Canon PowerShot SD850 IS Pro Review

Camera Reviews Canon

The Canon PowerShot SD850 IS is an 8-megapixel point-and-shoot digital camera with an image-stabilized 4x zoom lens, a wide sensitivity range, and face detection technology. It’s the latest in a long line of super compact Canon ELPH and Digital ELPH cameras. It’s small, quick, and will appeal to anyone interested in a good pocket-sized digital camera.

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Canon PowerShot SD850 IS Studio Test Images
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Canon PowerShot SD850 IS - Ruby Mountains - Nevada


  • Pocket-sized
  • Excellent image quality
  • Canon’s IS optical image stabilization
  • Great auto exposure metering
  • Optical viewfinder
  • ISO 1600 sensitivity

  • Offers less control than some comparable competitors’ cameras
  • Lens not wide enough
  • No action scene mode
  • On / Off button a little hard to push
  • Weak flash
  • Poor redeye-reduction
Canon PowerShot SD850 IS - front and back

Canon PowerShot SD850 IS - pocket-sizedSeven and eight-megapixel cameras are the digital camera sweet spot right now. Competition among camera makers is fierce and you get a lot of camera for your money. The 8-megapixel Canon PowerShot SD850 IS is no exception. It’s one of the latest in a long line of pocket-sized PowerShot Digital ELPH cameras. So it’s not so much a newcomer as a refined version of previous Canon pocket digital cameras. And that makes it a good bet.

The Canon Digital ELPH cameras have never been at the top of my list since they don’t offer any real manual exposure controls. I like to have direct access to the aperture and shutter speed. However, I thought it was about time I tried one of Canon’s SD-Series digital cameras to find out if I’ve been missing anything. I’ve taken the SD850 IS everywhere with me for the past few weeks. It’s been on a bunch of mountain bike rides, helped cover a mountain bike festival in the California Gold Country, taken photos of my new nephew, and generally been my main pocket camera. There’s not much I haven’t tried to shoot with it.

Although Canon’s SD PowerShot digital cameras are basically point-and-shoot cameras, Canon has done a good job of balancing versatility, performance, and ease-of-use. That’s probably the main reason the Digital ELPH cameras have been so successful since they were introduced. Eight million pixels, a 4x optical zoom lens (35-140mm 35mm equiv), and image stabilization are the most important PowerShot SD850 IS features. But there’s a lot more hidden in this little pocket-sized camera.

Canon PowerShot SD850 IS - FUNC. menu with exposure compensation selectedThe SD850 IS has three main still image shooting modes and a video capture mode. The most used controls are accessed via the FUNC. (Function) button and four-way control on the back of the camera. The FUNC. menus offer different options and degrees of control, depending on which shooting mode you’re in. The Auto exposure mode only offers image quality and resolution options. The Manual mode offers all options – exposure compensation, white balance, My Colors, metering options (Evaluative, Center Weighted, and Spot), as well as quality and resolution settings. If you set the mode dial to SCN and press the FUNC. button, you’ll get a menu of 11 different scene modes, exposure compensation, and the quality and resolution controls. Focus, ISO, flash controls, capture rate, and the self-timer are quickly accessed with the four-way control around the FUNC. button. As with the FUNC. menus, the flash, ISO, and other options accessed by the four-way control vary depending on the shooting mode you’re in.

Improved high ISO performance and Face Detection technology are required digital camera features for 2007. Every camera manufacturer is pushing them. Canon included both when they designed the PowerShot SD850 IS. It has a wide sensitivity range of ISO 80 to ISO 1600. Combine that with Canon’s proven optical image stabilization and you’ve got a camera that promises to be a great low-light performer. Face Detection is in the AiAF focus options in the main menu. The SD850 IS has three auto focus options, AiAF, which detects your subject for you, standard AF, and Face Detection. Powered by the Canon’s DIGIC III processor, the SD850′s Face Detection is also tied to exposure metering and redeye reduction. So it does more than just detect faces for better focus. It’s supposed to actually make photos of people better with sophisticated metering, in-camera processing, and redeye elimination.

Canon PowerShot SD850 IS - handThe basic design concept of the Canon Digital ELPH cameras is small and simple. Over the years they’ve gone from boxy to smoother, more ergonomic shapes. But they’re still small point-and-shoots with simple controls. The PowerShot SD850 fits my hands quite nicely. It fits my pants pockets well, too. The SD850 IS is a little heavier than other pocket cameras I’ve used recently. But the sturdy, metallic chassis inspires confidence and a little extra weight helps make it more stable. All the controls seem to be placed well and the mode dial inset into the right side of the camera is a nice, secure design touch. Although there are lots of options in the camera menus, it’s still a basic point-and-shoot and requires minimal controls. As I mentioned in the previous section, all regularly used controls like exposure compensation, ISO, flash mode, etc., are accessed with dedicated controls or the FUNC menu, located just under the photographer’s right thumb. It’s a clean and effective design and making changes becomes intuitive and thoughtless fairly quickly.

The camera has a very nice 2.5-inch LCD. And Canon did not do what so many other camera makers are doing and trade the optical viewfinder for a larger LCD. Since I actually use the optical viewfinder, I’m very pleased that Canon kept I on the SD850 IS. I think it’s a nice touch and tells me that Canon is really thinking about what features help photographers take better pictures.

Canon PowerShot SD850 IS - Barb and Aspens

Camera Experience
The Canon PowerShot SD850 IS is the first Digital ELPH camera I’ve used for any significant period of time. According to the camera’s file count, I’ve taken over 500 pictures and I’ve been shooting with it for about a month. And overall I’ve been very pleased. It’s been a trustworthy, reliable pocket camera and it’s been better than I expected in terms of ability to deliver a useable photo. In fact, image quality is the SD850 IS camera’s real strongpoint. I’ve always felt that Canon’s compact digital cameras produced the best image quality. Now I’ve got the proof. But I’ll go into that in the next part of the review.

The main things I like about the SD850 IS are the size, accurate exposure metering, image stabilization, and the high-ISO performance. There’s no penalty on mountain bike outings or situations where small and light are priorities. I loved riding with the SD850 IS. The size and weight are minimal and the speed and image quality made it a lot easier for me to leave the digital SLR at home. I didn’t worry so much about missing a great photo because of inadequate camera equipment. I either carried it in a pocket or a small pouch on the shoulder strap of my hydration pack. Either way, it was always handy. Start-up was quick and shutter-lag wasn’t a problem when I took a picture of my wiggly niece or set up for an impromptu mountain bike photo. And the combination of Canon’s excellent IS image stabilization and the camera’s high-ISO performance meant that I almost never had a problem with too little light. I did watch the display to keep tabs on the shutter speed. Generally I don’t like to use flash because it changes the feel of a photo and I almost never felt that I had to use it with the SD850 IS.

Canon PowerShot SD850 IS - Dan and Jack

The quick reaction and optical viewfinder make the Canon PowerShot SD850 IS a worthy point-and-shoot action camera. It’s no digital SLR replacement. But like I said earlier, the image quality, speed, and size made it easy for me to take it out instead of my digital SLR. It doesn’t offer any shutter speed control, though. The scene modes don’t include a sports or action mode and the only way I can see to control shutter speed is to increase the ISO. Of course, using a higher ISO setting increases noise (digital grain), although the high-ISO image quality is better than most cameras I’ve used. Still, I think Canon made a mistake not including a sports scene mode. I was surprised they left it as it seems like such a basic feature for a camera like this. On the other hand, with proper technique – pre-focusing, using a higher ISO, checking the shutter speed on the display, and using the optical viewfinder to pan – you can get good action photos in most situations. I got awesome bike photos when the light was good. Results weren’t so great in very low light. Mountain bike photos in deep forest required flash and even then required some post-processing work to make them look good.

I was very pleased with skin tones, both with and without flash. However, I found it nearly impossible to take flash photos of people without wicked redeye. Even when I used the redeye reduction flash setting I’d get nasty devil eyes. Then I read the manual. Note: always read the manual first. When I read the manual I discovered that the SD850′s Face Detection system not only detects faces for focus, it also helps with exposure and redeye reduction. Oh boy! First I tested it just for focus and it is impressive. Just as advertised, the system detects faces and focuses on them, indicating the faces with a little white box. Then it tracks the face and keeps focus even if you wave the camera around or your subject moves. This is really impressive when you see it for yourself. The little focus box on the LCD will move around the screen as you move the camera, staying locked on your subject’s face. This is really, really cool. I still prefer using the normal, non-AiAF center focus point and recomposing. But the Face Detection system seems to work well and I can see how it will help casual photographers take better people pictures.

I found that Canon’s PowerShot SD850 IS is a digital point-and-shoot that I can trust. Normally I shy away from cameras that don’t at least have aperture priority or shutter priority exposure controls. That’s because I don’t trust auto exposure metering to do what I want. However, the Canon PowerShot SD850 IS almost never let me down. The exposure was almost always perfect and when it wasn’t, it was always usable. And the easily accessible exposure compensation control made it easy for me to adjust lighter or darker when necessary. Because you aren’t able to directly set the shutter or aperture values, some creative control is sacrificed. But what you give up in control, you gain back in speed and simplicity. And since most people are simple point and shooters, they won’t miss the manual control. They’ll just be psyched that their photos come out so rich and well exposed.

Camera Menus

Canon PowerShot SD850 IS - LCD Display
Canon PowerShot SD850 IS Playback Mode with all info displayed
Canon PowerShot SD850 IS - LCD Display
Canon PowerShot SD850 IS with Night Snapshot scene mode selected
Canon PowerShot SD850 IS - LCD Display
Canon PowerShot SD850 IS Shooting Mode main menu
Canon PowerShot SD850 IS - LCD Display
Canon PowerShot SD850 IS Playback Mode main menu

Image Quality
I believe the SD850 IS has the best image quality I’ve ever seen in a pocket digital camera. I’ve tested a few point-and-shoot cameras this year and the SD850 IS is definitely the best of the bunch. It still can’t compete with a digital SLR. But noise levels are extremely low – even at higher ISO settings – and it seems to have a better dynamic range than other cameras I’ve used. I believe it has less of tendency to blow highlights than other Canon compacts I’ve used so I don’t have to be quite as careful about exposure. Plus, there’s tons of information in the files, which means you can do a lot in post-processing, if you’re that type of photographer – and I am. For me, what the camera captures is just raw material to work with. On the other hand, if you’re a point-and-shoot photographer, rest assured that the combination of great metering and wide dynamic range means that your family, vacation, and event photos will be better than you’re used to.

Images appear a bit flat at the default settings. For me, that’s a good thing. It means there’s plenty of information to work with. I can add contrast and adjust however I want with Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. For photographers who aren’t interested in messing with their photos, I would suggest increasing the in-camera contrast one level. Color is very nice and required little or no adjustment, although I usually warmed up my images just a bit, because that’s how I like them. But most people will appreciate the rich, natural color that comes right out of the camera.

The lens is great. I tested it against a brick wall to check for distortion, optical defects, and softness in the corners of the images. I am very impressed. I didn’t notice any problems when I was taking pictures. And my testing told me why. There’s really nothing to complain about. There’s a bit of distortion when the lens is at its widest setting – but that’s to be expected. The SD850′s lens produces evenly lit, sharp images, almost all the time. At the widest setting, in low light, with the aperture wide open, the farthest image corners are soft and a bit dark. But I can only tell when I view the images at 100% on the computer monitor. I had to do a controlled test to see it and I don’t think it will be noticeable in normal photos. Although I wish the lens were wider, I am very pleased with the image quality it produces and it’s likely that a wider lens would result in compromised image quality. Canon has done a wonderful job with the SD850 IS lens.

The combination of improved high-ISO performance and optical image stabilization means that low light photo quality is also better. You can turn off the flash and shoot indoors or at twilight so your photos are more natural. And optical image stabilization means you can use lower ISO settings all of them time. Lower ISO means less noise (digital grain) and better image quality. I happily shot at ISO 200 with the SD850 IS, knowing that the image quality would be totally usable. In the past, I wouldn’t go over ISO 100 with a digital point-and-shoot. I shot as high as ISO 800 with the SD850 IS and was never unhappy with the results. Of course, ISO 800 is chunkier than ISO 80. But it’s a reasonable compromise is in certain situations, like indoor portraits where you don’t want the harshness caused by using flash.

Canon PowerShot SD850 IS - Pretty Flower Canon PowerShot SD850 IS - Pork! Canon PowerShot SD850 IS - Calcium
Canon PowerShot SD850 IS - Capm Canon PowerShot SD850 IS - mtbbrian in Park City Canon PowerShot SD850 IS - Fourth of July
Click on thumbnails to view sample photos.

So far, the Canon PowerShot SD850 IS is my favorite compact digital camera for 2007. I’ve tested other pocket cameras with cooler features, longer lenses, and more controls. But I love the pocket-sized portability, great image quality, and speed of the SD850 IS. It’s just a wonderful, trustworthy little camera. I wish it had a wider lens and it would be cool if I could directly control the shutter speed. But the bottom line is, I’m getting great photos with it. I want a camera that can do it all and still fit in my pocket. But that’s just not reasonable. The Canon PowerShot SD850 IS goes anywhere in my pocket and takes great pictures almost all the time. It’s the best all-round point-and-shoot digital camera I’ve used yet.

Who Should Buy It
There’s a reason that Canon has been selling the ELPH and digital ELPH cameras for over ten years now. Everyone loves them. Whether you’re a serious photographer who wants a pocket digital camera, a student who wants a party camera, or you need a small camera for the family to share, the SD850 IS Digital ELPH should make you happy. It’s easy to take everywhere and the image quality will make all but the pickiest photographers happy. You’re never going to be able to control the SD850 IS like you could a camera with more manual controls. But if you’re looking for a great pocket-sized camera, I give the Canon PowerShot SD850 IS all thumbs up!

- end -


Contents of the Canon PowerShot SD850 IS Box

  • Canon PowerShot SD850 IS Digital ELPH Body
  • Lithium Battery Pack NB-5L
  • Battery Charger CB-2LX
  • SD Memory Card SDC-32M
  • Wrist Strap WS-700
  • Digital Camera Solution CD-ROM
  • USB Interface Cable IFC-400PCU
  • AV Cable AVC-DC300

Other Resources:
Shop For Canon PowerShot SD850 IS >>
Canon PowerShot SD850 IS User Reviews >>
Write a Canon PowerShot SD850 IS Review >>
Canon PowerShot SD850 IS Camera Specs >>
Canon PowerShot SD850 IS Sample Gallery >>
All Canon Digital Camera Reviews >>
Canon Web site >>
All Digital Camera Pro Reviews >>
Digital Camera Buyer’s Guide >>
All Digital Camera Sample Images >>
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About the author: Photo-John

Photo-John, a.k.a. John Shafer, is the managing editor of and has been since the site launched back in 1999. He's an avid outdoor enthusiast and spends as much time as possible on his mountain bike, hiking or skiing in the mountains. He's been taking pictures for ever and ever, and never goes anywhere without a camera.

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  • Christian says:

    Hi Photo-John, I’m interested in a little adwise. I’m about to buy myself a new camera, I had the Pana FZ-20, and is thinking either on the TZ-3 or Canon IXUS 950 IS. I’m quite keen on the high zoom factor on the TZ-3 but concernd of the picture quality on the cams, which would you recommend of the two. Thanks a lot. Regards Christian

  • Photo-John says:

    Thanks for commenting. If image quality is your main concern, than I think you will be happier with the IXUS 950 IS / PowerShot 850 IS. However, I don’t think the image quality of the TZ-3 is bad. I just think that the Canon – and Canon in general, is better in regards to image quality. The question to ask yourself is whether you would regret not having the TZ-3′s 10x zoom if you buy the Canon. If it’s your only camera, and you don’t need it to fit in your pocket, then the Panasonic might be a better choice. But if you want a quick, convenient camera that fits in your pocket and has excellent image quality, I don’t think you can do better than the IXUS 950 IS / PowerShot 850 IS.

    If you want to do a little more research, we have full-res studio sample images for both cameras in our gallery. There are links for them on the respective review pages. Those sample photos are the best way to evaluate image quality.

  • Christian says:

    Hi John, thanks for responding, and so quickly. I’ve been trying to compare the shots, but find it difficult. Your convincing speech had me allmost convinced I will go with the IXUS. Can you tell me the big difference between the Powershot 850 and the IXUS 950? thanks again. christian

  • chas berlin says:

    John, I’m going between the 850is and the G9.
    I like the features and control of the G9, but it seems to be poor w/ color accuracy. It would not accurately render a forest green shirt when I tested it the other night. This was in a shop (indoors w/ florescent lighting). Tried Auto WB and florescent WB, both w/ the same result. Bluish/green w/ gray tones. Dark purple became dark blue, and light/soft purple became pink. I’ve heard others say you have to adjust the color in custom to get accuracy across the spectrum.
    Clearly the G9 is much more camera, and I’ve always used SLR’s, but used a P&S this past yr (did not like it) for obvious reasons (few features, no control, poor image (clarity).
    How do you see the G9 and though these are very different cameras, what do you think. I’m packing in the SLR’s for the most part and switching to digital, but want to get away from the bulk. I want to be able to carry something small & light.

  • Jayce says:

    Nice camera from Canon. My friend own it too. Wish I can have one besides of my SLR camera. :P

  • barron says:

    Thanks John for your help! I have always had Olymus Stylus weatherproof cameras because I like to take them skiing and in boats with grandchildren. My Olympus froze last year while skiing and am now looking to replace it. I am impressed with your review on the Canon SD850IS but am concerned about the weatherproofing. I am trying to decide between the Olympus Stylus 780 and the Canon SD850IS. Any suggestions and help would be much appreciated!!! Thank you so very much!!!!

  • Photo-John says:

    Sorry it’s taken me a while to get to answering your question. It’s a tough one to answer. But for me, I like the image quality of the Canon SD cameras better than the image quality of the Olympus Stylus digital cameras. That being the case, a few weeks ago I bought myself a Canon PowerShot SD950 IS. I am writing a review of it right now.

    On the other hand, I really like the build quality of the Olympus Stylus digital cameras. If you look through our digital camera pro reviews you’ll find the review I wrote for the Olympus Stylus 720 SW, in 2006. In spite of some image quality and feature compromises, I really enjoyed the camera and took a lot of very nice pictures with it. The build quality means I have the confidence to take it everywhere, all the time.

    On the other hand, for me, image quality is very, very important. That’s why I chose the Canon SD950 IS. And so far I’ve mostly been using it on the ski slopes and it’s been great. As long as I don’t drop it in a slush puddle or get snow all over it that melts, I think it will be fine. On Christmas day I was shooting photos with it at about 6 degrees Fahrenheit. So far it hasn’t let me down, and the image quality is truly wonderful. Here’s a link to all my Canon SD950 IS photos in our gallery:

    Hope that helps. It’s a tricky decision for sure.

  • Rafa says:

    Hi John,
    I am new in the photography world, but I am very interested in it. Could you please try to clarify a question that I have: Are exposure and aperture and shutter priority controls the same?
    Also, you mentioned that the Canon ELPHs don´t have manual exposure controls. But you also mentioned that the Manual mode of the SD850 IS offers exposure compensation. Is this different?
    Thanks very much!

  • donna says:

    Dear Photo-John, Now that a year has gone by, are you still recommending the canon SD850 over some of the newer canon powershot models? I”m a big canon fan. A viewfinder is important to me. thanks, donna

  • Photo-John says:

    Thanks for reading my SD850 IS review! Canon has done a lot with the SD line since the SD850 IS. I still think it’s a great camera and represents a really good value since the price has come down. However, in November, I bought an SD950 IS and I love it. It also have an optical viewfinder, something I still refuse to let go of. It’s not super fast, but it’s got a 12-megapixel sensor and contrary to what I expected, there appears to be no image quality compromise. At low ISO settings, the images look almost like DSLR images. Here’s a link to my SD950 IS review:

    Canon PowerShot SD950 IS Pro Review >>

    Since Canon has improved resolution without damaging image quality, I would recommend something newer than the SD850 IS, unless it fits your budget. If that’s the case, then I say buy it. If you want something better, take a look at the SD950 IS (if you can find one)

    A couple of alternatives are the SD770 IS and SD890 IS, which both have optical viewfinders and 10-megapixel sensors. They will both have better image quality than the SD850 IS. I would lean towards the SD770 IS because the lens is slightly wider. Canon has yet to introduce an SD model with an optical viewfinder and a real wide-angle lens. I’ve let them know that I want one and I’m hoping that maybe they’ll come out with one this fall. I love my SD950 IS, except for the lack of a real wide-angle zoom.

    Hope that helps! For more, check our digital camera user reviews and digital camera forums.

  • Photo-John says:

    Sorry it’s taken me a few days to get to your questions. Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority are not the same thing. One controls the size of the opening in the lens and the other controls the length of time light is allowed to reach the sensor. And while the SD-Series cameras all have a “Manual” mode, it doesn’t offer what I consider real manual control. It allows you to lighten and darken photos but doesn’t offer actual access to real exposure controls – the shutter speed and aperture size. For that kind of control you need to look at another camera.

    If you want to learn more about exposure control, take a look at our Photography Exposure Primer and the Help Files forum. You’ll be able to learn a lot from both of them.

  • Pious says:

    SD850 is 8 megapixel camera however bit expensive than other 8 megapixels cameras. The feature it poses more is 1. Featuring exclusive UA lens for high performance and compact design.
    2. Sensitivity range expanded to ISO 1600 for sharper photos in low light.
    3. Six movie modes including 30 fps VGA, Time Lapse and Fast Frame Rate.

  • Hayk says:

    Thank you for a great review.
    I recently got an SD770, and though i like the image quality very much, I would really really like to have real manual controls, with full control of aperture and shutter speed (which is how i found your review in the first place).
    What compact camera would you recommend – no matter what brand – that would have comparable image quality, but would have a fully manual mode?
    Thank you!

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