The SX20, like past 'S'
models, is what I consider an enthusiast or "Prosumer" digital camera that provides a wealth of exposure options for a wide range of users. With SmartAuto,
Program, Shutter/Aperture priority, Manual, and 16
pre-programmed SCeNe modes, the SX20 is designed to be great all-around
camera. This means one could use this camera as a photographic tool, while at the same time a newbie can pick it up and start snapping some great photos.
The SX20 continues the use of the same powerful 28 - 560mm (equivalent) 20x optical zoom
lens we feel in love with on the SX10. With a nice wide field of view, you can shoot confidently indoors
as well as capture nice vast landscapes with the 28mm wide angle extreme. The 560mm telephoto end still
offers in your face magnification, and thankfully the SX20 does use Canon's effective lens-shift OIS (Optical Image Stabilization) system. While the
zoom is not continuous, I counted about 34 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.
The SX20 offers the same control layout we found on the SX10, with buttons well placed all over the body of the camera. Each button is positioned so it's just within reach of your finger tips of thumbs. I found operating the camera with these controls was quite comfortable, however the control wheel that's mounted around the 4-way was awkward at times. While I would not label this a 'compact' camera by any means, it's still smaller than your typical consumer dSLR, while at the same times offers almost as much functionality. I found the large hand grip fits well in my large hands, ensuring I had a good firm grip on the camera.
For framing, menu navigation, and playback, you can choose from two viewfinders: a 2.5-inch Vari-angle LCD monitor or a high-resolution EVF (electronic viewfinder). The LCD and EVF are equally-functional, meaning you can browse the menus, change exposure settings, compose and review your captured files on either one. These viewfinders provide a wealth of exposure information, including the ability to display a live histogram, grid lines, and a 3:2 aspect guide. Like past models, I favored using 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 degrees 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 show your subject the image you just captured. You can also flip the LCD around to keep it safe. Both displays worked well both 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 to an effective anti-glare coating.
The SX20's shooting performance was good for a camera in this price range. The camera is ready to snap its first shot in under 2 seconds from pressing the power button. Shutter lag, the elapsed time between depressing the shutter and capturing an image, was almost instantaneous when pre-focused, and only 1/10 of a second including autofocus. In Single shot mode, I was able to images at the rate of one shot every 2.1 seconds without flash, and between 3 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 8.3 seconds (approx. 1.2fps). While this surpassed Canon's claim of 1fps, it's a bit slower than the SX10 (we saw approx. 1.6fps). The viewfinders briefly display the last captured image between shots, which will make it difficult to follow a fast moving subject. In Continuous Shooting AF mode, the camera re-acquires focus for each shot, and was a bit slower at about 0.9fps. Our tests were done using an Eye-Fi Pro 4GB SDHC card, Program exposure mode, large fine 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.
Like on many of their consumer point-n-shoots, Canon has decided to take away the SuperFine image quality choice on the SX20, now you simply have Fine or Normal compressions to choose from. While I don't see this as being a problem, it does leave one to wonder if the new Fine setting is the same as the old one, or if it uses the same algorithms as the old SuperFine option. Never the less, the SX20 captures beautiful photos when using the 12M Fine setting. Outdoors we captured photos that show accurate colors, good exposure, and pleasing sharpness and contrast. I found the 20x lens complements the SX20's 12-megapixel image sensor, capturing sharp photos throughout the zoom and aperture ranges. We did notice moderate barrel distortion at full wide angle, but relatively no pincushioning at the telephoto extremes. Chromatic aberrations (aka purple fringing on highlights) were a bit stronger than I would have liked to see, which surprised me since this was not much of a problem with the SX10.
Image noise is a very important aspect to consider when looking at a high-end model like the SX20, because it is more likely that you will use the higher ISO capabilities of the camera. The SX20 handles noise Ok, but I still would have liked to see better quality photos from this camera at the ISO 400 and higher settings. However, the noise that can be seeing, starting at ISO 400, can only be detected then critically viewing an image at 100% on your computer screen. While at ISO 800 you start to see some fine detail loss, and 1600 has strong speckling with even more detail dissapearing, I still feel that you can create usable 4x6-inch photos from these images. Now, if you are one who likes to make large 8x10, 13x19 or larger prints, I highly recommend you keep the ISO set to a maximum of 400. It's possible you could make a nice large print from an ISO 800 photo, as long as there is a good amount of light. To see how the camera performed, be sure to take a look at out M&M man ISO series on the samples page.
The manual pop-up flash unit did well during our tests. Canon claims the maximum range of this flash at wide angle is about 22, or 12 feet at full telephoto. This is an impressive range for such a small speedlite. I found this flash worked well for most snap shots, whether shooting individuals or small groups indoors, or as a fill in outside. I achieved great results when shooting from 10 or less feet away, using the mid telephoto end for tighter framing. If you need even more power, the SX20
does offer a flash hot shoe for using optional Canon EX Speedlites.
Using one of these units will greatly extend the range is which you can effectively illuminate, which adds to the versatility of this camera.
The SX20'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 AF 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).
We are so glad to see that Canon added a 720p HD video option to the SX20. I found the camera captures high-quality video, and you have access to the 20x optical zoom at all times. The AF system did a great when using the zoom, keeping your subject in focus without having to wait for it to catch up. This allowed me to capture some great video at a local soccer game, where you are constantly zooming in and out to follow whoever has the ball. Overall, the SX20 can capture some great HD video clips with high-quality sound thanks to stereo microphones. Another new feature on the SX20 is the Movie Audio menu. This small menu allows you to enable/disable a Wind noise filter, as well as set the Mic level (Auto or Manual). This is a cool feature that I have not seen on any other digicam in the past. Canon has also
integrated the SX20's still image and video capabilities well. Unlike
other digicams, the SX20 has separate shutter buttons for stills and
movies. Movies can be taken at any time, no matter what exposure mode
you are in, and you can also stills capture still images 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. One thing I'm still confused about is the 'Movie' position on the Mode dial. Because the SX20 can capture video in any mode, it's kind of pointless to have the position on the mode dial.
The SX20's battery life was quite good when you consider it uses just 4 AA type batteries. The advantage of using these cells is the fact that they can be purchased just about anywhere. I was able to capture over 215 still photos as well as 30 or more long video clips as well as conclude our other tests with power to spare. Even though the camera does a great job at conserving power, I still recommend you have at least two sets of high-capacity NiMH rechargeable batteries with you at all times. Nothing is more aggravating than missing a unique photo opt due to dead batteries.
Bottom line - the PowerShot SX20 IS is a welcomed addition to Canon's popular "S" series of prosumer models. We were glad to see some of the improvements that have been made over the SX10, however I was a bit upset that the camera has slower burst speeds. The SX20 is a worthy competitor in the ultra-zoom/prosumer/enthusiast category, and is sure to be a very popular model in the years to come. If you are one who is not quite sure if you want to make the jump into the dSLR world, take a close look at this camera. The SX20 offers almost as much functionality as a consumer-level dSLR, great image quality, good performance, and loads of high-end features, all for about half the price. That said, with a street price of US$399 or less, we feel the SX20 IS offers an outstanding value.
Visitors of Steves can visit the stores below for real-time pricing and availability. You can also find hot, soon to expire online offers on a variety of cameras and accessories at our very own Camera Deals page.