The Canon Powershot SD790 IS is a sharp little pocket-sized camera that is surprisingly flexible. While some point-and-shoot or ultracompact cameras offer only a few manual options, the SD790 is a pleasant surprise. Canon has packed this camera full of such things for shooters who like to have control over their photographs. At the same time, however, if you prefer letting the camera do your work for you, the "auto" mode is perfectly capable, as well. In short, this is a great camera to consider if you want a high-quality pocket camera prepared to handle almost any situation.
All the Speed You Need
The first thing you notice when you switch the SD790 on is its speed. Before the opening chime has finished sounding, the lens is extended and the LCD is illuminated. You're ready to shoot immediately. The quickness doesn't stop there: photo-recycle time, even with the flash on, is absolutely excellent. Lag time is basically a non-issue, even in quick shooting situations. Obviously, this isn't the best camera for snapping shots of a sporting event (you'll need a more substantial or advanced camera for that), but if you're taking photos of kids, animals, or anything else that moves reasonably quickly, the SD790 is quite capable of handling it.
Great Control for an Ultracompact
The SD790 IS offers a wide range of scene modes, providing quick camera settings for a variety of environments. These modes include underwater, foliage, night portraits, and indoor shooting, among others. All the old standbys are here, and they all work just fine. The real fun begins when you discover the high-end features packed into these menus. If you set the camera to manual mode, you're given control over exposure compensation, colors, and the white balance. The white balance even offers a "custom" option, where you can shoot your own white object to manually configure the meter correctly for particularly unusual lighting situations. Color me impressed.
Focus lock, Auto focus lock, face detection, and a choice of metering (evaluative, center weighted average, and spot) are all easy to use and give this camera the hands-on feeling often only associated with pro-sumer models. Having recently purchased the Canon 40D, a high-end, professional level dSLR, I was pleasantly surprised to find many of the features offered on that camera inside the SD790. Obviously they are marketed toward different crowds and different situations, but I like the fact that Canon is giving their casual consumers the chance to have this much control over their images.
Have Some Fun With Color
There are also some fun options, too. Color swap mode lets you transform a certain color to a different color while shooting, and color accent drops out every color except the one you've pre-selected. This leaves you with a black and white photo with highlights of color throughout. I'll admit that I was expecting Color Accent mode to look pretty cheesy; I had visions of those greeting cards that are all black and white except for the pink roses in the child's hand. In actuality, the result is subtle and beautiful; the color you've chosen shows up even in facets of the shadows and light, giving you a delicate wash of color and grays that look like you spent hours touching the image up in Photoshop.
Adequate Zoom Doesn't Really Impress
The SD790 IS offers a 3x optical zoom, which is pretty standard on a camera of this size. I sound spoiled, but I do wish it was a little more powerful. Nowadays, a 3x optical zoom seems to have the same effect of taking a few steps forward. It doesn't add much to the functionality of the camera, but it's better than nothing. I've never been a fan of digital zoom (the fake, unhelpful kind that usually messes up your photos), so I wasn't sure how I'd like the SD790's Digital Macro mode. It's essentially a combination of digital zoom and the camera's regular macro functions. My results were surprisingly successful. Focus is a bit hit or miss at this level, but if you take your time setting up the shot and half-press the shutter button to check and make sure the focus is capturing the area of the photo you want, the final photo looks like it was taken with a much more powerful and expensive lens.
Image Stabilization and Low-Light Shooting
The SD790 features built-in image stabilization and operates on the DIGIC III sensor. Low light photos are a pleasure to shoot. Rather than going grainy in low light situations, the SD790 reacts, as most Canon cameras seem to do, with a slight yellowish wash on the photos that I personally think is a gorgeous effect. If it bothers you, you have the option to adjust White Balance to remove the yellow tone, and you still end up with an extremely low-grain photo. My previous experience with Canons has convinced me that low light shooting is where this manufacturer is strongest, and the SD790 upholds that reputation admirably. The image stabilization eliminates camera blur in dark conditions with longer exposure times; it works so seamlessly I didn't even think about it, except when I looked back and realized the lack of blur in even my nighttime photos.
One Caveat: Control Dial Issues
Having said all that, there is one small caveat to this camera. When I first handled the camera, turned it on, and started shooting, I was sold. The slim, comfortable body, the big bright LCD, the quick response times It was then, however, that I discovered the SD790's Achilles heel: the control dial. The SD790, because it offers so many shooting options, has an interesting layout for cruising through menus. There is a toggle switch up top which scrolls through the various menu options, and once you're inside the menu you want, you're expected to turn the control knob on the back to scroll through the menu options. The control dial is flat, small, and textured; it seems you're supposed to turn it with the pad of your thumb.
The problem is that the dial is a drifter. Too fast of a turn and you will fly past the option you wanted; too slow of a turn, and it won't move at all. The sensitivity of the dial just doesn't seem conducive to comfortable changing of the settings, particularly if you were in a situation where you needed to move quickly. This may just be me; you might find that the dial doesn't bother you in the slightest, or that repeated use makes it easier to estimate the amount of strength needed to turn it properly (I did, in fact, get better at it as I spent a few days with the camera). But in spite of all of its strengths (and it has several), I highly recommend handling the SD790 before you purchase, solely due to this control dial. Make sure it's something you can live with before you buy the camera. It may differ from person to person depending on the sensitivity and size of your fingers. Honestly, the rest of the SD790's performance is so pleasing that I might be tempted to overlook the dial and buy the camera anyhow. But, especially considering how often you'd use it and how comfortable it is (or isn't) for you, that dial could be a deal breaker.