Canon PowerShot SD970 IS Digital ELPH Review

Using the Canon PowerShot SD970 IS

Record Mode

It takes just under 1.2 seconds for the SD970 to extend its lens and prepare for shooting. That's pretty snappy.

There's no histogram to be found on the SD970

Autofocus delays were generally short on the SD970. At wide-angle, expect to wait for 0.2 - 0.4 seconds before the camera locks focus. Telephoto focus times range from 0.5 - 0.9 seconds in most cases. The camera focuses pretty well in low light situations, with focus times typically hanging around one second.

I did not find shutter lag to be an issue, even at the slower shutter speeds where it sometimes occurs.

After you take a photo, you'll wait 1.5 seconds before you can take another. If you're using the flash, the wait goes up to four seconds, which is pretty slow side. The SD970 offers a "focus check" feature, which enlarges the face or focus point in the photo that you just took.

You can delete a picture after you've taken it by pressing down on the four-way controller.

Now, here's a look at the image quality options on the PowerShot SD970 IS. Long-time Canon users will notice that there are now only two image quality settings to choose from at each resolution (no more super fine!).

Resolution Quality Approx. file size # images on 2GB card (optional)
4000 x 3000
Fine 3.0 MB 626
Normal 1.4 MB 1280
Widescreen (16:9)
4000 x 2248
Fine 2.3 MB 830
Normal 1.1 MB 1707
Medium 1
3264 x 2448
Fine 2.0 MB 930
Normal 980 KB 1920
Medium 2
2592 x 1944
Fine 1.4 MB 1365
Normal 695 KB 2672
Medium 3
1600 x 1200
Fine 558 KB 3235
Normal 278 KB 6146
640 x 480
Fine 150 KB 10245
Normal 84 KB 15368

The PowerShot SD970 doesn't support the RAW or TIFF image formats, nor would I expect it to. The old "postcard" size found on previous ELPHs is gone -- you can now print the date on photos taken at any resolution.

Alright, let's talk about the menu system now, shall we?

The SD970's menus have a new, flashy look, and they look fantastic on the high resolution LCD. Unlike the new Function menu, the regular menu is easy to navigate, either with the four-way controller or the scroll wheel that surrounds it. Keeping in mind that not all of these options are available in every shooting mode, here's the full list of record menu items:

  • AF frame (Face AiAF, center) - see below
  • AF frame size (Normal, small) - pick the focus point size, for center AF only
  • Servo AF (on/off) - see below
  • Digital zoom (Off, 1.5X, 2.0X, Standard) - see below
  • AF-point zoom (on/off) - enlarges the focus point or the selected faces when you halfway-press the shutter release
  • AF-assist beam (on/off)
  • Flash settings
    • Redeye correction (on/off) - digital redeye removal, as the photo is taken
    • Redeye reduction lamp (on/off) - attempts to shrink your subject's pupils to reduce redeye
  • i-Contrast (Off, auto) - see below
  • Review (Off, 2-10 seconds, hold) - post-shot review
  • Review info (Off, detailed, focus check) - what is shown in post-shot review; detailed shows you shooting data and a histogram; focus check enlarges the focus point or faces
  • Blink detection (on/off) - see below
  • Display overlay (Off, grid lines, 3:2 guide, both)
  • IS mode (Continuous, shoot only, panning, off) - see below
  • Date stamp (Off, date, date & time)
  • Set Direct Print button (Off, face select, ISO, white balance, custom WB, redeye correction, digital teleconverter, i-Contrast, display overlay, record movie, display off) - define what this button does

There are two focus modes on the PowerShot SD970. Face AiAF looks for up to nine faces in the frame, and makes sure they're properly exposed and focused. If it can't find any faces, it'll switch to 9-point autofocus instead. There's also center-point AF option, and you can select from a normal or small-sized focus point.

The camera found four of the six faces

The SD970's face detection system works well in the real world, and not so well with my test scene (I've found this to be the case with all recent Canon cameras). With the test scene, it typically found 3 or 4 of the six faces in the frame, though everything seemed very "jumpy" to me. You can track a moving subject by first assigning the Face Select feature to the Direct Print button on the back of the camera. When faces are detected, press the button to select who you want to track, the camera will follow them as they move around the frame.

What the blink detection screen looks like; simulated image courtesy of Canon USA

Tied into the face detection system is Canon's new blink detection feature. If you have this feature on and you take a picture of a person whose eyes are closed, the camera will display a warning screen.

The servo AF feature is quite simple: the camera will keep focusing while the shutter release is halfway-pressed, which comes in handy when your subject is in motion.

A quick note about the digital zoom feature on the SD970: Canon calls the 1.5X and 2.0X options a "digital teleconverter" -- it's basically just fixed digital zoom. The Standard option is what you'll find on every camera - you can select whatever amount of digital zoom that you want, at the expense of image quality. The 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 more of it. At 1600 x 1200 (good enough for a 4 x 6 inch print), you'll get 13X total zoom power using this feature!

Another feature on the PowerShot SD970 is called i-Contrast. This feature attempts to brighten dark areas of a photo, and you can a nice example of it in action in my PowerShot SX200 review. You can also brighten photos using i-Contrast while in playback mode (more on that in a bit).

What are those three IS modes all about? Continuous mode activates the OIS system as soon as you halfway press the shutter release, which helps you compose the photo without camera shake. The "shoot only" option doesn't turn it on until the photo is actually taken, which improves the performance of the OIS system. The panning mode only stabilizes up and down motion, and you'll want to use this while tracking a moving subject horizontally. You can also turn the whole thing off, which is advisable if you're using a tripod.

The other tab in the menu is for more general settings, which include:

  • Mute (on/off) - quickly turn off the camera's blips and beeps
  • Volume
    • Startup volume (Off, 1-5)
    • Operation volume (Off, 1-5)
    • Self-timer volume (Off, 1-5)
    • Shutter volume (Off, 1-5)
  • Sound options
    • Startup sound (1, 2)
    • Operation sound (1, 2)
    • Self-timer sound (1, 20)
    • Shutter sound (1, 2)
  • LCD brightness (1 - 5)
  • Start-up image (None, 1, 2)
  • Hints & Tips (on/off) - describes the options in the Function menu
  • Format (memory card)
  • File numbering (Continuous, auto reset)
  • Create folder
    • Create new folder - on the memory card
    • Auto create (Off, daily, weekly, monthly) - this new feature 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
  • Power saving
    • Auto power down (on/off)
    • Display off (10, 20, 30 sec, 1-3 min)
  • Time zone (Home, world)
  • Date/time (set)
  • Video system (NTSC, PAL)
  • Language
  • Reset all - back to defaults

That wraps up the menu discussion -- let's move on to the photo tests now.

The PowerShot SD970 did a pretty nice job with our macro test subject. Colors look good, with the custom white balance feature handling our studio lamps with ease. The subject is slightly soft, possibly due to noise reduction. That said, I don't see any noise in the photo!

The minimum focusing distance in macro mode is just 2 cm when the lens is at full wide-angle. The camera is only capable of focusing at close distances when the lens as at the 1X - 3X positions (roughly). There's also a digital macro mode, which locks the lens at wide-angle and lets you use the digital zoom to get closer. Be warned that unless you drop the resolution, this can degrade image quality.

If you want to take long exposures with the PowerShot SD970 you'll need to either use a scene mode or the long shutter speed option. With the latter, you can manually select a shutter speed ranging from 1 to 15 seconds. I used the long shutter option here, and brought in a decent amount of light, though a slower shutter speed wouldn't have hurt. Sharpness seems to vary a bit, depending on where you look. Everything's nice and sharp from the left through the center, but as you get toward the right edge, the image starts to soften. For a camera that likes to clip highlights, the SD970 didn't actually do that bad here. Noise is barely visible, and purple fringing levels are fairly low.

Now, let's use that same night scene to see how the SD970 performed at high ISOs in low light. I can only take the ISO up to 400 here, since the SD970 doesn't have full control over the shutter speed.

ISO 80

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

There's a small increase in noise when you go from ISO 80 to 100 -- and sorry about the difference in exposure between those two shots. You start to lose some detail at ISO 200, though it shouldn't keep you from making a small or midsize print. I wouldn't take the SD970 above ISO 400 in low light since, as you can see, there's quite a bit of detail loss.

We'll see how the camera performed in normal lighting in a bit.

There's mild to moderate barrel distortion at the wide end of the PowerShot SD970's 5X zoom lens. You can see what this does to your real world photos by noticing how the building on the right side of this photo appears to curve inward. As with most compact cameras, you should expect to see some corner blurriness on the SD970 (see example). I did not find vignetting (dark corners) to be an issue, however.

Canon has taken a two-pronged approach to redeye removal on the SD970. You can have it use the redeye reduction lamp to shrink your subject's pupils, have it digitally remove any redeye that the camera finds, or both. I had both features turned on for my test, and it worked a little too well! If you find some redeye in photos you've already taken, you can use a tool in playback mode to remove it.

Now it's time for our studio ISO test. SInce the lighting is always the same, you can compare these photos with others I've taken over the years. With the usual reminder to view the full size images in addition to the crops, let's begin!

ISO 80

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

There's almost no difference between the ISO 80 and 100 shots. There's a tiny increase in noise at ISO 200, but that won't keep you from making a large print at that sensitivity. ISO 400 is still pretty clean, and usable for midsize and perhaps larger prints. The image taken at ISO 800 is noticeably softer than those before it, almost looking like it was run through a softening filter (it wasn't). Thus, I'd save this option for small prints only. Things continue to get softer and fuzzier at ISO 1600, so I'd avoid using this setting unless you're absolutely desperate.

Overall, the PowerShot SD970 produced very good quality photos, at least by compact camera standards. The camera took accurate exposures, with pleasing, vivid color. Photos were quite sharp, save for some softness near the corners. The SD970 does seem to clip highlights quite a bit, though, and purple fringing can be strong at times. Photos are a little bit noisier than on previous ELPHs, but the SD970's still produces photos with less noise and noise reduction than most of its competitors.

Don't just take my word for all this -- have a look at our photo gallery and judge the PowerShot SD970's photo quality with your own eyes!

Movie Mode

The PowerShot SD970 IS Digital ELPH features a high definition 720p movie mode. In layman's terms, that means that you can record videos at 1280 x 720 (at 30 frames/second) until the file size hits 4GB. It takes around 22 minutes for that to occur, thanks to Canon's use of the efficient H.264 codec. As you'd expect, sound is recorded along with the video.

For longer movies, you'll can drop the resolution to 640 x 480 or 320 x 240 (both record at 30 fps). The maximum recording times are around 47 minutes for the former, and one hour for the latter.

As is often the case, you cannot operate the optical zoom lens while you're recording a movie. The image stabilizer is available, however.

The SD970 allows you to use the Color Accent and Color Swap features in movie mode, if you wish.

Here's a sample movie for you, taken at the highest quality setting:

Click to play movie (33.3 MB, 1280 x 720, 30 fps, QuickTime format)
Can't view it? Download QuickTime.

Playback Mode


Regular playback menu Playback function menu

The PowerShot SD970 has a very nice playback mode. Basic features include slideshows (with transitions), image protection, DPOF print marking, thumbnail view, and playback zoom (what I call zoom & scroll). Playback options can be found in both the traditional and function menus (which is a change from older ELPHs).

Viewing photos by date Assigning a category to a photo

Photos can be viewed one at a time, as thumbnails, or you can use the new Filtered Playback feature. This lets you view photos by date, category, folder, and file type. Speaking of categories, you can assign one of six preset categories to your photos. In some cases, the category is automatically assigned by the camera.

i-Contrast in playback mode

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. You can also use the i-Contrast feature to brighten up the dark areas of your photos, with a choice of Auto, Low, Medium, or High settings.

If you have a movie open, you can trim unwanted footage off of the beginning or end of the clip.

The camera lets you delete photos one at a time, in groups (sequential or non sequential), or you can get rid of all of them at once.

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.

Viewing photos with the scroll wheel Viewing photos by "shaking" the camera

The SD970 moves through images at a good clip, with a delay of a fraction of a second between each one (complete with fancy transitions). You can move from one photo to the next with the four-way controller, zoom through them faster with the scroll wheel, and you can even "shake" the camera up or down to switch to the next image. That's a feature I never knew that I needed, but there you go.

One other thing to mention is that when you rotate the camera 90 degrees, so does the photo you're viewing on the LCD.