Canon SX30 IS

 

Now that the Canon PowerShot SX40 HS is on sale, it's worthwhile to look back at its near predecessor, the Canon PowerShot SX30 IS.  This is because it takes more than a day or even a week of work with a camera to really come to terms with its potential and its flaws.  I have had my SX30 IS for the better part of a year, and what I can tell you is that this (and presumably its successor) is perfect for anyone in the market for a superzoom bridge camera.

This article does not contain many specifications (save for the most important ones).  These are readily available elsewhere.  Instead, I try to give you an overview of the experience you'll have using this camera, and what it really has to offer.

Important Specs

The SX30 IS is a 35x superzoom bridge camera.  Its zoom was the longest on the market when it debuted in the late summer of 2010.  Its zoom range is from 24-840mm (35mm equiv).  Even now, it has the second-longest zoom range, just behind the Nikon P500 (36x, 22.5-810mm) and still beats it on the telephoto end.  The SX40 HS shares the same basic body and lens with the SX30 IS, so their zoom ranges are the same.

Also of note is the incredible image stabilization.  At 4.5 stops, it's also about the best you can get in any camera.  Because of this, images are completely crisp, even at the extreme telephoto end.

It can film good-quality movies in 720p, and of course has full manual controls over photos (though not videos).

35x Zoom and Image Stabilization in Practice

Moon shot - hand-held and fully zoomed (840mm) (*Shrunken image is not representative of quality.)

The heroic 35x zoom really gives you the range that can let you take any picture and not have to crop.  When I took a photo of the moon (hand-held at night, at full zoom range, at a low ISO), a friend exclaimed that she'd never be able to get a picture like that with her SLR.  It's true.  SLRs are excellent, but anyone who isn't extremely wealthy won't be able to zoom so close into far-away subjects as the SX30 IS lets you.  Even using an APS-C sensor DSLR with a lens that can zoom up to 300mm (nearing the max zoom that is attainable for the middle class) and cropping it will not get shots as fine as can be taken from an SX30 IS.

Adding to this is the amazing image stabilization.  The 4.5 stop IS lets you keep the ISO down that much lower so that even at night, if braced against something, it's still possible to take ISO 80-100 shots at full zoom range.  This beats any DSLR and lens without image stabilization.  Think about it.  Even at medium zoom (attainable with a DSLR lens), a non-stabilized DSLR would need to take shots at at least ISO 1600 to equal an SX30 IS shot at ISO 100 with image stabilization.  What I can tell you is that no moderately priced DSLR's picture quality at ISO 1600 can beat the SX30 IS's picture quality at ISO 100, compact sensor and all.

Lastly, the 840mm zoom allows impressive bokeh (for small objects).  Yes, you heard it right.  Bokeh on a 1/2.3'' CCD sensor "point and shoot" camera.  How is this possible?  Remember that four things influence bokeh (artistic background defocus).  The first is sensor size.  A larger sensor leads to more bokeh.  The second is aperture.  A larger aperture (F-number) leads to more bokeh.  However, the much forgotten third and fourth factors are zoom and the nearness of focus.  A longer zoom will also lead to more bokeh, as will focusing nearer to the camera.  As already stated, the 1/2.3'' sensor is compact size.  The aperture is quite impressive, starting with F/2.7 at the wide end and finishing with a maximum aperture of F/5.8 on the telephoto end.  Add that to an 840mm equivalent zoom, and you have yourself some bokeh.  Note that to achieve bokeh at the telephoto end, it's necessary to focus as near as possible and shoot something that is small enough to fit within the frame.  Flowers, leaves, and grass are such objects.  Even human heads are within that range...but anything larger is too large.

Bokeh is achievable when zoomed in. (*Shrunken image is not representative of quality.)
More bokeh. (*Shrunken image is not representative of quality.)

Interestingly, even on the wide end, bokeh is acheivable.  Almost unbelievably, when zoomed fully out, this camera is able to focus right up to the glass at the end of its lens.  This is not an exaggeration.  If you put something right up against the lens, you can take an in-focus picture of it.  But again, only very small things (even smaller than those possible at the telephoto range) can fit in the frame.  One thing to mention is that if you want your focus to be right at the end of the lens, you must make sure that your lens is completely clean.  Otherwise, every dust particle on it will also be in focus.

So, it turns out that the SX30 IS is an awesome beast.  It can do (sometimes through roundabout ways) much of what a DSLR can do.  This is not to say that the SX30 IS is better than a DSLR.  I only want to note that it's more versatile than a DSLR and has some advantages in specific areas.  In fact, one noticeable advantage is price.  I bought mine last year for around US$360.  The price should fall further since the SX40 IS has now been released.  (Of course, I would also recommend the SX40 IS.)

Comparison to Other SuperZooms

Comparing an SX30 IS to a DSLR is still more like comparing apples to oranges.  One is very flexible and the other is very good at doing what it's supposed to do.  So let's take a very quick look at how it stacks up against some of its competitors (even those which came out after its release).  The Nikon P500, Sony Cyber-Shot HX100V, Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ45 and FZ40, the Fujifilm FinePix HS20EXR, Olympus SP-800UZ are other superzooms in its class.  I have only played with these other cameras at the store and have not had much time to try them out (and haven't tried out the Olympus at all), but none that I've tried really feel as good in the hand as the SX30 IS.  They also feel much less responsive.  I am not a Canon fanboy.  I used a point-and-shoot Nikon CoolPix 7900 almost exclusively for the better part of 5 years and loved it immensely.  I've also used Kodaks and on the semi-professional front, I'm in love with the Sony Alpha 77.  I even think that my girlfriend's P&S Casio EXILIM takes some fantastic pictures.  Yet I can't say I liked the handling or operation of any other superzoom but Canon's.

Some DSLR users might think that zooming in using the barrel of the lens is the best way to zoom.  Perhaps for DSLRs, but not for superzoom bridge cameras, in my opinion.  The problem with that kind of zooming with regards to some of these cameras is that either 1) it's still electronic and zooms in in certain intervals or 2) it's completely manual, but the lens barrel isn't that high quality, so it can't zoom smoothly...always seeming like it needs to be oiled.  The SX30 IS has an analog zoom rocker which makes the zoom both nimble and silky smooth.  Furthermore, it's "silenced", so to speak.  When filming, it zooms so quietly, that it's only perceptible on videos when there are no other noises around.

To you RAW lovers out there, note that the SX30 IS does not take pictures in RAW, while a few of the above cameras do.

To people OK with JPEGS, getting good images is easy, with manual controls and a menu with easy access to many features.  There's one programmable button (which I set to i-Contrast, similar to Nikon's D-Lighting and Sony's dynamic range optimization (DRO)).  Although there's no HDR mode, exposure bracketing is easy.  Just press "up" on the control dial/wheel for the exposure value (EV) setting.  Then, press "DISP" and rotate the control wheel to determine how many stops you want between exposures.  Max is three photos, from -2 to +2 EV.

Note that autofocus is quick, and shutter lag is very minimal.

Image Quality

Nice colors at sunset. (*Shrunken image is not representative of quality.)

Image quality is excellent at low ISOs overall.  From ISO 80-100, pictures look perfect.  And, as noted above, it's absolutely possible to shoot at these ISOs even at night and zoomed in to the full extent, assuming you have something to brace the camera against.  I don't even mean a tripod.  Even a telephone pole to lean your hand against is adequate.  The 4.5 stop IS advantage means that you can lower the ISO two stops compared to a camera with only 2.5 stop IS.  In other words, you'll be shooting at ISO 100 while the other person is shooting at ISO 400.  So, please take into account image stabilization just as much as pixel-peeping at differences between camera models.  Even without the IS, images hold up very well against any small sensor competition that is thrown at it.  Photos are bright and colorful - to a realistic extent, of course.

ISO 800 and 1600 are pretty much unusable for artistic shots (which need to look really good), but they are able to capture fast-moving things such as wild animals.  I went to a zoo and shot at ISO 800 nearly the whole time, and I was pleasantly surprised at how the photos came out.While the low ISOs of 80 and 100 are perfect, you can start to see noise in dark areas starting from ISO 200, although photos are still very good at that point.  ISO 400 is the last usable ISO for night shots.  Yet remember, for any stationary objects, you never need to go up that far.

The thing to remember is - contrary to what you might believe - it's best to shoot at low ISOs at night.  In the daytime (when more light is available), it's OK to shoot at higher ISOs to capture moving subjects.

Video

The SX30 IS has very good video capabilities overall.  It can shoot in 720p (upgraded to 1080p on the SX40 HS).  The videos are generally crisp yet smooth.  There is only one major problem that I can think of (besides lack of full manual video controls, which is nonexistant on this category of cameras).  The problem is that videos are in MP4 format.  Now, I'm no expert about file formats, but that is based on Apple's QuickTime, and there is almost no support for it among DVD players.  Thus, if you burn your videos to DVD, they won't be playable in DVD players.  I'm pretty sure that Sony's and Panasonic's AVCHD format is highly preferable.  (Note that not all Sony or Panasonic cameras shoot AVCHD movies.)  Of course, there are file conversion programs out there (some of which are free), but conversion is a long process, and quality is degraded.  It would be better if videos could automatically play in DVD and Blu-Ray players.

On the bright side, the amazing image stabilization makes videos smoother than you can imagine, and without the lag that you might expect when you move the camera.  If you have ever been frustrated when you played back a movie because of the video bobbing up and down while you're walking, you won't have to worry about that ever again with this camera.

Conclusion

For the price, there is no better camera you can buy than the SX30 IS.  It may not be able to fit in your pocket, and it doesn't have a large sensor, but if you want an all-around performer with the best zoom on the market, it's hard to go wrong with Canon's offering.

Rating: A

Final Note: The new SX40 HS is almost exactly like the SX30 IS, except with 1080p video, increased noise performance (with slightly fewer megapixels - 12 compared to 14), and a faster burst rate.

-Ricky W.

Night scene at ISO 200. No tripod used. (*Shrunken image is not representative of quality.)