The reason why we smirk at these cameras is because when zoom ratio goes up, image quality has a tendency to take a nosedive. That's not always the case, Panasonic's FZ series is immune, and so is today's review: the PowerShot SX50 HS. This camera is far more than its 50x gimmick, it tested very well, and the shooting experience is a lot of fun.

The SX50 is available in black for $479.99.

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Box Photo

• Canon PowerShot SX50 HS digital camera

• rechargeable battery

• wall charger

• neck strap

• lens cap strap

• lens cap

• software CD-ROM

• Getting Started manual

• warranty information

This is the main event, right here. The SX50's comically long lens offers a zoom magnification of 50x, by far the most super of the super-zooms on the market today. For some consumers, optical zoom is the new "megapixels," meaning it's the one specification people tend to measure a camera's worth by. Of course that's a rather unsophisticated way to judge a product, but at least the SX50 offers more than just a long lens.

For those that really can take advantage of 50x (who are these people?), you'll find the lens capable of resolving detail from clear across a football field or two, with a 35mm-equivalent focal range of 24 to 1200mm.

Another important change has been made to the lens motor, it's much more powerful than the SX40. So this camera doesn't just reach 50x, it flies down to 50x in only two or three seconds.

Sadly, geometry dictates than unless we were comfortable with a lens that protrudes three feet or so, the camera's sensor needs to be tiny. Therefore, we're stuck with a 12 megapixel CMOS that measures only 1/2.3-inch. Every other super-zoom has a similar limitation, so the complaint is minor.

The SX50's electronic viewfinder is small and not the most comfortable to squint through. The display also has a severe lag associated with it, which will make action photography a little more challenging than it should be. Color rendition is accurate though, much more so than the average EVF. Sadly the camera is not equipped with an eye-lever sensor, so you'll need to toggle the display button in order to swap between the EVF and LCD.

A sturdy rear LCD panel is probably your best bet for accurate framing. This is a fully swiveling panel that's very useful for video applications or challenging shooting angles. Viewing angle of the actual screen isn't perfect, but since the whole thing rotates, this really isn't a problem.

The built-in flash bulb is of average power, it's effective out to a maximum of 18 feet, and recycle time is also fairly typical. The pop-up arm has neither a motor nor a spring, so you'll need to actually reach up and pull back the flash to deploy it.

Flash Photo

The flash emitter pops up from the top of the body via a mechanical release.

On the right side of the body you'll find a rubber stopper blocking standard USB and HDMI terminals, as well as a wired remote shutter port. We just love when manufacturers use standard connectors that are already compatible with cables you've got lying around in a drawer somewhere. We just wish the rubber cover was a little less flimsy.

Other than the main connectivity ports, the only one left is the hot shoe mount on top of the camera, right above the EVF. Here you can attach supplemental flash or other external accessories.

We found the SX50's image quality to be generally very strong, however this evaluation comes with a few "buts." For example, sharpness scores were outstanding... but they've been artificially enhanced by software. Likewise, color scores were just-okay... but color reproduction seemed fantastic in our sample shots. At least the noise reduction scores are indisputable... or are they?

We were initially blown away by the SX50's sharpness. After all, those super-zoom lenses don't usually offer the best resolution. But our first samples were so sharp, we decided to take an even closer look at the data. Sure enough, most of this camera's sharpness capabilities are actually just software forgeries.

Although our tests recorded resolution in excess of 2500 MTF50s (that's outstanding) in some areas, the test also recorded up to 48% overshoot and 10% undershoot enhancement in those same areas. What this means, is that in the sharpest zones, roughly half of a given edge's detail is faked by internal software, not resolved by the performance of the sensor.

When a camera uses such aggressive edge enhancement, shots look decent while zoomed out, but closer inspection reveals bright, unnatural halos around many subjects, as well as dark black lines around simple shapes and straight lines. Both of these undesirable effects are observable in the crops below. More on how we test sharpness.

One of the SX50's coolest new features is called Framing Assist, and this arrives in the form of two new buttons on the left side of the lens barrel, one for "seek" and one for "lock." Seek simply zooms back out for a moment to give the shooter a chance to reorient themselves, but lock is a stabilization feature. The idea is to use image stabilization to keep the frame locked onto a certain subject, regardless of any shake or drift on the user's part.

It does work. There is a slight "tug," which you may notice after experimenting with the feature for a short time, but mostly it just feels like swapping back and forth between "standard" and "active" stabilization which, given the convenience of the new button, isn't really a bad thing either.

The SX50 offers quite good color accuracy, and our tests revealed an uncorrected error value of 2.39, which is competitive for this price range. In the most accurate color mode, that's with "My Colors" off by the way, saturation was only slightly below the ideal at 95.5%. The most severe inaccuracies are found in flesh tones, so this is probably not an ideal camera for portraits, as it also lacks a dedicated "portrait" color mode. More on how we test color.

Jiving with what we saw in our lab results, the camera's color performance impressed us during real world shooting, especially for landscape photography. This could be due to the relative accuracy of shades like blues, reds, and greens, which is a rare distribution for cameras of this class. We're fine recommending the SX50 HS if color accuracy is your thing, though we'd caution that you have to tweak some things to get the most out of the camera.

NOTE: Because of the way computer monitors reproduce colors, the images above do not exactly match the originals found on the chart or in the captured images. The chart should be used to judge the relative color shift, not the absolute captured colors.

2.39 is right along with almost every competing ultrazoom this year, and almost identical to its closest competitor, the Panasonic FZ200. We saw similar color accuracy out of last year's model, the Canon SX40.

Including the "off" setting there are nine available color modes and, as previously mentioned, if you want accurate colors leaving them off is the best option. Canon has historically shown very little consistency with regard to which color mode is the most accurate. Sometimes it's Neutral, sometimes My Colors Off, sometimes Lighter Skin Tone, sometimes Vivid Red. In the SX50's case, all modes other than Neutral are oversaturated and less accurate, with Neutral being too undersaturated to produce accurate shots.

Automatic white balance will be perfectly acceptable for the majority of shooting scenarios. Specifically we're talking about photography under daylight or fluorescents. In fact, under such conditions, we actually found the camera to be more accurate using automatic white balance than custom.

The exception to this is incandescent or "tungsten" light, which the automatic algorithm has trouble dealing with. Under those conditions, the automatic white balance will be off by about 2000 Kelvin, so you should really perform a manual white balance, which will drop that figure down to around 100 K.

Six white balance presets are available, including one for flash and two different shades of fluorescent, plus automatic and two custom settings that are relatively simple to program.

The noise reduction algorithm is aggressive, so artifacting rates are low. Total image noise averages only 0.55% at minimum ISO, and this value stays below 1.00% until ISO 1600, which is a great result. Noise then continues its straight upward climb to 1.24% at ISO 3200, which is still manageable, before topping out at 1.60% at ISO 6400. Chroma and luminance noise are evenly distributed. More on how we test noise.

Default ISO sensitivity ranges from 80 - 6400, with no reduced resolution extended options available. Out of the most competitive cameras, only Sony's HX200V is capable of ISO 12800 in full resolution.

The noise reduction algorithm is aggressive, so artifacting rates are low. Total image noise averages only 0.55% at minimum ISO, and this value stays below 1.00% until ISO 1600, which is a great result. Noise then continues its straight upward climb to 1.24% at ISO 3200, which is still manageable, before topping out at 1.60% at ISO 6400. Chroma and luminance noise are evenly distributed. More on how we test noise.

Default ISO sensitivity ranges from 80 - 6400, with no reduced resolution extended options available. Out of the most competitive cameras, only Sony's HX200V is capable of ISO 12800 in full resolution.

Videos shot in low light must be done with care, because the sensor requires 20 lux of ambient illumination in order to gather a usable amount (50 IRE) of video image data. This is fairly average for a fixed lens camera, but the result lags behind Panasonic's FZ200.

Chromatic aberration is entirely absent from the center of the frame, however this ambitious lens cannot help but fall victim to a little fringing at the edges and corners. This was apparent in our sample photos at any focal length, but in the lab we only noticed distracting fringes at maximum zoom. In the crops below, notice the blue and brown halos affecting corner shots at 215mm (and 33.2mm to a lesser extent).

Make no mistake, a lens of this design is certainly going to introduce distortion. But we test in JPEG and by the time those shots are output, the camera has already fully corrected for the effect. The most we detected was less than 1.00% at the wide angle, but remember, RAW shooting will not have this advantage.

Videos do not fall victim to any trailing or frequency interference, but they're far from perfect. There's a general lack of smoothness, due in all likelihood to the maximum Full HD shooting speed of 24 frames per second. Compression artifacting is also a distraction, and shows up pretty clearly in moving and shaded areas. More on how CamcorderInfo tests motion.

Sharpness is much more impressive than motion. The tiny sensor is still able to resolve 500 lw/ph horizontally and 600 vertically under full studio illumination. More on how CamcorderInfo tests video sharpness.

Videos shot in low light must be done with care, because the sensor requires 20 lux of ambient illumination in order to gather a usable amount (50 IRE) of video image data. This is fairly average for a fixed lens camera, but the result lags behind Panasonic's FZ200.

Although we wish some extra effort had been committed to ergonomics, the SX50 is still easy to use for photographers of any experience level. We think Canon's menu system is the best in the industry, however some of this camera's button and dials feel cheap and toy-like.

We spent most of our time in Program Auto, and we have a feeling most users will do the same. For complete beginners, or for handing your camera off to a stranger, a fully automatic "green" mode is available, which automates all shooting functions and reduces the complexity of the menu system. Using this mode, all you'll need to remember is to deploy the flash.

The rear control scheme is effective but unimaginative, Canon has stuck with a tried-and-true layout that leaves us little to complain about. We reserve special praise for the focus zone button, located directly below the video hotkey, which is helpful for changing your "FlexiZone" focus area on the go, or performing other functions. Some users may also find the shortcut button helpful, but it's situated far off on the left side of the EVF, and we rarely bothered to reach for it.

Actually our biggest complaint about the buttons and dials is their construction. Each has a shallow stroke that feels cheap and amateurish. The rear rotating dial is also set too far into the body panel, so it's both imprecise and uncomfortable to use.

We think Canon's menu systems are the best in the business, and the SX50's interface is a classic example of why. Like so many of the company's models, this camera uses both a crisscross quick menu (the "Function" menu), as well as a traditional tab-based main menu. The quick menu houses all the options you'll need to change on the fly, and the software is responsible, legible, and intuitive. In the main menu, you'll find settings that are less commonly changed, but more specific. There's even a customizable tab, which can be easily programmed to display the options most relevant to your photography needs.

The camera ships with a "Getting Started" guide that's useful for rank novices only. The rest of us will need the full length manual, an electronic version of which can be found on an included CD-ROM or on Canon's website. This document offers sufficient detail, and provided us with any missing information we needed for review.

Although the designers obviously gave some thought to this camera's shape, we wonder why they stopped short of coating the body in anything except smooth plastic. While the front hand grip protrudes far enough to help keep the camera stable, the complete lack of rubberization anywhere on the camera was an oversight last year and still hasn't been rectified.

Handling Photo 1

On the rear panel, there's a concave depression intended to cup your thumb, but ours naturally came to rest well above this area. Together, all these issues make the camera feel cheaper than it is, and left us scratching our heads, just like we did for the SX40 HS.

Handling Photo 2
Handling Photo 3

The rear control scheme is effective but unimaginative, Canon has stuck with a tried-and-true layout that leaves us little to complain about. We reserve special praise for the focus zone button, located directly below the video hotkey, which is helpful for changing your "FlexiZone" focus area on the go, or performing other functions. Some users may also find the shortcut button helpful, but it's situated far off on the left side of the EVF, and we rarely bothered to reach for it.

Actually our biggest complaint about the buttons and dials is their construction. Each has a shallow stroke that feels cheap and amateurish. The rear rotating dial is also set too far into the body panel, so it's both imprecise and uncomfortable to use.

Buttons Photo 1

On the top plate, the shutter release and zoom lever are adequate for this kind of camera, but again, the mode dial is slippery and feels cheap, as does the toy-ish power button.

Buttons Photo 2

A sturdy rear LCD panel is probably your best bet for accurate framing. This is a fully swiveling panel that's very useful for video applications or challenging shooting angles. Viewing angle of the actual screen isn't perfect, but since the whole thing rotates, this really isn't a problem.

The SX50's electronic viewfinder is small and not the most comfortable to squint through. The display also has a severe lag associated with it, which will make action photography a little more challenging than it should be. Color rendition is accurate though, much more so than the average EVF. Sadly the camera is not equipped with an eye-lever sensor, so you'll need to toggle the display button in order to swap between the EVF and LCD.

One of the SX50's coolest new features is called Framing Assist, and this arrives in the form of two new buttons on the left side of the lens barrel, one for "seek" and one for "lock." Seek simply zooms back out for a moment to give the shooter a chance to reorient themselves, but lock is a stabilization feature. The idea is to use image stabilization to keep the frame locked onto a certain subject, regardless of any shake or drift on the user's part.

It does work. There is a slight "tug," which you may notice after experimenting with the feature for a short time, but mostly it just feels like swapping back and forth between "standard" and "active" stabilization which, given the convenience of the new button, isn't really a bad thing either.

The full-sized hardware mode dial is a little too shallow for our tastes, but it does contain all the "PASM" shooting modes, as well as a few dedicated modes like Scene and Picture Effects, as well as two programmable custom modes.

25 total shooting resolutions are available, among 5 different aspect ratios, which are 16:9, 3:2, 4:3, 1:1, and 4:5. The reason this figure seems so high is because the SX50 offers RAW encoding in each aspect ratio, not just the native aspect ratio of the sensor. We're still not convinced RAW photography is worth the effort on such a tiny sensor, but the functionality is there if you really want it. JPEG compression may be set to Fine or Superfine.

The SX50 HS is equipped with a few different continuous shooting modes, and all of them introduce different strengths and weaknesses. The default continuous mode is found in the quick menu, and can be used at full resolution, in concert with almost any other shooting setting, including RAW or maximum JPEG compression. The camera is even capable of using continuous autofocus during a sequence, a feature that's very rare in the fixed-lens realm. The trade-off here is speed, this method is relatively slow, clocking in at only 2.18 frames per second at best.

Inside the Scene mode menu, you'll find a faster option: the High-speed Burst HQ mode, which doesn't really live up to the "HQ" (high quality) name, since Superfine JPEG compression is locked. This mode is therefore ineligible for scoring, however Canon claims 13 shots per second are possible.

10 second and 2 second countdown presets are available from the self-timer menu, and a third option allows to user to fully customize both the countdown and number of exposures. This certainly makes testing a heck of a lot easier. Unfortunately, no automatic interval timer options have been included.

Aside from picture effects and scene modes, Canon hasn't exactly gone out of their way to provide extra shooting features. However we do appreciate the attention to video recording, which has been upgraded since last year and is now capable of relatively detailed control...at least, for a fixed-lens camera.

Videos are encoded in H.264, in your choice of 1080/24p, 720/30p, or 480/30p. We also had fun shooting "Super Slow Motion Movies" at 120 or 240 frames per second, however this limits resolution to 480p or 240p respectively. Find out how the performed in our video image quality test./r:link_to_content

Auto Controls

Exposure and focus can each be set to adjust automatically on-the-fly, even while a recording is in progress. Scene modes and picture effects are generally unavailable for video recording, with the exception of Miniature Effect, which may be shot at 720p in up 6 frames per second.

Zoom

Zoom control is unlocked while a recording is in progress, however the motor's speed is reduced to cut down on mechanical noise that may be picked up by the microphones.

Focus

The camera will autofocus while a recording is in progress, and this feature can by toggled on the fly by pressing the manual focus button (left on the directional) pad. This locks focus on the current distance, but there's no way to adjust focus manually during a recording, so the feature is more like focus lock than true manual.

Exposure Controls

Gain may be adjusted before recording a clip, and gain level may be displayed or reset (but not adjusted manually) while a recording is in progress. This is a rather odd limitation, but shouldn't make a difference for light-duty videography.

Inside the main menu, you'll find a sub-menu called "Movie Audio," which can be used to automate the levels of the stereo microphones or set them manually. The Wind Filter option is also found here, as is an audio level readout in decibels. Unfortunately this feature cannot be displayed while a recording is in progress.

Mic Photo

Super-zoom cameras were already passing epic magnification levels last year, so it is with no shortage of bewildered fascination that we sit here reviewing the world's first consumer still camera to offer 50x optical zoom. To put that in perspective, were this a traditional 35mm camera, that camera's lens would need to be a ridiculous 1,200mm long.

This of course means the PowerShot SX50 HS is a spy-cam that MI6 would be proud of, but to us, that's not even the best part of the camera. What Canon has managed to do is extend their lens out to levels previously unheard of, while simultaneously avoiding the pitfalls commonly associated with long optical zoom, namely: lousy image quality. This has been achieved with a combination of good design and high quality tech, but also—unfortunately—a bit of trickery too.

Let's start with that trickery. While the SX50 produced excellent results in our sharpness test, and we've scored the camera as such, these results are straight-up fake. In order to prevent the loss of detail that seems inherent to super-zoom lenses, Canon has employed software edge enhancement, just as many manufacturers do, except they've gone way overboard. We usually tolerate about 5% oversharpening, but the SX50 can oversharpen in excess of 45%. This effect manifests as ugly white halos and dark black borders surrounding your subjects, and making them appear unnatural to the trained eye. In this way, what appears to be the SX50's best feature, is really one of its worst.

But aside from forged sharpness, the camera is otherwise impressive from top to bottom. The small sensor generally avoids producing excess image noise, or more accurately, does an effective job smoothing away noise when it does occur. Color accuracy, while only slightly above average in the lab, really impressed us in the field, realistically capturing the autumn scenery that's peaking in our part of the country right now.

Video shooting would've been better with 60p capabilities, but the Full HD clips are still sharp enough to earn strong scores from us, and decent low light sensitivity makes this camera an acceptable—but not ideal—choice for low light videography. Continuous shooting is below average at maximum resolution and quality, but we have a feeling most users will opt for the High-speed Burst HQ scene mode, which fires off 10 shots at 13 frames per second. We also like Canon's new Framing Assist features, one of which actually uses optical stabilization to help keep your subject in frame. Very cool.

So ultimately, aside from that new stabilization feature, and of course breaking the nifty-fifty zoom barrier, there's very little about the SX50 we'd consider revolutionary. Like the SX40, this is basically a consistent, high-performance superzoom, and exactly the kind of camera our scoring system rewards. This is an easy recommendation over just about every competitor on the market.

Meet the testers

Christopher Snow

Christopher Snow

Managing Editor

@BlameSnow

Chris was born and raised less than ten miles from our editorial office, and even graduated from nearby Merrimack College. He came to Reviewed after covering the telecom industry, and has been moonlighting as a Boston area dining critic since 2008.

See all of Christopher Snow's reviews
Christopher Snow

Christopher Snow

Managing Editor

@BlameSnow

Chris was born and raised less than ten miles from our editorial office, and even graduated from nearby Merrimack College. He came to Reviewed after covering the telecom industry, and has been moonlighting as a Boston area dining critic since 2008.

See all of Christopher Snow's reviews

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We use standardized and scientific testing methods to scrutinize every product and provide you with objectively accurate results. If you’ve found different results in your own research, email us and we’ll compare notes. If it looks substantial, we’ll gladly re-test a product to try and reproduce these results. After all, peer reviews are a critical part of any scientific process.

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