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Canon SX50 HS Review

Oh No, Not Another Superzoom!

OK, I admit it. I have a soft spot for so-called Superzoom cameras and have reviewed quite a few of them on these pages over the years. I have looked at even more than I have reviewed, and found most (read – all) wanting, usually in the area of image quality.

The new Canon SX50 HS was announced at Photokina in September, 2012, started shipping in October at a SMLP of $480, and by early November had dropped to $369 at some US  retailers. This means a drop of at least -20% during its first month on sale. Who knows how many of these ended up as stocking-stuffers by Christmas.

So – what's the big deal? If most (all) Superzooms don't measure up in terms of IQ, why even mention the bargain basement price of the new Canon SX50? The deal is that the SX50 is the first Superzoom that I've used that has acceptable image quality from one end of its range to to the other, and also at all low to medium ISOs (up to 1600). 

Looking Up. San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. December, 2012
Canon SX50 @ 1100mm Equiv. ISO100

The Skinny

If you're not a so-called Superzoom aficionado let me describe what they are, and why you might want one, expecially now with the SX50 available. It just might be worth adding to your kit.

As the moniker implies, a Superzoom has an extreme range lens. In the case of the SX50 it is from 24mm to 1200mm equivalent, a 50X range, and the longest and widest that any manufacturer has yet produced. The aperture ranges from f/3.4 to f/6.5 and this slowness is part of what allows for the long reach. Equally as important is the small sensor size. The camera has a 12MP 1/2.3" CMOS sensor which means roughtly a 6X factor over full frame.

"Ah ha," you say. "That's the catch, isn't it? How can you get decent image quality from a sensor that size?" Well, I'm here to tell you that while it isn't going to make your Nikon D800e get nervous, this camera is quite capable of taking quite acceptable images at ISOs up to 800 and at all focal lengths, even the widest and longest. The reason for this is that the latest generation of back-illuminated CMOS sensors have really improved over the past year or so. Also, by limiting the sensor to a useful 12MP, rather then stretch to a more consumer-appealing 16MP or 18MP, Canon has allowed the sensor not to be stressed to far. This makes the camera capable of producing decent quality 13X19" prints, if not even larger, and for web use this is more than enough.

In reviewing this camera I am not going to bother with ISO shots of a test set-up or images of distant buildings at every focal length. There's enough of that sort of reviewing around. I find it tedious to do and also to read. I'm much more interested in real-world results, and in the case of the SX50, in exploring the reasons why this camera might be of interest, even if you already have a great DSLR outfit, a more compact mirrorless system, or even a decent pocket camera.

Route 9. San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. December, 2012
Canon SX50 @ 600mm Equiv. ISO 125

The Basics

Pick up the Canon SX50 and you'd think that you were holding an entry-level DSLR with short kit zoom attached. Most controls are in familiar locations, the LCD screen is articulated, there's a built-in flash, and a dedicated video button. The only thing that breaks the spell is looking through the electronic viewfinder. It's the typical crappy, small and low-resolution EVF that all such cameras are saddled with. Keeps the price down I suppose, but it really is annoying to use.

The body is all plastic (though with a metal chassis underneath), and has a very smooth texture, or should I write lack thereof. There's enough bulk and weight so that the camera won't slip out of your hand, but it does feel like what it is – a plastiky sub- $400 camera.

Unlike a DSLR, there is a zoom lever around the shutter release button and when turned left or right with ones forefinger it moves the built-in non-interchangeable zoom lens through its range, from 24mm - 1200mm equivalent. The lens extends a few inches as it is zoomed out, and when it does you'll notice that the equivalent 35mm focal lengths are engraved on the top surface of the lens.

Of course once you get out to extreme focal lengths it becomes difficult to hold the camera steady for both framing and composition, and it's easy to lose where one concentrated onif moving the camera. Canon has incorporated two very clever button on the left size of the lens housing. The top one when pressed zooms the lens out temporarily, showing you a wider view, but with the zoomed in focal length outlined so you can center it on the subject. Release the button and you're back to the tight cropping that you wished.

The second button, beneath the first, is a stabilization button. As you'd expect the image is optically and electronically stabilized when shooting and while the shutter button is half pressed. But if you're just looking at the rear LCD or though the EVF without a half shutter press the image will not be stabilized. That's what the button is for, to provide a lock on the image during composition.

Flame Face. Toronto. November, 2012
Canon SX50 @ ISO 800. Focal Length: 300mm Equiv.

RAW

Most cameras of this genre do not shoot raw. That is to say, they of course do "shoot" raw, but only a JPG is able to be saved. The SX50 shoots raw, and it's a good thing that it does because I find the in-camera JPGs to be somewhat "overcooked", especially when it comes to sharpening. Fortunately timing of the release of the camera coincided with Adobe's raw support update schedule and the latest versions of Lightroom and Photoshop / Camera Raw (from Adobe Labs as of Dec, 2012) support the SX50, so no need to waste time with Canon's provided software if you own either of these.

I would also urge serious photographers to shoot in raw, because as with all cameras with small sensors highlight clipping is always a potential issue. Good raw software, such as Lightroom, can rescue harsh highlights much of the time.

Video

The SX50 can shoot 1920 X 1080P/24 HD video. I have not done any serious video work with the SX50, but casual usage shows that video quality is what one can typically accept from a camera of this type. More than acceptable for customer use, and maybe even some more serious applications, such as wildlife filming in bright to moderate light conditions.

Magazine Store. San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. December, 2012
Canon SX50 @ 100mm Equiv. ISO 125

Flash

In addition to the built-in pop-up flash there is a standard Canon hot shoe, able to take any of Canon's advanced flash units. I have not tested the camera with either, but assume that they work as advertised.


The SX50's Raison D'etre

Chef's Break. Toronto. November, 2012
Canon SX50 @ ISO 160. 950mm Equivalent

It's natural to ask – "Why would someone want a 12MP, $400 camera with a 24 – 1,200mm lens?" Obviously it depends on the type of shooting that one has in mind and prefers. For some photographers it's the simple need for reach, and either a restricted budget or preference not to use a large camera, much larger lens and a tripod. The shot immediately above, Chef's Break, is such an example. I was about a city block away looking down an alleyway beside a hotel as I walked by. I was taken with the contrast between the white chef's clothes and the black loading dock entrance-way. There was no way I would ever have been able to take this shot, even with a 24MP camera and cropping, because I still would have needed a 600mm or greater lens, which I normally don't walk around with.

Below is another example. In this case I was in a dense crowd of Toronto Argonaut fans celebrating the winning of the Grey Cup championship by Toronto's team. A 300mm equivalent focal length was needed to isolate the lady, but of I'd had a DSLR 300mm, even a slow zoom, I would likely have had it blocked by the crush of people.

Argo Fan. Toronto. November, 2012
Canon SX50 @ ISO 250. 300mm Equivalent

By Way of Comparison

Canon's competitor in this category is the also relatively new Panasonic FZ200. Its claim to fame is that its lens is a constant f/2.8 through a range of 25-600mm equiv, rather than the 24-1,200mm equiv range of the SX50, with a variable f/3.4 to f/6.5 maximum aperture. In other words, the Panasonic has a 24X zoom and the Canon has a 50X zoom range, with the Canon giving up between a half stop at the wide end and two stops at a matching 600mm. Another half stop is lost by going all the way to 1,200mm on the SX50.

Otherwise the cameras are quite comparable, though the Panasonic shoots 60P video and the Canon 24P; more a matter of preference than any real difference for most users of this class of camera.

Shadow Play. San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. December, 2012
Canon SX50 @ ISO 80. 180mm Equivalent

The Bottom Line

Here's the deal. The Canon SX50 is an inexpensive solution to a need that some photographers have; the need to get close. (I'm talking, of course, about your photography, not your emotional life). If you need or want to be able to execute any of the types of shooting covered in the Raison D'etre section above then you may find the SX50 will fill the bill. Image quality at all focal lengths, and at ISOs up to 800, ranges from quite good to adequate. Meaning by this: certainly for web, and for prints up to an including 13X19", I would not hesitate to publish or display most well executed results. 12 Megapixels is more than adequate in both instances. This all assumes, of course, that proper technique has been used. And as always, remember – content is king.

The price? Well, at under $400 its a relative bargain. You'll pay more for just a moderate quality short range zoom for your DSLR than you will for this monster zoom with camera included. And frankly, if you want to shoot at focal lengths beyond 200mm in urban environments, with a camera lens combo that doesn't make it look as if you're a carrying an assault weapon, Superzooms in general and the Canon SX50 in particular are the ticket. The 400mm to 1200mm range now becomes accessible without a tripod, and without drawing too much attention to oneself, so long as the light levels aren't too low. In other words, for the money – what's not to like?


A Closing Thought

Car Window #3. San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. December, 2012
Canon SX50 @ ISO 80. 160mm Equivalent

I ran into an acquaintance one afternoon while shooting a Christmas street procession in San Miguel. I was mainly working with the Canon SX50, but also had the Sony RX1 over my shoulder. This fellow is a serious amateur photographer, and was equipped with a full-frame Canon DSLR and a bag with several lenses. He asked me why, since I had the amazing RX1 with me, and he also knew that I had other high quality gear at the house, why was I shooting with "that toy"; meaning the SX50.

My answer was simple. It does the job that I need it to. Documentary street shooting needs to be discreet. Something like an RX1, or an M Leica are great tools for this, but I also like "extracting" vignettes from the world around me, and for this a long lens is what is often needed. "But what about image quality" my friend asked? "Isn't something with a small sensor and a crazy zoom range too much of an IQ compromise?"

A good question, but my answer was and is a flat-out "No, it's no longer as big a compromise as it used to be". In the past I always wanted Superzooms like the SX50 to produce better image quality than they were capable of, and was more often than not disappointed. But after a few weeks with the SX50 I can honestly say that for many photographers image quality will be found more than adequate, especially when the incredible reach of this lens is taken into consideration. As long as expectations are kept realistic (this camera's overall image IQ is not quite not up to MFT or APS-C standards), then you're likely to be more than satisfied. The trade-off is, of course, the astonishing focal range of 24-1200mm equiv in the palm of one's hand.

Many years ago Ansel Adams wrote – "There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept." Amen to that.

January, 2013

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Concepts: Photographic lens, Focal length, Digital camera, Camera, Zoom lens, Telephoto lens, Lens, F-number

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Tags: camera, SX50, Canon, Canon SX50, image quality, lens, San Miguel, focal lengths, range, zoom, new Canon SX50, button, DSLR, sensor, Canon SX50 HS, focal length, zoom range, so-called Superzoom, small sensor, non-interchangeable zoom lens, course, decent pocket camera, full-frame Canon DSLR, extreme range lens, acceptable image quality, cameras, decent image quality, Canon hot shoe, extreme focal lengths, 50X zoom range, astonishing focal range, great DSLR outfit, Allende, short kit zoom, crazy zoom range, short range zoom, half stop, better image quality, shutter release button, Camera Raw