Canon PowerShot SX120 IS Performance, Timings and Image Quality

October 9, 2009 by Adam Crawford Reads (24,795)

The PowerShot SX120 IS is in a bit of an unusual class. It’s bigger than most point-and-shoots with a 10x optical zoom. But, it’s also small enough to skirt around or put it in a coat pocket, and I mostly kept it ready at the helm of my palm when I went into my local park.

Shooting Performance
Upon start up of the SX120 there is a little bit of a delay, which I would calculate to be only a few seconds, making it easy to fire it up and get the shot you need quickly. I was able to do just that.

Once you’re ready to start shooting, you have a best in class shutter lag (press-to-capture) speed of 0.01 seconds. Between single shots, it took approximately 2.5-3 seconds to capture, refocus, and then capture again.

Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)

Camera Time (seconds)
Canon PowerShot SX120 IS 0.01
Nikon Coolpix P90 0.03
Olympus SP-590 UZ 0.03
Kodak EasyShare Z915 0.05

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)

Camera Time (seconds)
Nikon Coolpix P90 0.56
Olympus SP-590 UZ 0.57
Canon PowerShot SX120 IS 0.68
Kodak EasyShare Z915 0.94

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames Framerate*
Kodak EasyShare Z915 3 1.6 fps
Nikon Coolpix P90 14 1.4 fps
Olympus SP-590 UZ 6 1.2 fps
Canon PowerShot SX120 IS 0.78 fps

* Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera’s fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). “Frames” notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.

AF acquisition was a little behind the competition, ranking in third place at 0.68 seconds among four other cameras tested in our lab. Field-testing showed the camera finding AF in low light slightly slower than the controlled environment, but still fast, even in low light. The camera bumps up the ISO to utilize faster shutter speeds, often creating a pretty noisy image, even though it can focus faster in low light. I guess it’s a tradeoff.

Continuous shooting results were 0.78 fps at full resolution. I tested the camera to see how consistent this was in Continuous AF mode, and the camera kept firing off way past 35 shots until my batteries were about drained. Overall continuous shooting is decent, but the shot to shot ratio is good if you want to shoot some action (but bring extra batteries if so). The shutter can be set to a maximum of 1/1600th of a second – pretty fast for a point-and-shoot.

Flash performance is good, and the SX120 IS allows for control over the intensity and exposure compensation of the flash. The best part is that you can enact it whenever you want to by simply flipping up the flash. Choices include slow synchro for less intensity and full flash for a more encompassing shot.

Canon PowerShot SX120 IS
Slow Synchro

Canon PowerShot SX120 IS
Full Flash

I thought the Slow Synchro was better and offered a more natural look, while the full flash was somewhat overbearing at close range.

The battery power is one of the biggest issues as far as performance goes. The SX120 IS is rated at 130 shots for an alkaline and 370 shot with a Ni-MH Battery. I suggest going in on some NiMHs, because field shooting and some of the tests I conducted ate up a lot of power.

Lens Performance
The SX120 IS has a 10x optical zoom and a reasonably fast f/2.8 aperture at wide angle to f/4.3 at the telephoto end. The focal range covers a 36mm wide to 360mm telephoto and has a close focusing distance at macro of 0.4 inches.

There is some barrel distortion at wide-angle with some softness around the corners of the frame.

Canon PowerShot SX120 IS
Wide angle

Canon PowerShot SX120 IS

I did find some chromatic aberration at high contrast areas, though I could only find it when I blew up the images to about 400%. Purple fringing anywhere in a photo is undesirable, but it’s controlled comparatively well and doesn’t pose much of a problem.

The IS in SX120 IS stands for Image Stabilization, and Canon has developed one of the best and most effective systems to date. Image stabilization can be activated for continuous, shot only and panning operation. This gives you a few stops of light so that, ideally, you don’t end up with so many blurry images at telephoto focal ranges. In the case of the PowerShot SX120 IS, this statement holds true. I was able to shoot at telephoto, enact the IS and come up with a steady shot every time, even when light was scarce.

Video Quality
There’s not much to write about as far as video quality, other than to say it’s sufficient for standard resolution (640×480 at 30 fps). Video mode is accessed by through the mode dial.

Image Quality
Canon has built a brand on reliable cameras that are known for great image reproduction and processing. The SX120 IS can capture vibrant hues and provides several processing options with their My Colors settings. Options include default, vivid, neutral, sepia, black and white and custom color. The blues and reds captured with the SX120 were spot on, and neutral colors like green and brown differed depending on the processing prompt you were using, e.g., vivid brought out darker hues of green and brown, and neutral made colors look sort of flat.

Canon PowerShot SX120 IS
Default Processing

Canon PowerShot SX120 IS

Canon PowerShot SX120 IS

Canon PowerShot SX120 IS
Custom My Colors

I preferred using the vivid mode for my landscape shots and neutral for any architecture. In both cases, I got some pretty accurate shots, and was able to capture the images how I saw them.

The i-Contrast feature is among one of the new features that most camera manufacturers have developed and it’s designed to bring out more highlight details in dark areas of your frame. In the case of the SX120 IS, it works perfectly. My sample shot with i-Contrast off shows a dark doorway with very little detail in the shadowed areas. With i-Contrast turned on, I got a wider range of color and detail.

Canon PowerShot SX120 IS
i-Contrast Off

Canon PowerShot SX120 IS
i-Contrast On

Auto White Balance works great for most situations, including shaded areas and high contrast scenes. The incandescent studio shots turned out warm, but different options like daylight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent, and custom will generally help the user find the right balance for shooting conditions.

Canon PowerShot SX120 IS
Auto White Balance, 3200K incandescent light

The PowerShot SX120 IS provides three metering options:

  • Evaluative: default setting that calculates light for the entire frame
  • Center-weighted: factors in more emphasis to the subject in the middle of the frame
  • Spot: measures only a small portion of the frame

Overall, evaluative worked for most situations and gave me a well-balanced exposure, however, when trying to emphasize contrast in a frame, you can’t go wrong with spot metering.

Canon PowerShot SX120 IS

Canon PowerShot SX120 IS

Canon PowerShot SX120 IS

Also, evaluative seemed to give more precedence to the outside of the frame, making the subjects in the middle a bit underexposed.

Our studio ISO test shows the range of the SX120 IS from ISO 80 all the way up the 1600. As you can see from the 100% crops, ISO 80 through 200 are usable for large prints, but once you hit 400 the image starts to suffer as more and more noise is introduced. ISO 400 is still usable, but 800 and 1600 are extremely muddy and mostly unusable unless no other option is available.

Canon PowerShot SX120 IS
ISO 80
Canon PowerShot SX120 IS
ISO 80, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot SX120 IS
ISO 100
Canon PowerShot SX120 IS
ISO 100, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot SX120 IS
ISO 200
Canon PowerShot SX120 IS
ISO 200, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot SX120 IS
ISO 400
Canon PowerShot SX120 IS
ISO 400, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot SX120 IS
ISO 800
Canon PowerShot SX120 IS
ISO 800, 100% crop
Canon PowerShot SX120 IS
ISO 1600
Canon PowerShot SX120 IS
ISO 1600, 100% crop

It’s important for me to note that for enlargements larger than a 5×7-inch print wouldn’t be recommended unless you use ISO 200 or lower, otherwise you’ll get a lot of grain.

Additional Sample Images

Canon PowerShot SX120 IS Canon PowerShot SX120 IS
Canon PowerShot SX120 IS Canon PowerShot SX120 IS
Canon PowerShot SX120 IS Canon PowerShot SX120 IS



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