Like a dSLR, this PowerShot has a mode dial with full Auto and full Manual positions, as well as aperture and shutter priority modes. The body is a bit bulky - not aimed at point-and-click types who want an unobtrusively thin camera to slip in a shirt pocket. It also skimps on scene modes.
At press time, the best widely advertised street price on this camera was $179. Whether that's a good bargain may depend on your needs, but I'd vote no. If you're a demanding photographer, you'll most likely be disappointed by the few most frustrating performance problems I encountered. The first was the autofocus. Canon has touted this camera as having a dramatically increased focus speed, but I did not experience it. I found the focus system to often have trouble locking on to my subjects. And I didn't just experience this in low light. Even in bright afternoon sunlight the camera had persistent problems with moving subjects when I had the zoom cranked all the way up to 16x. Secondly, the camera had a tendency when shooting in Auto mode in low light to not bump up the ISO nor use a fast enough shutter speed to capture a sharp image (more details below).
This camera offers manual focus as well, but it is an imperfect attempt to leverage human intelligence where machinery fails. To attempt to focus the camera yourself, you will rely on a magnified detail in the center of the LCD. But the LCD is a low 230,000-dot resolution screen. The camera lacks an optical viewfinder, so you must rely on the LCD. And you will be using the rear thumb dial to adjust the focus, which will not provide the kind of tactile feedback you get from the focal ring on an SLR lens. In addition, the LCD can be a problem even when not having to rely on it for focusing but simply for framing your shot. That's because it is set back behind a protective window that is highly reflective, which can be problematic in very bright sunlight. In addition the screen exhibits a very strange angle-of-view problem when pointing downward (arguably the most common tilt a photographer would use, while holding the camera overhead). I found that regardless of ambient lighting, I lost the ability to see my subject well starting at a 45-degree downward tilt. At that modest angle, the image started to take on the appearance of a film negative.
This poor performance in Auto mode can, of course, be outwitted in manual mode or a semi-manual setting with a manually selected ISO. But sometimes you just need to capture the moment - without making such adjustments. What you can't outwit here is the slow-charging flash. This is the slowest-charging flash in my recent memory. Trying to take flash shots in burst mode didn't really work and the best I could muster is 7.2 seconds in between shots. That's an eon in today's fast-paced, media-capture-crazy world. Canon's specification says the camera can take up to 15 seconds to charge the flash. I was relieved to never have to wait that long, but the persistent need to wait at least a few seconds in between flash shots was grueling. And not even just after a flash shot. Even when taking my first flash shot, the camera would often say it was charging the flash, causing a delay. Our conclusion as to why the flash recharged so slowly was the batteries that power the SX160 - two AAs. They simply lack the voltage output when compared to the Li-ion packs used by most digicams nowadays.
Another performance drawback that you can't outwit is burst shooting. If you pick up this camera for the sophistication it offers, you'll likely feel dumb when you clock a glacial 0.7 frames per second when trying to capture some fast action. That translates to 1.3 seconds in between shots. A lot can happen in 1.3 seconds.
This camera runs on AA batteries, which is a convenience in itself. But battery life on this camera was an annoying and confusing trait. For starters, I was completely unable to use my rechargeable 2450mAh NiMH batteries. The company rates NiMH batteries to last approximately 380 shots - but my batteries (which are roughly 6 years old) were completely unable to power the camera beyond roughly 20 shots, and sometimes not at all. This is well beyond any problem I've had with these batteries on a test camera. On one occasion, the completely charged batteries could not power a single shot. But when I returned them to the charger, it showed that they still held three or four out of four bars worth of power. You may well have better luck with the newer NiZn rechargeable batteries. The camera is rated to only capture a modest 140 shots with AA alkaline batteries, which is disappointing for serious shooters; even if packing an extra pair or two of AA batteries is easy enough to do. Oddly enough, given my experience with my rechargeables, I was able to go well beyond the specified range on one pair of new alkaline batteries. This was likely due to my continual use of burst mode and almost no flash, but still, I was surprised that the pair of Duracell batteries lasted over 800 shots.
Slow charging doesn't seem to be the only problem with the built-in flash. Its range is an unimpressive 9.8 feet with the lens at wide angle. That's adequate enough usually, and I found indoor flash shots of people beyond that reach to still turn out acceptable, and without too glaring a drop-off in illumination. But see IMG_0017 on the Samples page. That test shot was taken at ISO 100 with a shutter speed of 1/60 and aperture odf f/8 (purposely stopped down), yet it turned out underexposed; and these M&M man shots are taken from roughly 5 feet away. Also, the flash sometimes fired in auto mode when it could do no good - like when I shot at full zoom (16X) at a distant scoreboard (see IMG_0121 on the Samples Page), when the flash didn't have a chance in hell of ever bouncing back to the camera in time.
Image quality is not the best, nor the worst for a camera in this class and price range. I wouldn't say it lives up to the sophisticated premise of the manual controls it offers serious shooters. Daytime outdoor shots were well exposed. And even when cranking the zoom all the way up to 16x, I was able to get closely cropped shots of my son from perhaps 30 or 40 feet away that looked at first glance as sharp as my wide-angle landscapes. They didn't suffer from unattractive image stabilization artifacts. In general, however, for a 16MP camera you could hope to see fewer digital artifacts and sharper edges. When viewing images on-screen at 100%, even daytime shots in bright sunlight suffered from some lack of edge detail and splotchy textures. Granted, this is a close-up of the image and these artifacts are unlikely to play a factor when making typical prints of modest size.
What was least impressive was this camera's performance in low light. On the Samples Page, you'll see how grainy an indoor shot without flash looks, with Auto mode choosing ISO 500. And that's the shot that turned out best when not using the flash. Others came out completely blurry, with the camera choosing shutter speeds varying from 1/5 second to 1 second and too low of a light sensitivity (ISO 200). This is frustrating when the camera is capable of shutter speeds up to 1/3200 second, and up to ISO 1600. Pictures of skaters on an indoor ice rink, taken in Auto mode, all came out blurry, and cast in an unnatural pink hue. The obvious advantage of this camera is the wealth of manual settings that allow you to make the proper selections yourself. But, still, I expected better results using Auto and Program modes.
Video quality looks on par with comparable point-and-shoots capturing in HD. That's to say it looks sharp at roughly 13 inches diagonally on-screen, but at full-screen on a 26-inch monitor, the lack of fine detail and dancing pixels (particularly in shadow areas) is obvious. Adequate for home video, but not likely to make its way to Sundance. There is a dedicated movie button at the top right of the back panel, in addition to a movie mode on the mode dial. At first, this can be confusing that even in movie mode you can't use the shutter button to start video recording - you have to use the movie button. That's because the camera offers the flexibility of being able to take a still image while in movie mode.
In addition to the advantage of manual controls, the camera has a number of attractive features. For example, you can set up a custom self-timer to take up to 10 shots at an interval from one to 30 seconds. And if you're looking for quick access to just a few exposure parameters, you can select Live mode on the mode dial. Pressing the func./set button in this mode brings up three slide bars that you adjust using the four-way control and rear dial: dark to light, neutral to vivid, and cool to warm. The most extensive photo effects are found in the My Colors menu. My Colors lets you bump up color saturation to vivid, make only green vivid, and imitate positive film. There are 10 presets, plus a custom position you adjust to your liking using contrast, saturation, sharpness, and levels for red, green, blue and skin tone. Perhaps the most useful edit is the i-Contrast feature, which helps bring out details in shadow areas. It has three levels of intensity to choose from. This is the flexibility you get in exchange for copious scene modes (there are just five - Portrait, Face Self-Timer, Low Light, Snow and Fireworks).
Thankfully, the full My Colors menu and i-Contrast are available in playback mode as edits to still images. This way you can save your original image and apply different effects to new images, which offers a lot more flexibility than having to commit to one look at the time of shooting. Speaking of playback, this function works elegantly on this camera. Outfitted with the thumb dial and the ability to index your shots with as many as 100 thumbnails on the screen (admittedly too small to discern much of the time), whizzing through your shots is easy. When viewing one image at a time on the LCD, if you pick up the pace while scrolling with the thumb dial, the view changes to include three or five images, with the middle one larger to see more easily. You can trim movies in the camera as well by selecting new beginning and end times. But you can't apply My Color effects or use i-Contrast with videos, either during shooting or after the fact. Not that they don't show up in the Playback menu - they do. When you try to use them the camera tells you that you can't modify the image.
The camera comes with two applications on its CD-ROM: CameraWindow and ImageBrowser EX. These are usable applications, but in my experience most people already have their preferences and have existing photos organized in another software program, and so have no interest in making a switch. This was not a problem on my Windows Vista machine. Plugging in the camera launched a driver download and opened AutoLaunch, which allowed me to import the photos using Windows Explorer. But on my Mac running OS 10.6.8, the camera was not recognized and I was forced to install the included applications (CameraWindow does the importing and ImageBrowser organizes photos), which promptly took over the importing and organizing default operations from iPhoto. I was able to reverse the defaults easily, but even with the included software installed the computer was unable to see the camera in Finder. This meant that I could not simply drag and drop the files - I had to use the Canon software just to upload the files to my computer.
Bottom line - The sophisticated features of the PowerShot SX160 IS along with its bricklike form make a big statement about photographic prowess. But its extensive manual controls can't make up for its sluggish burst shooting, slow-charging flash and middling performance in low light. The features are fit for a serious shooter, but the performance is more on a par with casual snapshot-takers. However, with a street price of $179 or less, the SX160 offers great bang for your buck.
You can check out the price of this camera on Adorama by clicking here.
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