Canon Dimunitive A1400 Camera has Viewfinder – First Look

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Washington Pass

Washington Pass ski tour, shot in snow mode with Canon A1400, ISO100, -2/3 exposure compensation. I did a bit of post processing in Photoshop, as we do with all our photography. Overall, the image is not as crisp as one shot with something like a Canon S100 or G series, but it's totally adequate for web publishing.

I used a Canon S100 camera for backcountry skiing shots this past winter. That high quality yet pocket-sized shooter burns images using the same sensor as the famed G series Canons, only in a much smaller package. I refuse to use anything larger, considering what they fit in such a small package. My S has caught a bunch of excellent shots, with one glaring exception: My percentage of good skiing action photos has fallen like leaves off an aspen tree in October. Why? No viewfinder. Instead, I’m holding the camera up like some kind of pagan offering to the sky gods, trying to see anything! in the viewfinder that’ll give me a clue as to how the ski shot is composed. Usually, a grand fail.

Canon A1400, not the solid and feature rich camera the earlier A series cams were.

Canon A1400, not the solid and feature rich camera the earlier A series cams were, but it has a viewfinder and a bit of control.

So, I’m always looking to try pocket digicams that have an optical viewfinder. Latest I’m playing with is the Canon A1400 (nearly the same camera as the A1300). The “A” in the name means they run on AA batteries. They’re small inexpensive cameras that demand very little power, so you pop two AA lithium cells in there and enjoy amazing battery life, not to mention the simplicity of just using AA cells while traveling or doing multi-day backcountry trips.

We’ve been fans of the A series cameras since the A620 and smaller A720 (among others) gave us amazing tools for backcountry photography. Since then Canon has crippled the A series, probably because if they’d kept things like a manual mode and AV/TV modes they would have cut sales of higher end cameras. That attempt at consumer manipulation was of course a grand failure, as sales of all stand-alone cameras are going down with a giant sucking sound as smartphone cams take over for still and video imaging.

(You can still get used A720 units on Amazon for around $80, and they are still a viable option if you want full manual control of a small, AA battery throw-away camera with viewfinder, albeit without HD video.)

Thus, it’s been a dirge-worthy disappointment that Canon did not morph the A720 form and features by simply adding a better lens and a sensor with more pixels. Instead, we get the 1400/1300. Any good?

Yes, 1400 has double the image pixels at 16 mp instead of the 720′s 8, but the 720 made photos that were perfectly adequate for a decent sized print. You could set it on manual exposure with a high shutter speed, set the focus to infinity, and peer through an optical viewfinder for amazingly good ski shots.

Indeed, if you can find an A720 and don’t feel the need for more than 8 megapixels or HD vid, for snow alpinists the A720 could be the best affordable pocket camera ever made. Heck, it even has a 6x zoom while the 1300/1400 only has a 5x!

Well, no A720′s lying around here any more, so I picked up an A1400. First thing you notice about this little goofball camera is its diminutive size. Fits in the palm of a small hand, and only weighs 174 grams.

How about shooting? I’m still figuring out good settings for action shots, but the optical viewfinder has already upped my percentages across the board.

On the other hand, A1400 doesn’t have many custom settings and that gets in the way of my creativity. So the jury is definitely out on this one.

No manual mode and exposure compensation only goes to plus or minus 2. So there will be some situations where you can’t get the exposure you want. You can compensate for that somewhat with the trick of pointing the camera at something brighter or darker in the image to throw the exposure over, then holding the capture button half way down to lock exposure. Problem is, when you do that you will be adjusting focus as well — that is unless you use a very convenient setting that locks the camera on infinity — nice for basic action ski photography if you’re careful with how far you are from the subject.

Scene mode for “Snow” is included, and results in shots with nice white snow, instead of bluish. But “Snow” mode is crippled for action shots since when you’re in a “Scene” mode you can’t set the ISO to a higher number to force a higher shutter speed. Remember, no TV or AV modes are present, so you can’t fix shutter speed or aperture.

A1400 indoor shot, no flash, very little post-processing.

A1400 indoor shot, handheld, no flash, very little post-processing. ISO 200, 60th of second at F 2.8. A yo-yo made out of recycled office chair wheels, in case you are wondering.

P mode (also known as “programable” or “creative”) allows more options and is probably where you’ll want to stay for most shooting with this camera, along with adjusting tones and color balance in your photography software. In P mode you can set a sensitive ISO such as 400 to force a higher shutter speed (experiment), and you’ve got the infinity focus lock. A few white balance settings are available, including custom, so you could do a custom one for the snow while you’re shooting and eliminate some of the post-processing.

A fast continuous shooting rate is one of the big helpers for ski action shots. Sadly, don’t look to this camera for that. It shoots just over 1 shot a second, and is no improvement over the earlier A series Canon cameras. I do get ski shots with 1-per-second shooting, but sometimes find it’s better to wait for that decisive moment and click the shutter to get the money shot.

All settings on the A1400 are done via a tiny button on the back of the camera to the right of the LCD (see image of camera above). While it is a blessing that this control is not the nearly impossible to use fingernail dial of some Canon cams, it’s still a joke to operate with gloves — so be ready with a strategy for bare handed settings. Fortunately, the camera saves many of your settings between on-off cycles, but not all of them. Note that all settings are done via menus in the LCD, so working in a bright sunlit snow environment will require shading the LCD while you fiddle around. Thus, working the settings of this camera requires one to practice diligently so the work can be done with poor visual feedback. Perhaps that’s the advantage of the A1400′s much less complex menus and lack of features.

All that said, the famed CHDK (Canon Hack Development Kit) is available for the earlier A1300 model of this camera, and will probably be available soon for the A1400 . We’ll be testing the CHDK option package, and I’m fairly certain CHDK will enable the A1300/A1400 for a “manual” mode that allows forcing of shutter speed and aperture, as well as capturing images in RAW format. A live histogram on the LCD will help with setting exposures without doing test shots. Operating CHDK on this camera will require sequences of button pushing that’ll be impossible with gloves, so would-be hackers should keep that in mind.

This photo published for yesterday's blog post was taken with A1400.

This photo published for yesterday's blog post was taken with A1400. I zoomed it a bit to compress the mountains with the person, and darkened the exposure. Focus was on infinity. ISO 100, 200th of a second at F16.

I should mention more about the A1400 video mode. In a word, lame. So don’t buy this camera for doing much in the way of shooting video. Yes, it does HD, but you can’t zoom while shooting. In fact, you can’t tweak any settings while shooting vid, and the only pre-shot settings are to set video size to HD or 640. (Again, CHDK may enable things like optical zoom while shooting vid, but we don’t know for sure before testing.)

Other loser features of this camera: “Live” mode, which for the life of me I can’t figure is different enough from “P” mode to make it worth the brain cells to learn about. Likewise, a whole complete button is devoted to a “?” symbol that brings up help screens with information so brief and unhelpful you’d think Bill Gates was involved.

Lastly, while the optical viewfinder of the A1400 does function, at certain zoom levels it is grossly inaccurate in terms of the image it frames as compared to what the camera shoots. As far as I can tell, this always results in a looser image than you expect, so you’re not going to lose the edges of an important shot. Yet the poor matching does result in wasted pixels. At 16MP you’ve got a few extra pixels to play with, but it’s too bad the viewfinder isn’t more accurate.

I’ll amend this review or write another one once the A1400 has seen significant use. For now, I’d say it’s worth considering if you want an ultralight camera with viewfinder that eliminates rechargeable battery hassles. As with any camera used for outdoor snowscape imaging, be ready to spend time learning all the settings, and practice using test shots and the histogram to check exposures.

Shop for Canon PowerShot S100 (no viewfinder)

Shop for Canon PowerShot A1400

Canon G Series cameras have the good sensor, opical viewfinder, and full controls that enable shooting action sports with much more ease than forcing a lower end camera. They are bulky and heavy, hence our constant experimenting with “throw away” digicams.

Comments

18 Responses to “Canon Dimunitive A1400 Camera has Viewfinder – First Look”

  1. ffelix June 5th, 2013 9:57 am

    Do you have a budget limitation? Seems like some of the new large sensor point-and-shoots might be a better choice for you.

  2. Lou Dawson June 5th, 2013 1:37 pm

    Felix, yeah, they’re expensive and many of them are not very small compared to cameras like the A1400. The sensor size is not a big issue to me, I’m more interested in creative control and a viewfinder. It’s not like a bigger sensor or more megapixels automatically results in better pictures. Sometimes it just results in better profits for the camera maker.

    I continue to examine all options, but it’s fun to do the most with the least.

    Most of us will probably be doing our photography on a smartphone within 24 months anyway…

    Lou

  3. Brian Musinski June 5th, 2013 6:23 pm

    So I hiked up to New Peak on the 3rd of June. It was a humbling experience. We decided to take the alternate route found on the web guide of lou’s out of print book. I don’t know if that was a good idea or bad. The hike wasn’t long but had to bush wack up a dry avalanche path about 1.5 miles then got to snowline and skinned to the saddle the guide said to go up and over. We decided to find a route on the edge of the saddle since there was a ten foot cornice across the top. The route we took to the top was kinda of loose mud and rock but we made it. Once at the top we we looking at the peak of New York and the left side was still covered in snow and steep. At this point we had no idea if that snow was getting to slushy since it was getting to be around 11. The better and safer route looked to be on the other side of the bowl. It looked as if you could drop in go across and skin up the more mellow west ridge line to the New York Peak couloir. It was a great adventure But I am wondering if the direct route might have been faster. Has anyone ever done this peak and does this sound like a typical day for spring skiing? This was my first adventure out in to the spring backcountry world and really had no idea what I was getting my self into so if someone could maybe enlighten me or give me a few pointers that would be great!

  4. Eric Steig June 5th, 2013 6:57 pm

    I couldn’t agree more about the Canon S cameras — great, but no viewfinder is silly in the real world, especially in bright conditions like sunny powder days.

    More money but have you consider the Olympus Pen series for which you can buy a viewfinder? http://www.getolympus.com/us/en/digitalcameras/e-pm1.html $299 to http://www.getolympus.com/us/en/digitalcameras/e-m5.html $1299. The latter I have my eye on as a replacement for my Nikon SLR. Heavy compared with A-series cameras, but much smaller, faster, and lighter than any SLR. And well sealed against snow and rain, too.

  5. Blair June 5th, 2013 11:10 pm

    Like yourself I bought the A1400 to replace my Canon A570 IS for the viewfinder. First day, on the slopes at Whistler, the camera slipped from my lowered hand onto the soft snow. That was enough impact to jam up the lens and render the camera useless. It feels friable, and it is. My thought is to buy a point and shoot water and impact resistant box with a big screen. I guess that the idea is, in fact, to point, shoot, and tune your images at home or in your tent with your computer, laptop, or phone.

    For me, though, the attraction of outdoor photography is that it has me really stop and in composing the image, I retreat from the action to indulge in looking, not just seeing, the visual moment and not just the collecting. For this, I like a viewfinder.

  6. Lou Dawson June 6th, 2013 7:50 am

    Brian, yes, spring skiing in Colorado or anywhere can be quite variable. Your experience wasn’t exactly “typical,” but what you need to do is be using more strategy about start times, starting elevations, etc. This late in the spring you generally want to look for high elevation starts, which perhaps require a backpack in for an overnight or a drive up a road that gets you high such as Independence Pass or Yankee Boy Basin in San Juans. One thing that makes the sport special is that its not often easy to figure out exactly how to create a good day of skiing. Also, some days like yours are more about the “mountaineering” part of ski mountaineering. Lou

  7. Lou Dawson June 6th, 2013 8:05 am

    Eric, thanks for pointing out those cameras. I’ve checked out the electronic viewfinders and they are less than ideal in terms of how they interpret the image tones, brightness, etc., they also protrude from the top of the camera and make it quite a bit more bulky and difficult to fit in a camera pouch. Still worth looking at, as perhaps one could not use the viewfinder for static shots, and attach it for action shooting.

    Blair, I’ll come back with a durability report. It should be said that if you drop any camera with the lens extended due to the camera being turned on, and it hits even a soft surface just right, it’s likely the lens mechanism will be damaged. I’m not saying the A1400 is durable, just that I’m not sure your experience means it’s particularly fragile in comparison to other P&S cams. I can speak from experience about the earlier A series cameras, however, and say that on the whole they had amazing durability, though sometimes they suffer from the lens cover not opening all the way and messing up your shots if you’re not paying attention. Lou

  8. mtsplitski June 6th, 2013 10:19 am

    I use an S100 on every outing and have shot literally thousands of ski shots with it (and retained hundreds I’m happy with). I’ve never had issues viewing the LCD screen in sunny, snowy mountain weather…

  9. Lou Dawson June 6th, 2013 10:39 am

    Mt, I can see the LCD, though to be honest I’d say I _do_ have problems seeing it well enough in bright snowy situations, me and many other photogs agree it is just incredibly difficult to use it as an effective viewfinder for action shots. Remember, I’m comparing it to using an SLR type viewfinder at best. I too have thousands of ski shots. Some have turned out fine, but my percentage of good shots dropped significantly when I switched from a G series Canon with viewfinder to the S series without.

  10. Devon June 6th, 2013 12:23 pm

    Lou, you should check out the latest FujiFilm cameras with hybrid viewfinders (X100s, X Pro1, etc). I really like the idea that you can use an optical viewfinder with an offset, or the digital one with a 100% crop of the image you will capture. That way, in bright light, you can use the optical one for an approximate composition that is better than shooting from the hip. For cases where light isn’t an issue, the digital viewfinder gives you the correct composition.

    The one downside of the Fuji cameras is the size, which is larger than some other current mirrorless cameras. Sony NEX cameras, for instance, can fit in a pocket with a prime wide angle lens. Personally, I’m excited about the future of NEX cameras as Sony has been innovating with their product line more than others. Check out the RX1 – a “portable” full frame camera with image quality rivaling the best SLRs. Rumor has it they will be coming out with a interchangeable lens version of that in the next year or so, which could end up being a go-to option for those in the backcountry wanting extremely high quality photos.

  11. ffelix June 6th, 2013 12:46 pm

    I agree with Devon–the quality of the large sensor Fujis is amazing. But they are biggish. I shoot (and recommend) the smaller-sensor Fuji X20, which is also a smaller form factor, has a zoom lens and a viewfinder. But the other cameras Devon mentioned–or the Nikon Coolpix A or Ricoh GR–might be better full-frame sensor options for real pocketability.

    I know we all have had enough of the “more megapixels is better” non-sense, Lou, but large sensors in little bodies is not a gimmick (at least, not yet), and these cameras all have pretty fair manual control, since their target audience is people who are serious about image quality.

    In that department, these little cameras deliver in an unprecedented way that will leave you seriously amazed and forever dissatisfied with small-sensor point-and-shoots–even those like the Canon 95/100/110 that seemed so great for so long.

    Now, if they only cost the same as small sensor cameras…

  12. Devon June 6th, 2013 1:10 pm

    I really like the idea of the Coolpix A, Ricoh GR, and X100S, all of which have nice APS-C sensors, but I just don’t see fixed focal length lenses being useful for action photography. It is a serious limitation in my mind since they are all at ~28mm for a 35mm camera, whereas I’d see something in the range of 18 (or lower)-70mm being ideal for a zoom. Large sensors in small bodies is the future (for now…) Check out dxomark – there is a huge correlation between sensor size and the resulting image quality and low light capability.

  13. ffelix June 6th, 2013 3:21 pm

    I agree about the fixed lenses. That’s why I ended up with the X20 instead of something smaller with a bigger sensor.

    On the other hand, with that much more resolution, cropping waaaay down is a real option if all you need is web quality. The only problem there is that the autofocus on many of these cameras is not up to snuff.

    Eventually, we’ll get dSLR quality and functionality in a tiny body. I just wish they’d get there already…it’s what (virtually) everyone wants. Cameras made the size and weight of a cinder block just so they look “professional” are really, really stupid.

  14. CC Dawson June 6th, 2013 3:23 pm

    Yes, I use an A1300 for construction pictures, inside, outside, crawlspace, you name it. A great little camera and easy to pocket.
    Then I take it outside for hiking and biking pics.

  15. Lorne June 7th, 2013 1:02 pm

    Meh. I thought the same about the no-viewfinder issue originally (I shot Nikon SLRs for years), but have owned an S95 for three years now and I don’t miss it at all.

  16. stephen June 11th, 2013 11:48 pm

    Another camera worth checking out is this one, due in a few weeks: http://www.dpreview.com/news/2013/04/24/Panasonic-announces-lumix-dmc-lf1-enthusiast-compact-with-evf-as-sister-model-to-lx7

    It’s not a Canon, but has a built-in EVF at basically the same size and weight as the S100.

    I have an Olympus XZ1, bought in part as I already had the EVF to suit, and while it’s been good smaller would be a good thing, as would it being impossible for the viewfinder to come off accidentally (not that I’ve had this happen yet).

    Personally, I wouldn’t buy a camera without at least an accessory viewfinder of some sort as I just cannot see anything on the LCD in bright light.

  17. Lou Dawson June 23rd, 2013 6:24 pm

    Stephen, that thing might be IT! I’ve never been impressed with electronic viewfinders, but they can be done effectively if the will is there on the part of the manufacturer. This will thus be a camera to demo before paying the undoubtedly steep price. But again, I’m optimistic. This could be IT!

    I’ll be interested in what the burst mode really is in real life, also, one has to wonder how sensitive the fingernail dial is. That can be a real no-deal factor if it’s the kind of dial that’s so sensitive it’ll change settings when the wind blows on it.

    Lou

  18. SlipperSeeSlouch November 23rd, 2013 10:14 am

    Hi Lou,
    I see the last posting here was way back in June, which probably means you’ve sussed out what “Live” is for.
    I only just got the A1400 today. I see it is like my A2400 IS, but with a viewfinder and other improvements. (more detail on the flickr thread http://www.flickr.com/groups/canonpowershot/discuss/72157613061998316/ ) I had the A2400 IS for ages before discovering what “live” was for.

    Once you’re in “live” press the DISP and you’ll get a chance to change brightness, vividness and temperature. By the time I found out, the snow had already gone, so I can’t say if that setting might help you in the snow.

    And to Blair,
    yes these little cameras are delicate little things, a previous Coolpix came to an early end when it fell a mere 35cm. So what I’ve done with both my A1400 and A2400 IS is add a draw string “lock” (no clue what the proper name for them is, so here’s a photo http://www.flickr.com/photos/53663809@N03/11008778524/ ) so if I suddenly flick a horse-fly away from me, the camera wont go flying.

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Welcome to Louis (Lou) Dawson's backcountry skiing information opinion website and e magazine. Lou's passion for the past 45 years has been alpinism, climbing, mountaineering and skiing -- along with all manner of outdoor recreation. He has authored numerous books and articles about backcountry skiing and is well known as the first person to ski down all 54 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks, otherwise known as the Fourteeners! Books and free back country news and information here, and tons of Randonnee rando telemark info.

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