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June 9, 2004 — 3 PM

Digital Camera Review: Canon S400

After returning from a vacation in February and paying exorbitant fees to have all of my film developed, then scanned onto CD (I’m lazy), and then printed in duplicate, I decided it was time to finally go digital. That was the easy decision. It took me a long, long time after that to choose which digital camera to buy. Basically the process involved long periods of indecision interspersed with severe moments of hesitation. This was A Big Purchase, I told myself. I didn’t want to be stuck with crappy equipment when I enjoy taking photos so much.

So, I read countless reviews. I compared the technical charts. I consulted the experts. I weeped. I prayed.

Three months later, I thought I would note my thoughts on the matter since I know firsthand what a confusing experience it can be buying a digital camera, and every review by an actual living, breathing person helps.

Read on if you’re shopping or curious…

* * *

In the end, my decision came down to two cameras, both from Canon: the A80, and the S400. Both cameras have similar zoom lenses (37mm–112mm in regular camera terms), with similar features. I chose Canon because I’ve used a Canon G2 (a higher-end model from a few years ago) at work and found the controls very easy and the picture quality very good. Canon’s prices beat Nikon’s, feature-for-feature, and the quality and reliability of Canon’s products seems higher than most other companies. Also, I’d read a lot of very good reviews about these two cameras, especially the S400, which, according to the guy at Simons Cameras, was by far the best-selling digital of any brand.

( The S410 was released just when I bought my camera, and replaced the S400, but I understand it’s nearly identical. I bought the S400 on sale because it was discontinued. There is also now a S500, which is also nearly identical but has five megapixels instead of four. I think four is enough for amateur photography though, and this camera isn’t designed for professional use.)

First some words about the camera I didn’t buy. The A80 is physically bigger than the S400, so it has a slightly better lens. It has more manual controls, or should I say it has manual controls — the S400 has no completely manual mode. The A80 also has a flip-out screen, a feature that seems unnecessary at first, but which is actually quite handy. It allows you to take better photos at strange angles (like holding your hands over your head to get above a crowd) and it protects the screen from damage. By the way, you might think you could take photos using only the viewfinder, but that method has proven fairly useless in my experience — the results are simply too unpredictable and you end up using the screen anyway.

For some reason though, the S400 has a nicer screen which shows more detail than the A80. The S400 is tiny and svelte, almost pretty, while the A80 is pretty heavy, especially when you put in the four AA batteries it needs. Did I mention the A80 needs four AA batteries? If you want to get anything serious done, you’ll need to buy rechargeables, so plan to spend another $50 for each set of those you want. The S400 meanwhile, includes a rechargeable battery and charger that plugs into the wall.

The merits of different batteries is another article, but here’s the executive summary: AAs are good because if you’re away from home you can always buy more when your charge runs out. The lithium ion battery that the S400 uses is much lighter, charges more quickly and doesn’t suffer from “memory” like old-style rechargeables. However, it does have a lifespan of only a few years.

In the end, I chose the S400 because of its size and weight. It’s literally pocket-sized, and therefore invites itself to be taken everywhere with you. I concluded that the lack of full manual controls would be outweighed by the increased number of photos I would take by having it at my side. As any good photographer will tell you, a good photographer takes a lot of photos. Finally, the S400 proved to be significantly cheaper than the A80 once extra batteries for the latter were factored in.

So, I made my choice. Three months later, am I happy? Well, the short answer is yes, since I figure I’ve shot some 800 photos since March, which is way way more than I ever would have on my trusty old SLR. The S400 is a great camera, but it’s not perfect. I’d still recommend it though, since I’m pretty sure no digital camera is perfect.

The Canon S400’s strengths can be easily summarized:

The weaknesses, and there are a few, can also be summarized:

As I said above, I really love the S400 because I can put it in my pocket. I have an SLR for taking more “artsy” photos, but what good is a camera if it sits weightily at home in a bag? I’ve taken so many photos since buying this thing, and although they’re not all works of art, my rate of “stunning photos per month” is probably higher now since I take so many more to begin with. Something about monkeys, typewriters and Shakespeare I think.

I love how easy it is to take interesting macro shots of people and objects, and the sharpness of the lens in all situations is seriously impressive if you’re used to your average piece-of-junk point-and-shoot film camera.

In general however, it must be said that occasionally the camera has trouble focusing, although sometimes if you try again, it will work. One thing I’ve realized is that if you turn off the camera’s (annoying) beeps, you also risk missing the audible clues they provide that focus isn’t locked. There are lights that are supposed to tell you this too, but I find I can never remember what combination of colour and blinking means what.

Checking each shot directly afterwards, and reshooting if necessary, is therefore important. Thankfully, it’s easy to zoom in on the image you just took to see if it’s sharp. While you’re at it, you can also check the exposure. Easy, really. But it does mean that trying to take a lot of shots in succession (something you can do with the rapid-fire option) is sometimes fruitless.

I should mention that the autofocus works either of two ways: with a traditional centre point, which you use to lock the focus (and the exposure), or with the seemingly magical auto-assist function which intelligently guesses what you’re trying to focus on. I prefer the more manual approach, and you can pre-lock both the focus and exposure, and then move the lens, so you don’t always have your subject in the centre. However, it’s worth saying that the auto-assist is surprisingly good at guessing what you’re aiming at, so it’s good when you’re in a hurry or you’re at a party and are totally inebriated.

The exposure lets you choose from “matrix” (which is camera-lingo for “best of everything”), or centre-weighted (put more importance on the centre point), or spot (adjust the exposure for the centre point and damn the rest — good for trickier situations like silhouettes and sunsets)

The colours of the shots are lifelike, and the camera is very good at compensating colours for different lighting sitatuations (“white balance”). Automatic white balance works well, but you can also select daylight, fluorescent or tungsten (regular light bulbs), or set it manually by pointing the camera at something grey or white, so there is a lot of control there, which will save you time in Photoshop later. There are also some “novelty” features to take black and white or sepia pictures, but I don’t use them since you can do all that on the computer later.

All in all, I can’t say enough about how easy the S400 is to use. It’s actually quite a complicated little beast, but the interface is designed with simplicity in mind. If all you want to do is take a frickin’ picture, it’s easy, but if you want to take a twelve second exposure, compensating for tungsten light and boosting the exposure by two stops, all while locking the focus on the left-hand foreground, well… it’s not as hard as it sounds.

I’ve used a Pentax K1000 for many years, which is pretty much the opposite of this camera. It’s a heavy single-lens-reflex camera (SLR, meaning what you see in the viewfinder is what you get on film, along with the manual controls that implies), and nothing on it is even remotely automatic or electronic. It takes pretty nice photos, if you know the basics and can read a light meter. You can change the lens to whatever you can afford and attach an external flash. In short, it could be used professionally.

The S400 could not. Without manual controls, you are sometimes left at the mercy of the camera, and you cannot, obviously, change the lens in any way, or attach a proper flash. (You can mount it on a tripod though.) To get nerdy for a moment, the small size of the lens also makes it impossible to get a shallow focus because the depth of field is too high in almost all situations. So forget trying to get the “blurry background” look which is often nice for portraits. However, this is a problem with all digital cameras, except the digital SLRs, which at the moment still cost at least three times as much as this, and are huge and heavy by comparison.

The Canon A80 has more manual control, but in my opinion, not quite enough to make it worthwhile. It’s like an SLR wannabe. My decision was that I would stick with my old Pentax when I really need something manual, and meanwhile experiment and have fun with this little toy. I will buy a digital SLR when they get a little bit cheaper and have been around longer.


great review mate - you write really well. Its nice to see a real user reviewing a camera. If you ever write any more reviews please let me know because I’d love to link up to them.

Darren Rowse | Jun. 9, 2004 — 8 PM

Great information! It’s very helpful. I tend to do a lot of research for big purchases like this too, and probably would have spent a great deal of time reading everything I could find, but I think you’ve done a lot of the work for me. Thanks!

Kim | Jun. 10, 2004 — 8 AM

If the guy who writes dot.comment for the Georgia Straight ever leaves, you are a shoe-in, my dear.

Emma | Jun. 11, 2004 — 4 PM

all’s i can say is that i’m in japan right now and it’s 35 degrees and humid as hell and it really sucks lugging around my K1000! in fact, i make my boyfriend lug it for me, which makes it quite useless for my taking photos. i actually do wish i had a digital camera!!

joyce | Jun. 15, 2004 — 5 AM

Previously: The Sunset From My Balcony

Subsequently: Biggetime

June 2004
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