Pros: Tiny size, 7.1MP, 3x optical zoom, some manual features, Excellent color accuracy, Improved movie modes
Cons: Weak Flash, Pictures not as sharp as some larger 7 MP cameras, Weak Battery
My brother got lucky for his birthday... he's getting a new iPod Mini from me and a brand spanking new SD500 from my parents. Now he has stuff to make me a bit envious of him in the world of high tech... including his new Infiniti G35. Well, he worked hard for it.
My parents bought the SD500 from Best Buy of all places... the price was $499 before tax in New Jersey. However, the deal did become a bit sweeter considering I had a Best Buy Rewards Zone card and they had accumulated $200 in Best Buy Gift Cards through the Citibank Diamond Preferred Rewards Credit Card (hey... 5 points for every dollar at gas, supermarkets, and pharmacies!). Oh yeah, I had a 10% certificate for Best Buy as well. So they paid about $279 after taxes with $15 coming back in Best Buy Reward Certificates. That's not such a bad deal now... is it. Well, I had a hand in helping them figure out how to get a good deal.
You can read my epinion The Art of Buying... Getting your money's worth! for some tips on buying electronics online and offline. Ebates.com can net you 1% back from BestBuy.com.
Canon has been a bit slow to trickle down features and sensor improvements from its high end cameras to its sub-compact and ultra-compact cameras. This left gaps for Sony and other camera companies to exploit... look at how long Sony has had 7 MP (MegaPixel) subcompact and ultracompact cameras... at least 6 months lead time over Canon. That being said, Canon is usually very cautious when releasing their digital cameras with their professional level digital cameras being the biggest risks for Canon. Canon has gotten by on build quality, solid feature sets, and excellent image capturing even if the Canon cameras lacked features that almost all other camera maker added to their cameras. To be completely honest, very few people really need 7MP cameras... heck the majority of people would do just fine with a 2MP camera with an excellent camera lens. A 2MP camera with an excellent lens will give photo quality 4x6 and even 5x7. Some will claim 8x10 photos are possible but I prefer a 3 to 4 MP with a good camera lens for that. In reality, I feel that the 5, 7, and 8 MP camera is more for people you want to crop their photos and manipulate their photos.
Canon release of the DIGIC II processor has leveled the playing field for Canon somewhat... adding faster and improved image capture and much improved movie capturing abilities! The SD500 is really part of a line of cameras using the DIGIC II processor.
The SD500 is an overall excellent camera with above average to excellent picture quality with excellent color accuracy, above average to excellent resolution, pocketable size, sturdy design, a decent amount of manual settings for beginners, excellent movie capture options, and a good number of accessories.
On the downside, like all subcompact and ultracompact cameras, you have a weak flash, a so-so battery life (since the battery is much smaller), red eye problems (although much less than I expected for an ultracompact camera), mild color aberration or purple fringing, and slight barrel distortion at the edges (Images compared to similar shots from my Canon S70 and Digital Rebel... until I get my Digital Rebel XT at the end of March!).
However... often the best camera is the one that you'll likely have on your body. Guess what, the SD500 is a camera you'll definitely have on your body... there is almost no excuse for why you wouldn't carry it with you. This makes the SD500 a desirable item on your camera buying list.
Specs and Design
The SD500 is a tiny thing... dimensions of 3.37" x 2.24" x 1.04" (i.e. 85.6 x 57.0 x 26.5 mm) and a weight of 6.0 oz before the battery and SD card are inserted. This is really my first experience with Canon's SD series (Secure Digital) card cameras... I'm more used to Compact Flash card based Canon cameras which are quite a bit bigger than the SD series. The SD500 seems to take a mild design departure from the other SD models... mainly a move from a boxy design to a slightly more curved design (mostly on one side and all sharp corners). Looking at it head on, it looks a little like half of a pill capsule to me... not sure that I particularly like that specific look since I'm used to a more traditional design. Regardless, the curved surfaces don't drastically change the ease of use or the gripability of the camera. The camera is a bit slippery despite the finish on the surface of the casing. The SD500 comes in a silver finish.
The actual front and back of the camera is fairly flat. the front houses the lens, flash, viewfinder, red-eye reduction lamp, and microphone hole. The back has the 2.0 inch LCD screen which previews photos and relays camera information to you, the mode dial, a 5 way circular navigator, display button, menu button, and direct print button. The right side of the camera (you're looking at the back of the SD500) hold just the eyelet since the design of the curve to this side of the camera limits any other functions except the rubber cover for the AV port and the mini-USB 2.0 plug. The left side of the camera is plain. The bottom holds the tripod attachment socket and the cover to the battery and SD card slot. The tripod socket is pretty much centered to the lens... which is a good thing in my opinion. Note that the cover to the battery and SD slot has a rubber plug you can remove to put in the optional AC power accessories (a dummy battery with a power port that you attach the AC adapter to). All in all, your thumb and index finger can reach all the controls on the camera easily.
The camera is using the DIGIC II chip (well, Canon calls it the DiG!C II chip)... which I wished was in the S70. It is significantly faster than the original DiG!C chip... allowing for a more responsive camera and improved movie resolutions and lengths.
Note that the SD500 uses SD cards... I would recommend buying a SD card with higher read/write speeds. I've been using SanDisk's Ultra II 1GB SD cards (since I got them for under $80 a pop!). My brother used a standard 512MB SanDisk and a standard 512MB Lexar (not professional or platinum series cards). There is a discernable difference in access times on the SD500.
Image Quality and My Actual Photos
Well, the most important thing about a camera is the image quality. The SD500 really performs for a ultracompact 7.1 MP digital camera. Note that my experience for 7 MP cameras are coming from the Canon PowerShot S70 and the Sony P150 cameras. The SD500 certainly outperforms the Sony P150 but I think is slightly worse than the S70. The images have a bit more jagged edges at full size on a 24 inch Dell Widescreen LCD and on an older 19 inch CRT ViewSonic. However if you're printing 4x6, 5x7, and 8x10 sizes, you're not going to notice. I can't say anything over 8.5x11 prints since I don't currently have a printer that can print on sheets larger than 8.5x11. There is a slight chromatic aberration (purple fringing) in areas of stark contrast but I think this is case with most high end digital cameras especially high megapixel compact and smaller cameras. This effect is extremely slight in the shots I take with my Digital Rebel (and I would hope my Digital Rebel XT). Details are kept very well with excellent color reproduction near the level of the S70. I think the color saturations were slightly more pleasing to me than the shots on the S70 on automatic mode... the S70 colors were more vibrant than I would like in my shots (reviews have called it a more consumer favorable color palette). My preference in image colors still lies with the more realistic tones of my Digital Rebel however. Image noise is still present although it seems slightly better than the S70. Note that this is when viewing the images at full size on two different computer monitors! When printing the images to small sizes like 8x10, 5x7, and 4x6 photos, you should not notice most of these minor issues. Note that I took photos in the Hamptons, Riverhead, NY, and Lake Grove, NY. I haven't had a chance to take photos near the Northport VA were I can make a better comparison to prior shots with other cameras I own or had owned. The shots taken for comparison were repeated on a Canon S70 and a Canon Digital Rebel.
Low light and nighttime photos were pretty good for this ultracompact camera. I would say the camera performed slightly better than the S70 in nighttime photos especially with use of the flash. I would say the flash was good up to 12 feet with acceptable results at 15+ feet. I'm not sure if the flash is better or the faster processor may be the reason for the improvement... but it is slightly better. Past these distances, you should have some kind of external light source to take any non-landscaping photos.
I was expecting red-eye to be more of a problem especially in ultracompact cameras. However, the SD500 showed mild issues with red-eye and mostly in portrait photos within I'd say 8 feet. This might be due to the photo processing performed by the DiG!C II processor.
Overall, the SD500 performs extremely well especially as a ultracompact digital camera.
I only address optical zoom... the SD500 has 3x optical zoom. I don't enable digital zoom on any of my camera since it is really the camera taking the regular shot at the camera's maximum zoom and then cropping the photo to what you see on the LCD. You might as well transfer the 3x optical zoom shot to a computer and crop the photo yourself. You'll get much better results in my opinion!
The SD500 allows you to select from resolutions of 3072x2304, 2592x1944, 2048x1536, 1600x1200, 640x480 pixels. There are three levels of JPEG compression (Normal, Fine, and Superfine) as well as RAW files. At 3072x2304 at JPEG Superfine settings, the image files are around 3 MB each! At 3072x2304 (7.1 MP images) and RAW file settings, you get nothing since the SD500 doesn't have a RAW setting. Well, there has to be a few reasons to buy the Canon S70 or G6... right?
The movie capture of the Canon SD500 has been improved over several of the older Canon models in that you can take movies with resolutions of 640x480, 320x240, and 160x120 at 30 frames per second. However, times top out at 3 minutes if you use a SD card with a slow read/write speed. With cards like the SanDisk Ultra II 1GB SD card, I could record until the card was full! Note that the Fast Frame Mode records at 320x240 at 60 fps but clips are limited to one minute regardless of what kind of SD card you're using. The framerate can be decreased to 15 fps but I personally don't find the 15 fps setting useful. By the way, there is no optical zoom available while recording the movie... you do get digital zoom but I don't consider that a true zoom. The movie recording abilities will do in a pinch but doesn't replace a camcorder as of yet.
Viewfinder vs. LCD
It seems that the viewfinder showed you about 80% of the image that the camera captures to file. The LCD captures 95+% of the image that the camera captures to file. However, I think you have better depth perception with the viewfinder than the LCD (that could be a personal thing since I've been using my Digital Rebel more and more...)
Smaller camera, smaller battery, shorter battery life... Canon rates the battery at 160 shots with the LCD on (number is based on the CIPA Test Standard... Camera and Imaging Products Association in Japan) and playback at 210 minutes. I have not run a personal test on the battery to determine how many shots the battery will last. Although I have access to the camera on a regular basis, my brother didn't buy an additional battery for the unit so he prefers to charge the battery before heavy use or after long periods of inactivity. The most I've used the camera for is 50 shots at full resolutions and mostly with a flash. My brother has used it for 80+ shots at full resolution with a 50/50 use of the flash.
By the way, the CIPA Test Standard basically turns the camera on, takes 10 shots with every alternating shot using the flash, then turns off the camera. This cycle is repeated until the battery runs out of juice.
Note the SD500 has a sleep mode to help conserve power if you keep it powered up. The camera will power back up to full power if it is moved.
Modes, Options, and Features...
By this time, you must be wondering that the SD500 has excellent image quality and color accuracy but comes at a $100-$200 price premium over other ultracompact 7MP digicams like the Sony P150 and P200. If the image quality wasn't enough to convince you, the SD500 actually gives a decent amount of flexibility to amateur photographers.
The mode dial automatically puts you into playback, automatic, selected manual settings, scene, or movie mode at any time. The SD500 uses a 9 point AiAF Smart auto focus system although there is no true manual focus system (not surprising for a point-and-shoot camera).
Scene mode allows you to select from a limited 6 options which include Digital Macro, Portrait, Night Snapshot, Kids and Pets, Indoor, and Underwater. Other cameras from other manufacturers usually include many more scene options... even as many as 20+ options.
The SD500 allows for quite a few Picture Effects. These options include vivid blue, vivid red, positive film, light skin tone, darker skin tone, vivid green, vivid, neutral, low sharpening, sepia, black and white, and custom color. Two fun options also included is the Color Accent and Color Swap. Color Accent creates a B&W photo and allows you to pick one of the objects and give it a color. Color Swap allows you to swap the color of two objects.
The SD500 has a more flexible self-timer allowing timer lengths between 1 and 30 seconds and ability to have the SD500 take from 1 to 10 photos after the timer goes off.
Add to this the manual settings of aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, ISO, and white balance. All of these options are within the hardware limits of the camera that you can get from www.usa.canon.com. For example, the ISO can be set to 50, 100, 200, and 400. The white balance has six presets (Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, and Fluorescent H) as well as fully automatic and I think a fully manual white balance setting. While I state all of these details, the camera will not replace a larger digital camera with bigger and better optics or a Digital SLR camera since the SD500 is limited to the hardware it is made of. A larger digital camera like the S70 has more flexible hardware than the SD500. A digital SLR like the Digital Rebel and Digital Rebel XT maintains the most flexibility since you can change the lens accordingly.
I should probably mention that the SD500 has a stitch assist mode to make panoramic photos and burst mode that runs about 2 frames a second... that's an estimate though.
The interface is actually quite clean and fairly self-explanatory as long as you are familiar with manual camera settings in the manual mode. The Menu and Func buttons are much more restricted while the camera is in Automatic mode... but the options are fairly self-explanatory. In my use, I preferred the Canon camera interface over Nikon, Sony, Pentax, Kodak, and HP... then again, remember that I've mostly used Canon cameras.
You get a portable battery charger in the package (like all the other Canon Digital Cameras), a wrist strap, software CDs, a hefty manual, a battery cover and the NB-3L battery, USB 2.0 cable, and AV cable. You do get a measley 32MB SD card... good for like 9-10 photos at the large and superfine settings.
Other accessories that I'm aware of are the underwater housing and the special coach leather pouch set.
I would recommend a much larger high speed SD card of at least 256MB... although 512MB and 1GB are much more preferred! I would highly consider a case and to a lesser extent an extra NB-3L battery.
I plugged in the SD500 into my i470D with no problems. I could easily select the photos I wanted to print and the options. No fuss and no mess... just the way I like it!
Although by their very nature ultracompact cameras maintain a specific range where they are useful, that range is probably the most appealing to the regular consumer. This range is mostly short and medium range shots excelling at portrait and group photos. I'm a bit disappointed that there isn't a landscaping setting you can set the camera to (you can make the settings manually however) since the SD500 seems to do a great job in that as well. Its major weakness might be the battery life and the nighttime abilities (although I must admit it is much better than other cameras in the same size category)... but this isn't surprising in cameras this small. The size of the camera coupled with the camera quality in build, limited manual settings, and image capturing makes it a winner in my book and especially desirable to amateur photographers. On top of all that, the best camera is often the one that you'll likely carry around with you anytime and anywhere... if the SD500 doesn't fit that bill, there are very few cameras in a smaller size delivering as high quality.
On the other hand, do you really need 7.1MP pictures... probably not... well, most people definitely do not. Either way, 7.1MP just gives you more options if you think you need them. Regardless of whether you need 7.1MP, the SD500 is an excellent buy overall.
Cameras in my Possession
Canon PowerShot S110
Canon PowerShot S50 (trying to sell)
Canon PowerShot S410
Canon Digital Rebel D-SLR 6.3 MP Camera
Canon PowerShot S70
Sony DSC-V1 (sold to a friend recently)
Pentax Optio S
Nikon CoolPix 995
Sony DSC-P150 7.1MP (Click here to go to my epinion). Actually I gave this as a wedding gift to a friend.
Digital Rebel XT to arrive at my house 3/26/05!
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Need a decent book for beginning photographers. Read my review on John Hedgecoe's The New Manual of Photography.