If there is one type of point-and-shoot that is holding up against the smart phone onslaught, it’s the mega-zoom. For all their convenience, smart phones have poor-quality digital zooms, nothing like the Canon PowerShot SX50 HS with its 50x glass optics. Despite issues with noise at high ISO and less-than-stellar video, the SX50 is a great option for those who want a good-quality point-and-shoot with a telephoto zoom.
Features and Design
The 12.1-megapixel SX50 doesn’t look that different than the model it replaces, the 12.1MP SX40 HS with a 35x zoom. We loved the SX40’s focal length (24-840mm) and image quality, and now Canon has upped the ante in the SX50 with a longer zoom lens that travels from 24-1200mm, which means you can easily take wide group shots or zero in on a bird’s eye on a distant tree. This is a great creative palette and we can guarantee you’ll go zoom crazy once you start playing with it.
The camera has a distinct DSLR vibe with its beefy body. No featherweight, it tips the scales at 21 ounces with the battery, measuring 4.8 x 3.4 x 4.15 (WHD, in inches). You’ll definitely want to use the supplied neck strap and a two-handed grip. If not two hands, expect blurry shots even with the good optical image stabilization anti-shake system. Besides the lens, the key feature on the front is the AF Assist lamp to help accurately focus your subjects.
The main functions on the top deck are the manual pick-up flash, two pinhole stereo mics, accessory hot shoe, power button, and mode dial that solidly clicks from one selection to the next. On the grip is the shutter and zoom toggle switch.
The mode dial lets you fire away in Smart Auto where the camera guesses the scene in front of it and adjusts accordingly. It recognizes 58 scenes versus 32 for the SX40. If you’re up for going beyond aim-and-forget, there’s P/A/S/M, access to Scene modes, HDR (High Dynamic Range), and Movie, among others. It’s a good mix for someone looking to move beyond the basics but not nearly as sophisticated as a DSLR or Compact System Camera — especially since manual focus isn’t available. You can, however, adjust shutter speed and aperture (15-1/2000th, f/3.4-6.5 depending on your focal length). Again, it may look like a small DSLR but this fixed-lens camera is not nearly as advanced. Then again you’d go broke if you bought all the lenses needed for a 24-1200mm range — and we really mean busted.
Like most quality mega-zooms the Canon has an electronic viewfinder (EVF) as well as an LCD to frame and review your images. The EVF is rated 202K dots and, although bright, is really small. You’ll need it, however, since shooting at 1200mm with your hands stretched out in front using just the LCD to frame your shots is a fool’s errand — sharp images are out of the question when you rely on the LCD. You need a steady two-handed grip and proper stance to get good photos at full telephoto. A monopod would come in handy for shooting in general and taking quality HDR images, which are three shots taken in rapid succession (each at a different exposure, from light to dark) and combined in-camera to create a photo with a higher dynamic range.
The SX50 has a slightly larger LCD than the SX40 (2.8 versus 2.7 inches) but it’s dramatically improved to 461K pixels over the paltry 230K of the older model. We had few issues using it, even under direct sunshine. The camera has a vari-angle screen so it can be twisted for unusual shooting angles and even turned in on itself to prevent scratches.
The controls on the back panel are self-explanatory — playback, red-dotted movie button, display, menu, and four-way controller with surrounding jog wheel. The four points give you direct access to the self-timer, ISO, focus type, and exposure compensation. One unusual button is the AF Frame Selector that lets you choose a spot anywhere in the frame for critical focus.
When we last reviewed the SX40, there was one feature we raved about — Zoom Framing Assist — that lets you quickly reacquire your subject at extreme telephoto. This feature has been enhanced in the SX50 and the controls have moved to the lens barrel.
The camera has mini-HDMI and USB outs with metal tripod mount and battery/card compartment on the bottom.
What’s In The Box
If you purchase the SX50 HS, you’ll get the camera, a battery rated a decent 315 shots (good for a full-day’s workout), plug-in wall charger, strap, lens cap with attaching string, and a Getting Started booklet. There is also a CD containing the full 286-page manual (in PDF) and Canon’s software suite including Digital Photo Professional to handle RAW files. You’ll need SD media (not included, naturally) and we recommend at least 8GB or more, Class 6 or better for this camera.
Performance and Use
We set the SX50 to maximum resolution for stills and movies. The camera has a 12.1MP CMOS sensor so the pixel count is 4000×3000, RAW or JPEG. Note this chip measures 1/2.3-inches, which means it’s very small compared to those in DSLRs and CSCs, as well as some enthusiast digicams. For example, the 12.1MP PowerShot G15 features a sensor that measures 1/1.7 inches, which has 35 percent more area than the SX50’s. Since small sensors equal more digital noise, we kept the ISO Auto limit at 800, rather than the maximum 1600; the camera’s range is 80-6400 when you move into P/A/S/M modes. After we did our shooting, images were enlarged 100-percent and higher for the requisite pixel peeping and videos reviewed on a 50-inch plasma via HDMI.
We found the SX50 HS to be an excellent camera with a good lens and even better optical image stabilization system. We could capture wide-angle landscapes, then zoom into the tree bark and small branches. There was very little evidence of purple fringing, a bugaboo for telephoto shots. When shooting some brightly-colored chrysanthemums there was plenty of detail with spot-on colors (using a forced flash helped). Macro scenes of a wet spider web were also quite good, as was a glorious sunset after a rainstorm.
Since this is a mega-zoom we had to take photos at 24mm and 1200mm of the same scene. We did this of the famous Wonder Bar in Asbury Park, N.J., with the classic Asbury Park mascot Tillie emblazoned on the side. You can see the painted lines of Tillie’s eyes as well as the surface of the building. The same held true for wide and telephoto shots of the boardwalk all the way down to the old Casino building. This is a lot of fun.
The camera was easy to handle and operate. AF is quick with little grabbing. When we were at 1200mm, we used the very helpful Framing Assist Seek, which zooms back so you can reacquire your subject if you shift the camera. As we mentioned, Canon moved this button to the lens from the rear of the SX40, making it easier to access.
As noted, the SX50 has a relatively small CMOS sensor and we weren’t expecting miracles concerning digital noise. And this camera has it in spades at high ISOs. We took some shots indoors and things fell apart at ISO 640 with lots of noise and color shifts. Past 640 and up to 6400 the results were smeary and bad. Even the Handheld Night Scene mode was not up to par. Definitely shoot RAW if you’re planning to work indoors, using available light without the flash. This camera needs its light. When it gets it — which is anytime you’re outdoors during daylight — you’ll be in fine shape. The SX50 lives up to the Canon tradition of quality point-and-shoots. We’ve always liked the feel of Canon images since they have just the right amount of saturation with good, accurate colors. The SX50 did not disappoint.
One annoying thing is the cartwheels Canon forces you to take in order to turn on fast burst of 13 frames per second (fps). You have to go into Scene, scroll for High Speed Burst-HQ, and then fire away. And, the 13 fps is only for 10 frames with only the first frame in focus; DSLRs and CSCs are far more responsive. The traditional continuous mode (2.2 fps) is easily available through the Func. (Function) menu or by assigning it to the shortcut key.
Videos are good at 1080/24 fps but not with the pop we like. The zoom is available while recording movies, which is a plus as is the stereo sound. The mics don’t pick up too much camera noise, a problem for many other digicams. Just realize the SX50 is not geared toward filming “Les Miserables” but your productions will entertain your friends.
Available for $400 or less, the SX50 HS is a fine mega-zoom — especially good for travelers. Image quality is tops in class, it’s a lot lighter to tote around than a DSLR, and the focal range can’t be beat. It has its limitations but if you can deal with them — and most photographers can — the SX50 HS is a good choice. We just wish Canon would step up their game by handling noise better and improving movie quality from adequate to very good. Given new camera announcements are due early next year we’re hoping this will be the case.
- Industry-leading 24-1200mm 50x optical zoom
- Rich, accurate colors
- Excellent image stabilization system
- Noise issues at higher ISOs
- Video frame rate behind the times
- EVF should be larger