most popular cameras on CNET since its 2009 launch. The camera's features--primarily its manual shooting controls and f2.0 lens--made it a very attractive pocket camera option for digital SLR users. However, the f2.0 lens has benefits that snapshooters can appreciate, too, so Canon took a very similar lens and put it in the PowerShot SD4000 IS.

It's the company's first Digital Elph to feature Aperture- and Shutter-priority modes, but there is no full manual option, no raw capture support, and the control ring that makes the S90 fun to use is not on this model. However, you do get 720p HD movie capture that the S90 doesn't have. The camera is also the company's first to feature a high-speed backside-illuminated CMOS sensor (BSI), though it's still the typical compact-camera-size sensor, 1/2.3-inch type. The sensor improves shooting speed performance over CCD-sensor-based PowerShots and also improves low-light photo quality. In fact, photo quality overall is excellent for a BSI CMOS camera. However, it seems that Canon didn't want to or couldn't take full advantage of the sensor's abilities, keeping shooting options for the most part pretty standard to what you'd find on other Digital Elphs. But, if you just need good low-light photos and fast shooting, this is certainly an ultracompact camera to check out.

Key specs Canon PowerShot SD4000 IS
Price (MSRP) $349.99
Dimensions (WHD) 3.9 x 2.1 x 0.9 inches
Weight (with battery and media) 6.2 ounces
Megapixels, image sensor size, type 10 megapixels, 1/2.3-inch CMOS (backside illuminated)
LCD size, resolution/viewfinder 3-inch LCD, 230K dots/None
Lens (zoom, aperture, focal length) 3.8x, f2-5.3, 28-105mm (35mm equivalent)
File format (still/video) JPEG/H.264 (.MOV)
Highest resolution size (still/video) 3,648x2,736pixels/ 1,280x720 at 29.97fps
Image stabilization type Optical and digital
Battery type, CIPA rated life Lithium ion rechargeable, 250 shots
Battery charged in camera No; external charger supplied
Storage media SD/SDHC/SDXC cards, MultiMediaCard, MMCplus card, HC MMCplus card, Eye-Fi SD/SDHC cards
Bundled software ZoomBrowser EX 6.5/PhotoStitch 3.1 (Windows); ImageBrowser 6.5/PhotoStitch 3.2 (Mac)

The SD4000 IS is very similar in design to Canon's other higher-end Digital Elphs. It's slightly thick, but still highly pocketable and is comfortable to hold and use. It's available in black, silver, and red versions as well as a white option as part of a deluxe kit directly from Canon that includes a metal next strap and leather case. I wouldn't say the camera is particularly stylish, but it is attractive. There's a large 3-inch wide-screen LCD on back that's overall good, but a lower resolution than expected for a high-end pocket camera. It does get adequately bright, though, for use in full sun. One of the reasons to buy this model is its 28mm-equivalent wide-angle lens with a maximum aperture of f2.0. For a lot of photographers (me included) these specs are more important than the zoom range, which is by today's standards a relatively short 3.8x. The combination is great for portraits and landscapes in addition to its ability to let more light in so there's less need to use slower shutter speeds and higher ISOs for low-light shooting.

On top is a three-way shooting mode switch; a power button that's flush with the body so it can be difficult to find without looking; and the shutter release with a zoom ring around it. There's just a miniscule nub on the ring for controlling the zoom, which my finger frequently slipped off of during use.

The remaining controls are simple enough, but quickly finding what you want can be a challenge. To the right of the LCD and in between large Playback and Menu buttons is an unmarked Control Dial/directional pad. Touch the dial and a button description displays on screen so you know which direction to press to change flash, exposure, self timer, and focus settings. The slightest touch makes it appear, so it pops up regularly while shooting, obscuring what you're trying to shoot. The dial does make for fast navigation, though, and for quick changes to aperture and shutter speed in the semimanual shooting modes. It moves freely, but you can feel individual stops when rotating it. In the center of the dial is Canon's standard Func. Set button for accessing shooting-mode-specific options and making selections. Unfortunately, if you want to use the semimanual modes or any of the scene modes, you have to first press the Func. Set button, scroll through the menu that appears on the screen's left side to find the shooting mode options, and then scroll through the list of 20 shooting modes to find what you want. I know this is targeted at point-and-shoot users who will rarely leave Auto, but this is still just too much work to change shooting modes.

Should you want to connect to a computer, monitor, or HDTV, there are Mini-USB and Mini-HDMI ports on the body's right side. The battery and memory card compartment are on the bottom under a nonlocking door; however, the door closes firmly. The battery does not charge in camera and its life is fairly short if you're doing a lot of switching between shooting stills and video.

General shooting options Canon PowerShot SD4000 IS
ISO sensitivity (full resolution) Auto, 125, 200, 400, 800, 1,600, 3,200
White balance Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Fluorescent H, Underwater, Custom
Recording modes Auto, Program, Shutter speed priority, Aperture priority, Scene, Movie
Focus modes Face AF, Center AF, Macro, Normal, Infinity
Metering modes Evaluative, Center-weighted average, Spot
Color effects Vivid, Vivid Blue, Vivid Green, Vivid Red, Neutral, Sepia, Black & White, Positive Film, Lighter Skin Tone, Darker Skin Tone, Custom
Burst mode shot limit (full resolution) Unlimited continuous

Canon's Digital Elphs are usually designed for snapshot photographers who don't want to fuss with settings. The SD4000 IS breaks that tradition by offering Shutter-speed- and Aperture-priority modes. Shutter speeds can be set from 15 seconds to 1/2,000 second. Apertures include f2.0, f2.2, f2.5, f2.8, f3.2, f3.5, f4, f4.5, f5, f5.6, f5.9, f6.3, f7.1, and f8.0. With the lens fully extended, you just get five, though: f5.3, f5.6, f6.3, f7.1, and f8.0. Being able to control shutter speed is great for freezing or blurring motion; the aperture control gives you the ability to select how much of a scene you want in focus.

However, for those who don't want to mess with settings, Canon's very reliable Smart Auto mode is the highlight of the automatic shooting options and gets its own spot on the mode switch. Then there's the camera mode (that's what I'm calling it since it's designated by a picture of a camera) that gives you access to the aforementioned semimanual modes and a Program Auto mode as well as all the scene modes including Portrait, Night Snapshot, Kids & Pets, Indoor, High-Speed Burst, Low Light, Beach, Foliage, Snow, Fireworks, and Stitch Assist for creating panorama shots with the bundled software. Canon added a Smart Shutter option, too, which includes a smile-activated shutter release as well as Wink and Face Detection self-timers. Wink allows you to set off the shutter simply by winking at the camera and the Face Detection option will wait till the camera detects a new face in front of the camera before it fires off a shot. Both work well.

In addition to the company's standard creative-shooting options--Color Accent and Color Swap--it's introduced a few new modes for 2010. One is a Miniature Effect, which blurs the top and bottom of the frame and boosts contrast and color saturation to make subjects look like painted miniature models. It works to some degree, but is not as convincing as true tilt-shift photography, which is what the effect is based on. Another mode, Fish-eye Effect, is even less effective because like the Miniature Effect, it's just an approximation done with software of what a fish-eye lens creates. That said, they're included and can be fun to play with if only to add some interest to what would be an otherwise boring shot.

The SD4000 IS is excellent in Macro mode, producing sharp photos with lots of fine detail. The camera can focus on subjects as close as 1.2 inches from the lens. The camera will automatically switch to Macro in Auto when appropriate or you can select it in Program and Aperture- and Shutter-speed-priority modes.

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