Cameras

Canon PowerShot SX260 HS Digital Camera Review

Canon hopes secure top honors with their best travel zoom model. Were they successful?

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Introduction

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2012 Best Travel Zoom Camera

Forgive us but this has been sort of a weak year for travel zoom cameras. It seems like most manufacturers are continuing to commit the "longer zoom equals better camera" fallacy, squeezing ever more ambitious lenses onto the same tiny bodies. Canon's most expensive travel zoom, the SX260 HS, posts one of the biggest numbers of all, with its huge 20x optical zoom ratio. But this model's CMOS image sensor tops out at only 12.1 megapixels, showing encouraging restraint on Canon's part. Could this be the camera to break the travel zoom segment's string of bad luck?

Front

Front Tour Image

Back

Back Tour Image

Sides

Sides Tour Image

Top

Top Tour Image

Bottom

Bottom Tour Image

In the Box

Box Photo

• Canon PowerShot SX260 HS digital camera

• wrist strap

• NB-6L rechargeable battery

• wall socket adapter

• USB cable

• software CD-ROM

• "Getting Started" manual

• warranty information

Lens & Sensor

The SX260's huge lens is almost the whole point of the camera. Tiny body with a huge zoom, that's why models like this exist. We find the barrel itself to be relatively sturdy, while movement action is smooth, fast, and sufficiently precise. The lens collapses down pretty far, but still protrudes from the rest of the body by a far millimeters when not in use. Minimum focus distance can be a frustrating limitation, it's closer at smaller focal lengths and changes unpredictably as zoom increases.

Display(s)

A 3-inch LCD of good quality is fixed to the rear panel and, in the absence of a viewfinder, is the only way to frame and review photos. Brightness is sufficient for daytime photography and the viewing angle, while not the best we've seen, is decent at this price range. The onscreen image is delayed by a fraction of a second and, while framing at long zoom, the vibrations of our hands were enough to cause a noticeable rolling shutter effect, even with maximum image stabilization. The entire panel is covered by a hard plastic coating, which resists scratches or smudging, and wipes clean.

Flash

The skinny flash arm extends from or retracts into the left side of the top plate, and does so automatically based on user settings. It is not possible to push the arm back down into its enclosure without forcing it. The bulb is weak, with a maximum range of only 11 feet, and can be slow to recycle. However an extensive list of advanced options make flash photography relatively versatile with this camera, including slow synchro, red-eye reduction, and even flash metering out to +/- 2 stops. Flash power can even be manually configured (in Manual mode), and this can be used to improve recycle time.

Flash Photo

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

Connectivity

Underneath a flimsy rubber stopper on the right side, Canon has conveniently included a standard miniUSB / AV port for connectivity with a PC or standard definition monitor (although AV cables do not ship with the SX260). A miniHDMI port is also found here, useful for streaming content directly to an HDTV.

Battery

The removable NB-6L battery pack is rated to 230 consecutive shots when used with this camera, making these two a below-average pair. We've seen worse, but for $350 we would've preferred 300 shots.

Battery Photo

Memory

SD, SDHC, and fast SDXC memory cards are supported, along with Eye-Fi cards for WiFi data transfer. No internal memory is included, so you'll need at least one card to operate the camera.

Memory Photo

The K2000 accepts inexpensive, easy to find SD cards.

Media Photo

Image Quality

The lens achieves genuinely sharp images, while the sensor reproduces accurate color with low noise. We also tested dynamic range for the first time on a fixed-lens camera, and scores actually weren't too bad. Few travel zooms can boast image quality like this one.

Sharpness

We spotted plenty of artificial edge enhancement, which manifests itself as too-dark and too-bright lines on high contrast edges. That being said, the SX260 is a genuinely sharp camera, 20x lens and all. The closest focal length is the sharpest, averaging almost 1900 MTF50s across all zones, though detail is always much better in the center of the frame. The middle focal length is almost as sharp, averaging 1670 MTF50s, however maximum zoom causes a significant drop-off, down to 1270 MTF50s on average.

This is a good compromise we think. The SX260 suffers the same fate as similar cameras when fully extended, but sharp shots are still possible at minimum and moderate zoom. More on how we test sharpness.

Image Stabilization

In our stabilization lab test, which simulates quick, constant, horizontal movement, the SX260's stabilizer produced only a moderate improvement to overall sharpness. A difference of under 6% in fact. That's not bad, we sometimes observe stabilizers worsening image quality, but still a modest result overall.

Yet when we actually got out to shoot with the SX260, things were much different. The stabilizer is highly effective in retaining sharpness for shots we expected to be blurry. Walking and shooting simultaneously is possible at all but the most extreme focal lengths, and long zoom framing is aided tremendously by the Continuous IS mode. For still photography we do not recommend the "Powered" option.

Color

Color accuracy is above average, though not remarkably so. Errors are spread pretty evenly across the gamut, with problems in all shades, though reds and oranges were slightly worse than the rest. These tones will affect rendition of human subjects, but the errors are not severe enough to distract. More on how we test color.

We recorded a minimum error value of 2.76 in our lab test, which is just a little bit better than the 3.00 average. Saturation is a little too high, over by 7.7%.

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.

In today's comparison group, the most accurate camera is still last year's Sony HX9V, the top performing travel zoom to date. The SX260 is close behind though, making it so far the most accurate travel zoom of 2012. Performance is in fact much better than the Canon S100, known for its excellent image quality.

Color Modes

The most accurate color mode is a toss-up between Vivid Red (strangely) and simply turning off the My Colors feature. We settled on the latter, since it posed less of a risk of affecting other settings. 11 color modes are available in total, including one customizable option.

White Balance

Most cameras offer better custom white balance than automatic, however the SX260 is an extreme case. This is especially true under incandescent light, where the automatic white balance was off by nearly 2800 degrees Kelvin. Fluorescent and daylight are much better though, averaging errors of less than 200 K. Using custom white balance it's possible to achieve similar results, even under incandescent.

White Balance Options

Six white balance presets are available, including two fluorescent settings and one for use with an underwater enclosure. Setting custom white balance is a painless experience, just like most Canon cameras, thanks to a responsive and intuitive interface.

Noise Reduction

The camera's internal noise reduction software is highly aggressive and this has mixed results. At the lowest ISOs, 100 and 200, shots are largely free of noise, and image quality is in no way degraded. At ISO 400 and 800, noise levels are still pretty low, but smoothing software does affect the shot. Edges start to become pixelated at this point, and some details are lost in translation. At 1600 and above noise becomes noticeable, and although the smoothing software keeps things in check, shots are no longer suitable for cropping and should only be viewed in small sizes. Maximum image noise tops out at 1.51% at ISO 3200. Luminance noise is dominant over chroma. More on how we test noise.

ISO Options

The SX260's sensitivity extends from ISO 100 to 3200 in full resolution, though Auto ISO will only meter up to 1600. Using the Low Light scene mode unlocks ISO 6400, however this locks resolution to only 3 megapixels.

Dynamic Range

Big step. This is the first time we've performed a dynamic range test for a fixed-lens camera. We aren't scoring yet, but will be developing a baseline over the coming months. Very exciting.

Anyway, the SX260 HS is capable of 7 full stops of dynamic range at ISO 100, and manages to hold pretty steady from there. 6.72 stops are possible at ISO 200, 6.41 at ISO 400, and indeed the camera is still capable of over 6 stops even at ISO 800. From there, coinciding with additional noise reduction, dynamic range drops sharply down to 3.83 stops at ISO 1600, and 3.19 stops at 3200.

Obviously we have nothing except interchangeable lens cameras to compare this to, but based on what we've seen so far, we expect the SX260 HS will eventually be regarded as a great compact camera for dynamic range. More on how we test dynamic range.

Noise Reduction

The camera's internal noise reduction software is highly aggressive and this has mixed results. At the lowest ISOs, 100 and 200, shots are largely free of noise, and image quality is in no way degraded. At ISO 400 and 800, noise levels are still pretty low, but smoothing software does affect the shot. Edges start to become pixelated at this point, and some details are lost in translation. At 1600 and above noise becomes noticeable, and although the smoothing software keeps things in check, shots are no longer suitable for cropping and should only be viewed in small sizes. Maximum image noise tops out at 1.51% at ISO 3200. Luminance noise is dominant over chroma. More on how we test noise.

ISO Options

The SX260's sensitivity extends from ISO 100 to 3200 in full resolution, though Auto ISO will only meter up to 1600. Using the Low Light scene mode unlocks ISO 6400, however this locks resolution to only 3 megapixels.

Focus Performance

The SX260 performed poorly in our new focus test, particularly in low light. On a few occasions the camera missed focus when it shouldn't have, and once even committed the cardinal sin of missing focus but falsely reporting a lock.

Video: Low Light Sensitivity

This camera is more sensitive than average for low light videography. The sensor requires only 24 lux of ambient illumination to gather 50 IRE of image data. That's no match for a camcorder, but decent for a compact camera.

Chromatic Aberration

The SX260's lens produces some pretty bad fringing, and unfortunately the effect isn't limited to the edges of the frame. That's the price we pay for 20x zoom in such a compact body. The lens' limited geometry can't line up all the different wavelengths across such a huge focal range in such a small space, and so we get chromatic aberration. This score is far worse than the Canon S100 for example, since that model isn't weighed down by an overly ambitious lens. The same can be said for almost all travel zooms.

Distortion

Barrel distortion is quickly corrected before the final image is output. Our shots fell victim to a maximum of only 0.63% distortion, less than we take off points for. Medium focal lengths are desirable for the least distortion.

Motion

Moving objects have no trail, and compression artifacting is nonexistent in footage captured with the SX260. However clips generally aren't all that smooth, and some minor frequency interference adds some unwanted grain in dark areas. In the video below, notice the severe judder on the spinning pinwheels. More on how CamcorderInfo tests motion.

Video Sharpness

If nothing else, the SX260 is extremely consistent when it comes to video sharpness. Under full studio illumination, the sensor is capable of resolving 400 lw/ph horizontally. The exact same is true vertically, 400 lw/ph again. More on how CamcorderInfo tests video sharpness.

When we dropped ambient light down to 60 lux, a few more artifacts popped up in the footage. Yet, again, the same sharpness: 400 lw/ph both horizontally and vertically. That's very impressive, usually resolution takes a nosedive under low light.

Low Light Sensitivity

This camera is more sensitive than average for low light videography. The sensor requires only 24 lux of ambient illumination to gather 50 IRE of image data. That's no match for a camcorder, but decent for a compact camera.

Usability

Outside this fairly advanced camera is a simple, intuitive control interface, capped off by a full-featured mode dial and Canon's excellent menu system. Veterans and newcomers alike will find something to appreciate inside the SX260 HS.

Automatic Features

We spent most of our time in Program Auto, however beginners will want to look for the two automatic modes. There's a green "Auto" mode, which detects the scene and adjusts settings accordingly. In this mode, most options are locked out, but it's still possible to specify resolution, flash, focus, and even drive mode. An even simpler mode, called "Easy," locks out almost all shooting options and is suitable for rank novices or children.

Buttons & Dials

Canon's tried and true button layout for compacts is used to great effect here on the SX260. The multifunction directional pad / rotating dial is flanked top and bottom by keys for video recording, playback mode, display options, and the main menu. Inside the circular pad itself are shortcuts for common functions like exposure compensation, flash, focus, and self-timer; plus the Func./Set button in the center opens up a convenient quick menu. Simple and easy.

Above all that, the detailed mode dial is oriented vertically for comfortable operation by the thumb, and also makes a good resting place for it.

Effects, Filters, and Scene Modes

Scene modes and picture effects each get their own stops on the mode dial. There are eleven total scene modes, the most useful one has got to be High-speed Burst HQ, which allows full resolution bursts at 10 frames per second. Either that, or Low Light mode, which limits resolution to 3 megapixels, but unlocks ISO levels up to 6400.

Picture effects are a little more goofy than scene modes, and include effects like Fish-eye, Miniature, Toy Camera, Color Accent, and more.

Many of us favor Canon menu systems, and the SX260 is a good example of why we do. Shooting options are at your fingertips thanks to the quick Function menu. This interface is a simple crossbar arrangement that offers easy access to ISO options, white balance, metering, drive mode, etc. The software is fast and responsive, we only wish the LCD had enough resolution to legibly display all the options at once, without scrolling.

The main menu, also available with only a single button press, is a slightly more complicated tab-based interface, and here you'll find more specific preferences like AF frame size, digital zoom options, and image stabilization methods. Again, the interface is responsive and introduces minimal delay into the shooting process.

Instruction Manual

The SX260 ships with an unhelpful Getting Started guide, but even after loading the proper User Manual from the included CD-ROM, we found important information was spread out across both manuals. To our constant annoyance, we had to swap back and forth between the two documents to find the information we were looking for.

Handling

A tall, skinny ergonomic strip juts slightly outward from the front plate, giving the fingers something sturdy to latch onto. We still prefer wider, rubberized surfaces at this position on small cameras, but Canon's technique here is still a decent way of lending some grip to the otherwise-smooth camera body.

Handling Photo 1

There are no ergonomic features on the rear panel, however this isn't as bad as we would've expected. The thumb naturally comes to rest beside the mode dial, which is rigid and textured, and gives the thumb enough traction to stay in place, without the risk of accidentally swapping modes.

Handling Photo 2
Handling Photo 3

Buttons & Dials

Canon's tried and true button layout for compacts is used to great effect here on the SX260. The multifunction directional pad / rotating dial is flanked top and bottom by keys for video recording, playback mode, display options, and the main menu. Inside the circular pad itself are shortcuts for common functions like exposure compensation, flash, focus, and self-timer; plus the Func./Set button in the center opens up a convenient quick menu. Simple and easy.

Above all that, the detailed mode dial is oriented vertically for comfortable operation by the thumb, and also makes a good resting place for it.

Buttons Photo 1

On the top plate, the large shutter release feels great, with clear tactile feedback, and is surrounded by a small (but not too small) zoom lever within easy reach of the right pointer finger. The rounded, oversized power button is sunk into the body, making it difficult to press on short notice, but at least you won't strike it accidentally.

Buttons Photo 2

Display(s)

A 3-inch LCD of good quality is fixed to the rear panel and, in the absence of a viewfinder, is the only way to frame and review photos. Brightness is sufficient for daytime photography and the viewing angle, while not the best we've seen, is decent at this price range. The onscreen image is delayed by a fraction of a second and, while framing at long zoom, the vibrations of our hands were enough to cause a noticeable rolling shutter effect, even with maximum image stabilization. The entire panel is covered by a hard plastic coating, which resists scratches or smudging, and wipes clean.

Image Stabilization

In our stabilization lab test, which simulates quick, constant, horizontal movement, the SX260's stabilizer produced only a moderate improvement to overall sharpness. A difference of under 6% in fact. That's not bad, we sometimes observe stabilizers worsening image quality, but still a modest result overall.

Yet when we actually got out to shoot with the SX260, things were much different. The stabilizer is highly effective in retaining sharpness for shots we expected to be blurry. Walking and shooting simultaneously is possible at all but the most extreme focal lengths, and long zoom framing is aided tremendously by the Continuous IS mode. For still photography we do not recommend the "Powered" option.

Shooting Modes

An extensive mode dial is found at the upper right corner of the rear plate, and it includes traditional "PASM" shooting modes plus a slew of others, including two automatic modes, a dedicated video mode, scene and effects modes, discreet mode, and more.

Focus

The SX260 performed poorly in our new focus test, particularly in low light. On a few occasions the camera missed focus when it shouldn't have, and once even committed the cardinal sin of missing focus but falsely reporting a lock.

A dedicated macro focus mode is available from a menu hotkey, though it only works at certain focal lengths as indicated by an onscreen display. "By wire" manual focus is also available, along with some digital zoom assists. It doesn't work very well, but can be slightly useful in a pinch.

Recording Options

Four aspect ratio options are available, and each have four resolutions of varying size associated with them. Unlike the Canon S100, RAW encoding is not available, however JPEG compression may be set to either Fine or Super Fine.

Speed and Timing

The SX260 has some relatively advanced drive mode features for a compact camera. A typical full resolution continuous shot mode is available from the Function menu, and it quickly records data to the memory card so you won't run into capacity problems. Also, like high-end cameras, a continuous mode with autofocus is also available, which rapidly adjusts focus between individual shots. The tradeoff is slightly reduced shooting speed, but it's an impressive feature here nonetheless. For even faster shot-to-shot speed, the High Quality Burst scene mode is capable of shorter full resolution bursts, however you'll need to swap modes to access the feature.

We clocked the camera's continuous shooting speed at 2.26 frames per second for five frames, just shy of the spec sheet's claim of 2.4 frames per second. Using the appropriate scene mode, bursts of exactly 10 frames per second are possible, but only for 10 consecutive shots, and this is again short of Canon's claim of 10.3 frames per second. We didn't test continuous autofocus mode, but the manual lists this feature at 0.8 frames per second.

Three self-timer modes are available: 10 second countdown, 2 second countdown, and a very convenient custom setting, which allows you to customize both the countdown timer and the number of exposures.

Focus Speed

The SX260 performed poorly in our new focus test, particularly in low light. On a few occasions the camera missed focus when it shouldn't have, and once even committed the cardinal sin of missing focus but falsely reporting a lock.

A dedicated macro focus mode is available from a menu hotkey, though it only works at certain focal lengths as indicated by an onscreen display. "By wire" manual focus is also available, along with some digital zoom assists. It doesn't work very well, but can be slightly useful in a pinch.

Features

2012 has been the first year for which built-in GPS actually works correctly. The SX260's implementation is a good example of this, and has been heavily marketed to that end. This camera is also a serviceable video device, producing sharp clips even in less than ideal light.

Effects, Filters, and Scene Modes

Scene modes and picture effects each get their own stops on the mode dial. There are eleven total scene modes, the most useful one has got to be High-speed Burst HQ, which allows full resolution bursts at 10 frames per second. Either that, or Low Light mode, which limits resolution to 3 megapixels, but unlocks ISO levels up to 6400.

Picture effects are a little more goofy than scene modes, and include effects like Fish-eye, Miniature, Toy Camera, Color Accent, and more.

Other Features

GPS

Just like the SX230 HS, this camera features an integrated GPS transceiver capable of "tagging" the EXIF data of each shot with geographic information. It was impossible for us to get a signal indoors, but outside we achieved a lock after about two or three minutes. The interface is simple and unobtrusive. Best of all it's clear, notifying the user how and when GPS is being used, and whether or not it will continue to drain the battery while the camera is turned off.

Recording Options

Videos may be recorded in 1080p, 720p, or 480p; each at 30 frames per second. A dedicated option for shooting iFrame movies intended for Apple devices is available, along with a Super Slow Motion Movie setting capable of shooting at either 120 or 240 frames per second, however these limit resolution to 640x480 or 320x240 respectively. Find out how the performed in our video image quality test./r:link_to_content

Video Controls

Auto Controls

Most recording options can be automated and will update continuously while a recording is in progress. These include both exposure and focus. Some scene modes are also compatible with video capture, though others seems to have no effect. Picture effects seem incompatible with video.

Zoom

Optical zoom is unlocked while a recording is in progress but, as is often the case, adjustment speed is slowed to cut down on mechanical noise. While operating zoom, the camera will often lose focus, and take a second or two to achieve another lock.

Focus

Manual focus, while a pain to use with this camera, is available for video shooting. You must specify focus beforehand, and the setting cannot be adjusted while a recording is in progress, but the feature is at least there if you want it.

Other Controls

GPS settings may be individually configured for the video mode, and the same is true for color modes and white balance settings (including custom options).

Audio Features

The popular Wind Filter option is available, however this is the only audio-oriented setting in the entire menu. Level control is not supported, and only the stereo microphones on the top plate may be used for recording.

Mic Photo

Conclusion

Canon's SX260 HS has posted the best scores of any travel zoom camera that we've tested so far in 2012, and we think there's a pretty good chance it will carry this title all the way to our end of the year awards. But test scores aside, we really just enjoyed shooting with it. The camera is quick, compact, comfortable, and produces above-average photos in many different situations. This is an ideal travel companion.

Too often, cameras like this are held back by their own design. Such complex, ambitious lenses have trouble resolving clean detail, so top cameras resort to digital compensation and enhancement. We're not saying the SX260 is free of such trickery, but this looks to be one of the most genuinely sharp cameras available above 10x optical zoom.

This also happened to be the first fixed-lens camera we tested for dynamic range. It did pretty well actually, maintaining at least six full stops up to and including ISO 800. Nothing SLR quality, obviously, but strong enough for most users. We also found noise reduction to be quite effective, especially below ISO 200. It's possible to score some very flattering shots with this camera.

Canon's user interface is highly intuitive, and it's fast too. The menus are designed for efficiency and they react quickly and without issue. This convenience extends to most shooting behaviors: the camera is quick to power up, and features a variety of fast drive modes, however autofocus can be unreliable in low light.

Still, we'd recommend this travel zoom over any other 2012 model we've reviewed thus far. We still reserve special praise for last year's Sony HX9V, but as that camera's availability declines, the SX260 is a worthy stand-in. For convenience and image quality, the Canon SX260 HS justifies every penny of its $350 price tag.

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