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DCRP Review: Canon PowerShot SD300 Digital ELPH  

by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: October 21, 2004
Last Updated: January 1, 2012

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The PowerShot SD300 Digital ELPH ($400) is a totally new design in Canon's line of compact point-and-shoot cameras. The SD300 takes everything that made the S400 and S410 great and makes them smaller -- except for the LCD, which got a lot bigger. Other new features include a 4 Megapixel CCD, great VGA movie mode, an AF-assist lamp, and a couple of manual of controls. The SD300 has a younger sibling, the SD200 ($300), which has a 3.2 Megapixel CCD and (in my opinion) a nicer-looking front panel.

The old Digital ELPHs were my favorite point-and-shoot cameras -- how does this all new, ultra-thin model compare? Find out now!

The SD300 is known as the Ixus 40 in some countries.

What's in the Box?

The PowerShot SD300 has an average bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 4.0 effective Megapixel Canon PowerShot SD300 Digital ELPH camera
  • 16MB Secure Digital card
  • NB-4L lithium-ion battery
  • Battery charger
  • Wrist strap
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • CD-ROM featuring Canon Digital Camera Solutions, ArcSoft Camera Suite, and drivers
  • 177 page camera manual + software manual (both printed)

Canon includes a 16MB Secure Digital (SD) card with the camera. That holds just six photos at the highest quality setting, so I'd advise that you buy a larger memory card right away. I'd say 128MB is a good starting size. The camera can use SD or MMC cards, though I'd advise against the latter. The camera takes advantage of high speed SD cards, and one is recommended if you plan on using the VGA movie mode.

The SD300 uses the brand new NB-4L lithium-ion rechargeable battery. This small battery packs a paltry 2.8 Wh of energy, which translates to 140 photos per charge using the CIPA battery life standard. I figure that's around (or maybe a tiny bit below) average for small cameras like this. Doing a little extrapolation, I figure that battery life is about 10% worse on the SD300 than on the S410, which had a more powerful battery.

My usual complaints about proprietary batteries like the one used by the SD300 apply here. They're expensive ($50 a pop), and you can't put in a set of alkalines to get you through the rest of the day like you could with an AA-based camera.

When it's time to recharge, just drop the battery into the included charger. This is my favorite style of charger -- it plugs right into the wall (yes, I know some don't like this). It takes about ninety minutes to fully charge the battery.

There's a built-in lens cover on the SD300, as you'd expect on a camera like this. As you can see, it's quite small!

There are a just two accessories available for the SD300. The most interesting one is the AW-DC30 all-weather case ($149). This lets you take the ELPH up to 3 m / 9.8 ft underwater -- great for pools and snorkeling, not so great for scuba. The only other accessory that I can find is the ACK-DC10 AC adapter kit ($60), which lets you power the camera without draining your batteries.

ImageBrowser (Mac OS X)

Canon includes version 21 of their excellent Digital Camera Solutions software with the SD300. Included in this package are ZoomBrowser (for Windows) or ImageBrowser (for Mac), PhotoStitch (for making panoramic photos), plus TWAIN and WIA drivers for Windows. Zoom/ImageBrowser can be used for downloading images from your camera, basic editing of your photos, and photo printing.

ArcSoft PhotoImpression for Mac OS X

ArcSoft Camera Suite 1.3 is also included with the SD300, which contains VideoImpression and PhotoImpression for Mac and PC. Although it has a quirky interface, there are some useful tools in this easy-to-use software.

Recent Canon camera manuals have been more complex than earlier ones, but they're still above average. The SD300's manual is complete, but expect lots of "notes" and fine print.

Look and Feel

While unfortunately I don't have an S410 or S500 around for side-by-side shots, it's easy to compare the two in words. Take the S410 and make it a third of an inch thinner -- the other dimensions are about the same. Like its predecessor, the SD300 is made almost completely of metal, and it feels very solid. Since it's so small, it can be taken just about anywhere. The important controls are easy to reach, and the camera is easy to hold with one hand.

Now, here's a look at how the SD300 compares with some of the competition:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon PowerShot SD300 3.4 x 2.1 x 0.8 in. 5.7 cu in. 130 g
Canon PowerShot S410 3.4 x 2.2 x 1.1 in. 8.2 cu in. 185 g
Casio Exilim EX-Z50 3.4 x 2.2 x 0.9 in. 6.7 cu in. 121 g
Fuji FinePix F440 2.9 x 2.5 x 0.8 in. 5.8 cu in. 150 g
Konica Minolta DiMAGE G600 3.7 x 2.2 x 1.2 in. 9.8 cu in. 195 g
Kyocera Finecam SL400R 3.9 x 2.5 x 0.6 in. 5.9 cu in. 125 g
Nikon Coolpix 4200 3.5 x 2.3 x 1.4 in. 11.3 cu in. 155 g
Olympus AZ-2 Zoom 4.0 x 2.5 x 0.8 in. 8.0 cu in. 135 g
Olympus Stylus Verve 3.7 x 2.2 x 1.1 in. 9.0 cu in. 115 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX7 3.7 x 2.0 x 1.0 in. 7.4 cu in. 136 g
Pentax Optio S4i 3.3 x 2.0 x 0.8 in. 5.3 cu in. 105 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T1 3.6 x 2.4 x 0.8 in. 6.9 cu in. 180 g

So it's not quite the smallest of lightest in the bunch, but it's close enough. While not mentioned here, the PowerShot SD200 is about 15 g lighter than the SD300. I also think it's nicer looking with the cool "ripple effect" on the front panel.

I've had it with numbers, so let's start our tour of the SD300 now!

The PowerShot SD300 uses the same new UA (ultra-high refractive index) lens design as the S60 and S70, which allowed Canon to make the camera so thin. The lens on the SD300 is an F2.8-4.9, 3X zoom model, with a focal range of 5.8 - 17.4 mm. The 35mm-equivalent focal range is 35 - 105 mm, versus 36 - 108 mm on the S410. The lens is not threaded.

To the upper-right of the lens is the built-in flash. The flash has a working range of 0.5 - 3.5 m at wide-angle and 0.5 - 2.0 m at telephoto, which is average for a compact camera. You cannot attach an external flash to this camera, which should not be a surprise.

Directly above the lens is the optical viewfinder. To its left is the AF-assist lamp, which doubles as the self-timer lamp. The assist lamp helps the camera focus in low light conditions.

The last item to see here is the tiny microphone hole located to the left of the lens.

Besides the thinner body, the other "big" news on the SD300 is the large 2-inch LCD display. The old S410 had a 1.5" screen and what a difference half an inch makes! The screen is bright, motion is fluid, and images are sharp, thanks to the 118,000 pixel resolution. In low light, the screen gains up slightly, but not as much as other cameras that I consider "the best" in those conditions. Outdoor screen visibility was about average.

Above the LCD is a fairly small optical viewfinder, which is starting to disappear on some of the smallest cameras. Thankfully it's still here on the SD300. There's no diopter correction knob, which is used to focus the what you're looking at.

Just to the right of that is the mode switch, which moves the camera between playback, movie, and still record mode. Below that is the Menu button and the speaker.

Continuing downward we find the four-way controller, which is used for a million things, most notably menu navigation and:

  • Up - Metering (Evaluative, center-weighted, spot)
  • Down - Drive (Single-shot, continuous shooting, self-timer) / Delete photo
  • Left - Focus (Off, macro, infinity)
  • Right - Flash (Auto, auto w/redeye reduction, flash on w/redeye reduction, flash on, flash off, slow synchro)

I want to mention the great continuous shooting mode on the SD300. Assuming you're using a high speed SD card, you can keep shooting until the card is full! I ran two tests to see how well it works. First I used a generic 256MB SD card, which took just 8 shots at 2.4 frames/second. With a SanDisk Extreme card I could keep on shooting at the same frame rate -- it never stopped. Very few cameras can do this, and I'm most impressed! My only complaint is that the LCD briefly freezes between each shot, which can make following a moving subject a bit difficult -- though at least there's the optical viewfinder. I should add that the SD200 shoots even faster, at 2.8 fps.

Function menu

By pressing the center button on the four-way controller, you'll open up the Function menu.

  • Shooting mode (Auto, manual, digital macro, portrait, night snapshot, kids & pets, indoor, underwater) - see below
  • Exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV in 1/3EV increments)
  • Long shutter mode (Off, 1 - 15 sec)
  • White balance (Auto, daylight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent, fluorescent H, custom)
  • ISO speed (Auto, 50, 100, 200, 400)
  • Photo effect (Off, vivid, neutral, low sharpening, sepia, black & white)
  • Compression (see chart later in review)
  • Resolution (see chart later in review)

The manual shooting mode isn't really a true manual mode. Rather, it just unlocks all the menu items. The only real manual controls on the camera are white balance and shutter speed. The custom white balance option lets you use a white or gray card as a reference, for perfect color in any lighting. I'll have more on the digital macro option later in the review.

The long shutter speed feature lets you manually choose a speed range from 1 - 15 seconds -- great for long exposures. Too bad there's no way to force a fast shutter speed for action shots.

The photo effect lets you change the color or sharpness of your image instantly, and you can use it for stills or movies.

Below the four-way controller are the display and Print/Share buttons. The display button turns the LCD on and off, and also toggles what is shown on it. The Print/Share button lights up when you connect to a compatible printer or computer. When you do that, the LCD shows the following screen:

Direct Transfer menu

As you can see, you can transfer all images, new images, images that you've DPOF marked, or you can manually select some. The wallpaper option sets the chosen image as the background picture on your PC.

Can I just say how much I hate when cameras have mirrored panels like this one? They're so hard to photograph.

Rants aside, up here you'll find the power button and zoom controller with the shutter release inside it. The zoom controller moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in just 1.3 seconds. I counted seven steps throughout the zoom range.

Nothing to see here, other than just how thin the SD300 is!

Yuck, more mirrors!

Over here you'll find the I/O ports, which are under a plastic cover at the top there. The ports here are A/V out and USB (1.1). There's no DC-in port, since the AC adapter uses a DC coupler (basically a battery with a cable coming out of it) instead.

On the bottom of the SD300 you'll find the metal tripod mount, battery compartment, and SD card slot. The battery and memory card slots are covered by a flimsy plastic cover which could very well break off. In addition, you can't swap memory cards while the camera is on a tripod.

The included battery and SD card are shown at right.

Using the Canon PowerShot SD300

Record Mode

The PowerShot SD300 starts up remarkably quickly, taking just 1.1 seconds to extend its lens and "warm up" before you can start taking pictures.

Autofocus speeds were good, taking about 0.4 seconds at wide-angle and 0.6 seconds at telephoto. Low light focusing was better than average, though not as good as I was expecting from a camera with an AF-assist lamp.

Shutter lag was not a problem, even at slower shutter speeds.

Shot-to-shot speed was excellent on the SD300, with a delay of about a second before you can take another picture, assuming you've turned the post-shot review feature off.

You can delete a picture as it's been saved to the memory card by pressing the delete photo button (the "down" key on the four-way controller).

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

Resolution Quality Approx. file size # Images on 16MB card
(2272 x 1704)
Superfine 2.0 MB 6
Fine 1.1 MB 12
Normal 556 KB 24
Medium 1
(1600 x 1200)
Superfine 1002 KB 13
Fine 558 KB 24
Normal 278 KB 46
Medium 2
(1024 x 768)
Superfine 570 KB 23
Fine 320 KB 42
Normal 170 KB 74
(640 x 480)
Superfine 249 KB 52
Fine 150 KB 80
Normal 84 KB 127

See why I recommend buying a larger memory card? The SD300 does not support the RAW or TIFF formats.

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 SD300's menus have an all new look, though they work just like the menus on the old ELPHs. Everything is really snappy and easy-to-use. Note that some menu options are not available while in the automatic shooting mode. With that in mind, here's what's in the record menu:

  • AiAF (on/off) - turns the 9-point autofocus system on and off; if turned off, camera focuses on whatever is in the center of the frame (which is faster)
  • Self-timer (2, 10 secs)
  • AF-assist beam (on/off)
  • Digital zoom (on/off) - it's best to keep this turned off
  • Review (Off, 2-10 sec) - post-shot review
  • Date stamp (Off, date, date & time) - print the date and/or time on your photos
  • Long shutter (on/off) - lets you take exposures as long as 15 secs
  • Stitch Assist (Off, left-to-right, right-to-left) - helps you make panoramic photos

I should mention the date stamp feature since there's been some confusion about it. To use this feature you must use the function menu's resolution option to select "postcard size", which is 1600 x 1200. Then and only then can you print the date and/or time on your photos.

There is also a setup menu on the SD300, so let's take a look at that now. Here's what you'll find in the setup menu:

  • Mute (on/off) - turn off those annoying beep sounds!
  • 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 in 1 step increments)
  • Power saving
    • Auto power down (on/off)
    • Display off (10, 20, 30 sec, 1-3 min)
  • Date/time
  • Clock display (0-10 sec, 20 sec, 30 sec, 1-3 mins) - yes, the camera doubles as a clock
  • Card format
  • File number reset (on/off) - maintain file numbering
  • Auto rotate (on/off) - camera will automatically rotate portrait photos on the LCD
  • Language (English, German, French, Dutch, Danish, Finnish, Italian, Norwegian, Swedish, Spanish, Simplified Chinese, Russian, Portuguese, Greek, Polish, Czech, Hungarian, Turkish, Traditional Chinese, Korean, Japanese)
  • Video system (NTSC, PAL)

An additional "My Camera'" menu allows you to customize the startup screen, beeps, and phony shutter sounds that your camera makes. If these bother you, you can also turn them off.

Well enough about menus, let's do photo tests now.

The PowerShot SD300 produced a very nice and very smooth rendition of our usual macro test subject. Colors look good and there's plenty of detail to be seen here.

You can get as close to your subject as 3 cm at wide-angle and 30 cm at telephoto. A digital macro mode locks the lens at the wide-angle position and lets you use the digital zoom to get closer to the subject. I'm not sure why you'd want to use this.

The SD300 did a pretty good job with the night test shot as well. The camera took in plenty of light -- in fact I probably could've exposed it for a little longer -- thanks to the long shutter speed feature. There's a bit of noise to be seen, and some purple fringing as well. Since you can't close down the aperture on this camera, there's not much to be done about the latter.

Using that same scene, let's take a look at how adjusting the ISO sensitivity affects the noise levels in images:

ISO 50

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

As you can see, ISO 100 isn't too bad. ISO 200 is fairly noisy, and ISO 400 isn't so hot.

The distortion test shows just mild barrel distortion at the wide end of the lens. There's also a hint of vignetting (dark corners) and blurriness around the edges as well. I saw a tiny bit of vignetting in my real world photos, but where you'll really notice it is in flash shots. More on this in a bit.

Compact cameras mean big redeye, and the SD300 is no exception. While your mileage may vary, I would plan on dealing with it most of the time. You can clean it up pretty well using the included software.

Overall the photo quality on the SD300 is very good, though perhaps not as good as the old S410. The new UA lens design seems to lend itself to above average purple fringing (chromatic aberrations) and edge blurriness than the "regular" lenses used on previous models. The fuzzy edges are noticeable in many photos, with this one being a prime example. These are the tradeoffs that come with the small camera.

Aside from that, everything else was good, including color, exposure, and noise levels. Don't just take my word for it, though. View our photo gallery and print the photos as if they were your own. Then (and only then) decide if the photo quality meets your expectations!

Movie Mode

After years of mediocrity, Canon has finally come up with one of the best movie modes out there. You can now record VGA video (with sound) at 30 frames/second until the memory card fills up! You'll need a large, high speed SD card for this. A 512MB card can hold a little over 4 minutes of video. You can shoot at the slower 15 frames/second frame rate to extend the recording times. There are also 320 x 240 (at 15 or 30 fps) and 160 x 120 (15 fps) modes available, with the latter having a 3 minute time limit.

There's also a unique "Fast Frame Rate" mode, which lets you record up to 1 minute of 320 x 240 video at a whopping 60 frames/second. This is great for videos of fast moving subjects.

A movie editing feature lets you trim unwanted footage off the beginning or end of a clip.

You cannot use the zoom lens during filming. Movies are saved in AVI format, using the M-JPEG codec.

Here's a sample movie for you, recorded at the high quality 640 x 480 setting. Be warned, it's huge!

Click to play movie (18.2 MB, 640 x 480, 30 fps, AVI format)
Can't view it? Download QuickTime

Playback Mode

The SD300 has the same, excellent playback mode as seen on other Canon cameras. Things are really fast on the SD300 for some reason.

The camera has all the basic playback features that you'd expect. That includes slide shows, DPOF print marking, image protection, thumbnail mode, voice annotations (60 secs), image rotation, and zoom and scroll. Playback mode is also the place to print photos when connected to a compatible Canon or PictBridge-enabled photo printer.

The zoom and scroll feature lets you enlarge the picture up to 10X, and then scroll around in the zoomed-in area. It's nice and fast!

By default, the SD300 doesn't give you much info about your photos. But press the display button and you'll get plenty of details, including a histogram.

The camera rockets through photos in playback mode. It moves from one to the next instantly.

How Does it Compare?

Although I think image quality has gone downhill a bit since its predecessor, that doesn't stop me from putting the Canon PowerShot SD300 Digital ELPH high on my list of favorite ultra-compact cameras. It's got a stylish, ultra-thin metal body, a 3X zoom lens, a big 2-inch LCD, first-rate movie mode, and robust performance. The SD300 is about 1/3 inch thinner than the S410 and it's small enough to go everywhere with you. The lens is still 3X, though its new design lends itself to increased purple fringing and blurry edges, the main image quality issues that I found. The LCD is quite a bit larger and it's bright and sharp. Unfortunately it doesn't "gain up" much in low light. Canon finally has a competitive movie mode on the SD300, allowing for unlimited recording at 640 x 480 / 30 frames/second. The continuous shooting mode is also excellent, assuming you have a high speed SD card. Overall performance is very good as well, whether taking pictures, reviewing them, or using the menu system.

I've already mentioned my two image quality complaints, and I have two more. There's some minor vignetting in normal outdoor shots, and it's even more noticeable in flash shots (just like on the S60/S70). Also, redeye was a problem, which shouldn't be a surprise. While I like the manual white balance and long shutter speed controls, when are we going to get full manual controls on the ELPH? A few final complaints: you can't change the memory card while the camera is on a tripod, and the included memory card doesn't hold too many photos.

Despite its flaws, I do like the SD300 -- quite a lot in fact. It seems to have the same image quality problems as the PowerShot S60 and S70, which use the same UA lens technology. For those folks printing photos smaller than 8 x 10, I don't think the blurry edges or purple fringing are a big deal. And I think those are just the kind of people who will be buying the SD300.

What I liked:

  • Very good photo quality (though see issues below)
  • Ultra-thin, stylish metal body
  • Robust performance
  • Excellent continuous shooting mode (with the right memory card)
  • First-rate movie mode (finally!)
  • Big LCD for a small camera
  • AF-assist lamp
  • Optional underwater case
  • Nice software bundle

What I didn't care for:

  • Softness around edges and corners of photos; above average purple fringing, as well
  • Redeye
  • Some vignetting, especially in flash shots
  • Cheap plastic door over memory card / battery compartment
  • LCD doesn't "gain up" very much in low light
  • Can't swap memory cards while camera is on a tripod
  • More manual controls would be nice
  • Small memory card included

Some other ultra compact cameras worth considering include the Casio Exilim EX-Z50 and EX-Z55, Fuji FinePix F440, Konica Minolta DiMAGE X50 and G600, Nikon Coolpix 4200, Olympus AZ-2 Zoom and Stylus Verve, Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX7, Pentax Optio S5i, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T1.

If you don't mind losing a Megapixel of resolution, the Canon PowerShot SD200 is similar to the SD300.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the PowerShot SD300 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

See how the photos turned out in our gallery!

Want another opinion?

Read another review at Steve's Digicams.

Feedback & Discussion

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.

To discuss this review with other DCRP readers, please visit our forums.