Canon PowerShot SX500 IS review

Pros

  • Size
  • Zoom range
  • Low-light AF performance
  • Manual exposure

Cons

  • Lens quality
  • Video mode

Super-zoom cameras have traditionally occupied a position in the market in between compact cameras and more advanced cameras such as DSLRs and CSCs, but with advances in lens technology over the past few years, compact cameras have been getting ever more powerful zoom lenses, while CSCs and their zoom lenses have become smaller. This has left traditional super-zoom cameras such as the Nikon P510, Panasonic FZ48 or Canon PowerShot SX50 HS looking a bit bloated.

There’s clearly a gap in the market just big enough for a smaller super-zoom camera, a gap which Fujifilm has been filling for a number of years with its popular S1000-series cameras, such as the FinePix S4500, a 14-megapixel, 30x zoom model currently selling for around £130. Canon has now also launched a small-format super-zoom, the PowerShot SX500 IS, which is currently available for around £225.

Design and features

The SX500 IS has a mid-range specification compared to its larger brethren, but it’s an interesting little camera nonetheless. It features a 16-megapixel CCD sensor, a 30x zoom f/3.4 – f/5.8 lens equivalent to 24-720mm, a 7.6cm (3in) 461k dot monitor, 720p video recording with stereo sound and a full range of manual exposure options.

It is physically small compared to most other super-zoom cameras, smaller in fact than the Fuji S4500, measuring 104.0 x 69.5 x 80.2mm and weighing 337g. However, it’s worth noting that it’s still pretty big compared to many compacts, and has a small but comfortably shaped handgrip, so it still benefits from that 'SLR-like' handling common to super-zooms.

In terms of features, it’s relatively simple, but still has a lot to offer anyone who wants to get creative with their photography. It has a large exposure mode dial on the top with a full range of manual exposure options offering shutter speeds from 15 seconds to 1/1600th, and a minimum aperture of f/8, with adjustments in 1/3-stop increments. It’s not as versatile as Canon’s more advanced compacts such as the S110 or G15, but it is quite a bit cheaper than either of those models.

The external controls are well spaced out and clearly labelled, and even the dreaded rotary bezel on the D-pad turns with a nice positive action. Nearly all the controls can be operated with just the right hand, and the buttons are large and chunky, making the SX500 a possible choice for anyone with limited manual dexterity. You can also operate it while wearing gloves, although the recessed instant-start video recording button is a little fiddly. The only control that sits on its own, on the left of the lens barrel, is a unique one called the Zoom Framing Assist, which offers a framing preview of the zoom setting, and then instantly zooms to the desired setting when released.

Apart from manual exposure, the SX500 offers a few other creative options, including a handful of scene modes, Canon’s versatile My Colours option for customising the colour and saturation levels, and a new mode setting called Live, which allows quick real-time adjustment of brightness, tone and saturation. There is also an adjustable digitally processed fish-eye effect.

The overall build quality is good, as one would expect from Canon, although the plastic body does creak a little when squeezed. The hatch lid has a metal hinge, the tripod bush is a metal insert, and all the controls feel solidly mounted and durable. It doesn’t have the robust feel of Canon’s metal-bodied compacts, but nevertheless it does feel like a 'proper camera'.

Performance

Although it is equipped with a long zoom lens, the SX500 is just a mid-range compact at heart, and it performs like one. It can start up, focus and take a picture in a little under three seconds from a cold start, which is on the quicker side of average. In single-shot mode it has a shot-to-shot time of approximately 2.6 seconds, which is a bit slow for a £200 camera, while the so-called continuous shooting mode is barely deserving of the name, shooting only a frame every 1.2 seconds.

Focusing is very quick and reliable in pretty much all lighting conditions, even in very low light thanks to an interesting and extremely effective AF illuminator which seems to combine visible and infra-red light, and projects a pattern onto which the AF system can lock. Focusing in video mode is unfortunately not quite as reliable. It’s OK in bright light and at wide angle, but when light levels drop or you zoom in a bit the AF does hunt back and forth quite noticeably, especially if the camera or subject is moving.

Canon’s optical lens-shift image stabilisation system is excellent. It offers a claimed 3.5 stops of extra stability, and my results would seem to confirm this. I was able to take hand-held shots at full zoom with minimal camera shake, and car number plates were readable from over a quarter of a mile away.

One slight disappointment is the video recording mode. In this age where virtually everything has “HD” stamped on it, the SX500 can only offer 1280 x 720 at 25fps, although at least optical zoom is available while recording. The zooming speed is slowed to reduce the noise on the soundtrack, but the full optical range can be used.

I unfortunately didn’t have the camera for long enough to accurately evaluate battery duration, but I took about 90 pictures with it and the battery indicator was still showing a full charge. Canon claims 195 shots or 240 minutes of video playback; I have no reason to dispute this.

Image quality

Overall, the SX500’s image quality is quite good for its class, but there are a few issues. The main one is the lens. Making a small zoom lens with such a huge focal length range does involve a few compromises, and the optical quality is not too great. There is a general overall softness, and significant chromatic aberration present at all focal lengths, especially in the corners of the frame at wide angle and large aperture settings. There is also optical distortion at wide angle, although it is digitally corrected.

The level of detail is quite good, although let down by the softness of the lens. At least it manages to avoid the over-sharpened, over-processed look of some other small-sensor 16-megapixel compacts. As expected, it’s about as good as a typical mid-range compact.

Colour fidelity is usually a Canon strong point, and the SX500 does a good job in most lighting conditions; however an overcast day did seem to confuse the automatic white balance somewhat. Exposure metering is accurate, and copes well with backlit and high-contrast scenes, but the small sensor does mean limited dynamic range. The iContrast option does help with shadow detail, but highlights are still blown out in high-contrast situations.

Compared to most other recent cameras the SX500 has a limited range of sensitivity settings, topping out at 1600 ISO, but judging from the results this is probably a good thing. Image quality at 100 and 200 ISO is passable, but noise is starting to appear at 400 ISO, and the poor results at 1600 ISO indicate it would have been pointless to go any higher.

Verdict

The PowerShot SX500 IS an interesting alternative to all those travel compacts. It offers a useful zoom range with very effective image stabilisation, excellent low-light focusing, a good range of creative features, easy-to use controls and pleasant handling despite its small stature. Picture quality is generally good if you can ignore a few optical problems. The only real let-down is the underwhelming video mode. The question is, is it too small for a super-zoom or too big for a compact?

ISO Performance

This is the full scene at 100 ISO. All the ISO test shots were taken using tungsten studio lights and manual white balance.

The shots were taken in JPEG mode at progressively higher ISO settings. View the slideshow below to see the results:

slideshow OVERLAY#349

Here’s the usual detail comparison shot that I take with every camera I test.

The sensor can clearly record a fair level of detail, but it’s let down by the overall softness of the lens.

The lens pays for its compact size and large zoom with optical distortion, which is digitally corrected.

Centre sharpness is good, with sharp detail and good contrast.

The optical problems are very apparent in the corner of the frame at wide angle, with extensive chromatic aberration and blurring.

With the iContrast feature turned off the dynamic range is restricted, with clipped highlights and little shadow detail.

Turning on iContrast helps to retain shadow detail, but the highlights are still burned out.

The wide end of the zoom range is equivalent to 24mm.

The telephoto end is equivalent to a big 720mm lens. This shot was taken hand-held at 1/400th of a second.

The wide angle lens and good colour reproduction make the SX500 a useful camera for landscape snaps.

It’s not easy testing cameras when the sun never shines, but at least the fog looks nice.

Manufacturer and model

Canon PowerShot SX500 IS

Image sensor

1/2.3 CCD, 16-megapixel

Max. resolution

4,608 x 3,456

Zoom

30x optical, 4x digital

Focal length (35mm)

4.3 – 129mm (24 – 720mm equiv.)

Maximum aperture

f/3.4 – f/5.8

Shutter speeds

15 – 1/1,600 sec.

Auto-Focus

Contrast detection TTL

Manual focus

Yes

Exposure control

P, A, S, M, Auto

Exposure metering

Evaluative, Centre-weighted, Spot

Image stabilisation

Lens shift optical

ISO range

100-1600

LCD monitor

7.5cm (3in) TFT LCD, 461,000 dots

Viewfinder

N/A

Flash

Pop-up, 50cm – 5.0m (W), 1.4m – 3.0m (T)

Drive modes

Single, continuous, continuous AF

Image formats

JPEG Exif 2.3

Video

H.264 1,280 x 720, 25 fps, stereo audio

Memory card slot

SD/SDHC/SDXC

Supplied memory

N/A

Battery

1,000mAh li-ion rechargeable, 195 shots

Ports

Mini-B USB, HDMI

Dimensions (W x H x D)

104 x 69.5 x 80.2mm

Weight (body only)

337g inc. battery and memory card

Accessories

Lens cap, neck strap, charger, software CD, cables

Software

ImageBrowser EX

Warranty

12 months