By Burt Helm
The Good Advanced features for those wanting more than point-and-shoot
The Bad Too complex, and photos blur without the flash
The Bottom Line Lots of great extras, but Canon should have focused first on the basics
In the early days of digital cameras, only one "special feature" really mattered: the memory card. It freed you from buying film and having it developed.
Now, with competition heating up among digital-camera makers, you'll find thousands of models out there. They offer countless ways to digitally tweak images, program the focus, shutter, and exposure settings, and the manufacturers jam-pack all of these features into their latest models in an effort to separate them from the pack.
A good example is the Canon PowerShot SD400, the second such device I'm reviewing in my search for the perfect slim and compact 5-megapixel camera (see BW Online, 7/13/05, "Konica Minolta Makes It a Snap").
ZOOM WITH A VIEW. The machine, which retails for $400 and measures only 3.4 x 0.8 x 2.1 inches, comes packed with gee-whiz features, including an automatic target-finder (it locates and focuses on the subject of your photo, even if the person isn't standing in the middle of the shot) and the ability to enhance certain colors -- even to substitute one shade for another.
Unfortunately, I found the camera does no better than a passable job on its most basic task -- taking everyday photos.
The SD400 has a compact, if slightly boxy, shape. It features a 3X optical zoom, a 2-inch LCD screen on the back, and a tiny viewfinder for those who want to set up shots the old-fashioned way.
DOGS, CATS, KIDS. The controls are laid out well, and my thumb easily reached most of the important buttons, except for the zoom. Canon (CAJ), like a few other makers, uses a knob on the top of the camera that you have to adjust with your index finger. I found that a bit awkward.
The camera has nine different modes for taking pictures, the first of which is a basic "auto" setting for beginning users. While in auto, only a few user options are active: You can turn the flash off or on, switch to a close-up setting, and activate a timer for self-portraits. After that, there isn't much else to do, other than adjust the zoom and push the shutter button.
When you switch the SD400 out of auto and into the other modes, the full range of features opens up. You can use presets for night photos, super close-ups, and underwater pictures (if you buy the $149 case). Plus, the "kids and pets" mode snaps photos extremely quickly to catch action shots.
TWIN MENUS. The manual mode gives a lot of freedom for such a small camera. You can set the white balance and shutter speed, adjust light metering, and preprogram specific focus and exposure settings. The niftiest feature of all, "my colors," enables you to accentuate specific hues and even swap colors -- turning all browns to bright blue, for example, or making the photo B&W, except for one particular color.
The results are akin to something right out of the movie Sin City, which owes its unique, visually striking look to digital wizardry. While I probably could have done all of this on a computer with a little time and a copy of Adobe's (ADBE) Photoshop, it was a lot of fun to shoot funky pictures on the go.
The learning curve for many of the advanced extras seems a bit steep, however. The settings on the camera are divvied up between two menu screens -- one accessed by the "menu" button, the other via the "func./set" button, which sits in the middle of the circular pad on the back. The menu screens are fairly complex, and it took me a solid lunch break with the manual to figure out what half of the little symbols on the LCD screen meant and when I would want to use them.
"SHAKY AND BLURRY." In addition to all of the still-photo modes, the SD400 offers a video setting. As with the Konica Minolta model, I found the little Canon doesn't do much of a job shooting video.
The images were fairly grainy and, as I zoomed in and out, the auto-focus couldn't keep pace. The result was often blurry. But, after all, the SD400 is meant for still shots, so I can't complain too much.
While I can look past the video, the quality of typical still photos also disappointed me. Everyday shots taken on the "auto" setting weren't as sharp as those from other models. With the flash off, images were often shaky and blurry at the edge, even as I was doing my best to hold the camera still.
READY, STEADY -- NO! On a bumpy road, things got even worse. A representative from Canon says that, because of the camera's size, the SD400 doesn't come with the image-stabilizer technology that Canon includes with other models. Bummer.
If the SD400's auto mode did a more competent job, this would make an excellent camera for both the complete beginner and the user looking to dabble in more advanced features. Instead, I'd reserve the SD400 for more accomplished users -- especially those who don't mind reading manuals and can shoot with a very steady hand.
Helm is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York