Canon PowerShot SD550 Review

The SD550, which was introduced in August 2005 (only six months after its predecessor), is the most recent model in a long line of ultra-compact ‘ELPH’ or ‘IXUS’ cameras that date all the way back to the early 2000s. In Europe, the SD550 is known as the Digital Ixus 750, and in Japan, it is known as the IXY DIGITAL 700. (and a lot farther back than that in the film camera world).

The SD550 is a fairly minor upgrade to the SD500 (Ixus 700) that it replaces; aside from a larger screen (2.5 inches as opposed to 2.0 inches) and a slight redesign of the body and controls, the majority of the changes consist of tweaks to the user interface. The SD550 is compatible with all of the same lenses as the SD500 (Ixus 700).

Key Specs

  • 7.1 megapixel CCD
  • monitor with a broad viewing angle and 2.5 inches of color TFT
  • 37-111mm (equiv.) F2.8 – 4.9, 3x optical zoom
  • 640 × 480 videos at 30 frames per second
  • Fast frame rate videos (320×240 pixels At 60fps)
  • Click here to print and share.
  • Individualized white balance
  • Metering methods include spot, center-weighted, and evaluative.
  • DIGIC II in addition to iSAPS
  • 9-point AiAF
  • Nine scene modes

Design

The Canon marketing staff dubbed the SD500’s design a “Perpetual Curve,” which was a departure from the boxy aesthetic of earlier IXUS and Elph models. This design was introduced on the SD500 (there are no straight lines on the body at all).

The SD550 is nearly identical to its predecessor; however, in order to accommodate the bigger screen, some of the controls on the back have been rearranged somewhat. The color is now a somewhat warmer version of champagne, which is probably something you can’t see from the screen, but the color is the other major outward alteration.

Its smooth stainless steel surface is almost indulgently tactile, and it is superbly crafted with admirable attention to detail, as befits a camera at the top end of the ultra-compact price range. The SD550’s appearance and feel radiate quality, much like the SD500 did before it.

The one and only drawback of the finish that was selected is that it appears to be quite prone to scuffs and blemishes (so keep it in a case when not in use). I also found the camera to be a touch on the “slippy” side, which meant that I felt a lot safer with the wrist strap in place than without it. Personally, I think this is because of the way the camera is designed.

Although the control arrangement has been significantly modified (there is now a mode dial rather than a switch, and the majority of the buttons have shifted), the fundamentals remain the same as they were in the majority of the other models in the series.

This ensures that you have access to external controls for metering, flash, focus (macro or infinity), and self-timer/drive mode. On the other hand, the wonderful FUNC menu is used to access the rest of the camera’s features.

Within your grasp

The pebble-smooth shell, along with the lack of any visible ‘grip,’ means that it can seem a bit perilous handled in one hand, but is in reality completely useable. The SD550 weighs around 194 grams when fully filled, which is just substantial enough to feel solid and sturdy in the hand.

The placement of the shutter release and the zoom rocker makes operation with one hand simple; nevertheless, you should still ensure that the strap is wrapped around your wrist in the event that the camera escapes your grasp and begins to move in the wrong direction.

The workings and the controls

There is virtually total uniformity in the controls and menus throughout all of Canon’s tiny camera ranges, making it one of the most enjoyable aspects of reviewing a Canon compact camera. Each new generation is an evolution rather than a complete reinvention of the wheel.

And this is not without good reason; the combination of plentiful external controls and the superb ‘FUNC’ menu, which offers single-screen access to virtually every other aspect of the camera’s operation, makes mastering a PowerShot simple, and using it is remarkably fluid. In other words, the PowerShot is a very user-friendly camera. It goes without saying that this is a really straightforward camera; in fact, it is a “point-and-shoot” type that offers extremely little control over the manual settings.

What you do get, however, is control over the majority of the critical settings, including metering, flash, ISO, white balance, file size and quality, and so on. What you do not receive, however, is any significant control over the apertures and shutter speeds of the camera, except from a small selection of subject modes.

Performance

Performance and timing of events

The SD550 gives the impression of being highly quick and very responsive in regular usage, which is supported by the results of our testing (note the performance appears to be identical to the SD500).

The SD550 operates really well in all aspects, including turning on, zooming, navigating the menus, shooting images, and utilizing the flash. It will very seldom if ever, make you wait for anything. Unusually for a Canon, the processing speed (thanks to the DIGIC II processor) is almost matched by the focus speed, which is very respectable indeed. It rarely hunts, and it rarely takes more than half a second to find its mark even in low light at the long end of the zoom. This is true even when shooting at the longest end of the zoom.

This is the quickest time we’ve ever seen a Canon small camera focus in our experience. The continuous shooting performance is also quite good for a 7-megapixel ultra-compact camera, as long as you use a fast SD card, and the shutter lag, especially when using the optical viewfinder, seems immediate. This is a really impressive feature for a camera with such a small sensor size. Excellent.

Timing notes

The timings listed are the averages of the results of three separate procedures. Unless otherwise specified, all timings were performed on a picture with a resolution of 3072 by 2304 pixels using the SuperFine JPEG format (approx. 2,650 KB per image). A one-gigabyte SanDisk Extreme III SD card was used as the testing medium for these procedures.

ActionDetailsTime, secs
Power: Off to Record 1.0
Power: Off to PlayImage displayed1.1
Power: Record to OffAll activity ceased1.7
Power: Play to OffWhen buffer is empty~0.0
one
Record ReviewImage displayed~0.5
Mode: Record to Play 1.6
Mode: Play to RecordLens already extended~1.3
one
Play: MagnifyTo full magnification (~10x)~0.8
Play: Image to ImageTime to display each saved image (no transition)~0.2
Play: Image to ImageTime to display each saved image (with transition effect)~0.5
Play: Thumbnail view3 x 3 thumbnails~0.4
ActionDetailsTime, seconds
Zoom from Wide to Tele37 to 111 mm (3 x)1.3
Half-press Lag (0->S1)Wide angle~0.35
Half-press Lag (0->S1)Telephoto~0.45
Half to Full-press Lag (S1->S2)LCD live view< 0.1
Half to Full-press Lag (S1->S2)Viewfinder< 0.1
Full-press Lag (0->S2)LCD live view, wide angle~0.5
Off to Shot TakenLCD live view~1.4
Shot to ShotFlash off1.4
Shot to ShotFlash on (red eye reduction off)1.8
Shot to ShotFlash on (red eye reduction off)2.7

Continuous Mode

The findings of our test of continuous shooting, include the actual frame rate, the maximum number of frames that can be taken, and the amount of time that must pass before another shot may be taken after the maximum number of frames has been taken. A one-gigabyte SanDisk Extreme III SD card was used as the testing medium for these procedures. Throughout these experiments, the shutter speed was maintained at a value greater than 1/200 of a second.

Continuous drive mode

The SD550 only has a single continuous shooting mode, and after each frame it captures, it displays a small review image for you to look at. The quoted speed of 2.0 frames per second was found to be completely accurate by our testing; however, the rate does decrease slightly at some lower resolutions for unknown reasons; this may be due to the additional processing overhead that is incurred when shrinking the file size prior to creating the JPEG.

Image TypeModeAvg. frames
per sec
Frames in a burst *1After
burst 
*2
3072 x 2304 JPEG Super FineContinuous2.1 fpsUnlimitedn/a 
3072 x 2304 JPEG FineContinuous2.0 fpsUnlimitedn/a 
3072 x 2304 JPEG NormalContinuous2.0 fpsUnlimitedn/a 
2592 x 1944 JPEG SuperFineContinuous1.7 fpsUnlimitedn/a 
2048 x 1536 JPEG SuperFineContinuous2.0 fpsUnlimitedn/a 
1600 x 1200 JPEG SuperFineContinuous1.9 fpsUnlimitedn/a 

There is nothing wrong with this camera; not only does it maintain a good 2.0 frames per second at most file sizes and quality settings, but the buffering is so fast that you can pretty much shoot indefinitely, even at the highest 7MP/Super Fine setting, as long as you have an SD card that is fast enough.

When using a fast card, it does not appear feasible to fill the buffer, which means that you may continue taking pictures for as long as you have the capacity on your card and the power in your battery to do so.

Image Quality

A Perfect White Balance

In addition to the camera’s built-in auto white balance, the SD550 features a total of five different white balance settings. These are sunny, cloudy, incandescent, fluorescent, and fluorescent H. You may also set the white balance manually by pointing the camera at a white or gray object and using the ‘custom’ white balance setting. This setting is available as an additional white balance option.

Even if you switch the camera off, it will keep the custom white balance setting that you have previously selected. When shooting normally outside, the auto white balance serves its purpose admirably (as confirmed by our studio tests). Fluorescent illumination doesn’t pose much of an issue indoors, but incandescent (tungsten) lighting results in a rather strong orange color cast. This is something that we’ve experienced with the majority of Canon PowerShots.

When we asked Canon about its method of determining the white balance, we were told that the warm colors that appear on the camera’s display when it is being used to capture images in incandescent light are deliberate and are done so in order to “try to keep some of the warm atmospheres of this kind of shot.”

Performance in a Flash

The built-in flash on the SD550 reportedly has a working range of 0.5 meters to 4.8 meters (1.6 feet to 16.4 feet) at the wide end of the zoom and 0.5 meters to 2.8 meters (1.6 feet to 9.8 feet) at the telephoto end, making it slightly more powerful than the majority of the other models in the range. In macro mode, it can focus as close as around 30 centimeters (about 12 inches) (in all cases assuming the ISO is set to auto).

In the tests we ran in the real world, the flash performed adequately with a very little warm tone (which is nice). Even with the red-eye reduction feature activated, the flash has a very short recycle time, ensuring that you won’t miss any spontaneous photo opportunities while you wait for it to fire. We discovered that the autofocus (AF) illuminator would enable focus in total darkness (or as close to it as we could get) at distances of up to approximately one meter.

Macro Focus

The macro mode of the SD550 is most effective at the broad end of the zoom, as is the case with most tiny digital cameras. At this end of the zoom range, you can get as near as 5 centimeters, which is not terrible at all for an “ultra-compact” camera. Even if the performance is less outstanding at the long end of the zoom (with a subject distance of 30 centimeters), it is still rather handy.

ISO Sensitivity / Noise levels

The ability to raise the sensitivity of the sensor of a digital camera is referred to as the ISO equivalent setting. The function is achieved by increasing the “volume” (gain) of the signal amplifiers contained within the sensor (remember the sensor is an analog device).

When you magnify the signal, you also boost the noise, and the noise becomes more apparent as the ISO value increases. At greater sensitivities, a lot of today’s cameras also make use of noise reduction and sometimes even sharpness decrease.

We take a series of pictures of a GretagMacBeth ColorChecker chart in order to determine the amount of background noise (controlled artificial daylight lighting). The exposure is balanced with the ISO (for example, ISO 200 and 1/200 of a second to maintain exposure uniformity between cameras).

Movie mode

It would take a bold manufacturer in this day and age to make even a cheap model without a fundamental movie mode, and the ability to record movies is becoming an increasingly significant component of the purchasing decision for cameras of this sort.

The SD550 features a maximum movie size of 640 by 480 pixels, which is sufficient to fit the majority of television screens when played back at 30 frames per second. This feature has become standard for cameras of this type. Additionally, it provides the option of shooting at a lower frame rate as well as a smaller size. The ‘high frame rate’ mode can record videos with a resolution of 320 by 240 pixels at a rate of 60 frames per second.

The videos are quite smooth and show very few compression artifacts; the only significant issue is that the exposure system is occasionally unable to keep up with the quick changes in scene brightness. The overall quality is good. The AVI files are rather enormous; while using the highest quality level (640×480 at 30 frames per second), you will burn around 1.7 MB of data every second. Because of this, if you plan on shooting a lot of movies, you will need to invest in some large and quick SD cards.

Concerns Regarding the Specific Image’s Quality

When it comes to picture quality, it is inevitable that an ultra-compact camera like this one would involve some sort of sacrifice on the part of the user.

The question that needs to be answered is how much of a sacrifice we are willing to make in terms of image quality in order to obtain a camera that is truly pocket-sized. Additionally, the question that needs to be answered is whether or not there is any real advantage to the large 7-megapixel files (over, say, the 4-megapixel SD300) in real terms for everyday use.

First, the good news: this is a Canon, and it has all of the typical Canon hallmarks, including outstanding color that is both bright and natural, highly precise exposure and focus, and a very high level of detail (see resolution tests).

The photographs, particularly those that contain delicate low contrast detail such as foliage, sometimes appear to be a touch soft or even muddy (they are very smooth, almost too ‘polished’), but they react well to sharpening and print nicely when they are.

Higher contrast information is displayed quite cleanly; but, really bright and contrasty images might create metering issues. Additionally, the relatively high contrast can generate some highlight clipping; still, there is not much to complain about overall with this camera.

Finally, just like with all of Canon’s other compact cameras, we discovered that the so-called “intelligent” AiAF system was the source of so many focus errors (and slow focusing in general) that we would recommend turning it off, unless you absolutely cannot use the pre-focus (half-press) lock for off-center subjects. In that case, we would recommend leaving it on.

We noticed that corner softness was a little issue at the wide end of the zoom range and at maximum aperture, but it is a lot better than in prior generations, and it isn’t particularly noticeable in images taken in real-world environments. Purple fringing, which is a common issue with Canon cameras, presented itself as a challenge for us in a number of high-contrast photographs.

In the end, the SD550 produces the kinds of results that very few people in the target market would find anything to complain about, and it would make the ideal ‘carry always’ camera for anyone who is accustomed to using a larger, more sophisticated camera and doesn’t want to sacrifice too much image quality for the sake of portability.

In addition, I’d like to point out that the issues described below do not account for more than approximately 5 percent of the approximately 400 photographs that I took during this test, and with the exception of purple fringing, they are restricted to a relatively narrow range of shooting scenarios.

Coloring along the edges

In almost all of the photographs that feature highly bright (particularly overexposed) sections, there is a traceable amount of purple fringing, and in some of the photographs, it is fairly prominent.

In most situations, it is not enough to ruin photographs, but when shooting with a wide-angle lens outside on a sunny day, you may end up with very strong fringes at the edges of the frame where bright and dark areas meet.

Problems with the exposure and clipped highlights

Clipped or blown-out highlights were not an unusual occurrence when we used the SD550, just as they were with the SD500 that came before it. These issues occurred most frequently in extremely bright and highly contrasty shooting conditions.

The issue, which is by no means exclusive to this camera, seems to be caused in part by the camera having a fairly high default contrast setting (which is common in cameras in the ‘lifestyle’ sector of the market because it produces ‘punchy’ prints), and in part, because the metering can sometimes be fooled by scenes that have a very wide range of brightness levels. Neither of these factors is unique to this camera.

Specifications

Body MaterialMetal
Also known as• European name: Canon IXUS 750
• Japanese name: Canon IXY Digital 700
Sensor• 1/1.8″ CCD, 7.4 million total pixels
• 7.1 million effective pixels
Image sizes• 3072 x 2304
• 2592 x 1944
• 2048 x 1536
• 1600 x 1200
• 640 x 480
Movie clips• 640 x 480 @ 30 / 15 fps
• 320 x 240 @ 60 / 30 / 15 fps
• 160 x 120 @ 15 fps
• Up to 1GB (640×480, 320×240, 30/15fps) (depending on memory card speed and capacity)
• Up to 3 mins (160×120) (depending on memory card speed and capacity)
• Up to 1 min (320×240, 60fps) (depending on memory card speed and capacity)
• AVI (Motion JPEG / mono soundly)
Lens• 37 – 111 mm (35 mm equiv) 3x optical zoom
• F 2.8 – 4.9
Shutter speeds15 – 1/2000 sec
Focus• TTL autofocus
• 9 point AiAF
• 1-point AF (fixed to center)
• 5cm macro mode (Wide), 30cm (Tele)
Shooting mode• Auto
• Manual
• Digital Macro
• Portrait
• Foliage
• Snow
• Beach
• Fireworks
• Underwater
• Indoor
• Kids and pets
• Night snapshot
• Stitch assist
• AE compensation -2.0EV to +2.0 EV in 1/3EV steps
Sensitivity• Auto
• ISO50,100,200,400
White Balance• Auto
• Daylight
• Cloudy
• Tungsten
• Fluorescent
• Fluorescent H
• Custom (manual)
Image parameters• Vivid
• Neutral
• Low sharpening
• Black and white
• My colors (9 settings)
Continuous2 fps until memory card is full
Flash• Built in
• Modes: Auto, on, off, red-eye reduction, slow sync, flash exposure lock
• Range: 0.5 m – 5.0 m (W) / 3.0 m (T)
Storage• SD Memory Card
• 32MB SD supplied*
ViewfinderReal Image Optical
LCD monitor• 2.5″ TFT LCD
• 115,000 pixels
Connectivity• USB 2.0 Hi-Speed
• A/V out
Power• Rechargeable lithium ion NB-3L battery
• Charger included
• (Optional AC adapter KIT ACK900)
In the box*• Canon PowerShot SD550 Digital ELPH (IXUS 750, IXY DIGITAL 700)
• Wrist strap
• Lithium Ion battery
• AV cable
• USB cable
• 32MB SD card
• Software CD ROM (Canon Digital Camera Solutions & ArcSoft PhotoStudio)
Other features• Spot (center), Center-weighted & Evaluative metering
• PictBridge, Exif Print and DPOF compatible
• Playback Histogram
• Orientation Sensor
• Autofocus Illuminator
• Optional High Power Flash HF-DC1 (slave)
• Optional Waterproof Case
Weight (inc batt)192 g (6.8 oz)
Dimensions90 x 57 x 27 mm (3.5 x 2.2 x 1.1in) Excluding protrusions

Final Verdict

To be fair, the SD550 does not significantly advance the state of the art, and given that it was released only six or seven months after its predecessor, the SD500, I would have been shocked if it had done so. The SD500 was a small gem of a camera (and the greatest IXUS / ELPH model to date), and the SD550 is just that little bit better than its predecessor. This is generally positive news. It is one of the few cameras available on the market today that has a true ‘luxury’ feel to it, such is the quality of its build and materials, and the image quality is excellent (for a camera in this class), it is fast, responsive, and reliable, and it is one of the few cameras that can shoot 4K video.

There are still a few image quality issues that pixel peepers will be dissatisfied with, such as the slight corner softness, the purple fringing, and the slightly muddy low contrast detail; however, the smooth, clean, bright, and punchy images will delight the typical user who is more interested in printing their pictures than zooming into them on the screen and looking for problems. The battery life (when using the screen) could still be improved, but other than that, this is a camera that it’s hard not to like, and a camera that encourages you to take it everywhere and actually use the thing. I was disappointed with the new 2.5-inch screen because it has a woefully low resolution (though it’s still nice to use for those of us who like to hold the camera at arm’s length), and the battery life (when using the screen) could still be improved.

The SanDisk SD550 is, in a nutshell, the same as the SanDisk SD500, but with a few extra bells and whistles. It is still fairly pricey, and the absence of any real control is unusual for a product at this level; however, there is certainly enough to put it near the top of the list for anyone looking for a luxury point-and-shooter. Maybe not enough for a Highly Recommended rating, but certainly enough to put it there.

Pros & Cons

Good For
  • The Bottom Line: the Positives
  • Excellent resolution
  • Very portable and easy to carry in your pocket
  • Stunning in its structure and composed entirely of metal
Need Improvement
  • The finish is quite vulnerable to scuffs and scratches, and it can be slippery in the hand.
  • There is hardly much room for manual adjustment.
  • There is still no information on exposure at shutter speeds that are faster than 1/60 of a second.

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