Canon Powershot SX1 IS Review
By Mike Flacy
Finally, Canon has brought the SX1 IS to US shores. This model was launched overseas back in September of 2008 during the Photokina 2008 Photo Show. We have waited patiently for this new model, and for doing so, Canon has awarded us with the addition of RAW image capture. While the SX1 IS shares many of it's features with the SX10 IS, this powerful model holds the 'top of the line' spot in canon's 'S' series of prosumer/ultra-zoom models.
The SX1 IS was designed for those who want all the power and abilities of a dSLR, without having to deal with an interchangeable lens system. The SX1 IS boasts powerful features such as a 10-megapixel CMOS image sensor, Canon's DIGIC 4 image processor, RAW and JPEG image formats (RAW+JPEG/Fine available), 20x optical zoom lens with wide 28mm field of view, a 2.8-inch Vari-angle LCD screen, Stereo microphones, Full HD (1920x1080) movie mode at 30fps, 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ratios, shutter speed range from 1/3200 - 15 seconds, sensitivity settings from 80 - 1600, manual pop-up flash unit, Hot shoe for external speedlites, USB 2.0 connectivity, wireless remote control (Remote included), AA power source, etc. Overall, this is one kick butt camera that is loaded with appealing features.
What I would consider an enthusiast digicam, the SX1 offers a great deal of exposure control coupled with various high-end features. While this camera has the ability to be used as a photographic tool, the SX1 is still tame enough to allow the least experienced member of your household or office to pick it up and snap some great photos. With full Auto, Program AE, Shutter priority, Aperture priority, Manual, and 16 pre-programmed SCeNe modes, the SX1 is designed to be a great all-around camera that Anyone can use.
Like the SX10 IS, the most obvious feature on this camera is the awesome 28 - 560mm (equivalent) 20x optical zoom lens. This lens offers gobs of versatility for framing your photos, whether you are 10 feet from your subject, or a football field away. Even though it offers a nice wide 28mm field of view, you can still confidently shoot far off subjects with 560mm of in your face magnification. While using the telephoto capabilities, you won't always need to lug around a heavy tripod as the SX1 features Canon's effective Optical Image Stabilization system. This system will help you have a better chance at capturing sharp photos when shooting in lower lighting without the flash or when using the long telephoto reach of this camera. In fact, we were able to capture a relatively nice shot of a squirrel that was off in the distance. While he is not 'tac' sharp, the fact that we captured this image hand-held with a shutter speed of 1/25 of a second at about 414mm is quite impressive. While the zoom is not continuous, I counted about 36 steps between wide angle and full telephoto, which should be sufficient for all of your framing needs. Not only does this lens offer a vast focal range, but it's also pretty fast with a maximum aperture range of f/2.8 at full wide angle. This coupled with the effective IS system will further enhance your ability to capture sharp images in marginal lighting conditions. Overall, I feel this lens is an excellent addition to the CMOS image sensor, and allowed me to capture sharp results throughout the zoom and aperture ranges. There was some moderate barrel distortion at full wide angle, but virtually no pincushioning at the telephoto extremes. Chromatic aberrations (aka purple fringing) were also very well controlled, with very few instances found in our samples images.
You have the choice of using one of two viewfinders on the SX1: an impressive 2.8-inch 'Vari-angle' LCD monitor or a high-resolution electronic viewfinder (EVF) with diopter adjustment. The LCD and EVF are equally-functional, you can browse the menus, change exposure settings as well as compose and review your captured files on either one. Each display provides a wealth of exposure information, including the ability to display a live histogram, grid lines, and a 3:2 aspect guide. I favored the 2.8-inch vari-angle LCD for camera setup, image review and overhead or waist-level shooting, and the EVF for eye-level shooting; switching between the two requires two depressions of the DISP button or opening/closing the LCD. The fact that you can rotate the LCD up to 270� means you'll be able to accurately frame subjects that would normally be impossible with a camera that features a fixed LCD. I also liked the fact that you can flip the LCD around for self-portraits, or to hide the screen and keep it safe. Both displays were a pleasure to use indoors and out. In marginal lighting, they 'gain-up' well, helping you see your subject for framing; this is something that was Very difficult in the 35mm film days. When using the camera outdoors, I found the LCD was usable in bright conditions, thanks mostly in part to the anti-reflective coating. I did still find a few angles in which the LCD would reflect the sun, however it never interrupted my framing. The only annoyances I had with these viewfinders was the LCD is very prone to collecting finger prints, and the EVF's eyecup could be a bit deeper to help block out more ambient light.
Canon did a great job designing this camera. When you first pick it up, you can tell this thing is built like a tank. There are a multitude of button and controls arranged all over the body, and I found that each one was easily accessed by a thumb or fingertip. The large hand grip offers a very secure, yet comfortable hold on the camera. Like the SX10 IS, I especially liked the unique placement of the Play, Exposure value (Rotate), and AF point Selection (Delete) buttons. They are built into the top right corner on the back, in a curve like configuration, right next to where your right thumb rests. Like we have seen with past 'S' series models, Canon has integrated the SX1's still image and video capabilities well. Unlike other digicams, the SX1 has separate shutter buttons for stills and movies; movies can be taken at any time, no matter what exposure mode you are in. Not only that, but stills can be captured during movie recording too, even when the Mode dial is set to the Movie position. The only negative is that the movie will be flawed with a brief black frame and the audio will contain the shutter release sound; which you could edit out without much fuss. Like I stated in our SX10 IS review, I'm puzzled as to why Canon decided to leave the 'Movie' position on the Mode dial. When you rotate the dial to that position, no new features or settings are available, so it's kind of pointless.
During our shooting performance tests, I found the SX1 is quite the performer. From power-on until the first shot was captured measured just 1.6 seconds. Shutter lag, the elapsed time between depressing the shutter and capturing an image, was almost instantaneous when pre-focused, and only 1-3/10 of a second including autofocus depending on the amount of focus change required. In Single shot mode, the shot-to-shot delay averaged 1.3 seconds without flash, and between 3 to 4 seconds with the flash, depending on subject distance and battery life.
There are are also two continuous or burst shooting modes to choose from; Continuous and Continuous Shooting AF. In the standard Continuous mode, I was able to capture 28 images in just 6.7 seconds (approx. 4.2fps), without any buffer slowdown. Either viewfinder briefly displayed the last captured image between shots, making it difficult to follow a moving subject. In Continuous Shooting AF mode, the camera re-acquires focus for each shot, and was a bit slower at about 1.3fps. Our tests were done using an OCZ Class 6 4GB SDHC card, Program exposure mode, full wide angle, large superfine quality, review on, flash off, ISO auto, and all other settings at default (unless otherwise noted). Times may vary depending on camera settings, lighting, media used, etc.
Image quality from the SX1's 10-megapixel CMOS image sensor is outstanding. In fact, it rivals that of many entry-level dSLRs at the lower ISO settings. All of our outdoor sample images show accurate exposure and beautiful colors. Images are sharp from edge-to-edge, and there is a good amount of contrast, which makes the images really stand out. The exposure system did well in almost any lighting condition, whether it was overcast or bright and sunny. Image noise is something that is watched closely on models in this category. That's because many of those who purchase an entry-level dSLR instead of a 'prosumer' do so because of the increased usability of images taken at high ISO settings. The SX1 does very well in my opinion, all the way up to ISO 800. If you examine an image at 100%, you will most certainly see noise; even at ISO 200. However the higher 400 and 800 settings are still 'good' enough to create usable mid to large sized prints. Many times, people get too critical about imager noise, and only look at full-size images under a microscope. For those who are actually printing their images, they will find that when using say ISO 400, there will be no problem printing a nice 4x6 to 8x10-inch print. The maximum ISO 1600 setting is something that I would not recommend using however, as it suffers from both detail loss and decreased color saturation due to the heavy NR (noise reduction). For those who are still concerned with image noise on this model, remember that you have an excellent image stabilization system on this camera, which will allow you to use faster shutter speeds, without having to always bump up the sensitivity of the camera.
Unlike past models, the SX1 features a dedicated Aspect Ratio button on the back of the camera that lets you switch between the standard 4:3 or wide 16:9 aspect ratios. When using the 16:9 mode, you will notice that the LCD on the back is now completely filled. On top of that, you now have access to the full HD (1920x1080) movie mode. Some form of wide format image capture is becoming standard on all types of cameras these days. For those who enjoy using those features, the SX1 is undoubtedly one of the best consumer level cameras on the market right now for capturing HD stills and movies.
The manual pop-up flash unit offers good coverage for a consumer digicam, with a maximum effective range of about 15.7 feet at full wide angle using ISO Auto. When you change the focal position, or set the camera's sensitivity to one of the lower settings, this range will be reduced. I had the ISO locked at 80 for most all of our sample photos, and when shooting indoors I achieved the best results from about 6-7 feet away, using the zoom to tightly frame my subjects. As you can see on our Sample Photos page, our close-up portraits show good flash exposure with sharp facial details and pleasing skin tones. The only image that the flash blew out was a small group portrait that was taken using the 16:9 mode in a large open room that was very dark. While shooting some more people photos, I noticed one issue with the LCD that caused me to believe the flash's output was too strong again. When shooting a couple portrait, I looked at the LCD and it seemed that several of their facial features were blown out. Luckily, the camera features flash output control of �2EV in 1/3 EV steps, so I turned the flash output down 2/3 of a stop, and captured another portrait. When reviewing these images on my desktop, the image I originally thought was overexposed look pretty good, and the one that I had adjusted the flash for was a bit dark. This isn't a huge problem, just something that I noticed while using the camera. Just be sure you pay extra attention to the LCD. If you need more flash power, the SX1 offers a flash hot shoe that allows the use of Canon EX Speedlites, which adds to the overall versatility of this camera.
When shooting in Macro focus mode, I noticed that the flash did a pretty decent job of controling the output, ensuring you don't overexpose the subject. Our candy dish shot shows this, however you can see a few areas were the candies reflected the light. The SX1's Autofocus system performed very well for us, no matter what the lighting conditions were. In dim lighting, the green AF assist lamp fired to help the contrast system obtain proper focus. While the camera only features a single AF point, you have the ability to quickly and easily move that active point just about anywhere inside the frame. You can also change its size from Normal to Small. Overall, I had virtually no problems with the AF system during our testing, and found that it was able to quickly and precisely lock focus on my subject(s). The Face Detect feature was surprisingly fast, finding and locking onto all of the faces within the frame almost instantly. It also did well with children, even when mixed in the frame with adults.
While many cameras are starting to offer 720p (1280x720) HD resolution movie modes, Canon took it one step further with the SX1's full 1080p (1920x1080) HD movie mode. To enter this mode, you have to simply press the Aspect Ratio button and switch to the 16:9 setting. The frame rate is the same as the normal 640x480 and 320x240 modes, locked at 30fps. Past 'S' series models recorded Motion JPEG or .AVI format video, while the SX1 is now shooting QuickTime or .MOV format movies. This allows for smaller file sizes, but no loss in quality. The camera also captures stereo sound with two microphones positioned directly over the lens. Another feature that is not typical on cameras these days, is the fact that you have full control and use of the 20x optical zoom lens during recording. I found that the AF system did a pretty good job when zooming, however if you zoom too fast you will have to wait for the focus to catch up. Luckily the zoom lever has a variable control, so you can zoom very slowly if needed. In-camera editing of movies is also possible in playback mode, allowing you to cut from the beginning and/or the end, and saving the edited clip as a new file or overwriting the original. The maximum length of capture in any quality setting is limited to 4GB. Our movie samples look awesome, both indoors and out. As with any camera, when shooting in lower lighting the live image can get a litlle grainy. Outdoors the camera produced great quality videos, and even on a breezy day the microphones performed very well. In fact, the camera produced high-quality sound in all of our movie examples, even when recording a helicopter that was high up in the sky.
The SX1 continues the tradition of the 'S' series by using four AA type batteries as its main power source. These cells can be purchased just about anywhere, adding to the versatility of this camera. I was impressed by the SX1's battery life, especially when considering that you are always powering either the EVF or LCD. While I did not capture anywhere near the amount of images that Canon claims is possible (420 shots with NiMH cells), I did take over 200 still images and 25+ video clips at various lengths as well as concluded all of our other tests on a single set of high-capacity NiMH rechargeable cells. Even though this camera is very power conscious, I still Highly recommend you always keep an extra set of charged batteries with you at all times. In fact, I suggest you carry an extra memory card as well, especially if you enjoy shooting a lot or HD video.
Bottom line - Canon has produced one awesome digital powerhouse, that can be used by anyone! The SX1 is a perfect 'bridge' camera that fills the gap between consumer point-n-shoots and entry-level dSLR systems. While the price is close to a dSLR kit, there are several features you will not get on most dSLRs at this price point, like the 20x optical zoom, image stabilization, a 2.8-inch articulating LCD, full HD movie mode, etc. This model offers outstanding performance in both single and continuous capture modes as well as awesome image quality. The CMOS image sensor is a welcomed addition compared the the CCDs used in past models, and we Love the new 1080p HD movie mode. The SX1 is sure to be a very popular model in the coming months (or years), and we have no problem giving this camera our highest recommendation to anyone who is torn between a consumer or dSLR unit. With a street price of US$599 or less, we feel the Canon PowerShot SX1 IS offers an outstanding value for the amount of control, quality and features you are receiving. If you love the SX1, but can't make room in the budget to cover the cost, be sure to check out our PowerShot SX10 IS review. It shares many of the same features, but is a bit easier on the wallet at about US$399.
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