Canon PowerShot SX1 IS Review

Using the Canon PowerShot SX1 IS

Record Mode

It takes just 1.2 seconds for the PowerShot SX1 to extend its lens and prepare for shooting. For a camera with such a large lens, that's great. Heck, even if it had a 3X zoom, that time would still be impressive.

A live histogram is available in record mode

Autofocus performance was very good for the most part. In the best case scenario (wide-angle, good lighting), the camera locked focus in 0.2 - 0.4 seconds. At the telephoto end of the lens, focus times were between 0.6 - 1.0 seconds. Low light focusing was fairly good. Usually the camera locked quickly, but it seems to give up trying rather quickly. I found it pretty easy to block the AF-assist lamp with my left hand, so keep that in mind.

I did not find shutter lag to be a problem, even at the slower shutter speeds at which it can often occur. If you have the focus check feature turned on, the focus point or selected faces will be enlarged on the LCD or EVF after you take a photo.

If you're not using the flash, shot-to-shot delays range from 1 second for JPEGs to 2-2.5 seconds for RAW or RAW+JPEG. If you're using the flash, you'll wait for nearly four seconds, regardless of the image quality setting. Yeah, that's kind of slow.

You can delete a picture after you've taken it by pressing the delete photo button on the back of the camera.

Now, here's a look at the numerous image size and quality choices available on the PowerShot SX1:

Resolution Quality Approx. file size # images on 2GB card (optional)
3648 x 2736
RAW + JPEG 15.7 MB 110
RAW 13.2 MB 130
Super fine 4.2 MB 448
Fine 2.5 MB 749
Normal 1.2 MB 1536
Widescreen 8M
3840 x 2160
Super fine 3.5 MB 538
Fine 2.1 MB 903
Normal 918 KB 1862
Medium 1
2816 x 2112
Super fine 2.7 MB 714
Fine 1.6 MB 1181
Normal 780 KB 2363
Medium 2
2272 x 1704
Super fine 2.0 MB 960
Fine 1.1 MB 1707
Normal 556 KB 3235
Widescreen 2M
1920 x 1080
Super fine 1.1 MB 1707
Fine 604 KB 3073
Normal 300 KB 5588
Medium 3
1600 x 1200
Super fine 1002 KB 1862
Fine 558 KB 3235
Normal 278 KB 6146
640 x 480
Super fine 249 KB 6830
Fine 150 KB 10245
Normal 84 KB 15368

When it was first announced in Europe and Japan, the PowerShot SX1 did not support the RAW format. When it came to the US, Canon released a firmware upgrade that added this valuable feature. You can take a RAW image alone, or along with a fine quality JPEG. I explained the benefits of the RAW format earlier in the review.

Images are named IMG_xxxx.JPG, where x = 0001 - 9999. The file numbering is maintained even if you erase your memory card.

Now, onto the menus!

The PowerShot SX1 has the standard Canon menu system, though the customizable My Menu is a nice addition. The menus are attractive, responsive, and easy to navigate. The menu is divided into four tabs: Shooting, Setup, My Camera, and My Menu. Keeping in mind that not all of these options are available in every shooting mode, here's the full list of items in the first tab:

  • AF Frame (FlexiZone, Face Detect, Center) - last option is only available in Auto or Scene mode; see below for more
  • AF-point zoom (on/off) - enlarges the focus point or the selected faces
  • Servo AF (on/off) - see below
  • AF mode (Single, continuous) - see below
  • Digital Zoom (Off, 2.0X, 2.3X, Standard) - see below
  • Flash control
    • Flash mode (Auto, manual) - the latter lets you adjust the flash strength; only available in the manual shooting modes
    • Flash exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV, in 1/3EV increments)
    • Flash output (Minimum, medium, maximum) - only available with flash mode set to manual
    • Shutter sync (1st-curtain, 2nd-curtain)
    • Slow synchro (on/off)
    • Redeye correction (on/off) - digital redeye removal, as the photo is taken
    • Redeye reduction lamp (on/off) - a little extra help
    • Safety FE (on/off) - whether the camera adjusts the shutter speed or aperture to avoid overexposure when using the flash
  • i-Contrast (Auto, off) - see below
  • Drive settings
    • Face self-timer (1 - 10 shots)
    • Self-timer (2 or 10 secs, custom)
      • Custom delay (0-10, 15, 20, 30 secs)
      • Custom shots (1-10)
    • Wireless delay (0, 2, 10 secs)
  • Spot AE point (Center, AF point) - what area of the frame is metered when in spot metering mode
  • Safety shift (on/off) - camera will adjust the shutter speed or aperture as needed to obtain a proper exposure when in the priority modes
  • Auto ISO Shift (on/off) - discussed earlier
  • MF-Point zoom (on/off) - enlarges the center of the frame in manual focus mode
  • Safety MF (on/off) - allows you to press the focus point button to activate autofocus momentarily when using manual focus
  • AF-assist beam (on/off)
  • Review (Off, 2-10 seconds, hold) - post-shot review
  • Review info (Off, detailed, focus check) - detailed shows you shooting data and a histogram; focus check enlarges the focus point or faces
  • Record RAW+JPEG (on/off)
  • Save original (on/off) - for the My Colors feature
  • Reverse display (on/off) - whether the image on the LCD is flipped when the screen is rotated
  • Auto category (on/off) - photos are automatically categorized based on the scene mode they were taken in; more on this later
  • IS mode (Continuous, shoot only, panning, off) - see below
  • Custom display settings - you can have two sets of these for both the LCD and EVF:
    • Shooting info (on/off)
    • Grid lines (on/off)
    • 3:2 guide (on/off)
    • Histogram (on/off)
  • Set Shortcut button (Off, metering, white balance, custom WB, redeye correction, digital teleconverter, i-Contrast, AE lock, AF lock, display off) - define what this button does
  • Save settings - save your favorite camera settings to the "C" position on the mode dial
FlexiZone AF lets you position the focus point anywhere in the frame (save for a margin around the edges) You can also adjust the size of the focus point

Lots to talk about before we move on. First up, the AF frame options. FlexiZone lets you use the four-way controller to select the area in the frame on which to focus -- which comes in handy when the camera is on a tripod. In the automatic shooting modes, a center-point focus mode is also available. For either of these two modes, you can set the size of the focus point(s) to "regular" or "small".

The camera locked onto three of the six faces

As you'd expect, the PowerShot SX1 has face detection. The camera can find up to nine faces in the frame, making sure that focus, exposure, and white balance are accurate. You can also select a face to "track" as they move around the frame. Recent Canon models have seemed very "jumpy" in my test of this feature, and the SX1 is no exception. In the real world it performs very well, so I think the camera just doesn't like my test setup. Don't forget that the SX1 also has the face detection self-timer feature, which waits until a new face is detected before taking a photo.

There are two AF modes to choose from on the camera. Single AF focuses only when you halfway press the shutter release button. In continuous AF mode, the camera is focusing constantly, which means less waiting when it's time to actually take a photo. The downside is that continuous AF puts an extra strain on your battery. There's also a new Servo AF feature, which will track a moving subject as they move around the frame -- perfect for action shots.

The PowerShot SX1's has Canon's recently updated digital zoom feature. The 2.0X and 2.3X options (which depend on your aspect ratio) are what Canon calls a "digital teleconverter" -- it's just a fixed digital zoom. The Standard option is what you'll find on every camera - you can select whatever amount of digital zoom that you want. The Safety Zoom feature warns you when you pass the point where image quality is degraded. When you're shooting at the highest resolution that starts as soon as digital zoom kicks in, but if you're using a lower resolution you can more of it. At the M3 (1600 x 1200) picture size, you can achieve a whopping 46X total zoom using this feature!

i-Contrast off

i-Contrast on

Another new feature on the PowerShot SX1 is called i-Contrast This feature attempts to brighten dark areas of a photo, and it's turned off by default. The example above illustrates the feature in-action -- the difference is pretty noticeable in this case. If you didn't use it in record mode, you can also apply i-Contrast in playback mode.

The Auto Category feature assigns one of the standard photo categories (people, scenery, events) to a photo based on what scene mode you used to take the picture. You can edit these -- or manually assign a category -- in playback mode.

What are those three IS modes all about? Continuous mode activates the OIS system as soon as you halfway press the shutter release, which helps you compose the photo without camera shake. The "shoot only" option doesn't turn it on until the photo is actually taken, which improves the performance of the OIS system. The panning mode only stabilizes up and down motion, and you'll want to use this while tracking a moving subject horizontally. You can also turn the whole thing off, which is advisable if you're using a tripod.

Next up is the setup tab, which can be found in both the shooting and playback menus. The options here include:

  • Mute (on/off) - quickly turn off the camera's beeps and blips
  • Volume
    • Startup volume (Off, 1-5)
    • Operation volume (Off, 1-5)
    • Self-timer volume (Off, 1-5)
    • Shutter volume (Off, 1-5)
    • Playback volume (Off, 1-5)
  • Audio
    • Mic level (Auto, manual)
    • Level (-40 to 0 dB) - if you selected manual above
    • Wind filter (on/off)
  • LCD/EVF brightness (Normal, bright) - you can adjust each separately
  • Power saving
    • Auto power down (on/off)
    • Display off (10, 20, 30 sec, 1-3 min)
  • Time zone (Home, world)
  • Date/time
  • Clock display (0-5, 10, 20, 30 secs, 1, 2, 3 mins) - hold down the Func/Set button while turning on the camera and the SX1 becomes an expensive clock
  • Card format
  • File numbering (Continuous, auto reset)
  • Create folder
    • Create new folder - on the memory card
    • Auto create (Off, daily, weekly, monthly) - this new features will automatically create new folders on the memory card at set intervals
  • Auto rotate (on/off) - camera will automatically rotate portrait photos on the LCD
  • Distance units (m/cm, ft/in)
  • Lens retract (1 min, 0 secs) - how quickly the lens retracts when you switch to playback mode
  • Language
  • Video system (NTSC, PAL)
  • Print Method (Auto, PictBridge)
  • Reset all - back to defaults

The next tab in the menu system, My Camera, allows you to customize the startup screen, beeps, and fake shutter sounds that your camera makes.

The last tab in the menu is called My Menu, and it's been lifted straight from Canon's digital SLRs. You can select your favorite menu items, sort them as needed, and select whether this is now the default menu for the camera.

Well enough about menus, let's do photo tests now.

The PowerShot SX1 did an excellent job with our standard macro test shot. The colors are spot-on -- the camera had no trouble with our studio lamps. The figurine is nice and sharp, and plenty of detail is captured. I don't see any noise here, though the "face" seems just a little fuzzy -- noise reduction perhaps?

There are two macro modes at your disposal on the SX1. The regular macro mode is limited to focal lengths between 28 and 85 mm, and you can get as close to your subject as 10 and 50 cm, respectively. If you need to get closer, switch on super macro mode, which reduces the distance to 0 cm -- that's right, zero. Do note that the lens is fixed at full wide-angle when using super macro mode.

I was in for a big surprise when I took the night test shots. As I normally do, I put the SX1 into shutter priority mode in order to take a long exposure. No matter what I tried, I couldn't use a shutter speed slower than 1 second. When I got home I found out that you can't go any slower than that, unless you use the long shutter scene mode, which lets you use shutter speeds up to 15 seconds. I have no idea what Canon was thinking by doing this on a $600 camera.

Anyhow, I went back out another night and took the photo using the long shutter mode. The camera won't let you adjust the ISO sensitivity, but thankfully it chose ISO 80 for this photo. The camera brought in enough light, and the highlight clipping is fairly minor. The color is a bit redder than I would've liked, though not by much. Overall, sharpness is good, though you can see noise reduction eating away at some fine details here and there. Purple fringing levels were low.

Since I can't control the ISO and shutter speed at the same time, I could not perform the low light ISO test. Look for the studio ISO test in a moment.

There's mild-to-moderate barrel distortion at the wide end of the PowerShot SX1's 20X zoom lens. As usual, this photo gives you a good illustrate of the effect of barrel distortion. I didn't find vignetting (dark corners) or corner blurriness to be a problem on this camera.

Canon has taken two approaches to redeye removal on the SX1. You can have it use the AF-assist lamp to shrink the size of your subject's pupils (which isn't new), and you can also have the camera digitally remove any redeye that it finds (this is fairly new). As you can see, there's absolutely zero redeye in the photo, which is always nice. If some red eyes do slip past this system, you can try to remove it yourself by using the tool in playback mode.

Here's our main ISO test, which is taken in our studio. Since the lighting is consistent, you can compare these images with others that I've taken over the years. While the crops below give you a quick idea about noise levels at each ISO setting, I highly recommend viewing the full size images as well. And with that, here we go:

ISO 80

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

The first two crops are very clean, with just a tiny bit of noise reduction artifacting and purple fringing to be found (and you have to look closely). You start to lose a little bit more detail at ISO 200, though this shouldn't keep you from making a midsize or large print at this setting. This trend continues at ISO 400, reducing print sizes a bit. Things start to go south at ISO 800, so I'd save this setting for desperation only. If you do use ISO 800, shoot RAW -- more on that below. The ISO 1600 shot is quite soft and fuzzy, so I'd recommend avoiding it.

I've got a couple of comparisons for you, beginning with a look at RAW vs JPEG image quality:

ISO 400



RAW -> JPEG + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask
ISO 800



RAW -> JPEG + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask

As is usually the case, you can get some detail back in your photos by shooting RAW. There's less of the grainy noise in the RAW images, and they clean up fairly well with noise reduction software. If you're going to be making large prints at the higher ISO settings, then it's worth considering RAW. The one place where it didn't really make a difference was at the ISO 1600 sensitivity.

Next, I want to compare the PowerShot SX1 and SX10. Just to remind you, the SX1 uses a CMOS sensor, while the SX10 uses a CCD.

ISO 400

PowerShot SX1

PowerShot SX10
ISO 800

PowerShot SX1

PowerShot SX10

There's no clear winner in this comparison. At ISO 400, I think the PowerShot SX10 is just a tad bit cleaner than the SX1. The opposite is true at ISO 800 -- the SX1 has less-noticeable noise reduction artifacting.

The final comparison is between the PowerShot SX1 and its closest competitor, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1. Below is just a selection of the full "test scene battle" that I recently performed -- you can see the whole thing here.

ISO 400

PowerShot SX1

Cyber-shot DSC-HX1
ISO 800

PowerShot SX1

Cyber-shot DSC-HX1

I think the PowerShot SX1 comes out on top in this comparison. The Canon shots have less visible noise, though one could argue that they have less detail, as well. Color is a lot better on the SX1, as the color saturation drops once the DMC-HX1 reaches ISO 400.

Overall, the PowerShot SX1 IS produces very good quality photos in most situations.The camera may use a CMOS sensor, but that doesn't mean that you get D-SLR image quality. Exposure was generally very good, though like most compact cameras, the SX1 is prone to highlight clipping (in fact, it may be a little worse than the SX10). I've got no complaints about color -- everything looks great in that respect. Sharpness is right where I like it -- not too soft, not too sharp. You will find noise in your photos, even at ISO 80. This noise is usually found in areas of low contrast, or in shadows, and it takes on a grainy or speckled appearance. This noise increases fairly quickly once you leave the base ISO, so keep that in mind if you'll be making a lot of large prints. Something else that I noticed is that the SX1 has a noticeable purple fringing problem, worse than on its twin, the PowerShot SX10.

Don't just take my word for all this. Have a look at our photo gallery, and maybe print a photo or two if you can. Then you should be able to decide if the PowerShot SX1's photo quality meets your expectations.

Movie Mode

The biggest feature on the PowerShot SX1 is its Full HD movie mode. The camera can record video at 1920 x 1080 at 30 frames/second, with stereo sound. You can keep recording until you hit the 4GB file size limit which, as you might imagine, arrives quickly (in about twelve minutes). You'll need a fast, large memory card to shoot at this resolution, as the camera is writing 5MB of data every second. Canon recommends a Class 6 SDHC card for best results.

You can adjust the mic level and turn on a wind filter in movie mode

The SX1 lets you use the optical zoom while you're recording a movie, and the lens' ultrasonic motor allows it to move silently. The image stabilizer is also available, as you'd expect. The camera lets you adjust the microphone level, and you can turn on a wind filter if you're shooting outdoors.

Don't need HD video? Then switch the aspect ratio back to 4:3 and you'll find the usual 640 x 480 and 320 x 240 options (both record at 30 fps). The maximum recording time for these modes is 45 minutes and 1 hour, respectively.

The SX1 is capable of taking a still photo while recording a movie. Do note that the movie will pause briefly while the still photo is recorded to the memory card.

The camera uses the efficient H.264 codec, inside a QuickTime wrapper.

Here's a real-world sample movie for you, which I recorded at 1920 x 1080. The original file is enormous, weighing in at over 137MB, so I posted a much easier-to-view 720p version as well. Things start out a little shaky (since the cable car is quite a distance away), but things smooth out as it gets closer. Enjoy!

Click to play downsized movie (15.9 MB, 1280 x 720, 30 fps, QuickTime format)
Click to play full-size movie (137MB, 1920 x 1080, 30 fps, QuickTime format)
Can't view it? Download QuickTime.

Playback Mode

The PowerShot SX1 IS has a very nice playback mode. Basic features include slideshows, image protection, DPOF print marking, voice captions, thumbnail view, and zoom & scroll. This last feature will enlarge the image by as much as ten times, and let you move around. You can use the scroll wheel on the back of the camera to move from image to image, while keeping the zoom and scroll setting intact (though this would be easier if the dial was "clickier"). You can also use the Focus Check feature here, which enlarges the focus point or the faces that were detected in the photo.

Photos can be rotated, resized, and cropped right on the camera. You can apply most of the My Colors feature to your photos, as well. If there's any redeye in your photos, you'll find a tool to remove it here. You can also use the i-Contrast feature to brighten up the dark areas of your photos, with a choice of Auto, Low, Medium, or High settings.

The sole movie editing tool on the SX1 allows you to trim unwanted footage off the beginning or end of a clip.

Setting a category for a photo

Photos that were taken in certain scene modes are automatically categorized, but if you want to do it manually, just use the My Category option. Your selection is transferred to your computer along with the photo.

Moving through photos with the scroll wheel... ... and the Jump button

There are several ways to move through photos on the camera. Naturally, you can just press left or right on the four-way controller. You can also turn the scroll wheel, which gives you the screen you see on the above-left. Another option is to use the Jump feature, which lets you move ahead by date, category, file type (still or movie), or in groups of 10 or 100 photos.

Even the camera's photo deletion feature is nice. You can remove photos one at a time or all at once (of course), or by date, category, folder, or range (e.g. photos 5-9).

Sound recording tool

You can also use the SX1 to record audio clips, and that tool is located in the playback menu. You can record up to two hours of continuous audio, with three quality settings to choose from.

By default you won't get much information about your photo while in playback mode. But press the Display button and you'll get more info, including a histogram.

The SX1 moves through images at an decent clip, with a delay of around 1 second between each one (complete with fancy transitions). Like most of Canon's cameras, when you rotate the camera 90 degrees, the photo on the LCD rotates too.