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DCRP Review: Canon PowerShot SD790 IS Digital ELPH  
   

by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: July 24, 2008
Last Updated: January 3, 2012

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The Canon PowerShot SD790 IS Digital ELPH ($349) is an ultra-compact camera features a 10 Megapixel CCD, 3X optical zoom lens, image stabilization, and a large 3-inch LCD display. It's the follow-up to the PowerShot SD750, which was introduced in February of 2007. The biggest changes on the SD790 are the higher resolution CCD, and the addition of optical image stabilization.

Canon's model numbering can be very hard to figure out, and based on e-mails I've received in recent years, I'm not the only one who thinks so. I put together this "family tree" to help you figure out the relationships between the various models:


View ELPH names | View IXUS names

I hope that helped you make sense of a somewhat senseless model numbering system. I have another chart for you, as well -- this one compares the features of the current ELPH models:

Feature

PowerShot SD1100

PowerShot SD770 PowerShot SD790 PowerShot SD870 PowerShot SD890 PowerShot SD950
Street price
(at time of posting)
$226 $258 $287 $267 $334 $362
Resolution 8.0 MP 10.0 MP 10.0 MP 8.0 MP 10.0 MP 12.1 MP
Optical zoom 3X 3X 3X 3.8X 5X 3.7X
Lens max. aperture F2.8 - F4.9 F2.8 - F4.9 F2.8 - F4.9 F2.8 - F5.8 F3.2 - F5.7 F2.8 - F5.8
Focal length (35 mm equiv.) 38 - 114 mm 35 - 105 mm 35 - 105 mm 28 - 105 mm 37 - 185 mm 36 - 133 mm
Image stabilization Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
LCD size 2.5" 2.5" 3.0" 3.0" 2.5" 2.5"
LCD resolution 230,000 pixels 230,000 pixels 230,000 pixels 230,000 pixels 230,000 pixels 230,000 pixels
Optical viewfinder Yes Yes No No Yes Yes
Flash range (Auto ISO) 0.3 - 3.5 m (W)
0.3 - 3.0 m (T)
0.3 - 3.5 m (W)
0.3 - 2.0 m (T)
0.3 - 3.5 m (W)
0.3 - 2.0 m (T)
0.3 - 4.0 m (W)
0.3 - 2.0 m (T)
0.3 - 3.5 m (W)
0.3 - 2.0 m (T)
0.5 - 4.6 m (W)
0.5 - 2.4 m (T)
Auto ISO Shift No No No Yes Yes Yes
Battery used NB-4L NB-6L NB-5L NB-5L NB-5L NB-5L
Battery life (CIPA standard) 240 shots 300 shots 330 shots 270 shots 320 shots 240 shots
Dimensions (W x H x D) 3.4 x 2.2 x 0.9 in 3.4 x 2.1 x 0.8 in 3.6 x 2.2 x 0.8 in 3.7 x 2.3 x 1.0 in 3.8 x 2.3 x 1.1 in 3.8 x 2.4 x 1.1 in
Weight 125 g 130 g 155 g 155 g 155 g 165 g
Available colors Blue, pink, silver, brown, gold Silver, black Silver Silver, black Silver Silver

If you're still confused about Canon's ELPH lineup after both of those then, well, I don't know what to tell you.

Is the PowerShot SD790 a top contender in the ultra-compact / big LCD field? Find out in our review, which starts right now!

The PowerShot SD790 is known as the IXUS 90 IS in some countries.

What's in the Box?

The PowerShot SD790 IS has an average bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 10.0 effective Megapixel PowerShot SD790 IS digital camera
  • 32MB Secure Digital memory card
  • NB-5L lithium-ion battery
  • Battery charger
  • Wrist strap
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • CD-ROM featuring Canon Digital Camera Solution
  • 225 page camera manual (printed)

Canon is one of the few camera manufacturers who still puts a memory card in the box along with the camera. Everyone else builds memory into the camera itself -- and usually not very much of it. You'll find a 32MB card in the box with the SD790, which holds just six photos at the highest quality setting. Thus, you'll want to buy a larger card, and fast. The camera supports SD, SDHC, MMC, MMCplus, and HC MMCplus media. I'd recommend a 2GB card for the PowerShot SD790, and its worth spending a little more on a high speed model (though there's no need to go overboard).

The SD790 uses the venerable NB-5L rechargeable lithium-ion battery for power. This battery contains 4.1 Wh of energy, which is decent for a ultra-compact camera. Here's how that translates into battery life:

Camera Battery life, LCD on
(CIPA standard)
Canon PowerShot SD750 210 shots
Canon PowerShot SD790 IS * 330 shots
Casio Exilim EX-Z150 * 280 shots
Fuji FinePix Z100fd * 170 shots
Kodak EasyShare M1093 IS * N/A
Nikon Coolpix S52 * 200 shots
Olympus Stylus 840 * 190 shots
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS20 * 310 shots
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T70 * 270 shots

* Has image stabilization

Battery life numbers are provided by the camera manufacturers

The first thing to point out is the SD790's amazing 50% improvement in battery life compared to its predecessor. Now that's what I like to see! It doesn't take a math whiz to see that the camera's battery life is well above the group average here.

I do want to mention the usual issues about the proprietary batteries used by the SD790 and every camera on the above list. They're expensive (a spare will cost you at least $36), and you can't use an off-the-shelf battery in an emergency. That's life, though, as you just can't fit AA batteries into a camera this size.

When it's time to charge the battery, just pop it into the included charger. This is my favorite kind of charger -- it plugs directly into the wall. Expect to wait just over two hours for the NB-5L to be fully charged.

Canon PowerShot SD790 in the hand

As with all ultra-compact cameras, the SD790 has a built-in lens cover, so there's no lens cap to deal with.

There are just a couple of accessories available for the PowerShot SD790, which I've compiled into this chart:

Accessory Model # Price Description
Underwater case WP-DC24 From $161 Take the PowerShot SD790 up to 40 meters under the sea
External slave flash HF-DC1 From $90 Boosts flash range and reduces redeye; attaches to the tripod mount, and fires when the onboard flash does
AC adapter ACK-DC30 From $46 Power the camera without wasting your batteries
Deluxe leather case PSC-1000 From $15 Protect your camera, in style

A pretty standard list for an ultra-compact camera. Let's move on to software now.


CameraWindow in Mac OS X

Canon includes version 33 of their Digital Camera Solution Disk with the PowerShot SD790. The first part of the Browser software that you'll probably encounter is Camera Window (pictured above), which is used to download photos from your camera.


ImageBrowser in Mac OS X

Once that's done you'll find yourself in either ImageBrowser or ZoomBrowser, which are for Mac and Windows, respectively. The Mac version is Universal, allowing it to run at full speed on Intel-based systems. The "Browser twins" let you view, organize, e-mail, and print your photos. If you categorized any photos on the camera (more on this later), then this information is transferred into the Browser software.


ImageBrowser edit window in Mac OS X

Double-click on a thumbnail and you'll bring up the edit window. Editing functions include trimming, redeye removal, and the ability to adjust levels, color, brightness, sharpness, and the tone curve. There's also an auto adjustment option for those who want a quick fix.


PhotoStitch in Mac OS X

A separate program called PhotoStitch can combine photos you've taken side-by-side into a single panorama. The Stitch Assist feature on the PowerShot SD790 can help you line up the photos so they stitch together well.

Canon retooled their documentation this year, combining the basic and advanced manuals into one. This book covers the camera in great detail, though I will admit that it's not the most user-friendly manual in the world. Printed manuals for the bundled software and direct (PictBridge) printing are also included.

Look and Feel

The SD790 reminds me a bit of the original Digital ELPHs. Not only does it look like one (though it's noticeably wider), but it also feels like one too: it has a solid, "block of metal" that has been missing from Canon's lineup in recent years. The only decent-sized piece of plastic you'll find on the SD790 is the door over the memory card / battery compartment, but it's reinforced with metal, and feels pretty sturdy.

Ergonomics are a mixed bag. While the camera is easy to hold and operate with one hand, your thumb rests dangerously close to the Print/Share button. Speaking of which, the buttons on the back of the camera are flush against the body, which may look cool, but I found them hard to press. I did like the combination four-way controller / scroll wheel, though.

Now, let's take a look at how the PowerShot SD790 compares to other ultra-compact cameras in terms of size and weight:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon PowerShot SD750 3.6 x 2.2 x 0.8 in. 6.3 cu in. 130 g
Canon PowerShot SD790 IS 3.6 x 2.2 x 0.8 in. 6.3 cu in. 155 g
Casio Exilim EX-Z150 3.8 x 2.3 x 0.8 in. 7 cu in. 126 g
Fujifilm FinePix Z100fd 3.6 x 2.2 x 0.8 in. 6.3 cu in. 138 g
Kodak EasyShare M1093 IS 3.7 x 2.3 x 0.8 in. 6.8 cu in. 135 g
Nikon Coolpix S52 3.8 x 2.3 x 0.8 in. 7 cu in. 125 g
Olympus Stylus 840 3.8 x 2.2 x 0.9 in. 7.5 cu in. 130 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS20 3.7 x 2.3 x 0.9 in. 7.7 cu in. 132 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T70 3.5 x 2.2 x 0.8 in. 6.2 cu in. 128 g

While the PowerShot SD790 has the same dimensions as its predecessor, it's about 20% heavier. I think the new, more solid construction has a lot to do with that. In the group as a whole, the SD790 is on the small (but heavy) side.

Let's start our tour of the camera now, shall we?

Front of the Canon PowerShot SD790 IS

The PowerShot SD790 IS uses a different lens than the SD750 that came before it, which isn't surprising, as that one had no image stabilization. This new F2.8-4.9, 3X optical zoom lens offers that feature, which is great news. The focal range of the lens is 6.2 - 18.6 mm, which is equivalent to a rather conventional 35 - 105 mm. The lens is (obviously) not threaded, so conversion lenses aren't supported.

So what's the deal with image stabilization, anyway? This feature reduces the effect of "camera shake", which is caused by tiny movements of your hands. Camera shake can lead to blurry photos, especially in low light, or when the lens is at the telephoto position. Sensors inside the SD790 detect this motion, and one of the lens elements is shifted to compensate for it. Sure, it won't let you take handheld multi-second exposures or freeze a moving subject, but it will let you use slower shutter speeds than you could otherwise. Want proof? Have a look at this:


Image stabilization off


Image stabilization on

Both of the photos above were taken at a shutter speed of 1/8 second. As you can see, with image stabilization on, the camera took a noticeably sharper photo. You can use image stabilization in movie mode as well, and this short sample video shows you how it performs.

To the upper-right of the lens is the SD790's built-in flash. The flash has a working range of 0.3 - 3.5 m at wide-angle, and 0.3 - 2.0 m at telephoto (both at Auto ISO), which is about average. For more flash power and less redeye potential, you can pick up the external slave flash that I mentioned earlier, though it makes the camera a lot less compact.

Just to the left of the flash is the camera's AF-assist lamp. This lamp is used as a focusing aid in low light situations, and it also serves as a redeye reduction lamp and visual countdown for the self-timer.

The main event on the back of the PowerShot SD790 is its 3-inch "PureColor II" LCD display. While the screen is larger than your typical 2.5" or 2.7" LCD, the resolution of 230,000 pixels is identical. That said, images are quite sharp, and the screen produces vivid colors. Outdoor visibility was superb, even in bright sunlight. In low light situations, the screen brightens automatically, so you can still see your subject.

As you probably noticed, there's no optical viewfinder on the PowerShot SD790. Whether that's a problem is sort of up to you -- some people love'em, while others won't miss it.

Now let's talk about everything on the right side of the screen. At the very top is the mode switch, which selects between movie, scene, and record mode. The available scene modes include portrait, night snapshot, kids & pets, indoor, sunset, foliage, snow, beach, fireworks, aquarium, underwater, and ISO 3200. I'd avoid the last one if I were you, as the resulting photos can be quite noisy -- see this example -- and the resolution is reduced to 1600 x 1200 or lower.


You'll see this menu when you're connected to a Mac or PC

Below that are the Print/Share and Playback mode buttons. The Print/Share button has several functions, depending on what you're doing with the camera. In record mode, it normally does nothing, but you can change that if you wish (more details on this later). If you're connected to a Mac or PC, it will allow you to select photos to transfer to the computer. Finally, if you're hooked into a PictBridge-enabled printer, you'll use it to print a photo. The playback mode button does just as it sounds.

Below that pair of buttons is the four-way controller / scroll wheel combo. You'll use this for menu navigation, browsing through photos, and selecting a shooting/scene mode. The available shooting modes include auto, manual, digital macro, color accent, color swap, and Stitch Assist. The manual mode isn't all that manual -- it just offers full menu access compared to auto mode. Color accent lets you select a color to "keep" in a photo, while the rest of the image is turned to black and white. Color swap does just as it sounds -- you swap one color in a photo for another. You can use the Stitch Assist to line up photos side-by-side, for later stitching into a single panoramic image.

  • Up - ISO (Auto, Hi Auto, 80, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600) + Jump (Quickly move through photos in playback mode)
  • Down - Drive (Single-shot, continuous, 2 or 10 sec self-timer, custom self-timer) + Delete photo
  • Left - Focus (Normal, macro, infinity)
  • Right - Flash (Auto, flash on, flash off)
  • Center - Function menu + Set/OK

What's the difference between those two Auto ISO modes? Simply put, the Hi Auto will use higher sensitivities than regular Auto. The camera looks for motion in the frame, and the ISO is set appropriately (static subject: low ISO; moving subject: higher ISO).

I want to mention two of the features in the Drive menu. First, the continuous shooting mode. Here, you can keep taking photos at 1.3 frames/second, until your memory card fills up. Do note that a high speed card is recommended for best performance in this mode. There's only a brief blackout on the LCD while you're shooting, so you should be able to track a moving subject. The other feature of note in the Drive menu is the custom self-timer. This lets you select both the number of shots that are taken (up to 10) and the delay before that happens (anywhere from 0 to 30 seconds).


Function menu

Pressing the center button on the four-way controller options up the Function menu, which has these options:

  • Exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV, 1/3EV increments)
  • Long shutter mode (1 - 15 secs) - hit the Display button when exposure compensation is selected to activate this option
  • White balance (Auto, daylight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent, fluorescent H, custom) - see below
  • My Colors (Off, vivid, neutral, sepia, black & white, positive film, lighter skin tone, darker skin tone, vivid blue, vivid green, vivid red, custom color) - see below
  • Metering mode (Evaluative, center-weighted, spot)
  • Compression (see chart later in review)
  • Resolution (see chart later in review)

The PowerShot SD790's custom white balance option lets you use a white or gray card, for accurate color in any lighting. This will come in handy when you're shooting in unusual lighting conditions, like I do in many of the test shots later in the review.


Sharpness is one of the settings you can adjust with the Custom Color option

The My Colors feature should be self-explanatory, save for the custom option. This one lets you manually adjust contrast, sharpness, saturation, as well as red/green/blue/skin tone levels.

The last items on the back of the SD790 are the Display and Menu buttons. The Display button toggles the information shown on the LCD, while the Menu button does exactly as it sounds like.

Top of the Canon PowerShot SD790 IS

The first thing to see on the top of the SD790 is its power button, and the microphone that sits above it.

Continuing to the right, we find the shutter release button, which has the zoom controller wrapped around it. This controller moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in just 1.2 seconds. Like several other Digital ELPH models, the SD790 does not show the current zoom setting on the LCD, which seems like a pretty big omission to me.

In the lower-right corner of the image you can also catch another glimpse of the mode switch that I described a few paragraphs ago.

Side of the Canon PowerShot SD790 IS

The only thing to see here is the camera's microphone.

Side of the Canon PowerShot SD790 IS

On the other side of the SD790 you'll find its I/O ports, which are under a plastic cover that looks remarkably like brushed metal. There's actually just one thing under the cover (a standard mini USB port), but it does double duty, handling both USB and A/V output. As is the case with all Canon cameras, the PowerShot SD790 supports the USB 2.0 High Speed standard.

The lens is at the full telephoto position here.

Bottom of the Canon PowerShot SD790 IS

On the bottom of the camera you'll find a metal tripod mount, as well as the memory card/battery compartment. The reinforced plastic door over this compartment feels pretty sturdy. As you can probably tell, there's no way to access the memory card slot while the camera is on a tripod.

The included NB-5L battery can be seen at right.

Using the Canon PowerShot SD790 IS Digital ELPH

Record Mode

Press the power button, and the PowerShot SD790 is ready to shoot in 0.8 seconds. That's pretty darn quick.


No live histograms here

Focus times were generally very good on the SD790. In the best case scenario (wide-angle, good lighting) you'll wait between 0.2 and 0.4 seconds for the camera to lock focus. At the telephoto end of the lens, the delay is about twice that. In low light, the camera focused accurately, taking roughly a second to lock focus in most situations.

I did not find shutter lag to be a problem, even at the slower shutter speeds at which it can occur.

With the flash off, shot-to-shot delays are brief -- about 1.5 seconds pass before you can take another photo. Things slow down considerably if you use the flash, with delays rising to between 3 and 4 seconds, which isn't great.

You can delete the photo you just took by pressing "down" on the four-way controller.

Now, here's a look at the image size and quality choices available on the PowerShot SD790:

Resolution Quality Approx. file size # Images on 32MB card
(included)
# images on 2GB card (optional)
Large
3648 x 2736
Superfine 4.2 MB 6 440
Fine 2.5 MB 11 744
Normal 1.2 MB 23 1544
Wide (16:9)
3648 x 2048
Superfine 3.2 MB 8 588
Fine 1.9 MB 15 996
Normal 918 KB 31 2044
Middle 1
2816 x 2112
Superfine 2.7 MB 10 704
Fine 1.6 MB 17 1168
Normal 780 KB 37 2412
Middle 2
2272 x 1704
Superfine 2.0 MB 14 948
Fine 1.1 MB 26 1700
Normal 556 KB 52 3356
Middle 3
1600 x 1200
Superfine 1002 KB 29 1884
Fine 558 KB 52 3356
Normal 278 KB 99 6360
Small
640 x 480
Superfine 249 KB 111 7108
Fine 150 KB 171 10988
Normal 84 KB 270 17268

And that's why you need to buy a large memory card along with the camera! By the way, there's also a "postcard" resolution, which is the same as Middle 3. This is the ONLY setting that allows you to print the date on your photos!

The SD790 doesn't support the RAW or TIFF image formats, nor would I expect it to.

Images are named IMG_xxxx.JPG, where x = 0001 - 9999. The file numbering is maintained even if you replace and/or format memory cards.

Now, onto the menus!

The SD790 uses the standard Canon menu system. It's attractive, responsive, and easy-to-use. Keep in mind that some of these options are not available in the auto or scene modes. That said, here's the complete list of items in the record menu:

  • AF frame (Face Detect, AiAF, Center) - see below
  • AF frame size (Normal, small) - see below
  • AF-point zoom (on/off) - see below
  • Digital Zoom (Off, 1.4X, 2.3X, Standard) - see below
  • Flash settings
    • Slow synchro (on/off)
    • Redeye correction (on/off) - whether the redeye reduction tool is used automatically when you take a flash photo
    • Redeye lamp (on/off) - whether the AF-assist lamp is used to prevent redeye
  • Custom self-timer
    • Delay (0-10, 15, 20, 30 secs)
    • Shots (1-10)
  • AF-assist beam (on/off)
  • Review (Off, 2-10 seconds, hold) - post-shot review
  • Review info (Off, detailed, focus check) - see below
  • Save original (on/off) - whether the original image is saved when using the Color Swap and Color Accent features
  • Auto category (on/off) - whether photos taken in certain scene modes have a category assigned automatically
  • Display overlay (Off, gridlines, 3:2 guide, both)
  • IS mode (Continuous, shoot only, panning, off) - see below
  • Set Print/Share button (Off, face select & track, exposure compensation, white balance, custom WB, redeye correction, digital teleconverter, gridlines, movie mode, display off, play sound effect) - define what this button does in record mode


The camera locked onto all six faces

There are three focus modes on the PowerShot SD790. The first one is Face Detection, a feature which you'll find on pretty much every camera in 2008. The camera will detect up to nine faces in the frame, making sure that the exposure (flash included), focus, and white balance is correct for each. You can also select a "primary" face (by using the Print/Share button), and the camera will track that face as it moves around the frame. The SD790's face detection system works quite well -- it had no problem finding all six faces in our test scene. The other focus modes on the camera include AiAF (nine-point) and center-point AF.


The two focus point sizes

If you're using center-point AF, you can select the size of the focus point: normal or small.

The AF-point zoom feature, new to Canon cameras this year, enlarges the focus point when you halfway-press the shutter release. In face detection mode, it digitally enlarges the "main" subject (presumably so you can make sure they're smiling), while in center-point mode it enlarges the middle of the frame.

I want to briefly explain the digital zoom options on the PowerShot SD790. Canon calls the 1.4X and 2.3X options a "digital tele-converter" -- it's basically just fixed digital zoom. The Standard option is what you'll find on every camera -- it just enlarges the center of the frame digitally. When you use this mode, the camera's Safety Zoom feature warns you when you pass the point where image quality is degraded. When you're shooting at the highest resolution that starts as soon as digital zoom kicks in, but if you're using a lower resolution you can use it for a little while before that happens. For example, at the M2 resolution, you get 4.2X of total zoom, while at M3 you get 6.8X.

What are those IS modes all about? Continuous IS activates the image stabilizer as soon as you halfway-press the shutter release, which helps you compose your shot without camera shake. Shoot only mode activates the IS system when the photo is actually taken, which is more effective at stopping blur than the previous mode. Panning mode only compensates for up and down motion, which is desirable when you're panning the camera side-to-side. Finally, you can just shut the whole image stabilization system off, which is a good idea if the camera is on a tripod.

The setup menu can be found in both the record and playback menus. It has these options:

  • Mute (on/off) - turns off all the beeps
  • Volume
    • Startup volume (Off, 1-5)
    • Operation volume (Off, 1-5)
    • Self-timer volume (Off, 1-5)
    • Shutter volume (Off, 1-5)
    • Playback volume (Off, 1-5)
  • LCD brightness (-7 to +7)
  • Power saving
    • Auto power down (on/off)
    • Display off (10, 20, 30 sec, 1-3 min)
  • Time zone (Home, world)
  • Date/time (set)
  • Clock display (0-10, 20, 30, secs, 1, 2, 3 min) - the camera can double as a clock; this is how long it's displayed for
  • Card format
  • File number reset (on/off) - maintain file numbering
  • Create folder
    • Create new folder - on the memory card
    • Auto create (Off, daily, weekly, monthly) - this new features will automatically create new folders on the memory card at set intervals
  • Auto rotate (on/off) - camera will automatically rotate portrait photos on the LCD
  • Lens retract (1 min, 0 secs) - how quickly the lens retracts when you switch to playback mode
  • Language
  • Video system (NTSC, PAL)
  • Print Method (Auto, PictBridge)
  • Reset all - back to defaults

A separate "My Camera" menu lets you customize the startup screen and various sounds that the camera emits. And that's about all I want to say about menus, so let's move on to our photo tests now!

The PowerShot SD790 IS did an excellent job with our macro test subject. Colors are accurate and nicely saturated, and the figurine is tack sharp (you can count the specs of dust). I don't see any evidence of noise here, nor would I expect any at ISO 80.

In macro mode, you can get as close to your subject as 3 cm at wide-angle and 30 cm at telephoto. There's also a "digital macro mode", which locks the zoom at wide-angle (giving you at 3 - 10 cm focusing range), and lets you use the digital zoom to get closer.

The night shot wasn't quite as impressive. The SD790 is capable of bringing in enough light -- you just need to use the long shutter feature to do so. The image is on the noisy side, with some visible detail loss (the fog doesn't help matters, either). There's some fringing here too, though it's not the traditional purple -- more like cyan.

Now, let's use that same scene and crank the ISO sensitivity up a bit. I can only take this test to ISO 400, since I don't have full control over the shutter speed:


ISO 80

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

There's a bit more noise at ISO 100, though it's still quite usable for small and midsize prints. You start to see more noise and noise reduction artifacting at ISO 200, though I'd say that a small print is still possible. Details really start to disappear at ISO 400, so I'd avoid using this setting (and those above it), unless you're really desperate.

We'll see how the SD790 performs at high sensitivities in normal lighting in a moment.

There's moderate barrel distortion at the wide end of the PowerShot SD790's lens. You can see how this affects your real world photos in this picture. The SD790 also suffers from mild vignetting (dark corners) as well as blurry corners, both of which you can see here.

Past Digital ELPHs have always had really bad redeye problems. Thanks to the automatic redeye correction feature on the PowerShot SD790, this annoyance is gone!

Now it's time for our second ISO test, which is taken in the studio. Thus, it's comparable between cameras I've reviewed over the years. While the crops below give you a quick idea as to the noise performance at each sensitivity, I highly recommend viewing the full size images as well. Ready?


ISO 80

ISO 100

ISO 200


ISO 400


ISO 800

ISO 1600

Everything looks great through ISO 200 -- I have no complaints. You start to see a bit of image degradation at ISO 400, but not enough to keep you from making a nice 8 x 10 print. At ISO 800 detail loss becomes more noticeable, so I'd save this one for small prints only. The ISO 1600 shot has too much noise and NR artifacting to be usable, in my opinion.

I was very pleased with the photos produced by the PowerShot SD790. They were well-exposed (save for some highlight clipping in the purple fringing torture tunnel), with pleasing, vivid color. Images are nice and sharp, except for near the corners -- a common problem on ultra-compact cameras like this one. The camera keeps noise well under control when the lighting is good, though things could've been better in low light, as the night test above illustrated. Purple fringing appeared here and there, though it wasn't bad enough for me to consider it a problem.

As always, don't take my words as gospel. Have a look at our photo gallery, maybe printing a few of the images if you can. Then you should be able to decide if the SD790's photo quality meets your expectations.

Movie Mode

The PowerShot SD790 has the standard Canon movie mode. You can record video at 640 x 480 at (30 frames/second) with sound until you hit the 4GB file size limit. That takes about 32 minutes at the highest quality setting. For longer movies you can use the 640 x 480 Long Play mode, which nearly doubles recording time. The quality won't be quite as good (due to the extra compression applied), but you probably won't notice. A high speed memory card is highly recommended for recording videos at either of these settings.

For even longer recording times, you can drop the resolution to 320 x 240 (30 fps). There's also a compact 160 x 120 (15 fps) mode, though the recording time limit is 15 seconds.

There's also a time-lapse mode available, which will capture a frame every 1 or 2 seconds (your choice) for up to two hours. These frames are then converted into a movie and played back at high speed, so things that took forever in real life appear to move quickly.

The Color Swap and Color Accent My Colors features are available here, as well.

You cannot use the zoom lens during filming (it will be locked when you start filming). You can, however, use the digital zoom. As you'd expect, the image stabilizer is active during movie recording.

Movies are saved in AVI format, using the M-JPEG codec.

Here's the usual train station sample movie for you. Be warned, this is a big file!


Click to play movie (26.2 MB, 640 x 480, 30 fps, AVI format)
Can't view it? Download QuickTime.

Playback Mode

The PowerShot SD790 has a very nice playback mode. Basic features include slideshows, image protection, DPOF print marking, voice captions, thumbnail view, and zoom & scroll. This last feature will enlarge the image by as much as ten times, and let you move around. This is good for checking for proper focus, open eyes, etc. Speaking of eyes, the Focus Check feature is available here, too: it automatically enlarges faces (or just the focus point) so you can make sure everyone's smiling.

Photos can be rotated, resized, and cropped right on the camera. You can apply most of the My Colors feature to your photos, as well. If there's any redeye in your photos, you'll find a tool to remove it here. If you're viewing a movie, you'll have the option to trim unwanted material from the beginning or end of your clip.


Selecting a category

Photos that were taken in certain scene modes are automatically categorized, but if you want to do it manually, just use the My Category option. Your select is transferred to your computer along with the photo.

Moving through photos with the scroll wheel... ... and the Jump button

There are several ways to move through photos on the camera. Naturally, you can just press left or right on the four-way controller. You can also turn the scroll wheel, which gives you the screen you see on the left above. Another option is to use the Jump feature, which lets you move ahead by date, category, or just by 10 or 100 photos.

The PowerShot SD790 can also be used to record audio, and that tool is located in the playback menu. You can record up to two hours of continuous audio, with three quality settings to choose from.

By default you won't get much information about your photo while in playback mode. But press the Display button and you'll get more info, including a histogram.

The PowerShot SD790 IS moves between images almost instantly, with your choice of two snazzy transitions. Like most of Canon's other cameras, when you rotate the camera 90 degrees, the photo on the LCD rotates too.

How Does it Compare?

The Canon PowerShot SD790 IS Digital ELPH is a well built, easy-to-use ultra-compact camera that produces very good quality photos. Add to that its large, easily visible 3-inch LCD display and optical image stabilization, and you've got a winner. Sure, the SD790 isn't perfect -- it has issues with corner blurriness, a slow charging flash, and the fact that it doesn't tell you the current zoom setting -- but despite those issues, the camera remains a great choice for those who want a small camera with a big LCD.

The PowerShot SD790's design harkens back to Digital ELPHs of old. While most of Canon's newer ELPHs seem to have more plastic than metal, the SD790 has the "metal brick" feel of the original models. The camera feels very solid, and even the door over the memory card / battery compartment is sturdy (though don't expect to open that when the camera is on a tripod). The camera's control layout is a mixed bag. The important controls are easy to reach, though I'm not a fan of the "flush" buttons on the back of the camera. The SD790's scroll wheel takes some getting used to, as well. The SD790's 3X lens is rather pedestrian, with a focal range of 35 - 105 mm (and why can't Canon show the current zoom setting on the LCD?). It does, however, offer optical image stabilization, which reduces the risk of blurry photos. On the back of the camera is a large and sharp 3-inch LCD display. The LCD has some of the best outdoor visibility you'll find these days (I'd say only Panasonic does it better), and it's easy to see in low light, too. As you might expect, there's no optical viewfinder on the PowerShot SD790.

The PowerShot SD790 is a point-and-shoot camera, with limited manual controls. On the automatic side, you'll find a regular point-and-shoot mode, plus several scene modes. One scene that Canon unfortunately left out is a sports/action mode. Like most cameras these days, the SD790 supports face detection, and Canon's version of this feature is one of the best I've seen. The only manual controls you'll find on the camera are for white balance and (slow) shutter speed -- it would be nice to have an ELPH with a full set of manual controls one day. Redeye is always a problem on ultra-compact cameras, but not here: the camera removes it automatically. The SD790 has a pretty nice movie mode as well, which allows you to record up to an hour of continuous VGA video at a time.

Camera performance was generally very good. The SD790 starts up very quickly, with a delay of just 0.8 seconds. Focusing performance was good, including in low light, where focus lock takes roughly one second. I didn't find shutter lag to be an issue. Shot-to-shot speeds are minimal if you're not using the flash, but with it, except a 3-4 second delay, which is pretty slow. The SD790's continuous shooting mode won't set any world records, but it will allow you to keep shooting at 1.3 frames/second until your memory card is full. More good news: the camera's battery life is well above average for its class.

The SD790 turned in a good performance in terms of photo quality, as well. It took well-exposed photos with accurate, vivid colors. Images are nice and sharp, save for the corners, where there is often blurring (especially at wide-angle). I saw some vignetting in one or two shots, as well. In good light, the camera keeps noise under control until you pass ISO 400, with even the ISO 800 remaining usable for small prints. Low light performance wasn't as good -- there's noticeable noise even at ISO 80, though it doesn't really start taking out detail until ISO 200. Purple fringing popped up here and there, but it wasn't too bad. Redeye wasn't a problem, thanks to the camera's automatic removal of this annoyance.

If you're looking for an ultra-compact camera with a nice big LCD, then the Canon PowerShot SD790 is well worth a look. Sure, it has its share of flaws (most of which are typical in this class), but the positives definitely outweigh the negatives.

What I liked:

  • Very good photo quality (in good light)
  • Stylish, compact, and sturdy metal body
  • Optical image stabilization
  • Generally snappy performance
  • Large 3-inch LCD display with very good outdoor / low light visibility
  • Redeye not a problem thanks to automatic removal tool
  • Well implemented face detection feature
  • Movie mode supports VGA quality clips as long as one hour
  • Above average battery life
  • Support for underwater case
  • USB 2.0 High Speed support

What I didn't care for:

  • Some corner blurriness, vignetting, and purple fringing
  • Images are on the noisy side in low light
  • Zoom setting not shown on LCD
  • Slow-charging flash
  • No optical viewfinder
  • More manual controls would be nice
  • Can't swap memory cards while using a tripod

Some other ultra-compact, big LCD cameras worth considering include the Casio Exilim EX-Z150, Fuji FinePix Z100fd, Kodak EasyShare M1093 IS, Nikon Coolpix S52, Olympus Stylus 840, Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS20, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T70.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the PowerShot SD790 IS and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

See how the photos turned out in our gallery!

Feedback & Discussion

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If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.