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Canon PowerShot SX150 Review: Zoom On a Budget
by Howard Creech -  12/9/2011

At first glance, the Canon PowerShot SX150 IS has the right look as one of the latest compact ultrazooms from that manufacturer, but under that shiny hood is an impressive collection of last year's features and hardware. Canon is the most modular of the major digicam manufacturers and they have an extensive catalog of consumer tested components to draw from when creating new models. Re-utilizing proven components to create new digicam models allows Canon to skip the expensive R&D phase of product development and quickly introduce new P&S digicam models at prices calculated to entice consumers to buy.


Canon PowerShot SX150
Canon's fifth generation DIGIC V processor is starting to turn up in some new point-and-shoots like the SX40 HS and the S100, but the SX150 IS is a DIGIC IV processor driven digicam. Several of Canon's newest models sport CMOS sensors (which offer greater dynamic range and better low light performance), but the SX150 features a 14 megapixel 1/ 2.3" CCD sensor. Many of Canon's new P&S digicam models feature 1080p HD movie modes, but the SX150 IS's movie mode tops out at 720p. Interestingly, Canon's top of the line G12 (which costs three times as much as the SX150 IS) is driven by a DIGIC IV processor, captures images via a CCD sensor, and tops out at 720p in movie mode.

Like the G12 and S100, the SX150 IS provides a full complement of shooting modes including Smart Auto, Program, Scene, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Full Manual exposure. The SX150 IS's most impressive feature is a 12x (28-336mm equivalent) super-zoom which, like the zooms on its upscale siblings the S100 and the G12, features a built-in Neutral Density (ND) filter to allow for maximum aperture shooting - even in bright outdoor lighting. The SX150 IS also incorporates Canon's proprietary "Intelligent IS" image stabilization system (first seen on the SX230 HS) which automatically selects the best IS method (based on matching the user's composition with the most effective IS mode for that type of image) from seven available IS options.

Like portable audio fans and smartphone lovers, photography enthusiasts lust after the newest and most unique imaging devices, but buying the current cutting-edge camera is not always the best option. Ninety percent of the people who buy point-and-shoots are casual photographers and they rarely (if ever) need the newest digicam features and functions. Does the SX150 offer more to the casual photographer than a bargain price, or would stepping up to a higher spec model be the better option? Read on as we put the SX150 to task in a full review.



BUILD AND DESIGN
The Canon SX150 IS replaces the SX130 IS which was very popular with casual shooters, landscape, travel, and nature photographers thanks to its relatively compact body and wide-angle to long telephoto zoom. The SX150 IS doesn't deviate from that winning design. The Canon Powershot SX150 is a fairly typical looking and relatively compact P&S digicam. If you're looking to make a style statement, the SX150 is a bit too bulky and a little too heavy to be really cool.

Canon PowerShot SX150

The PowerShot SX150 is available in no-nonsense black or bright exuberant red. Fit and finish are first rate and the its (polycarbonate body shell over metal alloy frame) construction seems tough enough for just about anything the target audience is likely to try. The weather/moisture and dust seals appear to be more than adequate for anything short of extended use in extreme environments.

Ergonomics and Controls
The camera's control layout will be familiar to anyone who has ever used a Canon point-and-shoot. All controls are logically placed and easily accessed for right handed shooters, but some buttons are very small. The SX150's compass switch (4-way control pad) provides direct access to the flash settings, ISO/Sensitivity settings, self-timer, and macro mode/focus options. Canon's nifty "func" button offers direct access to WB, color options, metering options, image size, and movie mode resolution settings. The rotary jog dial that surrounds the compass switch can be used to quickly sort through saved images in review mode or to rapidly navigate the menu in all shooting modes.

Canon PowerShot SX150

The SX150 IS also provides a "one-touch" video capture button - simply frame your subject and push the red button - when you wish stop recording - push the red button once again. Finally, the SX150 IS provides a direct access button for the exposure compensation function which makes it easy for shooters to incrementally lighten or darken images to adjust for ambient light problems.

Canon PowerShot SX150

The control array seems a little busy, but it isn't counter-intuitive and most users will have no difficulty using the camera's controls. Like essentially all P&S digicams the SX150 IS will perform impressively in auto (point and shoot) mode, but this camera was designed to be used by photo enthusiasts too, so there are lots of creative options and an impressive level of individual input into the image making process.

Menus and Modes
The SX150 IS features the basic two-tab version of Canon's classic point-and-shoot menu system. The SX150 IS's menu system, like all Canon P&S digicam menus, is logical and easy to navigate.

The SX150 IS provides a comprehensive selection of shooting modes including:


Display/Viewfinder
Like most currently available point-and-shoots, the SX150 doesn't provide an optical viewfinder which obliges shooters to utilize the LCD monitor for all framing/composition, captured image review, and menu navigation chores. Most casual shooters (this camera's target audience) don't use optical viewfinders anyway and in some shooting scenarios it is actually quicker and easier to watch the decisive moment come together on the LCD screen than it is through an optical (or electronic) viewfinder.

The SX150 features the same outdated 3.0-inch (230k-dot) PureColor II LCD monitor that graced its predecessor. Nikon, Panasonic, Sony, and Pentax are now offering LCD viewfinders with double, triple, and even quadruple the resolution of the SX150's slightly grainy 230,000 dot LCD monitor, but the cameras offering those higher resolution LCDs all cost more than the SX150.

The SX150's TFT LCD display is fairly bright, hue (color) accurate, relatively fluid, automatically boosts gain in dim/low light, and covers approximately 100% of the image frame. The SX150's LCD, like all LCD monitors, is subject to fading and glare/reflections, but Canon's Quick-bright mode makes it easier to frame and compose your images in bright outdoor light.

The DCR test lab objectively measures LCD peak brightness and contrast ratios to assist our readers in making more informed digital camera purchasing decisions. A decent LCD contrast ratio should fall somewhere between 500:1 and 800:1. An LCD with a contrast ratio within that range should be bright enough to use the LCD screen for framing and composition in outdoor lighting and it should also provide a better sense of real world colors and contrast than would an LCD screen with a lower contrast ratio.

The SX150 weighs in on the lower end of that range at 584:1. Peak brightness for the SX150 (the panel's output of an all-white screen at full brightness) is 421 nits and on the dark (black level luminance) side the measurement is 0.72 nits - for reference, anything higher than 500 nits is bright enough to be easily seen under bright outdoor light. The SX150 IS's default info display provides all the data this camera's target audience is likely to want or need.

PERFORMANCE
The SX150 IS doesn't seem awfully fast when compared to its closest competitors, but numbers don't always tell the whole story. The SX150 IS performs credibly and is easily competitive with any camera in its street price range. When you design a camera with a 12x zoom some operational speed must be sacrificed (particularly at longer focal length settings) because a very long lens will obviously move and focus more slowly than a substantially shorter lens.

Shooting Performance
Performance and image quality should be the primary considerations when assessing digital camera performance. The SX150 IS comes in near the top when compared to its competition in terms of timing, except for its slower than average AF acquisition times.

Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)
Camera Time (seconds)
Kodak EasyShare Z990 Max 0.01
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ150 0.01
Canon PowerShot SX150 0.01
Fujifilm FinePix HS20 EXR 0.01


AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
Camera Time (seconds)
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ150 0.15
Fujifilm FinePix HS20 EXR 0.33
Kodak EasyShare Z990 Max 0.38
Canon PowerShot SX150 0.53

Continuous Shooting
Camera Frames Framerate*
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ150 12 12.5
Kodak EasyShare Z990 Max 4 12.0
Fujifilm FinePix HS20 EXR 8 4.1
Canon PowerShot SX150 0.7

*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.

While the 0.53 second AF Acquisition (press-to-capture with no pre-focus) time noted in the DCR test chart looks pretty slow when compared to the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ150, that 1/3 of second difference isn't really significant in the real world and it can be attributed, at least in part, to the included Panasonic LR6 Alkaline AA's. I suspect performance will improve noticeably when using 2500 mAh NiMH rechargeable AAs.

The SX150 is fast enough to function nicely as a general purpose digicam and quick enough to capture the decisive moment - in all but the most extreme shooting situations. The SX150 IS powers up promptly and shutter lag shouldn't present much of a problem. Shot-to-shot times are between 2 and 3 seconds with OTC Alkaline AAs.

Lens Performance

When the SX150 is powered up - the lens automatically extends from the camera body and when the camera is powered down, the zoom retracts into the camera body and a built in iris-style lens cover closes to protect the front element. The SX150 IS's f/3.4-5.6 5.0-60.0mm (28-336mm equivalent) zoom makes this digicam ideal for a broad variety of photographic applications - including shooting group pictures in tight indoor venues, capturing expansive landscapes, snapping excellent travel pictures, nailing not too distant wildlife, shooting youth sports like a pro, and getting in-your-face macro shots of bugs and flowers.

The SX150's zoom is impressively compact and it doesn't appear to be flimsy, but it is (unavoidably) an extremely complex lens and as complexity increases optical faults are magnified exponentially. Corners are noticeably soft at the wide angle end of the zoom, but they are appreciably sharper at the telephoto end of the range. The SX150 IS's f/3.4 maximum aperture (at the wide end of the zoom) is about a half a stop slower than the f/2.8 maximum apertures of many upper tier point-and-shoots, but it is fast enough for almost anything this camera's target audience is likely to shoot outdoors.

Zoom operation is fast, smooth, and fairly quiet, but this lens exhibits noticeable barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from the center) at the wide-angle end of the zoom and visible pincushion distortion (straight lines bow in toward the center of the frame) at the telephoto end of the zoom range. Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is present, especially in high contrast color transition areas, but managed nicely. Overall, the SX150's 12x zoom is surprisingly good.


Canon PowerShot SX150

This PowerShot'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 (exposure values) slower than would have been possible without Image 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 SX150 IS with what they claim is the most advanced and effective optical Image Stabilization system ever used in a P&S camera (it assesses camera shake about 8,000 times per second) providing up to 4.5 EV of compensation. The SX150 IS's 4.5-stop optical Image Stabilizer incorporates Canon's Intelligent IS technology that detects the shooting situation and automatically applies the most appropriate image stabilization settings from seven possible options.

For example, Panning IS is enabled when users follow the action horizontally, ensuring the IS system stabilizes in only one direction, while Macro IS (with Hybrid IS technology) is meant for shooting sharp handheld close-ups. Powered IS uses Canon camcorder technology to make it easy to film distant subjects with the long zoom, and Tripod mode switches off the Image Stabilizer when the camera is placed on a stable surface or mounted on a tripod.

The SX150 IS features the same TTL Contrast Detection 10-point AiAF system, providing three AF modes: Face AF, Tracking AF, and Center AF as Canon's popular SX230 HS. 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 SX150 IS's face detection AF mode is linked to the camera's exposure and WB systems so the camera automatically finds, locks focus on, tracks and then optimizes exposure for up to nine faces - or shooters can lock on a single face and track it through the crowd. The SX150 IS's Center AF mode is a good choice for traditional landscapes and informal portraits and an even better option for street shooting, because serious photographers don't want the camera deciding which face in the crowd to focus on. AF is a bit slower than average, but dependably accurate.

There is a dark cloud on the SX150's horizon that potential purchasers should consider. The SX150 is a complex, feature rich, digicam with a long zoom - so it is (not unexpectedly) a profligate power user. I do a lot of shoot, review, delete, and re-shoot so my battery use is probably a bit heavier than that of most P&S digicam users, but the included AA batteries (a pair of Panasonic LR6 Alkaline AA's were packed with my test unit) only lasted long enough for the DCR test lab to run its standard array of tests and for one fairly short shooting session for me. A pair of cheap OTC Eveready "Gold" Alkalines purchased when the included batteries failed on me in the field got me through the rest of the afternoon and two longer shooting sessions and three short video clips before they bit the dust.


Canon PowerShot SX150
I bought a four pack of Energizer MAX Alkaline AA's (the World's first zero mercury AA alkalines for environmentally conscious shooters) to replace the Eveready "Gold" alkalines. I promised in my SX150 preview to discuss their performance in the full review - the Energizer "MAX" alkalines (even though they cost twice as much) only did marginally better than the cheap Eveready "Gold" alkalines.

Canon claims the SX150 IS is good for about 320 exposures with a pair of Canon NB-3AH (2500 mAh) NiMH rechargeables - I couldn't find any numbers for OTC Alkaline AAs, but I'm guessing (based on my experiences with the camera) that it is less than 100 exposures. Most shooters should opt for re-chargeable NiMHs or more expensive Lithium AA's because OTC alkaline AA's will be too expensive long-term as a power source and should only be used as a last resort or when traveling.

The SX150 IS's multi-mode pop-up flash provides an acceptable selection of artificial lighting options, including Auto, Flash On, Flash Off, Slow Sync, and Red-eye reduction plus menu options including flash exposure compensation at +/- 2 EV in 1/3 EV increments. According to Canon, the maximum flash range is a bit more than 18 feet, which seems a little optimistic given the small size of the flash. Based on my very limited flash use, the flash recycle time is between 4 and 5 seconds with OTC Alkaline AA's.

The Canon PowerShot SX150 supports SD, SDHC, and the SDXC format memory cards, but provides no internal memory. The SX150 IS also provides Eye-Fi Card support.

Video Quality
The SX150 IS's 1280 x 720p at 30fps HD movie mode can actually compete with some dedicated video cameras, but unlike many current point-and-shoots, the 12x zoom can't be used while in video capture mode. The video clip which accompanies this review was shot on a cold and overcast December afternoon.

The clip is sharply focused, properly exposed, movement is fluid (smooth - not jerky), and the colors are vibrant. Given the conditions, the sample video, shows the SX150 IS to be competitive (in the video department) with substantially more expensive point-and-shoots.

Image Quality
Colors (Canon's default color interpolation) are bright and hue accurate, but visibly over-saturated. Reds are warmer than they are in real life, blues are a bit too bright, and greens/yellows are more vibrant than those seen by the naked eye. Most casual shooters won't consider these minor color intensity variations as faults. Although there is a slight tendency toward overexposure - in bright outdoor light the SX150 IS dependably produces reliably well-exposed, sharply focused, and almost noise-free images in all outdoor lighting. Images are detailed and unexpectedly sharp - check out the sample pictures, but in bright outdoor lighting highlight detail was occasionally blown-out. Overall, the SX150 IS's image quality is on the high side of average.

The SX150 IS provides users with an acceptable selection of White Balance options, including Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Fluorescent H, and custom (manual). The SX150 IS's Auto WB system does a remarkably good job, across the board.

Canon SX150 Sample Image
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light

The SX150 IS provides a reasonable range of sensitivity options, including Auto and user-set options for ISO 80 to ISO 1600. ISO 80/ISO 100 images are indistinguishable - both show bright colors, slightly flat native contrast and very low noise levels. ISO 200 images also look very good, but with a little less snap.

Canon SX150 Sample Image
ISO 80
Canon SX150 Sample Image
ISO 80, 100% crop
Canon SX150 Sample Image
ISO 100
Canon SX150 Sample Image
ISO 100, 100% crop
Canon SX150 Sample Image
ISO 200
Canon SX150 Sample Image
ISO 200, 100% crop
Canon SX150 Sample Image
ISO 400
Canon SX150 Sample Image
ISO 400, 100% crop
Canon SX150 Sample Image
ISO 800
Canon SX150 Sample Image
ISO 800, 100% crop
Canon SX150 Sample Image
ISO 1600
Canon SX150 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. Higher sensitivity settings show flat colors, reduced contrast, lots of image noise, and fuzzy details.

Canon PowerShot SX150 Canon PowerShot SX150
Canon PowerShot SX150 Canon PowerShot SX150
Canon SX150 Sample Image Canon SX150 Sample Image


CONCLUSIONS
I only used the new Canon Powershot SX150 IS for a few days, but in my opinion it clearly qualifies as a "best buy" for budget conscious shutterbugs who want a lot of bang for their camera buck. The SX150 IS would be an almost ideal choice for a first digital camera, an excellent choice as a primary family camera, and a very good choice for travelers who want an inexpensive, feature rich, dependable and relatively inexpensive point-and-shoot that draws its power from universally available AA batteries. The SX150 IS's single major shortcoming - poor battery life with OTC alkaline AAs - can be easily remedied by substituting 2500 mAH NiMH rechargeables.


The SX150 IS lists for $250, but it can be found on-line for between $159 and $179 (an acquaintance found one on black Friday for $150) so the bottom line is that bargain seeking consumers aren't really going to be able to get any more (at this point in time) for their camera buying dollars than the SX150 IS provides.

Pros:


Cons: