Canon Powershot SX10 IS Review
By Mike Flacy
The latest addition to the 'S' series line of ultra-zoom models from Canon, the SX10 IS is an extremely versatile 10-megapixel camera. This model is referred to by many as the 'S6 IS', as it is the successor to the very popular S5 IS from 2007. Many of the powerful features found on the S5 IS have been carried over to this new camera, including the 2.5-inch Vari-angle LCD, Stereo microphones, VGA sized movie mode at 30fps, 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, AA power source, etc. The SX10 is improved with a new wide view 20x optical zoom lens and Canon's DIGIC 4 image processing system as well as an updated control layout.
Like past 'S' models, the SX10 is what I would consider an enthusiast digicam, which offers a great deal of exposure control and loads of high-end features. While this camera has the ability to be used as a photographic tool, the SX10 is still tame enough to allow the least experienced user in your household or office to capture great photos. With full Auto, Program AE, Shutter priority, Aperture priority, Manual, and 16 pre-programmed SCeNe modes, the SX10 is designed to be great all-around camera that anyone can use.
By far the most prevalent feature on this camera is the awesome 28 - 560mm (equivalent) 20x optical zoom lens. With a nice wide field of view, you can shoot confidently indoors as well as capture nice vast landscapes. The 560mm telephoto end still offers in your face magnification, and thankfully the SX10 offers Canon's effective OIS (Optical Image Stabilization) system. While the zoom is not continuous, I counted about 33 steps between wide angle and full telephoto, which should be sufficient for all of your framing needs. Not only does this lens offer a great deal of versatility when composing your shots, but it's also fast with a maximum aperture range of 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 without using the flash. I found this lens complements the SX10's 10-megapixel image sensor, capturing sharp photos throughout the zoom and aperture ranges. I did notice moderate barrel distortion at full wide angle, but relatively no pincushioning at the telephoto extremes. Small traces of chromatic aberrations (aka purple fringing on highlights) were present in the majority of our outdoor photos in high-contrast areas. However, it is very unlikely you will see these instances in your prints.
The SX10 employs two viewfinders for you to choose from for composing and reviewing your stored images: a 2.5-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, compose and review your captured files on either one. The viewfinders provide a wealth of exposure information, including the ability to display a live histogram, grid lines, and a 3:2 aspect guide. I favored the 2.5-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.
The ergonomics of this model are quite good. While I would not label this a 'compact' camera, it is a bit smaller than an entry-level dSLR, with almost as much functionality. I found the large hand grip offers a nice secure feel in your hand, and all of the various controls are laid out in a comfortable manner. I especially like the unique placement of the Play, Exposure value, and AF point Selection 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 SX10's still image and video capabilities well. Unlike other digicams, the SX10 has separate shutter buttons for stills and movies; movies can be taken at anytime, no matter what exposure mode you are in. Not only that, but stills can be captured during movie recording, even when the Mode dial is set to the Movie position. The movie will be flawed with a brief black frame and the audio will contain the shutter release sound. I don't quite understand why Canon even left the 'Movie' position on the Mode dial. Because the SX10 does not offer any other video option when you put the camera in this position, it's kind of pointless.
The SX10 is robust for a camera in this category. 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 1-2/10 of a second including autofocus. In Single shot mode, I was able to capture 10-megapixel Superfine images at the rate of one every 1.8 seconds without flash, and between 2.6 to 3.5 seconds with the flash, depending on subject distance and battery life.
If single shot mode isn't fast enough for you, there 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 10 images in just 6.2 seconds (approx. 1.6fps), surpassing Canon's claims of 1.4fps. The viewfinders 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 1fps. Our tests were done using a SanDisk Extreme III 1GB SD card, Program exposure mode, 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.
When it comes to image quality, the SX10 IS delivers. Our outdoor test images show that this camera can capture sharp images that show very little edge softness, thanks in part to the accurate AF system and high-quality Canon zoom lens. The auto white balance setting is very accurate, even when shooting in mixed lighting conditions. Auto exposure is also handled very well, producing pleasing exposures in various lighting conditions. I found that color saturation was very pleasing. The My Colors function allows you to be very creative with your photos, whether adding a Sepia or B&W effect, or custom building your own with adjustments for sharpness, contrast, saturation, skin tone and color (RGB).
Image noise is a very important aspect when considering a high-end digicam like this, especially since it is more likely that you will use the higher ISO capabilities. I was a bit disappointed with the amount of noise the SX10's imager created when raising the sensitivity. Even the lower settings from 80 - 200 show some traces in the darker shadow areas of the image. However, one thing I want to stress here is that in order to see these instances, you have to be viewing an image at 100%. In your typical 4x6 - 8.5x11-inch prints, it is very unlikely that you will see any traces of noise. ISO 400 looks relatively good, and still has the quality to produce larger prints. However, ISO 800 and 1600 look pretty bad. While the ISO 800 setting will still allow for usable 4x6-inch prints, ISO 1600 is pretty much useless in my opinion. There's also an ISO 3200 'Scene' mode you can choose, which lowers the image size to 2-megapixels. When using it, the camera produces images that show plenty of noise, but also a large amount of softness due to heavy noise reduction. I personally feel you will capture the best images when using ISO 400 and below, and only recommend using the higher capabilities if you absolutely have to. Thankfully, the SX10's IS system will allow you to use lower ISO settings and still capture blur free images at slower shutter speeds, where you would normally increase the sensitivity to achieve the same results.
The pop-up flash unit offers typical coverage for a consumer digicam, with a maximum effective range of about 15 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 is greatly effected. I had the ISO locked at 80 for most all of our sample photos, and when shooting indoors I achieved the best results shooting from about 5 feet away, using the mid telephoto end of the zoom. 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. If you need more flash power, the SX10 offers a flash hot shoe that allows the use of Canon EX Speedlites. This greatly adds to the versatility of this model. Like the S5, the flash does not automatically pop-up when needed; it must be manually raised to fire - which is a slight inconvenience.
The SX10's Autofocus system seemed to perform well in just about any lighting environment. In marginal conditions, 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).
While the video resolution settings have not changed since we reviewed the S5 in 2007, Canon did update the format. Past 'S' series models recorded Motion JPEG or .AVI format video, while the SX10 is now shooting QuickTime or .MOV format movies. You can capture video with stereo sound, at 640x480 or 320x240 with a fixed frame rate of 30fps for both settings. While many digicams prevent zooming during movie recording, the SX10 allows you so zoom in and out while shooting. In-camera editing of movies is provided 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 or 1 hour, whichever comes first. Our indoor movie sample looks great, showing minimal compression noise for an indoor sample, and the AF system did well when zooming in on my subject. The IS system also helped reduce the amount of camera shake when using the camera's telephoto capabilities. Since the 640x480 mode consumes about 1.5MB per second, we consider you purchase a high-capacity (1GB or larger) memory card, especially if you plan or capturing a lot of video.
Canon has continued the use of AA type batteries to power their 'S' series. These cells can be purchased just about anywhere, adding to the overall versatility of this camera. I was impressed by the SX10'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, I did take over 105 still images and several short video clips as well as concluded all of our other tests with power to spare. As usual, we recommend that you acquire at least two sets of high-capacity NiMH rechargeable batteries, this way you can be charged and ready at all times.
Bottom line - we have continually been impressed by Canon with their popular 'S' series line of super-zoom models, and the SX10 is no exception. This versatile digicam offers excellent image quality capabilities and speedy performance, along with a vast array of features that will help you capture better photos. With very few annoyances, I feel the Canon PowerShot SX10 IS is a worthy competitor in the super-zoom/prosumer category, and is sure to please those who are in the market for an affordable alternative to a dSLR system. At the time of this review, the SX10 offered an exceptional value, with a street price ranging from US $319.99 - $379.99.
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