The Canon Powershot A550 just about falls into the entry level bracket when it comes to price. With seven megapixels and a four times zoom lens it is one of the more advanced digital cameras available at this end of the price spectrum. Based on my tests I would also suggest that in paying slightly more for the Powershot A550 you will get a real step up in overall quality.
91.2 x 64.0 x 43.1mm
On the whole I was extremely impressed with the set of test shots produced by the Powershot A550. Although a little more expensive than some of the very cheapest models this camera can still be bought for a very reasonable price. Compared to other cameras in and around this price range I felt the pictures taken had a clear edge on all the rival cameras I have tested.
The outdoor scenic shots get my tests off to a very good start. Colours have a natural feel to them. I guess some people may prefer stronger colours, but the scenes are reproduced closely to how they looked on the day. Sharpness levels are good as well. This is especially noticeable in the second scenic shot. For this shot I completely zoom out. Other cameras have a tendency to produce a shot that becomes very soft around the edges, but the Powershot A550 stays sharp as you move away from the centre.
Any glare from the sun is also handled well. This means detail shows up through the lighter areas of the photos. This is true even in the lightest areas of the boats in the first outdoor shot.
The third shot is taken with the zoom fully extended. This camera has a slightly longer then standard zoom lens and it manages to take you in that bit closer. Again levels of sharpness hold up well.
The only negative comment I can come up with is the fact the corners of the second shot are a little dark. This is a minor gripe about a fairly common problem.
Looking at the dedicated test for colours this confirms my view that the camera is capable of producing strong colours without becoming too powerful. All the main colours are well balanced.
Although the outdoor portrait was taken in the shade the Powershot A550 still has a bit of a problem with the light falling on the face. This leads to a bit of a mix in the exposure with one side of the photo being bright and the other a little dark. In terms of colours the camera gets it about right. The hair and skin tones look fine.
For a camera at the lower end of the price range the Powershot A550 did very well in my indoor shots in poor light. Both the indoor portrait and shot of beer bottles are some way ahead of the shots I normally see taken by this type of camera. The shots are sharply focused considering the conditions and plenty of detail has been captured too. If there is one way that the photos could have been improved they could have been a touch lighter. In fairness that would be asking a lot.
The macro shot is pretty good. The shot is sharp and clear. My only other thought is that the photo could have been a bit brighter. This can be a problem when using macro modes that allow you to get right in close. Sometimes it can be difficult to get enough light in between the camera's lens and the subject.
You can increase ISO settings up to 800. I was pleased with the results of my higher ISO tests. While I would still only suggest using higher ISO ratings when you have to there is no great fall off in picture quality as you commonly see with many other cameras.
Shutter Lag and Recycling Times
With the flash off there is no real problem with shutter lag. It took 0.30 seconds for a single photo and 61.9 seconds for five. With the flash on it's a different story. It took 1.92 seconds for a single photo and 21.63 seconds for five shots. These are slow times with the flash on.
The 4x optical zoom lens has a focal length equivalent to 35 - 140mm in 35mm mode. The maximum aperture of the lens is f/2.6 - f/5.5. There is also a special feature called safety zoom. This increases the amount of zoom available to you when you shoot at a lower resolution. 4x digital zoom can also be used For close up work you can focus from 5cm in macro mode.
This is one of the few entry level digital cameras with a viewfinder. This can be a big help on bright, sunny days. There is also a 2 inch LCD screen. This is made up of around 86,000 pixels.
The flash modes available are Auto, Manual Flash On / Off. Red eye reduction and slow sync speed can be turned on and off. The maximum range of the flash is 3.5m. This falls to around 2.2m when the zoom lens is in use. The power of the flash unit can be boosted by using Canon's High Power Flash HF-DC1. This is an external flash unit that must be bought separately.
As with just about every digital camera there are a range of scene modes available. These are Portrait, Landscape, Night Snapshot, Indoor, Kids & Pets, Foliage, Snow, Beach, Fireworks and Night Scene. When you select a scene the camera will use preset controls to try and take the best possible shot.
Other useful features include being able to change colours (Vivid, Neutral, Sepia, Black & White, Custom Color), use continuous shooting, self timer (two or ten second delay) and add 60 seconds of voice commentary to a photo. All the cables and software you need to connect to a television, printer and computer are included in the box.
Once you get to know the camera you may wish to try using different metering modes (Evaluative, Centre-weighted average, Spot), exposure compensation (+/- 2 EV in 1/3 stop increments), ISO sensitivity (AUTO, High ISO Auto, 80, 100, 200, 400, 800) and white balance (Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Fluorescent H, Custom). Shutter speeds are controlled automatically by the camera. These work in the range 15 seconds to 1/2000 seconds.
Movies of up to one hour or one gigabyte can be recorded. The maximum resolution is 640 x 480 pixels. At this resolution the fastest recording speed is 30 frames per second. Sound can be recorded and zoom can be used while shooting. There is a second movie mode allowing you to shoot up to one minute of high speed footage at 60 frames per second. This is at a resolution of 320 x 240 pixels. This footage is then played back in slow motion and can be used to analyse subjects such as golf swings and tennis serves.
Ease of Use
If one of the primary features you are looking for is ease of use then I would suggest looking elsewhere. The Powershot A550 is not desperately difficult to use, but there are easier digital cameras out there. I would suggest being prepared to spend at least a small amount of time either reading the manual of experimenting with the camera to get the most out of it.
The Canon Powershot A550 is available for around £115. This compares to Fuji Finepix A700 (£95), Olympus FE-210 (£90) and Sony DSC S650 (£105).
In terms of looks the Powershot A550 resembles a mini SLR camera. It has a grip on the front to help hold the camera steady when taking a shot. It comes in silver. With dimensions of 91.2 x 64.0 x 43.1mm this is not a pocket sized camera. The grip on the front helps to increase the width of the camera. It weighs in at 160g.
Two AA batteries power the camera. Canon estimates you should be able to get around 140 shots from a standard set of alkaline batteries.
A 16mb card is supplied with the camera. I was only able to take eight shots before it was full. Although this is enough to run a very quick test you will need a higher capacity card before you can use the camera seriously. The Powershot A550 is compatible with SD and SDHC cards.
Click here to save money on SD cards.
Points I like:
Value for money
Where it is not so hot:
Shutter lag with flash on
Smallish LCD screen
As prices fall and you can pick up digital cameras by named brands for around £70 this is one of the more expensive cameras towards the lower end of the market. In my opinion though the Canon Powershot A550 underlines the fact that if you are prepared to pay a bit more for your digital camera you will be well rewarded when it comes to picture quality. Recommended.
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