Sometimes, when we find ourselves running full speed forward toward what we think is the pinnacle of achievement, we suddenly realize that we've flown closer to the sun than our wings can stand. In the current state of market-driven capitalism, we do this constantly, but luckily, our high-flying, boundary-pushing experiments don't often come with long-term catastrophic results--instead they push technology forward. Canon's PowerShot SD950 IS, with its limit-pushing 12.1-megapixel CCD sensor certainly does its part to advance technology in digital cameras, and along with its attractive titanium body and 3.7x optical-zoom lens should appeal to people who absolutely have to have more pixels than the neighbors. However, the SD950 IS's surfeit of pixels comes at the cost of performance speed.
As has become tradition in the Digital Elph line, the top model, SD950 IS included, sports a rugged titanium body. The right side has a slight inward curve to provide a comfortable grip. With your middle finger in that nook and your pointer finger on the shutter button, your thumb naturally rests on the left of the mode dial, which slopes downward to the left and positions so your thumb rests solidly between it and the raised edge surrounding the 2.5-inch, 230,000-pixel LCD screen. Below the mode dial, you'll find the rest of the camera's buttons, except for the on/off button located to the left of the shutter and its surrounding zoom ring. The play button is recessed a little more than I'd normally like, but that's probably to prevent accidental presses, which never occurred during my field tests, and I didn't have trouble pressing it when I wanted to.
While Canon's PowerShot SD750 and the PowerShot SD870 IS don't include one, I was very happy to see that the SD950 IS has an optical viewfinder for those moments when the LCD may be annoying to you or those around you. You shouldn't count on it for accurate framing, though, as the finder doesn't show the entire frame, as the LCD does. In our review sample, the finder cut off a significant portion of the bottom of the frame, though that may vary from one sample to the next. The finder does zoom, though, which is a step above the finders found in most film compacts of yesteryear.
Menus are split into the shooting menu, accessed by pressing the Func./Set button in the middle of the four-way rocker and the setup menu, which is activated by pressing the Menu button. I like this method, which keeps your thumb on the rocker while shooting and still lets you get to important shooting-related controls quickly when you need them. The rocker provides quick access to the most commonly changed settings, including ISO, flash, macro, and landscape modes, and timer or continuous shooting modes.
The 3.7x optical zoom lens covers a 35mm-equivalent range of 36-133mm with a maximum aperture range of f/2.8-5.8. If you're looking for a wider field of view, the SD870 IS offers 28-105mm lens with the same maximum aperture range. Starbucks junkies should like the fact that the SD950 IS includes optical image stabilization to combat image blur from hand shake at slower shutter speeds. Face detection locates faces in the frame and sets exposure, focus, and flash based on those so the camera won't accidentally focus on something in the background instead of your friends or family. Sensitivity ranges from ISO 80 through ISO 1,600. Though Canon does include an ISO 3,200 scene preset, it lowers the resolution to 2 megapixels.
You won't find manual exposure controls in the SD950 IS, though I really think it'd behoove Canon to include them in at least one of their Digital Elph models. Canon does include numerous options, including exposure compensation, flash compensation, and choices for focus, metering, white balance, numerous scene modes, and a number of flash options.
In our lab tests, the PowerShot SD950 IS performed well for a 12-megapixel model, though that still makes it slower than some of the other SD models that have fewer megapixels. The camera took 1.3 seconds to start up and capture its first JPEG. After that, it took a slightly sluggish 2 seconds between shots with the flash turned off and 3.5 seconds between shots with the flash turned on. Shutter lag measured a pleasing 0.5 second in our high-contrast test and 1.2 seconds in our low-contrast test, which mimic bright and dim shooting conditions, respectively. In continuous shooting mode, the SD950 IS fell just short of its fancier cousin, the G9, clocking an average of 1.6 frames per second regardless of image size.
Image quality from the SD950 IS is very impressive and clean at lower ISOs. Colors are accurate and well saturated, and exposures tend to be accurate, even in some tough situations. For example, the camera did a good job of balancing the built-in flash with the ambient light from the lamp in our test scene, though it wasn't quite powerful enough to pull significant detail out of the dark fur of the plush ape in the scene. Canon does an excellent job of keeping ISO noise under control through ISO 200. At ISO 400, noise becomes noticeable on monitors, but shouldn't cause problems with prints and doesn't cause any noticeable loss of shadow or fine detail. At ISO 800, noise becomes much more noticeable and some, though not all, shadow detail is lost while most fine detail remains. That said, you should still be able to get decent prints, especially at smaller sizes. At ISO 1,600, noise becomes very heavy and most shadow and fine detail, such as text and the markings on the measuring tape in our scene, is lost. I suggest staying below ISO 1,600 when shooting with the SD950 IS and staying below ISO 800 whenever possible.
For a 12-megapixel compact camera, the PowerShot SD950 IS fares well. But, if you don't feel you need so many pixels, and unless you plan to print 11x17-inch images regularly, then you can probably get faster performance by choosing a camera with fewer megapixels, such as Canon's 8-megapixel PowerShot SD870 IS--but you will have to give up the optical viewfinder if you do.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)