Canon PowerShot SX20 IS Overview
Reviewed by Mike Pasini, Zig Weidelich, and Shawn Barnett
Review Date: 03/30/2010
The Canon SX20 IS follows up last year's SX10 IS model, itself an update of 2007's popular long-zoom S5 IS model. Compared to the SX10 IS, Canon has again upped the resolution slightly, taking the SX20 from a ten-megapixel sensor to a twelve-megapixel chip of identical size. The Canon SX20's body is nearly identical to that of its predecessor, the only noticeable changes being to the screen-printed labels where a feature change has necessitated a different label. As was the case with its predecessor, with dimensions of 4.9 x 3.5 x 3.4 inches (124 x 88 x 87mm) and weighing in at 23.9 ounces (676g) including battery and flash card, the Canon SX20IS won't fit in your pocket; but then that's hardly surprising given the reach of its powerful zoom lens.
The Canon PowerShot SX20 combines its twelve megapixel sensor with a 20x optical zoom lens, which offers the range from a useful 28mm wide angle to a whopping 560mm telephoto. Maximum aperture varies from f/2.8 at wide angle to f/5.7 at telephoto. As the "IS" in the SX20's name would suggest, it includes Canon's Image Stabilization technology, helping fight the effects of blur from camera shake, absolutely vital at the longer focal lengths. Images are framed and reviewed on a 2.5-inch color LCD display or a 0.44-inch electronic viewfinder, both of which have 100% coverage and resolutions in the region of 235,000 dots.
The Canon PowerShot SX20 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 green 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, and three metering modes: evaluative, center-weighted, and spot. Shutter speeds vary from 15 to 1/3,200 second, and the maximum flash synch speed is 1/250 second. Compared to its predecessor, the PowerShot SX20 offers slightly increased flash range when the ISO sensitivity is under automatic control, with a maximum reach of 22 feet at wide angle, or 12 feet at telephoto. Continuous burst-mode shooting is possible at one frame per second, rather reduced from the 1.4 fps possible with the SX10.
The most significant change in the Canon SX20IS when compared to the SX10 can be found in the movie modes. Where the earlier camera was limited to shooting at standard-definition resolutions of VGA or below, the newer model is capable of recording high-definition 1280 x 720 pixel (720p) clips. The SX20IS retains its predecessor's framerate of 30 frames per second, as well as its stereo microphone.
One further change of note is that where the SX10 offered only standard definition NTSC / PAL video output, the Canon SX20 also includes a high definition HDMI connector. There's also USB 2.0 high-speed computer connectivity. The Canon PowerShot SX20 IS stores images on Secure Digital or MultiMediaCard media, including the newer (and higher capacity) SDHC types. Images are saved in one of two JPEG compression settings, where the SX10 offered three choices. Movies are saved as MOV files using H.264 compression. Like its predecessor the SX10, the Canon SX10IS runs on four AA batteries: either alkaline disposables, or NiMH rechargeables. A set of alkaline disposables is included in the product bundle.
Retail pricing for the Canon PowerShot SX20 IS is set at the same US$400 point at which the SX10 shipped a year earlier. Availability is set for September 2009.
PowerShot SX20IS User Report
by Mike Pasini
When the Canon SX20 IS arrived, I thought I was seeing things. Didn't I already review Canon's super zoom? In fact, I had reviewed the SX1 IS late last year, observing it looked an awful lot like the SX10 IS. So naturally the Canon SX20 IS would resemble the SX1.
They may look alike, but the Canon SX20 and the SX1 are different cameras. That starts at the sensor with the SX1 using a 10-Mp CMOS sensor compared to the Canon SX20's more conventional 12.1-Mp CCD. That, apparently, gives the SX1 the ability to shoot Raw and 1080p HD movies. The Canon SX20 shoots HD movies, too, but at 720p.
It can be confusing. Except on the price. The SX1 averages about $580 online while the Canon SX20 comes in at $380. It's the budget alterative.
In this review, I'll focus on the differences so you can appreciate how the price was reduced.
Look and Feel. My first impression of the SX1 was that it was very well built but awkward to handle, and the Canon SX20 is no different. It happened to be here when a few photo fans were visiting and they had the same experience. Quite a different reaction from a lightweight camera like the Nikon P90, for example, that uses a lithium-ion battery instead of four AA cells, like the Canon SX20.
And from the scratches on the body of the review unit, we weren't the only ones who found handling the camera awkward.
It's hard to pinpoint the reason it's awkward but I'll try.
Those batteries are one reason. They really add to the heft. More than you need to stabilize the camera. But they also balance the camera. The body itself is heavy. None of the women who hoisted the Canon SX20 liked it. We know, of course, that many people also prefer cameras that use AA batteries for the easily availability of alkaline spares when you really need an alternate source of power. So adjust your expectations accordingly.
And the LCD, which is hinged on the left side, doesn't help. I almost always left it reversed on the back of the Canon SX20, just as you'd find it on any inexpensive digicam. I used it flipped out when I needed it, but I found it awkward in the field to align it with the camera body so I knew where to point the camera.
As I said in my SX1 review, I much prefer articulated LCDs that swing up or point down rather than flip out to the side; that's a personal preference, though, as other reviewers at Imaging-Resource.com like this style just fine. What I really want is to be able to hold the camera above your head or at your feet and the tilting design accomplishes that in line with the lens when you hold the camera horizontally.
It probably didn't help that I set up the Canon SX20 with the included shoulder strap. It's a short strap, so the camera doesn't hang low, but it's also a wide one and can get in the way. I prefer to carry my small cameras with a wrist strap.
Like the SX1, the metal tripod mount is a bit too close to the battery compartment to switch AAs when tripod-mounted, but the card compartment is in a separate bay on the grip side, so no worries there. Above that port is the USB and mini HDMI port. Next to that is the DC In and AV port.
There is an intelligent hot shoe on top and stereo microphones above the lens in front. A speaker is on the left side.
Controls. Controls are what make a dSLR easier to use than the less expensive digicam, which relies on its menu system instead of buttons. There are usually fewer controls on a digicam and they tend to be primarily electronic.
The Canon SX20 has more buttons and dials than the average digicam, but you'll still be visiting the menu system more often.
There is a dioptric adjustment next to the Canon SX20's electronic viewfinder, which is covered in a rubberized frame so you won't scratch your glasses, something missing on other recent long zoom digicams we've reviewed. The EVF is low resolution, however, taking some of the fun out of using it.
To access it, you use the Display button below the navigator. That makes sense, but I just couldn't get over the idea I should be using a toggle button next to the EVF. There is a button there, but it's the Shortcut/Direct Print button. And, no, you can't assign the Display functions to it.
The Power switch behind the Canon SX20's Shutter button could not be placed in a more awkward position. You can't reach it with your forefinger while holding the Canon SX20, and if you try to reach it with your thumb, well, that's awkward too. So it takes two hands to turn the camera on or off. Nothing new about that, of course, but Power buttons shouldn't be afterthoughts.
The Mode dial has the familiar Canon groups of Creative Zone (for Programmed Auto, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, Manual, and Custom modes), Auto and Image Zone (for Portrait, Landscape, Night Landscape, Sports, Special Scene modes, Stitch Assist, and Movie modes). Just like the SX1.
The Playback button powers the camera both on and off, my preferred behavior. Some cameras don't let it power the camera on, and some only let it power it on (requiring the use of the Power button to power the camera off). This is simpler, and simpler is better.
The LCD is articulated, hinged on the left side, rotating to face downward or upward or forward (from which it can be rotated back against the back of the camera). It really swings out wide and can get tangled in the shoulder strap. So, as I said, as much as I like articulated screens (for composing high and low shots without cracking my knees), I left it in the routine back panel position.
One of the brighter ideas in button technology (if there is such a thing) was the introduction of the Movie button. Dating back to 2004's Canon S1 that pioneered the concept, instant-on Movie mode is now becoming a standard on more and more digital cameras. No matter what mode the Mode dial has selected, pressing the Movie button will start recording video. Pressing it again stops the capture. Simple. And better.
Because you can shoot either a still or a movie at any time, and because they each may have different aspect ratios, the LCD on the Canon SX20 may show a faint outline to indicate the image area for a movie. You can disable this display if you find it confusing.
Canon is forever changing the functions of the most familiar buttons and the Canon SX20 indulges in that shell game, too. The Control dial's Up arrow switches to Manual focus (not a bad idea, really, on a long zoom where you want a convenient way to set the lens quickly on infinity). The Right arrow displays the ISO settings, Down handles release modes (like the Self-Timer) and Left sets Landscape, Macro, or Super Macro.
A Display button below the Canon SX20's navigator disk changes what's displayed on the LCD before switching to the EVF and changing what's displayed there. Two functions in one button. It works, but I'm so used to using a button by the EVF to activate it that I never really got used to it.
The button by the EVF on the SX1 that switches aspect ratios from 4:3 to 16:9 is not included on the SX20. Too bad because that's a great idea. It makes it easy to make what are essentially compositional choices while you're framing the subject. If you're shooting in portrait orientation, a button is a very nice way to do that, rather than returning to the menu system.
As I mentioned, the button that is by the EVF is the Shortcut/Direct Print button whose major advantage is in the seven shooting functions you can assign to it. As the Shortcut button, you can set it to Light Metering, White Balance, Custom White Balance, Servo AF, Red-Eye Correction, Digital Teleconverter, i-Contrast, AE Lock, AF Lock, or Display Off.
On the top deck, you'll find the Canon SX20's Flash button that only does something when you lift the built-in flash up, but does not let you record an audio note with an image in Playback or just unaccompanied audio like the SX1.
The famous Canon Menu button is right where you'd expect to find it under the Control dial. It brings up the LCD menu system's main settings, primarily for basic camera behavior. Shot-to-shot settings are available from the Function/Set button in the middle of the Control dial, just as they are on any PowerShot.
Canon has put three buttons along the top right corner of the Canon SX20 for access with your thumb. They are Playback, EV compensation, and Autofocus control. The EV button is how you switch between aperture and shutter speed in Manual mode, too, using the navigator's wheel to change the selected setting. In Playback, the middle button rotates the image and the bottom button erases it.
Not included with the Canon SX20 is the SX1's remote control.
Lens. The 28-560mm equivalent 20x optical zoom lens is a real treat. It appears to be the same glass used on the SX1, although the markings are not on the front element but on the stationary barrel.
Apertures range from f/2.8 to f/8.0 at wide-angle to f/5.7 to f/8.0 at telephoto. Not the range you have on a dSLR, of course, but a bit more than the two apertures many digicams with Manual mode offer.
UD (Ultra-low Dispersion) glass in the lens helps suppress chromatic aberration, while enhanced negative refractive power corrects distortion at wide-angle, according to Canon. Further aberration is controlled with the inclusion of a double-sided aspherical glass-molded lens and ultra-high refraction index lens.
The barrel of the Canon SX20's zoom lens is marked with a focal length scale that reports both the actual focal length and the 35mm equivalent focal length. That's a very nice touch on a 20x zoom.
And the Canon SX20's lens enjoys Canon's lens-based optical image stabilization for steady shots at long focal lengths or slow shutter speeds.
Optical performance reflected the 20x zoom range. With the 4x digital zoom, you can reach 80 times the wide-angle focal length with this lens. Digital zoom performance was about average.
There was 0.9 percent barrel distortion at wide-angle, which is higher than average, but less than 0.1 percent pincushion at telephoto, which is extremely low.
Chromatic aberration was high at wide-angle and telephoto, although we detected a color shift from purple-green to blue-yellow moving to telephoto.
Blurring in the corners was moderate at wide-angle but mild at telephoto.
Zooming is single-speed and that seemed to make it easier to compose images than on the two-speed SX1.
The lens hood on the Canon SX20 is small, and remarkably does reverse, but it's so hard to find the lock spot that I just left it on pointing forward.
Modes. Options on the Canon SX20's Mode dial include Programmed Auto, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, Manual, and Custom modes. You use the wheel around the Control dial to change the shutter speed in Shutter Priority and the aperture in Aperture Priority. In Manual mode, a press of the EV button switches between the shutter speed and aperture.
The Canon SX20 also includes a green Auto mode. The Shooting menu is restricted to movie size and image size settings. ISO is Auto only (but there is no Auto Hi on the SX20, as there is on the SX1). Macro is disabled. Manual Focus is not available. All that makes it safe to hand off the camera to that relative who can never put anything back where they found it.
Image Zone modes include Portrait, Landscape, Night Landscape, Sports, Special Scene modes, Stitch Assist and Movie modes. Special Scene modes are (Foliage, Snow, Beach, Sunset, Fireworks, Aquarium, Night Scene, Indoor, ISO 3200 at a small image size which varies by aspect ratio, Color Accent, and Color Swap. Missing from the SX1 is Long Shutter, but you can still select a shutter speed as slow as 15 seconds. You use the Control dial's wheel to change from one to another, with a large icon on the LCD to explain which one is active. But like any control wheel I've used, it's awkward. Sometimes it does what you want, most often not.
Stitch Assist guides you through a series of overlapping shots to create the images you can later assemble on the computer into a panorama.
Movie Mode options are primarily for image size, with all of them capturing 30 frames per second in the H.264 format MOV video with linear PCM stereo audio. There are three sizes: 1,280 x 720, 640 x 480, and 320 x 240. You can record up to 4GB or 29:59 minutes/seconds in HD or 60 minutes in SD per clip. You don't have to actually select Movie mode on the Mode dial to use it, however. You can just press the Movie button whenever you see some action you want to capture; the Canon SX20 will then use the last mode selected in the Function menu.
Menu System. The Canon controls and menu system are comfortable to use once you learn how to play the game (which seems to change a little on each model). After you pick a Record mode, just hit the Function button to see your shooting options. Hit the Menu button for general camera setup options any time.
I did like the Help system, which simply displays a useful line of text at the bottom of the Menu system screens. It's unobtrusive but there if you need it. And it can be disabled. It never got in my way so I left it on.
Storage & Battery. The Canon SX20 uses four AA batteries. With rechargeable Ni-MH batteries, Canon estimates that you'll get about 600 shots with the LCD on using CIPA testing standards. You'll get about 840 minutes of playback time with a full charge on the same Ni-MH batteries.
I used the four Panasonic alkalines included with the Canon SX20. They're rated for 340 shots or 720 minutes of playback. That's not bad, but we recommend purchasing some Eneloop-style NiMH rechargeable batteries, often called pre-charged batteries, for longer life.
Older Ni-MH cells may not have the power to keep the Canon SX20 going more than a few minutes. Make sure you buy newer cells.
The Canon SX20 uses an SD card to store images, supporting SD/SDHC Memory Cards, MultiMediaCards, MMC Plus Cards, and HC MMC Plus Cards.
A 2GB card will hold 626 Large Fine 4:3 JPEGs or 903 16:9 JPEGs. The same card will hold 22:45 640 x 480 movies at 30 frames per second or 1:04:01 320 x 240 movies at 30 fps. And a 16:9 HD movie at 1,280 x 720 and 30 fps can go 10:33. An 8GB card will hold 42:11.
A $65 CA-PS700 Compact Power Adapter is available, but was on backorder when we checked the Canon site.
Shooting. Image quality from my shoots was, in general, very satisfying. But "in general" skips over some unhappy experiences. I did make sure to enable auto i-Contrast in the Camera menu to preserve shadow detail.
With only one Auto setting, though, I had trouble indoors. I toured a printing plant and took both stills and video. The plant was well lit, like any office, but exposures in Programmed Auto left the shutter open too long to capture people just standing around scratching their heads. ISO was cranked up to 400, as you would expect, but the aperture was a surprising f/6.3 so the shutter fired at 1/5 second.
It seems to me that if you've already got ISO maxed out at 400 and you have shot past any reasonable handholdable shutter speed, you should open up the aperture. Even at full telephoto (which these were not, being most at the widest angle focal length), wide open is f/5.7, faster than f/6.3.
The solution was to manually set ISO to 800. That got me sharper images with an exposure time of 1/40 second (and optical image stabilization active, remember) and, for some odd reason, opened the aperture to f/2.8. Same focal length as before: 5.0mm or 27.3mm in a 35mm equivalent.
But can you live with ISO 800?
To find out, I took a set of zoom shots from Twin Peaks at ISO 800. While I could detect noise even at thumbnail sizes, the color was good if somewhat suppressed. Not the usual crystal clear shots.
Later, when I took some landscapes before sunset, I noticed a warm color cast that seemed to go too far, making the image look like it was taken in another era. I wondered if i-Contrast was tweaking these shots a bit too much.
Macro shooting was another problem. Super Macro sets the focal length to wide-angle only, letting you put the lens right up to your subject. But it's a wide wide-angle at 28mm so you don't feel close. More than once I knocked a small item over trying to capture it with Super Macro.
Macro wasn't the solution either. Despite the helpful scale displayed on the LCD, the Canon SX20 never could find focus. Shooting macro was a very frustrating experience with the SX20.
Finding focus in general was an issue. Quite a few shots simply failed to focus. They aren't in the gallery as a result, but I was disappointed that clear scenes with high contrast caused problems.
Now, do you want to hear the good news?
As the iron fence shots show, I was able to get some nice shots with a beautifully blurred background. Several different approaches are illustrated, with the Exif pages revealing all.
The first shot, at wide-angle with the aperture wide-open kept everything in focus, as wide-angle focal lengths do. The second one, zoomed in a bit but still wide open (if not quite as wide) does blur the background enough to set off the foreground. But the third one, shot at telephoto was really what I was looking for.
My doll sequence was shot at ISO 400, 800, and 1,600. Detail is strong in all of them. And color is accurate. I was pleasantly surprised.
If my morning and evening daylight shots were too warm for my taste (the hydrant, with significant blooming at the top of the white knob into the green bush, for example), the ordinary daylight shots were very pleasing.
On a walk along the Embarcadero, I caught a yellow Ferrari taking a break. The full shot and the detail were just what I wanted but a straight on shot of the emblem on the hood was surprisingly out of focus.
The mooring ropes in the shade likewise were captured just as I hoped and the white table set with colored place settings was also well done. There are three shots inside the Ferry Building in mixed light (a banana display, a cheese display and a closeup of a mushroom) that all were successful. And the late afternoon shots outside are among my favorites.
Canon SX20 IS Print Quality
ISO 200 shots, though, are too soft at that size, looking better at 11x14 inches.
ISO 400 shots are usable at 11x14 when viewed at arm's length, but get better at 8x10 inches.
ISO 800 shots still look good at 8x10, though some detail in red areas will be quite soft.
ISO 1,600 and 3,200 shots are soft but usable at 4x6.
Overall, printed performance from the Canon SX20 IS is good for a long zoom digital camera.
In the Box
- PowerShot SX20 IS
- Lens Hood
- Neck Strap
- 4 AA Alkaline Batteries
- Stereo Video Cable
- Interface Cable (USB)
- Warranty and Registration card
Canon SX20 IS Conclusion
Well built but awkward to handle, the Canon SX20 IS will nonetheless be popular with those already familiar with Canon long zoom cameras. There are certainly more external controls than most digicams offer, and the one-touch activation of Movie mode is still quite inspired, even as its adopted by the competition across more cameras.
I'm not fond of the swing-out swivel screen, but my colleagues are, so we'll have to call it a draw. The Canon SX20's zoom is quiet, though, as is focusing, and the 28-560mm zoom is an impressive range. We found the wide-angle end to be a little softer than we like, though. Macro shooting, too was a little frustrating when seeking focus, something we never figured out. Flash performance, on the other hand, was quite impressive, rare in a long zoom digital camera, and even after a full-power burst, the flash was ready again in 2.3 seconds!
There were a lot of issues with the Canon SX20 IS that you'd see differently depending on what kind of a shooter you are. You'll either hate or love the AA battery power supply, and you'll either hate or never notice the slight softness as ISO rises: Bottom line there, if you're looking for a fun long zoom and never plan to print over 8x10, you'll have no problem with the image quality at all; but even if you do care a lot, you can still get a good quality 13x19-inch print out of your low ISO shots, and that's not too shabby. Overall, the Canon SX20 IS makes a Dave's Pick thanks to its image quality, reasonably good shutter lag, excellent battery life, and quality construction.