A Review of the Canon PowerShot A3000 IS Digital Camera
by R. Allen Gilliam


Overview

The Canon PowerShot A3000 IS is a pocket digital camera with 10 megapixels, 4x optical zoom, 640x480 video at 30 frames per second with mono audio, and lens-shifting optical image stabilization. The A3100 is identical to the A3000 except for 12 megapixels and a few minor features including photo organizing and trimming the ends of video clips.

This is an unsolicited and unbiased review. I have not been compensated by Canon in any way. All sample photos were taken by the author with a camera purchased retail.


Image quality

In Web reviews, there isn't much discussion and analysis of whether digital cameras can capture detail at their rated megapixel resolution. Ideally, you would want the transition along a sharp, high contrast edge to vary between one and zero pixels as the edge goes in and out of alignment with the pixels of the camera. In this simulated photo, there's full detail down to individual pixels. At the green arrows, the edge is aligned with the edge of the pixels, so the transition is zero pixels. At the red arrows, the edge cuts through the middle of a pixel, so there's a one pixel transition. In other words, the color of one pixel along the edge is half-way between the two colors on either side of the edge. A digital image can't get sharper than this.


Here's an example of an actual digital photo by another camera with far less than full detail. As you can see in this small section of the photo, the shortest transition along the edge involves about four pixels. This image could be reduced to one quarter width (one sixteenth the megapixel count) without loosing any detail of the actual object, though it may look blocky instead of blurry.


Here's a small section of a photo I took with the Canon A3000 in good light on my tripod using the 2 second delay to get a rock steady shot. I chose a color rather than brightness transition so sharpening wouldn't obscure the true level of sharpness. As you can see, the briefest transition across the yellow/orange edge is nearly zero pixels. There's just a hint of yellow in the orange and vice versa. This excellent level of detail is typical for this camera in direct sunlight or using the flash indoors. Several more expensive cameras are not as sharp.


The optical image stabilization of the Canon A3000 is very helpful, but it's not supernatural. You still have to hold the camera as steady as you can. Be especially careful not to rotate the camera around the axis of the line of sight since this type of movement isn't stabilized. It's best to hold the camera with both hands. The camera rapidly moves elements of its lenses to correct for the small, unavoidable vibrations of the human hand. (It would be more accurate to call it mechanical image stabilization, but the term optical has stuck because, like optical zooming, optical stabilization is better than the digital version.) If the vibration is too great to get a clear photo with the current settings and conditions, the camera flashes a warning icon. Below is a small section of a stabilized shot compared to the best and worst shots I took by hand without stabilization. I tried to keep the camera as steady as I could, and took six shots with and without stabilization. The other shots without stabilization were evenly spread between these two extremes.



Based on my experiments and photo analysis, these are the levels of detail you can expect from the Canon A3000 under different lighting conditions. Photos taken by hand assume that an effort is made to keep the camera steady. Image stabilization is turned off for the tripod pictures as the manual recommends. IS does seem to reduce sharpness when using a tripod:

By Hand with Optical
Image Stabilization
On a Tripod
or Table
At 4x Zoom by
Hand with IS
Outdoors, direct sunlight10mp10mp10mp
Indoors, flash10mp10mp5mp
Indoor, no flash, average private
home (table lamps, indirect lighting)
5mp7.5mp3mp
Indoor, no flash, low light,
like a night club
5mp5mp1mp
Indoor, no flash, single
candle at 6 feet
1mp1mp (1 sec)
7.5mp (15 sec)
0.5mp

The loss of resolution when zoomed in is understandable. Detail suffers in two ways from zooming: the camera gets less light, and hand vibrations are magnified.

For the 15 second exposure on the tripod, the 7.5mp rather than 10 seems to be due to noise reduction.

The low-light performance of the A3000 is typical for its price range. The auto mode does a fairly good job of balancing sensor sensitivity (ISO) and exposure time to get the best possible photo in low light, though it may set the sensitivity a bit higher than would be best. Perhaps I hold the camera more steadily than average. It can go to ISO 3200 in the low light mode, but it's limited to 2 megapixels. The flash performance is impressive for such a small camera. In near total darkness, the flash allowed bright images of objects 25 feet away (ISO 400, 1/60sec). However, even with its focus assist LED, it can't autofocus at that distance in darkness, which is another reason it should have a manual focus option.

For some reason, it won't take longer than a one second exposure, even when on a tripod, except in the special long exposure mode, and then you have to set the exposure manually. This seems a weird design. Why not simply extend the maximum exposure to 15 seconds in the regular modes? They could just assume the camera is on a tripod if stabilization is turned off.

Just like with a film camera there are three ways to get more light into a digital picture:
(1) Increase the exposure time. This increases the blurring caused by camera shake, and makes moving objects blurry.
(2) Increase the size of the aperture. This reduces the depth of field (the range of distances in focus). This can be used for artistic effect, but is usually bad.
(3) Increase the sensitivity (ISO number) of the sensor. This is analogous to using faster (more sensitive) film. This increases noise (static) in the photo, and noise reduction reduces fine detail, reducing your effective megapixels.

On the macro setting, the A3000 will focus on objects just three centimeters from the lens, but the macro shots don't come close to a full 10 megapixels of detail until you get back about 6cm. To the right is a section of a 10 megapixel macro shot taken at about 6cm with ample light. That giant black rope is a thread tied to a needle.

At close distances, the flash is kept under control, allowing well-exposed, macro flash pictures all the way down to 3cm. But closer than 10cm (4 inches) the shadow of the lens housing in the light of the flash gets into the photo.


A photo quality consideration not often covered in reviews is the quality of the JPEG compression. Notice the stair-step pattern of noise along the edge in this small section of a photo I took with the A3000 using the lower quality compression setting. There is a good deal of variability from camera to camera. For example, the slightly less expensive Samsung SL420 has much more noticeable compression artifacts than the Canon A3000, and its files are 70% larger, which increases transfer times and storage cost. The Canon A3000's compression quality is high compared to other cameras in its price range.


There's a bit of barrel distortion when fully zoomed out, but it's not normally noticeable.


The color accuracy seems perfect. There are minor chromatic aberrations at high contrast edges, but no worse than all cameras in this price range.


You can manually take up to a 15 second exposure. I took this 15 second exposure of the night sky on a tripod. Only the brightest two or three stars were visible to the naked eye. Click this small section of the photo for the unaltered file from the camera.



Control and Configurability

The auto and easy modes of the A3000 allow it to behave like a simple point-and-shoot camera, while the program mode allows nearly full control like an SLR. In the auto and easy modes, most of the options are not available, so you aren't distracted by options and information you don't want to bother with or don't understand. Nor can you accidently change some setting you don't understand. Even knowledgeable photographers will appreciate the auto mode for taking unimportant, fun pictures like at a party.

The exposure (brightness) can be locked after being automatically set. This allows you to make a small area visible that the camera wouldn't normally set the exposure for. Like a dark object within a bright area (perhaps a cat hiding under a car in daylight) or a bright object within a dark area (like an item on a spot-lit pedestal.)

The A3000 does not allow direct control of the aperture, but the "Fireworks" setting opens it fully to f8.0 in wide angle. Unfortunately, you can't use this to do artistic depth-of-field effects because the mode insists on focusing at infinity. Locking the focus in another mode and then switching to Fireworks doesn't work.

The A3000 lets you control the size of the area of the photo the camera autofocuses on. You can also have the camera focus on a particular object, and then change the framing to put the in-focus object anywhere in the frame. To make the photo below, all I had to do was point the camera at the robot, press the shutter button half-way, wait for the camera to focus, re-frame the picture, and press the shutter. (I reduced the resolution of the photo.)


The autofocus fails only when shooting through a window screen. Within two feet of the screen, it focuses on the screen rather than the scene beyond the window. You can get around this by focusing on something indoors that's at the same distance, and locking the focus, but it's a hassle. A manual focus option would be welcome.

Image sharpening can be adjusted but unfortunately not turned completely off. The sharpness setting is buried in the menu system under "My Colors." Many users will miss it. Personally, I dislike anything that alters the real image to make it seem to be better than it is. To the right are small sections of real A3000 photos I took on a tripod with sharpness set at minimum, middle, and maximum (left to right). The edge of the real object is a very sharp red to white transition with no dark or light regions. Even the minimum sharpness setting enhances the edge significantly. The sharpness is increased by darkening one side of edges and lightening the other. It appears to be a smart kind of sharpening that only adds contrast to clear edges, but I'd still like to have the option of turning it off.


Ease of use

Reading other reviews and specifications, the shot-to-shot times of the A3000 are unclear. In good light, the A3000 can take a photo every 2 seconds, which is typical for cameras of this size and price. It can take a flash photo every 2.5 seconds. Using high ISO settings, when the camera must do noise reduction after taking a photo, the shot time rises to 4 seconds, 5 with the flash. The times are the same in single shot and continuous modes. After a manual long exposure of 1 to 15 seconds, the camera needs 2 to 17 seconds of processing time for some reason. During ordinary use, you don't often have to wait on the camera.

The screen is visible at high angles, but the brightness does change drastically with viewing angle. This can make it uncomfortable to view the screen with the long side vertical, because each of your eyes sees a different brightness. It's easy to take photos with the camera raised above your head. The screen is bright enough to easily frame pictures with sunlight shining directly on it.

The cover for the USB plug is rubber and must be pulled out with a fingernail. I found myself not bothering to close it when there was no danger of debris getting into the plug. It also gets in the way when trying to plug in the cable. It would be better as a little hard plastic door that flips open easily and snaps closed.


Physical characteristics

The size of the A3000 is quite amazing. Grab a ruler and measure out 3.8 by 2.3 by 1.1 inches. With the lens retracted, it's only a bit thicker than a pack of cigarettes. It's truly a pocket camera you can carry everywhere.

The construction seems to be a metal frame with plastic panels. It's solid. The camera doesn't distort or creak when flexed. However, it's not meant to survive being dropped. I strongly recommend using the wrist strap at all times. If you need a tough camera, there are other models designed to take abuse.

Another review made a point of criticizing the battery/memory card cover for being flimsy. This is unfair. When open, the cover is loose, but when snapped closed it's solid and stays in place.


Video

The 640x480 video at 30 frames per second works well. Some cameras this size now have 1280x720, but not at this price. Compression artifacts are not noticeable. The brightness, but not the focus, is automatically adjusted during recording. Videos can be paused, stepped through one frame at a time forward and backward, and played at several slow motion speeds. There's no way to skip ahead or scan at high speed, so watching long clips on the camera is likely to be frustrating.

There's a top-to-bottom, vertical blue stripe from very bright light sources. This is a frame capture from an AVI made by the A3000. This stripe is also visible on the viewfinder while taking still photos, but it never appears in the photos.

In average indoor light there's noticeable picture noise (snow, static). It's significantly worse than my old CCD, 8mm tape camcorder.

The microphone is sensitive. It picks up quiet sounds as well as the human ear. It has about the same level of noise (hiss, static) as my old 8mm video tape camera. The A3000 plays the audio on its built-in speaker with volume adjustment. According to VLC Media Player, the audio is uncompressed mono at 8 bits and 12kHz. That's fine for speech, but you wouldn't want to record a musical performance with this camera.

The A3000 outputs a standard definition, composite TV signal during shooting as well as playback. Auto power off can be disabled, so it could be used as a video camera with a VCR or with video capture to a computer if you don't mind a small movie camera icon in the top right corner. It's manually switchable between NTSC and PAL, and the proprietary A/V cable is included.

Individual clips are limited to 4gb or 1 hour. The video is compressed with the Motion JPEG codec and stored in an AVI file. My 2gb card can hold about 17.5 minutes of video at the highest resolution and quality. MJPEG is not very good compression by today's standards, so you may want to re-compress using a more modern codec. Be aware that this can be time-consuming. Some cameras now use MPEG4 video compression. You need at least a class 4 speed memory card for video. It's necessary to use the Canon software to transfer very large video files. The Windows wizard was unable to transfer a 1.3gb clip.

The Canon A3100 IS can trim the beginning and end of recorded video clips in the camera with one second precision, but the A3000 IS can not.

The shorter length AVI files produced by the A3000 seem to be somewhat non-standard. If the clips are shorter than 10 minutes or so, Windows Media Player gives an unhelpful error message and does not play. VLC Media Player says the file is damaged and offers to repair it. VLC will play it whether you repair or not. My computer is fairly old and I'm still running Windows XP Pro SP2, but the manual says this OS is supported. I had this same problem with a sample video clip downloaded from the Web, so I don't have a defective camera. It makes no difference whether I use the Windows wizard or the most recent Canon software from their Web site to transfer the AVI. VLC Media Player can repair the videos and save them as new AVI's. Use the convert/save function on the media menu. Click the tool button to edit the profile and choose AVI encapsulation, and click the boxes for "keep original video track" and "keep original audio track." Since the video is not being re-compressed, this doesn't take very long.

The video on this camera is a nice bonus, but it can't take the place of a real video camera.

Update: Under Windows 7, videos of all sizes are imported properly.


Connectivity

The USB 2.0 is the faster "hi-speed" version, transferring up to 480 megabits, or 60 megabytes, per second. It also works with USB 2.0 "full speed" which is 12 megabits, or 1.5 megabytes, per second. A 2 gigabyte video clip would take 34 seconds to transfer with a hi-speed USB port, or 23 minutes with a full speed port. Real world transfer rates are always slower than these theoretical maximums. For example, I transferred 39.7mb in 44.9 seconds to my older, full speed USB computer, which is 0.88 megabytes per second rather than 1.5.

Unlike many USB devices, the Canon A3000 can not be powered from the USB cable, so you'll need a charged battery to transfer your photos and video clips to your computer. A kit for using an AC power adapter is sold separately. It uses an adapter that fits in place of the battery. The camera does not have a DC power input plug.


Should You Use the Canon Transfer Software or the Windows Wizard?

Images can be transferred to any Windows XP computer with a USB port without installing the Canon software by using the Windows wizard that comes up when the camera is connected. Or you can install the Canon software to get a second option when the camera is connected. There are advantage and disadvantages with each. Fortunately the wizard can still be used after installing the Canon software.

Photo orientation: The Canon photo browser for Windows shows the photos right-side-up if they were transferred with the Canon software, but doesn't alter the JPEG files, so they will not be upright in other applications. Even exporting them from the browser doesn't rotate them for other applications. The Windows wizard permanently changes the JPEG files so they're upright for all applications, but you must manually select the rotation to do for each photo before transfer.

File naming: The Canon software doesn't allow you to specify the names of the transferred files. It names them IMG_0001.JPG etc.... The Windows wizard allows you to name them, say, Test Shots 001.jpg etc.... This may seem like a small thing, but imagine trying to find a particular photo in hundreds of numbered files named IMG.

The Windows wizard starts up much faster and lets you choose to delete the files from the camera after they are successfully copied to your computer.

The only advantage of the Canon software is that it keeps track of which files have been copied to your computer so you can keep stuff on the camera without the inconvenience of having to select the new stuff to transfer.

This issue should be resolved somehow by Canon and Microsoft. It's ridiculous that in 2010 we can't get our digital photos the right way up automatically.

Update: Under Windows 7, when copied from the camera, the JPEG files are automatically rotated without user intervention to match the camera's orientation when the photo was taken. Kudos to the evil Microsoft corporation for actually improving something in a new version of Windows!


Included Windows Software

Unsurprisingly, the included Canon applications for viewing and editing photos and videos are not impressive. ZoomBrowser EX even locked up on me once.

The Canon Browser was unable to play, edit, or export any videos I took on the camera. That's right, the software that comes with the camera can't read the videos made by the camera. I either got unhelpful error messages, or the colors were completely wrong. Installing the update from the Canon Web page didn't help.

The image editing application is very basic. It allows adjustment of brightness, contrast, color saturation, and sharpness. And it does trimming, red eye removal, and text insertion. Ten-year-old freeware is more capable.

The only bright spot in the software is the PhotoStitch application. It's useful, fast, and user friendly. It can automatically assemble multiple photos into a panorama, checkerboard mosaic, or extreme wide angle photo. It doesn't just overlay the photos, but stretches them so they match up. It also allows you to manually match up two pairs of spots along each edge, and then it rotates & stretches the photos so the points match up. It's not as convenient as Sony's in-camera panorama, but it works.


Miscellaneous

Viewing photos on the camera is very flexible. The A3000 can detect gravity. Photos will be shown right-side-up when viewing them on the camera no matter how the camera is oriented when the photo is taken or viewed. They can be displayed in differently-sized mosaics, and paged through. When holding down the advance button, photos are displayed at low quality to allow very rapid searching. The full information display option shows you a histogram chart (which shows the distribution of brightness in the photo), washed-out areas in the photo flash, and all the photographic settings are listed, including date, time, mode, zoom, flash, aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Images can be played in a slide show with a couple of optional transitions.

Right after taking a photo, and during playback, you can zoom in far enough to just see the individual pixels, and scroll around. You can lock the zoom and page through photos to easily compare their fine detail at the same spot.

The face recognition is an impressive, gee-whiz feature, but isn't very useful. It's just as easy to manually point the camera at the face you want to focus on before focusing and then re-frame the photo. And the ordinary timer works just as well as the photo triggering from detection of a new face.

Like most digital cameras these days, the A3000 is not sold with a memory card. With no card, the camera can take a single picture and let you examine it, but can't save it, and video is out of the question. This should be made more clear on vendors' Web sites. I'm sure that thousands of people, after ordering cameras, have been surprised to discover that they'll need to make a trip to an electronics store for a memory card before they can play with their shiny new toys.

The plug blades on the battery charger fold down, allowing it to be carried comfortably in a pocket. It takes 90 minutes to fully charge the 740mAh lithium ion battery.

There is no battery authentication, so you can buy third party replacements for the rechargeable lithium battery for as little as US$8. Be very careful to confirm that third party batteries will work with any devices you're considering buying. Battery authentication is a scam, similar to printer ink cartridge authentication, that allows companies to price gouge on replacement batteries. Brand-name batteries of this size are typically US$45 in mid-2010. It's obscene. Companies try to justify this by citing safety concerns, but that's ridiculous. There have been only a handful of lithium battery fires worldwide. They also claim that they are protecting themselves from warranty fraud, but that also makes no sense. They could just as easily allow the device to work with a non-approved battery, but set an internal digital flag to void the warranty.


Conclusion

There are a few minor limitations and inconveniences with the Canon PowerShot A3000 IS:

(1) The A3000 does not allow edge enhancing sharpening to be completely turned off. This reduces the accuracy of the images in order to make them look subjectively sharper. Most users won't care, but it bugs me.

(2) The A3000 does not allow you to manually set the aggressiveness of noise reduction in low-light (high-sensitivity and/or long-exposure) photos. Sometimes sharp detail is more important than a smooth look, like if one wants to be able to read a distant sign in the photo. The setting could be added right under the sharpness setting in "My Colors."

(3) Optical zoom and focus can be set before starting a video recording, but can't be changed while recording. Only digital zooming is possible while recording. Canon does this by choice to prevent motor noise from being recorded. We should have the option of turning on zooming and/or autofocus during video recording. Sometimes the audio quality is not important. If I'm shooting a video of my dog and I see a UFO, I want to be able to zoom in on it optically without having to first stop and re-start recording! At the very least, the camera should autofocus during recording when the shutter is pressed half-way.

(4) When copied to a Windows XP computer at least, the orientation of the actual photo files is not automatically set based on how the camera was oriented when the photo was taken.

(5) The AVI files are non-standard and require re-multiplexing for full compatibility.

These limitations are all in the software and firmware. They could be corrected by Canon in upgrades.

The Canon PowerShot A3000 IS is an excellent camera for its price range. In my judgement, the image detail is better than some more expensive 12 megapixel cameras. On auto, it's point-and-shoot. Other modes allow good user control, but not as much as there could be. It's therefore not an appropriate camera for professionals, artists, nor serious photographic hobbyists. The features and performance are well balanced. There are no serious sacrifices or drawbacks. The much faster "hi-speed" version of USB 2.0 and long exposure capability are nice extras many other cameras lack. I recommend the A3000 unless you want to shoot a lot of video.


If you think there are any factual errors on this page, please E-mail me.

Disclaimer: The information on this page is accurate to the best of my knowledge, but I am not responsible for any losses or harm caused by its use. Take my advice at your own risk.

If you're impressed by my technical understanding and the clarity of my writing, offer me a job! I'd be happy to do this sort of work for you from home.

Copyright 2010 R. Allen Gilliam. All rights reserved. Distribution for profit and/or without credit is prohibited.

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