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Canon PowerShot SX10 IS Review

Look and Feel

From a distance, it's hard to tell see any difference between the PowerShot SX10 and its predecessor (the S5). Get a little closer and you'll see that the controls have been rearranged on the back of the camera. Put the SX10 in your hands and I think you'll agree that it feels a lot more solid in terms of build quality. The camera is made of a mixture of metal and plastic, with the lens housing feeling especially rugged. The plastic doors over the memory card and battery compartments are of decent quality, as well.

Ergonomics are generally good. Canon cleaned up the button clutter a bit on the SX10, putting many of the camera's functions onto the new scroll wheel / four-way controller combo. The only buttons I don't care for are the ones at the top-right corner of the back of the camera (which you'll see later) -- they get progressively smaller, and aren't logically placed.

Now, here's a look at how the PowerShot SX10 IS compares to other super zoom cameras, in terms of size and weight:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon PowerShot SX10 IS 4.9 x 3.5 x 3.4 in. 58.3 cu in. 560 g
Casio Exilim EX-FH20 4.8 x 3.2 x 3.3 in. 50.7 cu in. 483 g
Fuji FinePix S8100fd 4.3 x 3.1 x 3.1 in. 41.3 cu in. 405 g
Kodak EasyShare Z1015 IS 4.7 x 3.3 x 3.1 in. 48.1 cu in. 391 g
Nikon Coolpix P80 4.3 x 3.1 x 3.1 in. 41.3 cu in. 365 g
Olympus SP-570 Ultra Zoom 4.7 x 3.3 x 3.4 in. 52.7 cu in. 445 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ28 4.6 x 3.0 x 3.5 in. 48.3 cu in. 370 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50 4.6 x 3.2 x 3.4 in. 50 cu in. 415 g

As you can see, the PowerShot SX10 is the largest and heaviest camera in the group, by far (it's quite a big bigger than the S5 IS, as well). It's not a pocket camera -- probably not even a jacket pocket camera -- but it travels nicely over your shoulder or in a camera bag.

And with that, we can begin our tour of the camera, starting with the front!

 

Front of the Canon PowerShot SX10 IS

The biggest new feature on the PowerShot SX10 IS is undoubtedly its monstrous 20X zoom lens -- quite a step up from the 12X lens on the PowerShot S5. This F2.8-5.7 lens features an ultrasonic motor, for silent (and responsive) focusing, plus optical image stabilization (more on that below). The focal range of the lens is 5 - 100 mm, equivalent to a whopping 28 - 560 mm. So, you get your wide-angle and super telephoto fix in one camera. While the lens is threaded, it appears to be a non-standard size, and (officially, at least) filters are not supported. That's too bad, since a wide-angle conversion lens would be a nice accessory to have.

As I mentioned, the PowerShot SX10 has an optical image stabilization system, a feature that is almost a requirement on a super zoom camera. Tiny movements of your hands can shake the camera enough to blur your photos, especially at the telephoto end of the lens. Sensors inside the camera detect this motion, and the camera shifts a lens element to compensate for it. Now, this won't freeze a moving subject (you'll need to select a faster shutter speed to do that) and it won't allow for multi-second handheld photos, but it will let you get sharp photos at shutter speeds that would be blurry otherwise. Want to see some proof? Have a look:


Image stabilization off


Image stabilization on

Each of the photos above were taken at the very slow shutter speed of 1/4 second. The results couldn't be more clear: the photo taken with image stabilization is much sharper. You can use image stabilization in movie mode as well, as illustrated in this brief video clip.

Directly above the lens is the SX10's pop-up flash, which is released manually. This flash is fairly powerful, with a working range of 0.5 - 5.2 m at wide-angle, and 1.0 - 2.8 m at telephoto. Should you want more flash power and reduced risk of redeye, you can attach an external flash to the hot shoe you'll see in a moment.

Between the flash and lens are the camera's stereo microphones. The SX10 is one of a very small group of cameras that can record stereo audio, which makes your movies that much nicer. At the far right of the photo is the camera's AF-assist lamp, used as a focusing aid in low light situations. This lamp is also used for redeye reduction, and it also serves as a visual countdown for the self-timer.

Back angled view of the Canon PowerShot SX10 IS

Canon's ultra zoom cameras have had rotating LCDs going all the way back to the PowerShot Pro90, which was introduced in 2001 (the SX100 and SX110 being the only exceptions). The screen size has grown over the years, from 1.5" on the original PowerShot S1 to 2.5" here. As LCDs go, this one isn't terribly large, though it's hard to imagine how Canon could fit anything larger onto this camera.

A rotating LCD may seem a bit gimmicky at first, but once you've tried one, it's hard to go back. It makes it so much easier to shoot from unusual angles. It's great for product shots (like the ones you see in my reviews) where the camera is below you, and it makes shooting over the heads of the people in front of you a breeze. The LCD can rotate 270 degrees, from facing your subject all the way around to facing the floor. It can also sit in a the more traditional position (shown below), or be closed entirely.

Back of the Canon PowerShot SX10 IS

Here's the back of the PowerShot SX10 IS, with the LCD in its traditional location. The screen has a resolution of 230,000 pixels, up from 207,000 on the PowerShot S5 IS. As you'd expect, everything on the screen is nice and sharp. Outdoor visibility was decent, and in low light the screen brightens automatically, allowing you to see your subject (though it'll be on the grainy side).

Directly above the LCD is the camera's electronic viewfinder, or EVF. An EVF is essentially a tiny LCD display that takes the place of (but doesn't surpass) an optical viewfinder. It shares the same 100% field-of-view as the main LCD, and there's no parallax error to deal with. The EVF on the SX10 is about 33% larger than the one on the PowerShot S5, which is good news. The resolution of 235,000 pixels is twice that of the S5, and makes for a fairly good viewing experience. A diopter correction knob, located on the left side of the viewfinder, focuses the image on the screen. To switch between the LCD and EVF you can press the Display button, or just close the LCD panel.


You'll see this screen when the SX10 is connected to your computer

Just to the left of the electronic viewfinder is the Print/Share button, also known as the Shortcut button. In record mode, it can be used for the handy Auto ISO Shift feature, or you can remap it to an entirely different function (more on that later). The Auto ISO Shift feature will illuminate the Print/Share button if the camera thinks that a photo you're about to take will be blurry. Simply press the Print/Share button, and the camera will boost the ISO sensitivity high enough to ensure a sharp photo. If you're connected to a Mac or PC, you can use this button to select which photos are transferred over. When you're hooked into a PictBridge-enabled printer, a press of this button will print the current photo.

On the opposite side of the viewfinder is the SX10's dedicated movie recording button. Press it once to start recording, and again to stop. While there's a spot dedicated to movies on the mode dial, though you don't need to be in it to record a clip. I'll have a lot more on movies later in the review.

Continuing to the right, we find three buttons, which neither well placed nor well labeled. These buttons are for the following:

  • Playback mode
  • Exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV, in 1/3EV increments) + Jump (through photos in playback mode)
  • Focus point selection (more later) + Delete photo

Moving downward now, we find the SX10's combination scroll wheel and four-way controller. The dial is used for many things, including navigating menus, quickly skimming through photos you've taken, and adjusting manual exposure settings. I wish it had some tactile feedback -- you just kind of keep rotating it until something happens. The four-way controller can be used for many of the same things, and it also does the following:

  • Up - Manual focus (on/off)
  • Down - Drive (Single-shot, continuous, continuous AF, face self-timer, self-timer) - see below
  • Left - Macro (Off, macro, super macro) - more on this later in the review
  • Right - ISO (Auto, Hi Auto, 80, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600)
  • Center - Function menu (see below) + Set


Manual focus mode (center-frame enlargement not shown)

The manual focus feature lets you use the scroll wheel to set the focus distance yourself. A guide showing the focus distance is displayed on the right side of the LCD, and the center of the frame is enlarged, as well.

Now it's time to talk about the continuous shooting and self-timer options on the PowerShot SX10 IS. There are three continuous modes on the SX10: regular continuous mode locks the focus and exposure when the first shot is taken; continuous AF refocuses before each shot, allowing you to recompose if you wish; continuous LV (only available when using manual focus or fireworks mode) locks the focus at the first shot, but lets recompose as you're shooting. Here's how the SX10 performed:

Setting Burst rate
Continuous Unlimited @ 1.4 fps
Continuous AF Unlimited @ 0.8 fps
Continuous LV Unlimited @ 0.8 fps

If you're using a high speed memory card, then you can keep shooting at the burst rates above. The LCD keeps up with the action fairly well, so you should be able to track a moving subject.


Customizing drive settings

The SX10 has a pretty elaborate self-timer feature. You can select from the usual two or ten second delays, or you can jump into custom mode and select how long you want to wait, and how many photos are taken. But wait, there's more -- the new face self-timer feature will wait until a new face enters the scene, and then it will take anywhere from 1 to 10 photos. This allows the photographer to make it into the picture without having to run for it.

I want to make a quick mention of the ISO settings on the PowerShot SX10 -- more specifically, the two Auto options. The difference between Auto and Hi Auto is that the latter will use higher sensitivities. If you're using the latter, be warned that photos may be quite noisy, especially in low light situations. I'll have a lot more on the camera's ISO performance later in the review.


Function menu

Pressing the center button on the four-way controller options up the Function menu, which has these options:

  • White balance (Auto, daylight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent, fluorescent H, flash, custom) - see below
  • My Colors (Off, vivid, neutral, sepia, black & white, positive film, lighter skin tone, darker skin tone, vivid blue, vivid green, vivid red, custom color) - see below
  • Bracketing (Off, exposure, flash) - see below
  • Flash compensation/output (-2EV to +2EV or 1/3, 2/3, Full) - choices depend on shooting mode
  • Metering mode (Evaluative, center-weighted, spot)
  • Movie resolution (640 x 480, 320 x 240)
  • Still resolution/quality (see chart later in review)

The PowerShot SX10's custom white balance option lets you use a white or gray card, for accurate color in any lighting. This will come in handy when you're shooting in unusual lighting conditions, like I do in many of the test shots later in the review.


Sharpness is one of the settings you can adjust with the Custom Color option

The My Colors feature should be self-explanatory, save for the custom option. This one lets you manually adjust contrast, sharpness, saturation, as well as red/green/blue/skin tone levels.

The SX10 allows you to bracket for both exposure and focus. In both cases, the the camera takes three shots in a row, with each shot having a different exposure or focus distance. For exposure, the interval between each shot can be set in 1/3-stop increments. For focusing, the increment is a more generic "small, medium, or large".

The last two items on the back of the PowerShot SX10 are the DIsplay and Menu buttons. The former toggles what's shown on the LCD (and switches between the LCD and EVF), while the latter does exactly as it sounds.

Top of the Canon PowerShot SX10

Before I start talking about the buttons and dials on the top of the PowerShot SX10, I want to point out that the focal length is shown on the lens. The focal lengths listed on it are 28, 85, 135, 200, 300, 400, and 560, most of which are also common focal lengths for SLR lenses.

Now, onto the buttons. First let's look at the far left of the photo to see the flash setting + sound memo button. The flash options are simple: auto or fill flash (the other options are in the record menu). The sound memo button allows you to quickly add a "voice caption" to a photo you're reviewing in playback mode.


Some of the things you can control with the 430EX II Speedlite attached

In the center of the photo is the PowerShot SX10's hot shoe. For best results, you'll want to attach one of the Canon Speedlites I mentioned back in the accessory discussion, as they will sync up with the camera's metering system. You can also control the flashes settings using the SX10's menu system (see screenshot above). If you're using one of the higher end Canon Speedlites, they can be used to control other flashes wirelessly. For those of you using a non-Canon flash, you'll probably have to set flash exposure manually. The SX10 can sync as fast as 1/250 second with an external flash.

Next to the hot shoe is the mode dial, which has these options:

Option Function
Movie mode More on this later
Stitch Assist Helps you line up photos for later stitching into panoramas
Special Scene mode Pick the situation and the camera uses the appropriate settings. Choose from night scene, indoor, sunset, foliage, snow, beach, fireworks, aquarium, ISO 3200, color accent, color swap. More below.
Sports More commonly used scene modes
Night snapshot
Landscape
Portrait
Auto mode Fully automatic, most camera settings locked up
Program mode Automatic shooting, but with access to all menu options. A Program Shift feature lets you select from various shutter speed/aperture combos by using the command dial (hold down the exposure compensation button to activate this)
Shutter priority (Tv) mode You choose shutter speed and the camera picks the aperture. Shutter speed range is 15 - 1/3200 sec; do note that the fastest shutter speeds are only available at small apertures
Aperture priority (Av) mode You choose the aperture and the camera picks an appropriate shutter speed. Range is F2.8 - F8.0
Full manual (M) mode Choose both the shutter speed and aperture yourself; same ranges as above
Custom mode Store your favorite camera settings to this spot on the mode dial

As you can see, the PowerShot SX10 IS offers a full set of manual controls, plus an ample supply of scene modes. I want to quickly mention some of those scene modes before we continue the tour. The ISO 3200 option does just as it sounds -- it boosts the sensitivity all the way to 3200, and it also lowers the resolution to 1600 x 1200 (you can't adjust things like white balance, either). I'd pass on that mode, as the photo quality leaves much to be desired. The color accent feature lets you select one color to "keep", while everything else in your photo is turned to black and white. Color swap does just as it sounds like: you swap one color for another.


Program shift

The PowerShot SX10's manual exposure controls allow you to adjust the shutter speed, aperture, or both. The only thing missing is a bulb mode. In Program mode you can use the program shift feature to select from various shutter speed/aperture combinations (see screenshot). If you have a set of favorite camera settings, you can save them to the "C" spot on the mode dial.

Just to the right of the mode dial is the power button, which has an orange light that illuminates when the camera is turned on. Above that is the shutter release button, which has the zoom controller wrapped around it. The zoom controller is two-speed. Press it a little bit to move the lens slowly, or all the way to go full-bore. At full speed, the lens moves from 28 - 560 mm in just 1.3 seconds. There are over thirty steps available in the 20X zoom range.

And that's it for the top of the PowerShot SX10 IS!

Side of the Canon PowerShot SX10

The only thing to see on this side of the SX10 is its speaker. The lens is at the full wide-angle position here.

Side of the Canon PowerShot SX10

On this side of the SX10 you'll find its I/O ports and memory card slot. It's nice to see the memory card slot in an accessible place on a Canon camera for a change -- even on the flagship PowerShot G10, the slot is in the battery compartment. The plastic door that covers this slot is of decent quality.

The I/O ports, protected by plastic covers, are for USB, DC-in (for the optional AC adapter), and stereo A/V output. As you'd expect, the SX10 supports the USB 2.0 High Speed standard.

The lens is at the full telephoto position here. Yep, quite a snout!

Bottom of the Canon PowerShot SX10

On the bottom of the camera is a metal tripod mount, plus the battery compartment. The door over the battery compartment is fairly sturdy, and has a locking mechanism. As the photo illustrates, the PowerShot SX10 holds four AA batteries.

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