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However you'd better be seated close to the dais to grab your celebrity snaps, because this 5-megapixel shooter's fixed-focal-length 39mm lens (35mm-camera equivalent) has no zooming capability beyond a 6.5X digital zoom that produces highly pixelated results. Nor is there an optical viewfinder: You'll need to compose your shots using a tiny 1.5-inch LCD panel that is bright but easily washes out in the glare of full sunlight.
While eminently portable, the SD20 lacks the manual controls enthusiasts look for. There are no manual exposure or focus settings available, beyond exposure value adjustment (plus or minus 2EV in 1/3EV increments) and five scene modes (Portrait, Landscape, Night, Indoor, and Underwater), plus Macro, Stitch Assist for creating panoramas from multiple shots, and manual mode. The last simply unlocks a modest range of adjustments accessible from a back-panel Function key, including exposure compensation; white-balance controls; sensitivity settings (ISO 50-400); special effects (saturation, sharpening, sepia, and black-and-white); and a choice of evaluative, center-weighted, or spot exposure metering.
A separate Menu/Set key produces three pages of other options for shooting and setup when the camera is in Recording mode. When the SD20 is in Review mode, this key offers an additional set of choices for protecting or rotating images, displaying slide shows, and creating print orders. There's also a print/share button that simplifies making hard copies using Canon Direct Photo and PictBridge, when connected either to a computer or directly to a compatible printer.
The SD20's top surface features a large shutter-release button flanked by a tinny speaker and a recessed power button. Those with unfashionably large hands may have some difficulty curling their fingers around the camera to trigger the release. The back-panel layout uses a four-way rocker switch to navigate menus and select basic shooting options such as flash settings, self-timer/burst mode, digital zoom, and quick delete. A sliding switch changes between Review, Movie, and Recording modes.
Canon gets double and triple duty from its indicator lights. A back-panel LED flashes orange while the self-timer is ticking and shifts to green when the LCD goes to sleep, to indicate that the camera is still powered up. The front-panel focus-assist beam also serves as a self-timer indicator and a red-eye reducer.
This Elph's nine-point/one-point center-spot autofocus system takes you down to 3.9 inches in normal mode and as close as 1.2 inches in Macro. The jerky, 10fps monaural sound clips, which can run as long as 30 seconds at 640x480 pixels, will certainly turn off movie buffs.
The SD20 uses Canon's last-generation Digic chip, so its performance was not stellar, particularly the lethargic burst mode. The Canon poked along to capture 1 frame every 1.5 seconds, although it was able to grab 25 shots in sequence before slowing down. Shutter lag was a middle-of-the-road 0.8 second under contrasty lighting conditions and, even with light-assisted focus, amounted to 1.3 seconds under low-contrast lighting. There is also a Quick Shot mode that freezes the LCD, reducing shutter lag to 0.5 second.
Wake-up time to first picture was acceptable at 2.98 seconds, but we were unable to snap off pictures any more quickly than one every 2.8 seconds thereafter (4.58 seconds with flash). Battery life was excellent, however, delivering 467 pictures (half with flash) during a workout that included reformatting, plenty of LCD photo review, but of course, no zooming. We like the compact 2-ounce battery charger with its flip-up AC plug that requires no bulky cord.
Images were crisp, with good saturation and accurate exposures, although there was a tendency to overload highlights, and we noticed some purple fringing around backlit areas. Flesh tones tended to be a little yellow. Noise wasn't a problem until we used higher ISO settings (ISO 200 and 400), and the SD20 has automatic noise reduction for exposures of 1.3 seconds or longer.
Increasing numbers of ultracompact snapshot cameras offer decent zoom ranges, zippy performance, and usable movie-capture modes, making Canon's PowerShot SD20 look like it's still standing at the starting line. But if you're looking for cute and simple, slip the SD20 into your smallest pocket and go.