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The Canon PowerShot SX120 offers a lot for the $220 it costs: a decent 10x zoom lens, good video capture and full manual controls.
In the Box
In the box, you get:
* The camera itself
* Set of AA batteries
* Getting Started guide
* USB cable
* Video out cable
* Canon Digital camera Solution Disk CD
* Wrist strap
Noticeably absent from this is the full manual (Canon only offers this online) and a battery charger.
We test color accuracy by photographing a color chart under tightly controlled conditions, then measuring the accuracy of the captured images. We found that the most accurate color mode of the SX120 was with the My Colors setting set to Off. In this mode, most of the colors were accurate, although we did find that the camera had some issues with yellows and the deeper reds: both of these were a little more muted than we like to see. But overall, the SX120 did an excellent job capturing colors accurately. More on how we test color.
The SX120 offers a number of color modes through the My Color option on the menu. The modes on offer are Off, Vivid, Neutral, Sepia, Black & White and custom color. Most of these are self-explanatory. The Vivid mode boosts the saturation of the colors, while the Neutral mode goes more towards muted, natural colors. We found that turning the My Colors feature off produced more accurate color, though. The custom mode allows you to make adjustments to contrast, sharpness and saturation.
Noise is the bane of the photographers life. It's the stuff that creeps into pictures and causes a speckled, grainy appearance in images, especially those shot in low light. We test noise by taking photos of a color chart at every ISO level that the camera offers, and measuring the amount of noise in the images. We found that the noise in the photos taken by the SX120 was generally low, but it was definitely noticeable at the higher ISO settings. The graph below shows the noise (as a percentage of the total signal forming the image) against the ISO at two light levels: 3000 lux (about the same as bright sunlight) and 60 lux (indoor lighting). Although both light levels had the same pattern of noise, there was slightly more at the 3000 lux level. Presumably the camera is introducing some other form of noise reduction at the higher ISO levels at 60 lux for the longer shutter speeds that are required. More on how we test noise.
If we look at the noise level of the SX120 compared to other cameras, we can see that it competes well with the others. The Kodak Z950 has slightly lower noise overall, but the Canon has good low noise overall, and has lower high ISO noise than the Panasonic ZS3.
The SX120 has an ISO range of 80 up to 1600, with stops on the way at 100, 200, 400 and 800. That's a pretty typical range for a high-end point and shoot camera, and gives enough flexibility to shoot in all situations from bright daylight to indoors. What is missing is the higher ISO settings that some cameras offer by lowering the resolution of the images. As you can see from the examples below, the Canon has quite a lot of noise at the higher ISO settings, but the noise is a lot softer than the Panasonic.
NOTE: The images above are not used in our testing or scoring, but are included here to show real-world examples of the differences between cameras at the various ISO settings.
Our resolution score is based on three separate tests: distortion, sharpness and chromatic aberration. In our distortion test, we look at how much straight lines become curved across the zoom range. To test image sharpness, we look at how sharp a slanted line in the test image is. Finally, we look for chromatic aberration, the color fringing that some images show because of poor optics. Overall, the SX120 performed well in these tests: we found low distortion and good sharpness. We did find a bit of a problem with chromatic aberration, though; there was some fringing evident at the longest zoom setting.
As you can see from the example crops below, the images do get a little soft at both the mid and telephoto points of the zoom range, and this means that images will look somewhat softer than those shot at other points on the zoom range. More on how we test resolution.
We found only minor issues with distortion: the only point that we found anything significant was at the wide end of the zoom range, where images had some barrel distortion (around 2.7 per cent). This means that straight lines at the wide end of the range become curved inwards towards the center of the image. This is rather a lot of barrel distortion; much more than we would like to see, and definitely enough that it would be visible in images.
An example of the distortion we saw is shown below. The red line was added later, and shows what a flat line should look like.
We found that the images that the SX120 captured were generally nice and sharp. They were not perfect, though; we saw some problems at the telephoto end of the zoom range in particular. Here, the images got rather soft, with the sharp edges of our test chart turning into soft, blurry messes, as you can see on the examples below.
Chromatic Aberration ()
We also saw some issues with chromatic aberration sneaking into images, both in the middle and the telephoto end of the zoom range. In both cases, there was a fair amount of aberration at the edges of the images, which can be seen as a slight color fringe to some sharp edges.
Quality & Size Options
At its highest resolution, the SX120 shoots 10 megapixel images with a 4:3 aspect ratio. If you want to go widescreen, you also get the option of shooting in a wide screen mode with a 16:9 aspect ratio. Two quality settings are also on offer: Fine and Normal. Normal mode uses a much higher compression on the images, almost doubling the number that will fit onto a memory card.
The SX120 includes an optical image stabilization system, where an element within the lens moves to compensate for camera shake. We found that this was moderately effective, producing a marked improvement in the sharpness of images with it enabled, although it was not as effective as the more aggressive stabilization of the Panasonic ZS3. There are several different modes for this feature: you can disable the stabilization, have it run continuously or just while shooting or put it into a panning mode. In the latter, the system will not try and compensate for horizontal pans, so the system doesn't get confused between had shake and a panning motion. More on how we test image stabilization.
The movie mode of the SX120 is adequate for taking a quick video of the dog or children doing something cute, but not for much more than that. Although we found the performance to be decent (see below), you can't use the optical zoom features of the camera while shooting. While you can use the zoom up to the maximum 10x before you start recording, you only get a 4x digital zoom which turns the video into a blurry mess in low light while recording. This is presumably because the zoom mechanism is rather noisy. The SX120 can also only shoot at a maximum resolution of 640 by 480, which looks positively primitive next to the high definition video that many other compact cameras are now capturing.
Although they are not in high definition, we did find that the videos that the SX120 captured had good color. Given the good color performance of the SX120 as a still camera, that's not surprising, but it is good to see. More on how we test video color.
We were a little less impressed with the sharpness of the videos that the SX120 captured. Although they were pretty sharp for the resolution that the camera records at, they just didn't have the detail of the high definition videos that cameras like the Panasonic ZS3 can capture. However, the SX120 video is much sharper than the video of the Nikon L100, which has the same resolution. This just goes to show that resolution isn't everything. More on how we test video sharpness.
The SX120 has a great selection of options available for viewing photos after they have been captured. You can quickly create sideshows of your favorite shots and you get a good amount of control over the speed of the slides and the transition between them. On individual files or videos, you can also get a good amount of information on screen about how the photo was taken, as well as a histogram that shows the brightness. You can also zoom in and get a closer look at the photos using the zoom screen. You can also use the face detection features to detect a face in the photo, then use the zoom view to zoom in and check that they are in focus.
Basic image editing tools are provided on the SX120. You can rotate and resize images to smaller resolutions, as well as removing red eye and applying Canon's iContrast processing, which enhances shadow detail. But you can't do much else: there is no way to crop images down or adjust the color in an image.
Direct Print Options
The usual suspects are present for printing images from the camera. Individual images or batches can be flagged for printing with the DPOF system, where the printer will detect the DPOF tag and print the images when the memory card is inserted. The SX120 also supports PictBridge, where it can connect directly to a printer over the included USB cable to print without a computer being present.
There is no viewfinder on the SX120: the image preview and capture are done through the LCD screen on the back of the camera.
On the back of the SX120 is the LCD screen, a 3-inch model with about 230k pixels. Although this is a little on the low side in terms of resolution, it is big and bright enough that you get a good feel for the preview image and the ones you've just taken. This is also a fixed screen: it doesn't pop up or fold out.
the flash of the SX120 is in a small pop-up section of the case right above the lens. This is placed pretty close to the lens, which means it does have a tendency to produce red-eye, but the camera can use a series of pre-flashes and software correction to deal with this, and both work pretty well. There are three flash modes: Auto, On and Slow Synch. The latter combines the flash with a slow shutter speed for a night portrait. To disable the flash, you just pop it back into the case. This process is purely manual; the flash will not pop up on its own, even in very low light.
The lens built into the SX120 has a 10x zoom ratio, with the focal length of 6 to 60mm. In the more familiar 35mm equivalent, that is a range of 36 to 360mm. That means that the wide angle end of the zoom range is not as wide as some; many other cameras start at around 28mm. That may be an issue if you shoot landscapes or large groups; you may struggle to get those at the edge in the frame. The aperture range of the lens is also a little limited: at the wide end of the zoom you have a range of f/2.8 down to f/8.0, but this range shrinks to f/4.3 to f/8.0 at the telephoto end. That means that the aperture can't open up as much at the telephoto end, so zoomed shots in low light are going to look blurry because the camera can't open the aperture up to gather more light.
Two AA batteries provide the get up and go for the SX120. These fit into a compartment on the base of the camera, and you can use either disposable batteries of NiMH rechargeable batteries. Canon supplies a set of two disposable batteries with the camera, and offers a set of 4 rechargeable batteries and charger for around $60. These batteries cannot be charged within the camera itself; they have to be charged in an external charger.
Images captured by the SX120 are stashed on an SD or SDHC card inserted into the slot alongside the batteries, as shown above. Unlike many other cameras, the SX120 does not allow you to use its own internal memory to store photos or video temporarily: the camera refuses to capture any images if the memory card is full.
Jacks, Ports & Plugs
The SX120 is not particularly well connected; the single USB port on the side of the camera body allows you to connect it to the USB port of a computer or printer (the cable is included) or to output composite video and audio to watch on a TV. This cable is also included, and provides a composite video and analog audio output.
Auto Mode Features
We found no major problems with the auto focus system of the SX120: it usually found the focus point within less than a second, even in low light. It did swim around a little if we disabled the AF illuminator (as it can be a little bright in a darkened room), but it generally had no problem finding the right spot to focus on. The system uses 9 focus points, and tries to get as many in focus as possible. There is, unfortunately, no way to choose a particular point to focus on if you are trying to get something off-center to be sharp: the camera goes with the focus point that gets as many focus points to be correct as possible.
Face Detection focusing is also offered: if you press the face detect button on the back of the camera, it will try and detect faces in the frame and focus and expose for one of them. If it picks the wrong one, you can press the face detect button again and it will pick the next one. The system can't focus on multiple faces at once.
The SX120 can add or subtract up to 2 stops of exposure compensation, measured out in 1/3 of a stop steps. There is no way to automatically bracket shots, though; if you want to get a range of exposures, you have to do it yourself.
The SX120 offers three exposure modes: evaluative, center weighted and spot metering.
The SX120 offers a lot of options in its self timer feature. As well as the usual simple 10 and 2 second delays, the camera can take a number of photos (from 3 to 10) when it detects a face in the frame. There is also a custom option which allows you to set the delay (up to 30 seconds) and the number of shots that are taken (from 3 to 10). The one thing that is missing is an interval timer, where the camera takes a number of shots at a preset time interval.
The SX120 offers a lot of modes to shoot in: there are 14 scene modes, plus program, aperture priority, shutter priority and a full manual mode. That should be enough for any shooting situation, and the inclusion of the full manual mode also means that creative photographers can take that last bit of control for themselves.
The scene modes on offer include a wide range, but the Portrait, Landscape, Night Portrait, Kids & Pets and Indoor modes have their own spots on the mode dial. Below this is an option for scene, which is where you can select the others. This approach provides a good balance between allowing for a quick switch between commonly used modes, but also providing a good selection of modes to use.
The SX120 has 5 presets for white balance: Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent and Fluorescent H. Also included are a full auto mode and an evaluative mode, where you point the camera at a white object and it uses that to judge the white balance.
The lens of the SX120 has a slightly limited aperture range. While it is pretty wide at the widest zoom setting ( from f/2.8 to f/8.0 at the widest setting), it gets a bit more cramped at the telephoto end (f/4.0 to f/8.0).
In most modes, the shutter speed of the SX120 ranges from 1 second down to 1/2500 of a second. The slowest shutter speed extends out to 15 seconds in the manual mode, though.
The SX120 has two drive modes for taking multiple shots one after the other: there is the Continuous mode and the Continuous shooting SF mode. The difference (as the same suggests) is in the focusing; in the latter mode, the camera tries to refocus between shots, while it only focuses once in the first mode. We didn't see any significant difference in the speed of the two modes, and in both the camera was capable of shooting a lot of images: if you hold down the shutter, it will keep shooting. Some other cameras can only shoot a small batch of photos before it has to pause to write the images out to the memory card. the Kodak Z950, for instance, can shoot three images in just over a second, but then has to stop and write them out to the memory card.
Shot to Shot ()
The SX120 doesn't shoot all that fast, though; we found that it only managed to shoot a rather pedestrian 0.76 frames a second. This means that you'll probably miss the shot if you are relying on it to capture a football play or something similar.
We found that the SX120 fitted well into the hand, and felt comfortable to hold. But it's a good job that Canon includes a wrist strap, as the small ridge on the front of the camera that the fingers wrap around is too small to hold onto tightly. As such, we did find that the camera could slip out of our grip a little too easily.
Buttons & Dials
The buttons and dials are located on the top (shown below) and on the back of the camera body. Most of these are well placed: the shutter button falls under the index finger, and the zoom control is right next to that for easy use. The mode dial is also well placed so it can be turned with the thumb of the right hand for one-handed shooting. However, two is easier for this as the camera does tend to slip somewhat because of the loose grip mentioned above. The other controls on the back of the camera body are also well placed and labeled, but you will need two hands to use them. We particularly like the combination scroll wheel and 4-way button, which makes scrolling through long lists in menus and through lots of photos easy.
The SX120 uses the standard Canon menu style, so users of other Canon cameras will feel right at home. When you hit the menu button, you are shown two tabbed sets of options: one for the shooting options, and one for the other settings. These tabbed sets are 3 or 4 screens long, but you can use the scroll wheel to quickly move up and down the list, then the Set button to choose the option.
The setup can be a little intimidating for new users, but overall it works well once you get used to it.
Manual & Learning
The SX120 only comes with a Getting Started manual in the box, but a more extensive manual is available as a free download. The Getting Started guide covers the basic options, but we would have preferred to see the full manual in the box as well.
Nikon Coolpix L100 Comparison
The Canon PowerShot SX120 and the Kodak EasyShare Z950 are pretty evenly matched: both cost about the same, have a similar set of features and have broadly similar results in our tests. But there are a few differences the Kodak has a slightly longer zoom (12x against the 10x of the Canon) and shoots HD video. However, we didn't find that the Kodak's video looked much better than the Canon; although it does shoot 720p video, we did not see any major increase in the level of detail that it captured, and the colors in the Kodak's video were less accurate than the Canon.
The Canon also had better results in most of our tests of still photos: it had slightly better color and sharpness, although the Kodak had slightly better noise. The Canon also had much more effective image stabilization than the Kodak.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 Comparison
The Nikon Coolpix L100 has one advantage over the Canon PowerShot SX120: it has a significantly longer 15x zoom lens. But that's about it: in every test that we did, the Canon was the superior camera, with sharper images and video, better color, better stabilization and lower noise. Plus, the SX120 is much smaller and could fit into a small bag or pocket, while the L100 will need to hang around your neck. The only reason to pick the L100 over the SX120 is if you absolutely, positively have to have the longer zoom lens. And if that's the case, you would probably be better off saving up your pennies to get a better ultrazoom such as the Sony HX1, as the compromises in image quality that the L100 involves just aren't worth the lower price.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 is slightly more expensive than the Canon PowerShot SX120, but it also has a wider set of features and better performance. The ZS3 has a 12x zoom lens, while the SX120 has just 10x zoom to give. The ZS3 also captures video in high definition, and we found that the video it captured was significantly sharper than the Canon. But it was a pretty even race when it comes to the quality of the still images: both did an excellent job of producing sharp, bright images with good color. The Canon did have slightly less noise than the Panasonic, though, which could be important if you shoot a lot in low light situations.
The Panasonic is also the smaller camera by a considerable margin; it is just 1.29 inches thick, while the Canon is 1.79 inches. This means that the ZS3 fits quite happily into a jacket pocket, while the SX120 could ruin the line of a good suit. Neither camera is particularly compact, though; if you want something that will fit into a shirt pocket, you should be looking at cameras like the Sony T900. But if you don't mind trading a bit of bulk for performance, the ZS3 would be our pick if you can afford the extra, although the SX120 is a very good camera for the price.
The SX120 offers a lot for the price: you get a 10x zoom with a decent wide angle, a big screen and an easy to use camera for about $220. But there are a few rough edges: the quality of the captured images is generally good, but does fall off somewhat at the longer end of the zoom range. The videos it captures also look good, but they are standard definition, while many other cameras capture high def video.
On the upside, the SX120 does provide a great amount of control for the user; it's one of the few point and shoot cameras at this price point that offers a full manual mode that really lets the photographer take control.
Overall the SX120 is a great little camera that provides good value for money, and would be a great pick for the photographer on a budget who wants to point and shoot and shoot creatively.