Canon IXUS 850IS digital camera review

The Canon IXUS 850IS follows the IXUS lineage; a very nicely made and nicely designed ultra-compact stainless steel bodied compact digital camera. Some signature features of the new camera include another million pixels over the 800IS, its predecessor and, a 3.8 optical zoom. The 28-105mm (35mm equiv.) optical zoom lens provides a much more versatile focal range (for almost any subject) than that of its predecessor’s 35-140mm lens.

Canon has cannily included optical image stabilisation to help in lower lighting or at longer focal lengths where you don’t want the flash to fire; it works really well having three settings: continuous, panning and shot only. As you have guessed, the first mode is on all the time, panning works well with horizontally panned snaps and the final shot mode activates when the image is made. Of the three, the latter works best for most subjects.

Aside from some grumbles we had with the ISO settings, another problem on the 850IS is the noise reduction processing, which is much more aggressive on this camera than on previous IXUS (or should that be IXUI? - Ed). The processing is via Canon’s DIGIC III processor, the latest iteration of that Canon technology, but because the small 1/2.5-inch has just over 7-megapixels crammed onto it, noise issues are actually worse on this model than other IXUS I’ve looked at.

The result of the noise reduction processing is loss of fine detail in all shots taken over ISO 200, elements such as fur, hair, or foliage in landscape shots for example, are smoothed over and, the result is an image that appears to contain tiny blobs of homogenized colour where once there was detail. I will look at image quality in more detail later.

In the meantime, in terms of handling, the 850IS is very nice to use. The large 2.5-inch screen is bright, has a wide angle of view and provides a very clear and clean display, though bright point sources of light made it flare badly.

Despite the small size of the camera, it boasts a small optical viewfinder that is okay to use but is very slightly blurry at all focal lengths. To its right is a flip round mode dial to select manual and auto shooting modes, the Scene selection that provides access to 17-subject program modes (including aquarium modes and the usual array of night scene, portrait and landscape settings) and finally an excellent video mode that provides 640 x 480-pixel clips at 30fps with audio.

Other kit includes Face Detection AF/AE focus control that while a bit of a novelty seems to work quite well. However, the camera’s advanced Artificial intelligent Auto Focus (AiAF) system seems hit and miss, picking seemingly random elements to focus upon even when refocusing on the same scene without moving the camera or viewpoint.

The extra flexibility the wider zoom lens provides more than makes up for some other slight image quality niggles: slight softness at the edges of images (a drawback of the lenses wider 28mm wide angle design) and modest image distortion also at the wide-angle end of the zoom. Lastly, there is a slight softness to images straight out of the camera (sharpening is tad conservative by default) but easily controlled or improved to on PC in image editing software or in the camera.

Colour capture is excellent and because you have plenty of control over colour, sharpness and contrast via the excellent “Func”-tion menu system common to Canon digital compact you can really tweak the output to how you’d prefer. White balance control has the usual presets and an easy to use custom mode; the only slight chink here was in auto mode with mixed lighting indoors where things had a distinct orange cast.

Verdict

Like all digital cameras with far to many pixels for the size of sensor in use, image noise and its reduction have contrived to reduce the absolute image making capabilities of this camera. In the final analysis, the 850IS has a much-improved lens and superb build; overall, image quality at lower ISOs is good and while there is no real manual control over apertures and shutter speeds, the camera’s metering and exposure control works well.

In my view, the Face Detection AF/AE is a gimmick and though it works, it is darn slow here. The AiAF had problems deciding what it should focus on, but the “normal” AF set up is fast and reliable. Therefore, in the end, the Canon IXUS 850IS is reduced from a great looking, well made star performer to a great looking, well made average snapper. Now, put the new wider-angle zoom lens from the 850IS on the 800IS and it would be almost perfect.