Canon PowerShot SX40 HS Review: A Formidable Ultrazoom
by David Cardinal -  10/18/2011

The Canon PowerShot SX40 HS is the newest of Canon's all-in-one ultrazoom compact cameras. About the same size as an entry level DSLR, the SX40 offers a lower price and the added convenience of a single built-in lens. Unlike most other compacts the SX40 has an incredible effective zoom range of 35x, from 24mm to an amazing 840mm. Its extensive feature set also includes full 1080p video and various high speed shooting modes for both capturing action and slowing it down.

The big news with the introduction of the SX40 is the addition of Canon's new DIGIC 5 chip - the same one used in the just announced $6800 Canon EOS 1D X - under the hood, adding state of the art speed and image performance to the SX camera line. The DIGIC 5 chip allows for a high speed shooting mode where the SX40 can capture 8 frames per second.

Canon is to be commended for using this additional performance for speed and image quality instead of a race for higher resolution, by including a 12.1 megapixel sensor - just about the highest resolution that is reasonable for a 1/2.3-inch sensor before image quality starts to go downhill. A 1/2.3-inch sensor is about 1/5 of a 35mm film frame in each dimension - providing only 1/25th of the total sensor area of a full frame camera, so to keep image quality high the resolution can't increase much beyond the 12 megapixels of the SX40.

Canon has also included an improved 2.7-inch adjustable LCD, and full 1080p HD video with stereo audio capture - easily triggered by using a dedicated Movie button - along with an upgraded Image Stabilization system. A variety of manual modes allow for impressive control for advanced photographers, although the lack of a RAW image capture option will definitely disappoint avid hobbyists.

The Canon PowerShot SX40 is almost identical to Canon's earlier SX30 on the outside. It is the same size and weight (21.2 oz.) and uses the same construction. It feels solid for an entry level camera although its polycarbonate body doesn't match the machined feel of specialty cameras like the Lumix LX5 or the pro feel of more expensive DSLRs. However the polycarbonate body holds up to heavy use, as long as it is cared for.

Canon PowerShot SX40 HS

The pop-up flash feels smooth to pop-up and firmly re-seats itself when you press it back down. The rear articulating LCD is also well constructed and doesn't feel like it'll snap off the way some cheaper cameras' do. It comes in handy for shooting from awkward positions, like with the camera over your head for capturing outdoor scenes. I used it to get an overview of the Occupy Wall Street protest in this image:

Canon SX40 Sample Image

The only obvious drawback to the design is the extension of the telephoto lens out from the body. That's the downside of a 35x zoom. Even when it is fully pulled in the lens sticks out over 2.0-inches. While the extra inch compared to other cameras with less of a zoom may not seem like much, it means the camera is almost impossible to stick in a pocket - even a largish one.

Ergonomics and Controls
The controls are a nice mix of some common DSLR controls like the mode dial on the top of the camera and typical point and shoot controls like the 4-way rear rocker for common settings. The menu system is nearly identical to other cameras in the Canon PowerShot line, mostly point-and-shoots. One place where Canon picked the point-and-shoot version is the zoom control. It is the common lever on top of the camera near the shutter button. That may be bothersome for anyone used to a DSLR with a zoom ring on the lens.

Canon PowerShot SX40 HS

Other than the choice of zoom controls the SX40 handles almost identically to an entry level DSLR with a telephoto zoom attached.

For users of the SX30 the controls are essentially identical. If you put tape over the camera model number it would be hard to tell the difference between the two cameras. This consistency certainly makes it easy for those who are currently Canon customers to upgrade without too much of a learning curve. Like the SX30 the SX40 offers a dedicated video recording button - a must for convenient video capture - and a "zoom out" button so you can find your subject when using the lens zoomed to the telephoto end where it can be hard to orient your field of view.

Canon PowerShot SX40 HS

The SX40 does not come with a real printed manual. There is a quick start guide in English and Spanish but it is a shame that a $400 camera with a 220-page manual requires you to browse it on your computer or print it yourself. It is conveniently available online if you're traveling and forget your CD.

Menus and Modes
The SX40 offers a wide variety of shooting modes, very similar to previous versions and to most mid-level Canon point and shoot cameras. The most important are directly on the mode dial on top of the camera:

The camera has plenty of other features, many of which, like face detection and switchable aspect ratios, have become expected for mid-range cameras. Some, like digital zoom, are of questionable value on an ultrazoom since it is hard to imagine getting much of a quality image from a 35:1 zoom which is then further scaled up digitally -- I turned it off right away.

The rear LCD is a well designed articulated 230,000 dot 2.7-inch display with adjustable brightness. It is easy to flip it around and use it as a more traditional rear camera LCD, or swing it out so it can be viewed at a different angle, or replace it against the camera to avoid scratches when not in use.

Canon PowerShot SX40 HS

Pressing the Display button or replacing the CD next to the camera will automatically switch the display to the electronic viewfinder, which mirrors the information from the LCD, including the shooting data and menus. The electronic viewfinder (EVF) is quite impressive. I found it informative and responsive. It can also be set to magnify the focus area when using manual focus, which helps with the common problem of EVF cameras that it is hard to tell whether the subject is in focus.

The SX40 also offers a Zoom Framing Assist feature for help when quickly zooming in causes you to lose your subject. You can hit the Frame Assist button to temporarily zoom out and locate your subject and then zoom back in with it in the frame. It's slow though, so don't expect to use it on any fast action. Annoyingly, even though the camera help system calls this "Frame Assist" there is no such term in the manual where it is called (Zoom Framing Assist). Consistency of terminology would make it much easier to get help in the manual for features like this one which don't explain themselves.

The DIGIC 5 makes the SX40 a snappy performer overall, with responsive controls and displays. Shutter lag is very small, although we go over our concerns with the auto-focus system in the Shooting Performance section.

Shooting Performance
The SX40 offers a high speed burst shooting mode, called High Speed HQ mode. The high speed burst mode is closely coupled to the camera's scene modes. To activate it you turn the mode dial to SCN and use the rear menus to set "HQ." The utility of the High-speed mode is unfortunately reduced because the camera locks focus on the first image. So if you are trying to track a moving subject the later images in the burst are likely to be out of focus.

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

Camera Time (seconds)
Kodak EasyShare Z990 Max 0.01
Nikon Coolpix P500 0.01
Fujifilm FinePix HS20 EXR 0.01
Canon PowerShot SX40 0.02

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

Camera Time (seconds)
Nikon Coolpix P500 0.30
Fujifilm FinePix HS20 EXR 0.33
Kodak EasyShare Z990 Max 0.38
Canon PowerShot SX40 0.46

Continuous Shooting

Camera Framerate*
Kodak EasyShare Z990 Max 12.0 fps
Nikon Coolpix P500 10.0 fps
Fujifilm FinePix HS20 EXR 4.1 fps
Canon PowerShot SX40 2.3 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.

Perhaps because of the large zoom range and relatively small maximum aperture the camera's auto focus performance was a little spotty. For example attempting to focus on very close objects - from one to three feet - often caused the camera to hunt back and forth and refuse to lock onto the subject. In our tests it actually focused more slowly than its predecessor the SX30.

There are a variety of autofocus modes - not necessarily an advantage as it means that the user is responsible for setting the right one for each situation, defeating some of the point of a simple, integrated camera. The first setting, AF Frame Mode, controls how the camera chooses the portion of the frame on which to focus. You can set it to Flexizone, where you set the size and position of the focus area, or Face Detect, or Tracking AF where the camera will attempt to keep focus on a moving object.

The image stabilization system trumpets six different modes, which is enough to make most people's eyes glaze over. Fortunately there is an "intelligent" IS mode which lets the camera select the appropriate one of the six modes for each shot. In my testing the default mode worked extremely well, as you can see from the 840mm hand-held images accompanying this review.

Canon advertises the camera as useful for photographing wildlife so I took it over to the local lake to give it a test. Certainly the zoom range is more than adequate, with 840mm being the equal of an ultra-high end 600mm lens on a typical DSLR - most of which have a 1.5 focal length multiplier due to their sensor size. And since a DSLR plus 600mm lens would set you back $10,000 the prospect of sub-$500 alternative is certainly appealing! For perching birds like this Great Blue Heron the SX40 produced excellent images:

Canon SX40 Sample Image

The camera didn't fare as well with moving subjects. Even with the new Tracking auto-focus feature it was difficult to get the camera to focus on any flying bird or quickly moving animal.

Closer to home a mule deer buck conveniently appeared in our yard and made for a great test subject. He was silhouetted in a very tricky combination of light and shade which the SX40 handled like a champ. All I needed to do was turn the camera's mode dial to "Sports" to get a nice, high shutter speed of 1/400th and fire away.

Canon SX40 Sample Image

Lens Performance
The zoom range of the SX40 lens dwarfs all its other specs. Physically measuring 4.3mm to 150mm, it has the same field of view of an equivalent 24mm to 840mm lens for a full frame (traditional 35mm) camera. That range forces a trade-off in maximum aperture so the lens has a mediocre f/2.7 aperture at the wide end and a weak f/5.8 at the long end. This affects AF performance especially at the long end and also limits your ability to isolate a subject from the background by shooting wide open.

Canon PowerShot SX40 HS

The lens uses Canon's UD (Ultra-low Dispersion) glass to provide excellent image quality for an ultrazoom. One difference between the SX40 and a DSLR which may not be obvious at first is the way the zoom is controlled. The SX40 uses the traditional point and shoot system of a level near the shutter button for zooming, while DSLRs rely on the user to turn the zoom ring on the lens. If you are attempting to use the LCD to focus the lever has some advantages, as you can steady the body of the camera with both hands. But for serious use it is awkward to have to keep taking your finger off the shutter button to adjust the zoom. So for high-performance shooting situations a true DSLR will provide a performance advantage.

One difference from the SX30 is that there is no integrated lens cover. Instead the camera relies on a snap-on lens cap, the same way DSLRs do. Like the SX30 there are several focal lengths marked on the lens barrel so you can tell how far you've zoomed. For a lens with this zoom range distortion is remarkably minimal, as shown by these images of buildings on the Stanford campus:

Canon SX40 Sample Image

Canon SX40 Sample Image

At wide and typical focal lengths the integrated lens is quite sharp, even in the corners. Zoomed in, it is a little soft compared to higher end dedicated zoom lenses, but that is to be expected for a compact ultrazoom. Frankly with the relatively slow aperture of f/5.8 at the long end motion blur will be a bigger issue than lens sharpness for most users needing to zoom way in on a scene. And the camera's relatively slow shutter lag, compared to similarly priced cameras, make it less than ideal for serious action photograph. The good news is that under all these conditions the corners of the image hold up quite well, without any major light falloff, at least after they have been processed by the camera into JPEGs.

Video Quality
The SX40 has full 1080p HD video and allows some specialty capture modes including simulating miniatures and creating super slow motion movies. The camera can also record in 720p and VGA resolutions if you need to save space or only need a lower quality version of the output. You can capture stills while you are shooting video simply by pressing the shutter button.

The 1080p HD video quality from the SX40 is in general excellent. Images are crisp and colorful. However, in my test situations, issues arose with auto-focus and low-light action recording. Video I shot of Occupy Wall Street protestors shows that the focus drifts in and out and doesn't stay locked onto the players the way it would with a quality camcorder. The actual image quality however is very similar to watching the same scene on one of the HD news channels that was covering the event with much more expensive equipment.

And in the low-light video of the train layout the panning becomes a little jerky and hard to follow. The moving train also becomes slightly blurred. For a point and shoot with a relatively slow lens these failings are hardly unique.

Image Quality
Understanding the SX40 starts with understanding just how large its zoom range really is. Below is a photograph of a model train layout at 24mm, the camera's widest field of view, and 840mm, its narrowest. The difference is almost mind-blowing. The tiny little yellow house in the first image is the same one that is full frame in the second image, just by using the lens zoom - a real zoom, without any digital effects.

Canon SX40 Sample Image
Wide Angle

Canon SX40 Sample Image

Just as impressive is that these images were taken hand-held in low light, at 1/30th and 1/20th of a second, respectively. Since the conventional wisdom is that a shutter speed of 1 over the f-stop is needed for a sharp image, the zoomed version should have needed a shutter speed like 1/750 or better to be tack sharp. 1/20th of a second is 5-stops slower, showing that the Vibration Reduction on the SX40 is capable of something close to 5 stops of assistance, an amazing number, especially for a sub-$500 camera.

While the lens on the SX40 may not be the fastest or even sharpest among high-end point and shoots, the combination of the lens and the on-board DIGIC5 processor create excellent images. Any light falloff that the lens may have appears to be nicely corrected by the time we see the JPEG out of the camera.

Similarly Canon's image processing does an excellent job of computing exposure and creating a clean, crisp image even at the default settings. My only complaint about exposure is that the SX40 has a slight tendency to expose for the shadows in high contrast scenes. This provides for excellent rendering of the subject in backlit conditions, but at the expense of blowing out the background highlights. In most cases that result will provide the best overall image, since we're usually interested more in the subject than the background, but for landscapes or other shots where the background is important, it may be necessary to dial in some minus exposure compensation.

One big problem for purists is the lack of a Raw shooting mode. All captured images are passed through the camera's own image processing and JPEG compression firmware. As good as that is with the new DIGIC 5 chip it limits the variety of post-processing options available. Now that other similarly priced point and shoot cameras - the Powershot G12, Powershot S100, and Panasonic Lumix LX5 for example - it is surprising that it isn't available in the SX40.

Without the option to capture Raw images, it is necessary to set the white balance prior to shooting. Since this is a somewhat tedious process, most of the time it gets left to the camera's auto white balance circuitry. Fortunately, the SX40 delivers well in this category. In all except the trickiest indoor lighting situations the camera did a good job of estimating the lighting conditions and providing a reasonable white balance. For scenes which are partially sunlit and partially in the shade it picked an intermediate value, similar to a "cloudy" setting.

Canon SX40 Sample Image
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light

The relatively small sensor on the SX40 shows itself as increasing noise as we increased the ISO in our studio test shots. You can see from the cropped versions that at ISO 100 and 200 the image detail is excellent, but at ISO 400 not only is a little noise visible, but the noise reduction in the camera has reduced the sharpness of the image a little. For a casual print ISO 400 is still fine, and even ISO 800 is probably okay, but neither would look tack sharp or crystal clear in an enlargement.

Canon SX40 Sample Image
ISO 100
Canon SX40 Sample Image
ISO 100, 100% crop
Canon SX40 Sample Image
ISO 200
Canon SX40 Sample Image
ISO 200, 100% crop
Canon SX40 Sample Image
ISO 400
Canon SX40 Sample Image
ISO 400, 100% crop
Canon SX40 Sample Image
ISO 800
Canon SX40 Sample Image
ISO 800, 100% crop
Canon SX40 Sample Image
ISO 1600
Canon SX40 Sample Image
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Canon SX40 Sample Image
ISO 3200
Canon SX40 Sample Image
ISO 3200, 100% crop

Of course ISO 1600 and ISO 3200 show even more noise and reduced sharpness, so those speeds are really only usable when there is no alternative or you're only going to be using the image for a small space on the web or perhaps a small "snapshot" print.

Additional Sample Images

Canon SX40 Sample Image Canon SX40 Sample Image

I loved the promise of the SX40 - a single, integrated, relatively inexpensive camera that can capture every image from wide-angle to telephoto, from landscapes to sports - but quirky auto-focus at the telephoto end and the difficulty of finding subjects when zoomed in make it less than great for any type of wildlife or distance sports photography. And the penalty for the huge zoom range is a bulky lens which makes it difficult to fit in your pocket.

However, the DIGIC5 processor and sharp lens deliver excellent images throughout their range, along with a bucket load of features. So the camera makes an excellent point and shoot with the added advantage of having the ultrazoom for the times you need it.

If you need an ultrazoom that will let you go from wide angle to super-telephoto without changing lenses, the Canon PowerShot SX40 is a worthy choice. With a faster processor and upgraded sensor it has improved image quality over prior versions. But if you can get by with a smaller zoom range there are more compact options which deliver better image quality for the same price.