Okay, it is way too soon for a new camera. I seriously try to limit myself to one new camera every two years. My first real “super-zoom” or “bridge” camera was the Sony H9, and I fell in love with the articulated LCD, the macro capability, and the zoom range…the flexibility of the camera…and how much fun it was to use. On the other hand the image quality (IQ) was only so so…aggressive noise reduction and jpeg compression resulted in images with a heavy water color effect. Fine details were too often smeared together into blocks of stippled color…especially grass, tree foliage, and skin tones…and there was a general lack of sharpness in architectural details like shingle roofs and brickwork. In normal viewing and smaller prints the defects were not obvious, but I knew they were there. The color was great, the features were second to none, and I had a lot of fun with the camera, but I knew I was giving up IQ in exchange.
While I, like practically everyone who owned one, really hoped Sony would upgrade the firmware to address the IQ issue, they never did. Eventually I replaced the Sony H9 with the Sony H50. While still not great IQ, it was a definite improvement over the H9…kinda what the H9 should have been…and the zoom had grown significantly…which made the camera even more flexible and more fun to use.
Still, IQ! After a lot of research on review sites, on flickr, etc., I replaced the Sony H50 with the Canon SX20IS. Now that was a camera. IQ was a clear step above the Sony’s and the camera itself felt solid and business-like by comparison. And, again, longer zoom, more flexibility, more fun.
However, along the way there, I bought a Canon SD4000is as a digiscoping camera (to use behind the eyepiece of a spotting scope for long distance imaging). It is just a little P&S…pocket sized…but it has a 10mp Back-illuminated CMOS sensor. It has decent IQ, great continuous shooting mode (4 frames per second), and amazing high ISO performance for a P&S. I began to think it might be worth looking at one of the long-zoom cameras coming on the market with BiCMOS sensors, and significantly longer zooms. I was thinking of flight and grab shots of birds, for one thing. Not something the Canon did well. Then too the BiCMOS sensors make possible full HD video capture and all kinds of multiple shot image processing effects. Again, research mode, but as the cameras were very new there was not much out on them. Three looked possible. The Fuji HS20 with a 16mp BiCMOS sensor and a maximum reach of 720mm, the Sony HX100v, with a similar 16mp sensor and 810mm reach, and the Nikon Coolpix P500 with a 12mp BiCMOS sensor and a 36x reach: 23mm-810mm.
At the time, I eliminated the Canon SX30is, despite its 30x zoom, since its 14mp CCD sensor limited the continuous shooting mode to less than a frame per second, and early reports indicated that its IQ was actually not quite as good as the SX20is.
I bought the Fuji HS20 and really tried to like it. However the IQ was such a disappointment, compared to the Canon SX20is, that I returned it. It was, at least in my sample, as bad as the Sony H9. Water colors? We got water colors! (They say, on the Fuji forums, that shooting at half resolution and tweaking the settings gives much better results, but I was not up for that kind of messing about.) The Sony was not yet available anywhere…so, since I had a workshop on Point & Shoot for Wildlife coming right up, I bought the Nikon P500 the day before I left for Florida.
I really like the Coolpix P500 (see my various reviews and appreciations via the links below).
It is, again, just a lot of fun to use, and the feature set is pretty amazing. 36x zoom starting at super wide (23mm), great macro mode (Close-UP), night landscape that stacks exposures for less noise and greater dynamic range, a really useful daylight dynamic range extension (Active-D Lighting), auto HDR that works sometimes, 7 fps continuous (maybe 5 fps at full resolution), and very good high ISO performance for a compact. Great camera. Great for macro, great for landscape, great for wildlife on the move and at reasonable distances. I have taken some of my favorite images with it…and though I am aware of its limitations by now…it is a camera I planned to live with for at least its 2 year term.
But then Canon released the SX40HS. I read a few early posts on the forums, and one glowing comparison review with included both the Nikon P500 and the Sony HX100V. The reviewers hailed the Canon as breakthrough in IQ…but their tests were lab based, using resolution targets and color charts..no real world comparisons. Still, 24-840mm equivalent zoom. 12mp BiCMOS sensor with lots of Canon innovations. Fastest image processing on the planet. A few less features than the Nikon, but a similar feature set. 10 fps. Even though it is too early by 1.5 years, I was sorely tempted.
It is that IQ thing. While I am generally satisfied with the IQ on the Nikon, I am becoming more critical in my old age, and I am aware of some softness and lack of fine detail in the Nikon images. Not fatal. But there. Then too, the colors in the Nikon images are just a bit off…for one thing, the sky blue is not quite right, and since I shoot a lot of landscapes with sky, that matters. A camera like the Coolpix P500 but with slightly better IQ would be my dream camera.
Then too, I realized the limitations of the Nikon’s Image Stabilization system early on. Even though the SX20is only reached 560mm equivalent, it gave a much more stable image than the Nikon at the same reach. And the Nikon at 810mm was marginal at best. It was especially obvious in movie mode. And, according to some critics, the moving sensor IS in the Nikon degrades the image more than the Canon’s lens based optical stabilization does. 840mm with Canon optical image stabilization. That could be awesome.
I held out for the better part of a week…but, you know, photography is a big part of who I am…not what I do for a living…but who I am as a person. And I was, at that point, in over 3000 people’s circles on Google+, largely on the strength of my images (over 5000 at the moment, a very modest achievement since there are photographers on there with 30,000 plus…but still my own…as they say). I finally figured, well, why not. I can order an SX40HS from Amazon and give it try against the Nikon P500, and see for myself. At least I will get a review out of it.
Once more, the Canon SX40HS feels like a real camera when compared to the more lightly constructed Coolpix. It fills the hand and has a solid weight. There is a downside of course. It is significantly heavier to carry than the Nikon. The controls feel polished and durable as well, which is also a change from the Coolpix. The feature set is slightly more limited than the Coolpix (more on specific lacks as you read on), but in general it has everything I need, and much that I will never use (just as the Nikon did).
But the real tale is in the IQ. Careful real world comparison shots with the Nikon P500 and the Canon SX40HS under good daylight shooting conditions show that the reviewers were right. The SX40HS has, hands down, better IQ than the Nikon…in most situations considerably better IQ. And the image stabilization, while still not magic, is everything I had hoped it would be. You can shoot hand held HD video at 840mm…and that is impressive!
Comparison shots follow. All are straight from the camera or comparison crops straight from the camera. iContrast turned on for the Canon, and Active D-Lighting turned on for the Nikon (dynamic range enhancement). Canon always on the left, Nikon on the right. Most images are linked to the original file, so you can view it as large as you like. You might want to download.
Just your general scenic (and, no, I would not have put my shadow in…but these are just for comparison.) Note the slight difference in sky color…with the Nikon leaning toward Robin’s Egg, and the Canon just slightly bluer, and more finely graduated. Look a the detail in the far tree line. Look at the grasses in the marsh. It is easy to see in the bar that separates the two bodies of water. Both cameras show the effects of the small sensor, but the Canon pushes the boundaries of what is possible, showing acceptable (imho) detail even at distance, while the Nikon smears over much.
Here are crops from the originals. I was, honestly, surprised that there was this much difference.
And here you have some architectural detail. Both shots are at maximum zoom: 840mm equivalent field of view on the Canon, and 810mm equivalent on the Nikon. You can view them at full resolution by clicking the images, or I have provided some crops.
The Nikon has, hands down, one of the best macro modes I have ever used. Close-Up mode auto sets the zoom to 32mm equivalent, which provides maximum image scale and a comfortable working distance (2 cm). The Canon, on the other hand, can focus to zero centimeters at 24mm equivalent, but jumps to 11.8 inches at any longer focal length. You can reach the same image scale with the Canon as the Nikon, but you have to get much closer, which can be a problem when the camera gets in the way of the light. Still, the Canon shows a clear, if not as obvious, advantage in IQ…sharper, with more detail.
I also enjoy using what might be called telephoto macro. With a small sensor camera the long end of the zoom, from its closest focus distance, can provide a bokeh similar to a larger sensor camera and a conventional macro lens.
The difference between the two cameras here is that the Canon reaches 4.5 feet in normal program or auto without turning on macro (in fact it gets no closer than that in macro at the long end of the zoom). In order to reach tele-macro distances with the Nikon you do have to set it to Close-Up mode and over-ride the auto zoom setting.
One final comparison. Since grab and flight shot of birds was a primary interest in my purchase decisions, here is a very cooperative Song Sparrow with both cameras at maximum zoom. No sharpening. Straight from the camera and cropped from full frame.
While, as I say, I have not been really dissatisfied with the IQ of the Nikon, these, and other, tests have convinced me that the Canon SX40HS does indeed set a new standard for IQ in its class.
In addition, I like the overall color rendering better in the Canon than the Nikon. The images just look more natural to me.
I thought I might really miss the Active D-Lighting on the Nikon, especially since past experience with Canon’s iContrast has left me underwhelmed…however the new processor in the SX40HS, along with the new sensor, seems to have improved iContrast as well. The Canon handles full range landscapes with sky with ease, producing very natural results even where there is deep shade in the foreground. And, as with D-Lighting in the Nikon, iContrast can be applied as in-camera processing after the image has been saved to the card…especially useful for opening shadows, and perhaps a bit more effective than D-Lighting in the Nikon in that it leaves the sky tones alone.
Low light, high ISO performance is one of the features of the BiCMOS sensors. Both the Nikon P500 and the Canon SX40HS provide what only a year ago would have been amazing high ISO performance for a small sensor camera. In comparison testing, the Canon again has the edge, at most ISOs, but only by a small margin. I actually prefer the 3200 ISO performance of the Nikon but either is acceptable. The days when you had to keep your superzoom locked on ISO 100 to guarantee good results are gone. Either of these cameras is safe on auto ISO, and you will excellent results right up through 1600.
The Canon SX40HS in particular makes use of this fact to keep apertures considerably smaller in Program mode than they were in the SX20is. I had to use Landscape mode a lot in the SX20, since the default f-stop in Program was in wide open (it was f4 in Landscape). In the SX40HS ISO is shifted up at need to give more reasonable f-stops. I like this!
Besides a better Macro mode, the Nikon’s implementation of rapid continuous shooting is also superior. On the P500, when you select Continuous via the button on the top of the camera you have several useful options. You can shoot at about 7 frames per second in Medium resolution (9mp…maybe 5 fps in full resolution) for up to 5 frames, or you can shoot in at about 2.5 fps for as long as you want to (and there are several additional high speed modes). On the Canon the most obvious Continuous mode gives you 2.4 frames per second for as long as you want. To access the true high speed burst you have to set it in the Scene modes and there is, as far as I can tell, no way to set a shortcut. Once set, you have 8 full resolution shots at 10 fps, with very limited control over any other settings. On the plus side, recovery time is much more rapid than with the P500, so you are ready for your next burst.
The Canon does have a Sports mode right on the dial that focuses continuously and tracks moving subjects, but is not much use, as it is limited to about 1 fps.
Both cameras, as I already mentioned, have a wealth of features beyond this outline. I have not yet experimented with Night Landscape on the Canon, or most of the Scene modes, or most of the effects, etc. Many of them I never will get to.
Finally, one more word about image stabilization. This is the SX40HS, not the SX40IS as it would have been if it had been a direct descendent of the SX20IS and the SX30IS. The H stands for Hybrid, and Canon points out that the image stabilization works automatically to adjust for your shooting style and the subject matter. All I can say is that it works, and works well. There is simply no comparison between the P500’s IS and the Canon’s HS. And it works while shooting video. Here is a short clip at 840mm equivalent field of view. I wandered a bit at the start, but even so, there is none of the uncontrolled jitter and bounce that you associate with high magnification video. Very, very impressive. And, of course, it also makes hand held shots possible at much lower shutter speeds and longer zooms than you have any right to expect. Win!
Like I say…oh rats…I am going to have to keep the Canon SX40HS. I have not tested every superzoom bridge camera currently out there, but I feel confident in saying that the Canon SX40HS sets the standard for the class. I have collected some sample images, fully processed in Lightroom for presentation, on my WideEyedInWonder site here. It is as much fun as any bridge camera, and offers image quality and high ISO performance that is nothing short of amazing in a small sensor camera.
Now if I can just figure out what to do with a perfectly fine Nikon P500?