Canon PowerShot SD970 IS Digital ELPH Review

Look and Feel

The PowerShot SD970 IS Digital ELPH is a stylish, ultra-compact camera. The body is made almost entirely of metal, and it not only looks good, but it feels solid in your hands. While there's the usual plastic door over the memory card and battery compartment, it seems to be fairly well reinforced. The camera fits well in your hand, and its buttons are large and easy to reach. I should point out that there's really no dedicated spot to put your thumb, so it often ends up on either the Direct Print button or the four-way controller, which can cause trouble.

Now, let's see how the SD970 compares to other mid zoom ultra-compacts in terms of size and weight:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon PowerShot SD970 IS 3.7 x 2.2 x 1.0 in. 8.1 cu in. 160 g
Casio Exilim EX-FC100 3.9 x 2.3 x 0.9 in. 8.1 cu in. 156 g
Fuji FinePix F200EXR 3.8 x 2.3 x 0.9 in. 7.9 cu in. 175 g
GE E1255W 3.6 x 2.3 x 0.9 in. 7.5 cu in. 145 g
Kodak EasyShare M380 3.9 x 2.3 x 0.8 in. 7.2 cu in. 125 g
Nikon Coolpix S640 3.6 x 2.2 x 0.8 in. 6.3 cu in. 110 g
Olympus Stylus 7000 3.8 x 2.2 x 1.0 in. 8.4 cu in. 132 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS25 3.8 x 2.3 x 0.9 in. 7.9 cu in. 126 g
Samsung SL620 3.7 x 2.3 x 0.9 in. 7.7 cu in. 138 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W290 3.9 x 2.4 x 0.9 in. 8.4 cu in. 145 g

The SD970 is one of the larger and heavier cameras in this group. That doesn't mean that it's not pocketable -- it'll fit into your jeans pocket with ease.

Ready to tour the PowerShot SD970 IS now? I know I am, so let's begin!

Front of the Canon PowerShot SD970 IS

The PowerShot SD970 has the same F3.2 - F5.7, 5X optical zoom lens as the SD890 that came before it. That maximum aperture range is on the slow side, but it's not uncommon on ultra-compact cameras like this. The focal range of the lens is 6.6 - 33.0 mm, which is equivalent to 37 - 185 mm (a wide-angle lens it is not). As you'd expect, the lens isn't threaded, so conversion lenses are not supported.

Inside the lens is Canon's optical image stabilization system. Sensors inside the camera detect the tiny movements of your hands (known as "camera shake") that can blur your photos, especially in low light or at the telephoto end of the lens. The camera shifts one of the lens elements to compensate for this movement, allowing for a higher likelihood of a sharp photo. Image stabilization can't freeze a moving subject, nor will it allow for multi-second handheld exposures, but it will give you sharp photos at shutter speeds that would be otherwise unusable. Want proof? Have a look at these:

Image stabilization off

Image stabilization on

Both of the above photos were taken at around the 3X zoom position, with a shutter speed of 1/10 second. As you can probably tell, the photo taken with stabilization turned on is noticeably sharper than the one without it. You can also use the IS system in movie mode, as illustrated in this short sample video.

To the upper-right of the lens is the SD970's sleek but small built-in flash. The working range of the flash is about average: it's 0.3 - 3.5 m at wide-angle, and 0.3 - 2.0 m at telephoto (both at Auto ISO). Should you want more flash power (and less of a chance of redeye), you can pick up the external slave flash that I mentioned back in the accessory discussion.

The only other thing to see on the front of the camera is the AF-assist lamp, which the camera uses as a focusing aid in low light situations. The lamp also lights up when the self-timer is counting down, and when redeye reduction is turned on.

Back of the Canon PowerShot SD970 IS

It's impossible to miss the LCD on the back of the SD970, as it takes up nearly the entire backside of the camera. This may look like just another 3-inch screen, but it's not: it has double the resolution of most LCDs, with 461,000 pixels. As you'd expect, the screen is super sharp, and a real pleasure to use. Outdoor visibility was pretty good, and in low light the screen brightens up very nicely, so you can still see your subject.

As with every ultra-compact camera with a 3-inch LCD, there's no optical viewfinder to be found on the PowerShot SD970. If that's an issue for you, you'll need to look at cameras with smaller LCDs, or cave in and buy a larger camera.

Now let's talk buttons. Those two opposing triangle buttons at the top-right are for Direct Printing (among other things) and entering playback mode. In record mode, you can customize the function of the Direct Print button (I'll list the options later in the review) -- by default, it does nothing. If you're connected to a photo printer, you can press the button to print the photo that's displayed on the LCD.

Below those buttons is the camera's combination four-way controller and scroll wheel. The wheel portion can be used for menu navigation, adjusting manual settings, and quickly moving through photos in playback mode. The four-way controller can do many of the same things, and it also lets you adjust the following:

  • Up - Exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV, in 1/3EV increments)
  • Down - Self-timer (Off, 2 or 10 sec, face timer, custom timer) + Delete photo
  • Left - Focus (Normal, macro, infinity)
  • Right - Flash (Auto, flash on, slow synchro, flash off)
  • Center - Function menu + Set

There's a lot to talk about before we can continue the tour. First up are those two unique self-timer options. The face self-timer option lets you be included in a photo, without having to run while the self-timer counts down. The camera will simply wait until another face is detected, and it will take anywhere from 1 to 10 photos two seconds later. The custom self-timer option lets you select both the delay and the number of photos taken -- a pretty uncommon feature.

The newly remodeled Function Menu

Pressing the center button on the four-way controller options up the Function menu, which has a totally new design on the SD970. While it looks lovely, the Function menu is a lot more difficult to navigate than on previous Canon cameras. It's hard to explain why, but if you try it, I think you'll agree. Anyhow, the options here include:

  • Metering (Evaluative, center-weighted, spot)
  • 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
  • White balance (Auto, daylight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent, fluorescent H, custom) - see below
  • ISO speed (Auto, 80, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600)
  • Rec. mode (Program, portrait, night snapshot, kids & pets, indoor, sunset, creative light effect, fireworks, long shutter, beach, aquarium, foliage, snow, ISO 3200, digital macro, zoom blur, color accent, color swap, Stitch Assist) - see below
  • Drive mode (Single-shot, continuous) - see below
  • Image quality (see chart later in review)
  • Image size (see chart later in review)

The My Colors feature hasn't changed in recent years. The only option that needs some explanation is the custom color setting. This lets you manually adjust contrast, sharpness, saturation, as well as red/green/blue/skin tone levels. In the Rec. mode menu are two more My Colors options: color accent and color swap. The former lets you choose a color to "keep", while the rest of the image becomes black and white. Color Swap does just as it sounds: you swap one color for another.

The PowerShot SD970'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.

How does the SD970 perform in its continuous shooting mode? With a high speed SD card, I was able to keep shooting away at an unremarkable 1 frame/second. The LCD lags behind the action a bit, though you should still be able to follow a moving subject.

What about all those Rec. mode options? I already told you about the Color Accent and Color Swap items, and there are a few more worth a mention. Program mode is a point-and-shoot shooting mode with full menu access, in contrast to the regular Auto mode which has most of its menu options locked up. The creative light effect mode turns bright light sources into shapes such as stars and hearts. You can select from large or small sized shapes. The long shutter mode is how you'll take night photos like the ones in my reviews. You can select a shutter speed range from 1 to 15 seconds. The ISO 3200 mode does just as it sounds -- boost the sensitivity as high as it will go (though the resolution will drop to 3 Megapixel). While this will most likely result in a sharp photo, don't expect very good quality from it (see example).

Zoom Blur feature in action

The zoom blur feature will operate the zoom lens while your photo is being taken, which can produce some interesting effects (see above). Finally, there's Stitch Assist, which helps you line up your photos side-by-side for later stitching into a single panorama.

The last two buttons on the back of the PowerShot SD970 toggle the information shown on the LCD, and enter the menu system.

Top of the Canon PowerShot SD970 IS

The first item of note on the top of the PowerShot SD970 is the microphone, which is located on the left side of the above photo. Moving more toward the center, we find the mode switch (Movie, Shooting, Auto), which has the speaker above that. If you set the mode switch to the "Auto" position the camera goes into Smart Auto mode. There it will pick one of eighteen scene modes automatically, detect any faces, and compensate for a strong backlight. It even knows when the camera is on a tripod (in low light situations). If you're looking for some kind of manual mode, forget about it -- this is a point-and-shoot camera.

Continuing to the right, you can see the power and shutter release buttons, with the zoom controller wrapped around the latter. The zoom controller moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in about 1.6 seconds. I counted a dozen steps in the camera's 5X zoom range.

Side of the Canon PowerShot SD970 IS

Nothing to see here. The lens is at the wide-angle position in this shot.

Side of the Canon PowerShot SD970 IS

On the opposite side of the SD970 are its I/O ports, which are under plastic covers. The one on the top is a mini-HDMI port, which you can use to connect to an HDTV (cable not included). The port on the bottom handles both USB and (regular) A/V output.

The lens is at full telephoto here.

Bottom of the Canon PowerShot SD970

On the bottom of the PowerShot SD970 is a metal tripod mount (obscured from view here) and the battery/memory card compartment. The reinforced plastic door over this compartment feels fairly sturdy, though I wouldn't push it. You won't be able to access the compartment while the camera is on a tripod.

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