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I bought one of these on impulse at $299. The SD550 offers incredible technical, image and mechanical quality for $299.
I did some research when I got home and realized that the SD700 is a more expensive model which adds Image Stabilization. I'm addicted to IS, so I returned the SD550 and got an SD700 instead. If you're not addicted to IS as I am for hand-held night shots, the SD550 is the camera to get. The SD550 was Canon's top-of-the-line pocket camera before the SD700 was announced in February 2006.
I love the speed and flexibility of my Casio EX-Z850, but I've never been a fan of Casio's color rendition. I love the color I used to get from my 2003 Canon A70. The Canons, even with their so-called-by-marketing DIGIC processors, have been too slow for me. I can drive the menus faster than the Canon cameras can respond.
Good news: the SD550 ELPH (called DIGITAL IXUS 750 in Europe and IXY Digital 700 in Japan) is fast! No problems here.
It comes in two colors: silver and champagne. Retailers seem not to know this, so you take your chances and will get one color or the other.
Lens: 7.7 - 23.1mm f/2.8 - f/4.9. Similar to the field of view of a 37 - 111mm lens used on a 35mm film camera.
Close Focus: 20" (0.5m). Macro mode brings this down to a few inches at wide to 12 inches at tele. Caution: The camera cannot focus to infinity in Macro mode: be sure to take it out of that mode for normal shots.
Optical Viewfinder: about 80% coverage.
Shutter: 1 - 1/2000 sec. As long as 15s in a trick mode. Both electronic and mechanical.
Resolution: 7 MP, 3,072 x 2,304 pixels max. Also 2,592 x 1,944, 2,048 x 1,536, 1,600 x 1,200 and 640 x 480.
Sensor: 1/1.8" CCD. That's the slightly larger size; most compacts use a smaller 1/2.5" CCD.
Frame Rate: 2 FPS in continuous mode. Can run at this rate almost forever if you have a reasonably fast card. These shots are repeated with the same focus and exposure.
Formats: JPG, three compression levels. File size vary wildly with image complexity. I always use the smallest size, "Normal." The middle, default size is called "Fine" and the largest is called "Superfine." File sizes are optimized to each image, so very detailed images may have file sizes triple the file size of a blank, flat sky image. This is good and normal.
ISO: Auto, 50, 100, 200 and 400. Auto selects 50 or 100, no big deal.
White Balance: The usual set, but no Shade setting. In consolation, the custom manual white card mode works so simply and quickly I use that in the shade.
Video: Motion JPG. 640 x 480, 320 x 240, 160 x 120 at 60, 30 or 15 FPS. Not all combinations are available.
Audio: No separate audio record mode. 60 second clips attach to stills or of course along with video.
Memory: SD cards to at least 2 GB.
Environmental: Canon rates 0 - 40C and 10 - 90% RH.
Battery: NB-3L Lithium battery: 3.7V, 790 mAh. It's tiny and weighs 0.755 oz. (21.3 g) by itself. Must be removed to charge. Charger included.
Size: Canon specs 3.52 x 2.24 x 1.08" (89.5 x 57.0 x 27.4mm)
Weight: I measure 6.910 oz (195.8 g) complete w/battery and SD card. Canon specs 6.00 oz. (170g) naked.
Announced: 22 August 2005.
Fast and easy. The menus are the same as all the compact Canons and respond instantly.
Frame rate in Continuous mode is a fast and unlimited 2 FPS!! Continuous mode disengages itself each time you turn off the SD550.
Sadly, I wish the ISO setting reset to AUTO each time the power was turned on, but it remembers it. Unlike the Casios, you can't tell the SD550 which settings to remember when the power is turned off.
Like most Canons, there is a Panoramic mode for making easy-to-stitch shots. It works great with the included pan stitching software. Canon has always been very good at this. My A70 did the same thing, with the same software!
General: Tends towards overexposure as all Canon compacts. No big deal: set it to -2/3 compensation all the time and it's fine. If you don't do this you'll get a lot of bad images.
TRICK: Auto Exposure Lock (AEL): Press and hold the shutter halfway. Tap the ISO button and the SD700 measures and locks the exposure. AEL shows on the right of the screen. Recompose and shoot. This exposure value stays locked for more shots until you press the ISO button again.
TRICK: Flash Exposure Lock: It really works! Press and hold the shutter halfway. Tap the ISO button and you get a preflash which sets the flash exposure. FEL shows on the right of the screen. Recompose and shoot. This exposure value stays locked for more shots until you press the ISO button again.
Color: As I had hoped, photos just look better than I get from my Casios. It's not a matter of accuracy, and for all I know the Canon might be less accurate with test targets. What matters is the photos from the SD550 look better than those from my Casio. I always preferred the colors, which is the most important aspect of image quality, of my 2003 Canon A70 (3MP) to the look I got from my Casios. I shot a bunch of things with my EX-Z850 and this SD550 side by side, and the SD550 looked better every time.
ISO: Perfect at 50. Just a little noise, less than film, at 200. At 400 it gets a little grainy at 100%, but much better than average. The CCD is a little bigger than most compact cameras, which helps. Use 400 and the noise is not noticeable at normal print sizes.
Hot Pixels: At ISO 200 and 400 I saw the occasional hot pixel. This looks like a random red speck.
As all Canon compacts, the SD550 has no Shade WB. I use the custom manual white card setting instead.
Setting takes effect even with flash. Many other cameras default to flash WB regardless of the manual setting.
Auto WB: Seems to work great, even under bright tungsten.
Great at wide, butt a little hazy at the longest setting. This is typical performance for compact cameras. Like all point and shoots, zoom only runs in fixed steps. The SD550 has 7 steps, the same as most cameras. They are at 7.7, 9.0, 10.5, 12.5, 15.6 18.8 and 23.1 mm.
Sharpness and Resolution: It's so sharp you can get some aliasing (called Moiré by hobbyists) if you have screens or other repeating very fine patterns.
Distortion is typical: barrel at wide add flat at tele. It's easy to correct in Photoshop CS2's lens distortion filter. Use +3.5 at wide and -0.3 at tele.
The Auto Rotation sensor works on playback to rotate the image on the LCD!
Bright enough to use in direct sunlight. It's brighter than my Nikon D200 but not quite as sharp.
TIP: Turn off the default TRANSITION in the playback menu to be able to click between images. Otherwise the SD550 fades slowly between them, which is slow and annoying!
TIP: Tap FUNC/SET after making a shot to hold it on screen and allow zooming and scrolling. Tap the shutter to get back to the shooting mode. This saves having to switch to PLAY mode to review each shot in detail. Don't like it? Just hit the DELETE key, again saving you from switching to the PLAY mode.
No shutter or aperture or lens data is shown in the detailed playback display. This data records to the files themselves, so you can read it on other cameras or on your computer.
WARNING: The histogram, as all single histograms, is worse than useless. Ignore it, otherwise you could get severe overexposure with colored items. See my page on Color Histograms, which the SD550 lacks.
Transfer: As all Canons, the USB connection doesn't work as I prefer, which is to make the camera show up as a new drive. You have to use either Canon's or other software to see the camera to download from it. On Mac I prefer to configure the Image Capture utility (free and already installed on every Mac) to transfer images. Good news: it's 480 Mb/s USB 2.0 and very fast. Downloads are almost immediate with little to no waiting as you do for cameras on the old USB 1.1 12 Mb/s standard.
Expect 500MB downloads in about 90 seconds.
Formatting: There are two levels offered. If you check "Low Level Format" it takes a little longer and does a more complete formatting job. I leave "Low Level Format" checked. If this takes too long, cancel and uncheck it. I don't really know what's going on here, but since when I format I want it formatted, I leave " Low Level Format" checked.
Video: Much bigger file sizes and shorter recording times than the more advanced MPEG-4 format of the Casio EX-Z750, Casio EX-Z850 and EX-S600. Video from the SD550 looks swell, but takes a lot more file space for the same video quality.
Battery: The new battery took 75 minutes to charge. The red light on the charger means charging. It turns green when done. Oddly the manual cautions against leaving the battery on the charger for more than 24 hours, even when done charging.
Canon CIPA specs 150 shots (LCD ON), 600 shots (LCD OFF) or 3 hours of playback. This is with flash every other shot.
I got 260 shots on my first charge with lots of playing around in menus and playing back. I got over 434 shots on my 2nd charge, with lots of continuous shooting/ I got 456 shots on my third charge.
The Canon SD700 smokes the SD550 for battery life. I get an average of 1,000 shots per charge on my SD700!
This is your best deal for any camera below $350 as of September 2006. It offers impeccable quality in a luxury product at a bargain price. If you shoot a lot in dim light as I do, go for the SD700 instead. In bright light the SD550 has a sharper lens and more resolution.
Remember to set the exposure compensation to -2/3 and the Vivid option to get professional exposures and color.
If you find this as helpful as a book you might have had to buy or a workshop you may have had to take, feel free to help me write more with a donation.
Thanks for reading!