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Backcountry Photography

Camera Says No —
Or Why I Went Shopping for a Cheap Digital Point‑and‑Shoot,
And What I Found
Turning the Page

By Tamia Nelson

December 3, 2013

Nothing lasts forever. I know that. Still, I admit to being a little surprised when my Canon PowerShot A590 IS failed in its fourth year. After all, my old Olympus OM‑1 — it turned 30 some years back — is still serving its new owner well. It wasn't as if the PowerShot had led an especially hard life, either. Yes, it had seen plenty of use afloat, afoot, and awheel. But it had never been dropped, drowned, or exposed to salt spray, nor had any batteries ever oozed corrosive fluid into the workings. In short, while the PowerShot had been used hard, it had hardly been abused.

No matter. It failed. And that was that. On first inspection the problem appeared to be mechanical, rather than electronic. (I'll have a better idea once I strip it down.) This left me with an empty place in my camera bag: The little Canon was my go‑to camera for all those times when a digital SLR was just "too much gun." The upshot? I soon found myself …

Shopping for a Replacement

It wasn't exactly an opportune moment. Cash flow could have been better, for one thing. So price definitely was an object. And point‑and‑shoot cameras had proliferated during the years since I bought the PowerShot. I'd need to spend hours pouring over specs and reading reviews at a time when I'd much rather be doing something else. (Like improving my cash flow, for instance.) That said, I occasionally have the good sense to follow my own advice, and this was one of those times. I began by jotting down what I wanted in a point‑and‑shoot camera. It had to be …

  1. Cheap.  I figured I could afford to spend USD150. Period. And less would definitely be more.

  2. Hardy.  I look after my gear, but it has to take the rough‑and‑tumble of outdoor life in stride. I wasn't in the market for a disposable camera.

  3. Compact (and Light).  Nobody goes along for the ride on no‑octane, amphibious trips. From the moment I step out the door, I'm the one carrying the load. All of it. Which means that every ounce has to earn its keep. There's not a lot of room to spare in a bicycle bar bag, either, and a 9‑foot inflatable isn't a freighter. Neither is a 12‑foot pack canoe, come to that.

  4. Compatible.  Any camera I buy has to play nice with several aging Macintosh computers. Not every camera does.

Plus, the replacement for my defunct PowerShot had to have …

  1. A Good Memory.  All my cameras use SDHC cards. The new one would have to, as well.

  2. A Biddable Nature.  Auto‑everything is good for quick shots, but if I have the time I like to make my own decisions. I prefer cameras that let me take control when I want to.

  3. A Reasonably High IQ.  That's Image Quality, of course. And just how "reasonable" is reasonable? If it's good enough for Web publication and photodocumentation, that's good enough for me. National Geographic doesn't have my number on speed dial. (More's the pity.)

  4. The Right Cells.  I wanted a camera that got its power from AA cells, not some proprietary rechargeable battery pack. These are the same cells I use in my Pentax digital SLR, my GPS, and many of my battery lights. AA cells are cheap, readily available, and easy to replace, even at rural convenience stores.

  5. An Optical Viewfinder.  I'm old‑fashioned. I like to look at my subject when I'm shooting, not just see its pixelated image on a screen.

Everything else was negotiable, though I was hoping for a reasonably ambitious zoom, an LED display that I could see in full sun, and at least fair low‑light performance.


Now, with these desiderata laid out before me, it was time for me to trawl through retailers' catalogs and websites to see what, if anything, I could bring up in my net. And the professional write‑ups at Imaging Resource were particularly helpful in the early stages of my search. Yet it was Farwell — yes, "What button do I push to make this thing work?" Farwell — who first drew my attention to the catch of the day: the Canon PowerShot A1400. It appeared to give me most of what I wanted. Best of all, it cost only 85 bucks. Then and there, I was sold. I placed an order, and within a week I was unboxing the A1400 and giving it …

A Quick Going‑Over Getting ConnectedTruth to tell, there wasn't much to see besides the camera. Just a lanyard and two short‑lived alkaline AA cells. (I usually use low self‑discharge NiMH AAs in my cameras, with lithium cells as back‑ups.) Not even a user guide. Only a basic instruction sheet that told me where to put the batteries and how to power up, but not much else. If I wanted to know more, I'd have to download the comprehensive guide from the Canon website. Fair enough. I did just that. The lack of any data cable was more worrying, but since I already have a drawer full of USB cables in various configurations, this wasn't as much of a problem as I'd feared. And as luck would have it, the data cable from my A590 worked fine.

The missing data cable didn't exhaust the list of absent essentials, however. There was also no CD with image management software in the box. I'd been using Canon's proprietary software to facilitate downloading images from my old camera to my computer, but the version I had didn't work with the A1400, and the Canon website offered nothing that was compatible with my "legacy" (i.e., antediluvian) operating system. Fortunately, just at this juncture, I discovered Image Capture, a bundled Apple utility that imports images from almost any camera — and does it much more expeditiously than the Canon software I'd been using. Live and learn.

With these preliminaries behind me, I settled down to study the PowerShot A1400 Camera User Guide that I'd downloaded. Then I shot a series of studio photos, trying the flash, the self‑timer, and each one of the settings and "special effects," the latter amounting to various types of onboard image processing. But while it's nice to have the capability to tweak photos on the fly, so to speak, I prefer to work with my library of post‑processing applications when the need arises. The A1400's inventory of exposure pre‑sets was of much greater consequence, therefore, and all the more important in light of the camera's lack of a true Manual mode. There was one unexpected bonus: The A1400 shoots decent‑quality sound movies. It's a feature I'll rarely use, but it's handy to have.

Happily, my studio trials went off without a hitch, but the real test would come when I used the A1400 outdoors. So I spent the next couple of weeks taking my new camera …

Out and About

I carried the A1400 with me everywhere. And I was immediately impressed by how little it got in the way. It's about the size of a deck of playing cards, much slimmer than the camera it replaced. Here it is posing with my Garmin eTrex Legend HCx GPS receiver:

Getting Acquainted

And here's what you can't see in the first picture. Note the tripod socket and large, labeled buttons:

Taking a Look From All Sides

On its maiden outing, I brought the A1400 to The River on a day when only a few wispy cirrus intruded on an otherwise cloudless blue sky. I hoped to capture the autumn colors and test the camera under demanding lighting conditions. I therefore set the ISO to 100 in order to minimize color "noise," something of real importance when scenes include areas of deep shade, along with much intricate detail. You can see the result below:

A Testing Time

In order to highlight the A1400's strengths (and shortcomings), I subjected this first picture of The River to very little in the way of post‑processing manipulation. I simply reduced the size to fit the width assigned to In the Same Boat's "slot" and added the annotations. As it is, the shot displays adequate sharpness for Web publication, though closer inspection reveals the camera's limitations, as you can readily see in the full‑resolution inset images below:




Each of these is an uncorrected, full‑resolution portion of the original image. Note the comparatively muddy image quality and limited color spectrum. That said, intelligent post‑processing would sharpen the resolution and improve the tonal range. I was satisfied.

Nevertheless, I continued to test the A1400's capabilities, using it in varying lighting levels. Here are some of the pictures I took, beginning with two Macro shots, one of shaggy mane (Coprinus comatus) mushrooms in an early stage of development and the other of a backlit elm leaf along The River. (NB Right‑click on any of the eight images that follow to see a larger version in a new window.)

On ParadeLast Leaf Standing

The preset I'm likely to use most often is Landscape mode, and here the A1400 performed creditably in all lighting conditions, including the bright but diffuse light of the autumn woods:

Looking UpLooking Out

I wasn't sure what to expect of the optical zoom, a common trouble spot in inexpensive point‑and‑shot cameras. The A1400 didn't disappoint, however. Two examples follow:

RiverrunSilver Staircase

The left‑hand photo shows autumn leaves caught on the lip of a small drop, while a backlit shot of a staircase falls, brilliantly illuminated by a low sun, is on the right. I deliberately underexposed this latter shot to keep the highlights from being lost in the glare.

I also expected that I'd be disappointed by pictures taken on overcast days with dull, flat light, but here, too, I was pleasantly surprised:


It was drizzling when I shot the scene on the left, but the A1400 did justice to the still waters of the lake and the fog‑shrouded hills. Nor did it fail me when I photographed the rock garden in my Grandad's river late one autumn afternoon (see the right‑hand photo above).

The bottom line? I'm happy with my new camera. It does what I need a point‑and‑shoot camera to do, meeting or surpassing most of my expectations. In addition, it …

  • Starts up quickly and quietly.
  • Doesn't insist on beeping every time I press a button.
  • Allows me to shut off the flash.
  • Accepts a tripod.
  • Zooms from wide angle to telephoto — equivalent to a 28–140 mm zoom on a 35 mm film camera.
  • Allows considerable control over exposure (though it lacks a full Manual option).
  • Makes watchable movies, with surprisingly good sound.

Which isn't to say that it's perfect. I've noted some shortcomings already, and the A1400 is also …

  • A little too easy to shift into Movie mode. (If your right thumb slips, that's enough.)
  • Slow to lock on to a focus, making it doubly hard to get shots of birds and animals.
  • Too ostentatious for my taste. I'd be happy with a lot less chromed plastic.
  • Prone to tipping over when set down on an uneven surface.

But none of these is a crippling defect. Overall quality and performance are good. Most images require little in the way of post‑processing to make them Web‑ready. And the cost was low. Only one question remains: How long will it last? Will the A1400 prove as short‑lived as its predecessor? I hope not. But I'll have to wait four years to find out. Having spent only 85 bucks, though, I'm pretty sure I'll get my money's worth. That's not bad, is it?

I Am a Camera

Nothing lasts forever. And modern electronics are no exception. This includes digital cameras. So when my go‑anywhere point‑and‑shooter went West after only four years, I was forced back into the marketplace. Luckily, I found a suitable replacement at a reasonable price: the Canon PowerShot A1400. It won't get me noticed by the photo editors at National Geographic, but it gives me what I need to illustrate my articles, here and elsewhere. And that's good enough for me.


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