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Canon SX260 HS Review

by Daniel Grotta and Stephanie Boozer
Review Posted: July 27, 2012

Each succeeding generation of smartphones improves photographic functionality, which makes it more competitive to traditional point-and-shoot cameras: higher resolution, enhanced video, and better image quality. Some technology visionaries even predict that smartphones will eventually obsolete and replace point-and-shoot cameras.

To belie this claim, Canon's $350 PowerShot SX260 HS offers one "killer-app" feature that no smartphone can conceivably match: a 20X optical zoom lens that provides true telephoto (and wide angle) capability. It also comes equipped with a long list of crowd-pleasing photographic goodies, among which are GPS tracking, HDMI interface, popular program modes, sophisticated face recognition, superior low-light shooting ability, exposure modes ranging from total manual to complete auto exposure, and manual and automatic focus control, plus a sophisticated group-type autofocus system called Face Identification.

While the Canon SX260's ergonomics, controls, and flash system could use some improvement, its superb zoom lens and excellent image quality run rings around even the best smartphones. It's the camera you'll want to take on vacations, keep on hand for barbecues and parties, and even use to stalk wildlife and hyperactive kids in their natural habitats. 

Look and Feel. The Canon SX260 HS is surprisingly compact, considering its impressive 20x zoom lens. To put this in perspective, it's about 1/3-inch shorter, twice as thick, and just 3.25 ounces heavier than my iPhone 4s. The lens snout juts out about 15/16-inch at wide angle, two inches at maximum telephoto, and folds into the camera body's 1/4-inch circular bezel when the power is off. The attractive, well-built, all-metal body has nicely rounded edges, but it's not weather sealed and lacks a molded thumb rest. Another ergonomic miss is its thin rubberized grip strip on the front of the camera, which is too small and slippery to be of any practical use. 

On the far left side of the camera top is the pop-up strobe, which automatically deploys and retracts when powered on or off. Unlike the earlier SX230, which raises the flash whether you want it or not, you can choose to disable the flash on the Canon SX260. To its right is the camera's speaker and stereo microphones; there's no port for an external mike. On the top right is a large silver shutter button, surrounded by the zoom ring, and to its right is the oval power button.

Dominating the Canon SX260's back is its 3-inch, 461,000 dot LCD viewfinder. To its right is the cluster of controls: Mode dial, 4-way navigator Control disk/Scroll dial with Function/Set button in the middle, and separate buttons for Movie Start/Stop, Playback, Display and Menu. Pressing the Control disk's four sides activates Exposure Compensation, Flash, Self-timer and Focus options; rotating the Scroll dial bumps settings up or down.

LCD. The Canon SX260's LCD is sharp, bright and fairly responsive, displaying reasonably accurate colors, and at just high enough resolution to be able to check focus. Depending upon the mode selected, toggling the display button will show either minimal information (f-stop, shutter speed, exposure compensation, plus additional parameters when you depress the shutter button halfway), or all important settings. In Manual mode, the LCD viewfinder obligingly lightens or darkens, to reflect what your image will look like. Similarly, in Live mode, you can see the effects of adjusting brightness, color and tone.

On the right side of the Canon SX260 are USB and mini-HDMI ports, protected by an attached rubberized flap. The USB is 2.0, not 3.0, and to use the HDMI feature you'll have to buy an optional Mini-HDMI-to-HDMI cable. Just underneath it is a nickel/steel post for attaching the enclosed hand strap. Both the rechargeable lithium-ion battery and an SD/SDHC/SDXC memory card slide into a flap-protected slot on the bottom. Canon says that the battery is good for about 230 shots or an hour of video; and it recharges in approximately two hours. Also on the bottom is a hardened standard 1/4-inch tripod screw socket.

Controls.  While all controls and primary settings are easily identifiable by icon or word description, there's nothing to indicate which button to push to toggle between f-stop, shutter speed selection, and focus in Manual mode. Nor is there a physical ISO button. We would prefer having separate buttons for selecting and setting these functions, but the camera back's limited real estate nixes this possibility. That's because all controls are tightly packed into a one-inch swathe of the camera's 4.2-inch width, with the other three inches or so occupied by the LCD. This arrangement also makes it difficult to avoid, for instance, accidently triggering the Video record button or inadvertently rotating the Scroll dial. Apart from the Video button, there are no special or dedicated buttons.

I have a few minor quibbles with the Canon SX260's physical and virtual controls.  Some important settings, such as Redeye suppression, must be activated through the menu and not the Flash button.  While the Display button toggles between a screen showing only basic settings and one with more comprehensive information, there's no live histogram. And when you're shooting either Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority, it doesn't display, respectively, the corresponding shutter speed or aperture setting until you press the shutter button down halfway.  

Lens. The Canon SX260's 20x optical zoom's 35mm equivalent ranges from 25mm wide angle to 500mm ultra telephoto. At 25mm, its largest opening is a modest f/3.5, which progressively declines to f/6.8 at maximum telephoto. Canon boasts that its new ZoomPlus technology (digital zoom) will extend its zoom range to 39x "where the image is not noticeably grainy." Standard digital zoom is available up to 4x (80x total).

To minimize camera shake, and to offset the slower shutter speeds that the smaller lens aperture will require, Canon provides a fairly sophisticated optical stabilization system that allows users to gain up to four stops while shooting handheld. Its focus range extends from close macro (two inches) through infinity at wide angle. Focus modes include Auto, Manual, Tracking, Face Detection, and Continuous.

Given that the Canon SX260 is a 20x zoom, optical performance is very good. While the corners are slightly soft at maximum wide angle and telephoto, chromatic aberration is low, minimized by in-camera processing. Images are crisp, sharp, and exhibit good contrast.

Shutter speeds range from 15 seconds to 1/3,200 seconds, and ISO equivalencies range from 100 to 3,200. In Low Light scene mode, ISO can be as high as 6,400 equivalent, though pixel binning means image size is limited to about 3 megapixels.

Sensor and Processor.  At the heart of the Canon SX260 is its 12.1 megapixel backlit CMOS image sensor. This translates into a maximum resolution of 4,000 x 3,000 pixels, plus it offers fifteen other resolutions, down to 480x480 pixels. When combined with Canon's DIGIC 5 image processor, the image sensor enables enhanced and improved low light photography, as well as 1080p and 240 fps video capture. All still images are captured in JPEG format, at two quality levels (Super Fine, Fine), while video clips are saved as H.264 MOV files. Although colors are slightly enhanced, they are generally accurate and pleasing, especially skin tones. Our tests indicate that White Balance is fairly accurate in Auto mode, but even better when set manually. While the Canon SX260 is very good at pulling out details in shadow areas, specular highlights tend to blow out and become indistinct blobs of white. The SX260's i-Contrast feature can help avoid that.

Canon PowerShot SX260 Shooter's Report

by Daniel Grotta

Because of its well-constructed body, the Canon SX260 has a solid look and feel of quality. It's neither too light nor too heavy, and nicely balanced for easy one-handed zooming and shooting. But while you can also change modes one-handed, it takes quite a bit of finger contortion to use the Scroll dial or press any of the function buttons. The shutter button and surrounding zoom lever are well placed and responsive, but while the zoom lever glides smoothly and effortlessly, it's often difficult to navigate to the exact magnification you want.


Wink or blink: Blink detection warns of a subject blinking; wink and you activate the camera's self-timer!

Without flash enabled, there's barely any shutter delay. But shooting with flash involves the camera initiating a series of extra steps--firing a pre-flash sequence, checking exposure, setting flash illumination power--before the Canon SX260 actually snaps the picture, assuming the flash capacitor is charged. That can take up to several seconds, by which time your subject may have moved or blinked. To offset this interminable wait, the Canon SX260 also features Blink Detection, a warning icon that warns when one of the subjects may have blinked during exposure. That allows you to take another shot before your subjects break up or move on. Another nifty feature is Wink. It allows your subject (or you, if you're in the shot) to activate the camera's self-timer, simply by winking. Wink an eye, and 2 seconds later the Canon SX260 takes the picture.

In Auto mode, the SX260 is no speed demon when you're trying to take quick individual shots of kids, animals, sports, or other action-based activities. That's because it takes over two seconds after pressing the shutter before you're ready to shoot again. But in Program, Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority modes, you can choose to shoot continuously (with or without autofocus adjusting while shooting) as long as your finger depresses the shutter button, at up to 2.4 frames per second. For maximum shooting speed, a mode called High-speed Burst HQ allows you to capture 10.3 frames per second for up to 10 frames at full resolution (though you'll have to wait until those images are saved before you can continue shooting).

Helpful compensation. On this shot I wanted a boost in brightness and contrast and the SX260 helped me achieve it.

Like almost all other digital cameras, the Canon SX260 has exposure compensation, which allows the user to lighten or darken all pictures and videos. This is useful if your photographs uniformly appear over or underexposed, or if you're shooting in a specific environment where you want more or less contrast and brightness. The Canon SX260's EV range is 2 f-stops, in 1/3 stop increments. Like most compacts, the Canon SX260 lacks exposure, white balance and flash bracketing.

The Canon SX260's flash provides illumination from macro to about 11 feet at wide angle. Unfortunately, the strobe doesn't rise far enough above the lens to eliminate redeye, so you'll either have to toggle on and put up with an annoying extra pre-flash or subject most of your flash shots to Red-Eye Correction. Pressing the flash button on the Select dial offers several options, depending upon the selected mode: Auto, On (forced flash that always fires), Off, and Slow Synchro (uses a slow shutter speed, to better illuminate the background). For more options, such as Flash Exposure Compensation, you have to set them in the Menu.

Zooming in. Having a 20x optical zoom in a small package comes in handy.

To assure that your photos taken in low light will be in focus, users will appreciate the AF-assist Beam (an illuminated beam that aids the autofocus when shooting in low light; on by default). Otherwise, the autofocus mechanism may endlessly whine in and out of focus, fruitlessly looking for that ideal focus point.

Modes. The Canon SX260 features a variety of shooting modes that will satisfy both auto-everything point-and-shooters and sophisticated control freaks. Auto mode makes the Canon SX260 practically goof-proof. It boots up and is ready to shoot in under two seconds. The camera's intelligence automatically determines and sets focus, exposure, white balance, and whether or not the scene requires flash (though you can't set forced flash, to eliminate facial shadows). For optimum picture quality, it automatically compares what you're seeing through the LCD viewfinder with 58 preset scenes, and when it finds a match, it sets the corresponding optimum settings. We found that it works well for most subjects and scenes.

Complex or easy. The Canon SX260 allows you to make the choices, or it's happy to make them for you.

In addition to Auto, there two other automatic modes: Easy and Program. Easy mode (a better label might be Dummy mode) disables everything except the zoom lever, flash auto or off, and movie record buttons, so you can't inadvertently press or activate the wrong command while shooting. Program mode allows more latitude than Auto and Easy modes, giving the user the option to set a number of parameters, such as ISO equivalency, white balance, exposure compensation, resolution and compression quality, metering type, aspect ratio, and color preference. What you can't choose are the f-stops and shutter speeds, though you can shift the camera's selected shutter speed/aperture pair by half-pressing the shutter button, pressing the EV button to lock exposure, then using the scroll wheel to select an equivalent exposure pair (commonly called Program Shift).

For more precise control, the Canon SX260 also offers Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual modes. Of course, the SX260 features a number of Scene modes: Portrait, Smooth Skin (for either light or dark-skinned faces), High-speed Burst HQ, Handheld Night Scene, Low Light, Underwater, Snow, Fireworks, Stitch Assist (left to right), and Stitch Assist (right to left).

Special effects. Fisheye is a fun little tool for an old-timey church shot.

There are two additional modes on the Canon SX260's dial: Special Effects and Discreet. Among the Special Effects are Fisheye (it distorts your shot in the familiar lines-bowing-out fashion), Miniature (makes your shot look like a miniature model), Toy Camera (your pictures will look as if they were shot with a toy camera), Soft Focus (mimics shooting at wide aperture, to soften the image), Monochrome (changes color to black & white), Poster (posterizes the image by dropping details), Color Accent (retains one color only and changes all other colors to black & white) and Color Swap (replaces the color you choose with another color). Discreet mode disables the flash and all the camera's audio signals, for taking pictures that won't disturb or annoy (such as in a museum or during a religious ceremony).

Movies.  We enjoyed using the Discreet mode's versatile and easy-to-shoot Movie mode. All it takes is pressing the dedicated red video button to start or stop. Since it's a separate control, you can easily switch between still and video, simply by pressing either the shutter or video button. Selecting Movie on the mode dial allows the user to switch among standard, iFrame (for editing on iFrame devices, like an iPhone), and Super Slow Movie Motion (a maximum of 240 fps at 320x240, for slow motion playback). You can also adjust color, white balance, and movie quality (1,920 x 1,080 Full HD, 1,270 x 720 HD, and 640 x 480 SD).

Full HD movie. 1920x1080 at 24p. Click to download 45MB MOV file.

What we liked was the ability to zoom and focus during shooting, without recording the annoying whine or servo motors. However, sound recording quality on the camera's stereo mikes is mediocre at best. No matter where or what we recorded, we couldn't get rid of background rumble in Playback on moderate quality computer speakers. And as fun and easy as it is to shoot video, we would have preferred a higher frame rate at 1,920 x 1,080. At Full HD quality, the Canon SX260 captures video at only 24 fps, which isn't very smooth and slow enough to blur even normal movements, such as waving a hand. By contrast, the Canon's most direct competitor, Panasonic's $300 DMC-ZS20, has a Full HD capture rate of 60 fps.

Movie Digest. Automatically records your day of shooting in a short film.

While it's not exactly classic video, the SX260 has a mode, called Movie Digest, that automatically takes a short video clip every time you shoot a still. Then it will patch together all the videos you shot on a specific day into a single video. When it works, it creates a fun log of what you did and where you went that day, and may be fun viewing of a vacation or other recreational activities. But if you're just randomly snapping away, Movie Digest may turn out to be an anarchistic mish-mash that only helps accelerate battery drain.  

GPS. Location shown in Google Earth.

GPS: Since it can't display maps or coordinates on the LCD viewfinder, the SX260's GPS has no active role in shooting. Instead, it works in the background, recording the latitude, longitude, and elevation (if sync'd to enough satellites) of each photo or video in your metadata. When enabling GPS by using the Function menu, there are only two options to choose from: On or Off. Toggling it on will display a satellite icon on the LCD viewfinder. When enabled via the Setup menu, you also can toggle on or off a function called GPS Logger, which automatically tracks the camera's movements, even when the camera's power is switched off. (You can check those movements on the LCD viewfinder, minute by minute, though all you'll see is a long list of location coordinates.) The GPS function becomes useful only when viewing your photos on your PC or laptop, using Canon's excellent Map Utility software. That allows you to see on a map where each photo was taken. Or with Tracker, you can follow (and even share with friends and family) a particular route, say, a vacation drive through rural New England.

Because it's always active even when the camera is switched off, enabling GPS will put a minor drain on your battery.

Because video, GPS and playback accelerate battery drain, we strongly suggest buying a spare rechargeable battery (NB-6L) to carry wherever your camera goes.

If you take a lot of flash pictures, especially group shots with distances up to 16 feet (which is beyond the Canon SX260's normal range of 11 feet), we recommend using Canon's High Power Flash (HF-DC2). It attaches to the camera base via bracket and holder.

There's a reason the camera features an Underwater mode and Underwater color select, and that's because Canon sells a high-quality underwater housing (WP-DC46). It's waterproof down to 4 atmospheres, or approximately 130 feet. Because the camera and housing have positive buoyancy, you may want to attach Canon's Waterproof Case Weight (WW-DC1). This keeps the camera and housing from floating while shooting. Incidentally, the waterproof case is also useful for shooting in extreme environments, such as in the rain, on a ski slope, or at the beach.

For displaying your stills and videos on an HDTV, you'll want to purchase a mini-HDMI cable, either from Canon (HTC-100) or at most electronics stores.

Overall, the Canon SX260 was great to use, with an easy interface if you want it, and the ability to take complete control if you like. See our image quality analysis below and check out our full pro/con and conclusion below that for our final word on the Canon SX260.

 

Canon PowerShot SX260 HS Lens Quality

The Canon PowerShot SX260 HS features a 20x zoom lens with a 35mm equivalent of 25-500mm. Some of the telephoto shots below were taken at 14x, as the lab couldn't accommodate full 20x zoom.


Wide: Sharp at center
Wide: Quite soft at upper right
14x Tele: Sharp at center
14x Tele: Mild blurring, upper left corner

Sharpness: The wide-angle end of the Canon PowerShot SX260's zoom shows pretty strong blurring in the right corners of the frame compared to what we see at center, though blurring isn't nearly as strong in the left corners. At 14x telephoto, performance is better, with only mild softening in the corners. At 20x, corners still only have mild blurring. Fair results overall.


Wide: Slight barrel distortion; slightly noticeable
14x Telephoto: Less barrel distortion; hardly noticeable
Full 20x Tele: A small amount of pincushion distortion, minimal

Geometric Distortion: There is surprisingly little barrel distortion at the Canon PowerShot SX260's wide-angle setting (0.3%), and distortion decreases slightly at 14x telephoto to about 0.2% barrel. At full 20x telephoto, a small amount of pincushion distortion (0.3%) is noticeable but not terribly so. Thus, the SX260's processor works hard to squash distortion here.


Wide: Fairly low
14x Tele: Low

Chromatic Aberration: Chromatic aberration at wide-angle is fairly low in terms of pixel count, and what few pixels are visible are not that bright; just a hint of blue. At 14x telephoto, this distortion is also quite low, with just a hint of blue and green peeking outside of the black target lines.


Macro
Macro with Flash

Macro: The Canon PowerShot SX260's Macro mode captures a reasonably sharp image with strong detail, though with noticeable blurring along the left side of the frame, as well as some flares of chromatic aberration (a common limitation among consumer digital cameras in macro mode). Minimum coverage area is 2.06 x 1.55 inches (52 x 39mm), which is slightly larger than average but still good. The camera focuses so closely that the flash is blocked by the lens in the lower right corner, and overcompensates by blowing out the top left.


 

Canon PowerShot SX260 HS Viewfinder Accuracy


Wide: LCD Monitor
14x Tele: LCD Monitor

Viewfinder Accuracy: The Canon PowerShot SX260 HS' LCD monitor showed about 101% coverage at wide-angle and just over 100% at 14x telephoto, which is very good, especially given the distortion correction being applied.


 

Canon PowerShot SX260 HS Image Quality


Color: Overall color looks pretty good, though bright yellows and cyans are somewhat muted, while darker reds, greens and blues are pumped a little. Hue is also a little off for colors like yellow, orange and cyan. Dark skintones are fairly accurate, and lighter skin tones show a small nudge toward pink. Still, good results overall.


Auto WB:
Fair, but too yellow
Incandescent WB:
Too pink
 
Manual WB:
Very good

Incandescent: Manual white balance handled our incandescent lighting best overall, with just enough of a warm tint to feel natural. Incandescent resulted in too strong of a pink cast, while Auto produced very warm, yellow results.


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 a little before 2,400 lines per picture height.


Wide: Bright
Tele: Good
Auto Flash

Flash: Our manufacturer-specified testing shows bright results at Canon's rated wide-angle distance of 11 feet, though the camera boosted ISO to 640. At the full telephoto rated distance of 6.6 feet, flash power is good, though not as bright. (ISO boosted to 400.)

Auto flash produced bright results in our indoor portrait scene, retaining some of the ambient light by using a slower shutter speed of 1/20 second, and raising ISO to 250. The Canon PowerShot SX260 HS' image stabilization should help with the slower shutter speed, but any movement of the subject could be problematic at this shutter speed. Shot taken at ~5 feet (~1.5m) on a stable tripod.


100
200
400
800
1,600
3,200

ISO: Noise and Detail: Detail remains very good up to ISO 200, with only minimal softening beginning at ISO 400. Chroma (color) noise stays fairly well controlled through the series, though luminance noise does increase in visibility. Noise suppression efforts do much more damage to detail here. However, results at ISO 3,200 aren't too bad considering we can still make out a hint of the mosaic pattern in the skirt. See Printed section below for how this affects printed images.


Print Quality: ISO 100 shots print pretty well at 16 x 20 inches, with good sharpness and color. There's a hint of luminance noise across the image, but it's not objectionable, just more noticeable than we'd see from an SLR.

ISO 200 shots also print well at 16 x 20 inches, with the same notes.

ISO 400 images are usable at 13 x 19, but there's enough softening in low-contrast areas that we prefer the 11 x 14-inch prints.

ISO 800 shots have decent high-contrast detail at 11 x 14, but again low contrast detail, as found among colors, looks better printed at 8 x 10.

ISO 1,600 shots look quite good at 8 x 10.

ISO 3,200 shots are better printed at 5 x 7.

Overall, the Canon SX260 has enough detail to produce some pretty big prints at 16 x 20 inches, and even its highest setting produces a decent 5 x 7! Not bad for a pocket long zoom.


 

Canon PowerShot SX260 HS Performance


Startup Time: The Canon SX260 HS takes about 1.95 seconds to power on and take a shot. That's pretty good for a long-zoom.


Shutter Lag: Full autofocus shutter lag is fair, at 0.52 second at wide angle, but better at full telephoto at 0.43 second. Prefocused shutter lag is 0.079 second, not the fastest out there, but still pretty quick.


Cycle Time: Cycle time is okay, capturing a frame every 2.08 seconds in single-shot mode. Canon rates the SX260's full-resolution burst mode at 2.4 frames-per-second, however focus is locked at the first frame. With focus tracking, this drops to 0.8 frames-per-second. Hi-speed Burst HQ mode captures up to 10 frames at 10.3 frames-per-second, with focus and exposure locked at the first frame.


Flash Recycle: The Canon PowerShot SX260's flash recycles in about 3.5 seconds after a full-power discharge, which is excellent.


Low Light AF: The camera's AF system was able to focus down to just above the 1/4 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 SX260's download speeds are fast. We measured 9,470 KBytes/sec.


Battery Life: The Canon SX260 HS' battery life has a CIPA rating of 230 shots per charge, below average for its class.


 

In the Box

The retail package contains the following items:

 

Recommended Accessories

 

Canon SX260 Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • 20X zoom ranges from 25-500mm equivalent
  • Optical image stabilization
  • Tracking autofocus
  • Face detection autofocus
  • Wink activation for self-portraits
  • Full HD video
  • Allows autofocus and optical zoom while shooting
  • Stereo microphones
  • 461K-dot, 3-inch LCD
  • HDMI interface
  • Good image quality
  • GPS capability
  • PASM exposure modes
  • Discreet mode is great for quiet places
  • Very little geometric distortion
  • Low chromatic aberration
  • Good Macro mode
  • Good print quality
  • Fast power-on time (for a long zoom)
  • Fast flash recharge
  • Fast USB transfer speed
  • 10 fps burst mode
  • Tight control placement
  • Front grip too small and slippery
  • No rear thumbrest
  • Auto-deploying flash can be annoying (but at least it can be turned off)
  • Lacks ISO button
  • No live histogram
  • Exposure information doesn't appear until you half-press the shutter button
  • Full HD video limited to 24 fps
  • Corners are soft at wide angle
  • No raw format support
  • No A/V cable included
  • Below-average battery life

 

We felt very comfortable using the Canon SX260, confident that what we saw on the LCD viewfinder was what we were capturing on the memory card. Still pictures were very consistent: perfectly exposed, sharply focused, displaying great detail and good color. And by playing with the modes and settings, we were able to both create interesting special effects and tweak very good shots into excellent photographs.

As professional photographers, we were slightly disappointed that the Canon SX260 can't capture in raw format or bracket our shots, but then, that's why Canon makes cameras like the PowerShot G1 X. But as great as the G1 X is, its high price tag ($799) and small zoom lens (4x) make the Canon SX260 a good alternate choice for serious shooters on a budget, or shooters of any experience (or no experience!) for that matter, since this is one of the easier, more versatile, and fun cameras we've tested in some time. All that adds up to make the Canon SX260 a Dave's Pick!