The Canon PowerShot SD4000 IS arrived on the market earlier this year with a lot of fanfare. It was presented as the answer to many prayers: a camera that would cram the phenomenal PowerShot S90 IS's low-light image quality into a tiny SD-series body. The SD4000 uses a backside-illuminated 10-megapixel CMOS sensor, a fast f/2.0, 28-105mm lens, plus a lot of bells and whistles. It’s sold as an answer to many a club-goer's midnight dreams.
But the outlook wasn't entirely positive. The most glaring caveat with the SD4000 is in its price -- it costs nearly as much as the S90, a far more advanced model. While it offers nearly all of the options the majority of shooters will require, it's a very basic unit for the price. That said, if it truly offers a massive improvement in low light, many shoppers would buy it without a second thought. So, does it?
Body, Ergonomics, Build Quality
The SD4000 is an extremely compact camera, and one with an exceedingly solid build. The angular design is appealing in a slightly funky way, with sort of a trapezoid shape. My review unit came in bright-and-glossy fire-engine red (which is sure to enthrall the more fashion-conscious), but traditional photographers will be glad to know it also comes in matte black and silver.
The front of the camera is decked out with a flash, focus-assist light, microphone, and of course the lens, which retracts into the body when the camera is off. On the top, you'll find a mode selector switch (Auto, Shooting, and Movie), the on-off button, and the zoom ring encircling the shutter button. The left side houses the speaker, while the right has a lanyard mounting point. On the bottom is the tripod mounting socket (metal, thankfully) and the battery and SD-card compartment, which is a simple slide-to-open affair.
The rear of the camera is a picture of simplicity. The large 3-inch LCD takes up the majority of the expanse, in a widescreen format of 16:9. This unfortunately means that for photos it's only the equivalent of a 2.5-inch non-widescreen LCD, but for shooting HD video it's lovely. The LCD's resolution is only 230,000 dots, but it looks okay in most circumstances. I might expect a higher resolution for the price, but this screen will suffice. To the right of the screen are a playback toggle button, a menu button, and the Function/Set button, surrounded by a combined jog dial/four-way control pad.
Despite its diminutive size, the camera is easy enough to hold, even for a person with bigger hands. The button area to the right of the LCD is just big enough for a thumb, keeping you from obscuring the screen when framing shots. Quite naturally, the fingertip of your index finger falls directly over the shutter button.
The SD4000 has a very traditional Canon user interface. If you've ever used a Canon point-and-shoot before, you know what to expect from the menus and controls. Everything in the main menu is laid out quite logically, with separate menu "tabs" for shooting and setup options. The FUNC menu changes based on your shooting mode, but generally provides access to settings like white balance, ISO, self-timer, drive mode, and metering options. Pressing the various directions on the four-way control pad around the FUNC button brings up a few quick options, including flash settings (right), exposure compensation (up), and shooting range (left).
In Auto mode, shooting with the SD4000 couldn't be simpler. From power-on, the camera is ready to shoot in under four seconds. Options in this mode include flash settings (off or auto) and self-timer. That's it. Just point and shoot and you're done. Focus acquisition is pretty quick, even in low light, and there's very little shutter lag. In all, it's your typically polished Canon compact experience.
Using the mode slider at the top of the camera, you can instead select "Shooting" mode, whose vague name conceals more advanced options including Aperture Priority (Av), Shutter Priority (Tv), Program (P), high-speed shooting, a reduced-resolution low-light mode, and a variety of scene modes behind the FUNC button. In Av, Tv, and P modes, the user sets the aperture and shutter speed via the rear jog dial.
Video shooting is also entirely uncomplicated. Simply set the mode switch to video, press the shutter button to start recording, and press it again when you're done. Pressing "Func" gets you white balance, movie mode (including a reduced-resolution slow-motion option), self-timer, and video resolution settings.
Battery life is well within the category's standard range. Canon claims you can get 250 shots per charge out of the slim, proprietary lithium ion cell, which is approximately what I got, plus a bit of HD video here and there.
And now we get to the meat and potatoes. Does the SD4000 deliver on its promises of low-light nirvana?
Well, not really, but it does better than most than compacts. The image quality at base ISO and up to ISO 800 is frankly excellent for the price range, and there's no doubt that the new backlit sensor gives the camera a leg up on much of its pocket-sized competition. But there are still serious image quality issues above ISO 800. Moreover, the fast f/2.0 lens is only really fast at full (28mm equivalent) wide angle. Zoom in to the opposite end of the scale, at 105mm equivalent, and the widest the aperture will go is f/5.3.
Let’s start with the good: The lens is simply excellent for a compact zoom, sharp from a wide-open setting and without too much distortion (though at full wide angle there is visible barrel distortion). In close-ups, the sharpness is really quite remarkable, while at a distance it doesn't seem to perform quite as well. Bokeh (aka background blur) isn't exactly buttery smooth, even at full wide aperture, but for a compact you can get a surprising amount of eye-pleasing foreground/background separation thanks to the f/2.0 wide end. The zoom range is quite useful for walk-around shooting (though it’s much shorter than some compacts, like travel zooms). As mentioned above, at low and even moderate ISO settings, images are relatively noise-free, smooth, and crisp. Color accuracy seems pretty good, perhaps leaning a bit to the cool side, and images aren't obnoxiously over-saturated as on many compact cameras.
Then, the disappointing part: Beyond ISO 800, the image quality gets a bit grim. While these images are not entirely unusable, the camera's noise-reduction algorithm goes into overdrive and destroys the detail produced by the sharp lens. Images become smeary and watercolory. To be fair, while the SD4000’s images at ISO 1600 and 3200 aren't exactly good, they're far better than what most rivals can do at those settings. Beyond ISO 3200 the SD4000 offers a special low-light shooting mode that extends the range to ISO 6400, but this option reduces image resolution to 2.5 megapixels to help keep noise in check. It looks just slightly better than the native ISO 3200, though these snaps will be only be useful on a computer screen for web presentation, Facebook, and so on. They’re too small for prints, but if you just want to digitally share shots from a night out, it’s fine.
Other image quality issues are minor, thanks to the very nice lens. One downside of the glass is that at wide aperture and in bright light, high-contrast edges tend to "bloom," giving them a milky and soft look. Shooting into the sun or other bright light sources does result in flare, and quite ugly flare at that, though images remain nominally useful.
The SD4000 IS shoots respectable 720p HD video. While many cameras equipped with CMOS sensors suffer from an exaggerated "jello" or "rolling shutter" effect -- the image wobbles when the camera operator pans from side to side or moves the camera up and down -- the SD4000 does fairly well in this regard. Taking video of a friend talking at lunch I was surprised at the color accuracy and sharpness of the image on the camera's LCD, though to be fair when played back on a high-def PC monitor or television the image does look a little less sharp, more compressed. The sound recording isn't great--in my experience the onboard mic seemed to pick up more ambient noise than spoken dialogue--but it's serviceable. One other caveat is that the noise of the zoom motor is audible when zooming during video recording, though only barely so.
Another cool feature of the SD4000 is its super slow-motion mode, which uses a reduced resolution of 320 by 240 pixels to capture video at an extremely high frame-rate. Other manufacturers including Casio (with its FH100 and a few others in its Exilim line) and Samsung (with its TL350) have offered similar modes, and Canon's works in virtually the same way. The effect is very cool to look at, though loses some of its charm when you see just how low-resolution it actually is. In a slow-motion video of water splashing against a wall, the pixelated image made it difficult to discern individual droplets of water, which is the kind of thing you'd like to see with a mode like this. A video of the wheels of passing cars fared better, but still suffers from extreme pixelation. Fun, but not exactly useful.
As I hinted at the start of this review, the ultimate fate of the SD4000 IS lies in its value-to-cost ratio. There are less expensive cameras that do nearly all of the things this model does, and in many cases do them better. Therefore, the value portion of the ratio comes down solely to the camera's low-light capabilities. As you've read above, these are a mixed bag, though a definite improvement over the competition--particularly those in the ultra-compact category. Until recently, the PowerShot S90 IS represented a major stumbling block for the SD4000 IS; at just a few dollars more, it offered a more complete and far more advanced feature set. However, the S90 IS was recently discontinued to make way for the successor S95 IS, which now retails in the vicinity of $400. As it stands, the SD4000 IS is in a price range and a class of its own in Canon's lineup.
At an average asking price of somewhere around $300, there are some enticing options to draw attention from the SD4000 IS, but shoppers should remember that even if the camera doesn't quite achieve all of its goals, it's a very capable unit for most possible shooting situations. It's got a wonderful lens, perfect ease of use, excellent build quality, a very pocketable form factor, quality HD and super slow motion video recording options, and most importantly very good image quality at all but the highest ISO settings. It's possible to get a better camera for cheaper if you never shoot in low light, but if you like to party into the night, this one is worth a look.