Cameras

Canon PowerShot SX30 IS Review

The Canon PowerShot SX30 IS offers a midpoint between the portability of a point-and-shoot and the performance of a DSLR.

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Introduction

The excellent Canon PowerShot SX30 IS comes equipped with one of the longest zoom ratios we've yet seen—a 35x zoom. After spending a little time with this camera, we're happy to report that handling it is a real joy. It's small enough that it's more portable than your average DSLR, and it seems to pack some of a DSLR's photo quality too—at first glance, anyway. We definitely see some room for improvement though, and we're curious to see what testing will reveal about actual image quality.

As usual, we were worried that big zoom would come at the expense of great performance. Too often lately, manufacturers have begun trading image quality for flashy spec sheets, so we hurried the SX30 IS over to the lab to find out where this model would stand in terms of its final product. Hopefully, its images will delight us as much as its handling does.

Design & Usability

The SX30 IS offers strong handling and a fluid menu, but not all buttons are created equal and things feel cheaper than they look.

The SX30 IS's handling is very strong, but if feels cheaper than it looks. The entire chassis is plastic, and although the front has some texture, there's no rubber grip. The right hand grip isn't wide or deep enough, and the right thumb recession isn't our favorite either, as its proximity to some of the rear buttons caused some accidental presses more than once. It isn't all bad though. A small ergonomic "roof" below the shutter release makes rotation very stable, and the swiveling 2.7-inch LCD is helpful. The display swings open 180 degrees and rotates approximately 270 degrees. Users will also benefit from a removable hot shoe mount and a physical mode dial.

Like most Canons, the SX30 IS's menu system is simple and fluid.

The best part about the SX30's control scheme is the well-made, rotating rear dial, which also functions as a directional pad. The shutter release is particularly nice too, with a relatively long stroke and precise feel. We wish all the buttons were as tactile, clearly labelled, and well-placed as the shutter, which is not the case, but at least like most Canons, the SX30 IS's menu system is simple and fluid, and accompanied by an even speedier quick menu option.

Features

Megapixels used to be the main talk of the town, but now people can't stop talking zoom.

The Canon PowerShot SX30 IS provides plenty of basic and creative shooting options. A hardware mode dial is found on the right side of the body, allowing easy selection from one of eleven shooting modes. These include shutter and aperture priority, full auto, full manual, and two custom modes, to name a few. Notice too the 14 scene modes, covering everything from low light to the popular miniature effect and fish-eye. Beyond these, considering the more serious target audience, users will find no more than the option to apply color modes to stills and a full suite of in-camera editing tools. There are no digital filters or silly frames. Other notable extras include the great self-timer options, one of which is fully customizable, full resolution continuous shooting. The latter is far slower than the competition, since reduced resolution burst mode is not an option, and the best it can muster is a sluggish 1.33 shots per second.

You can watch your neighbors' TV at this point. That's how far 35x gets you.

The really outstanding feature is of course the incredible 35x zoom. The f/2.7 lens permits a decent amount of light and is far larger than cheaper ultracompact models, which helps produce a better blur in macro shots. Zoom is the selling point though. Manufacturers have been pushing the envelope for a few years now, and 35x on a camera of this size is just amazing. In fact, it's more than amazing—this is creepy stalker territory. You can watch your neighbors' TV at this point. That's how far 35x gets you.

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Performance

Great image quality puts the bang in your buck.

For its price range, the Canon SX30 IS produces a fine image. Pictures are clear and sharp, color accuracy is above average (given the right steps), noise figures are acceptable, and video capability is reliable too.

To achieve even better color accuracy, borrow this strange tip: select the "Lighter Skin Tone" setting—it's weirdly the most accurate of the bunch.

Firstly, though noise figures aren't exceptional, they don't lag behind the competition either. The nicest thing is that noise reduction software does not destroy fine detail, willy-nilly, as many other models tend to do. If software of this kind is at work, it's very judicious. ISO levels are standard fare, spanning 100 to 1600 in full resolution, however the somewhat rare ISO 80 is also available for the highest image quality. As for color, results are fairly average upfront, but to achieve even better accuracy, borrow this strange tip: select the "Lighter Skin Tone" setting—it's weirdly the most accurate of the bunch, followed by "Vivid Red." Go ahead and feel weird. We do too. Next up, we were happy to see that the sensor resolved plenty of detail, but unfortunately that detail is accompanied by some distracting light distortions, thanks to the lens. It should also be mentioned that the longest zoom produces noticeable smudging, so though the SX30 IS boasts a big zoom, it can't boast flawless image quality to go along with it. In the same token though, thanks to excellent image stabilization, where other cameras might fail to capture an action shot at 35x zoom, the SX30 IS is able to lock focus and snap that shot.

Conclusion

With consideration to the sum of all parts

The Canon PowerShot SX30 IS is a fine camera that's fun to shoot with. It offers a compelling midpoint between the portability of a point-and-shoot and the performance of a DSLR. Of course, as this model likely nears the end of its product life, the newer SX30 now also represents a great value in an already saturated market.

What the individual test results don't show is how well the different features work _as a system_.

What's best about the SX30 IS however, and what the individual test results don't show, is how well the different features work as a system. The long zoom is amazing, but the excellent optical stabilizer makes it useful too. Video color accuracy impressed us, but the swiveling LCD makes this a truly viable video device. The shape and handling of the chassis is nice, but the intuitive menu system is what really makes shooting fun.

The PowerShot SX30 is more than an assembly of strong components, it's a holistically excellent device, and for that, it receives our strong recommendation.

Science Introduction

Great image stabilization, nice color, solid noise performance, and reliable video capability come together to deliver fine overall image quality on the SX30 IS. None of these results were the best that they could be, however, and testing reveals the shortcomings.

Color & Chromatic Aberration

The SX30 IS's color accuracy is above average, but a surprising color mode tweak will yield the best results. The sensor resolves plenty of detail, but chromatic aberration is a major problem for this lens.

Canon's PowerShot SX30 IS gave us some very odd color accuracy test results. Since this model still technically qualifies as a point-and-shoot, scores could be considered average. However, we do expect better performance from the more expensive "superzoom" sub-category, and most especially from Canon. Colors were oversaturated by about 9% in the most accurate color mode, which isn't bad. The odd thing is that the "most accurate" color mode turned out to be—as we mentioned previously— "Lighter Skin Tone." We'd normally expect a mode such as Neutral to take the cake, but not this time. Yep, it was Lighter Skin Tone followed by–get this–Vivid Red.

The SX30's tendency to render unsightly chromatic aberration is very severe. Even in areas of only moderate contrast, most users–regardless of experience level–will notice prominent green and magenta bleed. Like sharpness, the problem is worst both at the extremes of the frame and at the longest focal lengths.

Noise Performance

Noise figures aren't exceptional, but nor are they particularly poor.

Undesirable image noise increases with the ISO sensitivity of a camera's sensor. In this case, noise increased steadily from the minimum ISO to the maximum, a trend we don't always see. Often, digital cameras of this caliber begin to introduce artificial noise reduction, some starting as early as ISO 200. This causes a loss of genuine image data and makes judging the true potential of a sensor difficult for reviewers like us. Canon has either forgone this strategy, or applied it with a steady hand.

Noise starts off at a solid 0.83% while using the SX30's minimum ISO, but does creep all the way to 1.23% at ISO 400. By the time we reach ISO 1600, noise is up to 1.70%, which is higher than we'd like, but again, at least artificial software enhancement seems to be minimal. Either way, it's advisable to avoid shooting at ISO 1600.

Noise performance under low light was practically identical to standard illumination. We observed almost no difference between our 3000 lux tests and 60 lux tests. Whatever the SX30's noise performance is at a given ISO, you can expect it to be relatively similar, regardless of lighting.

Video Capability

The SX30 is great for video, thanks to painless handling and relatively accurate colors.

Video handling is excellent thanks to the SX30 IS's swiveling LCD. Autofocus is slow but functional, and still image capture is available during recording. Optical zoom is also enabled during recording, however its speed is slowed dramatically to prevent moving parts from generating too much noise.

Color reproduction tends to nosedive while shooting video, and while that's still true of this Canon, the effect isn't as bad as some. In movie mode, colors were 9% undersaturated, and overall color error clocked in at 4.9. Additionally, this Canon PowerShot only resolved 600 lw/ph horizontally and 550 lw/ph vertically. This is better than many point-and-shoots, but poor for the superzoom class.

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