The new Canon Powershot SX280 HS is an easily pocketable compact P&S digicam with a long 20x zoom lens. The SX280 HS won't turn any heads or launch any trends. In fact, the polycarbonate bodied SX280 HS is a rather plain looking point and shoot (especially the black version - the camera is also available in red) that differs only marginally from its predecessor.
The SX280 HS (which replaces the SX260 HS in Canon's upscale point and shoot digital camera catalog) features a 12-megapixel (BSI) CMOS sensor, Canon's proprietary HS (high sensitivity) technology, and the SX280 HS is the first of Canon's digicams to feature the new DIGIC VI processor. When combined, these components give the SX280 HS unique low light capabilities.
Canon claims the SX280 HS produces about the same amount of noise in an ISO1600 image as its predecessor (the SX260 HS) produced in an ISO 400 image -- substantially expanding low light photography options. Another new feature is the built-in Wi-Fi technology which allows users to easily share photos on social networking sites. The SX280 HS also features a built-in GPS receiver that allows users to geo-tag their images, making the SX280 HS (with its compact profile and 20X zoom) an almost perfect travel camera.
Build and Design
Design-wise, the SX280 HS looks and handles like a point-and-shoot digital camera, but it doesn't feel cheap or plastic-like -- in fact, though quite compact, this camera feels very stable in your hands. The SX280 HS is a precision built and robustly constructed imaging tool that was obviously designed for serious shooters. The SX280 HS, unlike the auto-everything point-and-shoot digital cameras swamping the high tech marketplace these days, permits lots of individual input into the image making process via an enhanced feature set, plenty of creative flexibility, and manual control of exposure. The SX280 HS (when off) is about the same size and shape as a standard Altoids tin - it measures 2.5 by 4.2 by 1.3 inches and weighs about 8.2 ounces (with battery and SD card). The easily stripped plastic tripod socket of earlier SX models has been replaced by a metal insert. The finger-rail grip is also a nice touch, since few cameras this size include any sort of grip -- even though compact cameras lack the stability of larger cameras.
Ergonomics and Controls
The SX280 HS's user interface is logical and uncomplicated - all buttons and controls are clearly marked, sensibly placed and easily accessed, for right-handed shooters. The mode dial makes it a bit awkward to access the one touch video stop/start button, but otherwise the rear deck control layout is excellent --containing all dedicated controls except for the on/off button, the large silver shutter button, and the zoom toggle. The compass switch (4-way controller) provides direct access to the exposure compensation function, flash settings, macro mode, self-timer, and (in review mode) the delete function. Canon's "func" button offers direct access to WB, ISO, image size, etc. The compass switch is surrounded by a rotary jog dial, press the review button and you can use your right thumb on the rotary jog dial to quickly and easily scroll back and forth through your saved images or push the menu button and use the rotary jog dial to rapidly scroll through menu options.
Menus and Modes
The Canon PowerShot SX210 IS features a two-tab version of Canon's classic digicam menu system. The menu system, accessed via a dedicated button, is logical and easy to navigate. The SX280 HS provides a comprehensive selection of shooting modes including:
Auto: Point-and-shoot mode with automatic scene selection.
Program: Auto exposure with limited user input (sensitivity, white balance, exposure compensation, etc.).
Live View Mode: Easy picture adjustment to create effects.
Movie Digest (Hybrid Auto) Mode: Create a movie from still images.
Sports: Mode Dial Scene Mode for action shots.
Scene Mode: Portrait, Smart Shutter (Smile, Wink Self-Timer, FaceSelf-Timer), High-speed Burst HQ, Handheld Night Scene, Underwater, Snow, Fireworks, etc.
Fisheye effect: Mimics a fish-eye lens.
Discreet: Turns off all sounds and deactivates the flash.
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 SX280 HS records HD video at a maximum resolution of 1920x1080 (1080p) @ 30 fps.
Like most of today's Point and Shoot digital cameras, the SX80 HS doesn't provide an optical viewfinder, so shooters must use the 3.0 inch LCD (with 461K resolution) for all framing/composition, captured image review and menu navigation chores. Most casual shooters don't use optical viewfinders anyway and in many shooting scenarios (macro and portraits, for example), it is often quicker and easier to watch the decisive moment come together on the LCD screen than it is through an optical viewfinder.
The SX280 HS's LCD screen is relatively bright, hue accurate (what you see color-wise is what you get), and fluid. However, even though the SX280 HS features Wi-Fi and GPS--it does not feature a touch screen. I had a couple of folks I showed the camera to express mild amazement that Canon had left out one of the big three ubiquitous (but mostly useless) new "hot ticket" features. The SX280 HS's LCD screen displays a standard 4:3 aspect ratio when shooting still images, but users get the full 16:9 widescreen display on the LCD when shooting/reviewing in movie mode. The SX280 HS's LCD, like all LCD monitors, is subject to fading and glare/reflections in bright outdoor lighting, sometimes making outdoor composition difficult--LCD brightness and contrast ratios are both noticeably lower than one would expect from a $300.00 premium Point and Shoot digital camera.
Camera users must have realistic expectations, but the SX280 HS is competitive speed-wise with any camera in its class. When camera R&D folks design a camera with a long zoom some operational speed must be sacrificed (particularly at telephoto settings) because a longer lens will obviously move and focus more slowly than a shorter lens. I've reviewed "travel super-zooms" from Nikon, Panasonic, and Canon and all of them share 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 and Pincushion distortion (straight lines bow in from the edges) at the telephoto end of the zoom range. The SX280 HS is guilty on all counts, too.
While its competitors continue to increase resolutions (some newer P&S digicams feature resolutions in the 20 megapixel range) on their new travel super-zooms, Canon has opted to go with a relatively modest 12 Megapixel maximum resolution for the DIGIC 6 driven SX280 HS in an effort to better control noise.
The SX280 HS features the same TTL Contrast Detection AF system that graced its predecessor. In all Auto 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. Face detection is linked to the camera's exposure and WB systems allowing the SX280 HS to automatically find, lock focus, and then optimize exposure for images with up to 12 faces. Switch to one of the manual modes and you'll find that users only have the center focus option and there is no way to move the AFP (auto focus point) around in the frame--so if your subject is off center you'll be obliged to lock focus in the center of the frame and then recompose your shot.
The SX280 HS's multi-mode pop-up flash provides an acceptable selection of artificial lighting options, including auto, flash on (fill flash), flash off, Red-Eye, and Slow Sync. According to Canon, the maximum flash range is just over 10 feet.
The Canon PowerShot SX280 HS supports SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory media, but there is no RAW format option available--only JPEG format images can be recorded.
The SX280 HS draws its juice from an NB-6L rechargeable Canon lithium-ion battery. Canon claims a fully charged NB-6L is good for 210 exposures and based on my experiences with the camera--that number seems fairly accurate.
When the SX280 HS is powered up, the zoom telescopes 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, fairly quick, and relatively quiet - especially for such a long lens. The SX280 HS's long focal length range makes Canon's newest Powershot an almost ideal choice for an incredibly broad variety of photographic applications, but its strongest appeal may be to weight and space conscious travelers.
Images show visible corner softness and barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from 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 also above average at the telephoto end of the zoom. Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is above average, but well managed. Images shot at longer telephoto settings grow consistently softer as the lens is zoomed further out. Images shot at full telephoto will usually be acceptable for 4x6 prints or for posting on-line, but I'm guessing that it is going to be difficult to capture an image at the telephoto end of this zoom that would make a good 9x13 enlargement.
The SX280 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, 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 angle to super-telephoto steady (without a tripod) poses some daunting challenges. Canon has equipped the SX280 HS 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 exposure compensation. Canon's proprietary intelligent IS technology assesses the scene in front of the camera and automatically selects the most appropriate image stabilization setting from among seven IS options.
The SX280 HS's 1920x1080p @ 30fps HD movie mode produces properly exposed and fluid videos clips with accurate (although slightly over saturated) colors. The SX280 HS also captures video at 1280x720p, 640 x 480 and 320 x 240 at 30 fps. Video capability is especially impressive since you can use the 20X zoom while recording. I recorded several video clips at our local extreme park and didn't notice any motor noise while zooming. However, the extreme park is a noisy place so your experience may vary. Canon recommends a class 6 (or higher) memory card for the best quality video capture. The video clip, which accompanies this review, was shot in the early afternoon on a very bright day.
After shooting with two Canon point and shoot digital cameras (SX280 HS and the S110), I realized that Canon seems to have made some subtle changes on the color interpolation front. Canon's default color interpolation has created the signature look that Canon P&S cameras are famous for--reds were always a bit bolder than those seen with the naked eye, blues were a bit brighter than they are in real life, and greens/yellows were a bit more vibrant than they are in reality. After using the SX280 HS and S110 for a few days I noticed the colors seemed slightly less saturated (intense) and contrast was a bit harder than before. After some critical viewing of images shot with the SX280 HS and the S110 (and comparing similar images shot with earlier Canon P&S digicams) I realized that the new default color was strongly reminiscent of classic 35mm Kodachrome slides from the fifties and sixties, although with noticeably less contrast. Maybe not a major refinement, but a welcome one. Over the past decade, only Sony's point and shoot digital cameras have boosted more color saturation than Canon's models. Images generated by the SX280 HS are consistently a bit soft (like most other Canon models)--especially at the long end of the zoom. Overall, image quality is a tiny bit below average, but for 3x5 or 4x6 prints and (most) enlargements up to 8x10 the SX280 HS will do just fine.
The SX280 HS is a compact, well designed, sturdy, and easy to use point and shoot digital camera with a 20x zoom. Compared to its competition, the biggest difference would seem to be in the resolution arena with Canon sticking with a reasonable 12-megapixels, while Panasonic, Sony, and other OEMs seem determined to push the 20 megapixel envelope. Constantly crowding more pixels onto tiny point and shoot sensors results in noticeably higher noise levels. The SX280 HS's lower resolution sensor should record noticeably lower noise levels than its rivals and my subjective tests (comparing SX280 Images to higher resolution images from other cameras I've tested recently) prove that assumption to my satisfaction. The differences are subtle, but they are there. The SX280 HS's strongest appeal may be to travel shooters--it's small, relatively fast, inconspicuous, and capable of reliably capturing the decisive moment.