Canon PowerShot SX260 HS Review

Design & Features

The PowerShot SX260 HS is a more streamlined version of the SX230 that came before it. The camera is made almost entirely of metal, with everything feeling pretty solid. It's compact and easy to hold, though there's not a lot of room on the back of the camera for your thumb, with mine usually resting on the movie record button. I also don't like how the buttons on the back of the camera are flush with the body, so you can't tell what you're pressing without looking first.

Here's a look at how last year's PowerShot SX230 compares to the new SX260:

The PowerShot SX230 and SX260, side-by-side (close to scale)
Images courtesy of Canon USA

The front view shows the SX260's new "flat top" design, since the GPS receiver has been pushed back into the body. On the back you can see that the SX260 loses the widescreen LCD of its predecessor (I view this as a good thing), and the buttons have been flattened to the flush design I mentioned earlier. The power button has moved from the back of the SX230 to the top of the SX260.

Canon PowerShot S100 colors
Images courtesy of Canon USA

The PowerShot SX260 comes in three colors: red, black, and green. My review unit was the green one, though I'd say it's closer to turquoise.

Canon PowerShot S100 in the hand

Now it's time to see how the PowerShot SX260 HS compares to other travel zooms in terms of size and weight. As you can see above, it's pretty compact for a camera with a 20X zoom lens!

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon PowerShot SX260 HS 4.2 x 2.4 x 1.3 in. 13.1 cu in. 208 g
Fujifilm FinePix F770EXR 4.1 x 2.4 x 1.4 in. 13.8 cu in. 209 g
Nikon Coolpix S9300 4.3 x 2.5 x 1.3 in. 14 cu in. 215 g
Olympus SZ-31MR iHS 4.2 x 2.7 x 1.6 in. 18.1 cu in. 226 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 4.1 x 2.3 x 1.3 in. 12.3 cu in. 185 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX20V 4.3 x 2.5 x 1.4 in. 15.1 cu in. 221 g

As you can see, the SX260 is one of the smallest and lightest travel zooms out there.

Alright, let's begin our tour of the SX260 HS now, using our tabbed interface:

Front of the Canon PowerShot SX260 HS

The biggest new feature on the SX260 is its new 20X lens. This F3.5-6.8 lens isn't exactly "fast" -- especially at the telephoto end -- so don't expect miracles in low light. The focal length is 4.5 - 90.0 mm , which is equivalent to 25 - 500 mm. The lens is not threaded, so conversion lenses and filters are not an option.

You need an image stabilization system with an ultra zoom camera, and the SX260 has one, of the lens-shift variety. This will reduce the risk of blur for still shots, and will smooth out your movies, as well. It has a "dynamic mode" for shooting videos which has extra shake reduction, as well as an Intelligent IS feature, which selects the right IS mode for the situation.

To the upper-left of the lens is the camera's pop-up flash, which is raised electronically (depending on the flash setting). The working range of the flash is 0.5 - 3.5 m at wide-angle and 1.0 - 2.0 m at telephoto (both at Auto ISO). If you want more flash power, consider picking up the slave flash I mentioned earlier, which has a range of up to 30 feet.

The last item of note on the front of the camera is the AF-assist lamp, which also serves as a visual countdown for the self-timer.

Back of the Canon PowerShot SX260 HS

The first thing to point out on the back of the camera is the SX260's 3-inch LCD display. The LCD has gone back to a more traditional 4:3 aspect ratio, rather than the widescreen one on the SX230. This is good news for still shooters, as composing photos on a 16:9 display is awkward. The LCD retains the same 461,000 pixel resolution of its predecessor, and it offers good outdoor visibility. In low light situations the screen brightens up nicely, allowing you to see what you're trying to take a photo of.

Now let's talk dials and buttons. At the top-right of the photo is the mode dial, which is chock full of options. I'll tell you more about those options right after this tour.

Underneath that we have four buttons, plus the four-way controller / scroll wheel combo. The function of the four buttons is pretty obvious, and you can see that the four-way controller does a lot more than just navigate menus, as well. The scroll dial around the four-way controller can be used for adjusting manual settings, navigating the menu system, and replaying photos you've taken.

Top of the Canon PowerShot SX260 HS

Up on top of the SX260 you can see the flash (closed here), speaker, and stereo microphones. The GPS has been integrated into the body, so the SX260 lacks the "hump" of its predecessor.

Continuing to the right we see the shutter release button, which has the zoom controller wrapped around it. The controller moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in just 1.9 seconds. I counted a little over twenty steps in the SX260's 20X zoom range, which doesn't allow for a lot of precision.

At the far right of the photo is the SX260's power button.

Left side of the Canon PowerShot SX260 HS

There's nothing to see on this side of the camera, aside from the popped-up flash. The lens is at the full wide-angle position here.

On the right side of the SX260 are its I/O ports, where are protected by a rubber cover. The ports here include USB + A/V and mini-HDMI. The optional AC adapter feeds through a "hole" in the battery compartment door.

That big ol' 20X lens as at full telephoto here.

On the bottom of the PowerShot SX260 you'll find a metal tripod mount (not visible in this photo) as well as the battery/memory card compartment. The door over this compartment is of average quality. Keep in mind that you won't be able to access its contents while the camera is on a tripod.

The include NB-6L lithium-ion battery can be seen at right.

There's no live histogram on the SX260

The first thing I want to talk about are the items on the SX260's fully loaded mode dial. They include:

Option Function
Movie mode More on this later
Discreet mode Turns off the flash and all camera lights and sounds.
Creative Filters mode Take photos with special effects, which include fisheye, miniature effect, toy camera, soft focus, monochrome, super vivid, poster effect, Color Accent (selective color), and Color Swap.
Special Scene mode Pick the situation and the camera uses the appropriate settings. Choose from portrait, smooth skin, Smart Shutter, High-speed Burst HQ, Handheld Night Scene, low light, beach, underwater, snow, fireworks, and Stitch Assist.
Movie Digest mode The camera records a 2-4 second video clip before each still photo is taken. At the end of the day, these clips are combined into a single, 720p movie showing the days events. Operation is strictly point-and-shoot.
Easy mode Completely automatic, with no menus at all.
Smart Auto mode Point-and-shoot, with automatic scene selection. Some menu items are locked up.
Live View Control mode Another point-and-shoot mode, with sliders to adjust the brightness, color saturation, and white balance.
Program mode Automatic shooting, but with full access to menu options. A Program Shift feature can be activated by halfway-pressing the shutter release button and then pressing "up" on the four-way controller (AE lock). After that you can use the scroll wheel to move through various shutter speed/aperture combinations.
Shutter priority (Tv) mode You choose shutter speed and the camera picks the aperture. Shutter speed range is 15 - 1/3200 sec. Note that the ISO sensitivity is locked at 100 when the shutter speed goes below 1 second.
Aperture priority (Av) mode You choose the aperture and the camera picks an appropriate shutter speed. Range is F3.5 - F8.0.
Full manual (M) mode Choose both the shutter speed and aperture yourself, with the same ranges and restrictions as above.

Live View Control mode makes adjusting settings easy

There at least four point-and-shoot modes on the SX260, and that doesn't include the Scene or Creative Filter modes. For general use, there's Smart Auto mode, which selects one of 58 scene modes for you (plus the proper image stabilization mode). The SX260 even knows if you're using a tripod, and reacts accordingly. If you want a way to adjust exposure compensation, color saturation, and white balance without having to know any of those technical terms, then try the new Live View Control mode. If you want to capture a short video before each still photo, then try the Movie Digest mode. Finally, there's an Easy mode which lets you turn the flash on and off -- and that's it.

As you've seen, the SX260 is loaded with both scene modes and special effects. I want to mention a couple of the scene modes that need further explanation:

  • Smart Shutter: choose from smile detection, or cool wink and face self-timers; smile detection waits until someone in your photo smiles, and then it'll start taking photos; the wink self-timer takes a photo two seconds after someone in the frame winks at the camera; face self-timer takes a photo 2 seconds after a new person (presumably the photographer) enters the frame
  • High-speed Burst HQ: the camera takes eight photos in a row at 10.3 frames/second (Canon's numbers -- see mine later); do note that the LCD goes black while shooting is in-progress
  • Handheld Night Scene: the camera takes several exposures and combines them into a single photo, which is hopefully sharp
  • Stitch Assist: helps you line up photos side-by-side for later stitching into a single panorama (using the bundled software)

The SX260 has a limited set of manual controls. You can adjust the shutter speed and/or aperture to your liking, and manually adjust the focus or white balance. Unfortunately, there's no bracketing feature, white balance fine-tuning (except for underwater), or RAW format support available. Something else that bothered me is that the ISO is locked at 100 when the shutter speed drops below 1 second. While this reduces noise, it's also an unneeded restriction. You'll see how this affected my night test scenes on the next page of this review.

Function menu

I want to mention a few interesting options that are controlled by the four-way controller, which includes the Function menu (activated by pressing the Func/Set button). These options include:

  • Self-timer: in addition to 2 and 10 second options, a custom mode lets you choose the number of shots and the amount of time before the first shot is taken
  • My Colors: enhance colors or skin tones, take B&W or sepia photos, or manually adjust contrast/sharpness/saturation
  • Underwater white balance compensation: for fine-tuning white balance when shooting underwater
  • Still image aspect ratio: choose from 4:3, 16:9, 3:2, or 1:1

Not a whole lot of interesting options, as you can see. Unfortunately, the SX260 lacks the useful DR Correction and HDR features found on some of Canon's other higher-end cameras. It does have the i-Contrast feature (described below), but it's not as robust as the other two.

Shooting menu, with help info at bottom

The rest of the shooting-related options that I want to talk about can be found in the PowerShot SX260 HS's main menu. The menus are attractive, easy-to-navigate, and feature "hints & tips" that describe each option. The notable features here are:

  • AF frame: choose from Face Detect, Tracking, and center AF; for center AF you can select from small or normal size focus points
  • Digital zoom: normally I tell people to turn this off, but if you're willing to lower the resolution, you can use it without a reduction in image quality; for example, dropping down to 6 Megapixel gives you a whopping 50X of total zoom power
  • Servo AF: the camera keeps focusing with the shutter release halfway-pressed, which is helpful for moving subjects
  • Continuous AF: the camera is always focusing, even before you press the shutter release button; reduces focus times at the expense of battery life
  • Flash exposure compensation/output: if you set the flash to manual control, you can adjust it in the same way that you do exposure; when the camera is in "M" mode, you can choose from 1/3, 2/3, or Full flash output
  • Redeye correction: buried in the flash settings submenu, this option will digitally remove redeye from photos, as they are taken; look for the redeye test later in the review
  • i-Contrast: improves overall image contrast; see below for example
  • Blink detection: the camera will warn you if someone in the frame had their eyes closed
  • IS settings: choose from continuous or "shoot only" stabilization, or turn it off entirely; a Powered IS mode is for shooting at full telephoto, and should be turned off when panning or walking
  • Face ID settings: new to the SX260 is a face recognition feature; you can add a face along with a name and birthday; registered faces will get focus priority when they appear in the frame; you can add multiple angles to improve accuracy
  • GPS Auto Time: sets the clock using the GPS system
  • GPS settings: turn the GPS on and off, and activate a logging function which tracks your movements (at the expense of battery life)

While the SX260 lacks the more robust HDR and DR Correction tools of its more expensive siblings, its i-Contrast feature still reduces highlights and brightens shadows. The only real catch is that the camera may need to boost the ISO to 200 in order to make the magic happen. Here's an example of i-Contrast in action:

i-Contrast off (default)
View Full Size Image
i-Contrast on
View Full Size Image

While i-Contrast doesn't cure highlight clipping by any means, it definitely reduces it, which you can see on the left side of the tile floor. As I mentioned, the ISO went up to 200 with this feature on, which increases noise slightly. This isn't a great scene for seeing how i-Contrast brightens shadows, but from my own experiences, it'll do that too -- just not dramatically.

i-Contrast examples added on 3/26/12

There's not a whole lot to tell you about the SX260's GPS feature. It's a bare bones system that logs your location and nothing more (sorry, landmark database fans). If you want to track your route, just turn on the logging function, though note that it'll put a heavy strain on your battery. Satellite acquisition times aren't wondrous. In a wide open area, it took the camera about a minute to figure out where I was. In the city, things are much more difficult, as is usually the case. Unless you're really lucky, don't expect the camera to find your location beneath the skyscrapers.

The PowerShot SX260's movie mode is essentially the same as the one on the SX230 that came before it. You can record Full HD video (1920 x 1080) at 24 frames/second with stereo sound, until the file size reaches 4GB (which takes about 14.5 minutes). While the 24p frame rate is popular with film makers, the average person may find it to be a bit choppy. The SX260 can also record at 1280 x 720 and 640 x 480 -- all at 30 frames/second. You can also use the Apple-developed iFrame codec, which is supposed to be easier to edit -- not that working with H.264 is that hard.

As you'd expect from this hybrid camera, you can use the optical zoom (complete with continuous AF) and image stabilizer while you're recording a movie. There aren't any manual controls, though, unless you count the wind filter.

Movies can also be recorded using the miniature effect (at 720p) and at high frame rates. These "super slow motion movies" are recorded at 120 or 240 fps, at resolutions of 640 x 480 and 320 x 240, respectively. When played back at normal speed, the videos taken at the high frame rates appear to move in slow motion, as their name implies. Many of the other Creative Filters can be used in movie mode, if regular color just isn't good enough for you.

There's no way to take a still photo while you're recording a movie.

Here's a brief sample movie for you, taken at the highest quality setting. Pardon the zoom action at the beginning of the clip.

Click to play movie (1920 x 1080, 24 fps, 35.1 MB, QuickTime/H.264 format)

Aside from the choppiness, the video quality is pretty good!

The PowerShot SX260 HS has a pretty nice playback mode. Some of the notable features here include:

  • Movie Digest playback: I told you about this feature earlier; here's how you view the day's events
  • Smart Shuffle: a bizarre feature which shows four photos similar to the one you're viewing
  • Image Search: move through photos by date, category, file type, recognized face, or whether it's tagged as a favorite
  • My Category: assign a category to a photo, which is then transferred over to the "Browser" software; in some cases, the camera has done this automatically
  • Photobook: you can select photos to put into a photobook, which essentially just puts images into a separate folder, for easy uploading to photo printing sites
  • i-Contrast: brightens dark areas of your photo
  • Redeye correction: digitally remove this annoyance from a photo
  • Erase range of photos: I normally don't mention image deletion features, but the ability to select a range of photos without having to click your way through thumbnails is very handy

Photo editing functions include the ability to rotate, resize, and crop. Movies can have unwanted footage trimmed off of the beginning or end of a clip.

The PowerShot SX260 HS shows just basic information about your photo by default. Pressing the Display button reveals more, and if you press "up" on the four-way controller, you'll see where the photo was taken.

The SX260 moves through photos without delay, even with the fancy transitions between each image. If you want to really go fast, just spin the dial on the back of the camera. Using the dial is another way to jump to photos taken on a certain date.