Canon PowerShot SX40 HS review

4 out of 5
£459

For

Decent image quality, mega zoom, optical image stabilisation, hotshoe for external flash

Against

Not very different to SX30, 2.7in screen is small and low resolution, viewfinder is like a TV at the end of a tunnel

The Canon PowerShot SX40 HS superzoom may look a great deal like its SX30 IS predecessor, but the innards of this 35x optical zoom bridge camera have been stripped out and reworked. The SX40 features a new 12.1MP back-lit CMOS sensor paired with the latest DIGIC 5 processor in place of the SX30’s 14MP CCD and DIGIC 4 system. Better image quality and faster shooting is promised, but with little else updated could Canon have gone a few steps further with this release?

Super superzoom

The SX40’s key sell is its 35x optical zoom lens that ranges from a 24mm wide-angle through to far-reaching 840mm. Such scope means you can capture a huge variety of frames, and herein lies the superzoom’s appeal. In the case of the Canon that extra push at the top end stretches telephoto capacity to its limits, as there are few competitors that’ll offer an 840mm equivalent zoom and achieving such a focal length with a DSLR would cost an arm and a leg. Indeed, Canon tells us the equivalent SLR lens would be £11,000.

Unlike some competitors, such as the Nikon P500 or Fuji HS20, the Canon also employs optical image stabilisation (IS). When shooting at those long focal lengths having a system that steadies both the preview and final shot is absolutely integral. And Canon’s IS does a mighty fine job for the most part, though it can ‘jolt’ around a little at the top-end of the zoom.

The zoom is powered, which means a toggle around the shutter will adjust the focal length. What’s rather neat are the focal lengths are written onto the lens barrel itself, making it easy to know exactly how far in you’ve zoomed – it may sound simple but it’s something that lacks from other superzooms.

Back-lit sensor

This year has seen a steady rise in compact cameras that feature a ‘back-lit’ or ‘back side illuminated’ (BSI) sensor. It sounds rather swanky, but pared down to its basics means the construction puts the wiring to the back of the sensor to provide a more direct light path. This small change means a cleaner signal and, theoretically, less image noise and, therefore, a ‘cleaner’ image.

What’s interesting is the SX30’s 14MP sensor has been axed in favour of a slightly lower resolution 12.1MP version. This is a recent trait also shown by the likes of the Panasonic Lumix FZ48 and FZ150 models, whereby ditching resolution that seldom gets used to its full extent, means larger ‘pixels’ at a sensor level and, again, improved signal quality for a better image. Pair that up with the BSI sensor and it’s a win win situation at an ideal resolution for a compact camera.

As well as the new sensor comes the latest HS system and DIGIC 5 processor. Canon claims this ‘advanced technology can deliver stunning image quality with reduced noise and blur’.

Extensive shooting with the SX40 produced great shots direct from the camera, we have no doubt about that, but they’re not staggeringly different from the SX30’s shots. Compared to its predecessor there is a touch more detail, though exposures seem a little brighter and towards the overexposed side where bright or white subjects are in a scene. Pay close attention to the metering type – whether multi area, centre weighted or spot – to ensure that your shots don’t end up blown out.

But it’s lower light where the SX40 excels and sets a new benchmark for superzoom image quality. Don’t expect the world as DSLR this isn’t, but it’s a more than capable system and sets itself apart from its competitors at the higher ISO sensitivities.

Bigger burst

A larger buffer also means burst shooting at up to 10.3fps walks all over the previous SX30’s 1.3fps. But there are a few catches: the fastest mode is only available as a 'scene mode' so shutter speed and aperture can’t be user-defined, plus it’s only possible to capture 8 frames at the most and it’s a fixed focus capture so re-focusing or continuous focusing during the burst isn’t possible. While many of these issues are common, cameras such as the Panasonic Lumix FZ150 do a better job in the burst department and even have a fairly capable continuous focus mode.

Speaking of which, the SX40 HS’s focus options are also more limited than many other superzooms. Due to a single focus point system the camera doesn’t select from multiple areas when shooting. While it is possible to move the focus point across the majority of the screen for pin-point accuracy, it’s a shame to have missed out a ‘Multi’ mode to sit alongside the face detection, tracking and spot options. Focusing speed also feels no different to the previous SX model and, as such, it’s just a bit average.

It’s amazing what a year in electronics can do and, particularly in the light of the Lumix FZ48 and FZ150’s far faster focusing, the Canon just fails to sit at the top of the tree as far as focusing is concerned.

Same old, same old

One of the overriding things about the SX40 is the lack of changes in some vital areas. Sure, we’re happy enough with the layout and physical size of the camera, but the 2.7in, 230k-dot LCD is small and low resolution, and the 0.2in, 202k-dot electronic viewfinder (EVF) feels a little bit like watching an old CRT telly down a tunnel.

In truth most superzoom viewfinders are poor, though an essential feature for added stability and better vision in bright sunlight. It’s the SX40’s screen that’s a little more unforgivable, however, as such a resolution is old hat, particularly compared to the 3in, 460k-dot resolution from the Lumix models and 921k-dot resolution of the Sony HX100V. On the upside the vari-angle bracket does mean it’s easy to rotate the screen around to any given angle which is great for waist level shooting, particularly so for the camera’s movie mode.

Full HD

Canon’s not skimped on the SX40’s movie mode. The camera can capture 1080p clips at 24fps for ‘cinematic’ quality, or 720p at 30fps is also possible. There are also ‘super slow motion’ 120fps and 240fps modes at far lower resolutions - so low, in fact, that they’re novelty rather than useful. Focus on the Full HD mode, on the other hand, and there’s plenty to be pleased about. The camera adjusts both focus and exposure during recording and the lens can be used to zoom throughout the full available focal range.

Verdict

The Canon PowerShot SX40 HS may not differ a great deal from its SX30 predecessor, but it’s still a mighty fine superzoom. Image and movie quality are both decent, the 35x optical zoom has a huge range that few other models can challenge and the optical image stabilisation system is also top notch.

Why Canon has rested on the dated LCD screen and electronic viewfinder is anyone’s guess as these don’t match up to the competition. The same can be said for the focusing modes and speed that, while reasonable, has been put down a peg or two by the impressive Lumix FZ48 and FZ150 models that have far faster autofocus.

So while there’s plenty about the SX40 to keep superzoom snappers more than happy, it may feel disappointing to others who were expecting a total reworking of the SX-series. Good where images are concerned, but just not quite the best across the board.

Additional product and sample photos by Ian Morris