Canon PowerShot SX40 HS Review
by Mike Pasini and Stephanie Boozer
Review posted: 04/02/2012
Megazoom digital cameras aren't quite as good in low light, but if you want to zoom into a far-away object, you want nothing else. Canon has been a player in this game for a long time, but it has never been my favorite megazoom. The very earliest long zooms were pioneered by Olympus, which continues to produce some compelling designs. But Panasonic, Fujifilm, Casio, Canon, and Nikon have joined the game since the 18x zoom days.
Not that there was anything amiss with Canon's image quality, but using the Canon megazooms was just not quite as pleasant an experience. With the SX40 HS, Canon is challenging for the league lead. Canon fans may not have minded the flaws of its predecessors, but the Canon SX40 HS is a camera that anyone interested in a megazoom should consider. It was a delightful experience.
Look and Feel. Sculpted, that's the word. Sculpted like an EOS dSLR, in fact, with those Brooks Brothers natural shoulders. Mad men. But the Canon SX40 fits the hand so well, so comfortably, that you don't even think of discrete components like a grip or the controls. It's all just one very attractive sculpture.
Though it's compact even compared to other compact megazooms, the Canon SX40 still won't fit in your pocket. It's too square. The lens on one axis and the body on the other. But you won't mind swinging the Canon SX40 from your shoulder or your wrist. It looks good. Form and function, everywhere you look.
In fact the only part that fails the design test is the eyelet for the shoulder strap. It's nicely built into the body so it doesn't protrude, but like many other Canon eyelets, it has sharp edges that could fray the strap.
Let's take the tour. The front of the Canon SX40 HS is dominated by the 35x lens, which has markings on the top of the barrel to indicate focal length. The lens has a lens hood/filter mount as well (hood not included). At the one o'clock position there's a focus-assist/self-timer lamp, which flashes a bright green to warn you when the self-timer is active. The built-in flash overhangs the lens until you simply lift it up to activate it. The overhang also houses the two stereo microphones, shielding them a bit from the wind. The grip is hard plastic but molded to resemble a soft grip.
On top the hot shoe is covered by a flexible cap right behind the built-in flash. A flash button to the left cycles through the flash options when you lift the flash up to activate it or attach an external flash to the hot shoe. On the other side of the hump, the Mode dial cuts into the shoulder leaving just enough room for the Canon SX40's Power button to its right. At the front edge of the grip is the Shutter button surrounded by the smooth, two-speed Zoom lever.
The left side of the Canon SX40 has a small speaker grill and the hinge for the articulated LCD.
The LCD swivels out, twists around and flips back on itself. Holding the camera at the right angle and, at the same time, being able to compose the image on the LCD are not always the same camera position. A fully articulated LCD takes care of that.
On the right side is a rubber door covering the mini HDMI and AV Out/USB ports.
The back panel has a knubbed indentation for your thumb that sneaks right up to the Mode dial. To its right on the edge are, from top to bottom, the green power status LED, the Zoom Framing Assist/Jump button, the Playback button (which can toggle power), and the AF Frame Selector/Single Image Erase button. There are also some handy special function buttons right by your thumb.
Also by your thumb, but to the other side of the thumb grip is the Movie button. It's inset into a slightly raised rim, a nice idea. To the left of that is the rubber-covered eyepiece to the electronic viewfinder, which has a dioptric adjustment on its left side. To the left of that in the left corner is the Short Cut/Direct Print button.
The main controls on the back panel are the familiar ones of the four-way navigator, whose arrow buttons serve two functions. Up accesses EV, Right handles ISO, Down brings up the Self-Timer, and Left the Focus modes. The navigator itself is a very smooth scroll wheel I liked very much. At its center is the familiar Function Set button to access the menu system.
Below the navigator are the Display button and the Menu button, for the camera's main menu system.
To the left of all that is the articulated LCD.
On the bottom of the camera is the battery/card compartment door with a small port for the dummy battery of the AC adapter. Next to the door's hinge is a metal tripod socket.
Controls. While I'm not a fan of Power buttons, I really didn't mind the Power button on the SX40 HS. It's not miniscule, fortunately, so you can find it (even if you do have to look for it next to the Mode dial).
The Playback button also toggles power on the camera. Some cameras allow the Playback button to activate the camera (so you can see your images without extending the lens) but don't let you turn the camera off. I didn't realize just how much that annoyed me until I used the SX40 HS's Playback button. It's a smarter design.
The Shutter button and Zoom lever worked very well together, second nature really. The Zoom control is two speed. Press it just a little and it zooms slowly. Press further and it speeds up. Great for video.
I'm not a fan of Movie buttons on the back of a camera either. I don't want to push the camera forward (and down) when I start capturing video. But there's no room on the top deck for another button and this one is nicely positioned in a little cone ring. You just slide your thumb a bit further to the left to reach it. And on a megazoom, your left hand supports the lens, preventing the camera from dipping down when you press the back panel button.
The Canon SX40's Mode dial is really a work of art in itself, the most beautiful I've seen. I'm not sure why I'm so taken by a mere Mode dial, but it really has style. It's larger than most and nicely scooped out. It even has a dark red highlight barely visible on the bottom. Canon should get an award for it, really.
On top, the Canon SX40's hot shoe is hidden under a rubber cap, protecting it from corrosion and disturbing the lines of the top hump. It's a little hard to figure out at first, but you just push the cap forward until you see the front of it start to lift and then pull the front up and off toward the back.
There's also a user-definable Shortcut button that can be set to i-Contrast, White Balance, Custom White Balance, My Colors, Drive Mode, Flash Exp. Comp./Output, Light Metering, Aspect Ratio (my favorite), Servo AF, Powered IS, AF Lock, AE Lock, Digital Tele-converter, or Display Off.
The one issue I had with the Canon SX40's controls was when using Manual, Aperture Priority, or Shutter Priority. Some megazooms have a subdial to set the relevant option (aperture, shutter, or both). But the Canon SX40 HS relies on the scroll wheel.
It's a dandy scroll wheel, but I found myself accidentally pressing in too far as I tried to grip it to spin it left or right to change the aperture or shutter speed. And that would activate EV or the Focus mode or ISO.
The LCD is a 2.7-inch TFT color Vari-angle LCD with a wide viewing angle (which is not as important on an articulating screen) and about 230,000 dots, which is not among the finer resolutions these days. And in fact, I had trouble detecting soft focus in macro shots using the LCD.
The EVF has about 202,000 dots (67,000 x 3), and seems a bit cramped. It's not uniformly sharp, but was certainly usable.
Lens. With a 35mm equivalent focal length range of 24mm to 840mm, the 35x optical zoom on the Canon SX40 HS goes beyond the comfortably hand-holdable (even with Canon's optical image stabilization enabled). Add the 4x digital zoom and that 35x shoots up to 140x.
We actually used that to photograph a noisy squirrel handheld and were able to do it by somehow leading the camera as we pressed the Shutter button.
Macro gave us fits. The range is zero to 1.6 feet but with a 24mm equivalent wide angle, you always feel too far away and when you zoom in to the perfect, undistorted composition, it is out of the lens's macro range.
Maximum aperture ranges from f/2.7 at wide angle to f/5.8 at telephoto. Shutter speeds go from one second to 1/3,200 second, although the Canon SX40 HS does offer shutter speeds as slow as 15 seconds in Shutter priority mode.
Handily, the lens cap, which hangs by a cord, has a small finger on the inside so you can clip it to the shoulder strap.
Modes. The Canon SX40 HS gives you complete control over exposure with Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, and Manual modes with two Custom modes to store their settings. In addition to Program mode, it offers a Smart Auto mode. One Scene mode appears on the Mode dial itself (Sports) along with a Scene mode setting to access others. A Creative Filters and Movie option fill out the Mode dial.
You can set the Shutter speed with the scroll wheel from 15 seconds to 1/3,200 second (with a flash-sync speed as high as 1/2,000 second), depending on the zoom position with the Mode dial set to Tv. Shutter speeds slower than 1.3 seconds use ISO 100 only and are processed with dark frame noise reduction. With the Shutter button half-pressed the shutter speed value appears in orange when the scene "has exceeded the correct exposure limits." If you enable the Camera menu setting for Safety Shift, it will automatically be adjusted.
You can set the aperture with the scroll wheel from f/2.7 to f/8.0, depending on the zoom position with the Mode dial set to Av. With the Shutter button half-pressed the aperture value appears in orange when the scene "has exceeded the correct exposure limits." If you enable the Camera menu setting for Safety Shift, it will automatically be adjusted.
Smart Auto, which can recognize a variety of scenes and configure the camera for them, is available for video captures too.
In addition to the Sports mode on the Mode dial, a number of Scene modes are available under the SCN option. Those include Movie Digest, Portrait, Landscape, Smart Shutter, High-Speed Burst HQ, Handheld Night Scene, Low Light, Beach, Foliage, Snow, Fireworks, Stitch Assist.
The Func. Set menu accesses a set of Creative Filters that include Fish-Eye Effect, Miniature Effect, Toy Camera Effect, Monochrome, Super Vivid, Poster Effect, Color Accent, and Color Swap. Here's a few of them:
Movie. Like Still mode, Movie mode allows you to select among the various shooting modes (like Smart Auto and Manual) as well as a number of Scene modes, including Portrait, Landscape, Beach, Foliage, Snow, Fireworks, Miniature Effect, Monochrome, Super Vivid, Poster Effect, Color Accent, and Color Swap. A Wind Filter menu option can reduce wind noise.
Video can be captured at Full HD (1,920 x 1,080 at 24 frames per second), HD (1,280 x 720 at 30 fps), and SD (640 x 480 at 30 fps). A Super Slow Motion option captures video at either 120 fps at 640 x 480 pixels, or 240 fps at 320 x 240 pixels without zoom. Both play back at 30 fps. You can also record iFrame movies.
Movies are recorded with H.264 compression with stereo linear PCM audio in a MOV container. Optical zoom is available during recording, as is image stabilization. Mic level can be automatic, or manually adjusted.
You can capture stills while recording video by pressing the Shutter button during recording. The camera click and a brief blackout appear in the video clip when you do.
Menu System. Canon fans will be instantly familiar with the company's traditional menu system. And new Canon owners won't take long to figure out the two basic rules:
- Use the Menu button to make changes to general camera behavior for Recording, Setup, Playback and Printing.
- Use the Function/Set button to make changes to exposure settings.
In addition, the four-way navigator arrow buttons provide a few handy shortcuts as explained in the Controls section above.
Storage & Battery. The Canon SX40 HS uses SD, SDHC, or SDXC memory cards (and is Eye-Fi compatible). A 4GB card will hold 1,231 Large, Fine 4:3 images, or 14 min. 34 sec. of Full HD video.
The Canon SX40 HS is powered by a lithium-ion NB-10L battery pack. It can also be powered by the optional Compact Power Adapter CA-PS700 (when used with AC Adapter Kit ACK-DC80). Canon claims a shooting capacity of 400 shots with the EVF or 380 shots using the LCD or a playback time of nine hours. I was able to go several shoots before recharging, and even then I didn't get a low battery warning.
We're glad to see a small plastic cap for the Canon SX40's battery, to avoid accidentally discharging it when it isn't in the camera. And the charger needs no cord to plug into the wall, a blessing for travelers. The battery compartment door needs no lock or lever, pulling out sideways before it flips open.
You may also want to invest in a lens hood for the SX40 HS. Canon continues a policy of providing lens hoods only as an option.
Shooting. There's always a lot more to the cameras we review than any of us has a chance to explore. So I focus primarily on the basic shooting experience in Program mode. But with this year's models, some of the more advanced features have been irresistible.
Handheld Twilight Scene mode is one of them. I'm thrilled to report it has made it onto a Canon after appearing on other brands. It's really a winner for those very dark scenes in which nothing moves. And, in case you haven't guessed, it isn't just for twilight. Or night scenes. I took a shot of a car interior in a garage just to prove it opens up previously unphotographable scenes to the enquiring mind.
High-Speed Video is another. Like macrophotography, it shows you a world you otherwise can't see. With the Canon SX40 HS, I shot a few seconds of water boiling because water doesn't have to sign a release. But anything that moves is game.
Even some of the goofier effects were worth committing to memory. I like Canon's Fish-Eye effect. Toy Camera and Miniature were fun to play with, too.
And just when you thought low-light shooting was out for small digicams, with even ISO 400 suffered loss of detail, here comes a new round of cameras that can handle ISOs from 400 to 3,200 with grace. It's pretty clear that the manufacturers have been working on this issue -- and with more success than anyone expected. The Canon SX40 HS did better than most, too.
But getting back to the basics, what you have to love about the Canon SX40 HS is the lens. It's an astonishing 35x optical zoom starting at a very wide 24mm. You can easily extend the focal length beyond your ability to frame the subject -- even with Canon's image stabilization helping out.
And when you add 4x digital zoom to that, you're not going to leave the house without a tripod. Or, like me, you'll just confine yourself to the optical zoom range. Or something short of that.
My gallery shot of the Golden Gate Bridge tower is a case in point. So is the flag atop the Ferry building. The tower was the maximum 35mm focal length equivalent of 3,206.4mm with 2x digital zoom. The Ferry Building shot was a mere 840.5mm, the full optical zoom. Both were very difficult to frame handheld. I consider them lucky shots, frankly. As is the Transamerica Pyramid at 4x digital zoom in the zoom series.
So if you want the maximum zoom capability in a camera, this is your baby.
On the other end of the spectrum, macro shooting was a bit disappointing. You don't have to shoot macro at the widest wide-angle focal length (there is a bit of range there) but you do. And that means moving quite close to the subject. And distorting the subject quite a bit. The gallery has macro shots of a wet iris and some coins that are unhappily distorted. The iris even looks like it's drooping. Having just shot a more forgiving macro-capable camera with the Panasonic FZ150, I was disappointed with these limitations on the Canon SX40 HS.
I popped Photoflex's FlashFire trigger on the hot shoe to fire a StarFlash at my coins and it worked exactly as I expected it to. Having a hot shoe on your megazoom just adds to the fun. But once you've had the fun, you miss it on cameras that don't include one.
I did manage to get a bird shot for once, too. Birds being rather distant subjects in general, I did resort to 3.12x digital zoom and it isn't pretty as far as detail goes. But the shutter was very responsive, dSLR-like in fact.
More successful was my butterfly shot. No digital zoom. No macro. Just across the table from me. That long lens reaching discretely across and capturing every hair on its body. That's exactly what you want from a megazoom, and enough right there to make the Canon SX40 HS a Dave's Pick.
Detail from the 12.1-megapixel sensor even on more ordinary shots was fun to get lost in. The carnation shot, the bricks, the yellow rose, all were nicely captured with some lovely blurring in the background. But the rosemary shot in sunlight against a dark background was overexposed. It does show how smart the focus is, though.
A walk along the Embarcadero on a sunny day provided plenty of opportunities to push the Canon SX40 HS as a photo-making machine. There were compositions to frame from awkward spots and obstacles between the camera and the subject.
But whatever captured my eye, whether it was the big rivets on an iron bridge or the red lamp on the bumper below it, it was delightful to compose the image with the Canon SX40 HS. Zoom was slow enough to compose carefully and long enough to compose without compromise. It took some fiddling to get Juan Marichal's statue just right against the sky because I was up the block and across the street, but it's just the composition I wanted.
The play of light on the under-bridge shots and fireboat shot says a lot about the subtly of color the Canon SX40 is able to capture. The fireboat in particular charmed me, its white ropes holding detail as the red paint in shadow gleams.
Absorbed in the fun of photographing these subjects on my walk, my only complaint was the weight of the camera. It's built tough and it can be tiring to hold for hours. But that's one of those problems that goes away with use as you build up those wrist muscles.
If, that is, you use a wrist strap instead of the shoulder strap included with the Canon SX40 HS. I prefer a wrist strap, so I found the SX40 HS more tiring than you would with it hung from a shoulder.
Canon PowerShot SX40 HS Lens Quality
The PowerShot SX40 HS offers an impressive 35x optical zoom, equivalent to 24-840mm on a 35mm camera. 840mm is too long for some of our lab shots, so some of our telephoto results are at between ~20x and ~21x (~485 to ~503mm eq.).
Wide: Sharp at center
Wide: Soft at upper right
21x Tele: Slightly soft at center
21x Tele: Mild blurring, upper right corner
Sharpness: The wide-angle end of the Canon PowerShot SX40 HS' zoom shows some mild blurring in the corners of the frame compared to what we see at center. Though mild, blurring extends fairly far into the image area. At 21x telephoto, blurring is lower.
Wide: A small amount of barrel distortion; only slightly noticeable
35x Tele: Low pincushion distortion, slightly visible
Geometric Distortion: The Canon PowerShot SX40 HS produced low barrel distortion at wide-angle (~0.3%), and slight pincushion distortion (~0.2%) at full telephoto. Thus, the PowerShot SX40 HS' processor works hard here.
Chromatic Aberration: Chromatic aberration at wide-angle is moderate in terms of pixel count, though pixels aren't overly bright. At 21x telephoto, pixels appear a little brighter, mainly with a glow of bluish pixels visible. The SX40's DIGIC 5 processor does a good job suppressing CA.
Macro with Flash
Macro: The Canon PowerShot SX40 HS' Macro mode captures a sharp image with strong detail at the center of the frame, with mild blurring and noticeable chromatic aberration in the corners and edges of the frame (a common limitation among consumer digital cameras in macro mode). Exposure is quite uneven, with strong highlights along the left of the frame and deep shadows on the right. Minimum coverage area is 1.74 x 1.30 inches (44 x 33mm), which is quite good. The camera focuses so closely that the flash is blocked by the lens almost entirely, with the edge of the shadow along the upper left corner.
Canon PowerShot SX40 HS Viewfinder Accuracy
Wide: LCD Monitor
20x Tele: LCD Monitor
20x Tele: EVF
Viewfinder Accuracy: The Canon PowerShot SX40 HS' electronic viewfinder showed coverage that varied between just over 99% at wide-angle to just under 100% at 20x telephoto. The LCD monitor's coverage was just over 100% at wide-angle, and just under 100% at 20x telephoto. These are good results, but you can tell by the variable results that some significant distortion correction is being performed.
Canon PowerShot SX40 HS Image Quality
Color: The Canon PowerShot SX40 HS produced very good overall color, though bright yellows are noticeably undersaturated, while strong reds, blues and some greens are pumped a little (greens least of all). Hue is also a little off for colors like yellow, orange, and cyan, though is fairly commonplace among many digital cameras. Dark skintones are pushed toward yellows, while lighter skin tones show only a tiny nudge toward red. Overall, good performance.
Good, though slightly red
Incandescent: Manual white balance handled our incandescent lighting much better than the Incandescent setting, which came out much too pink. Auto produced better results than average, though with a slight reddish tint.
Horizontal: 1,800 lines
Vertical: 1,800 lines
Resolution: Our laboratory resolution chart revealed sharp, distinct line patterns down to about 1,800 lines per picture height in both directions. Extinction of the pattern occurred at between 2,200 and 2,400 lines per picture height.
Tele: Slightly dim
Manual Flash, +0.7 EV
Flash: Our manufacturer-specified testing (shown at right) showed good flash exposure at 23 feet at wide-angle, though the camera raised ISO to 320. The telephoto test came out just slightly dim, despite the same ISO increase to 320 at 9.8 feet.
Auto flash produced fairly bright results in our indoor portrait scene, retaining some of the ambient light by using a slower shutter speed of 1/25 second, and raising ISO to 250. The Canon PowerShot SX40 HS' image stabilization should help with the slower shutter speed, but any movement by the subject could be problematic at this shutter speed. Using manual flash at ISO 100, we were bale to get a bright image at a fairly fast shutter speed of 1/60s by using +0.7 EV flash exposure compensation. Good results here. Shot taken at ~5 feet (~1.5m) on a stable tripod.
ISO: Noise and Detail: The PowerShot SX40 HS produced good detail at ISO 100 and 200, with visible softening starting at ISO 400 and progressing from there. Chroma (color) noise is fairly well controlled, though it starts to affect color at the higher settings. Luminance noise notably increases, but so do the camera's attempts to suppress it, resulting in smudgy details. See Printed section below for more on how this affects prints.
ISO 200 shots also look good at 16x20.
ISO 400 images have increased noise processing applied, and while they are usable at 13x19, we'd recommend printing at 11x14 inches for better results.
ISO 800 images are a little too soft in reds and other solid colors at 11x14 inches, but they make a good 8x10.
ISO 1,600 shots at 8x10 are again a bit soft, but look pretty good at 5x7 inches.
ISO 3,200 shots are good at 4x6, though detail in reds is still pretty soft.
Overall, the Canon SX40 makes excellent prints.
Canon PowerShot SX40 HS Performance
Startup Time: The Canon PowerShot SX40 HS takes about 2.6 seconds to power on and take a shot, which is on the slower side of average.
Shutter Lag: Full autofocus shutter lag is a little slower than average these days, at 0.46 second at wide angle and 0.58 second at full telephoto. Prefocus shutter lag is 0.116 second, not the fastest around, but still reasonably quick.
Cycle Time: Cycle time is on the slower side, with the SX40 HS capturing a frame every 2.56 seconds in single-shot mode, though High-speed Burst HQ mode captures 8 frames at a rate of 10.3 frames per second.
Flash Recycle: The Canon PowerShot SX40 HS' flash recycles in about 5.4 seconds after a full-power discharge, about average.
Low Light AF: The camera's AF system was able to focus down to just above the 1/8 foot-candle light level without AF assist enabled, though the camera was able to focus in complete darkness with the AF assist lamp enabled.
USB Transfer Speed: Connected to a computer or printer with USB 2.0, the Canon PowerShot SX40 HS' download speeds are moderately fast. We measured 6,266 KBytes/sec.
In the Box
The retail box contains:
- The Canon SX40 HS camera
- Battery pack NB-10L with terminal cover
- Battery charger CB-2LC/CB-2LCE
- Lens cap with cord
- USB cable
- Shoulder strap NS-DC11
- Case for hot shoe cap
- Digital Camera Solutions CD, which also includes a PDF manual
- Documentation kit with Getting Started guide and Warranty card
- Extra battery pack for extended outings
- Large capacity SDHC/SDXC memory card. These days, 8GB is a good tradeoff between cost and capacity. Canon recommends Speed Class 6 or faster to record HD video.
- Camera case
- Lens hood
- Mini HDMI cable
Canon SX40 HS Conclusion
At first glance, the Canon SX40 HS is simply a beautiful camera. When you get it into your hands, it's only just beginning to delight you. You'll enjoy the color and detail it captures long after you forget what fun it was to compose with it. The specs are reassuring, too. The Canon SX40's 35x optical zoom, ranging from 24-840mm, feeds a 12.1-megapixel CMOS sensor that brings high-speed Full HD video captures with it. The 2.7-inch articulated LCD is just the ticket for framing awkward shots while the EVF does the job in sunlight.
Stepping back from the SX30's 14.1-megapixel sensor improved high ISO performance, and adding the latest DIGIC 5 processor brought chromatic aberration and distortion under control.
The Canon SX40 HS is heavier than other megazooms and macro shooting was a bit more limited, but these are small complaints. The heft is an indication of superior build, and the macro issues a tradeoff with the zoom range. Print quality was also a pleasant surprise, with its lowest ISO settings easily producing a good 16x20-inch print, and the highest producing a good 4x6.
Canon has produced some nice long zooms in the past but the Canon SX40 HS is among the finest megazooms we've had the pleasure to shoot with. That certainly earns it a Dave's Pick.