Canon PowerShot SD850 IS Digital Camera Review

Read a digital camera review of the Canon PowerShot SD850IS.

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Testing / Performance


If you brought a slew of different cameras to the Grand Canyon and photographed your family, each camera would reproduce the colors of the landscape differently. Some might make the sky a duller gray, some may give the sky a brilliant but exaggerated blue, some may bring out reds in your family’s faces, and some will make those same faces look paler. The closer to realistic colors the camera produces, the better it scores.

We tested the color accuracy of the Canon SD850 IS to see how it reproduces colors. To test this, we photographed an industry standard GretagMacbeth ColorChecker test chart and compared the colors the camera reproduced with the colors of the chart. The image below shows how well the camera performed. The outer squares show the colors the camera reproduced, the inside squares show the ideal color of the chart corrected for the exposure, and the small rectangles show the ideal chart color at an even exposure.


For most colors, the outside and inside squares are very similar, meaning the camera’s colors are, for the most part, accurate. Only in a couple of the blue squares do the colors stray significantly. The graph below shows this information in another way. The ideal colors of the test chart are placed in their known locations on the color spectrum, and are represented by squares. The colors the SD850 IS reproduced are the circles, and the lines connecting the squares and circles show the color error.


Imatest measured a color error of 5.44 in L**a**b* color space, which is fantastic. As you can see on the graph, most of the colors are very close to their ideal colors. The blues stray from their ideals the most, but this is often the case in digital cameras because shifting the blues enhances to the look of skies in a photograph. Overall, there is also a trend toward oversaturation, meaning colors appear more saturated in photos than they do in reality.


**Resolution ***(6.11) *

We tested the resolution of the 8-megapixel SD850 IS by photographing an industry standard resolution test chart and varying the focal length and exposure settings. We ran the images through Imatest to determine the combination of settings that produced the sharpest images. Imatest measures resolution in units of line widths per picture height (lw/ph), which correspond to the number of equally spaced alternating black and white lines that could fit in the image frame before it blurred.


Click to view the high-resolution image

The sharpest image, shown above, was taken at ISO 80, f/4, and a focal length of 12mm. Imatest measured a resolution of 1710 lw/ph horizontally with 8.1 percent oversharpening, and 1532 lw/ph vertically with 11.6 percent undersharpening. These scores are decent, though there isn’t as much vertical sharpening as we would like to see in a point-and-shoot camera. Also, there is evident chromatic aberration, even in the middle of the frame. Chromatic aberration makes edges turn blue or red, and is caused by lens elements in the camera not being perfectly focused. This could be distracting in large prints.

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**Noise – Manual ISO ***(4.72) *

Noise refers to the "static" you can see in digital camera images, often in low light shots. This random signal noise comes from inside the camera, not from the scene being photographed. It can take the form of sandy grains or splotchy gray or colored patches. To test the amount of noise produced by the Canon SD850 IS, we photographed our test chart under bright studio lights at every ISO sensitivity the camera offers.


The SD850 IS kept noise levels low from ISO 80 to 200, but at higher sensitivities noise was very high. The noise was very apparent in images shot with high ISO settings, and had both fine grained noise as well as splotchy blue and yellow patches, making the images quite ugly and resulting in the mediocre manual noise score.


Noise – Auto ISO*(1.68)*

We also shot the test chart at Auto ISO to see how much noise it produced in Auto mode. The camera chose ISO 200, and the noise level was 1.49 percent, meaning much of the image was drowned out by noise. This is a lot of noise for shooting under such bright lights, and yielded a poor auto noise score. This camera doesn’t seem to provide much in-camera noise reduction, which means you will see grainy noise in any photo not shot in very bright light. There is a good side to this, however: the lack of - or limited - noise reduction smoothing means photos shot in low light will stay sharp.

White Balance* (14.4)*

****White balance accuracy is very important when shooting with a point-and-shoot, especially if you don’t plan to spend time fiddling with your photos on a computer later. Poor white balance can create a color cast over an entire image. If you have ever owned a camera, you have very likely observed a yellow cast come across an indoor shot. Good white balance settings help to accurately depict colors.

We tested the white balance of the SD850 IS by photographing the ColorChecker test chart under four different types of light: Outdoor Cloudy, Flash, Fluorescent, and Tungsten. We took shots to test the auto white balance setting and the white balance presets.

Auto (14.8)

The SD850 IS performed extremely well in white balance accuracy with both the auto setting and the presets. Using flash on the auto white balance setting was almost perfectly accurate. The only time it performed poorly was in tungsten light using the auto setting, which is an issue many cameras have. Overall, the auto white balance is accurate, though the preset is a better option for shooting indoors under tungsten light.

Preset (14.0)

The SD850 IS has no flash preset, but that didn’t matter in the least because the white balance was nearly spot-on using the auto setting. The presets were very accurate in fluorescent, outdoor cloudy, and tungsten light.

**Still Life Sequences

***Click to view the high-resolution images.*

**Low Light ***(7.60) *

We dimmed the studio lights to get a look at how the SD850 IS performed in low light. We took shots of the ColorChecker test chart at light levels of 60, 30, 15, and 5 lux. 60 lux corresponds to a room softly lit with two lamps, and 30, 15, and 5 lux get progressively darker, testing the limits of the camera’s sensor.

All the shots were taken at ISO 1600.

Color accuracy held up well at 60 and 30 lux, but deteriorated at 15 and 5 lux, hitting a mean color error of 10.6 at 5 lux. Noise was very high at all the low light levels, drowning out almost 5 percent of the image. Even in the reduced size images above, the noise is quite pronounced.

We also tested the long exposure performance of the SD850 IS. We took the shots at ISO 400, as we do with every camera we test. The exposure compensation menu on the SD850 IS has a secondary menu that reveals the long exposure settings, from 1 to 15 seconds. The camera had trouble manually white balancing with long exposures, and consequently the color accuracy suffered. The long processing time of each photo indicates the SD850 IS applies automatic noise reduction. Noise levels stayed moderately low, never rising above 2 percent of the image.



**Dynamic Range ***(5.03) *

Dynamic range is an important image quality factor because it tells how many shades of gray - from pure black to paper white - a camera can discern. This is especially important in bright outdoor photography, when there are bright sunny highlights and dark shadows in the same scene. High dynamic range allows you to see detail in the highlights and the shadows in a scene and poor dynamic range blows them out.

We tested the dynamic range of the SD850 IS by photographing a backlit Stouffer test chart and running the images through Imatest. The Stouffer chart is made up of a long row of rectangles, each a slightly different shade of gray, ranging from brightest white to darkest black. The more rectangles the camera can discern, the better its dynamic range.


The SD850 IS had solid dynamic range at ISO 80, but then dropped off significantly at higher ISO settings. If you are shooting in a situation where there are strong bright and dark areas of the image, keep this camera at as low an ISO sensitivity as possible. Overall, the SD850 IS had a mediocre dynamic range score compared to other point-and-shoot cameras.


Speed/Timing – All speed tests were conducted using a Kingston Ultimate 120X 2GB SD Card

*Startup to First Shot (8.3) *

The SD850 IS took 1.7 seconds to take a picture after it was turned on. This is pretty reasonable, and should allow users to capture an unexpected moment.

*Shot-to-Shot (9.2) *

In Continuous shooting mode, the SD850 IS takes a shot every 0.8 seconds for at least 250 shots. This is very good for a point-and-shoot, and will be great for capturing action shots.

*Shutter-to-Shot (9.0) *

With the shutter held halfway down and prefocused, the Canon fired a shot instantly. Without being prefocused, the camera took 0.4 seconds to take a shot.

*Processing (7.8) *

The SD850 IS took 1.1 seconds to process one shot. This is how long you will have to wait for the little green light to stop blinking before you take another photo.

**Video Performance ***(3.85) *

Bright Indoor Light – 3000 lux

We tested the Video mode of the SD850 IS by recording footage of our color test charts under bright studio lights. We shoot our video color tests with auto white balance, and you can see in the images below that the colors were far from accurate. The camera had a mean color error of 24.5, and saturation of 136.8. However, this is very normal for camera video. Aside from the horrendous color error, the noise was quite low, at 0.54 percent.

*Low Light – 30 lux *

The SD850 IS did much better with video color accuracy in low light, with a color error of 9.84, which was less than half the error in bright light. Noise levels were high, however, at 1.8 percent – definitely noticeable.

**Resolution **

We recorded video of our resolution test chart under studio lights at 1700 lux. The SD850 IS resolved 293 lw/ph horizontally with 7.8 percent undersharpening, and 312 lw/ph vertically with 2.6 percent oversharpening. For standard definition video recorded at a resolution of 640 x 480, this is quite decent, and didn’t cause any severe image artifacts.

**Motion **

We took the SD850 IS outside to see how it handled moving objects on the street. Overall, the video looked quite good, with nice handling of exposure and contrast. Motion looked very good, but with a little stuttering when objects moved off the frame. However, there was a little moiré on the grills of moving cars, and a lack of detail in distant objects.




The Canon PowerShot SD850 has an optical viewfinder, but it’s so small you can hardly see into it. When the lens zooms in, the viewfinder zooms too – although what the user sees isn’t exactly what the lens sees. The optical viewfinder seems to crop the image from all sides when the lens is zoomed wide. When zoomed to its full telephoto capacity, the viewfinder sees more than what’s recorded, which is a bit dangerous. If you look in the viewfinder, frame a family portrait, and take a picture, chances are the back row will have their heads cut off. The optical zoom viewfinder is a good backup plan if battery power is running low and a few more pictures are necessary, but its small size and inaccuracy make it hard to rely on.

LCD Screen*(8.0)*

Another reason for users to avoid the optical viewfinder is the much larger and 100 percent accurate LCD screen. It measures 2.5 inches diagonally and has a scratch and reflection resistant coating. The low-temperature polycrystalline silicon TFT color LCD is populated with 230,000 pixels, giving users a nice smooth view.

The image on the screen can be seen when it is viewed from directly in front or to the sides of the eyes. When viewed from above or below, however, the screen looks more like a film negative.

It’s hard to see the LCD screen in sunlight, even with its anti-reflection coating. The coating casts a hint of purple across the image on the screen and reflects direct sunlight - as well as the grease that collects on the screen. Fingerprints and other grease seem to be attracted to its surface. There is a 15-level brightness adjustment for the screen: this can be boosted for more visibility in bright light, but also dries out the battery faster.

The LCD’s display can be turned off with a push of the display button to the lower right of the LCD screen. Hitting the button multiple times adds mode labels and icons. When the shutter button is pressed halfway, shooting information such as aperture, shutter speed, and ISO are displayed. Though the SD850 lacks a live histogram, there is a histogram displayed with each image in the Playback mode.

The Canon PowerShot SD850 IS’s LCD screen is adequately sized and has great resolution. It is tough to see under bright lights but provides a fabulous view otherwise.


The SD850’s flash is the same lousy unit that was included on the older SD700. It’s is located in the upper right corner of the front where the left fingers often wrap around and block the light emitted from the flash.

Flashes would ideally be placed directly above the lens for more even coverage. With its current placement, the SD850’s flash casts shadows to the side of subjects. There is a brighter spot on the left side of images, while the tops and bottoms of the images are also left in the dark. This spotty flash coverage doesn’t look flattering at all, especially in portraits: it is best avoided.

The flash only reaches 1.6 to 11 feet when the lens is zoomed out and 1.6 to 6.6 feet when the lens is zoomed in (with the ISO set to auto). The most flash modes are available in the Manual mode from the right side of the multi-selector: Auto, On, and Off. The Red-eye Reduction and Slow Synchro Functions can be turned on in the Recording Menu. The Canon SD850 IS’s flash is unimpressive, with weak and spotty coverage.

Zoom Lens*(7.5)*

On the front of the SD850 is a Canon 4x optical zoom lens with an optical image stabilization system. The lens has Canon’s exclusive UA glass and measures 5.8-23.2mm. The lens extends outward in three segments when the camera is turned on, but lays flat in the body with a plastic lens cover over the glass when turned off. The lens is equivalent to 35-140mm in the more traditional 35mm format, which isn’t very wide. Big group pictures and landscape shots will have to squeeze in the frame, or users can opt for the Stitch Assist mode or wide-screen image size for extra-wide shots.

The Canon PowerShot SD850 IS’s lens is controlled by a small ring that surrounds the shutter release button. The ring barely moves right and left; it feels a bit too tight and cramps up fingers. The lens control isn’t that great. There isn’t a zoom display to show where in the range users currently are, like on most other digital cameras. When tapping the ring lightly to zoom in, users can only stop at eight focal lengths. There are seven stops zooming out. Most unfortunate is the sort of backfiring motion the lens performs before settling on a focal length. This will be frustrating for users who want a perfectly-framed subject.

The lens has a maximum aperture of f/2.8 when the lens is zoomed wide and f/5.5 when zoomed in. The telephoto’s max aperture isn’t very impressive: it doesn’t let in a lot of light.

This digital camera has 4x digital zoom available, which can be made available in increments of 1.6x or 2x. It can be turned off too, as it should because it degrades the image quality.

More impressive is the optical image stabilization system included on the SD850. It can be set to function in the Recording menu with its three modes: Continuous, Shoot Only, and Panning. The Continuous mode keeps the image stabilization working at all times, the Shoot Only turns on the image stabilization when the shutter release button is pushed down halfway, and the Panning mode only corrects vertical shaking. This system is most noticeably effective in the Movie mode where it makes the difference between jumpy and stable movies.


The image stabilization system is one of the defining features of this digital camera, and Canon uses it to justify the $50 price hike. Is it worth it? It allows users to take better pictures and videos, but there are less expensive cameras that carry effective optical/mechanical image stabilization systems and similar modes and features.

Design / Layout

Model Design / Appearance*(8.0)*

The Canon SD850 IS fits into the Digital Elph series of cameras with its sleek and stylish looks. The body melds three shades of silver onto panels that wander throughout the design and converge on the camera’s left side. Sprinkle in a few chrome elements and the camera looks downright sexy. It isn’t the skinniest I’ve seen, but it almost fools the eye with its vertical lines.

Size / Portability*(6.75) *

It isn’t amazingly skinny, but the SD850 still manages trim measurements of 3.6 x 2.2 x 1-inch. It looks small, but feels hefty. It weighs 5.82 ounces without the battery and memory card, so add 0.88 ounces for the battery and less than a tenth of an ounce for the memory card and it clearly weighs more than one would expect.

The camera’s flat surfaces make it easy to carry around, and it fits nicely in pockets and purses. Be sure to have the wrist strap attached to the eyelet on the right side though; this hefty camera will weigh you down.

Handling Ability*(6.5) *

The Canon PowerShot SD850 IS looks and handles like a wet bar of soap. It has soft edges and a glossy sheen that makes hands slip off it. The nine little bumps on the upper right corner of the back won’t do much to help the handling, either. There’s not much to hang onto, and what is there is coated in a slick shell. One of my coworkers likened it to a slippery fish, as it wriggled out of his hands twice. If you want to keep this camera looking pristine, handcuff it to your wrist so it won’t hit the ground.

**Control Button / Dial Positioning / Size ***(6.25) *

The camera’s most frequently used controls are located on top of the camera body. The shutter release button is large and nicely placed. The zoom ring surrounds it but barely moves to the right and left. This tight movement cramps fingers.

On the back of the Canon SD850 IS are a slew of controls and icons. The mode dial is in the upper right corner of the back; about a third of the dial is exposed by a cutout portion of the body to show the icons on the dial. There is a notched edge that makes it a little easier to turn that hangs over the right side. This plastic dial could be stronger, though.

There is a small, almost recessed power button placed to keep it from getting accidentally pushed while shooting or carrying.

Print, display, and menu functions have their own designated buttons. Other features have to fight for space on the small multi-selector, which is about the size of a dime. Icons clutter the entire multi-selector: ISO/Jump on top, Flash on the right, Self-Timer/Burst/Delete on the bottom, and Macro/Landscape on the left. There are no arrows or other indicators of direction either, so moving the wrong direction in the menu happens occasionally. Overall, the controls are too small and crammed together.

Menu*(7.0) *

The Canon PowerShot SD850 IS has the same menu system found on most of Canon’s other models. The Recording menu is split into two, with the more frequently used settings accessed by the function button in the middle of the multi-selector. It has live previews for every item on the list and appears with the following options. Below is the Function menu.


The Function menu is excellent and looks better than the standard Recording menu with a light gray background.

In the Recording menu, the list of items has a darker gray background with white text on it. Users can scroll through the folder tabs or through menu items with the multi-selector. The main Recording menu has a red folder tab with a camera icon on it.


The second tab in the menu is yellow and has a wrench icon on it to represent the Setup menu.


The lengthy Setup menu sits next to the purple-tabbed Customization menu. The last menu has four choices, including "off" for the following features: theme, startup image, startup sound, operation sound, self-timer sound, and shutter sound. This menu comes with sounds of howling wolves, barking dogs, and traditional beeps. The audio and startup images can be changed using the included CD-ROM, though. The software allows users to load their own startup images and audio.


The Canon PowerShot SD850 IS’s menus are typical of Canon cameras, and that’s a good thing. They are well-organized and labeled, with almost everything printed in text, so there’s no confusion over what icons represent.

Ease of Use*(7.0)*

In general, the Canon PowerShot SD850 IS is easy to use. The Exposure modes are mainly automatic and features default to the most all-purpose settings available. The controls and layout are intuitive, although the cluttered icons and buttons on the back of the camera don’t make things easier. This PowerShot has a few interesting features most users will never even find if they aren’t intuitive - auto ISO shift and color swap to name a few. Nevertheless, the camera is otherwise simple.


Auto Mode*(7.0)*

The Auto mode, marked by a red camera icon, is found easily on the mode dial. The Auto mode on the SD850 shortens the Function menu to include only image size and compression options. The Recording menu is only shortened by one option, omitting the slow synchro flash activation. Almost all the functions around the multi-selector work with the exception of the Burst mode. The Auto mode functions well, and its pictures look great when used in well-lit scenes with still subjects. However, the Manual and Scene modes do a better job of capturing fast moving subjects or low-lit rooms.

Movie Mode*(7.0)*

The Movie mode on the Canon PowerShot SD850 IS is fairly elaborate considering it’s a compact digital camera. Its Function menu outlines most of the options:

The Motion JPEG movie files are available in the standard sizes, but most cameras don’t include this many color effects or manual control over white balance. There is also a helpful ISO adjustment available from the top portion of the multi-selector.

The standard videos can record up to an hour or 4 GB at a time. The Fast Frame Rate mode allows users to record at 320 x 240 pixels at a fabulously smooth 60 fps, but only for up to 1 minute. The Compact Video mode records at 160 x 120 pixels for up to 3 minutes at a maximum frame rate of 15 fps. The Color Accent and Swap modes record at standard resolution but allow users to select colors before recording. The time lapse movies allow users to choose a 1 or 2 fps rate, which then plays back at 15 fps, although this can be slowed down in the Playback mode.

Optical zoom is not available in movies, but image stabilization is. It makes a big difference too. The continuous image stabilization is the only option available in the movie’s Recording menu. This keeps subjects looking stable instead of the typical jumpy home movies. There is 4x digital zoom available, but it makes movies look fuzzy and awful.

Movies have excellent audio recorded at 44.100 kHz. The only exception is Compact Video mode, where the audio is compressed too much and sounds awful.

Overall, the manual controls and the image stabilization system make for a great movie mode.

Drive / Burst Mode* (5.0)*

The continuous Burst mode is available only in the Manual mode when the bottom of the multi-selector is pushed. It snaps away at 1.3 fps and does so for about four images before slowing down further. The 1.3 fps isn’t very impressive, and the camera’s inability to keep going at this rate is puzzling because most other Canons have much better endurance.

The self-timer options are available at all times and include 2 and 10-second choices, along with a custom self-timer that can be customized in the Recording menu. The delay can be set for 0-30 seconds, after which the camera will snap 1-10 pictures.


Playback Mode*(7.5)*

The Playback mode has its own position on the mode dial.The Canon SD850’s Playback mode displays images and videos one by one, and even automatically rotates pictures so they are easier to view. The camera organizes its pictures well and makes searching through large numbers of them very easy. Users can view nine images on a single screen and jump to every folder, date, category, 10th or 100th image.

Single images can be magnified up to 10x with the zoom ring, and histograms and other file info can be displayed with a push of the designated display button. There are plenty of features in the Playback menu, shown below.


Images plagued with red eyes can be fixed in the Playback menu with the red-eye correction feature. Users must select an image and then draw a frame around the eyes using the zoom ring and multi-selector. The process has on-screen prompts, but still isn’t very intuitive. The feature is effective though: both red-eye pictures I tested it on looked much better afterward.

The sound memos record AVI files, up to 60 seconds for each image. Movies can be played back normally or in five levels of slow motion. They can be set to fast forward or rewind, too. The time-lapse videos that record slowly are played back at a rate of 15 fps. Movies can be edited by cutting the beginning, middle, or end.

The Canon PowerShot SD850’s Playback mode is exceptional, with its many editing features, a voice memo, and organizational aids. The high-resolution 2.5-inch LCD screen looks smooth, and can be viewed from many angles, making it a hit if viewing with several friends.

Custom Image Presets*(7.0)

*One of the differences between this camera and its predecessor, the SD700, is a new Scene mode. The Creative Light Effect mode warps highlights in the image to look like stars, hearts, crosses, musical notes, diamonds, or flowers. This mode does well outside under bright sunlight where there are lots of tiny highlights. It does not do well under limited light. I tried a macro shot of a diamond ring indoors and didn’t get any funky shaped highlights on it. Outside it put stars on the highlights of cars.

The following modes are available in addition to the new one: Portrait, Foliage, Snow, Beach, Fireworks, Aquarium, Underwater, Indoor, Kids & Pets, and Night Snapshot. This covers most of the basics except for a Landscape mode, which the camera wouldn’t do well with anyway because of its narrow lens.


Control Options

Manual Control Options

The Canon SD850 IS has a so-called Manual mode, but there isn’t complete control over the shutter speed and aperture. There are some manual controls available; they are outlined in the paragraphs below.


Auto Focus (8.5)

The Canon SD850 IS’s through-the-lens auto focus system works exceptionally well. The camera has a default nine-point AiAF mode that displays green boxes on the LCD to show users where it is focusing. Users can also select a central single point to focus on within the Recording menu.

The addition of the new Digic III image processor brings with it trendy face detection technology. This is the point-and-shooter’s dream: to hold the camera up and take a picture knowing the faces in the picture will be fully in focus. The Canon SD850 IS can detect up to nine faces at a time. It judges the lighting on the faces and then adjusts the exposure accordingly, so faces should never be blown out or out of focus. Canon’s face detection system works exceptionally well, quickly recognizing faces and tracking them across the frame.

The SD850 normally focuses from 1.6 feet, but can get a bit closer at 0.79 inches in the Macro mode. The Macro mode can focus as far as 1.6 feet when the lens is zoomed out and 1.3 to1.6 feet when the lens is zoomed in. Macro mode is found by pushing the left side of the multi-selector. That’s where the Landscape Focus mode resides, too: it focuses from 3 meters.

The Canon SD850 IS’s auto focus system works quickly and effectively, and the addition of the face detection system will wow a few people, too.

Manual Focus (0.0)

This PowerShot digital camera is not equipped with manual focus.


The new Digic III image processor doesn’t add any more sensitivity to the current ISO range. Canon cameras with the Digic II processor had the same 80-1600 range that is included on the SD850 IS. The camera also has Automatic and High ISO Auto modes.


A feature fairly new to the lineup is the auto ISO shift. This wasn’t included on the SD700 predecessor, but is found in the Recording menu of the SD850. This feature has a cool concept: when the picture is in danger of blurring because of exposure settings, the camera displays its camera shake icon to alert users to up the ISO to a point that will eliminate blur. Users can then do this by pushing the print button. The problem with this feature, however, is that it isn’t very intuitive. It can only be found in the menu, and must be turned on and off. In addition, there’s no explanation of it except for one obscure page of the owners’ manual. For those who can find it, it is pretty cool – although any jump in ISO will bring a jump in noise and drop in image quality.

See how the ISO affects dynamic range and noise in the testing/performance section of this review.

White Balance*(7.75)

*The Canon PowerShot SD850 IS’s white balance settings are located in the Function menu. This is wonderful because the background of this menu serves as a live preview, so users can see the Cloudy preset to find out if it looks better than the Day Light. The following settings are available: Auto, Day Light, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Fluorescent H, and Custom. The selection covers the basics but forgets a flash setting, although most cameras exclude it. The SD850 does have the most important white balance setting: custom. This can be set by framing something white in the small box superimposed on the center of the image and then pushing the menu button. There are on-screen directions for this. Users can also set the print button to measure the custom white

balance; this is great for lighting situations that change quickly, such as when the sun is rising or lighting changes at a ballet recital.

Exposure*(7.0) *

The camera may have a "manual" mode, but it doesn’t allow full manual control over the exposure. The shutter speed can be set for long exposures, but the aperture is purely automated.

Like other digital cameras, the Canon PowerShot SD850 IS has a +/- 2 exposure compensation range adjustable in increments of a third. It is found in the Function menu. There is no live histogram, but there is one viewable in the Playback mode so users can check the exposure there. **

Metering***(7.5) *

The Metering mode can be changed in the Function menu. Like most digital cameras, there are three choices: Evaluative, Center-Weighted Average, and Spot. The Evaluative is the camera’s default and most useful mode for most situations. It measures the exposure from many points throughout the frame. When the Face Detection mode is on, this mode measures all the points and then takes into account the brightness on the detected face to ensure proper exposure. When I tested this mode under standard fluorescent office lights, the preview seemed to breathe as lights flickered and the metering flashed. The Center-Weighted Average metering mode read the exposure only from the middle of the image, while Spot uses only one point in the middle. The SD850’s metering selection is typical, and the live previews in the menu are a nice treat.


Shutter Speed*(4.0) *

The Canon PowerShot SD850 IS has an automatic shutter speed range that covers 15-1/1600 second. In the Manual mode, there is a Long Shutter mode that allows users to manually select options 1 second or slower. This option is hard to find, though. It is available by pushing the menu button while viewing the exposure compensation range. At 1.3 seconds and slower, the camera’s noise reduction system automatically kicks in. The SD850’s mechanical and electronic shutter flips at a decent pace for a compact digital camera, although many cameras also include a faster 1/2000 second choice.

Aperture*(0.0) *

The 4x Canon zoom lens on the SD850 IS opens to a wide f/2.8 aperture when zoomed out. This is great, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. When zoomed to its 4x capacity, the aperture can only open as wide as f/5.5, which isn’t wide at all. Many cameras with similar lenses shrink to about f/4.5, so the SD850’s smaller aperture is disappointing. With not as much light coming in the lens when it is zoomed in, users will want to boost the ISO or turn on the flash – both options I’d rather avoid. The minimum aperture on the SD850 is f/8, which is typical.

Image Parameters

Picture Quality / Size Options*(7.5)*

An 8-megapixel CCD image sensor is at the heart of the Canon SD850. The resolution of the images can be selected in the Function menu. The following options are available: 3264 x 2448, 3264 x 1832 (16:9), 2592 x 1944, 2048 x 1536, 1600 x 1200, and 640 x 480. Each image size can be set to Normal, Fine, or SuperFine compression settings. There are 4:3 and 16:9-formatted image size options, but none that fits the popular 4 x 6-inch print size. There are 3:2 guide lines that can be turned on in the Setup menu for framing purposes, but no actual image size. This makes it tough to print 4 x 6-inch pictures directly from the camera. Users will have to download the images to a computer first and crop them to a 3:2-format before printing.

Picture Effects Mode*(8.25)*

There are lots of picture effects whether recording or reviewing images. In the Shooting modes are a gamut of options Canon calls its My Colors mode. It consists of the following effects: Vivid, Neutral, Sepia, Black & White, Positive Film, Lighter Skin Tone, Darker Skin Tone, Vivid Blue, Vivid Green, Vivid Red, and Custom Color. The last option has a +/- 2 full-step adjustment scale for contrast, sharpness, saturation, red, green, blue, and skin tone. These effects are included on most other PowerShot digital cameras, so while it’s nothing new, it’s still more than what most of the competition has to offer.


The SD850 also has two interesting Exposure modes: Color Accent and Color Swap. The Accent mode allows users to highlight one color in the frame and dull the rest. The Swap mode selects two colors and trades one for another. The Movie mode allows users to access all My Colors modes, even allowing Accent and Swap movie modes.

The Canon SD850 has a new Scene mode that qualifies more as a picture effect. In Creative Light Effect, users can choose stars, hearts, crosses, musical notes, diamonds, or flowers to replace highlights in the image. Think of those tacky toothpaste commercials that show someone smiling and enormous fake-looking stars erupting from their teeth. It’s like that.

Connectivity / Extras


***Software (6.75)

*Like other Canon digital cameras, the PowerShot SD850 IS comes with the Canon Digital Camera Solution 30.2 CD-ROM. Options for Windows include:: ZoomBrowser EX 5.8, PhotoStitch 3.1, Camera Twain Driver 6.7, and EOS Utility 1.1. Support for Macintosh computers is available with the following programs: ImageBrowser 5.8, PhotoStitch 3.1, and EOS Utility 1.1.

The ZoomBrowser EX software has nice organizational touches to it. Users can search images by file name, date, and category. They can also attach ratings and comments to each image and search by those. There are basic browsing and editing features, too. There are three viewing browsers: zoom, scroll, and preview.

The short list of editing features isn’t as fancy, and many can be changed on the camera itself. There are generally more editing options in the camera’s Playback menu than in this software program.

Software is included to stitch images into panoramas. Overall, Canon’s included software is decent in most areas, but a bit lacking in terms of actual editing. For the point-and-shoot audience though, the software will work just fine for cropping images and posting them to blogs and e-mails.

Jacks, ports, plugs (5.25)

The SD850 IS accepts AV and USB cables in separate ports on the right side of the camera. Both ports are hidden by a plastic door that takes some finagling to properly fit into the camera body. The AV cable outputs monaural audio and has NTSC and PAL options so slide shows are compatible with international televisions. A power adapter fits into the battery compartment and its cable strung through a rubber cover on the door.

Direct Print Options (7.5)

*The SD850 is PictBridge compatible and comes equipped with DPOF version 1.1. This allows users to create print orders on the camera and then transfer them to a printer to eliminate pushing the print button for each shot taken. Print orders are made from the print tab in the Playback menu. Users can select all images or print by date, folder, or category. They can also scroll through and select images and choose 0-99 prints for each. Canon flaunts direct connection to Canon CP and Selphy compact photo printers, Pixma photo printers, and other PictBridge compatible printers via the included USB cable. Once connected, users only need to push the print button on the back of the camera.


*Battery (5.25)

This PowerShot has a skinny NB-5L battery that snaps only 230 shots before needing a recharge. If the LCD screen is turned off and the optical viewfinder is used, the camera can take up to 700 shots – but that’s without accessing the menus. The camera comes with a CB-2LX battery charger that takes just over 2 hours to charge the battery. The charger mounts on a wall and is fairly compact, which is nice. The actual battery life of 230 shots isn’t very impressive, though. *

Memory (3.0)*

The Canon SD850 IS comes with a 32 MB MultiMediaCard that can only hold eight full resolution images. There is no internal memory. Users will want to expand that tiny bit of memory with another larger SD, SDHC, or MMC card. The card fits into the same compartment the battery is in on the bottom of the camera.

Other features*(3.5)

Sound Recorder* – Located in the Playback menu, this can record audio for up to 2 hours at a time. The sound recorder’s audio can be switched from the awful 11.025 kHz to the clearer 22.050 kHz to the excellent 44.100 kHz. This works well and can be played back and erased in the Playback menu.

Play Sound Effect – This could perhaps be the single most important function on the camera. No, I’m kidding. This little feature is found in the Recording menu under the Set Print Button heading. Users can set the button to access features like white balance and exposure compensation, but there is also a choice to have the camera play a sound effect when the print button is pushed. When I set this button to play a sound effect and pushed it, it barked at me like a dog. This feature isn’t completely useless, though. I have a toddler that likes to push buttons that make noise, so he liked the barking button. And I appreciated the fact that I didn’t have 400 pictures of the floor to delete after he was done.

Stitch Assist – Users can stitch pictures from left to right or right to left with the assist modes in the "manual" exposure mode’s Function menu. The camera provides a translucent preview of the previously taken image so it’s easier to line up the next shot. The pictures aren’t actually stitched together in the camera, though. That happens in the included software once the images are downloaded to a computer.

Overall Impressions


*Great pictures are hard to put a price tag on, but Canon stuck a $399 tag on this digital camera. This is high in the price range, especially when compared with other digital cameras that have similar features. The optical image stabilization does vault the SD850 into the upper echelon in terms of its pricing; the step-down model, the SD750, has most of the same Exposure modes and components, but without the optical image stabilization and a slightly smaller lens. The SD750 costs $50 less at $349. But while the Canon SD850 IS is expensive, it does take great pictures – and those can be priceless.



Canon PowerShot SD700 IS – The Canon SD700 IS was the first Digital Elph to include optical image stabilization. It had 6 megapixels and the same 4x optical zoom lens and flash unit. The SD700 was a groundbreaking camera for its time. It was one of the first to expand its ISO range beyond 400 with an ISO 800 setting. It was also one of the first PowerShots to feature the full range of My Colors modes in the Recording and Playback menus. Its newness and technology was reflected in its original retail price of $499. These days the SD700 is easily outdone. The SD850’s ISO extends to 1600, allowing better pictures in low light. The old camera’s 2.5-inch LCD had only 173,000 pixels, while the newer one has 230,000 pixels. The Burst mode on the SD700 was better at 2.1 fps, and both cameras run off the same weak battery. Without face detection and newer technology to keep pictures looking cleaner, the SD700 is outdone by the SD850.

Kodak EasyShare M883 – For a less expensive $229 price, consumers can still get 8 megapixels on a slim digital camera. The price does come with some sacrifices, the main one being optical image stabilization. The M883 has a digital image stabilization system that doesn’t work nearly as well. Its shutter speed range is truncated to 8-1/1000 second. It only has a 3x optical zoom lens, and its Burst mode chugs along at 1.1 fps. But it has some really nice features, too. The M883 has a 3-inch LCD screen with 230,000 pixels on a slim metal body. It has a face detection auto focus system that can recognize up to 10 faces at a time. It has a whopping 64 MB of internal memory. Perfect Touch technology automatically fixes images in the Playback mode, too. While the Kodak EasyShare M883 misses out on the optical image stabilization, it has a lot of other cool features at a much more affordable price.

Nikon Coolpix S500 – This digital camera has a classic look with sharper edges and crisper lines throughout its design. The S500 has 7.1 megapixels and a 3x optical zoom lens with optical image stabilization. It has a 2.5-inch LCD screen on the back with 230,000 pixels. The stainless steel digital camera handles about as well with its 3.5 x 2 x 0.9-inch measurements. It has mostly Automatic and Scene modes, along with a Movie mode that tops out at 640 x 480 pixels and 30 fps. The Nikon Coolpix S500 has a face priority auto focus mode, but it doesn’t work nearly as well as the one on the Canon SD850. The S500 has a wide 50-2000 ISO range and 26 MB of internal memory, along with a more powerful flash unit and overall lighter 4.4-ounce housing. The Nikon has an equally effective in-camera red-eye fix. The battery only gets 180 shots per charge, but this might be a sacrifice consumers are willing to make for the less expensive $299 price tag.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX55 – This digital camera has a simpler body design and comes in several trendy colors. It also has 8.1 megapixels and optical image stabilization, although on a slightly shorter 3.6x optical zoom lens. This lens is wider at 28-100mm. The ISO ranges from 100-1600, and there is an automatic ISO range that goes up to 6400. There are 20 Scene modes on this mainly automatic digital camera. There are a few basic Color modes, like Black & White and Sepia, but nothing like what the Canon SD850 has. The Panasonic FX55 can record standard 640 x 480-pixel video or widescreen 848 x 480-pixel video – both at 30 fps. The FX55 has a 3-inch LCD screen with 230,000 pixels that manages to run the battery down every 280 shots. The Panasonic FX55 comes with a face detection system that is reported to detect 15 faces in a single frame, more than Canon’s nine-face limit. The FX55, with its many enticing features, retails for $349.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T100 – Sony answers the PowerShot with a model offered at the same $399 retail price. It’s the 8.1-megapixel T100 with its optically stabilized 5x optical zoom lens. The T100 has nine Scene modes and a few other mainly automatic modes, leaving hardly any manual controls on this camera. Sony skimps by leaving out a Manual White Balance mode, but it does have a flash preset, which the Canon SD850 lacks. The Sony Cyber-shot T100 has 31 MB of internal memory and a Memory Stick slot, as well as a 3-inch LCD screen with 230,000 pixels. In the Playback mode, the camera has an editing feature that can add crosses on highlights, much like the Canon’s Creative Light Effect mode; Sony’s works better though and saves the file separately.

Who It’s For

Point-and-Shooters – These consumers will love the compact body and the Automatic and Scene modes that take great pictures with only the press of the shutter button.

Budget Consumers – At $399, this isn’t considered a budget camera. Consumers who are pinching pennies may have to forego the image stabilization for a cheaper camera.

Gadget Freaks – The optical image stabilization and face detection modes are attractive to this crowd, along with time lapse videos and creative light effects.

Manual Control Freaks – These consumers will pass up the SD850 for something with more manual control.

Pros/ Serious Hobbyists – This slippery digital camera won’t make the cut for these folks, either.




The Canon PowerShot SD850 IS upgrades the older SD700 IS with more resolution and a few interesting specs, but it doesn’t blow the competition away like its predecessor did. Many manufacturers now offer similar cameras to the SD850 and sell them for less. The SD850 costs $399 mostly because of its optical image stabilization and face detection system. It doesn’t have a lot of manual control, but is perfect for point-and-shooters who can afford it. Sure, it has a weak battery and handles like a wet bar of soap, but the Canon PowerShot SD850 IS takes excellent pictures. And in the end, that’s what matters.
**Sample Photos

**Click to view the high-resolution images.

Specs / Ratings

Specs Table

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