Canon PowerShot SX120 IS Review

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  • Pros

    • Large LCD
    • Good image quality
    • Full manual control
  • Cons

    • Some purple fringing
    • Same design as SX110
    • Poor quality at high ISO

Canon’s SX series of PowerShot cameras this year are a lot like last year’s, with the same form factor and most of the same features. The differences aren’t major, and with the PowerShot SX120 IS, it offers only a slight change in resolution from its older brother the PowerShot SX110 IS, moving from 9 megapixels to 10 megapixels in the SX120 IS.

Canon PowerShot SX120 IS

The other change is in the processing of the SX120 IS, sporting the tenable DIGIC 4 chip, which has been proven in many newer Canons to work better in low-light and to provide superior image quality and color reproduction.

That being said, the PowerShot SX120 IS has a lot going for it, even if the differences are subtle. Sometimes the small things are the biggest in stature when you’re looking at them up close. That’s the case here.

Canon PowerShot SX120 IS

In the August 2009 announcement of the new PowerShot SX models, we saw the move from the SX110 IS and SX10 IS to the newer SX120 IS and SX20 IS. Some of the shared features of the SX110 IS and the SX120 IS are a 10x optical zoom, a 3.0 inch LCD, manual control, in-camera processing, the same exact dimensions and weight, and the fact that they both takes AA batteries.

The SX120 IS offers only minor changes to the SX110 IS, including advanced face detection, slightly smaller 1/2.5 inch image sensor (the SX110 IS has a 1/2.3 inch CCD) and enhanced battery life when using the power save mode. Although they haven’t changed much in terms of designs or features for this model refresh, Canon’s mentality is sort of like Photoshop’s for their SX series it seems – keeping what people are used to using in new software, and then easing in new features with an upgrade so as not to alienate their customers.

But is the SX120 IS worth the upgrade if you already use the SX110 IS? I’ll seek an answer to that question below. Skip to the third page conclusions now if you are impatient (like me).

The Canon PowerShot SX120 IS is the spitting image of the SX110 IS, so not much can be said to those who already own this older generation model. It is the same size, weight and has the same exterior controls as the SX110 IS. The best way I can describe the design is to call it “boxy.”

Canon PowerShot SX120 IS

The body is constructed of hard plastic. It is sort of reminiscent of an older 35mm automatic film camera, as if Canon had left plenty of room for a film canister and crank. It feels retro grade, but again, it’s the same as most of the previous generations of SX PowerShot digital cameras, so there’s no new ground to be broken in design.

Canon PowerShot SX120 IS

Though slightly chunky, the SX120 would still fit in your pocket if you were to force it enough. If you attempt ths, be careful of external flash – it’s an analog pop-up that you push up with your fingers. That’s an awesome feature when you want total control over the flash, but more about that further on down. It sort of looks like a pared down Micro Four Thirds camera, like the Olympus E-P1 or the Panasonic GH1, minus the interchangeable lens. Don’t let that fool you, though, the SX120 offers a nice zoom range with a 36-360mm with the 10x optical zoom power.

Ergonomics and Controls
The size and weight are the same, we already know that, but the dimensions are 4.35×2.77×1.76 inches and weighing in at 8.64 oz. (camera body only) – exactly alike in both models. It has a nice handgrip on for the right hand, a mode dial with various automatic shooting modes as well as manual options like aperture priority and program auto.

Canon PowerShot SX120 IS

The lens is retractable but still protrudes out, looking like a pancake prime lens when it’s fully retracted. The shutter release also houses the zoom lever, left for wide and right for telephoto. The bottom of the SX120 is the trap door hatch for an SD/SDHC card and AA batteries. This part of the camera feels a bit chintzy, and every time I needed to change out batteries or remove my memory card it felt like I was going to break it.

Canon PowerShot SX120 IS

The back layout of the camera is identical to the SX110 (I know you’re already tired of hearing that comparison). The controls are comprised of a playback button, face detection, exposure compensation, func/set button, a scroll wheel to maneuver through the menus, a display button and direct access menu button on the very bottom, all of which are easy to use and to understand.

Canon PowerShot SX120 IS

So you’re asking yourself by now, is this the same camera as the previous model with just a new sensor size chip and a processing engine as well? The answer is, sort of, minus a few subtle nuances.

Menus and Modes
Canon doesn’t often deviate from their menu system of the last five years or so, which is a good thing if you hate learning new menus every time you buy a digital camera. It is, once again, very easy to use and intuitive.

The menu, activated easily by pressing the menu button, presents the user with option tabs for camera settings or a setup menu. The setup menu exists mostly to provide access to the more advanced settings, format your memory card, or change the LCD brightness. The menu you’ll utilize more often is accessed through the function button. It’s especially useful in advanced shooting modes and allows you to change settings like white balance, My Colors, metering and exposure compensation without menu diving.

On the mode dial, you’ll find your auto and easy mode, along with thirteen total shooting modes. It also has a specific SCN or Special Scene mode that takes you into a sub menu of seven different scenarios, including Foliage, Snow, Beach, Sunset, Fireworks, Aquarium, and ISO 3200.

Here is a rundown of what is on the mode dial:

  • Auto
  • Easy Auto: Easiest point-and-shoot mode, it requires you to do nothing but press the shutter.
  • Portrait
  • Landscape
  • Night Snapshot
  • Kids & Pets
  • Indoor
  • SCN: Has the 7 different scene modes besides the others on the mode dial.
  • Movie Mode

More advanced control settings are:

  • Manual: Allows you to set aperture, shutter speed, ISO, exposure compensation and white balance, and any other factors you introduce.
  • Aperture Priority: Allows you to set your aperture speed while the camera chooses the optimal shutter speed.
  • Shutter Priority: Allows you to control shutter speed while the camera decides the best aperture for the conditions.
  • Programmed AE: Automatically sets aperture, shutter speed, but allows you to control exposure compensation, white balance and ISO speed.

The real estate on the back of most modern point-and-shoots doesn’t easily accommodate a viewfinder, and an LCD offers certain advantages. This LCD provides 100% coverage, therefore allowing you to compose the shot exactly as you want it to be. Even in some DSLRs you will often get more picture than you see in the viewfinder because the area of coverage is below 100%, sometimes making it hard to frame your shot because you don’t know exactly what you’re going to get. The tradeoff is that an LCD is sometimes difficult to use in direct sunlight, and an optical viewfinder is often a nice tool to fall back on in bright conditions.

The SX120 IS has a big LCD that is comparable to most cameras in its class when it comes to resolution and size. The 230,000-pixel resolution monitor is quite vibrant and bright, faithfully displays your shots in playback mode, and matches precisely what you see when you upload the same image onto your computer. Even some of the details visible on-screen while I was in the field showed me blurry areas of the frame without zooming in with the lever, making it easy for me to delete and reshoot when it was an issue.

The one issue that I did find with the LCD is the slow playback and sluggish speed between operations. The LCD is also noticeably slower in power saver mode.

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