Canon PowerShot SX1 IS Review

Look and Feel

The PowerShot SX1 is a midsize super zoom camera. It's made of a mixture of plastic and metal, and it feels pretty solid. I found the camera easy to hold, thanks to the large right hand grip. I did find that I sometimes bumped into the three buttons that are located dangerously close to the thumb rest on the back of the camera. While the most important camera controls are easy to reach, the SX1 suffers from "button clutter", requiring you to search around for the right thing to push. The buttons near the thumb rest are also a little smaller than I would've liked.

The PowerShot SX1 is nearly identical to the SX10 in terms of design, with the main differences being the remote control receiver on the front of the SX1, and the larger, widescreen LCD on its back.

Now, here's a look at how the PowerShot SX1 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 SX1 IS 5.0 x 3.5 x 3.6 in. 63 cu in. 585 g
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
Kodak EasyShare Z980 4.9 x 3.5 x 4.1 in. 70.3 cu in. 415 g
Nikon Coolpix P90 4.5 x 3.3 x 3.9 in. 57.9 cu in. 460 g
Olympus SP-590 Ultra Zoom 4.3 x 3.5 x 3.9 in. 58.7 cu in. 373 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ28 4.6 x 3.0 x 3.5 in. 48.3 cu in. 370 g
Pentax X70 4.4 x 3.2 x 3.9 in. 54.9 cu in. 391 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 4.6 x 3.4 x 3.6 in. 56.3 cu in. 453 g

The PowerShot SX1 is the second largest camera in the group, with only the giant Kodak EasyShare Z980 ahead of it. The SX1 is the heavier of the two cameras, which isn't too surprising, as its built a whole lot better. The SX1 is larger and heavier than the PowerShot SX10.

Alright, let's begin our tour of the camera now, beginning with the front.

Front of the Canon PowerShot SX1 IS

The PowerShot SX1 IS has the exact same F2.8-5.7, 20X optical zoom as the SX10. The lens has a focal range of 5 - 100 mm, which is equivalent to an impressive 28 - 560 mm. Do note that if you're shooting in 16:9 mode, the focal range is 29 - 580 mm. The lens uses an ultrasonic focusing motor, which allows for nearly silent lens movements in movie mode. While Canon doesn't sell any lens accessories for the SX1, the lens is threaded. I've seen reports of people using 52 mm filters successfully, and Lensmate makes a more elaborate adapter for using 58 mm filters.

As I mentioned, the PowerShot SX1 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 one of the lens elements to compensate for it. Now, this won't freeze a moving subject (you'll need to boost the 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

Both of the photos you see above were taken with a shutter speed of 1/4 second -- pretty hard to handhold. Without mage stabilization, the photos is blurry, but with it turned on, it's sharp as a tack. You can also use image stabilization in movie mode, and you can see how well it works in this brief sample movie.

Directly above the lens is the SX1's pop-up flash, which is released manually. For some unknown reason, the flash here is a bit weaker than the one on the SX10, with a working range of 0.5 - 4.8 m at wide-angle and 1.0 - 2.6 m at telephoto (at Auto ISO). Despite this drop, the SX1's flash is still quite powerful. If you need even more flash power and a lower likelihood of redeye, then you can attach an external flash to the hot shoe you'll see in a moment.

What are those two circles on the front of the camera for? The one on the left side is the receiver for the included wireless remote control. The one on the right is the AF-assist lamp, which is used as as focusing aid in low light situations. This lamp is also used for redeye reduction, and for providing a visual countdown for the self-timer.

Back angled view of the Canon PowerShot SX1 IS

You'll find a flip-out, rotating 2.8" widescreen LCD on the PowerShot SX1 IS, compared to a traditional 2.5" screen on the SX10. It's not surprising that this is a 16:9 LCD, given that this camera is designed to record HD movies. Shooting still photos is a bit awkward, as there's black borders on both sides of the screen (unless you're in 16:9 mode, of course).

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 SX1 IS

Here's the back of the PowerShot SX1 IS, with the LCD in its traditional position. The screen has the same resolution as the one on the PowerShot SX10: 230,000 pixels. As you'd expect, everything on the screen is nice and sharp. Outdoor visibility was pretty good, and in low light the screen brightens automatically, so you can still see your subject (though they'll appear grainy).

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 SX1 is a step down from the one on the SX10, despite the price difference. The resolution is just 148,000 pixels, compared to 235,000 on the SX10 -- and you'll notice. The SX1's viewfinder is also about 10% smaller than the one on the SX10.

You'll see this screen when the SX1 is connected to your computer

Just to the left of the electronic viewfinder are the Print/Share and widescreen buttons. In record mode, the Print/Share button can be used for the handy Auto ISO Shift feature, or you can re-map 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.

The widescreen button changes the aspect ratio to 16:9, which allows you to take HD stills and movies. Do note that the resolution for still images drops to 8 Megapixel when you press this button.

On the opposite side of the viewfinder is the SX1'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 SX1'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, wireless delay) - 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 SX1 IS. There are three continuous modes on the SX1: 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 SX1 performed:

Continuous 10 shots @ 1.6 fps 9 shots @ 1.8 fps 14 shots @ 3.9 fps
Continuous AF Unlimited @ 1.0 fps Unlimited @ 1.0 fps Unlimited @ 1.2 fps
Continuous LV Unlimited @ 1.0 fps Unlimited @ 1.0 fps Unlimited @ 1.2 fps
Tests performed with a SanDisk Class 6 SDHC card

Those numbers are very good for a compact camera, though I have no idea why it took more RAW+JPEG shots than RAW alone. The SX1 doesn't stop shooting after it does a burst -- it just slows down. The LCD blacks out for a fraction of a second between each shot, though you should be able to track a moving subject. Do note that you'll need a high speed SD or SDHC card in order to get the most out of the SX1's continuous shooting modes.

Customizing drive settings

The SX1 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 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 make a run for it.

I want to make a quick mention of the ISO settings on the PowerShot SX1 -- 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 Hi Auto mode, 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, focus) - 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 (1920 x 1080, 640 x 480, 320 x 240) - these options will depend on your aspect ratio
  • Still resolution (see chart later in review)
  • Still quality (see chart later in review)

The PowerShot SX1'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, as I do for 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 SX1 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 SX1 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 SX1

Before I start talking about the buttons and dials on the top of the PowerShot SX1, 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.

Now, onto the buttons. The one on the left controls the flash setting, and let's you add a "voice caption" to a photo you've taken (in playback mode). The flash options are simple: auto or fill flash (the other options are in the record menu).

In the center of the photo is the PowerShot SX1'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 adjust settings using the SX1's menu system with Canon's newest Speedlites. If you're using one of the higher end Canon Speedlites (or the Speedlite Transmitter), 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 SX1 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, long shutter, aquarium, ISO 3200, color accent, color swap. More below.
Sports More commonly used scene modes
Night snapshot
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 1 - 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

The PowerShot SX1 offers both automatic and manual exposure modes. One thing I want to point out right away is that you do not have access to the full range of shutter speeds in Tv and M mode: the slowest you can go is one second. If you want to go slower, you need to use the long shutter scene modes which, of course, locks up most of the camera settings. This restriction makes little to no sense; the $400 PowerShot SX10 can do long exposures in any shooting mode, so why not the $600 SX1?

Speaking of scene modes, I should tell you about a few of them. The SX1's Stitch Assist feature isn't as fancy as some other panorama shooting features these days (the Sony HX1's is most impressive), but it still makes composing side-by-side photos a lot easier than nothing at all. As its name implies, the ISO 3200 mode boosts the sensitivity to 3200, while cutting the resolution to 2 Megapixel. The resulting images are... unimpressive, to say the least. Thus, I'd pass on this mode if I were you. The Color Accent and Swap options are part of the overall My Colors feature. Color Accent lets you select a color to "keep", while everything else in the photo is turned to black and white. Color swap does just as it sounds: you swap one color in a photo for another.

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 -- the harder you press it, the faster the lens moves. At full speed, the lens moves from 28 - 560 mm in just 1.3 seconds. There are over thirty-six steps available in the 20X zoom range.

And that's it for the top of the PowerShot SX1 IS!

Side of the Canon PowerShot SX1

The only thing to see on this side of the SX1 is its speaker. The lens is at the full wide-angle position here.

Side of the Canon PowerShot SX1

On the other side of the camera you'll find its numerous I/O ports, as well as its memory card slot (which is protected by a door of decent quality). The I/O ports, all of which are under plastic covers, include USB, A/V out, HDMI, and DC-in (for optional AC adapter). As you'd expect, the SX1 supports the USB 2.0 High Speed standard.

The lens is at the full telephoto position here.

Bottom of the Canon PowerShot SX1

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 you can see, the PowerShot SX1 uses four AA batteries.