Canon Powershot SX20IS: first thoughts

I have a new camera! After considerable research, I ordered a Canon Powershot SX20IS.

A new camera is always fun. It is almost like getting new eyes…or learning to see all over again. Of course, you carry your photographic habits and all you have learned about image making into the new experience…and comparisons with past cameras are inevitable…but really it is all about learning what this particular tool brings with it as potentials (that you many not have had with your old equipment, and that will open up the possibility of new images) and limitations (which you will have to learn to work around to get the images you like to take).

I have had the SX20IS just short of a week now, and had my first real chance to experience its potentials (and limitations) yesterday, on a perfect sunny winter day along the Maine coast around home. While it will take some getting used to, compared to the Sony H9 and H50 that I have used for 4 years now, I am already liking the Canon. I am liking it a lot!

The Sonys were great cameras. The combination of the flip out LCD which makes composing from any angle and any height easy, the super-macro setting which allows you to get in impossibly close, the wide zoom range which gives you an amazing flexibility in framing, and the overall quality of the images when creatively processed in Lightroom is hard to beat. And best of all, they were just a lot of fun to use. I enjoyed taking pictures with them, more, really, than I had ever enjoyed taking pictures with any camera before (and that is saying quite a bit!)…and, if you follow my Pic of the Day blog, you know that I got a lot of images that made me, at least, happy :).

Still, even the H50, which was better than the H9 (see my comparison), showed the limitations of the small sensor, despite then state-of-the-art internal image processing (fine detail loss due to aggressive noise reduction and high jpg compression ratios), and both showed noticeable color fringing in critical situations. I knew the limits and worked with them and around them, but I have kept my eye out for a camera that has all the strengths of the Sony H series and slightly better image quality.

The HX1, which replaced the H50 in the Sony lineup a year ago, and added several really nice features (HD video capture, auto panorama stitching, image stacking for extended contrast range in low light, etc.), unfortunately got consistently poor reviews for the one feature I really wanted: the consensus was that the image quality was no better than, and maybe a bit worse than, the H50. Not the direction I wanted to go.

And I knew I was probably looking for another super-zoom P&S, since nothing else was likely to have the feature set that made the Sonys so much fun to use, and I know that I am not ready to carry a full DSLR kit anyway.

When I got serious about shopping last month, I read a lot of reviews, and over time the conviction built that the Canon SX20IS might be worth a look. It has the flip out, rotating LCD that I require, both Macro and Super Macro settings, an even higher zoom range (20x, wider at 28mm equivalent, and longer at 560mm), and most people had good things to say about the image quality…even, surprisingly, at higher ISOs. Add in the 12mp sensor, 720 HD Video capture, a reportedly solid build, AA battery power, and SD card capture and how could I not order one to try.

So, after a grand total of about 300 images, what do I think?

Great camera!

The major consideration right now is, as above, image quality, and side-by-side comparison shots with the H50 and the Canon SX20IS clearly show that the Canon has less detail blurring, which amounts (perhaps along with the higher pixel density) to an overall increase in fine detail. The Canon images also show slightly more saturation out-of-camera, and lower noise overall. The Sony shots, processed as well as I could manage in Lightroom, always looked just a bit rendered…like a close approximation of reality, but just slightly painted. The Canon produces images that are more photographic somehow. It is a subtle difference but it is, to my eye at least, a real difference. And, while it is most obvious at larger sizes when viewed on the computer…it is evident even at normal screen resolutions. Again, at least to my eye.

Take a look at these two comparison shots of one of my favorite test subjects: Nubble Light in Cape Neddick ME. First the Sony. You can view the file at full resolution by clicking the pic and then choosing O (original)  at the top of the screen on WideEyeInWonder. Then the Canon. Again, view at original size. Both images were processed in Lightroom to the best of my ability. Given slight differences in scale and considerable differences in lighting, these two images serve to point up the differences I see.

Look at the rocks in the foreground. Notice that in the Sony image the rocks look like a really good water color painting of rocks, while in the Canon shot they retain their full gnarly rockness. Notice the vertical siding on the low connecting shed between the house and the base of the Lighthouse. Neither image is perfect at full resolution, but I find the Canon image to to be closer to reality. And again, you do not have to blow the images up to full resolution to see the differences. It is evident even in the two small images in the column here…in comparison, and once you know what to look for.

The most telling remark anyone ever made about one of my Sony pics was my daughter Emily, home from College. She looked at the Nubble Light shot above, printed at 8×11, mounted, framed, and hung and said “That’s a painting right? It’s not a photograph.” There you go. I hope not to have that feeling about prints from the Canon SX20IS.

This is an excellent test for chromatic aberration too. Note that in the Canon shot you have to go all the way out the window of the shed on the left to see any at all, and then you have to look for it, while in the Sony shot it is evident along the edge of the gray door and the window in the connecting shed near the center of the image.

I should remind you that I was perfectly happy with the Sony images for two years, and would be still be satisfied with them for almost any purpose short of magazine publication. The Canon SX20IS is just a bit better.

Limited test shots at higher ISOs are encouraging so far. ISO 100 is excellent. 200 is just about as good. 400 begins to show noise but nothing you would see without enlargement. 800 is acceptable and 1600 is not much worse. Even the special 3200 low light mode produces images that would be fine viewed at reasonable sizes on a computer screen or printed up to 4×6, at the cost of limiting resolution to 6mp. What this means, in effect, is that I might be able to use Auto ISO more often, and let the camera choose slightly higher ISOs in low light situations. I always kept the Sonys set to ISO 100. Here are full resolution crops: 400ISO, 800ISO and 3200ISO. Click to enlarge.

400ISO 800ISO 3200ISO

As to my basic requirements: articulated LCD, macro, and wide zoom range: the Canon works as advertised. The LDC flips out to the side and rotates, and though not as large or as fine resolution as the Sony, it works well and is visible even in bright sun. In addition, it folds closed with the panel facing the camera and fully protected.

The 28mm wide on the Canon adds significant field of view, and the 560mm tele has just that much more reach. Distortions seem minimal throughout the zoom range (or at least no worse than could be expected in a zoom this long). Though some reviewers have mentioned noticeable color fringing (chromatic aberration and purple sensor fringe) very few of my shots at any focal length have shown any at all, and what was there in one or two shots was easily corrected in Lightroom. Certainly the Canon shows less color aberration than either of the Sony Hs.

Macro works differently on the Canon than on the Sony. I used to just leave the Sonys in Macro all the time and they would focus from 2 cm out. You could leave the Canon in regular Macro and have focus from 4 inches out at the wide end of the zoom to 3.2 feet at the tele end, but for closer work you need to switch to Super Macro, which is only available at the wide end. I can live with this, especially as the Canon macro images are spectacular. Even at 3.2 feet and 560mm equivalent, you get a very nice macro look, and great bokeh.

I liked the Sonys’ easy access to ISO, EV compensation, and Program Shift…all of which I use fairly frequently, through the selections along the base of the displays and the function wheel. The Canon goes one better with dedicated buttons for ISO and EV compensation, and user programmed button that I will use for Program Shift. There is also a dedicated button for shifting the focus point in Programmed mode. All of this will take getting used to, but is actually easier and faster than shifting the functions on the Sony.

The camera is indeed solidly built, especially compared to the Sonys. This is a real camera, and, though not much bigger than the H50, weighs several ounces more. The AA batteries are part of that, but not all. The H50’s zoom, for instance, had a bit of wobble as it extended. The Canon is rock solid and smooth. The whole camera just feels substantial.

The only disappointment so far is that neither the LCD panel, as mentioned above, or the EV is as high resolution or as easy to look at as the Sonys’. You could really evaluate an image on the LCD of the Sony…on the Canon you have to depend much more on the histogram.

A nice touch is that you can select to view the histogram and all pertinent exposure data as part of the review process, along with a medium sized thumbnail of the image.

The SX20IS has an optically stabilized lens…but so far I have not found it to be quite as effective as the moving sensor stabilization in the Sonys. More care is called for in long exposure shots. Of course, maybe I am pushing the limits at this point…being, you might say, just a bit testy with the new tool…exploring the limits.

I am still discovering many of the smaller niceties of the SX20: the display is all kinds of customizable, and has the same composition grid available that I came to appreciate on the Sonys; it has a number of interesting looking scene modes which I intend to explore more; and it has HD Video capture and HDMI output.

I plan on trying the Video feature more extensively over the next few weeks, but one great feature that is not available in some competing cameras is the ability to zoom while capturing Video…and the ability to capture full resolution stills while shooting Video. I really like the dedicated record button that allows you to shoot video at any time, even if the control dial is not set to video capture.

So. So far so good. So far the Canon Powershot SX20IS is all I had hoped it would be and more. I like it! It it lives up to its early potential, I am not going to have any problem keeping up my Pic of the Day blog.

This entry was posted in bridge camera, Canon, Canon SX20IS, Reviews, super zoom. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Canon Powershot SX20IS: first thoughts

  1. Terrific review, Stephen. Well done. The comparison shots are most telling.


  2. Lynn says:

    Were you using a polarizer on the sx20 shots?

    • singraham says:

      No polarizer on the SX20. The images straight from camera are more saturated than the Sony, and then when processed in Lightroom, the smallest touch of Vibrance, which I always used more heavily in the Sony, pumps up the blues in particular. However, the Canon shots are very close to what the sky and sea looked like “in reality” that day. When I got to East Point I said to myself…”well if the camera captures this, people will think I manipulated the color…” It was that intense.

  3. Karl says:

    Perfect. is amazing.

  4. Frank Rocap says:

    I’m using a Canon S5IS and thought I’d move to a DSLR next. I’ve been looking for a review of the SX20IS (DPREVIEW) but they didn’t do an in -depth review. Based on your pictures and this review I’m going to order an SX20IS today!! I’d really prefer a P&S. Thanks for all the great pictures and this info on the SX20.

  5. biju says:

    canon rocks .. lol

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