Canon PowerShot A460: User Report

This is a hands-on review of the entry-level (whatever that means) Canon PowerShot A460 camera which I have recommended and purchased for a friend who has no real experience in photography, digital or not.

The review may be too detailed or too technical for the intended camera user, but it is addressed rather (if not only) at a more advanced amateur, who is considering a camera model to be purchased for a friend or family member.

An almost identical model, the A450, is available on some markets. As per Canon specifications, and to the best of my knowledge, all I wrote on the A460 is also applicable to the A450, except for the zoom lens specifications (as remarked in the text).

The A460 image samples have their own page at this site.

The A460 turned off (lens retracted, left) and on.

(All camera images shot with an Olympus C-5060WZ, ISO 90, aperture priority at F/5.6.)

The limitations

Camera design is an art of compromises. Do not get an impression that one model will meet all your needs, and your pictures will become exhibition pieces overnight. Every camera is designed with some limitations and flaws imposed because of various reasons. In case of this model, three kinds of such limitations can be identified:

  • Price: the A460 aims near the bottom of the market, just above the $100 mark. (This one was bought from B&H, for $132 in March, 2007; as of mid-May, the price dropped to $120.)
  • Camera type (form factor): this is a shirt-pocket (or purse) camera; while not among the smallest models on the market, it is small enough to be carried around in a pocket or belt pouch.
  • Target user: a casual snapshooter, who will be using the camera mostly (maybe exclusively) in the all-auto mode, not missing any user-adjustable features (possibly being confused by these).

While catering to this market, manufacturers are walking a tightrope. Obviously, some features have to be omitted or some specifications downgraded because of cost considerations, but with the remaining ones there is always a problem: do not offer a feature and the user may feel too restricted; offer it — and the user may find it too advanced, complicating the camera operation, or even opening room for errors spoiling the pictures. To include some non-elementary features so that they do not stand in the way of those who do not need or want them is not always easy.

Even the same user may find a camera too complicated to use at first, and then, after having gained experience with it — too limited.

All this said, I will be looking at the A460 operation from both, often conflicting, angles: simplicity of operation and availability of features capable of improving your pictures. I will leave alone any features I classify as gimmicks, like movies, sound, or Internet access (just kidding!).

The specs and what they mean

Most of the camera's specs are available directly from the manufacturer; it is important, however, to know what they exactly mean, and how they affect your picture-taking experience and results. Sometimes the real information is obtained by juxtaposition of two different specifications, and often you have to read between the lines.

This is what I'm trying to do here for the Canon A460. In a few cases I am providing specifications not given by the manufacturer, based on my own deductions or experience with the camera.

Body

Form and finish: Brick shape, with lens hiding flush in the body. Metallic plastic, ports under rubber flaps.

The two-tone finish looks quite good, and does not give away the camera's price. No signs of cheapness here, a very nice job.

Size (WHD) and weight: 106×52×40 mm; 165g (5.8 oz) without batteries.

While not as small as some jewelry offerings, this is quite compact. The camera will fit into a shirt pocket, purse, or a small pouch. A smaller size would probably require using a proprietary battery (instead of the standard AAs), it would also affect either the performance or price — or, most probably both.

Yes, it is nice to have a camera which his just half an inch thick, but a folding lens which will fit this thickness will be a compromise, both optically and mechanically. It will also cost more.

Lens

Focal length:. 4× zoom range, 5.4-21.6 mm, equivalent to (i.e., providing the image angle as) a 38-152 mm lens on a 35 mm film camera.

The A450 model differs here: its zoom range is 5.4-17.3 mm, equivalent to 38-122 mm.

The 4:1 zoom ratio may seem generous, but an EFL (equivalent focal length) range starting from 28, or even 32 mm would be much more useful, especially (but not only) indoors. A 38 mm EFL is barely a wide angle (with 44 mm corresponding to the frame diagonal, generally recognized as providing a "normal" perspective).

Unfortunately, while most of camera buyers know what a 4× zoom means, they have no clue about the significance of the wide-angle end of the range. It is easier and cheaper to make a 4× zoom staring at the 38 mm EFL, than a 3× one starting at 28 mm (and being much more useful). The camera makers have no interest in educating the market; they just make what people want to buy.

Maximum aperture: F/2.8 at EFL=38mm, F/5.8 at EFL=152mm.

This is not impressive, but typical for supercompact zoom lenses.

On the A450, the maximum aperture ranges from F/2.8 at EFL=38 mm to F/5.1 at EFL=122 mm.

Optical construction: 7 elements in 6 groups, one aspherical element, (probably) multicoated.

This is, I would think, quite a complex construction for a compact zoom in an inexpensive camera, probably necessitated by the 4× zoom range. I would suspect at least some of the elements to be made from molded plastic — don't expect an all-glass construction unless you are willing to pay twice the price, if not more.

Aperture adjustment: Not specified.

My samples show that the A460 uses just two apertures: fully open and closed down by three F-stops. For example, at the widest angle it will use either F/2.8 or F/8, and nothing in-between.

This indicates that the camera does not have an iris diaphragm, but just a swinging plate with a single opening. A cost-cutting approach, commonly used in this class of cameras.

While this solution is often criticized as offering no control over depth of field (DOF), this criticism is not really valid, for three reasons:

  • These cameras (including the A460) usually lack the aperture priority mode which would be required to control DOF anyway;
  • The tiny, 1/2.5" or 1/3" (A460) sensor offers humongous DOF anyway; not much control left;
  • Most of the buyers in this market segment do not know what DOF is and how to control it.

A more real disadvantage is how this affects program exposure. While a normal program increases both the shutter speed and F-number as the light level rises, the A460 cannot do that, as there are only two available F-numbers. When the transition between available F-number occurs, the shutter speed will rapidly drop down, to start its gradual rise again. This leads to situations when an increase in light level causes an actual drop in shutter speed, not something you would expect or want to happen.

Mechanical: Collapsible, motorized construction, plastic barrel.

The lens folds or unfolds when the camera is powered down or up, respectively. The folded lens is protected from dust and fingerprints by a closing barrier, also motorized.

This may be not the most mechanically robust solution, but it takes less room than a sliding clamshell cover, and I haven't heard any complaints of its failing in similar models.

Zoom control: Electric motor, activated with up- and down-arrow buttons on camera's back.

The lack of dedicated lever or switch to adjust the zoom angle is clearly an economy measure, and I do not like it.

First of all, it is less ergonomic than other solutions in similar models. Second, the down-arrow button is also used for deleting of images; if you try to zoom out right after the picture was taken (with the preview still being displayed), you will find yourself in the delete confirmation (yes/no) screen, which is unintended and confusing, especially with the monitor screen not very readable in bright outdoors light. It was happening to me all the time during my sessions with the camera.

The zoom control is not precise: the whole range of focal lengths is covered by just seven or eight discrete positions. For a 4× zoom this is not enough for many users.

Filters accepted: None.

Normal in this class of cameras.

Optical viewfinder

Type: Real image; zooming in synch with the lens.

The finder is better than I expected; larger than in the Nikon subcompacts I've tried two years ago when shopping for a similar camera for my wife. Most importantly, it is there, while most competing models do not offer an optical finder at all. While many users are happy with the LCD screen for image preview, those screens are barely usable in bright light, and the A460 is no exception here.

Field coverage: Not specified

Most manufacturers do not specify the finder coverage, as this usually is nothing to boast about. My rough estimate (with no measurements made) is that the A460 viewfinder covers 75±5% of the actual image vertically and horizontally (about 55% area coverage),.

If not impressive (or even adequate), the finder coverage is no worse than in other models I've tried, and, certainly, better than no optical finder at all. Just remember than you picture will include 30% more in each dimension than the finder shows.

Parallax correction: None.

Not expected in this price range; not seen in any digital camera except the $4000 Leica M9.

Information shown in finder: None. Two LEDs next to the eyepiece signal focus OK, and a need for flash.

Diopter correction: None.

This became a rule in less expensive cameras, take it or leave it. If you are wearing eyeglasses, check before buying if you can live with this.

LCD monitor

Type: Color, active matrix (TFT).

A solution we expect from any compact digital camera.

The viewing angle is quite wide in the horizontal plane, which is useful if you are reviewing taken pictures with someone else standing next to you. In the vertical plane, however, this angle is limited to twenty or thirty degrees at best, which is very bad for today's cameras. Shooting "over the head" or low-angle pictures is severely impaired by this.

The brightness can be adjusted from the menu system, like in most similar cameras I've seen.

Physical size: 30×40 mm; 50 mm (2") diagonal.

This is smaller than in many of the competing models, which offer 2.5" monitors. On the other hand, it is better than 1.8" seen on many others (not to mention 1.5" monitors used on some of the earlier compacts). The modest size also allows to keep the camera profile low. Besides, at this resolution (see below) a bigger monitor would be not really better.

Pixel count: 86 thousand pixels, or slightly better than 320x240 resolution.

(These are not really pixels, but single RGB points; the actual number of pixels is three times smaller. All camera makers use this misleading notation in specifying their monitors.)

The monitor resolution is poor: it is at the level entry-level compacts from three years ago or earlier. While adequate for most purposes, it is quite disappointing in 2007.

Field coverage: 100%.

I haven't checked this figure, but there is no reason to doubt it. Why not, it does not cost any more to show the whole frame.

Shutter

Type: Electronic and mechanical.

This approach is used in most of compact cameras.

It is not quite clear how this particular system works, but I believe that the mechanical shutter is closed just before the picture is taken, to allow for the sensor to be flushed in darkness; then it re-opens for the actual exposure, which is timed by electronic gating of the sensor (i.e., making it sensitive or insensitive to the incoming light). It is possible that it closes and re-opens again after the exposure, but I am not sure. Anyway, this means that it does not need to be very accurate, because the effective exposure time is controlled electronically.

Speed range: 15-1/2000 s (as specified by Canon, depending on exposure mode).

The speeds between 15 and 1 s are accessible only in the Long Shutter Mode (which does not offer light metering or aperture control), therefore it would be more honest not to include them into specifications. As for the longest shutter available in auto modes, Canon does not offer any information; it seems to be around one second. This is enough for any applications the camera will be used for.

Drive modes: Single-frame, continuous, self-timer

In the single-frame mode a picture is taken every time you press the shutter button. In the continuous mode the camera will keep taking pictures at 1.5 frames per second for as long as the shutter release is kept depressed (until the memory card is full).

According to Canon, the camera will keep up with continuous shooting until the memory card is full, if equipped with the recommended (read: sold by Canon) "super high speed" SDC-512MSH card. For others the sequence may be limited by the internal memory buffer capacity. This is the least of my worries.

The self-timer can be set to either two- or ten-second delay; there is also a custom delay setting. The two-second setting may be useful when shooting from a tripod, as the camera lacks a remote release. The custom delay is another feature which seems to be included just to bloat the feature list.

Exposure metering and control

Meter type: TTL (through the lens), using the CCD imager itself; Selectable between matrix, center-weighted, or spot metering pattern.

TTL metering with use of the image sensor is a standard solution in non-SLR digital cameras. Ironically, it may be more accurate than TTL metering using separate, dedicated sensors, like that in digital SLRs. The matrix (or evaluative) metering system in the A460 seems to be just fine; nothing to complain about.

Adding spot and center-weighted metering to a camera like this seems to be a waste, especially when hidden deep in the menu system. I doubt any of the intended users if this camera will stop shooting, go into the menu system, and switch to the spot mode to critically expose for a given point of the scene.

Exposure control modes and programs: Full auto, auto with exposure compensation (referred to as "manual", which is simply not true), and eight "scene modes" (specialized programs): Portrait, Night Snapshot, Kids & Pets, Indoors, Snow, Beach, and Fireworks.

The specialized programs can be quite useful in a camera with no explicit access to shutter and aperture settings, as they will adjust these settings (hopefully) as needed in a given situation.

For example, a beach scene will usually benefit from a positive exposure compensation, as the beach has an average brightness above the medium-gray 18% assumed in most other kinds of scenes.

It is possible that the scene modes adjust not just exposure parameters, but also others (contrast, saturation, and more). Unfortunately, the user manual does not provide any explanations on how the setting are adjusted in scene modes; as usual, the manufacturer assumes that the "average user" will be too ignorant to understand any explanations: Just trust us and press the big, shiny button. While the assumption may me mostly true, I still find it offending. Even a beginner does not deserve being treated as an idiot.

The choice between exposure modes is done with the control wheel on camera's back (for "scene modes" you also have to use the monitor to choose the one you need).

Both Auto and Manual positions on the wheel actually set the camera to a program exposure mode. The difference is that in "Manual" (quotes intentional) you also have access to exposure compensation, white balance, and some others settings, but not to the aperture or shutter speed (except for those above one second, but this is another story).

Why, for crying out loud, why does Canon refer to that as "manual", which is quite misleading and just not true? One of the main advantages of having a generally accepted terminology is that it can be used without explaining every time what a given term means. For the last fifty years we've been using the word "manual exposure" in a meaning that the photographer directly controls both aperture and shutter speed, period. Now we have some marketing Einstein from Canon who decided that he can use this term for whatever he wants; in this case for autoexposure with compensation. Well, it may look better on comparison sheets, but for me it is simply a misrepresentation. What next? "Manual exposure" because you still have to press the button manually?

Exposure compensation: Up to 2 EV stops in 1/3 stop increments.

In my book, this is the most useful adjustment on any camera. No exposure program is capable of "knowing" how bright or dark we want the picture to turn out, and no such program can shift the exposure to offer the desired protection of the shadows or, more importantly, highlights in the image.

This is not really an "advanced feature". My wife and her friend (both using the compact Olympus C-60) know nothing about shutter speed or aperture settings, but both are using the exposure compensation successfully to get the images the way they want them.

I believe the exposure compensation should be available either directly (i.e., without going through the menu system), or, at most, after pressing one button. Unfortunately, this is not the case for the A460, for which you have to know where to look for this adjustment: you have to be in the "manual" mode, press the [FUNC.SET] button and then scroll down to get there. While not terribly complicated, it is not as direct as it should be. This is one of my biggest complaints about this camera.

To be honest, most other compact models do not offer this feature either, and if they do (some of Olympus models), they are missing another critical feature: the optical viewfinder, which the A460 has. This is not a perfect world.

For outdoors shooting in sunny weather I usually recommend just setting the compensation to -0.3 EV and leaving it there. This also seems to work best for the A460, with the default "auto" delivering results somewhat too washed out for my taste.

Exposure lock: Yes, with the shutter release.

Half-pressing the shutter freezes both exposure and focus, so that the picture can be re-composed and taken with the those settings. Again, this is one of the simplest tricks a beginner can learn to improve the quality of the resulting pictures.

ISO settings: Auto, from ISO 80 to 400.

While in the Auto mode the CCD gain (ISO) can be adjusted by the autoexposure system (moved up in low light to avoid camera shake), in "manual" it can be also set to a selected value (80, 100, 200, or 400). This is nice, as many of similar models do not offer any control over this setting.

White balance: Auto, sunny, cloudy, incandescent, fluorescent (two settings), and custom.

Settings other than Auto are available only in the "manual" mode. As with almost any digital camera I've tried, I found that for outdoors shooting the manual setting to Sunny or Cloudy works best.

The "custom" WB setting is actually adjusting the WB "by reference": find the setting in the menu system, point the camera at a white (or neutral-gray) surface, and press the [Menu] button. It is very useful for tricky WB situations, although most of the entry-level users will never use it.

Frankly speaking, I haven't used this feature over the ten days of experimenting with the A460, so I cannot really say how well it works on this camera.

Focusing:

Autofocus: Passive system (using the image sensor); 0.5 m (1.5 ft) to infinity. No manual focusing.

The AF mechanism can use five areas of the image, or just a single, central spot. The former is referred to as AiAF (possibly "Artificial Intelligence AF", which does not mean much), and can be de-activated from the [FUNC.SET] menu. While most users will be happy with the AiAF (being the default), a possibility to switch to the single spot (combined with the AF/AL lock, see above) offers more control over where exactly the camera will focus, and more discerning photographers may find it useful.

Interestingly, pressing the right-arrow button provides access not just to the choice between normal and macro modes (see below), but also to the "infinity" setting. This means disabling of the AF system and setting the focus (most probably) at the hyperfocal distance (which depends on the focal length zoomed to).

This may be a more useful feature than it seems. First, the AF will be no longer confused with the lack of detail to focus on (like, for example, when the sky occupies a large part of the frame). Second, the shutter release will be more responsive, as there is no longer any AF lag.

According to Canon, the "infinity" setting provides sufficient sharpness (more exactly: depth of field) for objects between 3 m and infinity. I find this number suspect, first of all because this value should depend on the focal length to which the zoom lens is set.

Have a look at some numbers (for details on how they were derived, you may check my Depth of Field article):

  • At the wide end (F=5.4 mm), even at the full aperture of F/2.0, the DOF is very large. If you set the focus to the so-called hyperfocal distance of 2.4 m, everything between 1.2 m and infinity will be in acceptable focus. The Canon data seems too conservative here.
  • At the tele end (F=21.6 mm), the best one can do at the full aperture of F/5.6 is to set the focus to the hyperfocal distance of about 19 m; the acceptable sharpness will then range from about 10 m to infinity — far from the claimed 3 m. Even Canon, with their market share, cannot change the laws of optics.

    If the aperture is closed down to the second available value (probably F/16, three stops from the full opening), the DOF may extend from about 3.5 m to infinity. This is close enough to the claimed value of 3 m, but available only at F/16 — would that mean that in the "infinity" setting the camera exposure automation uses only that aperture?

Anyway, the manual does not offer any explanations on the subject. Therefore I would rather use the infinity setting only at wider zoom settings.

Canon does not specify how many focusing steps are used, but with the large depth of field this is not so important, at least in the short-to-middle zoom range.

Close focus: Yes, with the close focus limit depending on the zoom setting.

The A460 has an easily accessible "macro" setting, allowing close focusing down to 4 cm at the wide end of the zoom angle, and to 25 cm at the tele end (the camera will not focus all the way to infinity in this mode, so it has to be reset back after use).

Macro: Yes, down to 1 cm (at the widest lens angle only).

The real macro focusing mode, referred to as "Super Macro", works only with the lens zoomed out to the widest angle, and allows to shoot from very close distances: 1 to 5 cm.

At the closest distance, the field of view is less than 17 mm wide, which in the world of 35-mm film cameras would be referred to as 2:1 magnification. This is impressive, although not unusual for digital cameras with small sensors.

The resulting images are quite sharp in the central part, with the quality rapidly degrading off-center. Still, this is better than nothing, and it looks good on a specs sheet. Besides, in many macro scenes the center sharpness is all you care about.

Flash

Built-in flash range and GN: Usable range: from 0.5 to 3 m (wide) or to 2.0 m (tele); no specifications on the guide number.

This is, according to Canon, in the auto-ISO mode; therefore I may assume that ISO 400 is used at the far end of the distance range. This gives a guide number of 11 (in meters) at that setting, or about 6, when converted to ISO 100. In simple terms, the built-in flash is very, very feeble, providing about half of the light output of similar models I've checked two years ago.

Still, I don't see this as much of a problem. Some shots I took with flash indoors at moderate distance of 1.5-2 m turned out to be exposed OK (the camera used ISO 200). Yes, higher ISO means higher noise, but who would expect good results shooting with a built-in flash anyway?

While Canon does not specify the flash recharge time, it seems to be close to five seconds or so, at least at moderate distances, when rechargeable NiMH batteries are used.

Flash metering: not specified.

It is possible that the camera uses through-the-lens metering, but one may also suspect that some other solution is used — for example, output adjustment based on the autofocus information. Most probably, we will never know.

Flash usage modes: Auto, off, forced on; red-eye reduction and slow synch also available.

Personally, I prefer to set the flash manually to always on or always off, not taking chances with the camera making that decision. Fortunately, one of the cursor buttons is dedicated to flash mode switching.

That button allows only to toggle between auto, on, and off modes. The red-eye reduction function is achieved with the AF-assist lamp and does not involve a pre-flash (which is good news if you want to use a slave flash unit). Activating it requires digging into the menu system, so most users will prefer just to leave it on.

The "slow synchro" flash mode (accessed, again, from the menu) will use a longer shutter speeds even with flash. This is quite frequently used when photographing night or dusk scenes in ambient light, with the foreground illuminated mostly by the flash. I haven't used this feature while checking the A460 out.

External flash: available HF-DC1.

This flash can be mounted aside the camera body on a bottom rail, using the camera's tripod socket. It allegedly provides a GN of 18 m at ISO 100, which is, according to my estimates, about ten times more light output than the camera's built-in flash (I find this claim a bit suspect; this may be a misunderstanding).

This is a slave unit, which means it is triggered by the camera's built-in flash (or any other flash going off in the general proximity).

There are three downsides to this solution:

  • Cost and availability: at $100 it is heavily overpriced for such a unit; it also seems to be out of stock at the major U.S. retailers I've checked (May, 2007).
  • It uses a throw-away CR-123A lithium battery, not rechargeable AA's.
  • It has to be mounted using an adjustable rail, not snapped on a hot shoe.

The HF-DC1 flash seems to have a light sensor at the front face, therefore this is probably a thyristor unit, providing its own light metering. It seems, however, that it receives no information from the camera on aperture and ISO used, therefore any exposure automation it provides is of a dubious value.

Canon does not provide any meaningful data on the HF-DC1, except for calling it "smart and powerful" in the press release (February, 2005). I am afraid that "smart" in this context may mean just "it does not blow up" (like in many similar press releases), therefore I find the HF-DC1 hard to recommend.

Image sensor and storage

Image sensor: 1/3" CCD (charge-coupled device), 5 megapixels.

The exact pixel count is 5.04 million pixels (or 4.81 "binary" megapixels).

The "sensor size" quoted as a fraction of an inch does not describe the actual size of the sensor. In this case it means: the sensor size is 1/3 of that of a TV camera sensor built in the Sixties, and enclosed in a glass tube 1" in diameter. Do not ask me why camera manufacturers stick to this notation. It is quite meaningless, and therefore I'm afraid it is going to stick around for years to come.

The actual size of the image is a tiny 3.7×4.9 mm. This is the smallest size used in mainstream digital cameras. It has some advantages (mostly for camera makers) and some disadvantages.

On one hand, noise and other possible adverse effects are more difficult to control. Images from sensors this small require quite a lot of in-camera postprocessing to make them presentable, and this is never a good thing. On the other, the tiny sensor size provides a huge depth of field, compared to larger sensors at the same lens angle and aperture. For example, at the aperture of F/2.8, the DOF provided by the A460 will be as large as in a 35-mm film camera with the same view angle (EFL=38 mm) at F/20. While more advanced users may be complaining about having no control over DOF (read: being unable to blur the background out of focus), most of the holiday shooters will be happy having most everything in the frame in sharp focus, at least at wider lens angles.

Canon wisely chose to keep the sensor resolution at 5 MP. This is enough for good prints up to 9×12" (22×30 cm), as long as the lens is good enough. Raising the pixel count would not make images any better; to the contrary. The most visible difference would be an increase in file sizes.

Native image resolution: 2592×1944 pixels.

This is the "digital" aspect ratio of 4:3, usually more pleasing to the eye than the 3:2 one, used with 35-mm film. One day the photofinishers will learn about this, and we may see 6×4.5" prints instead of 6×4" ones (the larger sizes are closer to 4:3, but most of the printing is still at 4×6").

The camera can be also set to save images in smaller, interpolated resolutions: 2048×1536 (3MP), 600×1200 (2MP), and 640×480 (VGA). It can also do that in a "wide" format of 2592×1456 (almost 4 MP, close to the 8:5 aspect ratio). I'm not fond of such options, as it is too easy to forget to switch back to the full format afterwards, while any resizing and/or cropping can be done easily after images are uploaded to your computer.

File format and compression: JPEG only, three compression ratios: Superfine, Fine, and Normal.

Canon is quite liberal in assigning names to its compression ratios. The Advanced Camera User Guide does not mention what these ratios are.

My calculations, based on card capacity quoted by Canon, lead to the following estimates of compression rates:

  • Superfine: file size of 2.7 MB; compression ratio 1:5.4
  • Fine: file size of 1.5 MB, compression ratio 1:9.6
  • Normal: file size of 0.9 MB; compression ratio 1:16

These are similar to compression ratios used in other cameras in this class. With the prices of high-capacity SD cards being really low, I would recommend getting an inexpensive 1 GB (or larger) card, setting the camera to Superfine compression, full image size, and forgetting about other options.

Storage media: MultiMedia (MMC) or Secure Digital (SD) card, compatible with the SDHC standard.

The SD cards became as much of a standard as the Compact Flash ones, and are available in capacities of up to 2 GB; the new SDHC go all the way to 8 GB. Canon explicitly states the A460 is compatible with the SDHC standard, although I haven't tried it with such a card.

At the current (May, 2007) prices there is simply no excuse to get anything smaller than 1 GB ($10-$15). The 16 MB card included with the camera is a joke.

Power source

Batteries: Two AA-type batteries (NiMH recommended).

While the camera will use alkalines, they will be dead in a very short time, and should be used only in emergencies. A set of four NiMH batteries is a necessary investment.

Of those, I would recommend the Sanyo eneloop (sic! lowercase!) type. They may be a bit more expensive ($12 or so for a set of four) and not easy to find, but this is the only type using the modified chemistry, which provides a very low rate of self-discharge. If you store a camera with regular, fully charged NiMH batteries in it, they will be almost empty after two months, while the eneloops will be still 90% full. Very convenient.

In the last months some other makers introduced NiMH batteries with similar claims, but I would rather exercise caution, until these prove themselves.

A pair of AA's may be somewhat larger than a dedicated Li-Ion battery of a similar capacity, but the latter are quite expensive, usually at $30-$40 apiece (remember, you would need two to get anywhere).

Battery life: 400 shots with LCD on, 1300 with LCD off; 11 hours of image preview.

These are Canon's data, based on the CIPA standard (often used in such tests), and using a particular NiMH battery type. While I haven't benchmarked the battery life in the A460, my experience with the camera lets me suspect these numbers are rather exaggerated. My new, freshly loaded NiMH batteries (2000 mAh capacity) lasted for about four hours of playing with the camera and about 50 frames taken with no flash.

This is still quite good, no complaints.

Charger: None included. Another necessary investment, unless you already have one. Do not try to save $10 on a charger; many of those will not switch into the trickle mode when your batteries are recharged, and this will gradually degrade their performance. Also avoid "fast" chargers for the same reason.

External power supply: Optional ACK800.

I doubt if many buyers of the A460 will invest in this one.

Controls and interfaces

Camera top: shutter release, on/off switch button.

The shutter release is among the worst ones I've ever tried: stiff and easily causing camera shake. I also dislike the decision to have the on/off switch as a button on the camera's top, but this may be subjective.

Back side: This is where most of the controls are:

  • Viewfinder eyepiece with two LEDs;
  • Color LCD monitor;
  • Mode dial, placed vertically; it has five positions:
    • Play (green arrow) for reviewing images;
    • Auto (camera symbol) for the all-auto picture-taking mode;
    • Manual (camera with an M) for the "manual" mode (which is not really manual, see Exposure metering and control above);
    • [SCN] for the "scene modes" (the actual selection is done from the LCD screen);
    • Movie (a movie camera symbol) for taking movie clips; a functionality I usually ignore when dealing with a photo camera.
  • [DISP] button, activating the LCD display
  • [MENU] for accessing the menu with less essential camera settings (mostly user's preferences);
  • [FUNC SET] for another menu, used to adjust most of the picture-taking parameters;
  • A separate button used for printing and computer connection;
  • Four arrow buttons in a circle with the OK/menu button in the center.

The cursor keys have a dual role: when a menu is being accessed, they serve for navigation; otherwise each of them has an extra function assigned.

  • The up- and down-arrows are used for zooming;
  • The left one can switch between regular AF, close-up, and infinity focus modes;
  • The right-arrow scrolls through various flash setting.

Right side: The USB and power sockets under a rubber cover; a hinged door providing access to the battery compartment and memory card.

The battery/card compartment door has a safety latch, often overlooked in this camera class, and this is a nice touch. The covers are well-made and fit well.

Left side: Audio/video terminal (a 1/8" concentric plug standard).

Bottom: Tripod socket (plastic), adequate for the purpose; backup battery compartment.

The backup battery (a button, CR-1220 type) provides the voltage needed to keep the date (and possibly some other settings) from being lost when the main batteries are being exchanged. It has to be changed periodically, probably once a year, to be on the safe side. (There is nothing worse than hundreds of pictures marked with a wrong date!)

All digital cameras I have used in the past used a capacitor for this purpose. While this may seem like a simpler (read: better) solution, these capacitors often fail with time, and the repair is disproportionately expensive.

Front: Lens, viewfinder, flash, and AF-assist lamp (doubling up as a self-timer signal and red-eye reduction aid).

The control interface

The vertical mode dial described above works OK. All other functions require the use of one of the buttons on the camera's back side, with the feedback provided on the LCD monitor.

Disregarding the zoom function, only two adjustments are directly assigned to buttons:

  • Focus mode (auto, close-up, infinity), changed by pressing the left arrow;
  • Flash mode (auto, always on, off), toggled with the right arrow.

This is just plain wrong. First of all, zooming with the cursor keys is counter-intuitive and inconvenient. A rocker switch in the top-right corner of the camera back or on its top would be much better, and more easily accessible. Second, this would free the up- and down-arrows for other functions, not accessible directly in the current design. Of these, exposure compensation would be most useful. Third, the down-arrow is also used to delete the currently viewed picture — not just in the Play (green arrow) mode, but also during a few-second review immediately after the picture has been taken. This is often exactly the moment you may want to use to zoom out for an alternative take, and what you get instead is a delete confirmation dialog. It used to happen to me all the time during the time I've spent with the camera, and I find it most irritating. A botched design.

Other controls are nothing to write home about, either. The menu system (or rather two systems, slightly differing in how they work) are accessed with two different buttons: [MENU] and [FUNC.SET]. The idea behind this approach is clear: the former is intended for the rarely accessed settings (user preferences), while the latter &mdash: for the adjustments more likely to be done "in the field".

In reality, however, the borderline between these two groups of operations is not always clear.

The adjustment screens accessible with the [FUNC.SET] button work in a logical way: scroll down to a feature, and then to the side in order to change it. Unfortunately, some of these good-looking icons may be quite cryptic and have to be memorized. Textual descriptions may look not so good, but they do not require memorization.

Canon's approach is most useful to those of us who cannot read, as long as they can find someone who will read to them the parts of the manual, explaining what the icons mean.

To make things more confusing, some adjustments require using both buttons: first the [FUNC.SET] one, and then, while inside some adjustment screen, [MENU], to bring another, sometimes only loosely related, choice.

For example, to set a long shutter speed (as useless as this feature may be in the A460, see above), you have to press the [FUNC.SET] button, scroll down to the exposure compensation screen, and while in that screen, press the [MENU] button to get to the one with long speeds.

In a similar fashion, to change the image size you have to enter the image compression screen (using [FUNC.SET] and arrow buttons), and then press [MENU] to get to the size screen. Oh, yes, to leave that, you have to press [MENU] again.)

I understand that accessing a plethora of functions with just a few external controls is never easy to design. This, however, looks like someone wanted to complicate things on purpose.

And then, out of the blue, we have a separate button (bottom right), dedicated only for printing directly from the camera and for switching between different computer connection modes! What a luxury: a dedicated button just for that! In my humble opinion, assigning this button to anything else would have made more sense. What about exposure compensation? Anyone can learn in ten minutes how to use that to make his/her pictures better, and then the feature comes handy in almost every frame shot. On the other hand, how many times a day do you connect your camera directly to the printer? (In my case the answer is zero, but for some people it may be one, but not more.)

The way things are in the A460, to lighten up or darken your picture, you have to press the [FUNC.SET] button, scroll down to the exposure compensation menu, and only then to use the arrow keys for the adjustment. One or two extra button presses in the process make a huge difference; I bet very few users will ever access this feature, and that's a shame.

Other features

Settings at power-up: Default presets (in the "Auto" mode) or last used (in "Manual").

The quotes are intentional, as "Manual" is not really manual here; see above. Aside of that, this makes sense.

Self-timer: Electronic, 10 s, 2 s, or custom delay.

The money and effort spent for implementing the custom delay in the firmware could be better used elsewhere. Anywhere.

Voice annotation: Up to 60 seconds.

To attach a sound clip to an image, you have to switch the camera to the Play mode, use cursor keys to find the image, then press [FUNC.SET] to get into the recording menu, navigate to the [Record] button and press [FUNC.SET] again to start recording. Oh, yes, then you will have to use a similar sequence to stop it.

Most of non-SLR cameras have this feature, but I've never had a need for it (I've tried it once, back in 2001, just to forget about it). Still, all manufacturers feel that the market demands it. Or, maybe they want the market to demand it?

Noise reduction: Yes, automatically activated with shutter speeds longer than 1.2 s.

This is according to Canon, as I've never used this feature on the A460. These shutter speed are accessible only through the menu system, and they provide no exposure metering anyway.(This is, I believe, the static noise reduction, done by subtracting a "dark frame" from the image.)

Digital zoom: Up to 4x, accessible at the longest lens setting.

Once again: the so-called "digital zoom" has nothing to do with zoom lens. The camera saves just the central part of the full frame, resized in pixels. You can do it better when postprocessing your image on a computer (or when just printing it).

When the "digital zoom" is enabled, it is easy to activate it by mistake just by zooming in. I would recommend disabling this feature and forgetting about it.

External interfaces: USB, power in, TV audio/video.

The TV output can be switched between NTSC and PAL.

The USB interface allows you to plug your camera to a computer or to a printer (supporting the PictBridge standard).

For reasons which I find difficult to comprehend, Canon decided against making the A460 a storage-class USB device, which means that your operating system will see the camera as a source of image files (like a scanner), but not as another disk drive. I find this disappointing.

It's not just about the A460 being an entry-level camera. Aven the latest SLR from Canon, the EOS 40D, shares this limitation.

In-camera image editing: none.

Some cameras allow you for in-camera cropping, or conversion to monochrome. I'm not missing these features; they are much better done later, on a computer.

Interface language): User-selectable.

One of the Settings menus allows you to choose from 25 different languages, including Chinese (two versions), Ukrainian, and Thai. The exact choice may depend on the market (my camera was bought in the U.S.)

Printing support: PictBridge or Canon proprietary.

With the compatible printers, you can print your images directly from the camera without a computer. This makes life easier for the users who do not know how to take the memory card out of the camera.

Frankly speaking, I've never used (and never have met anyone who did) this feature, so I can't tell you how well it works.

Movie mode: QuickTime Motion JPEG format, with WAVE sound.

Movie clips can be recorded in one of three formats:

  • 640×480 pixels at 10 frames/second (up to card capacity or 2 GB, whichever is smaller);
  • 320×240 pixels at 30 FPS (ditto);
  • 160×120 pixels at 15 FPS (up to three minutes).

This feature is not more than just a trinket in a photo camera. I consider it, again, to be a waste of resources, but some users may find it entertaining, if not really useful.

Startup time, card-writing speed, shutter lag: Not specified.

The start-up time is below two seconds, which I consider fully acceptable. Single frames can be shot every 1.5 s or so, which is also OK.

Some reviewers complain about the 5-6 seconds time the camera needs between shots when the flash is being used. Wake up, smell the coffee! What would you expect from 2 AA batteries? This is perfectly normal.

The shutter lag is normal for non-SLR cameras: about half a second; significantly less if the autofocus was frozen by half-pressing the release.

Documentation: two manuals: Basic and Advanced; Software Starter Guide.

The manuals are printed (at least on the U.S. market), and in a single language.

The Basic Camera User Guide (35 pages) provides some information useful to people who never handled a camera before; much of it obvious to anyone who is not legally blind and takes a look at the camera. Removing that would allow to reduce that manual to a smaller size, which, I believe, could be more handy. Still, it is not worse than for other cameras I've seen.

The Advanced Camera User Guide (110 pages or so) contains, obviously, more information, but leaves quite a many obvious questions unanswered. This is, again, normal among camera manufacturers, and Canon is no worse than most.

Still, any user who would like not to be limited to pressing the big, shiny button in the full auto mode, should read this manual carefully.

The Software Starter Guide (a PDF file on the included CD) deals with the software included with the camera (see below). It actually may be the best-written of three manuals discussed here, except that it also contains descriptions of features not available with the A460, referring you to the other manuals for details (and these, obviously, mostly refer you back without providing the information).

Included software: Canon Digital Camera Solution Disk v. 3.0.

If you are not using any other image-processing or image-managing software, you may want to install the programs provided on the CD. It consists of three components:

  • Zoom Browser EX — an image management program with the basic editing features;
  • A TWAIN driver (allowing to download images from the camera);
  • PhotoStitch an application for stitching multiple frames into a panoramic image.

As the TWAIN driver is not directly accessed by the user, and PhotoStitch can be invoked from the Zoom Browser (so that it behaves like its part), the only program you will expressly used is the latter.

The TWAIN driver is not supplied in the MacIntosh version; the Mac OS one will work OK with the camera. (Actually, the latter is also true for most Windows installations: I was able to download the images using the TWAIN driver in my XP, without installing anything from the Canon CD.)

Unfortunately, I do not have any experience with the Zoom Browser, as I prefer not to install any software duplicating the functionality of what I already have. From the manual description, however, it looks civilized, probably better than the Olympus MAster software I've used.

Image quality

Now the good news. The image quality delivered by the A460 defies any preconceptions about small sensor size, entry-level cameras, or price.

Except for the Super Macro mode (which is quite bad), my images from the A-460 were quite pleasing: sharp, well-exposed (especially with a -0.3 EV compensation applied), with good colors. At the wide-angle end, the lens suffers from considerable barrel distortion, but this is not objectionable in most situations.

Some people criticize the A460 for what they consider excessive noise: small sensor equals huge noise equals trash. Not true. I've printed cropped frames from that camera, shot at ISO 80 or 100, to 8×11" (more than 18×24 cm) and the noise turned out to be a non-issue: less of it than from a ISO 100, 35 mm negative. It is not really obtrusive even when images are viewed on a contrasty computer screen in the full pixel size (where the screen area shows only a fragment of the full frame).

At ISO 200 the images are still OK; only at ISO 400 the noise may be considered an issue, but this sensor gain will be chosen by the camera only under really poor light conditions.

The camera (like any other) uses some image-processing algorithms to perform, among others, image de-noising and sharpening. In my opinion, the A460 does a very nice job here. Specifically, I see no "Saran Wrap" artificial smoothness due to excessive noise removal (I wish I could say the same about some of the Canon SLRs I've tried in the past). Most importantly, I was nicely surprised to see no "bounce" artifacts at high-contrast boundaries (this is a flaw I've seen in many cameras, some costing four times as much as this one).

My A460 sample image page contains some examples from which you can draw your own conclusions.

Accessories

The A460 is not a system camera; do not expect it to accept a wide array of accessories.

I already mentioned the external HF-DC1 flash. I haven't used it, but, based on the available data, I'm not impressed with it at all.

Obviously, you need at least two pairs of NiMH AA batteries. While any high-capacity model will do, the Sanyo eneloop are my first choice, as they keep the charge well when not used.

I was able also to find a perfectly matched belt pouch for the A460: Canon's own PSC-80. It is well-made and fits the camera snugly. At $9 (at B&H) it is hard to resist.

The Bottom Line

There are good news and bad news. The good news, aside of the price (as of this writing you can buy the A460 for $120 in the U.S.) is good image quality, way more than sufficient for most uses. I have seen images from cameras costing three times as much, which were not really better. In most cases the photographer, not the camera, will be to blame if the pictures do not turn right.

(Well, this is true for most cameras. Reading one book on photography will give you better pictures than upgrading to a newer model. The camera makers do not want you to know this.)

The tiny lens is surprisingly sharp (except for the "Super Macro" mode, where the image gets fuzzy off-center, but I can live with that). Colors are vibrant yet natural, and the exposure system is OK. Still, in most high-contrast situations, or with subjects containing large areas in a single, saturated color, your results will benefit from a slight negative exposure compensation. Noise is well-controlled at ISO 80 and 100 (mostly used outdoors), acceptable at ISO 200 and quite intrusive at ISO 400 (this is certainly not an available-light camera). The built-in flash should be used only in emergencies. For indoor photography a larger camera, with more battery power and stronger (external) flash will be a better choice, but this is true about all subcompacts I've tried.

The bad news is that the user interface is, in some places, just plain wrong. Even disregarding the use of cursor buttons for zooming, a better menu design and button assignment would make this camera shine. I will not even mention my usual gripe: lack of easy, direct access to exposure compensation.

It would make sense to strip the camera of unnecessary, or second-importance, gimmicks, and spend these resources on improving the user interface.

On the other hand, many users will not be affected by these shortcomings: they will be happy to set the camera to the full auto mode, and just press the button. Some of them may even try to frame the picture, not happy with just placing the subject's face in the center. For such uses, the camera will be easy and intuitive in operation (except, again, for the zoom buttons).

Do I recommend the A460? Yes, I do: it is well-made (for the money at least) and capable of producing good outdoors pictures with no fuss at a very low price. And if the user will outgrow it the next year, this will be a proof that the money was well-spent.

Web resources

As always, some users will like the A460 a lot, and some will not. The same can be said about reviewers (who, after all, are supposed to actually use the camera, although not all do). From a number of reviews of A460, here is a sample I consider worthy of your attention.

  1. Ken Rockwell wrote a very informative, no-nonsense A460 review, from a photographer's viewpoint (remember: this is, after all, a photographer's tool). He is quite enthusiastic about this camera and gives it a warm recommendation. While visiting his site, be sure to stay longer and do some extra reading; it will be worth your time.
  2. The review at Steve's Digicams is very detailed and includes a detailed walk-through of the most important adjustment screens.

    Warning: while usually Steve's samples are very informative, this time the Nicholson Street sample (which I often use to compare between various cameras) shows a visible camera shake, in spite of the 1/250 s shutter speed. Did I mention that the A460 shutter release is too stiff?

  3. CNET review of the A460 is quite critical about the camera, but I disagree with most of the complaints on image quality. (And, for crying out loud, why would I need a 30 FPS VGA video on a photo camera? It also does not have GPS or email functionality, and does not do your taxes!).

And, of course, check my A460 sample page.


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Posted 2007/05/20;last updated 2007/12/30 Copyright © 2007 by J. Andrzej Wrotniak