Canon PowerShot SX30 IS Review
by Howard Creech -  11/9/2010

The public's ongoing love affair with portable high-tech gadgets is beyond doubt. On-the-go people who talk (and text) on cell phones, listen to music (and watch videos) on MP3 players and shoot pictures and/or video clips with digital cameras while they work, walk, run, shop, drive, relax and watch TV are nearly ubiquitous.

Canon PowerShot SX30

The new PowerShot SX30 IS, which replaces last year's very popular SX20 IS as the top dog in Canon's super-zoom digicam market niche is aimed squarely at this very broad demographic. The SX30 IS seeks to be to be the ultimate bridge camera - an all-in-one photographic tool that can do almost anything, nearly anytime, virtually anyplace, for just about anyone.

While the SX30 IS and SX20 IS share many features, they don't look much alike. Similar to the SX20 IS, the SX30 IS features full manual exposure capabilities, a tilt-swivel LCD (and an electronic viewfinder), a 720p HD video capture mode, a Mini-HDMI output and a hot shoe. So what's new? The SX30 IS gets a boost in resolution to 14 megapixels (the SX20 IS was a 12 megapixel digicam), but what really sets this chunky ultrazoom apart from every other digital camera out there is its new lens - a whopping 35x (24-840mm equivalent) super-stabilized optic that is currently the longest zoom lens available on any camera. Here's what that range looks like:

Canon SX30 Sample Image
Canon SX30 Sample Image
Canon SX30 Sample Image
Canon SX30 Sample Image
Canon SX30 Sample Image

Other features include Canon's Quick-bright mode which makes it easier to frame and compose images in bright outdoor light, Servo AF/AE (which constantly adjusts focus and exposure with moving subjects), and a new Zoom Framing Assist button to aid in tracking and capturing sometimes small subjects in the midst of vast environments at very shaky super-telephoto distances.

Does the SX30 IS hit the mark? Is this the new "super camera" we've all been waiting for? Read on.

The SX30 IS is a well designed, precision-built and robustly constructed imaging tool capable not only of reliably generating decent images, but also of providing purchasers with some serious "mine is bigger than yours" bragging rights. The SX30 IS's polycarbonate body is tough enough to go just about anywhere and like the original Ford Model "T" it is available only in no-nonsense black.

Canon PowerShot SX30

The SX30 IS weighs around 4 ounces less than Canon's Rebel series entry-level DSLRs (with SD card, battery, and EF-S 18-55mm IS kit lens) which is impressive when you consider what the SX30 IS can do. Most entry-level DSLRs come with a 3x kit zoom, but the DSLR may be preferable if image quality is more important than the convenience of a very long zoom.

Canon is the most prolific producer of products marketed to meet the needs and wants of imaging gadget lovers. Like portable audio fans and smartphone aficionados, camera enthusiasts lust after the newest and most fantastic imaging devices - especially a point-and-shoot that's cheaper and has WAY more reach than a typical entry level DSLR. SX30 IS users can stand in one spot and zoom all the way from (the equivalent of) 24mm ultra wide-angle to 840mm super-telephoto - a genuinely unique camera in a sea of (mostly) clones.

The Canon PowerShot SX30 IS has been re-designed with a more rounded and less angular look than its predecessor. The hand grip is smaller and there is a new thumb groove. The SX30 not only has a smaller footprint and weighs in at 46 grams less than the SX20 IS, it looks better, its operation is slightly more efficient and it is a bit more secure in the hand

Ergonomics and Controls
The third generation Canon PowerShot SX30 IS handles nicely and due to its very good balance feels solid and stable in your hands. The SX30 IS not only looks a lot like an entry-level DSLR, it handles much like one too. This is not a compact (4.83x3.63x4.24-inches) or light-weight (22oz) camera, but the SX30 is marginally smaller and a bit lighter than the SX20 IS thanks to the switch from AA batteries to a smaller rechargeable lithium-ion battery. The PowerShot SX30 is a rather chunky and not particularly stylish digicam. It's definitely not pocketable unless you have a Captain Kangaroo style jacket with huge pockets.

Canon PowerShot SX30
The Canon SX30 offers a control layout that will be familiar to anyone who has ever used a Canon digicam. All controls are logically placed and easily accessed for right handed shooters, though some buttons are very small. The SX30 IS's compass switch (4-way controller) provides direct access to the exposure compensation function, flash settings, and macro mode. Canon's nifty "func" button offers direct access to WB, ISO, etc.

The SX30 IS also provides a "one-touch" video capture button - simply frame your shot and push the red button to start recording. When you wish stop recording, simply push the red button again. Overall, the SX30 IS's control array is a bit busy, but it isn't counter-intuitive and most users will have no difficulty using the camera competently after a short familiarization period. Like essentially all point-and-shoots, the SX30 IS will function in auto (point and shoot) mode. However, this camera was designed for photo enthusiasts, so there are lots of creative options and (for more advanced shooters) an impressive level of individual input.

Menus and Modes
The PowerShot SX30 IS features an expanded version of Canon's classic menu system. The SX30's menu, like all Canon point-and-shoot menus, is logical and easy to navigate. The SX30 IS provides a complete selection of shooting modes including:

The SX30 IS features a 2.7-inch (6.8 cm) camcorder style flip-out tilt/swivel (230k-dot) PureColor II LCD that is slightly larger than the 2.5-inch LCD featured on the SX20 IS.

The SX30's TFT LCD screen is bright, hue accurate, relatively fluid, automatically boosts gain in dim/low light, and covers approximately 100% of the image frame. The SX30's LCD, like all LCD monitors is subject to fading and glare/reflections in bright outdoor lighting, but Canon's Quick-bright mode makes it easier to frame and compose your images in bright outdoor light.

Canon PowerShot SX30

Unlike most current digicams, the SX30 IS also provides an EVF (electronic viewfinder). Resolution is a bit coarse (200k-dot), but reasonably bright and fluid. The EVF display provides the same information as the LCD, but the print is so small on the tiny EVF screen that those who lack eagle-like visual acuity will find it very difficult to read. There's a diopter adjustment for those who wear glasses, but there's no button for switching back and forth between the LCD and EVF - instead the SX30 IS automatically defaults to the LCD when the monitor faces out and to the EVF when the monitor faces in.

The SX30 IS performed credibly overall, however there really is no free lunch - photography has always been about compromises. When you design a camera with a 35x zoom, the idea is create an optic that is not too large and heavy.

Speed is sacrificed (particularly at longer focal length settings) because a very long lens will obviously zoom and focus slower than a substantially shorter lens. The SX30 is a very good general purpose digicam and it will dependably produce acceptable to very good images for photo enthusiasts, casual shooters, family sports photographers, and aspiring wildlife shooters, but those seeking a camera that can dependably deliver critically sharp images should consider Canon's S95 or G12 models.

Shooting Performance
The DIGIC IV driven SX30 IS isn't the quickest camera in its class, but it is fast enough to function nicely as a general purpose digicam and it is quick enough to capture the decisive moment in all but extreme shooting situations. Simply put, the SX30 IS is quick enough to capture youth soccer or little league baseball, but it probably isn't quick enough to consistently capture extreme sports or professional athletes. The SX30 IS powers up promptly and shutter lag shouldn't present much of a problem - except when shooting rapidly unfolding sports/action or skittish wildlife. Shot-to-shot times are between 3 and 4 seconds - which is on the long side of average.

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

Camera Time (seconds)
Canon PowerShot SX30 0.01
Pentax X90 0.01
Olympus SP800-UZ 0.03
Fujifilm FinePix HS10 0.06

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

Camera Time (seconds)
Canon PowerShot SX30 0.35
Pentax X90 0.43
Olympus SP800-UZ 0.45
Fujifilm FinePix HS10 0.64

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames Framerate*
Fujifilm FinePix HS10 7 12.3 fps
Canon PowerShot SX30 1.4 fps
Pentax X90 5 1.4 fps
Olympus SP800-UZ 10 1.2 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.

The Canon SX30 IS features the same TTL Contrast Detection AF system as its predecessor. It has three AF modes - single, continuous, and servo AF plus manual focus. In all exposure modes, the camera analyzes the scene in front of the lens and then calculates camera to subject distance to determine which AF point is closest to the primary subject (closest subject priority) and then locks focus on that AF point. The SX30 IS's default face detection AF mode is linked to the camera's exposure and WB systems. The SX30 automatically finds, locks focus on and then optimizes exposure for up to nine faces. The SX30 IS's auto focus is driven by the same ultrasonic motor (USM) and voice coil motor (VCM) technology as Canon's EF series DSLR lenses. AF is dependably quick, but the SX30 IS sometimes hunts for focus at the extreme telephoto end of the zoom.

The SX30's multi-mode pop-up flash provides an acceptable selection of artificial lighting options, including auto, flash on (fill flash), flash off, and slow synchro, plus flash exposure compensation at +/- 2EV in 1/3 EV increments. According to Canon, the maximum flash range is about 19 feet. Unlike most point-and-shoots, the SX30 IS also features a hot shoe for mounting Canon speedlites. Don't lose the removable cover for the hot shoe (use the included strap case) - a visible hot shoe completely changes the SX30's top deck look.

The SX20 IS was powered by four bulky and relatively heavy AA batteries. The SX30 IS draws its juice from a much smaller and lighter NB-7L rechargeable Canon lithium-ion battery. Canon claims a fully charged NB-7L is good for 400 exposures (EVF) and 370 exposures (LCD), but based on my experiences with the camera those numbers seem a bit optimistic.

The Canon PowerShot SX30 IS supports SD, SDHC, MMC, MMC+, HC MMC+, and the SDXC format (for memory cards larger than 32GB).

The Canon Powershot SX30 IS is a complex and feature-rich imaging tool, so it seems a little penny-wise and pound foolish to put the users manual on CD so you'll have to pack along a laptop if you want to peruse the manual in the field. There is a cursory "Getting Started" guide included, but it will only be useful for novices.

Lens Performance
The PowerShot SX30's extraordinary focal length range makes Canon's newest PowerShot almost ideal for a broad variety of photographic applications including shooting group pictures in tight indoor venues, capturing expansive landscapes, nailing distant wildlife or in-your-face youth sports, and getting up-close macro shots of bugs and flowers.

Canon PowerShot SX30

When the SX30 is powered up, the zoom extends (and extends) from the camera body and when the camera is powered down, the lens retracts into the camera body and a built-in iris-style lens cover closes to protect the front element. Eight benchmark focal length settings (in 35mm equivalents) are stamped very visibly on the top of the inner lens barrel. Zooming is smooth and relatively quiet and the Zoom Framing Assist function makes it easier to re-acquire subjects at the extreme telephoto end of the zoom.

When light rays pass through a camera lens they separate into various color waves and dispersion (all colors don't focus at exactly the same point) can become a problem. Dispersion causes axial chromatic aberration - the fuzzy colored edge blurring image degrading phenomenon popularly known as purple fringing. The SX30's f/2.7-5.8 4.3-150.5mm (24-840mm equivalent) zoom is constructed of 13 elements in 10 groups and includes one Hi-UD element, one UD element (to reduce chromatic aberration), and one double-sided aspherical element.

A 35x zoom designed for a DSLR would be so long that you'd need a pick-up truck to transport it and so heavy that it would require three men and a boy to carry it. Canon's technical folks did a remarkable job - this lens is amazingly compact and astonishingly light-weight. But this is a super corrected lens, and as optical complexity increases, lens faults and optical aberrations are magnified exponentially. Images do show some visible corner softness and barrel distortion (straight lines bow in toward the center of the frame) at the wide-angle end of the zoom range is noticeably above average. Pincushion distortion (straight lines bow in toward the center of the frame) is (as expected) above average at the telephoto end of the zoom. Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is also above average, but not as much above average as expected.

Video Quality
The SX30 IS's 1280x720 at 30fps HD movie mode produces properly exposed and color correct videos clips. The SX30 IS also captures video at 640x480 and 320x240 at 30fps. I shot the video that accompanies this review in the early afternoon at small neighborhood Autumn festival, so the light was pretty good. Video capture is impressive since you can (unlike with most P&S digicams) use the 35x zoom while recording. Canon recommends a class 4 (or higher) memory card for video.

Image Quality
The SX30's image files (like all Canon digicam image files) are optimized for bold bright hues and hard-edged but slightly flat contrast. Reds are a little warm, blues are a bit brighter than they are in real life, and greens are vibrant, though purples tend toward blue. Images generated by the SX30 IS are consistently a bit soft and there is no in-camera sharpening option. Image quality is a bit below average, but for 3x5 or 4x6 prints and enlargements up to 8x10 the SX30 IS will do a fine job. Check out the telephoto demo shot below (at full size) and you'll notice how soft it is.

Canon SX30 Sample Image

The SX30's optical image stabilization system reduces blur by quickly and precisely shifting a lens element in the zoom to compensate for involuntary camera movement. Typically, IS systems allow users to shoot at shutter speeds up to three EV slower than would have been possible without stabilization. Keeping a lens with a focal length range from ultra-wide to super-telephoto steady (without a tripod) poses some impressive challenges.

Canon has equipped the SX30 IS with what they claim is the most advanced and effective optical image stabilization system ever used in a point-and-shoot camera (it assesses camera shake about 8,000 times per second) providing up to 4.5 EV of compensation. Four IS modes are supported - Continuous IS works full time and includes an automatic Dynamic IS function adapted from Canon camcorders - Continuous IS consumes substantially more power than the other three modes. Shoot Only IS kicks the IS system in just before the shutter fires. Panning IS is designed to factor out involuntary movement during lateral panning. IS can also be switched off.

The SX30 provides users with a decent selection of white balance options, including auto, daylight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent, fluorescent H, flash, and custom. The SX30 IS's auto WB mode does a very good job in most lighting.

Canon SX30 Sample Image
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light

The SX30 IS provides an acceptable range of sensitivity options, including auto and user-set options for ISO 80 to 1600 - the SX20 IS also featured an ISO 3200 setting. ISO 80 and ISO 100 images are virtually identical - both show bright colors, slightly hard edged default contrast, and very low noise levels. ISO 200 images were also very good, but with a little less snap.

Canon SX30 Sample Image
ISO 80
Canon SX30 Sample Image
ISO 80, 100% crop
Canon SX30 Sample Image
ISO 100
Canon SX30 Sample Image
ISO 100, 100% crop
Canon SX30 Sample Image
ISO 200
Canon SX30 Sample Image
ISO 200, 100% crop
Canon SX30 Sample Image
ISO 400
Canon SX30 Sample Image
ISO 400, 100% crop
Canon SX30 Sample Image
ISO 800
Canon SX30 Sample Image
ISO 800, 100% crop
Canon SX30 Sample Image
ISO 1600
Canon SX30 Sample Image
ISO 1600, 100% crop

At the ISO 400 setting, noise levels are noticeably higher and there's a perceptible loss of minor detail. ISO 800 images are very noisy. ISO 1600 images show flat colors, fuzzy detail, reduced contrast and lots of noise.

Additional Sample Images
Canon SX30 Sample Image Canon SX30 Sample Image
Canon SX30 Sample Image Canon SX30 Sample Image
Canon SX30 Sample Image Canon SX30 Sample Image

The Canon PowerShot SX30 IS was designed as the ultimate general purpose digicam - this camera can capture images of just about anything - from expansive ultra-wide landscapes to super telephoto close-ups. The SX30 IS should also appeal to family photographers whose children are involved in youth sports and aspiring wildlife/nature photographers looking for a light, fairly compact, all-in-one camera with lots of reach.

The SX30 has the potential to be a "best choice" digicam for those who can accept slightly soft images. Most photo enthusiasts will understand that no camera with a 35x zoom is going produce critically sharp images, even with the most advanced and effective digicam IS system in the industry.