Adventure cameras have been growing in popularity for several years, and almost all of the main manufacturers have at least one waterproof and shockproof compact in their current model range. Some have several different examples; Sony has two, Panasonic and Ricoh both have four, Fujifilm has five, and Olympus has no less than 10, with six of them launched in 2012. Pentax, Nikon and Casio also have their own waterproof models, and some are on their fourth or fifth generation, so it’s rather surprising to realise that Canon only got around to launching its second waterproof compact, the PowerShot D20 that I’m looking at today, in February last year.
Design and features
The D20 is a replacement for Canon’s first waterproof compact the PowerShot D10, which was launched in 2009. I tested that camera at the time, and was impressed by its performance, image quality and overall design. The D20 is not simply an upgrade of the earlier model; it’s a completely new camera, with a new body design and several new features. The only similarity to the specification of the D10 is the resolution. The D20 has a 1/2.3in back-illuminated CMOS sensor with a resolution of 12.1-megapixels, giving an image size of 4,000 x 3,000 pixels.
Canon has opted for the corner-lens internal zoom design used by virtually every other manufacturer for adventure compacts, probably because it means the lens can be protected behind a tough glass window. The lens offers 5x optical zoom, equivalent to 28 – 140mm, with a maximum aperture of f/3.9 – f/4.8, and of course Canon’s acclaimed lens-shift optical image stabilisation.
The D20’s waterproof qualities are the same as the D10, with a rated depth of 10m (33ft), but it is now also protected against shock, and able to survive drops of up to 1.5m (5ft). As you’d expect the build quality is excellent, and the camera feels very robust. The body is made from tough plastic with a coloured metal facia attached by the seemingly obligatory and completely cosmetic exposed hex-key bolt heads. Perhaps Canon is worried that the macho outdoorsmen who are presumably the intended users won’t buy a camera unless it looks like they can dismantle it. The camera is available with a silver or metallic blue fascia, as well as the metallic yellow shown here.
One other similarity to the D10 is the wrist strap attachment. The strap is attached to a plug-like adapter that clips into a socket on the lower right corner of the camera body, with a bayonet-type latch. As before, it is a bit of a gimmick, but it does mean that the strap can be quickly removed if necessary. The camera won’t stand on a flat surface with the adapter attached.
One criticism I often make about adventure cameras is that their controls aren’t particularly easy to use while wearing gloves, and since almost all forms of outdoor activity where you might need your camera to be waterproof also require the wearing of gloves, this is something of a problem. The original PowerShot D10 was one of the exceptions, with large easy-to-use controls, but unfortunately the D20 doesn’t follow in its father’s footsteps. The controls are bright yellow and easy to see, but the buttons are quite small and close together. I tried operating them while wearing wetsuit gloves and found it almost impossible; with skiing gloves it would be even more difficult.
The first thing that struck me about the PowerShot D20 is how fast is starts up. From a cold start it can power up, focus and take a picture in approximately one second, which approaching DSLR levels of performance. In single-shot mode, it has a shot-to-shot time of approximately two seconds, while in continuous shooting mode it can manage just less than two frames a second, which is also quick by compact standards. Focusing is fast and accurate in good light, but does slow down by about half a second in low light. It has a bright amber AF assist lamp that has a range of about four or five meters, so it can focus in the dark. As usual, the Canon AiAF multi-zone autofocus system seems to have a mind of its own and often focuses on the background rather than the main subject, but the centre-zone AF is more reliable.
The flash is a bit weaker than I would have expected on an outdoor-oriented camera, with a maximum range of only 3.5m. It charges reasonably quickly though, cycling in approximately seven seconds under typical use.
Unfortunately since it’s the middle of January I’m not going to risk hypothermia by taking the D20 for a swim, but I did use it in heavy rain and freezing cold, and it performed without a hitch. Don’t tell Canon, but I also tried dropping it from head height onto a wooden floor and it survived unscathed; in fact it put a dent in the floorboards.
The D20 has a built-in GPS receiver to automatically geotag your pictures. I’m not usually a big fan of these; most that I’ve tried have been battery-draining white elephants that don’t even work half the time. The D20’s GPS does appear to work quite well though, picking up a satellite lock within a minute or so and accurately recording position to within a couple of metres. If GPS on your camera would be a useful feature for you, then this is one of the few good ones.
When I tested the PowerShot D10 three years ago I was impressed by its image quality, which was the best in its class, so I was expecting good results from the D20. In some respects it hasn’t really improved on its predecessor; the level of detail is about the same, and about average for a current-generation 12-megapixel compact. Possibly because it’s shooting through an extra layer of glass the images do seem a bit soft and lacking in really fine detail, and even at the lowest ISO setting the results appear a bit fuzzy around the edges.
Colour reproduction is consistently good, as is usually the case with Canon cameras, and the high-ISO noise control is also very good, producing good quality images at 1600 ISO, and even at 3200 ISO the results weren’t a complete disaster. One area where it does fall down though is dynamic range. Even with the iContrast feature turned on there was little shadow detail and the highlights were burned out. The glass lens cover is also prone to reflected glare when shooting into bright light. Overall though the D20 is better than average for an adventure camera, and is certainly capable of good results under extreme circumstances.
The Canon PowerShot D20 isn’t exactly disappointing; it’s a competent adventure camera, able to withstand water, shock and cold as well as the next, and take a decent picture under most circumstances, but that’s kind of the point. The D10 was the best in its class when it was introduced in 2009 and had an interesting and unusual design; the new D20 is merely average, with little to distinguish from any one of a dozen rivals. It’s not a bad camera, and has many good points, but I was hoping for something a little better from Canon.
This is the full scene at 100 ISO. Click it to view the full resolution version. All the ISO test shots were taken using tungsten studio lights and manual white balance.
The shots were taken in JPEG mode at progressively higher ISO settings. View the slideshow below to see the results:
Sample photos - Detail
Sample photos - Lens distortion
The first image is of the full scene. The second image is a crop from the full resolution image. The third image is a crop from the top right corner of the full resolution image.
Sample photos - Dynamic range
Dynamic range setting is off in the first image; on in the second. Click on the images for the full resolution version.
Click each image for the full resolution version
Wide-angle - the lens is at its widest setting here (28mm equiv.):
And at full zoom (140mm equiv.):
Manufacturer and model
Canon PowerShot D20
1/2.3in back-illuminated CMOS, 12.1-megapixel
4,000 x 3,000
5x optical, 4x digital
Focal length (35mm)
5 – 25mm (28 – 140 mm equiv.)
f/3.9 – f/4.8
15 – 1/1600 sec.
TTL contrast detection, 9 points
Auto, program, underwater, snow, stich assist
Evaluative, centre-weighted, spot
Yes, optical lens-shift
100 – 3200
30cm – 3.5m (W), 1m – 3.0m (T)
JPEG Exif 2.3
1,920 x 1,080 24fps, H.264
Memory card slot
SD, SDHC, SDXC
Li-ion rechargeable, 1,000mAh
USB Hi-speed, HDMI mini
Dimensions (W x H x D)
112.2 x 70.8 x 28.3
Weight (body only)
226g inc. battery and card
Wrist strap, charger, cables, software CD