Traveling photographers are a picky bunch. They want a wide focal range in order to capture everything from broad vistas, to the eyeballs of scampering wildlife. They also want good quality, without the bulk and expense of DSLRs. Enter cameras like the new Canon PowerShot SX200 IS, with its compact size and image-stabilized 12x zoom, plus the ability to take high-def clips. The SX200 is one of the first of Canon’s Class of 2009, and we were anxious to see if the company would maintain its standards during a trip to Aruba. (Hey, even reviewers have to take “working” vacations, right?)
Features and Design
The SX200 IS, like the very popular Panasonic TZ and ZS series, has an extremely compact body for a camera, with a huge optically stabilized 12x zoom with a very nice range of 28-336mm. Panasonic’s new traveling cams (ZS3, ZS1) also have 12x zooms, but use 10MP imagers. The Canon has cool, curvy shape with muted color tones and silver accents. We tested a very attractive red model, but it’s also available in blue or black. Canon just knows how to add a touch of panache to its point-and-shoots, and it’s very welcome relief from the typical silver Altoids tin shape. It measures 4.1 x 2.4 x 1.5 (W x H x D, in inches) and tips the scales at 8.2 ounces fully loaded. It’s not wafer thin, but it can easily be carried around all day.
As you’d expect, the front of the SX200 IS is dominated by the 12x zoom that extends pretty far when you power up. A built-in lens cover means no dealing with flapping caps on a string. The front also has an AF assist lamp, a single pinhole mic, as well as assorted logos and nomenclature that don’t really detract from the overall vibe.
On top, you’ll find the shutter with surrounding wide/tele zoom toggle, a metal mode dial, power button, and potent flash, which pops up when you turn it on. The dial has two auto settings: a small heart for totally no-brainer shooting (you can’t adjust anything) and auto. In keeping with the ’09 trend, auto is actually “intelligent” or “smart” auto, in which the camera decides what type of scene is in front of it and makes the appropriate adjustments. Call it “no-brainer plus,” as you can change some of the basic settings, but you have to go to P (Program AE), aperture/shutter priority, and manual to really tweak white balance, ISO and so on. The dial offers direct access to five popular scene modes, while SCN gives you seven more including ISO 3200, which drops the resolution to 3MP (more on this in the performance section). The SX200 IS has a movie mode, and in keeping with the times, the “standard” setting is high-def 1280 x 720 pixels at 30 fps (standard 720p specs) rather than the old standard of 640 x 480.
Canon PowerShot SX200 IS
A three-inch LCD rated at 230K pixels covers most of the camera’s rear. It’s a good screen, but after using 460K displays, it suffers by comparison. The screen does work fairly well in direct sunlight, but the Aruba sunshine required pushing the brightness to the max in order to frame subjects. Still, it was usable, and far better than the Nikon S610.
To the right are controls found on every digicam: a dial with center set button four keys for playback, display, menu and so on. Canon added a nice touch with a jog wheel surrounding the control dial, for quickly moving through the menus and reviewing your shots. There’s almost an iPhone-like feel as you scroll through images, and it’s nicely done.
On the left side is a speaker, while the right has USB and mini HDMI connections. The bottom of this Made-In-Japan camera has a tripod mount, and compartment for the battery and SD card slot.
What’s In The Box
You won’t find any surprises here, just the typical bundle. That includes a battery and charger, USB and A/V cables, strap, and a 180-page printed owner’s manual. Unfortunately, you’ll need to pick up a mini-HDMI cable and at least a 2GB high-speed card on your own, especially if you plan to shoot HD videos. The CD-ROM has Canon’s ZoomBrowser EX 6.3 for handling images, and PhotoStitch 3.1 to make panoramas. Mac fans get ImageBrowser 6.3 and PhotoStitch 3.2.
We charged the battery and took the camera where it was meant to be used – on vacation.
Performance and Use
To start off testing, we set the PowerShot SX200 IS to maximum resolution (4,000 x 3,000 pixels, fine compression) in the burst mode with grid lines engaged. We started off in smart auto, then moved to the many other options, including manual, then took some HD clips for icing on the cake. Not surprisingly, the camera boots quickly, and is good to go in around a second as the lens extends and flash pops open. Smart auto works like a charm, especially for people shots as it engages face detection. We must admit to being on the town quite a few nights, grabbing spur-of-the-moment shots of some happy folks. Face detection worked very well both in these night conditions, and in bright sunshine. To ensure you have a sharp focus, just hit the display button during playback, and you’ll see a close-up of the main subject, which you can magnify by hitting the zoom toggle switch. This is very handy, but we found the camera did a fine job with focus most of the time. It did have some issues with hazy sunsets, though, when it wasn’t sure what to focus on.
Although Canon might say this camera could be a DSLR replacement, when it comes to shot-to-shot time, this is no EOS. But doesn’t cost $500-plus either. In burst mode, you’re good for about a shot per second, which is OK for a point-and-shoot, but hardly the 3fps for a DSLR. If you really want the speed, you’ll need to spend the money. That said, we really didn’t feel like we were missing anything under typical snapshooting conditions. Making manual adjustments with the jog wheel was simple, and you can see on the monitor whether you’ve made the wrong adjustments (f-stops and speed).
Once testing was done, it was time to make prints and review images closely on a monitor, as well as viewing clips on a 50-inch HDTV via HDMI. The results were typical Canon, which we happen to like. Colors looked very natural and had a tone that’s very pleasing – in other words, the photos looked very good. Face detection did an outstanding job in all light conditions. Since it was used in the tropics, there were sunsets galore, and results here were excellent, although there were some focus issues. With a hazy sun, we simply adjusted the zoom to include a palm tree in the foreground. Beyond this, there were few focusing issues, and the optical image stabilization helped eliminate blur from shaky hands in dim light.
Canon PowerShot SX200 IS
As for ISO, this is a point-and-shoot with 12 megapixels crammed onto a small chip, so noise is given – the only question is at what point. We found if you keep it at ISO 400 and below, you’ll be set. You could get away with 800 for a small print, but don’t even bother with the 3200 setting.
Clips looked good as well, and it’s welcome seeing HD capability in a relatively affordable camera.
The Canon PowerShot SX200 IS is a very good choice for an all-around digicam—even for people who don’t travel that much. It takes fine people shots, works simply in smart auto, offers plenty of scene modes, and even lets you tweak manual adjustments. Definitely keep the ISO at 400 and lower; do that and you’ll have a fine camera that’ll last for years, a good selling point in these tough times.
- Solid image quality
- Excellent focal length
- Compact, attractive design
- Decent 3-inch LCD
- Takes HD video clips
- Comparatively slow
- LCD should be higher-quality
- ISO issues above 400
- HDMI cable optional