Canon PowerShot SX40 HS Review

Design & Features

The PowerShot SX40 looks identical to the SX30 that came before it. That makes it a fairly large super zoom with a body made of a mix of plastic and metal. While the camera is easy to hold, with the most important controls within easy reach of your fingers, though I wish the right hand grip was a bit larger. The SX40 has more than its share of buttons, but they're well-labelled. One control I don't like is the scroll wheel, which surrounds the four-way controller. When you rotate it, there are no "stops", so it's hard to make precise adjustments.

Canon PowerShot S100 in the hand

As the photo above illustrates, the PowerShot SX40 is a bit of a handful! Here's a chart comparing the size and weight of various super zoom cameras:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon PowerShot SX40 HS 4.8 x 3.6 x 4.2 in. 72.6 cu in. 557 g
Fujifilm FinePix S4000 4.6 x 3.2 x 3.9 in. 57.4 cu in. 445 g
Kodak EasyShare Max Z990 4.9 x 3.4 x 3.7 in. 61.6 cu in. 589 g
Nikon Coolpix P500 4.6 x 3.3 x 4.1 in. 62.2 cu in. 494 g
Olympus SP-810UZ 4.2 x 3.0 x 2.9 in. 36.5 cu in. 413 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ150 4.9 x 3.2 x 3.7 in. 58 cu in. 484 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX100V 4.9 x 3.5 x 3.8 in. 65.2 cu in. 525 g

As the chart shows, the PowerShot SX40 HS is the largest camera in the group, and is just shy of being the heaviest. It's absolutely not a pocket camera (save for perhaps your jacket), but it travels easily enough over your shoulder or in a camera bag.

Okay, let's start our tour of the PowerShot SX40 HS now. Use the tabs to switch between various views of the camera.

Front of the Canon PowerShot SX40 HS

The biggest feature (no pun intended) on the PowerShot SX40 is undoubtedly its 35X zoom lens. This F2.7-5.8 lens has a focal range of 4.3 - 150.5 mm, which is equivalent to an incredible 24 - 840 mm. It also features an ultrasonic (USM) motor -- something found on Canon's D-SLR lenses -- which allows for silent focusing, which is important when recording movies. While the lens supports filters, you first need to buy the filter adapter (mentioned in the accessory section) in order to use them.

A huge lens that this absolutely needs image stabilization, and the SX40 has a lens-based system that does just that. The image stabilizer reduces the risk of blurry photos, and it'll smooth out your movies as well. Two new features on the SX40 are Intelligent IS (used in Smart Auto mode), which selects the proper IS mode (panning, dynamic, hybrid, tripod) based on the situation. There's also a new "powered" mode, which reduces shake when you're recording movies at the telephoto end of the lens.

Directly above the lens is the pop-up flash, which is released manually. The flash has a slightly better range than the SX30, though that may be due to the different ISO range on the SX40. The working range at Auto ISO is 0.5 - 7.0 m at wide-angle and 1.4 - 3.0 m at telephoto. If you want more flash power, and a reduced chance of redeye, then you can attach an external flash to the hot shoe you'll see in a bit.

The only other items of note on the front of the SX40 include the AF-assist / self-timer lamp over on the right, and the stereo microphones, which are hidden from view here (they're between the flash and the lens).

Back-angled view of the Canon PowerShot SX40 HS

Here you can see one of the features that have been with Canon's super zoom cameras for a long time: a rotating LCD. This 2.7" display flips out to the side, and can rotate a total of 270 degrees. This allows you to shoot over the heads of people in front of you, or take photos on a tripod without straining your neck. The LCD can also put in the traditional position (shown on the next tab), or closed entirely.

Back of the Canon PowerShot SX40 HS

And here is the LCD in the position most people are used to seeing. The LCD isn't very competitive with the best super zoom cameras out there, in terms of both resolution (230,000 pixel) and screen size (2.7"). For example, both the Panasonic FZ150 and Sony HX100V offers 3-inch screens (rotating and tilting, respectively) with resolutions of 460,000 and 921,000 pixels (also respectively). That's not to say that it's a bad screen -- it's still very usable -- it just could be better. Outdoor visibility was decent, and in low light the screen "gains up" nicely, so you can still see your subject.

The other way in which you can compose and review photos is with the SX40's electronic viewfinder. Canon doesn't say how large this viewfinder is, but I tell tell you that it's one of the smallest ones I've used. The resolution of the EVF is 201,000 dots (67,000 pixels), and the screen is a bit grainy and washed out. I think I could see a bit of a rainbow effect, as well. If you want to adjust the focus of the viewfinder, just use the diopter correction knob on its left side.

The button immediately to the left of the EVF is a customizable shortcut button. By default it does nothing, but there are plenty of camera functions you can assign to it. On the opposite side of the EVF is the dedicated movie recording button.

At the far right you can see buttons for Zoom Framing Assist (explained later), entering playback mode, and focus point selection.

Under those we have the four-way controller, with the mushy scroll wheel around it. Both are used for menu navigation, setting adjustment, and photo reviewing. The four-way controller also has direct buttons foe exposure, focus, ISO, and the self-timer.

The last two buttons here are for switching between the LCD and EVF (and toggling what's shown on each) and entering the menu system.

Top of the Canon PowerShot SX40 HS

First thing to see here is the flash button, over on the left side near the strap mount. This doesn't pop up the flash (you do that yourself), but it does let you switch the flash mode.

At the center of the photo, under a very difficult to remove rubber cover, is the SX40's hot shoe. The hot shoe works best with Canon flashes, as they'll sync with the camera's metering system. You'll also be able to adjust the flash settings right from the camera menu. If you're using a Canon flash that supports high speed sync, then you should be able to take advantage of that as well. High end flashes (or the ST-E2 transmitter) can also control other flashes wirelessly. Not using a Canon flash? Then you'll probably need to adjust exposure settings manually. Canon does not publish what the maximum x-sync speed is for the SX40.

Continuing to the right, we have the fully loaded mode dial (more on that below) followed by the power and shutter release buttons, with the latter having the zoom controller wrapped around it. The zoom controller is variable speed -- the more you press it, the faster than lens moves. At full speed, you can travel from 24 to 840 mm in 2.3 seconds. I counted over thirty steps in the camera's 35X zoom range.

I should also point out that the lens has focal length markings on it, though you can only see the 24 mm position here.

Left side of the Canon PowerShot SX40 HS

The only things to see here are the speaker and the flash, which is popped up here.

The lens is at full wide-angle in this photo.

On the right side of the PowerShot SX40 you'll find its I/O ports, which are kept under a rubber cover. The ports here include mini-HDMI as well as USB + A/V output. Keep in mind that Canon does not include a video out cable with the camera, so you'll need to buy one in order to connect to a television.

The lens is at the full 35X position here. You can see that it's a pretty tight fit when the camera retracts the lens back into the body!

On the bottom of the PowerShot SX40 you will find a metal tripod mount (not visible here) plus the battery/memory card compartment. The door that covers this compartment is of average quality. As you can probably tell, you won't be able to get at what's inside the compartment while the camera is on a tripod.

The new NB-10L lithium-ion battery can be seen at right.

Alright, now it's time to talk about the various features on the PowerShot SX40 HS. Let's start with the items that can be found on the mode dial, which include:

Option Function
Movie mode While you can record movies in any mode by using the red button, here's where you'll find the Super Slow Motion and iFrame modes.
Creative Filters mode Take photos with special effects, which include fisheye, miniature effect, toy camera, 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 Movie Digest, portrait, landscape, Smart Shutter, high-speed burst HQ, handheld night scene, low light, beach, foliage, snow, fireworks, and Stitch Assist.
Smart Auto mode Point-and-shoot, with automatic scene selection. Some menu items are locked up.
Program mode Automatic shooting, but with access to all 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 dial 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 F2.7 - F8.0.
Full manual (M) mode Choose both the shutter speed and aperture yourself, with the same ranges and restrictions as above.
Custom (C) mode 1/2 Store your favorite camera settings on these two spots on the mode dial.

The PowerShot SX40 has a nice selection of features for both the beginner and the enthusiast. Those who want a point-and-shoot experience can just set the mode dial to Smart Auto and let the camera do the rest -- It'll select both the scene and IS mode for you.

The SX40 has many of the new bells and whistles introduced on Canon cameras this year, all of which are found in either the Creative Filters and Special Scene modes. One thing that didn't make it for some reason is an HDR mode -- I guess this camera's not considered "high-end" enough for that one. Here are some of the interesting point-and-shoot features:

  • Movie Digest: in this mode, the camera will record 2-4 seconds worth of video before every still; the results are compiled into a single video comprised of the days "events"
  • 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 frames/second; 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, blur-free (but potentially noisy) photo
  • Stitch Assist: helps you line up photos side-by-side for later stitching into a single panorama (using the bundled software)

A live histogram is available in record mode

Manual controls include those for shutter speed and aperture, as well as white balance and focus. The SX40 can bracket for both exposure and focus, but not for white balance. Speaking of white balance, while you can use a white or gray card for accurate color in mixed lighting, there's no way to fine-tune it. Something else you can't do is adjust the ISO when the shutter speed drops below 1 second. I understand the rationale behind that -- it keeps noise down -- but why restrict it in the manual modes? As with its predecessor, the SX40 HS does not support the RAW image format.

On a more positive note, enthusiasts will also enjoy the custom button, menus, and spots on the mode dial that the SX40 offers.

Before I move into the menu system, I want to mention the Zoom Framing Assist feature. Imagine you're zoomed in tight on a subject. And then you lose track of them. Simply press the Zoom Framing Assist button on the back of the camera -- the camera will zoom out a bit, allowing you to reacquire your subject. When you release the button, the zoom will return to where it previously was. This is definitely a handy feature when shooting moving subjects at a distance.

Two other things that I should cover are manual focus and the custom self-timer. The former lets you use the scroll dial to set the focus distance. The center of the frame is enlarged, and a guide showing the focus distance is shown on the LCD/EVF. The custom self-timer lets you set both the delay and how many shots are taken in the "burst".

Function menu

Moving onto menus now, I want to start with the SX40's function (shortcut) menu, which is activated by pressing the center button on the four-way controller. Here are the most interesting options you'll find there:

  • My Colors: enhance colors or skin tones, take B&W or sepia photos, or manually adjust contrast/sharpness/saturation
  • Bracketing: takes three shots in a row, each with a different exposure value or focus distance; focus bracketing is for use with manual focus only
  • Drive mode: choose from singe-shot, continuous, or continuous AF; I'll tell you about those last two later in the review
  • Still image aspect ratio: choose from 4:3, 16:9, 3:2, 1:1
  • Image size: no RAW support here -- just five sizes and two quality levels for JPEGs; a Large/Fine JPEG takes up about 3 MB on your memory card
Shooting menu, with help info at bottom Customizable My Menu

The rest of the shooting-related options that I want to talk about can be found in the PowerShot SX40's main menu. The menus are attractive, easy-to-navigate, and feature "hints & tips" that describe each option. You can also create your own menu, using the My Menu feature. You can put up to five items into your My Menu, and even have the camera go to it automatically when you hit the Menu button.

Some of the notable menu items include:

  • AF Frame: choose from Face Detect (finds up to nine faces, and falls back to center-point if none are found), Tracking AF, FlexiZone (select any point in the frame), or center-point; if you're using either of the last two options, you can select the size of the focus point (normal or small)
  • 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 43X 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 when you're not pressing the shutter release button; will lower battery life, though
  • Flash control: you can manually control the flash strength, turn on redeye reduction (see below), and choose the slow sync mode
  • Redeye correction: you can use digital redeye correction, a pre-flash, or both
  • i-Contrast: improves image contrast by brightening shadows and reducing highlight clipping (see example below)
  • Hg lamp correction: removes a greenish tint that may occur when shooting scenes lit by mercury lamps
  • 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
  • Zoom Framing Assist display area: choose how far back the zoom goes when you press this button
  • Set Shortcut button: choose one of fourteen functions to assign to the shortcut button on the back of the SX40

While the SX40 doesn't have the DR Correction features that were available on the PowerShot S100 that I just reviewed, it still has something helpful, called i-Contrast. This feature will brighten shadows and reduce highlight clipping, though you'll get want to set the ISO to Auto in order to get decent results. Here's what i-Contrast did with our purple fringing tunnel photo:

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

You don't even have to view the full size images to see the difference between using i-Contrast or nothing at all. The clipped highlights around both the lamp on the left and the opposite wall are dramatically reduced. If you do view the full size image, you will see a slight increase in noise, which is the trade-off (and a worthy one at that) for getting that detail back. The one thing that i-Contrast didn't do well here is brighten shadows, though 1) I've seen it do that in other scenarios and 2) there's an i-Contrast tool in playback mode which does it well.

The PowerShot SX30 was somewhat of a letdown in the movie department, in that it only recorded 720p video. The switch to CMOS has allowed Canon to bump the SX40 to Full HD, keeping it competitive with other super zooms (more or less). The SX40 can record video at 1920 x 1080 (24 frames/second) with stereo sound for up to 14.5 minutes. That sounds okay, but keep in mind that 24p video is a bit choppy, though most "real" movies are shot at that setting. Also, two of the SX40's biggest competitors (the Panasonic DMC-FZ150 and Sony DSC-HX100V) both record at true 1080/60p.

Two lower resolutions are also available on the SX40. You can choose from 720p or VGA settings, both of which are recorded at 30 frames/second. Recording will stop after 21 minutes at the 720p setting, and 44 minutes at VGA. The camera also supports Apple's poorly marketed iFrame (720p) codec, which is supposed to be easier to edit on Apple computers (not that H.264 is that challenging to work with).

Naturally, the SX40 lets you use the optical zoom while you're recording a movie, and the zoom moves slowly and quietly. The camera focuses continuously, so everything stays in focus. The image stabilizer is also available, which keeps things shake-free.

Most of the camera's special effects are available while recording movies, including miniature effect. There's also a "super slow motion" mode which records at 120 or 240 fps (though the resolution is lowered to 640 x 480 and 320 x 240, respectively) and plays them back at 30 fps, creating a slow motion effect. There aren't any manual controls in movie mode, though you can adjust the mic level or turn on a wind filter.

While you can take full resolution stills in movie mode, you will capture the camera refocusing, and then recording the image to the memory card, which freezes things for a second or two.

Here's a sample movie for you, taken at the highest quality setting. Since the file is huge (70 MB), I've also provided a smaller 720p version.

Click to play movie (1920 x 1080, 24 fps, 70.6 MB, QuickTime/H.264 format)
Click to play downsized movie (1280 x 720, 24 fps, 14.9 MB, QuickTime/H.264 format)

Not bad at all, aside from the choppiness!

Playback menu Jump menu; those bars at the bottom represent dates

The PowerShot SX40 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
  • My Category: assign a category to a photo, which is then transferred over to the "Browser" software; in some shooting modes, the camera does this automatically
  • i-Contrast: unlike the one in record mode, this version of i-Contrast actually brightens dark areas of your photo
  • Redeye correction: digitally remove this annoyance from a photo
  • My Colors: apply most of the options from the My Colors menu (vivid, sepia, black & white, etc) to photos you've already taken
  • Jump: move through photos by date, category, file type, whether they're tagged as a favorite, or in groups of 10 or 100
  • 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.

By default, the PowerShot SX40 shows you just basic information about a photo. Press the Display button, though, and you'll get a lot more, including a histogram and a display of clipped highlights.

The SX40 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 also allows you to just to photos taken on a certain date.