Design and Handling

Appearance-wise the SD850 IS is the doppelganger of its predecessor, only the badge and the slightly lighter color of the camera back give away that this is an updated model. Like on most of the more recent IXUS/ELPH models, the SD850 Canon has given up the boxy shapes of earlier cameras and replaced them with something the PR department calls 'perpetual curve design'. Never mind the daft marketing speak, the SD850's shapes could be considered to be quite attractive although, as usual, beauty is obviously in the eye of the beholder.

The materials match the looks; the SD850 feels like a rock-solid yet luxurious piece of equipment in your hands. The body is beautifully built with an all-metal front and a high-quality plastic back. The camera has been put together with an admirable attention to detail: the pressure point on buttons is well defined and there is hardly any slackness in moving parts. The control layout is identical to the SD700's and should be familiar to users of any more recent Canon compact camera. You get external controls for flash, focus (macro or infinity), self-timer/drive and sensor sensitivity. The rather redundant direct print button doubles as the Auto ISO Shift button and everything else is accessed via the excellent FUNC menu.


With its smooth exterior and complete lack of a grip the SD850 does not appear to have been designed with one-handed operation in mind. In reality however, it is heavy enough to feel solid and stable, even when held with only one hand. The positioning of the shutter release and zoom rocker (identical to the predecessor) make single-handed operation easy and the image stabilization system counteracts your shakiness - though it's safer to use the provided wrist strap, just in case gravity takes its toll.

Key body elements

The main mode dial is set into the body on the top right 'shoulder' of the camera. There are five positions (play, rec-auto, rec-manual, scene and movie) and very stiff click-stops to make sure you don't move it by accident.
While the SD850's screen size is an unchanged (over SD700) 2.5 inches, resolution has been increased to 230,000 pixels thus displaying a very clear image. The screen is bright and has a scratch-resistant, anti-reflective coating which makes it surprisingly usable even in bright light. And that's definitely a good thing as the viewfinder is so tiny, you really only want to use it in emergencies.
The lens is identical to the SD700's. It is optically stabilized and while it covers a useful 35-140mm (4x) zoom range, we'd prefer a slightly wider wide-angle. The maximum aperture drops from F2.8 to F5.5 as you zoom from wide to tele. The lens collapses into the body when not in use.
The ubiquitous four-way controller is used to navigate the menu system and provides direct access to flash, macro, self-timer/drive mode and ISO. There is no external control for exposure compensation (you need to use the FUNC menu for that). Below the four-way controller are the DISP button (used to alter the amount of information overlaid on the display) and MENU button. The print button doubles as the slightly more useful ISO shift button.

Controls & Menus

Canon has been fine-tuning its user interface for several generations of PowerShot cameras, but the basic operation has remained the same, which is good news, because it works well, and is fast and intuitive. The SD850 features all the nifty new features seen on Canon's other more recent high end models, including Face Detection and Auto ISO Shift mode. The latter is quite a clever feature. If your shutter speed is too slow for a lighting situation at the sensitivity that you have set, in Auto ISO Shift mode the direct print button will flash a blue light. If you now press that button the camera will set sensitivity to the ISO value that Auto ISO would have chosen. Pretty useful stuff.

As usual you can change the amount of information shown on-screen (There is also a 'grid' option for those of us who struggle with straight horizons). Half-press the shutter release and the camera will calculate exposure (AE) and focus (AF) indicating focus point(s) chosen in AiAF mode (or detected faces in Face Detection mode), along with a camera shake warning if necessary.
Users of previous PowerShots will be perfectly at home with the record mode FUNC menu, which offers fast access to a wide range of controls over shooting and image parameters. With the mode dial turned to 'SCN' you can choose from 11 scene modes.
In the 'My Camera' menu you can 'personalize' your SD850 by selecting your favorite background image or shutter sound. Record mode menu allows you to customize everything from flash synch to the spot AE point and self-timer delay. It is also here where you'll find the options for image stabilization.
The setup menu (accessible from both playback and record modes) is where you find more general camera settings, including sound volume, power saving, date and time, LCD brightness, card formatting, language and video output format. The play menu offers the usual range of options, including protecting, rotating and deleting images, plus a sound recorder. You can apply 'My Colors' effects to saved images, which is much better than committing to it at the point you take the picture.
One of the three alternative play mode views includes a histogram display and exposure information. The usual options for viewing thumbnails (3x3) and magnifying (up to 10x) are available, as well as Canon's slide show options. The SD850 has Canon's Print menu, which simplifies the direct print process. Useful for digital photographers who are suffering from computer-phobia.