Canon PowerShot SX60 HS Digital Camera Review
Canon follows up on its best superzoom, but does the SX60 HS stretch too far?
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In the big book of hacky tech writer metaphors, any spec battle is discussed in warlike terms. As tired as this kind of reductive writing gets, it's actually a useful way to think about superzoom cameras—big, fixed-lens cameras that offer huge zoom ranges and DSLR-esque handling.
The 30x optical zoom lenses that seemed ridiculous just a few years ago have given way to 40x, 50x, and even 60x and higher zooms. Unfortunately, this particular battle turned out to be something of a Pyyrhic victory for companies that pushed beyond the 50x zoom barrier, as most lenses that reached that long have been very poor, with very slow autofocus speeds. What's the point of a camera that can see a mile away if it only takes terrible photos at that distance?
Canon seemed to understand this, standing pat with its 50x SX50 HS through 2012 and 2013. We liked it so much that it won our Best of Year award for the category in both years. Canon is back now with the new Canon PowerShot SX60 HS (MSRP $549.99) and has taken the leap to a 65x zoom lens.
Has Canon finally designed a high-quality lens over 50x? Or will the SX60 have the same problems that doomed its predecessors?
By the Numbers
Superzoom cameras like the Canon SX60 HS are always a challenge for our labs. Luckily the architects of our building saw fit to give us nearly 100 feet of direct throw into our imaging labs that we can use to test these cameras at the height of their zooming powers. That gave us true data about just how good that new 65x zoom lens.
But that's not all the Canon has to offer, with improved 1080/60p video and the same old Canon processing that we know and generally adore. The SX60 HS is following in the footsteps of one of the very few products we've given back-to-back best of year awards to. Here's what we could uncover in our lab tests.
Design & Handling
Canon updates its premier superzoom with some new duds.
As much as we liked the Canon SX50 HS, its style was beginning to look a bit dated. The new SX60 HS brings it in line with recent Canon PowerShot cameras, with an appearance that actually closely resembles low-end Canon Rebel DSLRs. It's otherwise very similar, with a near-identical control scheme and a large, textured grip for handling.
Shooting with the SX60 HS is very simple. It's got a fast processor that ensures you can rip through bursts of shots and make changes via the menu with no hangups. The control scheme is also very simple, with big buttons and a layout that should be instantly familiar to anyone who's shot with a PowerShot in the last 5-6 years. It's an easy camera to learn and enjoy, and that simplicity is the primary reason Canon's point-and-shoots have held on better than its competitors.
The main difference between this and smaller Canons is the size, as well as the addition of an electronic viewfinder. The finder is nice and detailed for a point-and-shoot, even if it's not quite as good as the best EVFs we've seen recently. The rear LCD is very useful otherwise, however, tilting out and to the side of the body. It's designed for tough overhead shots and can face forward so your subject can see themselves—perfect for group shots or selfies.
Of course the star of the show is the giant 65x zoom lens, and Canon's done a nice job of designing around such a huge zoom range. The motor on the lens zooms in and out quickly, with controls for zoom around the shutter button and framing assist options on the lens itself. Crucially, the camera's optical stabilization system also compensates well for camera shake. It can still be tough to get a perfectly sharp shot (even of a stationary subject) from far away—something not helped by the horribly slow autofocus system—but it's no worse than any other superzoom. Even then, we highly recommend supporting the camera with your left hand and keeping your elbows tucked in as any shake at all on a zoom lens this long will produce very blurry photos.
The SX60 HS's color accuracy was as good as we've come to expect from Canon PowerShots. It's clear that, as a beginner-oriented camera, the SX60 HS isn't designed to take clinically accurate photos. The shots are meant to be used right out of the camera, with a look that is bound to please without any editing required.
Even then, the SX60 HS still managed to produce some very accurate colors in our tests. There are 10 color modes—dubbed "My Colors"—including Vivid, Neutral, Sepia, Black & White, Positive Film, Lighter Skin Tone, Darker Skin Tone, Vivid Blue/Green/Red, and a Custom mode. You can also turn "My Colors" off, which is the de facto standard setting.
In our lab we found that turning these settings off yielded the best color accuracy right out of the box, with a ∆C00 (saturation corrected) error of 1.94 with a slight oversaturation at 112.9%. Vivid enhanced saturation, Neutral toned it down significantly, and the others mostly performed as their names suggest, pushing particular sets of colors in one direction or another. If you're looking for the most accurate JPEGs right out of the camera, though, we suggest keeping these settings off.
Curiously the SX60 HS has an ISO range of 100-3200 in all modes, with an ISO 6400 setting available only in "Low Light" mode. This isn't completely different from other cameras we've seen, but it is different from the SX50 HS, which topped out at ISO 6400 in every mode.
This may seem like a negative on paper, but in truth the ISO 6400 shots from both cameras are very poor and we don't recommend shooting that high. At more reasonable sensitivity settings the SX60 HS does much better than its two-year-old predecessor, with pleasing noise levels through ISO 400 and acceptable noise levels until ISO 800. At ISO 1600 you begin to either see a high level of noise reduction (resulting in lost detail) or you see too much grain for the shot to be of much use.
The noise reduction in general is quite good, though. Unless you're really pushing it (again, ISO 1600 and above) you can expect to keep enough fine detail that your shot will look fine in small prints or on the web. If you plan to make large prints you'll run into trouble, both because the details are slightly smudged out at higher ISOs and the lens just isn't all that sharp.
The SX60 HS is a little bit faster, but otherwise has that same old Canon feeling.
A lot can change in 2+ years. Though most of the surface changes to the SX60 HS don't seem major—RAW shooting, 1080p HD video, a higher-res EVF, a nicer rear LCD—the new Digic 6 processor is a quantum leap forward for Canon. The main beneficiary of the new processor is general continuous shooting speed, but the entire camera just feels snappier.
What really matters, however, is image quality. The SX60 HS delivers the kind of quality we expect from a PowerShot point-and-shoot, though that is compromised heavily if you put the 65x zoom lens to full effect. Colors were generally accurate, white balance was superb in every condition except ultra-warm indoor incandescent lighting, and noise was well-controlled through most of the ISO range. It's worth noting that the SX60 HS's max ISO is just 3200, one stop less than the SX50 HS. That seems puzzling on paper, but the resulting images are far better thanks to improved noise reduction settings.
The real issue here is the lens. The new 65x zoom lens is better than the SX50's in some ways, but worse in others. The improved zoom range is useful, but at the telephoto end autofocus is painfully slow, often inaccurate, and the resulting photos lack sharpness. The problem is that with such a small sensor you can't zoom in this much without hitting what is called the "diffraction limit." Without getting too technical, the diffraction limit is a barrier beyond which sharpness across the frame begins to drop significantly—no matter how good your lens is. It's a particular problem for point-and-shoots like the SX60 which have small sensors and small maximum apertures as you zoom in.
If there's one area where Canon has made significant progress it's with video. The SX50's video was poor, topping out at 1080/24p but looking muddled and overcompressed. Canon has fixed these issues thanks to the new Digic 6 processor, now providing 1080/60p video with some measure of control. It's good enough that the SX60 HS and its 65x zoom lens can do a passable impression of a dedicated camcorder, complete with a 3.5mm mic jack for those who want to get serious about audio.
As we've discussed endlessly in the review already the main difference between the SX60 HS and the SX50 HS is the new 65x zoom lens. It's wider, it zooms much further, it has the same maximum aperture range, and yet it's nearly the same size. That sounds great, but as with all lenses those gains are a function of compromise. The larger zoom range introduces a few nasty optical aberrations—namely worse distortion and slightly more chromatic aberration in high-contrast scenes—but they're generally compensated well by the camera's processing.
One thing you can't fix, however, is soft photos. The SX60 HS's shots at the telephoto end are just okay. They're as sharp or sharper than the SX60's chief competition, but they're significantly softer than we like to see from point-and-shoots in general. We found that on the telephoto end the sharpness maxed out at around 1,200 line widths per picture height (LW/PH) at MTF50, dropping to around 900 in some corners, especially if you drop the aperture at all beyond the max of f/6.4.
If you stay zoomed out, however, the SX60 HS does quite well. At wide angle (21mm full-frame equivalent) you can expect resolutions in excess of 1,800 LW/PH at MTF50 in the center, with that dropping to right around 1,200 LW/PH in the corners. It's a similar story across the frame if you zoom in half-way, with the center resolution dropping below 1,500 LW/PH. For more advanced shooters we also absolutely recommend taking advantage of the SX60's RAW shooting abilities, letting you take a much firmer hand with both noise reduction and sharpness enhancement.
There's not much that's new, but there are creative and manual modes galore.
From a feature perspective, the major differences between the SX60 HS and the SX50 HS are all in the hardware. The zoom lens is the most notable, advancing from the 50x f/3.4-6.5 on the SX50 to the 65x f/3.4-6.5 lens we have here. It's a large zoom range on both ends, as it's wider (21mm 35mm equivalent vs 24mm) and reaches further (1365mm vs 1200mm). On the wide end that's great news, as you can fit more in the frame, but on the long end there's trouble brewing, as we discussed in the performance section above.
The SX60 HS also has a new sensor, improving resolution from 12.1 megapixels to 16. The sensor size remains the same, but the new Digic 6 processor allows you to now shoot much faster in the basic Auto and Program modes, with 12-bit RAW shooting also available. Where the SX50 HS topped out at a continuous shooting speed of 2.2 frames per second the SX60 can now hit 6.8 frames per second. One notable caveat here is the SX50's "Burst HQ" mode, which allows you to get 10 shot at up to 13 frames per second. It's missing from the SX60 HS, which is a disappointment.
For framing you have access to both the 3-inch, 922k-dot LCD on the back as well as the 922k-dot electronic viewfinder. The rear panel looks slightly better than the EVF in real-world use despite having the same resolution, but that's because you tend to frame with your eye right up against the EVF while the LCD is generally further away.
For actual shooting modes the SX60 HS has a standard complement of manual modes (program auto, manual, as well as shutter- and aperture-priority), a full auto mode, and several creative modes. There's also a hybrid auto that takes a short movie clip and finishes it up with a still image, Canon's Creative Shot which applies several pre-set creative filters, and scene modes for particularly tricky situations like birthday parties and fireworks.
The SX60 also includes a dedicated video mode, allowing for some finer control over specific video settings. As we mentioned above there's also a 3.5mm mic port in addition to the hot shoe, though there's no headphone jack for monitoring audio. Action shooters will also enjoy some of the high framerate modes, but unfortunately the only ones beyond 60 frames per second are VGA/120p and 320x240/240p so quality is limited.
Continuos Shooting Speed & Autofocus
Burst shooting with the Canon SX60 HS is a bit curious if you're used to the SX50 HS or other slightly older Canon cameras. Canon has long offered slow burst shooting in the main modes (auto, program auto, and the manual settings) while offering a special "Burst HQ" scene mode for those who want the fastest capture rate the camera can offer.
The SX50 HS offered this exact mode, giving you the option of shooting at a rate of 13 frames per second for 10 frames. This is for some reason absent on the SX60 HS. Though in the main modes shooting speed has elevated from around 2.2fps to 6.8fps, the lack of this high-speed burst mode is a real loss. Of course, 6.8fps is just fine for most types of action, but there are times you'll simply want something faster.
The SX60 HS is also not much faster than the SX50 HS when autofocusing. Though at the wide angle the SX50 HS was plenty fast enough, it's disappointing that this hasn't been better addressed on the telephoto end. As with other superzoom cameras autofocus while zooming beyond 1000mm (full-frame equivalent) is like pulling teeth, with the camera constantly hunting even on very clear, high-contrast subjects. It's not a deal-breaker, but if you're hoping for a camera that can snap autofocus on a moving subject from 100 feet away you're going to be disappointed most of the time.
Canon's stretching its limits with the SX60 HS, but the results are hit and miss.
As soon as we saw what Canon had done to the SX50 HS to make the new SX60 HS, our hearts sunk. There has been a very obvious performance gap at the telephoto end for cameras that use zoom lenses longer than 50x. Not that 50x zoom lenses produce great photos, but the push to anything beyond that has resulted in truly ugly photos that lack sharp detail, focus excruciatingly slow, and have all sorts of other optical problems.
Lens designers are amazing folks who can do wonders with glass and light, but there are physical limitations to what you can do with a lens that has to be less than four inches long and go in a camera that costs less than $600. While we have frequently torn into Canon for failing to make meaningful changes to its other cameras, the move to retain the SX50 HS for a second year in a row was one that we lauded. The SX50 HS didn't need a longer zoom lens. And though the SX60 HS has assuaged some of our fears, 65x is just unnecessary and ultimately works against the camera.
In shooting with the SX60 HS we're actually quite impressed with how much Canon has been able to improve the experience otherwise. The camera simply handles better, feels snappier, and offers better much better video than its predecessor. The wider angle lens is a real help for group photos, selfies, and landscape shots and the improved EVF and processor pay dividends in every shooting mode. On the telephoto end, however, the photos simply aren't attractive and focus is slow.
Is it a perfect update? No. But while we wished Canon had left well enough alone and stuck with the 50x zoom lens from the SX50 HS we're happy enough with all of the other changes here. The SX60 HS is simply an all-around better camera and clearly the superzoom to beat in 2014 and beyond.
One area where the SX60 HS unequivocally mops the floor with the SX50 HS is in video. The SX50 was actually one of the few point-and-shoots in its time to offer full HD video at 24 frames per second. This was mostly sold as a "filmic" frame rate, but the truth is it was just the best most cameras could do with high-resolution image sensors.
As processing has improved, however, cameras have caught up. Like most relatively high-end cameras these days the SX60 HS can shoot full 1080/60p video, with exposure control and a 3.5mm mic jack in. The quality of the video is about on par with entry-level DSLRs, with MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 compression. Motion was excellent at 60p, but compression artifacts and intereference show up much more than you'd see in video from a dedicated camcorder. The video sharpness also tops out at around 625 line pairs per picture height, which is not great but typical of H.264 HD video that's this compressed.
If you aren't as concerned about detail and just want to capture action you can opt for VGA resolution videos at 120 frames per second or even 320x240 at 240fps, but these clips are so low-quality that they're little more than novelties and don't record audio.
In low light you can expect quality to take a big dive no matter what settings you use, with sharpness maxing out around 450 line pairs per picture height. The SX60 HS is at least quite sensitive, passing our threshold for acceptably bright shots with just 9 lux of light.