After a long and busy week, I was still able to slip in some time to write my review of the Canon PowerShot SX20 IS. The PowerShot SX20 is an evolutionary upgrade to last year’s SX10, featuring 12 megapixels, a flip-out and twist LCD screen, full manual controls and now, a 720p HD movie mode. You can also check out photos taken straight out of the camera in the Canon PowerShot SX20 IS photo gallery. What are you waiting for? Hit that link for the full review of the Canon PowerShot SX20 IS.
DPInterface Canon PowerShot SX20 IS Review
Brad Soo – October 6th, 2009
The PowerShot SX20 is Canon’s newest super-zoom digital camera. It’s not a huge jump from its predecessor, the SX10, but the PowerShot SX20 IS adds in a couple of small improvements that some may or may not find useful – such as 12 megapixels of resolution (up from ten on the previous camera), a 720p HD movie mode, mini HDMI port and a new ‘hints and tips’ feature.
Should the Canon PowerShot SX20 be your next camera during this holiday season? Let’s have a look now!
Size and Weight
(303.5) 127.5 x 88.3 x 87.7 mm (585 g) – Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
(299.2) 124.0 x 88.3 x 86.9 mm (560 g) – Canon PowerShot SX10 IS
(299.2) 124.0 x 88.3 x 86.9 mm (560 g) – Canon PowerShot SX20 IS
(288.5) 122.6 x 81.4 x 84.5 mm (483 g) – Casio Exilim FH20
(372.0) 133.4 x 93.6 x 145.0 mm (820 g) – Fujifilm FinePix S200 EXR
(319.2) 123.7 x 90.5 x 105.0 mm (415 g) – Kodak EasyShare Z980
(296.0) 114.0 x 83.0 x 99.0 mm (460 g) – Nikon Coolpix P90
(297.0) 110.0 x 89.0 x 98.0 mm (435 g) – Olympus SP590UZ
(282.3) 117.6 x 75.8 x 88.9 mm (367 g) – Panasonic Lumix FZ35 aka Lumix FZ38
(289.1) 114.5 x 82.8 x 91.8 mm (453 g) – Sony Cyber-shot HX1
All the weight figures above show when the camera is empty without a battery or memory card
The PowerShot SX20 measures exactly the same dimensions as the 10 megapixel SX10. Most of the competitors remain unchanged since the SX10 due to different release times (the SX10 announced last fall is already a year old, while most of the competition, released earlier this year, is barely 6-9 months old).
The PowerShot SX20 is average in size for a super-zoom camera but a good 100 grams heavier than the group average. Is that a big difference? Not really, in my opinion, if you’re going to be slinging the camera around your neck/shoulder or in a bag, the difference is not very noticeable and shouldn’t bother most people.
During my time with the PowerShot SX20, I also had the Panasonic Lumix FZ35 super-zoom with me so let’s take a little break for me to talk about how I felt about each camera ‘in-hand’. The Panasonic is about 200 grams lighter (and smaller too) and the camera certainly felt more comfortable to carry around. I did, however, prefer the Canon SX20’s heftier body for telephoto shooting – the Panasonic FZ35’s lightweight felt a little ‘wobbly’ and not as reassuring (but that’s just me).
The Canon PowerShot SX20 comes with bundle that’s slightly lacking in the power department. I like the fact Canon includes a lens hood but at the same time, felt disappointed with the throw-away batteries the camera comes with:
- 4 AA alkaline batteries
- Lens cap
- Lens hood
- Neck strap
- USB and stereo A/V cables
- Camera software CD (Canon Digital Camera Solution disc)
- User’s manual
The PowerShot SX20 doesn’t come with any memory, at all, so you’ll have to use your own memory card (or shop for one). The SX20 takes SD/SDHC cards as well as MMC’s. I would recommend sticking to SD/SDHC since they’re typically faster and available in larger in capacities versus MMC. And while we’re at that, I’d suggest making the card high-speed too since the PowerShot SX20 can perform faster using one. A 4 GB high-speed SDHC is a good place to start in terms of capacity/speed – it can hold quite a bit of data and write movies into the card quickly.
420 shots – Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
600 shots – Canon PowerShot SX10 IS
600 shots – Canon PowerShot SX20 IS
430 shots – Casio Exilim FH20
370 shots – Fujifilm FinePix S200 EXR
410 shots – Olympus SP590UZ
200 shots – Nikon Coolpix P90
470 shots – Panasonic Lumix FZ35 aka Lumix FZ38
390 shots – Sony Cyber-shot HX1
All the cameras above are rated with rechargeable batteries according to CIPA Standard
The Canon PowerShot SX20 IS uses 4 AA batteries but comes with a set of non-rechargeable alkaline batteries. I’ve got both good and bad news: Good news is the bundled batteries will last for quite a while before dying (rated to 340 shots); BUT they’ll eventually run out of power and end up in the trash anyway. You’ll have less trouble with most of the competition which comes with proprietary batteries (and a charger), though AA batteries are way more versatile (you can find them anywhere and they’re usable on a wide range of devices).
With the PowerShot SX20, you’ll have to get a set of rechargeable AA NiMH batteries and a charger yourself. With rechargeable batteries, the Canon PowerShot SX20 trumps the competition with a class-leading 600 shots per charge (just like the SX10).
The list of accessories available for the Canon PowerShot SX20 IS is just as short as the one for the PowerShot SX10. You can attach an external flash to the camera but not conversion lenses or filters. The official flash units from Canon are the 270EX, 430EX series and 580EX series models. You can also opt for third party flash units, but only Canon models will sync automatically with the camera.
Other than that, you’ll find optional rechargeable AA batteries and charger, an AC adapter and various camera cases for the PowerShot SX20. One new accessory available for the Canon PowerShot SX20 is a HDMI cable so you can hook it up to your high-definition television set via the new mini HDMI port on the camera. The use of HDMI cables is becoming more common nowadays, and they’re non-proprietary (means you can use them on other devices too), but they’re still on the expensive side.
Like its predecessor, the Canon PowerShot SX20 is a sturdy, good looking super-zoom camera. You’ll be hard-pressed to spot the differences between the SX10 and SX20 actually – besides the megapixel/model badge changes and new mini HDMI port on the right; they’re essentially the same camera.
The camera is nicely built and easy to hold with a large, rubberized lens barrel and partially-textured grip. There are plenty of buttons on the PowerShot SX20, making it seem a bit daunting at first for beginners but a positive thing in the long run since most functions are easily accessible. One thing that hasn’t changed for the better is the command dial on the back: its lack of tactile “clicks” makes it difficult to judge how many stops you’ve changed without looking at the screen.
The Canon PowerShot SX20 IS has the same, big 20X optical zoom lens as the SX10. In 35 mm terms, this lens is equivalent to 28 – 560 mm. The aperture range goes from a fast f2.8 at wide-angle to a slow f5.7 at telephoto. What this means is that you’ll need more light to get the same shutter speed at telephoto, seeing that the smaller aperture makes things ‘darker’. The lens has built-in optical image stabilization, which helps reduce blurring caused by camera shake, and Canon’s USM drive (Ultrasonic Motor), which enables quick and quiet focusing and zooming. Just like other super-zoom cameras, despite having optical image stabilization, I would think that the SX20’s 20X zoom range can only be fully utilized with good light since it’s hard to keep the camera steady at 20X in low-light (unless you use a tripod)
Above the lens is the PowerShot SX20’s manual popup flash. The flash here is even more powerful than the one found on its predecessor. At wide-angle, it covers a range of 50 cm to 6.8 m, shrinking to 1.0 to 3.7 m at telephoto (Auto ISO). If that isn’t enough power, you can attach an external flash to the Canon SX20.
Then there are the just three round circles above the lens: they are the PowerShot SX20’s stereo microphones and the autofocus assist/self-timer countdown lamp on the right. The PowerShot SX20 does NOT support wireless remote control (and there’s no remote receiver here), unlike the SX1.
The Canon PowerShot SX20 IS has a flip-out and rotate LCD screen. It measures 2.5 inches diagonally and sports a resolution of 230,000 pixels.
What’s great about the LCD is that you can flip it out and then rotate it upwards for ground shots or downwards for taking pictures above head level.
You can even face the screen to the front for self-portraits or ‘close’ it inwards to protect it when not in use. The screen is pretty sharp with good visibility in low-light and just average visibility outdoors.
Directly above the LCD is the electronic viewfinder which comes in handy when you want to steady the camera against your eye or improved visibility outdoors. The EVF has 230,000 pixels so it’s as sharp as the LCD. It also has dioptric correction, adjustable via the knob next to the viewfinder.
To the left of the EVF is the print button which also serves as a shortcut button; it can be assigned to a function of your choice in shooting mode. I’ve got a full list of functions you can assign to the shortcut button later on in the review.
To the other side of the viewfinder is the dedicated movie button. Using this button, you can start/stop movie recording anytime, regardless of shooting mode. Next to the movie button is an empty bit of space where your thumb can go while holding the camera.
At the upper right corner of the PowerShot SX20 are three buttons; the upper-most button is for entering playback. The other two are for exposure compensation/playback jump and focus point selection/delete photo respectively. The SX20’s exposure compensation covers the usual +/-2 EV, adjustable in 1/3 step increments.
Next up is the Canon SX20’s five-way navigation pad with a command dial around it. The command dial is used to browse menus, change settings and scroll through photos; but the fact it lacks tactile “clicks” remains unchanged from the SX10. Let’s check out the navigation pad now:
- Up – Manual focus
- Down – Self-timer (Off, normal timer [2 or 10 seconds], face self-timer, custom timer)
- Left – Focus mode (Normal, macro, landscape, super-macro)
- Right – ISO sensitivity (Auto, 80, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600)
- Center – Function menu/Set
The Canon PowerShot SX20 IS has a Face Self-timer mode that works in-conjunction with the camera’s face detection technology. The camera will watch the scene until an ‘extra face’ is detected, then start counting down to take up to 10 pictures in a row – it really helps so you don’t have to run to the camera the instant you press the shutter button. Of course there’s the regular 2 and 10 second countdown modes available as well as a custom timer mode which allows you to set the countdown period and number of shots the camera will take.
Pressing the center button brings up the PowerShot SX20’s function menu which contains several settings that can be changed. The function menu here is based on Canon’s ‘classic’ interface design, which actually allows you to change settings in less button presses than their ‘modern’ UI:
- White balance (Auto, daylight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent, fluorescent H, flash, custom)
- My Colors (Normal, vivid, vivid red/green/blue, neutral, sepia, black & white, positive film, lighter/darker skin tone, custom)
- Bracketing (Off, exposure bracketing, focus bracketing)
- Flash exposure compensation (+/-2 EV in 1/3 step increments)/Flash power (1/3, 2/3, Full)
- Metering method (Evaluative, center-weighted, spot)
- Continuous shooting (Off, continuous normal, continuous AF)
- Movie resolution
- Image size and compression
The custom option in the My Colors/Photo Effects area enables you to manually tweak contrast, saturation and sharpness up to +/- 2 in 1 step increments).
The PowerShot SX20 has two bracketing modes: one is the usual exposure bracketing feature which allows you to take three shots in a row with different exposure settings. The other mode, focus bracketing is more unusual – the camera will take three photos in a row with different focus settings (one normal, one back-focused, one front-focused) in “small, medium or large” increments. There are no specific indicators of focus distance in bracketing mode.
The last two buttons we have are the DISPLAY (which toggles LCD display information) and MENU buttons (to bring up the camera menu).
We’re not done yet, there’s more stuff located on the top of the camera. On the left side is a button used for changing the camera’s flash setting; it doubles as a quick access button to voice recording in playback mode. The modes available for the built-in flash include auto, manual, flash on and flash off, redeye reduction and slow sync – there are options to adjust flash power and compensation in the flash menu as well.
Next to that is the camera’s built-in flash unit (pulled up manually when you want to use it) along with the flash hotshoe. You can use any external flash with the camera but only Canon-branded units will sync automatically with the camera. The Canon PowerShot SX20 IS can sync as fast as 1/250 sec with an external flash.
There are just three more things: the shutter button (With a zoom lever wrapped around it), power button and mode dial. The zoom controller allows the lens to move at two speeds, depending on pressure: A slight pull will trigger low speed zooming, pull it all the way for high-speed zoom. The shutter and power buttons are pretty self-explanatory, so let’s just look at the SX20’s mode dial here:
- Manual mode – you get full control over both shutter speed and aperture
- Aperture priority – pick an aperture value (between f2.8 to f8.0) and the camera will select a matching shutter speed
- Shutter priority – pick a shutter speed (between 1/3200 to 15 seconds) and the camera will select a matching aperture value
- Program mode – the camera will select both shutter speed and aperture; there’s Program Shift available so you can tweak the shutter/aperture combinations
- Automatic shooting
- Portrait mode
- Landscape mode
- Night snapshot
- Sports mode
- Other scene modes – access to other scene modes which are not on the mode dial (including foliage, snow, beach, sunset, fireworks, aquarium, ISO 3200, indoor, night scene, color accent, color swap)
- Stitch assist mode – the camera brings up an interface to help you compose a panorama photo; photos need to be stitched together later on the computer
- Movie mode
On the left side of the PowerShot SX20, there’s the speaker and nothing else (there are no more buttons on the camera’s lens barrel). This is the Canon PowerShot SX20’s lens at wide-angle, by the way.
This is the PowerShot SX20’s lens at telephoto position. There are little indicators on the lens barrel which show you the lens focal length (in both native and 35 mm equivalent terms).
On the right side of the PowerShot SX20, you’ll find the camera’s SD/SDHC memory card slot located under a door of decent quality, plus two pairs of ports located under two different covers. Under the first door is a mini-B port (top) for connecting the camera to your computer as well as a mini HDMI port (button) for hooking up the Canon SX20 to your high-definition television set.
Under the second door are two circular ports which look a whole lot like headphone jacks. The one of the left is actually the DC-IN port, used to connecting an external power supply to power the camera, while the port on the right is the stereo A/V Out port for connections to more conventional TV sets.
At the bottom of the Canon PowerShot SX20 IS are the camera’s metal tripod mount (which is not in-line with the lens!) and battery compartment. The compartment door is quite sturdy.
Taking pictures (Shooting mode)
The Canon PowerShot SX20 IS tells you just about everything you know about still image and movie shooting on-screen (only a battery indicator is missing). There’s exposure and shooting details, a live histogram, zoom indicator, mode position, focus point, compositional gridlines with a 16:9 widescreen framing guide. If all that sounds too intimidating, not to worry, you can customize what you want and don’t want to see in the camera’s menu – you can even have separate settings for the LCD and electronic viewfinder.
The 12 megapixel SX20 IS allows you to mix and match from multiple image sizes and compression modes. You can choose to use full 12 MP, 8 MP, 5 MP, 2 MP, VGA and widescreen (8.3 MP) and between Fine and Standard for compression. A 4 GB card will hold around 1,350 Fine photos at full resolution.
The ‘Super Fine’ compression option has disappeared and to answer the question “Does the Canon PowerShot SX20 have RAW mode” (that a lot of people have been asking about), the PowerShot SX20 I handled did NOT have a RAW image option. I went around to a few local camera shops to check out their Canon SX20’s and not one had any RAW mode either.
Heading on to the camera menu pages now, the PowerShot SX20’s user interface has been revamped with Canon’s 2009 look; now with the new ‘hints and tips’ feature which displays an animated, scrolling description of shooting functions for those looking to play around with settings for the first time:
- Autofocus mode (FlexiZone, Face detection, center AF)
- Digital zoom (On/off/digital teleconverter) – you should keep this turned off, it lowers picture quality
- Autofocus point zoom (On/off) – magnifies the main focus point once focus is locked
- Servo autofocus (On/off) – subject tracking follows a moving subject in the frame
- Continuous focus (On/off) – whether the camera constantly tries to focus, even if you’re not holding the shutter button. This allows the camera to react more quickly but reduces battery life by a bit
- Autofocus assist beam (On/off) – helps the camera to focus in low-light
- Manual focus point zoom – magnifies manual focus point for easier focusing
- Safety MF – allows quick shifting to optimum focus in case your manual focusing is inaccurate
- Flash control – adjust flash mode, flash exposure compensation, output power, sync curtain, slow sync, redeye reduction/software removal, safety FE from here
Let’s head on to the next few rows of menu options. Do note the ‘hints and tips’ line at the very bottom of the screen – this is helpful for beginners though takes up an extra ‘row’ so less options are displayed on-screen. You can toggle the hints and tips feature on/off in the setup menu
- Spot AE point (Center/AF point) – where the spot metering point is; in the latter, the spot metering box follows the AF point around the frame
- Safety shift – whether the camera will automatically shift settings for optimum exposure
- Movie audio – adjust microphone sensitivity level and toggle the wind filter in movie mode
- Review – This option decides whether the camera will show the image on the LCD screen right after the picture is taken
- Review info (Off, normal, detailed) – amount of info shown on-screen after taking a picture
- Blink detection (On/off)
- Custom display – customize the information (shooting info, gridlines, 3:2 guide, live histogram) shown on-screen; you can have two separate settings for the LCD and EVF respectively
- Reverse display – toggle if the screen image is rotated along when you flip out and rotate the LCD
- IS Mode (Off, Continuous, Shoot-only, Panning)
- Date stamp (On/off)
- Set shortcut button – assign a shooting function to the camera’s print button (off, metering, white balance, custom white balance, software redeye removal, digital teleconverter, iContrast, AE or AF lock, display off)
- Save settings – save custom settings to the Custom mode dial spot
The Canon PowerShot SX20 IS is able to brighten dark areas of your photos (at the cost of more noise and some extra processing time) via its iContrast feature. You can also apply iContrast after taking pictures via the playback tool.
Canon SX20 My Menu
There’s also a custom “My Menu” where you can add several items of your choice for easy accessibility. You can pick any menu items of your choice and place them in this custom menu, and even opt to set it as the default menu (first thing you see when you press the MENU button).
The Canon PowerShot SX20 has Canon’s standard face detection system. The camera can pick up faces looking directly at the camera as well as optionally warn you of any closed eyes in photos (toggle Blink Detection in the menu). There’s also software-based redeye removal which detects and removes any redeye in your people photos (and the system works).
Scene modes and macro
The Canon PowerShot SX20 IS features two macro modes. The first “normal” macro option lets you go as close as 10 to 50 cm to a subject at wide-angle while the other mode, called Super Macro mode, lets you go right up against your subject, literally. With a minimum focusing distance of 0 cm (yes, zero), Super Macro mode lets you take close-ups of almost anything you want, provided you have enough lighting around. The only catch is that the lens is locked at wide-angle in Super Macro mode.
The photo above was taken with the PowerShot SX20’s lens right up against the subject (in this case, the secondary status display of a Canon EOS SLR). I had to turn on the display backlight in order to photograph it, and yes, backlighting is what you’ll definitely need if you plan to shoot subjects with the lens directly against it (which, of course, blocks out natural light around you).
One of the improvements found on the Canon PowerShot SX20 is in its movie department. The camera can now record 720p HD movies, versus VGA clips on the SX10. You can record 1280 x 720 resolution movies at 30 FPS with stereo sound up to 4 GB or 30 minutes per clip (whichever comes first). A 4 GB card will hold about 20 minutes worth of HD video.
You can also opt to lower recording size to VGA (640 x 480) or QVGA (320 x 240) to extend recording times. The 4 GB per clip file size limitation remains but the time limit per clip goes up to a maximum of 1 hour if you choose any of these two lower settings. Movies are still recorded at 30 FPS with stereo sound and a 4 GB card will hold 45 minutes worth of VGA movies.
Regardless of setting, movies are recorded in the efficient H.264 codec and the camera allows you to use both optical + digital zoom and optical image stabilization while recording. Continuous focusing is also available. The Ultrasonic Motor lens drive comes in handy here as the lens operates very silently so the PowerShot SX20’s dual microphones don’t pick up any unwanted noise. You can also play around with the microphone sensitivity level and toggle the camera’s wind filter if you like.
The PowerShot SX20’s predecessors have consistently been the top few ‘hybrid’ photo+movie cameras in the market from year to year and the SX20 takes things one step further by including a 720p HD movie mode here. Overall quality of video and audio were both very good. For most people, the PowerShot SX20 and its 720p movie mode is more than enough for most purposes, but just a side note here: the more expensive Canon PowerShot SX1 is able to record full HD 1080p movies.
All performance testing of the Canon PowerShot SX20 IS was performed using a high-speed 4 GB SanDisk Extreme III SDHC card.
The Canon PowerShot SX20 boots up quite quickly, in about 1.4 seconds. Focusing speed with good light around typically takes 0.2 to 0.4 seconds at wide-angle; more towards 0.4 to 0.6 seconds at telephoto. In low-light, focusing time can vary from 0.4 to 0.8 seconds in the 1-10X zoom range and going above 1 second as you go above the 12X zoom range. The good news is the SX20 was pretty good and accurate at focusing most of the time, save low-light situations at telephoto where it’s hard to lock focus.
If you want better low-light focusing, more flash power and/or faster flash cycle times, consider picking up an external flash to use with the camera. I did notice the camera hunted less when focusing using the AF-assist solution of an external flash.
- Shot-to-shot speed – 1 shot every 1.5 seconds, fast
- Flash recharge time using a fully charged battery – 5 seconds on average (built-in flash)
The SX20 IS has three continuous shooting modes; all of which allow you to shoot continuously at full 10 megapixels until the memory card fills up. Normal mode is your typical continuous shooting mode that shoots at a little over 1 frame per second. Continuous AF and Continuous Live View (LV) shoot at the same 0.8 frames per second – with Continuous AF refocusing between shots and Continuous LV keeping the live preview image on the screen.
Zooming action is exactly the same as the SX1 and SX10, seeing Canon’s three super-zoom models share the same 20X lens. The lens’ Ultrasonic Motor allows you to select between two zooming speeds, depending on how much pressure you put on the controller. You can be really precise in low-speed mode, while high-speed zoom gets you from wide-angle to full telephoto in a mere 1.5 seconds. Shut down time was just as fast, taking roughly two seconds to retract the lens from telephoto and power off.
Overall, the Canon PowerShot SX20 performed almost identically to its sibling, the SX10 – quick on its feet in terms of focusing, startup, shutdown and zooming. Shot-to-shot and continuous shooting speeds (Down to 1.0 FPS from 1.4 FPS in normal mode) have both slowed down slightly, though the camera is still just as fast (or still faster, in some cases) compared to most of the competition. The camera still feels pretty darn fast in most cases. Focusing, however, does get thrown off if you shoot at telephoto in low-light. If you need high continuous shooting frame rates, you’ll have to settle for the CMOS-wielding PowerShot SX1.
Let’s find out about the SX20 IS’s performance in the image quality department:
As you might expect from any digital camera, the Canon PowerShot SX20 IS takes some pretty clean photos at ISO 80. Going up to ISO 100, there’s a wee bit more ‘speckle’ noise and just slightly more at ISO 200. Photos from ISO 80 to 200 should print out just fine, up to large sizes with plenty of details and nicely saturated colors.
At ISO 400, noise doesn’t increase significantly because noise reduction steps in to keep pictures clean. However, the noise reduction done by the PowerShot SX20 does introduce some image softness and loss in fine details. Noise goes up at ISO 800, limiting you to mid-sized prints, and up again at ISO 1600, this time with saturation loss and increased softness. The ISO 3200 setting is available as a ‘scene mode’ (called ISO 3200 mode).
The PowerShot SX20 shows some mild lens distortion in its photos. Chromatic aberration (color fringing) and edge softness were both pretty prominent, though you could remove the latter using computer software. Redeye and vignetting were both not issues.
With the exception of the lens flaws mentioned above – fringing, edge softness and some distortion – the Canon PowerShot SX20 takes vivid and sharp photos with relatively low noise. Image quality isn’t much worse than its predecessor, as you’ll see below in some comparison crops, and image quality is generally usable up to ISO 800. If you don’t mind being forced to stay with small prints, you could go even higher. The camera’s noise reduction no doubt makes images softer and muddier, but I appreciate that it doesn’t introduce artifacts or color bleeding like in some competing cameras – this makes pictures still ‘printable’.
Now, time for a shootout between the 10 megapixel PowerShot SX10 and the 12 megapixel PowerShot SX20:
The PowerShot SX20 seems to be producing cleaner images than the SX10, despite packing more megapixels. It’s probably due to an increase in noise reduction, but images do look a touch softer on the SX20.
Same thing as above. Cleaner yet softer (muddy details) pictures on the SX20.