Canon introduced the new SX50 HS, the successor to the very popular Canon PowerShot SX40 HS, at the semi-annual Photokina imaging products trade show in Cologne, Germany this past fall. The fifth generation Canon PowerShot SX50 HS is an entry-level DSLR-sized point and shoot digital camera that is essentially an evolutionary update; however, at least one of the new features seems almost revolutionary.
Digicam zooms just keep growing longer; the SX40 HS featured a 35x zoom, while the SX50 HS sports a spectacular new 50x (24mm-1200mm equivalent) zoom - currently the longest zoom lens in the world. A DSLR shooter would need a virtually unlimited budget and an extremely large (and VERY heavy) camera bag to carry enough lenses to cover the 24mm to 1200mm focal length range of the SX50 HS. With a current street price of only $430, this camera is a great deal if it lives up to our testing.
Build and Design
The SX50 HS, like the previous model, seeks to be to be that most elusive of imaging tools: an all-in-one camera that can do almost anything photographic, nearly anytime, virtually any place, for just about anyone - a camera that successfully bridges the gap between DSLR flexibility and P&S convenience.
The Canon PowerShot SX50 HS digital camera is the world's first digital camera with a 50x optical zoom lens. The impressive focal length range extends all the way from a wide-angle 24mm to a super-telephoto 1200mm (35mm equivalents). The camera has a 12.1 megapixel CMOS image sensor and a DIGIC 5 Image Processor, enabling users to capture high-resolution JPEG and RAW still images, as well as full HD 1080p video with stereo sound. The SX50 HS is the most recent Canon digicam to feature the HS System, which combines a high-sensitivity back-illuminated CMOS sensor with Canon's DIGIC 5 processor to capture low noise images in virtually all lighting conditions. Canon claims the DIGIC 5 processor, CMOS sensor, and HS technology combination reduces image noise by up to 75% at all ISO levels. The camera's ISO sensitivity ranges up to 6400. Coupled with Canon's nifty HS (High Sensitivity) system, the camera produces clear, detailed, almost noise free images - even in low-light.
The SX50's monster zoom provides what is currently the longest zoom range available on any camera. A digital camera with a zoom lens that can go all the way from a true 24mm wide-angle to a whopping 1200 mm super telephoto allows photographers to cover essentially the entire spectrum of outdoor photographic genres -- from classic landscape shots to tightly framed environmental portraits and from distant shots of skittish wildlife to up close macro images. In other words the magical "one lens covers it all" zoom that camera and lens manufacturers have been trying to attain since the introduction of the world's first consumer zoom lens, the Voightlander Zoomar, in 1959. The Zoomar produced soft images across its entire 2.2x range. The SX50 HS with an f3.4/24mm-1200mm (equivalent) zoom weighs just 1.31 pounds/595 grams with SD card and battery, a roughly 70% reduction in weight (when compared to a Voightlander Zoomar mounted on an Exacta VXII) and it's zoom has almost 15 times the reach of the Zoomar, but the SX50 HS also produces soft images -- although mostly at the telephoto end of that incredible 50x zoom range.
Optical image stabilization compensates for camera shake to produce sharper images at all focal lengths. High Speed AF almost guarantees that users won't miss the shot due to shutter lag or slow AF lock. The Zoom Framing Assist function makes it easier to track your subjects and keep them centered in the frame until you capture the image and the High-Speed Burst HQ mode enables continuous capture at 13 fps for up to 10 frames. With the camera's built-in hot shoe, users can mount optional Canon DSLR Speedlites. Using the included USB cable, the PictBridge interface, and a compatible printer - users can print images directly from the camera - without a computer.
Ergonomics and Controls
The Canon PowerShot SX50 HS handles nicely due to its near perfect balance and excellent hand-grip. It feels solid and stable in your hands. The SX50 HS not only looks a lot like an entry-level DSLR, it handles very much like one too. The camera is not a particularly compact (4.84 inches-123mm x 3.43 inches-87mm x 4.17 inches-106 mm) or especially light-weight (595 grams or 1.31 lb). In fact, the SX50 HS is rather chunky and not particularly stylish.
The SX50 HS polycarbonate body is tough enough to go just about anywhere. The SX50 IS weighs about the same a Canon entry-level DSLR (with SD card, battery, and EF-S 18mm-55mm IS kit lens) which is impressive when you consider that the SX50 HS can do almost anything an entry-level DSLR can do - and it has a 50X zoom. Canon entry-level DSLRs generally include a kit lens that is equivalent to a 3x zoom.
The control layout for the SX50 HS will be familiar to anyone who has ever used a Canon digicam. All controls are logically placed and easily accessed - for right handed shooters, but some buttons are very small. Canon's "func" button offers direct access to WB, ISO, or other functions you want to easily recall at the touch of a button. The SX50 HS also provides a "one-touch" video start/stop button. Simply frame your shot and push the red button. When you wish to stop recording, simply push the red button once again. And, best of all, that monster zoom can be used during video capture.
Most users will have no difficulty using the camera right out of the box. Like essentially all point and shoot cameras, the SX50 HS will function nicely in auto mode, but this camera was designed for photo enthusiasts - so there are lots of creative options. For more advanced shooters, there is an impressive level of individual inputs, too.
Menus and Modes
Auto: Just point and shoot - no user input.
Smart Auto: Automatic scene recognition program that instantly compares what's in front of the lens with an on-board image database and then matches that information with the subject's distance from the camera, white balance, contrast, dynamic range, lighting and color (just before the image is recorded) to determine the best scene mode for that specific shooting situation. No user input except for flash on/off.
Scene: 58 Scene modes
Program: Auto exposure with limited user input (sensitivity, white balance, exposure compensation, flash, etc.).
Aperture priority: Users select the aperture and the camera selects an appropriate shutter speed.
Shutter priority: Users select shutter speed and the camera selects an appropriate aperture.
Manual: Users select all exposure parameters.
Movie: The SX50 HS records HD video at a maximum resolution of 1080p @ 24fps. Interestingly, the camera automatically switches to 30fps for 720p and VGA. Best quality 1080p video consumes around 4 megabytes per second and recording maximum is 4GB, around 15 minutes @ 1080p or 20 minutes @ 720p. Canon recommends using SD cards rated Class 6 or higher. Default audio is stereo.
One of the SX40's most serious design flaws is its outdated 2.7 inch camcorder style flip-out and tilt/swivel PureColor II LCD monitor. Nikon, Panasonic, Pentax, and other OEMs have been offering LCD viewfinders with double, triple, and even quadruple the resolution of the SX40 HS's grainy 230,000 pixel LCD. Canon updated this with the SX50 HS. The camera now has a new 2.8 inch TFT camcorder style flip-out tilt/swivel LCD monitor with double the resolution (461k) of its predecessor. The SX50's LCD screen is noticeably brighter and sharper than the LCD screen featured on the SX40 HS. The SX50's LCD screen is hue accurate, fluid, automatically boosts gain in dim/low light, and covers approximately 100% of the image frame. The SX50's LCD, like all LCD monitors, is subject to fading and glare/reflections in bright outdoor light, but Canon's Quick-bright mode makes it easier to frame and compose your images outside, even in open sunlight.
The SX50 HS also provides an EVF (electronic viewfinder). Resolution is a bit coarse, but the viewfinder is 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 (read older folks) will find it virtually impossible to decipher. 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 SX50 HS automatically defaults to the LCD when the monitor faces out and to the EVF when the monitor is turned inward, to face the back of the camera.
While camera users must have realistic expectations; the SX50 HS is competitive with any camera in its class. When camera R&D folks design a camera with a very long zoom some operational speed must be sacrificed (particularly at longer focal length settings) because a longer lens will obviously move and focus more slowly than a shorter lens. I've reviewed ultrazooms from Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, and Canon and all of them have shared similar faults -- slow maximum apertures, very complex zoom formulas (which reduce contrast), noticeable barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from the center) at the wide-angle end of the zoom, and fuzzy/soft images at the telephoto end of the zoom range. The SX50 HS is guilty on all counts -- but less guilty than most of the competition.
The SX50 HS features the same TTL Contrast Detection AF system as its predecessor - with 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 face detection AF mode is linked to the camera's exposure and white balance systems allowing the SX50 HS to automatically find, locks focus on, and then optimize exposure for up to 12 faces. The SX50 HS's autofocus is driven by the same ultrasonic motor (USM) and voice coil motor (VCM) technology as Canon's EF series DSLR lenses. AF is reasonably quick, but this camera often hunts for focus at the telephoto end of the zoom.
The SX50 HS features Canon's new Multi-area White Balance system which makes images look more natural by detecting situations where there are two different light sources in the frame and then automatically applying area-specific white balance correction. For example, when shooting a subject with flash in a room illuminated by tungsten lighting, the camera will apply tungsten WB to the background and flash white balance to the subject, ensuring that both the subject and the background retain their natural colors. The SX50 HS provides users with an acceptable selection of white balance options, including auto, daylight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent, fluorescent H, flash, and custom. The SX50 IS's auto WB mode does a very good job in most outdoor lighting.
The SX50 HS provides an acceptable range of sensitivity options, including auto and user-set options for ISO 80 to ISO 12800. ISO 80/ISO 100 images are virtually identical - both show bright visibly oversaturated colors, slightly flat default contrast, and very low noise levels. ISO 200 images were also very good, but with a little less snap. At the ISO 400 setting, noise levels are noticeably higher and there's a (barely) perceptible loss of minor detail. ISO 800 images are quite noisy, but substantially better than expected. ISO 1600 images show flat colors, fuzzy detail, reduced contrast, and lots of noise, but they do look like ISO 800 images produced by many of the SX50 HS's competitors.
The SX50 HS'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 + /- 2EV in 1/3 EV increments. According to Canon, the maximum flash range is about 19 feet. Unlike most P&S digicams, the SX50 HS also features a hot shoe for mounting Canon DSLR speedlights.
The Canon PowerShot SX50 HS supports SD, SDHC, and SDXC format memory media.
The SX50 HS draws its power from an NB-10L rechargeable Canon lithium-ion battery. Canon claims a fully charged NB-10L is good for 315 exposures, however - based on my experiences with the camera - that number seems a bit optimistic.
When the SX50 HS is powered up, the zoom extends from the camera body and when the camera is powered down, the lens retracts back into the camera body and a built in iris-style lens cover closes to protect the front element. Zooming is smooth and relatively quiet (especially for such a long lens) and the Zoom Framing Assist function makes it easier re-acquire subjects at the extreme telephoto end of the zoom.
The SX50 HS's extraordinary focal length range makes Canon's newest PowerShot an almost ideal choice for an incredibly broad variety of photographic applications. Shooting group pictures in tight indoor venues, capturing expansive landscapes, nailing distant wildlife, in-your-face sports action, and getting up-close macro shots of bugs and flowers are all easily accomplished with this camera.
Canon's technical folks did a remarkably good job with this monster zoom - the longest in the imaging industry. The SX50 HS's zoom is amazingly compact and astonishingly light-weight, but there really is no free lunch. As optical complexity increases, lens faults and optical aberrations are magnified exponentially. Images show visible corner softness and barrel distortion at the wide-angle end of the zoom range is noticeably above average. Pincushion distortion is above average at the telephoto end of the zoom. Chromatic aberration is also above average, but not as much above average as I expected. Images shot at longer telephoto settings grow consistently softer as the lens is zoomed further out. Images shot at full telephoto will generally be acceptable for 4x6 prints or for posting on-line, but my attempts to capture a full frame picture of two slowly moving Sandhill Cranes (at approximately 100 yards) at full telephoto resulted in not a single usable image. There's also an optional lens adapter available which allows the use of 67mm photo filters.
The SX50 HS's optical image stabilization system reduces involuntary camera shake by quickly and precisely shifting a lens element in the zoom to compensate for movement. Typically, these IS systems allow users to shoot at shutter speeds up to three EV slower than would have been possible without image stabilization. Keeping a lens with a focal length range from ultra-wide to super-telephoto steady poses some daunting challenges. However, Canon has equipped the SX50 HS 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 exposure 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, but is on full time. Shoot Only IS kicks the IS system in just before the shutter fires. Panning IS is designed to factor out involuntary vertical camera movement during lateral panning. IS can also be switched off.
The 4.5-stop optical Image Stabilization system has been enhanced with new Intelligent IS technology that detects the shooting situation and automatically applies the most appropriate image stabilization settings from seven options. For example, Panning IS is automatically enabled when following the action at a racetrack, ensuring the IS system stabilizes in only one direction, while Macro IS with Hybrid IS technology, is perfect for shooting sharply focused 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 on a stable surface or attached to a tripod.
The SX50 HS's 1920x1080p @ 24fps HD movie mode produces properly exposed and color correct videos clips. The SX50 HS also captures video at 1280x720p, 640 x 480 and 320 x 240 also at 24 fps. Video capability is especially impressive since you can use the 50X zoom while recording. However, Canon recommends a class 6 (or higher) memory card for the best quality video capture. Also, the zoom lens utilizes Canon's USM and VCM motors to reduce zooming noise when recording video. Also, as you can see, hand-holding the camera at 50x zoom is a challange.
The SX50 HS'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/yellows are a bit more vibrant than those seen with the human eye. Images generated by the SX50 HS are consistently a bit soft - especially at the long end of that monster zoom 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 SX50 HS will do just fine.
I loved Canon's S-series ultrazoom digital cameras (S1-S5) and I was a bit suspicious of the SX-series that replaced them. But, after using each of the SX models, to date, I've come to regard the SX-series as worthy successors to the benchmark "S" cameras. SX-series cameras are slightly smaller, a bit lighter, and substantially more feature rich than their legendary predecessors, but without giving up any of the S-series famous usability and creative flexibility in the process.
There have obviously been some important technological advances and refinements for ultrazoom cameras. The SX50 was capable of consistently producing usable images at the long end of a very long zoom range, which could not have been said years ago about other ultrazoom cameras. Most of the faults that we expected from utrazooms have been noticeably minimized with this camera. Time after time I was surprised at just how sharp my telephoto images were with the SX50 HS. If you read my review of the Nikon P510, you noticed that I was impressed with its ability to capture the image I visualized with good image quality. I feel the same way about the Canon SX50 HS. And with more than forty years' experience as a photographer I am not easily impressed, especially when it comes to image quality.
With the exception of the 50X zoom and its sharper LCD monitor, the SX50 isn't really much different from its predecessor. I always liked the SX40 HS, but I actually like the SX50 HS more. Canon's PowerShot SX50 HS may be the best overall camera choice for many consumers, since it very nicely meets Goldilocks' famous assessment criteria - it isn't too big, it isn't too small, it isn't too heavy, it isn't too light, and that 50x (24mm-1200mm equivalent) super-stabilized zoom is just right. The SX50 HS can be used by absolute beginners, but this camera was actually designed to be used by more advanced photographers, too. I believe the SX50 HS's target audience will love this camera and I predict the SX50 HS will be the most popular SX-series camera to date.