Announced in August 2009 and widely available December 2009 onwards, this is a rather belated review. But there is a good reason for that.
Classified as a ‘Super-zoom’, the Canon Powershot SX20 IS has a lot going for it. 12 MP sensor, 20x optical zoom, tilt-swivel LCD display, semi-professional camera controls, AA battery power source, included lens hood, SD card support … (Click here to visit the official website)
There are quite a few gotchas too, but I will get to them later in the review.
I have been using a Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S85 (4 MP) camera for a while now (View gallery of images on Flickr) and considering my general requirement, I have been happy with it’s performance. Ever Since I got into designing creatives, I have needed / wanted a camera with higher specs. As usual, copious research must precede any equipment purchase for me.
I have used a range of cameras since the Sony DSC S85 and was quite impressed by image quality on the Nikon 8700D (8 MP, 8x Zoom, Launched 2004), the speed of Canon EOS-1000D (D-SLR, 10 MP) and loads of Olympus, Fuji & other Sony Cyber-shot models in between. What I was very clear about:
- I will not buy a D-SLR: This was way over my budget of Rs. 20K. Considering that if you buy the D-SLR camera and then start adding the near compulsory accessories like prime lens, wide angle lens, zoom lens, UV filter, Circular polarizer, Neutral density filter, the total cost exceeds Rs. 1 Lakh.
- I will not buy yet another pocket camera: I needed a camera with semi-DSLR features and manual control of shutter-speed, aperture, white-balance etc.
- I will not be enticed into buying a high-end mobile phone that claims to be a camera first and telephone later!
My research pointed me to the breed of ‘Super Zooms’ in the market. A Super-Zoom camera is basically quite a few stops over the typical pocket digital camera by virtue of featuring a large zoom lens (10x – 26x), semi-professional features and large body that is heavy and suitable for tripod mounted shooting. Such a camera is capable of shooting a wide range of angles (24 mm – 600mm).
The race was on! The machines in the fray were the Canon PowerShot SX20 IS, Kodak Easyshare Z980, Olympus SP-590UZ, Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ35, Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-HX1 and the Nikon CoolPix P90.
Each camera featured a minimum of 10x optical zoom (please don’t talk about digital zoom ever), a 10-12 MP sensor, large color LCD for preview. Common to all cameras, was a 1/2.33″ sensor, which technically is quite small and raises several questions about the sensor’s capability to deliver a 12 MP image in pristine quality. See a comparison of sensor size here and remember that in general, bigger the sensor the better.
My faithful DSC-S85 had a tendency to produce dull images and always needed sprucing up (non-destructive) using the excellent and free Google Picasa. The newer Cybershot camera produced much much better images but suffered from a severe handicap – Sony proprietary spares. Sony cameras use Sony’s Info-lithium batteries and Sony Memory-stick Pro memory. Replacement for both tends to be very expensive. Sony was ruled out.
Among Olympus & Panasonic, the Panasonic had received good reviews. I had a soft corner for Nikon and my brother highly recommended ‘anything Canon’. Hence Olympus was eliminated from the race.
Though the Panasonic had HD video recording, I was forced to eliminate it because it did not have a tilt-swivel LCD. The Nikon Coolpix 8700D I had used in the past featured, a tilt-swivel LCD and if you ever want to get into Macro photography or photography of children and pets, you must make this mandatory. The tilt-swivel LCD allows you to shoot objects by positioning the camera at odd angles (for ex: at ground level, over-head looking down) and eliminate the guess work by being able to watch exactly what you are shooting. Save your back in the process.
The Nikon P90 had a semi tilting LCD (no swivel). Technically, the Nikon had everything going on for it (including a soon-to-be-launched P100 model) but I had to eliminate the Nikon. Reason? The Canon had six distinct advantages over the Nikon:
- The Canon featured a full tilt-swivel LCD
- The Canon used AA batteries which eliminated the expense associated with proprietary Li-ion batteries (used by Nikon)
- The Canon featured standard USB port for connecting to computer (Nikon uses a proprietary USB port on the camera)
- The Canon allowed use of Zoom lens during recording of HD video
- The Canon featured funky creative modes such as Color Accent, Color Swap etc.
- There was a group of hackers (CHDK) who were dedicated to add features missing from many Super-zooms. Such as RAW support (in DNG format), extended shutter speeds (up-to 2000 second!), custom Grid-lines, Battery life indicator and ‘Super-Fine’ JPEG compression mode.
I guess my brother was pleased that I chose a Canon over others (he is a dedicated Canon customer). He had better be: He was going to buy it for me! I swear I will pay him back eventually 😉
Canon India’s pricing and warranty policies came as a shocker. They are almost medieval.
The Camera was priced in India at Rs. 29,990/- and the 1 year warranty was valid for India only! Price of the Camera on Amazon.com was only US$ 349 (which works out to Rs. 16,054/- @Rs. 46/USD). Buying it on Amazon and shipping to India was another issue: Amazon would not ship this camera to India and if purchased on Amazon, the camera warranty would be US only! If I used other web-services to purchase the camera, ship to India and pay the duties – the camera cost would exceed it’s Indian price. Guess this is the situation Canon is taking advantage of!
So I reverted to the tried-and-tested method of buying the camera on Amazon and asking a hone-bound Desi to carry the camera in for me. Fortunately, a dear friend of ours was coming to India on a break and he agreed to be the ‘mule’.
Other than the numerous advantages that this camera had, a few features were pleasant to discover:
- The camera features a separate slot on the side for a SD Card. This means that you can change the SD Card without taking the camera off the tripod. Since quality rechargeable NiMH batteries were rated for 400+ shots, you were more likely to swap SD Cards before swapping batteries.
- Cosmetics wise, the camera is all plastic but features a combination of silver-gray-black colors that is eye catching.
- The included lens hood is very useful when shooting in bright daylight or indoor scenes featuring bright overhead lighting. It reduces light streaks and enhances contrast detection.
- Out-of-the-box testing revealed very fast start-up, fast focussing, fast capture & save.
- Image quality was very good when viewed on the LCD and when viewed on the computer using Picasa.
- The Programmed mode (P mode on dial) allowed easy changing of White Balance, Color modes, Aperture logic, Image dimensions and quality. The manual mode allows you to set Shutter-speed up-to 15 second, aperture and exposure. Aperture limits are decided by the current state of zoom. Aperture f/2.8 is only possible in no-zoom/minimal zoom setting.
- Dedicated buttons allow you to quickly set the ISO mode, Manual focus mode, Timer, Exposure compensation, Display switching (between LCD, built-in Electronic Viewfinder, Grid and Info on/off)
- Unique to the camera is the ‘Super Macro’ mode which allows photography from distance as low as Zero cm. Yes, you read it right. You can put the lens right against the object to shoot and take photographs. On other cameras, you inevitably end up using Macro extensions to get such images.
- The zoom lens is quite fast and silent in operation. Even when shooting HD video, you can hardly hear the zoom lens whir. The built-in hardware image-stabilizer (that’s the IS in SX20 IS) helps immensely when shooting images at extreme ends of zoom.
The camera is not without it’s shortcomings.
- Strangely, the lens-cap does not have provision for a lanyard to keep it attached to the body. This becomes an issue since I have to remember to keep the lens-cap safely in the camera bag when I am engaged in a shoot and putting it back on means a trip to the camera bag.
- The jog-dial at the back does not have a firm click to it and it is easily rotated by mistake. The buttons too are a little soft and get pressed when handling the camera.
- Canon chose to not bundle a HDMI cable along with the camera. Though the camera uses a standard Mini-HDMI port, a Mini-HDMI cable from Canon is US$ 70! Everyone knows that HDMI cable manufacturing is not rocket science and quality of HDMI cables is not at all a factor when cable lengths are limited to a few feet. You can buy HDMI cable for 1 cent on Amazon and it will work just as well as a $100 cable from Monster Cables.
- A camera with such feature-set definitely requires a sensor bigger than 1/2.33″. The sensor is too small to generate 12MP images and quite a lot of noise is visible in the images. Images shot by the camera lack sharpness when viewed at 100% and borders appear soft. Though this is not different from other cameras in this range and is even observed in many D-SLR cameras, I feel a bigger sensor would have allowed more light sensitivity and less noise in final images.
- The camera uses a CCD sensor and honestly I do not know whether I should place this comment in the Good section or the Bad section. A CCD sensor is more sensitive to light and produces better images in low-light scenarios. However, CCD sensors also produce more noise. With improvement in CMOS sensor technologies, camera manufacturers the world over are moving over to the CMOS camp which produces cleaner images.
Some of the camera’s shortcomings are too much to bear.
- The camera lens is not threaded to allow for attaching filters and lenses. I can understand that Canon does not want you to mount a heavy lens in front of an already generous zoom lens, because such weight can damage the motor-gear-rail mechanism on which Canon’s zoom lens mechanism works. But surely it is ok to attach a light UV filter / Circular Polarizer / Neutral Density filter to enhance the creative possibilities. I have been shooting some jewelery for a client without attaching a polarizer. The diamonds in the jewelry simply flare out and it becomes impossible to see the details. A basic UV filter would also have protected the coated lens of the camera from getting smudged by hands or objects (when shooting in super-macro mode). Adapter rings are now available on Amazon which basically snap into the place where the lens-cap normally does and allows for installation of 58 mm filters on the camera lens.
- The Camera does not feature RAW output. Every digital camera in the world is capable of RAW output. It is up-to the manufacturer to enable it. Simply speaking, a RAW file is a dump of the data generated by the sensor. No processing is applied by the camera. A image shot in RAW mode features no compression artifacts and allows for settings such as White-balance to be changed later. Fixing an under/over exposed image is easier if the RAW source is available. Canon chose to enable RAW output on the PowerShot SX1 but removed it from SX10 & SX100 cameras. The SX20 is simply a 12MP version of the 10MP SX10.
The Canon Hack Development Kit:
CHDK was a big reason why I purchased the Canon SX20 IS. CHDK is a group of hackers dedicated to improving the feature set on Canon Point & Shoot cameras. The CHDK group is unique to Canon and no other manufacturer enjoys groups of users and programmers toiling away to enhance the user experience. If Canon had any sense, it would fund the CHDK project and encourage them. If Canon had any sense, it would also try NOT to take control of CHDK once it funded the group; that would be a sure way of killing innovation for the sake of commercial interests.
The CHDK group promised enabling of RAW image support on the Canon. They were already successful in enhancing the SX1 & SX10 and enhancements to the SX20 were only a matter of time.
To my consternation, my camera feature firmware revision 1.02C and CHDK group only had a beta version available for 1.02B version of the firmware. I had no option but to wait.
The wait was worth it. Recently the CHDK group released beta files for 1.02D version of the firmware and this version is also compatible with 1.02C (generally versions cannot be mix-matched). So I headed over the CHDK site, read it up cover-to-cover. Loaded CHDK on my camera and started shooting with zeal. The time had come for me to review the camera.
CHDK enabled RAW image support on my camera and a ‘Super-fine’ JPEG mode. Both these modes are features that I have been wanting since I received the camera.
The RAW mode makes it painfully obvious how much compression the camera applies when it saves images as JPEG. RAW images are simply sharper and Noisier! The noise can be attributed to the tiny CCD sensor. The super-fine JPEG mode saves JPEG images with a little less compression (less artifacts and bigger file-sizes). Download the Adobe Photoshop file (PSD) to compare the differences in the RAW and JPEG images shot by the camera.
For some reason, when I view RAW images in Picasa, I can see that the images are 4008 x 3012 pixels in size (17.8 MB filesize), but when I use XnView to convert the images to TIFF, the resulting images is only 2004 x 1506 pixels in size (3 MP). Perhaps it is something in XnView that I need to look into. Perhaps I need to open this image in Adobe Photoshop CS and check.
Though the Canon PowerShot SX20IS is an excellent Super-zoom, on it’s own it may / may not win the top spot as the best super-zoom (when compared with super-zooms that were available around the time of it’s release). With the addition of CHDK, the Camera outshines every other competitor in the market. By all means go for it over other makes, you will find it as an excellent alternative if you don’t want to get into the hassles of buying a D-SLR. Avoid the camera if you are looking for a camera with an inherently large sensor. Such sensors are only available on the Micro 4/3 and D-SLR cameras.