Canon can be applauded with its Digital IXUS 980 IS; applauded for creating a very different compact indeed, although its bold curves may mean you’ll either love or hate it. The camera’s only straight edges are those surrounding a rather excellent-to-use 2.5-inch, PureColor LCD II screen. The rest of the camera is all tactile swoops, curves and valleys, available in two liveries: stylish silver or arguably, a more serious-looking black.
Those smooth all-metal curves make the camera feel and look more solid than a slab of marble; build quality is very impressive indeed. And while many makers are stripping out optical viewfinders from their compacts, Canon has retained an optical viewfinder here; though that is actually the source of my first complaint.
The optical viewfinder is blurry - it lacks any form of dioptre control - it’s also very small, so while the optical finder is a nod in the right direction, it’s no panacea for the more myopic among us needing to preserve battery power.
The headline feature is surely the 14.7-megapixel, 1/1.7-inch CCD, a pixel packed sensor backed up by the new DIGIC IV image engine and Canon’s always reliable iSAPS (intelligent Scene Analysis based on Photographic Space) technology, an "expert" system designed to help get the most from every shot.
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I’m heartened to say, despite the high-resolution sensor, low and high sensitivity image noise is well controlled - detail is excellent too. In some of the challenging lighting within a local church, fine detail can be picked out of shots (legible text on shadowed tombs for example) and while shadow noise is evident, even at the lowest ISO 80 setting, detail has not been compromised.
The noise is film grain-like, offing a more organic granularity than is often the case with digital noise characteristics and it remains unobtrusive right up to ISO 400. At ISO 800 and the top setting of 1600, both exhibit worse noise but it must be said the combination of the (reasonably) large sensor and DIGIC IV mean what noise there is, is nowhere near as bad as other high-resolution cameras with smaller sensors.
Interestingly, an ISO 3200 setting (which drops the resolution down to 1.92-megapixels) provides a lower noise response than the ISO 1600 setting, although colour and contrast are leached and detail is reduced as well, as you’d expect.
In terms of handling, the camera sits snugly in the hand and those organic, ergonomic curves mean the camera is comfortable to hold and use, even the AV Out/Digital port sits beneath a shiny, flush fitting cap on the side of the camera so attention to detail is obvious throughout.
Neat control touches include a flush-fitting shutter release with a curved zoom control for the excellent 3.7x optical zoom lens. The fast F/2.8 maximum aperture allows a modicum of depth of field control, while the 36-133mm focal length, gives scope for most uses although the wide end of the zoom is not ideal for snapping wider vistas.
The four-way jog or Multi Control Dial rotates to allow fast scrolling of settings (accompanied by clever animated icons on the screen) or can be used in the traditional press an edge manner. The FUNC(tion)/Set button brings into play the usual Canon camera settings menu and allows you to "Set" them once you are happy, much the same as Canon’s other digital compacts.
Ditto the main menus, which feature large, tabbed pages with clear colour coding allowing you to not just find your way around quickly, but learn them too. Other key features include manual control (more of that shortly) including manual focus control. AF works a treat, particularly the Face Detection AF, a better implementation on a modern compact I have yet to meet.
You get Face AF/AE/FE/WB designed to help properly photograph faces in profile and faces in the distance - it works well. "Face Select & Track" allows you to pinpoint faces and then continuously track them across the frame helping keep it sharp even if moving.
Back to that manual camera control, which actually means you can control menu options missing in the auto modes - including exposure compensation and white balance - but you also can control the shutter speeds and apertures.
However, the system you get to do the control with doesn’t lend itself to fast use, requiring a press of the FUNC button, then scrolling through the displayed shutter speeds in a window at the bottom of the main screen, then pressing Set. The same goes for aperture control though you get just two to adjust! F/2.8 and F/8 and that’s it, not very versatile but typical of this type of compact.
Sensor shift image Stabilisation (IS) is built-in and very effective indeed, offering the opportunity to shoot in low light (by around an extra two full stops) or at longer focal lengths and without bumping up the ISO. Thought of as another noise control option, IS becomes even more versatile in terms of image quality control.
And that brings me swiftly to this the key element of any camera, how well it creates images. While this camera offers a greater level of control than many less expensive point and shoot cameras, it still does best when left to its own devices in terms of performance. Yes, it has fast start up and a 1.3fps (until the SD/SDHC external storage is full) continuous shooting is average but the again it is dealing with 14.7-megapixel sensor images of up to and over 8MBs a pop.
The AiAF system struggles to get the correct focus point from the nine on offer (just like the IXUS 90 IS I tested recently) but the single central AF zone and Face AF modes do much better. Metering is superb and the colour performance is natural in the default mode, with plenty of customisable tweaks on offer to those that wish to play more.
White balance control is good on specific settings (sunlight for sunlight and so on) but less so using the auto mode and while you can control the exposure and the metering is rather good, the addition of the new and very clever i-Contrast mode, applied to boost the brightness of shadows helps further. Just watch out for the noise in those enhanced shadow areas.
An active histogram display aids metering - you can see in real time what your adjustments do to the spread of the dark to light pixels - but even so, I noticed highlights can quickly loose detail and the lack of a RAW shooting mode means there’s no opportunity later on PC to get the highlight information back.
But I’m glad to say, the Canon Digital IXUS 980 IS, while being unorthodox in its styling, is more than capable at taking cracking pictures and while that organic, swooping design might put some off, its imaging performance certainly will not.
A novel design with superior build combined with some of the latest Canon imaging technology makes the Canon IXUS 980 IS a great little camera, if it is a little on the pricey side; if you stick to lower ISO’s it’ll produce great pictures too, it’s is a real contender for your cash.