Canon Digital IXUS 970 IS digital camera review

The Canon IXUS 970 IS updates the IXUS 950 IS providing improved technology on various fronts, but significantly it sports a 5x optical zoom lens and another 2 megapixels giving the camera a 10-megapixel resolution. The new lens has a disappointing wide end of just 37mm and a long zoom end with a respectable 185mm; maximum apertures run from F/3.2 to F/5.7, so again, a rather modest affair but one that’s helped out by optical image stabilisation.

And like the 950 IS before it, the 970’s image stabilisation works a treat and makes handholding some of the longer zoom ratios or shooting in lower light at low ISO eminently doable without camera shake marring the images, well to a degree at least.

You’ll still need to support the camera if it’s very dark. However, the sensitivity modes available have been improved on the 970IS with a top setting of ISO 3200 (it’s one of the 18-scene modes, also backed up by the “My Colors” settings that allow you to tailor the way the camera records colour.

The screen’s nice to use – even in bright conditions – but if it’s too bright, or you want to conserve battery power, the camera has a small, centrally placed optical viewfinder. Optical viewfinders are becoming as rare as hens teeth these days so it’s a welcome addition indeed.

Other key features include an improved, very clear, bright and colourful 2.5-inch, "PureColor LCD II" screen. With 230k-dots it has a good resolution, plus 18-scene modes and Canon’s reliable DIGIC III image processing engine.

DIGIC III is responsible for the (typically) very clean, low noise images and fast data processing and the 970IS is pretty responsive. Start up to shooting the first image is around 1.5-seconds, shutter lag is minimal and continuous shot to shot timing is reasonable at 1.5-seconds. Performance-wise then the 970IS does well when and is on a par with the 950IS even though it has an extra two million pixel resolution.

When the flash is activated, the frame rate drops away as you wait for the flash to charge but there’s a significant improvement here over the 950 IS as the recycle rate is around 2 seconds, shot-to-shot, with flash; the 950 IS took around 4 seconds for example.

The camera’s swooping, all-metal design is reminiscent of a squashed nose cone on a Eurostar train or perhaps an electric shaver; the curve allows you to comfortably hold the camera and reach the shutter button and its encompassing zoom lens lever.

A stylized mode lever for manual, scene, video and auto shooting modes complements the rakish style. And unfortunately, like the 950IS, the 970IS has a manual mode without any manual controls! Well okay, there’s exposure compensation but really, manual means you get access to all the various menu control options not available in the automated of scene modes.

The multi-control dial allows you to press a segment of the dial to select options such as flash or sensitivity settings, for example but it also has a natty rotating outer dial that, accompanied by a neatly animated menu on the screen, allows you to quickly zip through (and usually straight past) settings. It’s nice to use but it also takes some getting used to.

A FUNC(tion) button sits in the centre of the pad and when pressed it brings into play the familiar Canon FUNC menu down the left side of the screen with option relating to the mode picked at left, displayed across the bottom of the screen.

You can then scroll across options to the one you want. And those options include white balance, metering, My Colors modes, the image quality and size selection menus. Other internal menu systems are very clear and simple to follow on "tabbed pages" for camera, set up, playback and settings and as before, the multi-controller helps quickly zip through them all.

Other funky features include in-camera redeye reduction that can be applied as a shot is made or afterwards in playback, Face Detection AF has been included and allows the camera to automatically bias exposure (including flash exposure if used) and white balance to help render skin as well as possible.

Canon’s iSAPS technology or intelligent scene analysis uses a kind of expert system to "look" at the subject and automatically optimise camera settings for that shot. A movie mode includes a long play option can be used even in the high quality for VGA, 30-fps movie mode and there’s a funky time-lapse mode to play with too.

In terms of image quality, the lens lacks bite at the edges, similar to the 950IS but the extra zoom length is handy even if the wide end is more limiting.

The AiAF focusing system is fast but also seems a bit hit and miss which makes the problems with the soft edges of the lens but switch to a single, central AF zone and you get more control back. The Face AF works well however but profiles can still cause it to get in a muddle.

Image noise is well controlled at all ISO’s up to ISO 400 after which things get a bit problematic as noise increases, so does noise suppression processing and this hits the detail hard. I’d use the IS and lowest ISO possible to get better quality because anything over ISO 800, you should be prepared for leaching colour and detail as it’s being processed away.

Like the 950 IS before it, image detail is very good overall but fine detail on landscape shots is compromised when using the Landscape scene mode, in fact all the auto settings worked overtime on detail – à la 950 IS – but at least not to such a heavy degree. The camera struggles with shadow detail and looses a lot of detail in highlights too, suggesting the camera’s dynamic range could do with improving. The lack of a RAW shooting option means there’s no respite there either, later on PC.

The camera’s metering is excellent; nary a poor exposure in my entire test but the white balance is less accomplished. You get the usual presets of daylight, shade, tungsten, etc., and the auto mode performs reasonably well in most situations; it’s better than the 950 IS here though without a doubt.

Design and build are equally good and means it certainly feels it’s worth the £299 asking price. And so, while the camera could be mistaken for an electric shaver from one angle, or the Eurostar from another, it is certainly an improvement on what went before.

Verdict

Canon has worked over the 950 IS issues and certainly improved them here, if not to the degree one might expect. Particularly good is the fast flash recycling, which is to be applauded, the screen’s a little gem and the new lens while still slightly soft helps get the most from the pixels on offer.

Stylish and great build quality combine with a natty set of features to produce a stylish snapper capable of good results.