Field Report - First Take: Canon Elph 950 IS

Background: Last week, I finally replaced my beat-up 3 year old digital Canon Elph. This camera has been around the world to beaches and bars, crushed in my pocket, my laptop bag and god knows where else and was starting to get quite flaky.

I have historically used the Canon Elphs as my "fun" cameras - they fit in a jacket pocket or, in a pinch, in jeans and therefore can more or less always be kept around for casual photos - parties, going out, business trips - on occasions when I am just simply not going to pull out the full set of SLR gear which encompasses a bag of stuff and is generally unwieldy.

To bring myself up a generation, I purchased the top-of-the-line Elph, the 950 IS ($329 at Amazon) and 2 x 8 GB each of fast Sandisk Extreme III secure digital cards ($53 each at Amazon). These cards are both large and have a high transfer speed, speeding you up between shots, which you will want with this camera.

Key specs

A couple of things to point out with the camera and then to the field report:

a) 12.1 MB DIGIC III sensor. To me this is the most remarkable thing about the camera. A 12.1MB sensor was the top of the pro-line, $8,000 camera sensor until a couple of years ago with Canon. 10 years ago, it probably would have cost $50,000 and only existed in very specialized commercial cameras. Now it is sitting in my point and shoot. (Yes, it is not exactly the same sensor that was in the SLRs; it is smaller, but it is still remarkable)

The Digic III refers to the third generation of Canon sensors which is the current class and is superior to the prior classes on topics like color rendition, dynamic range, etc. They are currently rolling it through their camera line and not even all their SLRs have it. The 950 is the only Elph to have it as of the time of this post I believe.

b) ability to record unlimited (except by your SD card) 640x480 video at 30 frames per second or 1024 x 768 video at 15 frames per second (this is close to 720p resolution, the lower end of HD; the frame rate at this resolution is below TV standard however)

c) Canon's image stabilization (IS), another feature derived from its SLR line, that allows you to handhold the camera in lower light conditions without a flash (it adds 2 to 3 stops for the technical geeks).

d) "Auto-ISO" - A feature I have never used before. Digital cameras can adjust the ISO (light sensitivity) of the sensor to allow you to shoot in less light without a flash at the cost of some graininess. Auto-ISO does this automatically on a shot-by-shot basis to give you the lowest ISO that will allow you to handhold. Great feature.

So now in the $450 total spending range we are rolling with what is, for today's standard, a full tricked out compact digital point and shoot.

Field Test Conclusions:

On my way to Cyprus, I had a layover in Warsaw for 8 hours and an old friend of mine was kind enough to show me around the Old Town and let me amuse myself. These comments are the results from this test. I shot how the average reader will (or at least should) shoot a camera like this: full auto-mode, with auto-ISO mode on, digital zoom and flash turned off for the outdoor shots.

So how did it do?

Overall, I was completely blown away by the camera.

Autofocus, exposure metering and resolution are, quite frankly, SLR caliber. Color rendition and dynamic range are very good, not quite SLR quality, but incredible for a point and shoot. The fact that this camera is $300-something is a testament to the ferocious effect computing is having on photography. Many of these capabilities were high-end pro-level just a few years ago.

At this stage, the main thing that will hold a camera like this back from SLRs is optics (the lenses) and that is a hard hurdle to pass, given that there is only so much light you can capture from a lens the size of a fingernail.

But unless you plan to pick up photography as a hobby and actually study and practice, go buy this camera, read a book on composition and leave the rest of the heavy lifting to the camera. It will do a better job on focusing and metering than you will.

Details and photo gallery follow.

Detailed Camera Conclusions:


  • Superb auto-exposure metering, better than my film SLR. I think this has something to do with it - I actually thought it felt "neural" in its decision-making.

    iSAPS Technology is an entirely original scene-recognition technology developed for digital cameras by Canon. Using an internal database of thousands of different photos, iSAPS works with the fast DIGIC III Image Processor to improve focus speed and accuracy, as well as exposure and white balance.

  • Awesome detail with the 12 MB sensor. This will be a subject of a different post, but a lot of commentators are doing readers a disservice by saying pixels don't matter. The difference between 7MB and 8MB is in fact irrelevant, but the difference between 5MB or 6MB and 12MB is highly noticable
  • Very good color balance and saturation. Not quite SLR standards but blows away anything I have seen from a camera that fits in my pocket
  • Auto-ISO is one of the coolest features I have seen in a while. That plus image stabilization allowed me to shoot flash-free, outside well into dusk. Auto-ISO + IS was a bit over-optimistic about what it could accomplish in scenes with motion but this is a quibble
  • Shoots great video for web / online video. It is not remotely comparable to a $1,000 HD prosumer video camera that can shoot really nice 1080 HD but given that this is a "side feature" of a camera a 1/3rd the price of the aforementioned video camera, still very cool


These are not cons in a conventional sense for a digital point and shoot. This is me now just comparing it to an unfair standard - a digital SLR - that is a different class of camera (and that can't fit in your pocket!)

  • Lack of ability to change lenses and get great telephoto or wide angles
  • While much faster than my old Elph, still much slower between shots than a digital SLR. It is not the best for action shots
  • You still won't get the color pop and 3-dimensionality you will get with an SLR nor the equivalent smoothness that a $3,000 12MP SLR has. Realistically, most users won't notice, but a fine arts photographer will


Go here: to see actual images and video with commentary.


Buy this camera now if you need a point and shoot, whether you are a serious or non-serious photographer. It is a break-through camera in point and shoots.

Unless you get into serious SLR photography you won't need another camera until it breaks. And there is no technical excuse why everyone can't take at least a decent looking photo with this camera.

Next field test will come after I have had a chance to play with my friend's newish Rebel (the entry level Canon digital SLR). I look forward to seeing how that does.

Posted on July 8, 2008 and filed under Personal.