For some time, Canon seemed to be on the outside looking in with regard to the digital ultrazoom camera class. Sure, there was the tried and true S5 IS (which remains in the Canon lineup at present), but it was equipped with a relatively modest 12x zoom while competitors had lenses in the 15x range, with 18 and 20x models becoming the gold standard. As good as the S5 IS is, topping out with a 12x zoom in this market niche was like bringing a knife to a gunfight.
Canon has closed the lens gap with the introduction of the Canon PowerShot SX10 IS and its 20x zoom. What remains to be seen is if the rest of the camera is as competitive as that big lens.
First things first – the optically stabilized 20X zoom lens on the SX10 IS covers a 35mm film equivalent focal range from 28 to 560mm; here's what that range looks like in the real world.
The camera features a 2.5 inch variable angle LCD monitor in addition to a viewfinder, with a 10 megapixel sensor and Canon's latest generation DIGIC IV image processor with "improved face detection, servo AF, face detection self-timer and intelligent contrast correction for greater flexibility." As you might have surmised, intelligent contrast correction is Canon's way to expand the camera's dynamic range, and it can be enabled as a camera setting as well as be applied in camera for post processing of captured images. The camera has a nominal ISO range from 80 to 1600 at full resolution, with ISO 3200 available at reduced resolution (1600 x 1200 pixels, or about 2 megapixels). There is a hot shoe for mounting an external flash, and the SX10 IS can make use of SD/SDHC or MMC card media.
Canon includes 4 AA alkaline batteries, a neck strap, lens hood and cap, stereo video and USB cables, and CD-ROM software with each camera.
There are 13 primary shooting modes which Canon divides into "image zone" and "creative zone" categories. Selecting image zone modes causes the camera to "automatically adjust settings for optimal shooting" and includes the following:
In general, image zone selections allow the user to specify image size and little else.
A few notes on video capture: movies may be recorded at 30 fps in either 640 x 480 or 320 x 240 pixel sizes. Maximum movie size is 4GB at one time, with a time limitation of 1 hour. One nice aspect of the movie mode on the SX10 IS allows you to initiate movie recording from any shooting mode by simply pressing one button on the camera back.
The following video capture from the SX10 shows the camera's video mode in action.
Note: The video clip in the player above is a lower-resolution version of the original file. The unaltered original file can be downloaded for viewing here (be aware that the file is over 40MB and may take awhile to download).
Creative zone options are manual controls and include:
For a detailed listing of specifications and features, please refer to the specifications table found at the bottom of the review.
Styling and Build Quality
As is the norm in the digital ultrazoom class, the SX10 IS looks and feels like a downsized DSLR, measuring out at 4.88 by 3.48 by 3.42 inches and weighing about 24 ounces in shooting configuration (batteries, memory card and lens hood installed).
Overall, that's a pretty hefty package for anything that's not an interchangeable-lens camera.
The composite materials used for the camera body seem on a par for the class and the overall impression of build quality is good.
Ergonomics and Interface
The SX10 IS features a deeply sculptured handgrip style body and contoured back that is small enough so the little finger of my right hand has no place to go but curl under the body, resulting in a firm and solid one-handed grip.
The index finger falls quite naturally to the shutter button in both one- and two-handed shooting. There is rubberized material at the front of the handgrip portion of the body, but it's as smooth as the plastics that make up the rest of camera exterior and really contributes little to improving the grip The same holds true for a patch of nubs molded in the plastic on the camera back in the thumb rest area – I'd prefer a really tacky material in these two locations, but the camera has an overall good feel in the hand(s).
External buttons and controls allow access to most shooting modes as well as many other settings that the user might want to change on the run, such as white balance, ISO sensitivity, exposure compensation, and continuous shooting modes. The portion of the camera back not taken up by the monitor is awash with buttons, but Canon has laid them out so as to minimize conflict with the thumb when shooting.
The SX10 IS 2.5 inch LCD monitor has approximately 230,000 pixel composition and offers 100 percent coverage. It is articulated and can rotate through 270 degrees in addition to swinging out from the camera body.
There are two settings of brightness, neither of which can overcome the glare of direct sunlight on a bright day – the monitor is difficult to use for image composition or review under these conditions. Competitors in the class generally offer 2.7 or 3.0 inch monitors these days, which may put the SX10 at a bit of a disadvantage, but conversely, the articulating feature is something few competitors provide.
There is also an unremarkable electronic viewfinder with diopter adjustment for individual user eyesight. The camera user guide doesn't specify, but the viewfinder appears to offer nearly 100 percent coverage as well.
Timings and Shutter Lag
The SX10 IS powers up quickly and was ready to acquire focus in a bit over 1 second. Shutter lag comes in at about .05 seconds, very good for this class.Single shot-to-shot times (shoot, write, reacquire focus and shoot) ran about 2.5 seconds with a SanDisk Extreme III card.
Continuous shooting rates can be as high as about 1.5 fps, but focus is fixed at the first shot of the series and moving subjects can cause focus problems. There is a continuous shooting mode with AF that offers about 0.7 fps with focus established before each shot. The problem with either mode is that there's a brief blackout after the first shot, and subsequent shots are delayed a bit before being displayed, so panning with moving subjects can be difficult, particularly if you're using the telephoto lens to fill the frame with the subject. With the AF continuous option, there's a blackout period after each shot so the panning exercise becomes even more complicated as the images you see are even more delayed due to the lower frame rate. If you have to pan a long ways on a moving subject, try using the monitor or viewfinder for the first shot and then sort of aim the camera by looking over it at the subject – you can't do much worse than I did trying the viewfinder alone route.
From any shooting mode you can begin capturing movies by simply pressing the movie button on the camera back to start recording. A second push stops recording.
The SX10 IS offers face detect, center and "Flexizone" AF frame mode options. Face detect and center are pretty much self-explanatory, while Flexizone allows the user to move the AF frame to the desired area of the screen. There is also a face select and track feature which allows the user to designate a face which the AF frame will then follow "within a certain range."
As noted above, AF acquisition times in our default-settings studio test ran about 0.56 seconds, a good performance level for this class of camera (and we even saw some slightly better numbers on ocassion). I used the center AF option almost exclusively. There is an AF assist beam that doubles as a red eye reduction and self-timer lamp.
Lens and Zoom
Compared to the lenses on competitors (and especially the Canon S5 IS), the SX10 IS lens was a bit of a disappointment in the maximum aperture category at the telephoto end of the zoom. The lens starts out at f/2.8 and reaches f/5.0 at about 200mm, with f/5.7 coming up just before reaching the 560mm mark.
With everyone else coming in at f/4.5 or faster, the f/5.7 of the SX10 IS is giving up about two-thirds of a stop to the other brands, and over a stop to its S5 IS stable mate. What this means is, all things being equal, if the fastest SX10 IS shutter speed to capture a particular image was 1/500 of a second, the competition would be able to shoot at about 1/840 of a second. Even in an age of stabilized lenses, higher shutter speeds are always welcome to help ensure sharp photos by helping cancel camera shake by the user. Or, you could always translate that wider maximum aperture into a lower ISO sensitivity setting, which is not a bad thing on small sensors with lots of resolution.
The lens can focus as close as 0.39 inches in macro and super macro modes, and 1.6 feet in normal operation.
Canon lists a flash range of up to 17 feet at wide angle and about 9 feet at telephoto when using auto ISO. There are auto, auto w/ red-eye reduction, flash on, flash on w/ red-eye reduction, flash off, flash exposure (FE) lock, safety FE, and slow synchro options available, depending on your shooting mode. The auto ISO requirement is the fly in the ointment with the built in flash – if you set ISO in the 80 to 200 sensitivity range that offers the best noise performance the flash is taxed to make these distances. In this regard the SX10 IS would be a good candidate for an external flash for serious flash users.
Canon lists a flash recycle time as "less than 12 seconds" but in practice we did better: with what seemed to be a full discharge the flash was back to full power in about 8.5 seconds on alkaline batteries with some use on them. Less than full discharges in decent lighting conditions took 3 to 4 seconds with the same alkalines. Switching to brand new alkalines lowered the recycle times by a second or so, and there was no difference noted on full or partial discharge recycle times using new NiMH rechargeable batteries.
With the flash enabled, the SX10 IS can't take another shot until the flash has recharged.
The SX10 IS features a lens shift (optical) type of stabilization. The feature may be disabled or set for continuous, shoot only or panning stabilization. Panning only stabilizes the effects of up and down movement, and there is no stabilization if the camera is shot in the vertical format.
Canon lists a 340 shot capability for alkaline batteries, and about 600 for NiMH rechargeable batteries; the alkalines I used seemed to approach the figure, but I used relatively little flash which might have been partially responsible for the performance. A couple of sets of rechargeables should provide more than enough juice for an all day shooting session.
I once remarked to DCR site editor David Rasnake that Canon compacts were boring to review – they all seem to have good image quality and color reproduction, and overall decent performance without any major shortcomings. Canon hasn't broken the mold with the SX10 IS.
Default images out of the SX10 IS were generally color accurate and pleasing to the eye. Users who make use of the manual controls and set the ISO sensitivity in the 80 to 200 range will be rewarded with nice images. If I were shooting an SX10 IS I'd never leave the manual control portion of the mode dial.
With all the specialized scene shooting modes available on the SX10 IS, it can be tempting to simply dial up a mode fitting your subject and fire away. The problem with the scene modes is you may be putting too much control into the hands of the camera. In Sport mode, for example, the camera goes to auto ISO. Here are similar shots taken in Sport mode and Aperture priority, respectively. On the Sport mode shots, even with a sunny day at the beach, the camera decided ISO 400 was the way to go (instead of the ISO 80 I chose to use with aperture priority). At small sizes the images aren't bad, but enlarged the higher ISO shot not surprisingly doesn't match its lower ISO cousin in overall quality – and the darker portions of the image show this even more dramatically.
It's hard to argue with the camera's logic – the SX10 IS set a faster shutter speed than I obtained using aperture priority, and faster shutter speeds are the means to help stop sports action. And this in no way should be considered an indictment of the SX10 IS image quality, which more than holds its own in the ultrazoom league. Any of the other cameras in the class would be expected to produce similar results with rising ISO sensitivities and big enlargements, but users who are comfortable with the traditional manual exposure options can reap the benefits of lower noise enlargements by avoiding the auto modes.
Exposure, Processing, and Color
The SX10 IS offers evaluative, center-weighted, and spot metering methods, with evaluative being the default setting; it did a pretty good job dealing with the difficult high-contrast surf shots involving dark water and white water. While it would lose some highlights in extreme contrast situations, the evaluative method proved quite reliable across a wide range of exposure situations.
The camera is equipped with an i-Contrast feature that may be used as a camera setting (set either off or as "auto') as well as a post processing tool for images already captured. The purpose of either is to bring up detail in dark areas without washing out detail in bright areas, thus expanding perceived dynamic range. Here are two shots of the same subject: one with i-Contrast disabled, the other with i-Contrast on its auto setting.
There is a bit more detail in the fountain with i-Contrast enabled, but not a dramatic amount.
The third shot, with the flash enabled to provide some foreground fill, actually proved the best option in this particular scenario.
While default color with the SX10 IS proved accurate, there are "My Colors" menu options to offer the user alternatives. Here are a few of the more useful selections from among the SX10's default, vivid, neutral, positive film, B&W, sepia, vivid red, vivid blue, and vivid green options.
The SX10 IS has a few other interesting color processing and effects options, one of which is color accent.
As seen above, this function allows the user to designate a color in the image about to be captured that will remain, while the rest of the image goes to black and white.
Auto WB proved accurate across a range of lighting conditions, but was very warm under incandescent (tungsten) lighting.
The camera offers daylight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent, and flash preset white balance options, as well as a user-defined custom setting.
While it would be nice to have the SX10 IS zoom be just a bit faster at the telephoto end, there's not much else to gripe about with this glass. There is some barrel distortion at the wide end (straight lines bow out from center of image) but it's not extreme, and the telephoto end looks largely free of pincushioning (straight lines bend in toward center of image).
The edges and corners of images are a bit soft, but again not appreciably so. There is some chromatic aberration (purple fringing) present in extreme high contrast boundary areas, but this is a minor concern until image size becomes truly gargantuan. Canon has lavished some technology on the lens, including low dispersion glass and "a double-sided aspherical glass-molded lens and ultra-high refraction index lens," and the overall lens performance shows this effort in its sharp image results.
Sensitivity and Noise
As the studio shots show, ISO 80 and 100 are basically indistinguishable, with 200 picking up some noise but still relatively clean.
ISO 80, 100% crop
ISO 100, 100% crop
ISO 200, 100% crop
ISO 400, 100% crop
ISO 800, 100% crop
ISO 1600, 100% crop
ISO 400 is the tipping point for the SX10 IS, where noise may begin to become an issue when dealing with big enlargements: heck, even ISO 800 and 1600 don't look all that bad in the small shots, but the 100 percent crops tell a different story. Depending on the overall lighting of any particular shot, 400 could be OK or not so hot if you're making big enlargements. On the surf shots displayed previously in this section, they turned out not so great in print, but the studio shot here came out alright. You can take the worry out of the ISO setting by sticking with ISO 200 or less, but to do that you need to shoot with manual controls as the various automatic modes will be going with auto ISO.
Additional Sample Images
While Canon has trailed the competition for some time in lens size within the digital ultrazoom market segment, they're back in the game in a big way with the 20x zoom on the new SX10 IS. The camera offers good shutter and AF performance, good image color and quality, and a simple and easy to use movie capability for those who are so inclined. But it's that big lens that stretches from 28 to 560mm that takes the prize here.
The camera's continuous shooting rate of about 1.5 fps is compromised by a viewfinder/monitor that lags a bit and makes accurate panning to follow a moving subject an exercise in frustration. Flash recycle times are about par for the class, which is to say not overly quick, but Canon will be happy to sell you an external flash unit that should fix any recycle shortcomings should you so desire. And if you can manage to shoot without going above ISO 200 you can make big enlargements without worry of ISO noise possibly raining on your image parade. The SX10 IS isn't a perfect camera, but its blemishes are small and make it a worthy follow-on to the S5 IS and a real competitor for the other manufacturers in this market segment.
|Sensor||10.0 megapixel (effective), 1/2.3" CCD
|Lens/Zoom||20x (28-520mm) zoom, f/2.8-5.7
|LCD/Viewfinder||2.5", 230K-dot TFT LCD with tilt and swivel; electronic viewfinder
|Sensitivity||ISO 80-1600 (3200 at reduced resolution)
|Shooting Modes||Auto, Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Manual, Custom, Scene, Movie
Portrait, Landscape, Night Scene, Sports, Indoor, Night Scene, Foliage, Snow, Beach, Fireworks, Color Accent, Color Swap, Long Shutter, Aquarium
|White Balance Settings||Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Fluorescent H, Flash, Custom|
|Metering Modes||Evaluative, Center-Weighted, Spot
|Focus Modes||Face Detection, Nine-Point AF, One-Point AF
|Drive Modes||Single, Continuous, Self Timer
|Flash Modes||Auto, Forced On, Forced Off, Slow Sync, Red-Eye Reduction|
|Self Timer Settings
||10 seconds, 2 seconds, Off
|Memory Formats||SD, SDHC
|File Formats||JPEG, AVI
|Max. Image Size||3648x2736
|Max. Video Size
||640x480, 30 fps
|Zoom During Video||Yes
|Connections||USB 2.0, AV output
|Additional Features||DIGIC IV processor, raw shooting, wide-angle lens, optical image stabilization|
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