Moving to the top of the camera we find a pair of chrome effect buttons, the larger one being the shutter release while the smaller is the main power button. As is common to most cameras, depressing the shutter release button half way activates the auto focus and auto exposure function. Amazingly, the A400 offers nine-point, intelligent, through-the-lens auto focus but this becomes limited to just a single, centre focus point when switched off. On the opposite end of the top face is a small bank of twelve holes behind which lies a speaker for video playback.
The circular lens surround dominates the front of the camera. The lens itself retracts into the camera body when not in use and is protected from dirt and scratches by a two-piece sliding plastic lens cover which closes automatically. When extended, the lens protrudes about 10mm and this doesn’t alter even when zooming because the lens elements move internally.
Any form of optical zoom is a bonus at this price point, but at just 2.2x it is slightly limiting. The additional magnification offered by a 3.2x digital zoom extends the zoom to around 7x overall but digital zoom does nothing more than enlarge a portion of what’s available to the CCD, along with a subsequent loss of quality. You can achieve the exact same thing by enlarging part of your captured image using your favourite photo-editing software, and probably with superior results. Perhaps more limiting is the fact that the zoom range is equivalent to a 45-100mm lens in 35mm terms, which means its wide angle end isn’t very wide at all. At f3.8 it’s not a terribly fast lens either.
Alongside the lens towards the top is the focus assist light which doubles as a self-timer warning and a red-eye reduction light. The inclusion of a focus-assist light for this kind of money is commendable, and one that other manufacturers should take note of.
Slightly further up again is the built-in flash, the front of the optical viewfinder and, more centrally, the microphone. The flash is fairly tame with a maximum stated range of just two metres. It’s also situated very close to the lens which is usually a recipe for rampant red-eye problems. However, in practise I was actually able to get good flash exposures up to six metres and more, which suggests Canon has been a touch pessimistic with its rating. Getting the focus assist light to work over that kind of distance was also nigh on impossible.
The real-image zoom optical viewfinder is rather tight with only about 85% of the final image visible. The LCD is far more reliable and was probably around 98%. By “real image zoom” I mean that as the lens zooms so too does the image you see through the viewfinder. Furthermore, because it’s positioned quite close to the lens, parallax errors are less pronounced which means less missing heads in your photo collection.
The rear of the camera is very much the control centre, and having so many functions in such a compact body makes the array of button, dials and switches rather off-putting at first. Fortunately, logic prevails and a little practice should soon have it all making sense.
Starting over on the left, the dominating feature is undoubtedly the 1.5in TFT LCD screen. This diminutive screen boasts a relatively high 115,000 pixels for its dimensions, and in practice it’s not as difficult to work with as you might think, even in bright light. Immediately to the right of this is a “D” shaped button marked “Disp” which can be used to shut off the LCD to conserve battery power or to overlay or hide the current camera settings data.
Above the LCD is the optical viewfinder and to the side of this are two LEDs, one dual colour orange/green LED which indicates flash state, camera activity state and focus state while a single colour yellow LED below it indicates macro/infinity focus mode or that the focus has failed to lock-on sharply.
Over on the other side of the back panel is where you need to practice and get familiar with the functions and how to set them. At the top is the zoom rocker switch, a common control that most users should be familiar with. This also magnifies the image in the LCD screen when previewing images in playback mode. Alongside this is a four-position switch that sets camera mode, video capture mode, special scene mode or playback mode.