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DCRP Review: Canon PowerShot SD400 Digital ELPH  

by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: March 14, 2005
Last Updated: January 1, 2012

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The Canon PowerShot SD400 Digital ELPH ($400) is more than just a 5 Megapixel version of the SD300. Canon also added these new features, all of which can also be found on the new SD500. They include:

  • New "Night Display" feature brightens the LCD in low light
  • My Colors feature lets you highlight and even swap colors right on the camera
  • USB 2.0 High Speed support

Otherwise the SD400 is the same as the SD300. That means there's an ultra-thin metal body, DIGIC II processor, 3X zoom lens, 2-inch LCD display, and a nice VGA movie mode.

How does the SD400 perform in our tests? Find out now in our review!

The SD400 is known as the Ixus 50 in some countries. Also, I will be borrowing heavily from both my SD300 and SD500 reviews to save time.

What's in the Box?

The PowerShot SD400 has an average bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 5.0 effective Megapixel Canon PowerShot SD400 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 PhotoStudio, and drivers
  • 193 page camera manual + software manual (both printed)

Canon includes a 16MB Secure Digital (SD) memory card with the SD400, which holds a grand total of five photos at the highest quality setting. That means that you'll want a larger card right away, and I recommend a 256MB card as a good starter size. The camera can use either SD or MMC (MultiMedia) cards, though only the former is recommended. The SD400 takes advantage of high speed SD cards and one is required for the unlimited burst mode or for the highest movie quality. Look for a card rated at 60X or higher for best results.

The SD400 uses the same battery as the SD200 and SD300 (but NOT the SD500). That's the NB-4L battery which packs just 2.8 Wh of energy. That translates to just 150 shots per charge using the CIPA standard -- which is below average. The SD300 can take 140 shots per charge using the same battery, while the SD500 takes 160. Some non-Canon cameras do a lot better in this area. The Casio EX-Z57 takes a whopping 400 shots per charge, the Nikon Coolpix 5900 can take 270, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T33 can fire off 180.

My usual complaints about proprietary batteries like the one used by the SD400 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. Then again, you'd be hard pressed to find an ultra-thin camera that uses AAs.

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 people don't like this). It takes about 95 minutes to fully charge the battery.

There's a built-in lens cover on the SD400, as you'd expect on a camera like this. As you can see, this is one small camera!

There are a couple of accessories for the SD400 worth mentioning. The most interesting is the AW-DC30 all-weather case ($125), which lets you take the ELPH up to 3 meters underwater. Another cool accessory is the HF-DC1 external slave flash ($110), which works with most of Canon's other PowerShots as well. The flash attaches via the tripod mount and is triggered by the flash on the camera. Using this will boost the SD400's flash range to over 9 meters!

Other accessories include an AC adapter ($50) and a soft camera case.

ImageBrowser (Mac OS X)

Canon includes version 23 of their very good Digital Camera Solutions software with the SD400. Included in this package are ZoomBrowser (for Windows)/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 PhotoStudio 4.3 for Mac OS X

For whatever reason, Canon is no longer including the full ArcSoft PhotoSuite with their cameras. Now you just get PhotoStudio (v 4.3 for Mac, v5.5 for Windows), which is kind of like a "light" version of Adobe Photoshop. It's not bad, though I miss all the bells and whistles of PhotoImpression (though not its quirky interface).

Recent Canon camera manuals have been more complex than earlier ones, but they're still above average. The SD400's manual is complete, but expect a fair amount of "notes" and fine print.

Look and Feel

The PowerShot SD400 looks exactly like the SD300, even down to that metallic ring around the lens. It's an ultra-thin camera made almost entirely of metal, and it feels solid for the most part. The only part of the camera that doesn't feel so nice is the door over the battery/memory card compartment. The SD400 fits easily in you pocket and it can go anywhere you go. The important controls are all within easy reach of your fingers and the camera can be operated with just one hand.

Here's a look at how the SD400 compares with some of the competition:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon PowerShot S410 3.4 x 2.2 x 1.1 in. 8.2 cu in. 185 g
Canon PowerShot SD400 3.4 x 2.1 x 0.8 in. 5.7 cu in. 130 g
Canon PowerShot SD500 3.5 x 2.2 x 1.0 in. 7.7 cu in. 170 g
Casio Exilim EX-Z57 3.5 x 2.3 x 0.9 in. 7.2 cu in. 130 g
Fuji FinePix Z1 3.5 x 2.2 x 0.7 in. 5.4 cu in. 130 g
Konica Minolta DiMAGE G600 3.7 x 2.2 x 1.2 in. 9.8 cu in. 195 g
Nikon Coolpix 5900 3.5 x 2.4 x 1.4 in. 11.8 cu in. 150 g
Olympus C-630 Zoom 3.1 x 2.4 x 1.0 in. 7.4 cu in. 125 g
Olympus Stylus Verve S 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 S5i 3.3 x 2.0 x 0.8 in. 5.3 cu in. 105 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-P200 4.0 x 2.0 x 1.0 in. 8.0 cu in. 144 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T7 3.6 x 2.4 x 0.6 in. 5.2 cu in. 115 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T33 3.9 x 2.4 x 0.9 in. 8.4 cu in. 125 g

While not quite as small as the cameras from Fuji and Pentax, the SD400 is still one of the smallest and lightest cameras on the market!

Okay enough numbers, let's tour now!

The PowerShot SD400 uses the same UA (ultra-high refractive index) lens as the SD200 and SD300. This F2.8-4.9 lens has a focal range of 5.8 - 17.4 mm, which is equivalent to 35 - 105 mm. The lens is not threaded, nor would I expect it to be.

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 (the SD500 does a lot better in this area since it has a larger flash). Canon offers the HF-DC1 external slave flash for the SD400, which I mentioned earlier.

Directly above the lens is the optical viewfinder. To its left is the AF-assist lamp, which doubles as the self-timer lamp. The AF-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.

The SD400 has the same 2.0" LCD display as the other models in the SD series. The screen is bright, motion is fluid, and images are sharp, thanks to the 118,000 pixel resolution. One of the new features on the SD400 and SD500 is called Night Display, which is marketing lingo for "the LCD gains up in low light". And that it does -- I found low light visibility to be excellent.

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 SD400. 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) / Jump (skip ahead when playing back photos)
  • 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)
  • Center - Function menu (see below) / Set (for menus)

As it is on all the SD series models, the SD400's continuous shooting mode is impressive. 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 SanDisk 256MB SD card (not speed rated), which took just 14 shots at 2 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.

Function menu

By pressing the center button on the four-way controller, you'll open up the Function menu. It has the following options:

  • Shooting mode (Auto, manual, digital macro, portrait, night snapshot, kids & pets, indoor, underwater, My Colors)
  • 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)
  • My Colors (Positive film, lighter skin tone, darker skin tone, vivid blue, vivid green, vivid red, color accent, color swap, custom color) - see below
  • Compression (see chart later in review)
  • Resolution (see chart later in review)

As you can see there are quite a few scene modes on the SD400. The one that I wish existed is a "sports" mode for freezing action.

The only real manual controls on the camera are for 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. The long shutter speed feature lets you manually choose a speed range from 1 - 15 seconds -- great for long exposures.

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

Using the My Colors "Color Swap" feature

The My Colors feature is new to the SD400 and SD500 and deserves a closer look. Most of the options (skin tones, vivid colors, etc) are self-explanatory, but the last three options deserve some attention. Before we go on, I should mention a few things. First, you can choose to save the original, unaltered image if you desire (probably a good idea). Second, using the flash or changing the white balance or metering is going to prevent this feature from working properly.

Normal shot Color accent using the green color on The Body Shop sign
(Example from the SD500)

The color accent feature will turn your image to black and white, except for the color which you've selected (see above). To select the color you point the camera at the color you want to sample and then press the four-way controller. You can fine tune the selected color by pressing up/down on the four-way controller, but it didn't make a huge different in my testing. For this option as well as the next two, the camera gives you a preview of what it's about to do before you take the photo.

You can see what I did here using the Color Swap feature

The color swap feature does just as it sounds: you can exchange one color for another. Want to see how your car looks in red? Well, select your car's color first and then find something red, and the rest is history.

The custom color feature lets you adjust the color balance for red, green, blue, and skin tones from -2 to +2 in 1-step increments.

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.

Have I mentioned how much I dislike taking pictures of cameras with mirrored surfaces?

On top of the SD400 you'll find the power and shutter release buttons plus the zoom controller. The zoom controller moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in just 1.5 seconds. I counted just seven steps throughout the 3X zoom range -- which makes it a little hard to be precise.

Nothing to see here!

Argh, more mirrors!

On this side of the SD400 you'll find the I/O port. It's one port for both USB and video out. The camera supports the USB 2.0 High Speed standard -- something the SD200/300 does not.

On the bottom of the SD400 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 bust off if you're clumsy like me. In addition, you can't swap memory cards while the camera is on a tripod.

The included battery is shown at right.

Using the Canon PowerShot SD400

Record Mode

The SD400 takes just 1.1 seconds to extend its lens and "warm up" before you can start pictures. Blazing fast!

No live histogram to be found

Focusing speeds were generally good on the SD400, generally ranging from 0.3 - 0.5 seconds. If the camera has to "hunt" a bit, or if the AF-assist lamp is used, focus times can be around one second. Low light focusing was above average thanks to the SD400's AF-assist lamp.

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

Shot-to-shot speed is excellent on the SD400, 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
2592 x 1944
Superfine 2.4 MB 5
Fine 1.4 MB 9
Normal 695 KB 19
Medium 1
2048 x 1536
Superfine 1.6 MB 8
Fine 893 KB 15
Normal 445 KB 30
Medium 2
1600 x 1200
Superfine 1002 KB 13
Fine 558 KB 24
Normal 278 KB 46
640 x 480
Superfine 249 KB 52
Fine 150 KB 80
Normal 84 KB 127

As you can see, a larger memory card is a requirement on the SD400. The camera 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 SD400 has the same newly designed menu system as the other cameras in the SD series. Everything is very 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 full 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, custom timer) - see below
  • AF-assist beam (on/off)
  • Digital zoom (on/off) - it's best to keep this turned off
  • Review (Off, 2-10 sec, hold) - post-shot review; the hold feature will keep the image on the LCD until you press a button
  • Date stamp (Off, date, date & time) - print the date and/or time on your photos; only works with the image size set to postcard (1600 x 1200)
  • Save original (on/off) - whether an unaltered image is also saved while using the My Colors feature
  • Long shutter (on/off) - I described this feature earlier
  • Stitch Assist (Off, left-to-right, right-to-left) - helps you make panoramic photos

The custom self-timer option is new. Instead of just 2 or 10 seconds, now you can have the camera take up to 10 shots automatically, with a delay ranging from 1 to 30 seconds before the photo is taken.

There is also a setup menu on the SD400, 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. The software included with the camera lets you use your own photos and sounds as well, if you desire. If these bother you, you can also turn them off.

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

The SD400 did a great job with our macro test shot. Our subject has a nice "smooth" look to it, with accurate and very saturated colors. The custom white balance feature allows for the accurate colors since I use studio lamps which don't always work with WB presets.

You can get as close to your subject as 3 cm at wide-angle and 30 cm at telephoto (the SD200/300/400 are a little better in this area). 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 -- the 3 cm minimum distance remains the same. You're probably better off not using the digital macro feature.

The SD400 also did a nice job with the night test shot. Since the camera allows for exposures as long as 15 seconds, shots like this are easy (just remember your tripod). Noise levels are comparable to other cameras in this class. There's a tiny bit of purple fringing here, but nothing to be concerned about.

Now let's use that same scene and see how the noise levels increase as we raise the ISO sensitivity:

ISO 50

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

As you can see, things start to go downhill at ISO 100 -- details are being destroyed. ISO 200 is worse and ISO 400 probably is not usable.

There's very mild barrel distortion on the SD400 at the lens' wide end. There's no vignetting to be seen here or in the real world photos I took. You will, however, spot some occasional blurriness in the corners of your photos -- this is one of the compromises of owning an ultra-thin camera.

Redeye? On an ultra-compact camera? You're kidding! Nope... it's real and you'll most likely have to deal with it.

Overall the SD400's photo quality was good, though I don't think it's quite as nice as the SD300 (4.0MP) or the SD500 (7.1MP). While colors were always nice and exposure was accurate most of the time, images seemed just a little noisier and softer than I was expecting. I'm thinking that the little 5MP sensor in the SD400 is pushing that lens to its limits (remember that the SD500 uses a larger sensor and different lens).

I also had two shots that were so awful that I had to reshoot them (I was unable to reshoot the other one so I yanked it from the gallery entirely). I can't explain why the camera did what it did, and I couldn't recreate it. Two other issues that you'll have to deal with more often include above average purple fringing and the camera's tendency to "blow out the highlights" (look at the right side of the purple fringing test shot to see what I mean).

The best judge of the SD400's photo quality isn't me -- it's you. Have a look at our extensive photo gallery and decide for yourself. I also did a shootout between the SD400 and SD500 with more photos (my verdict: the SD500 is better). Look at the photos, print them if you'd like, and then see if the SD400 meets your expectations!

Movie Mode

Like the SD200 and SD300 before it, the movie mode on the SD400 is first rate. You can record VGA video (with sound) at 30 frames/second until the memory card fills up! Do note that will need a high speed SD card for this (60X or above recommended). A 512MB card can hold a little over 4 minutes of video at the high quality setting. You can shoot at a slower 15 frame/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.

The My Colors and Photo Effects features mentioned earlier can be used in movie mode as well. 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 (it will be locked when you start filming). You can, however, use the digital zoom without a major loss in quality.

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, this is a HUGE download and is not for people on dialup!

Click to play movie (21.4 MB, 640 x 480, 30 fps, AVI format)
Can't view it? Download QuickTime

Playback Mode

The SD400 has the same, excellent playback mode as seen on other Canon cameras. Everything is really snappy thanks to that DIGIC II chip.

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. The SD400 supports the PictBridge system for direct printing to a compatible 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 SD400 doesn't give you much info about your photos. But press the display button and you'll get plenty of details, including a histogram (see above).

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

How Does it Compare?

Overall I liked the Canon PowerShot SD400, though I think the SD500 does a better job in terms of image quality. While most of my SD400 photos were nice, they were a little noisier and softer than I would've liked (they really reminded me of the Sony T-series photos for some reason). In addition I had two totally soft (read: awful) photos that needed to be reshot -- something I haven't had to do with any of the other SD series cameras before (maybe it's just my camera?). I do think, however, that the average point-and-shoot user will be happy with the image quality, as they will be mostly making prints 8 x 10 inches and smaller. Remember that I'm supposed to be picky.

The SD400 is an ultra-thin camera with an all-metal body. It's very well put together for the most part, save for that plastic door over the memory card and battery compartment. Camera performance is superb, and probably the best in its class (along with the other SD models). The camera starts up in a little over a second and it's fast at just about everything. The continuous shooting and movie modes are both first-rate. The SD400 has a 2-inch LCD display that automatically gains up in low light. Speaking of low light, the AF-assist lamp helped the camera focus well in darker rooms. The SD400's support for the USB 2.0 High Speed protocol means less time waiting for your photos to be transferred to your computer. Once there you'll find Canon's software to be better than average.

For the most part the SD400 is point-and-shoot. The only real manual controls on the camera are for white balance and limited shutter speed adjustment. The camera offers plenty of scene modes for various situations that you might find yourself in. The My Colors feature is pretty cool, though once the novelty wears off it may not be used often.

Three other gripes about the SD400: One, you can't swap memory cards while the camera is on a tripod. Secondly, the battery life leaves a little to be desired. And finally, like with nearly all ultra-thin cameras, you can expect redeye to be a problem in your flash photos.

Overall I recommend the SD400, but if you can swing it, I'd buy the SD500 instead. While it's a bit bigger, it takes better pictures and has both a more powerful flash and a longer-lasting battery.

What I liked:

  • Very good photo quality (though see issues below)
  • Compact and very thin metal body
  • Blazing performance
  • First rate movie and continuous shooting modes
  • Unique My Colors feature
  • LCD visible in low light
  • AF-assist lamp; good low light focusing
  • USB 2.0 High Speed support
  • Optional underwater case and external slave flash

What I didn't care for:

  • Images noisier/softer than I would've liked
  • Redeye
  • Some corner softness and purple fringing
  • Cheap plastic door over memory card / battery compartment
  • Battery life isn't great
  • Can't swap memory cards while camera is on a tripod
  • More manual controls would be nice
  • Tiny memory card included

Some other ultra-thin cameras worth considering include the Canon PowerShot SD300 (4MP; missing the new features listed at the top of the review) and SD500, Casio Exilim EX-Z57, Fuji FinePix Z1, Nikon Coolpix 5900, Olympus C-630Z and Stylus Verve S, Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX7, Pentax Optio S5i, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T7 and DSC-T33.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the PowerShot SD400 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

See how the photos turned out in our gallery! Also, don't miss our SD400 vs SD500 shootout!

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.