Canon PowerShot SX120 IS
Reviewed by Mike Pasini and Stephanie Boozer
Review Date: 12/09/09
The Canon SX120IS follows up last year's SX110IS model - itself an update of 2007's popular long-zoom SX100IS model. Compared to the SX110IS, Canon has again upped the resolution slightly, taking the SX120 from a nine megapixel sensor to a ten megapixels chip of identical size. The Canon SX120's body is nearly identical to that of its predecessor, the only noticeable change beyond the different labelling being the removal of the print button adjacent to the top left of the LCD display on the rear panel. As was the case with its predecessor, with dimensions of 4.4 x 2.8 x 1.8 inches (111 x 70 x 45mm) and weighing in at 10.7 ounces (302g) including battery and flash card, the Canon SX120IS won't fit comfortably in your shirt pocket, but isn't unreasonably large.
The Canon PowerShot SX120 combines its ten megapixel sensor with a 10x optical zoom lens, which offers the range from a somewhat tight 36mm wide-angle to a useful 360mm telephoto. Maximum aperture varies from f/2.8 at wide-angle to f/4.3 at telephoto. As the "IS" in the SX120's name would suggest, it retains Canon's Image Stabilization technology, helping fight the effects of blur from camera shake - particularly important at the longer focal lengths. Images are framed and reviewed on a 3-inch color LCD display with 230,000 pixels - not surprisingly for a long-zoom camera, there's no optical viewfinder on this model. The most significant change from the SX110 can be found in the Canon SX120's image processor. The earlier camera used an older generation of Canon's DIGIC processor, which the SX120 has now replaced with the current spec. DIGIC 4 processors started appearing in PowerShot cameras last year, and should offer improvements in the areas of image noise, autofocus and autoexposure.
The Canon PowerShot SX120 IS offers not only a selection of scene modes and a Program auto mode, but also the ability to control shutter and/or aperture manually. Canon's implementation of face detection is included, and the face detection functionality is linked not only to the autofocus system, but also to the exposure metering and white balance systems to ensure correct exposure of portraits as well. When focusing in dim light, a very bright orange LED provides for AF-assist. For the more experienced photographer, there's a wide range of adjustments and customizations on hand, including a range of ISO sensitivities (from 80 to 1,600 equivalent), metering modes, autoexposure and flash exposure locks, flash output control, white balance options, and adjustable image sharpness, contrast, and color options. Compared to its predecessor, the PowerShot SX120 also offers slightly increased flash range when the ISO sensitivity is under automatic control, with a maximum reach of 13 feet at wide-angle, or 8.2 feet at telephoto.
The Canon PowerShot SX120 IS stores images on Secure Digital or MultiMediaCard media, including the newer (and higher capacity) SDHC types. A 128MB SD card is included in the product bundle, enough to fit perhaps 30 photos at the highest resolution / lowest compression setting. Like its predecessor the SX110, the Canon SX110IS runs on a pair of AA batteries - either alkaline, lithium, or NiMH rechargeables. A pair of alkaline disposables is included in the product bundle.
Retail pricing for the Canon PowerShot SX110 IS is set at US$250 or lower, available as of September 2009.
Canon SX120 IS
by Mike Pasini
People are different. Just looking around at my fellow bus riders, it was obvious. The gracious seniors in the front, facing each other, their canes at rest. The kids carrying backpacks like shields, their ears stuffed with speakers. The readers one-handing their books.
And that's just bus riders. In the next lane were the drivers. SUVs on their way to school, Audis looking for Point B, the inevitable BMW/Mercedes/Honda/Prius and the occasional rare sighting.
What goes for transportation goes for photo gear. Photographers are different.
I know what kind of people I am when it comes to Canon PowerShots. I just can't fathom those cute little ELPHs with their auto-everything, vending machine photography. What fun is that? But I just love the SX PowerShots. Manual mode, real glass, everything that matters at a price that doesn't.
If I were stuck on a desert island with just one camera (at my own expense), it would be the Canon SX120 IS. It's a great deal and it doesn't compromise on quality, either. Perfect for desert islands and right at home in a bag, too.
Look and Feel. Despite the clone-like similarity to its predecessor, the Canon SX120 does differ physically from the SX110 in two ways: The Print/Share button on the back is gone (you don't really need it) and the front finger grip has a larger metal accent. Otherwise they're identical twins.
Which is not to say they felt the same to me. For some reason, I kept popping the flash up on the Canon SX120 when I grabbed it to take it out of my pocket. I stopped that after the first day but it's easy to do because the flash extends forward from the shell of the body.
One other change we noticed was that if you do manage to remove the Canon SX120's coin battery that keeps the clock ticking when you change batteries, you won't lose the time (at least with AAs installed).
That luxurious 3.0-inch LCD still sports 230K pixels, which is just high-res enough. I suppose I'm getting spoiled by higher res LCDs, but this one is just like the SX110's so I can't complain.
Like its predecessor, the Canon SX120 is not a small camera. Canon has a longstanding habit of building small cameras a little large. The flagship G11 is a good example, as was the G10 and G9 before it. And the Canon SX120, like the SX110 before it, shows no effort to miniaturize, although I did manage to get it into my shirt pocket. If you want small, buy an ELPH. But you'll give up a lot of things with an ELPH when compared to the Canon SX120.
The Canon SX120 has a plastic body with smooth surfaces. Some people may consequently find the grip a little slippery. There's a nicely sculpted thumb grip on the back and a good chrome-accented ledge on the front for your other fingers. It never slipped from my hands.
It does have a healthy heft, but I wouldn't describe it as heavy. The featherweights often shake when you press the Shutter button, but that's not a problem on the Canon SX120.
The control layout is unchanged and quickly mastered. The Mode dial is large and easily thumbed from the back. The Shutter button ringed with the Zoom control is also quite large and easy to find. That Zoom control struck me this time around as a bit too elevated (it could sit a bit lower than the Shutter button). The Power button, a small rectangular inset behind the Shutter button, could still use further thought.
The LCD is your viewfinder and even holds up pretty well in sunlight. It does show finger marks (blame the antiglare surface) but they're easy to wipe away.
Controls. As far as the buttons go, their use should be familiar to any Canon owner. Canon always has to change the function of at least one button (where's Print/Share?) on every model, but the usual hierarchy is intact.
The Menu button brings up the major settings in tabs (Playback mode, for example, has a tab for its settings, another for Print function and the Setup tab). The Function/Set button brings up more frequently used options for the mode you're in (in Record mode, for example, that's where you set the image size and quality, white balance and more). And finally the buttons themselves handle the most used functions (EV, for example, is on one of them).
This works well, although I continually shake my head at the shell game Canon plays moving functions from the menu system to the buttons. But once you get the idea and learn where your favorites are, you don't forget.
Buttons are the most direct way to do anything, and the Canon SX120 makes good use of them.
Around the Function/Set button is the Control dial. You can press the top, bottom, left, and right sides of the navigator to move upward, downward, left, and right where necessary. But Up also sets ISO in Record mode and rotates the image in Playback. Down cycles through the shutter release modes. Left cycles through the focusing modes and Right through the Flash modes.
But the Control dial also spins, speeding navigation. It's most useful when the Mode dial is set to Scene. Then any spin of the Control dial displays the available Scene modes. In Playback, a spin takes you through the images quickly. Unlike some other Canon PowerShot Control dials (like the overly loose one on the Canon S90), this one is fairly stiff, so it's harder to turn it accidentally.
Above the Control dial are two buttons, one to toggle Face Detection on and off and the other to set EV. Below the Control dial are two more buttons. One cycles through the Display modes and the other is the Menu button.
That's the basic control configuration, but there are two other buttons on the back panel worth pointing out. Just above the controls is the rather lonely Playback button. It's located pretty close to your thumb, though, making it easy to get into Playback mode to review your shots whether the Canon SX120 is off or on. Pressing the Playback button again or the Shutter button takes you back to Record. Playback also powers down the camera, a nice touch.
Lens. The lens, which appears to be exactly the same one used in the SX110, is the big draw on the Canon SX120. Once you've used a camera with a 10x optical range, you'll feel hemmed in by cameras with 5x and 3x zooms. It's just astonishing that you get 10x on a camera at this price. And when you remember that Canon has included its optical image stabilization, you just have to shake your head. Up and down -- with a smile.
But it's also nice to see some big glass pop out of a camera body instead of something resembling a lost contact lens.
The 10x zoom range covers the 35mm equivalent of 36mm to 360mm with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 at wide-angle and f/4.3 at telephoto. That's a pretty fast moderate wide-angle lens, giving up only a little scope to deliver that 360mm reach.
Macro focusing at wide-angle ranges between 0.4 inch to 1.6 feet and, as with the SX110, is a lot of fun. Macro shooting is one thing digicams can do out of the box that dSLRs can't but many of them make it torture. Not the Canon SX120. There will be days you just shoot in macro.
Canon includes optical image stabilization with the PowerShot SX120, too. So you don't have to resort to flash in low light and you can compose those 360mm scenes handheld.
As with any 10x zoom, Canon had to make some optical compromises. The lab found moderately high blurring in the corners, but it didn't stretch very far into the frame. At full telephoto details were somewhat soft overall. Barrel distortion was average, but noticeable at wide-angle, while pincushion at telephoto was only slightly noticeable in some images. We also found moderate chromatic aberration at wide-angle that became much stronger at telephoto focal lengths.
Modes. One of the best things about the Canon SX120 is its inclusion of manual shooting modes, which are often neglected on PowerShots. In semi-auto modes, spin the Control dial to adjust the aperture or shutter speed. In Manual mode, where both are adjustable, the EV button toggles between them. It couldn't be simpler.
Use Tv (Time value) for setting the shutter speed manually (from 15 seconds to 1/2000 second), Av for setting the aperture manually (you can get to f/8.0 from wide-angle's f/2.8 or telephoto's f/4.3, a good range), and Manual for setting both shutter speed and aperture manually greatly enhance the camera's value to both beginners and those who know how to get what they want.
The automatic modes include Program AE, Auto, and Easy Shooting. In Program AE, if you half-press the Shutter button then press the EV button, you can spin the Control dial to change aperture and shutter speed combinations without changing the exposure. That's how Program AE is supposed to work, but Canon rarely lets you tinker with the suggested exposure. It almost makes you feel like you're borrowing your parents' car again.
Auto restricts the Function menu to image size and quality options.
Easy Shooting pretty much locks up the camera (the Function menu isn't available at all), great for handing it off to a child. You can zoom and use the flash (if you raise it) but otherwise, no options.
The Mode dial, which is fairly firm, includes a few Scene modes you might use frequently. Those include Portrait, Landscape, Night Snapshot, Kids&Pets, and Indoor.
Under the Scene menu, which Canon calls Special Scene, are a few additional Scene modes, accessible by spinning the Control Dial: Foliage, Snow, Beach, Sunset, Fireworks, Aquarium, Night Scene, and ISO 3,200.
Finally, the SX110 offers a Movie mode that can capture 640 x 480 frames at 30 fps, an LP version of that which can capture movies twice as long, and 320 x 240 at 30 fps. Digital zoom is available and monaural audio is recorded by the small speaker near the lens on the front of the camera.
Storage & Battery. The largest image size from the 10-megapixel sensor is 3,648 x 2,736 pixels. A 2GB card will hold 749 fine images and 1,536 normal images.
That same card will hold only a few seconds over a minute of the highest movie quality. But a 2GB card will hold 16 minutes 47 seconds.
Because the Canon SX110 is powered by AA batteries, you have a choice of technologies. Single use lithiums provide the most power but are not rechargeable. Still they make a good choice if you shoot mainly on holidays and rarely any other time. The alkalines included with the camera are the least powerful option, rating just 130 shots using CIPA test methods (which take quite a few flash shots). Between those extremes, but closer to the lithiums, are rechargeable Ni-MH batteries. Those rated 370 shots using CIPA test methods.
Canon also offers the ACK800 AC adapter kit for $49.
Shooting. With the same lens as the previous model, the main factors in image quality evaluation become the higher resolution sensor and the DIGIC 4 processor.
The 10-megapixel sensor is a 1/2.5-inch type CCD compared to the 9-megapixel 1/2.3-inch CCD used in the SX110 IS. The 1/2.5-inch sensor is 7.182mm diagonally while the 1/2.3-inch sensor is 7.70mm diagonally. Cramming more pixels, then, into a smaller area is a recipe for increased noise.
The SX110 IS wasn't a great performer when it came to noise, showing noise suppression blurring of detail at ISO 200, grain at ISO 400 and loss of detail above ISO 800. But with the DIGIC 4 chip in the Canon SX120 IS, chrominance noise is better controlled at all ISOs, although luminance noise begins to dominate at ISO 400.
The DIGIC 4 chip also plays a role in exposure. Although the Exif header doesn't reveal it, we shot everything with the i-Contrast option set to Auto rather than Off. We greatly admire Sony's DRO and Nikon's D-Lighting, quickly enabling them on our test cameras to extend the dynamic range of those JPEGs. So we figured it was about time to kick Canon's i-Contrast into gear.
To see how exposure improves with the SX120 IS, you can compare gallery shots of the hydrant, fire alarm and pen (a macro shot), as well as the zoom series (which includes digital zoom).
The doll shots for the Canon SX120 IS illustrate the difference between shooting in Scene mode at ISO 3,200 and shooting in Program mode. Program mode warned us about camera shake, dropping the exposure to 1/9 and 1/7 second where Scene mode had managed to stay around 1/30 second. But we had image stabilization going for us, so we shot away. The Program shots, however, just aren't sharp. The Scene mode shots retained both detail and color at ISO 3,200. Note the Light Value for these shots was 2.6 (compared to 11.0 for the fire alarm in sunlight and 13.0 for the sunset).
The salt and pepper shakers compare Program with Auto ISO to Program with ISO 1,600. The color is better on the latter and since Auto ISO went as high as 409, detail is comparable.
Left to its own in sunlight, however, the Canon SX120 IS stays far away from ISO 400, ranging from ISO 75 to a bit under ISO 150. Which should be a lesson to us all. And yes, the Canon SX120 can set ISO 75 and many points in-between settings, even though you're limited to 80 and above.
Sunset scene mode again turned a lovely pastel sky into a fiery red sunset, greatly overdoing the saturation. But that's sunset for you.
Still, I wondered why the DIGIC 4 didn't correct the chromatic aberration (clearly visible on the hydrant, for example). That would have gone a long way to making the Canon SX120 IS superior to the SX110 IS, improving that 10x range with macro.
Canon seems to take a conservative approach to image processing, concentrating on face recognition, exposure, and noise reduction.
Overall, the Canon PowerShot SX120 offers a good shooting experience, with a zoom that gets you where you want to go without having to get up. It could have a wider setting than 36, but if you're looking for a good, pocketable long zoom that takes you out to an eye-popping 360mm equivalent, the SX120 is a good choice.
See below for our Lens and Image quality analysis, as well as our Pro/Con and Conclusion.
Canon PowerShot SX120 IS Lens Quality
Wide: Sharp at center
Wide: Softest lower right
Tele: A hint soft at center
Tele: Softest lower right
Sharpness: The Canon PowerShot SX120 IS' maximum wide-angle lens setting produced moderately high blurring in the corners, with the strongest effect in the lower right. However, blurring does not stretch very far into the frame. Details are somewhat soft overall at full telephoto, though the strongest blurring again occurs in the lower right corner; and here blurring does extend further into the frame.
Wide: About average barrel distortion; noticeable
Tele: Moderate pincushion distortion
Geometric Distortion: Barrel distortion at the PowerShot SX120 IS' wide-angle setting is about average (~0.8%), but quite noticeable. At telephoto, pincushion distortion is moderate (~0.2%), and slightly noticeable in some images.
Chromatic Aberration: Chromatic aberration at wide-angle is moderate, with moderately bright purplish-blue pixels visible. Telephoto, however, shows much stronger distortion, with very bright blue and yellowish pixels on either side of the target lines.
Macro with Flash
Macro: The Canon PowerShot SX120 IS' Macro mode captures a sharp image with very little blurring in the corners of the frame. Details are sharp on the dollar bill, though some chromatic aberration is noticeable. Minimum coverage area is 1.09 x 0.82 inches (28 x 21 mm). Exposure is uneven with the ambient lighting, due to the very close shooting range, but enabling the flash results in an even darker exposure as the lens blocks the light.
Canon PowerShot SX120 IS Image Quality
Color: The Canon PowerShot SX120 IS produced good overall color, with moderate oversaturation in strong reds and blues. Bright yellows and greens are about where they should be in terms of vibrancy. Some color shifts are noticeable, such as cyan toward blue, and orange toward yellow, and yellow toward green. Darker skin tones are shifted toward a warmer orange cast, while lighter skin tones have just a slight pink tint. Generally good color though, which should be pleasing to most consumers.
ISO: Noise and Detail: Fine detail is good at ISO 80 and 100, with some softening beginning at ISO 200. Chroma (color) noise is pretty well controlled at all ISOs, but luminance noise begins to dominate from ISO 400 on up. The PowerShot SX120 IS limits resolution at the maximum ISO 3,200 setting, but results are still soft. See Printed results below for more on how this affects printed images.
Wide: 13 feet, bright
Tele: 8.2 feet, bright
Auto WB: Good, slightly warm
Incandescent WB: Too red
Manual WB: Very good
Incandescent: The PowerShot SX120 IS' Auto and Manual white balance settings both handled our Incandescent lighting quite well. While the Manual option is the most accurate overall, some consumers might prefer the slight warmth of the Auto setting. The camera's Incandescent mode resulted in a very strong red cast.
Printed: ISO 80 and 100 printed results look good at 13x19 inches, though just a tad soft on close inspection; at arm's length, though, it's just great. At ISO 200, prints are better at 11x14 inches. ISO 400 shots are usable at 11x14, but better at Letter size. ISO 800 shots are a little too soft at 8x10, better at 5x7. ISO 1,600 shots are usable at 5x7, but better at 4x6. ISO 3,200 shots are not usable at 4x6 without sharpening. Sharpen these images from ISO 800 in Photoshop at 1.0 pixel and 200%, however, and you print with better results at what I've called "usable": ISO 800 at 8x10, ISO 1,600 at 5x7, and ISO 3,200 at 4x6.
Canon PowerShot SX120 IS Performance
Shutter lag: Full autofocus shutter lag is about average for a long zoom, though slower than some recent competitors, at 0.80 second at wide-angle and 0.93 second at full telephoto. Prefocus shutter lag is 0.066s, faster than average.
Cycle time: Cycle time is a bit sluggish, capturing a frame every 2.07 seconds in single-shot mode. Canon rates the SX120 IS' continuous mode at 1.3 frames-per-second, but we didn't test that.
Flash recycle: The PowerShot SX120 IS' flash recycles in 12 seconds after a full-power discharge, much slower than average.
Canon SX120 Features
- 10-megapixel CCD
- 10x zoom lens (equivalent to a 36-360mm lens on a 35mm camera)
- 4x digital zoom
- 3-inch PureColor LCD monitor
- Full Manual through Automatic exposure available, including Aperture and Shutter priority and 13 Scene modes
- Built-in flash with five modes
- SD/SDHC/MMC/MMCplus, etc. memory card slot (128MB SD card is included)
- USB 2.0 computer connection
- AV out
- DC in
- Uses AA batteries
- Software for Mac and PC
In the Box
The retail package contains the following items:
- Canon PowerShot SX120 IS camera
- Wrist strap WS-800
- 2 AA Alkaline batteries
- AV cable AVC-DC400
- Interface cable IFC-400PCU
- 128MB SD card
- Software CD
- Rechargeable NiMH batteries
- Large capacity SD/SDHC memory card. (These days, 8GB is a good tradeoff between cost and capacity.)
Canon SX120 IS Conclusion
Were I one of those people who carries a purse or bag everywhere, I'd have no qualms about taking the SX120 IS with me all the time. As a purse-less person, I found myself grabbing a waist pack or a jacket on a warm day just to have the pleasure of the Canon SX120 IS's company. It's just a little too big for pockets in nice weather; jackets are better, of course.
But if you're comfortable carrying it around and aren't the sort of person who makes a fashion statement with your camera, you'll appreciate the Canon SX120 IS for the very capable yet affordable camera it is. You'll love the 10x zoom range (which should be decreed by law) that does not make you give up the fun of macro photography. You'll find every shooting mode you could possibly want, including all the manual ones (which include a useful Aperture Priority mode for changing your depth of field).
Movie mode remains standard definition in the HD era, a sign of the Canon SX120 IS falling behind the competition's innovations. But that's about all that's missing from this reliable gem. It earns a Dave's Pick for extending the joy of photography to first-timers while giving even experienced photographers something to play with.