There’s been a flourish of 20x optical zoom compact cameras of late. The Canon PowerShot SX260 HS joins the growing travel zoom crowd with a substantial specification that looks to rival even the best of its competitors.
It's one thing to say "Canon can" on paper, but can this latest 12.1-megapixel travel zoom pull the punches where it counts and match up to the competition where performance is concerned?
With so many top-notch compacts on the market it’s increasingly difficult for any one manufacturer to stand out.
The Canon SX260 HS has a 20x optical zoom lens that ranges from a wide-angle 25mm through to a lengthy 500mm equivalent - ideal for all manner of shots from groups to portraits, through to distant subjects or close-to-lens macro shots.
There’s plenty of versatility here, though the f/3.5-6.8 maximum aperture is more limited than the competition at its telephoto focal length. Not by a huge amount, but enough to require a slightly longer exposure - and that can add to the difficulty in holding a shot steady at the camera's 500mm equivalent.
But all is not lost: the inclusion of optical image stabilisation means the lens elements can move by microscopic amounts in order to counteract handshake. It makes for easier composing at any given focal length and also keeps snaps that bit crisper too. Oh, and in the case of the SX260 it works a treat, which is always good news.
As per its rivals, the Canon’s lens may sound like a beast, but it folds down neatly inside the camera’s body when switched off. The Canon may be a couple of millimeters wider than its nearest rivals, but that’s only because of a small lens protrusion in the design. It’s still small and pocketable and, let’s face it, those millimeters are as good as negligible in this case.
With the megapixel race reaching new heights in recent releases, it’s interesting to see Canon pop a 12.1-megapixel sensor into the SX260 HS. And if that doesn’t sound particularly high in resolution then, well, that’s ‘cos it’s not.
But for good reason: the more conservative number of pixels on the sensor surface means that more light can reach each of those pixel and, in turn, you ought to get better image quality thanks to a better source signal. Add to this that the sensor’s wiring is to the back of the construction - known as "back-illuminated" - and there’s an extra brownie point on the imaging front.
But numbers, back-lighting and all manner of other tech doesn’t guarantee the best pictures. So how does the Canon PowerShot SX260 HS perform?
We’re pleased to report that it’s an impressive camera; in fact the overall image quality from this Canon is among the very best in its class. And when we're out and about getting those all important holiday snaps, that's a statement that will echo among the masses.
Straight from the camera shots are detailed and rich in colour – the perfect pairing for a travel zoom compact.
With an ISO sensitivity that ranges from 100-3200 at full resolution, the camera’s sharpest and best results are from ISO 100-200. Quality still remains decent, though some softness creeps in on account of processing from ISO 400, increasing further by ISO 800. ISO 1600 shows some presence of image noise, but it’s still of useable quality, as is ISO 3200 that, while the least detailed setting, outperforms higher-resolution compact cameras. It's always good to know the full sensitivity range is up for use.
The one and only quibble we do have is the presence of what is known as "chromatic aberration" or "colour fringing" around some subject edges. These often reveal as embossed colour edges that lip over the edge of a subject - the Canon’s lens and processing seems to produce a blue/purple colour that can affect overall detail in some cases. But that’s all we can really moan about, and at least this camera is more capable than much of the competition when it comes to finer details.
The SX260 HS is a decent enough performer, but in a highly competitive market place it does have some shortcomings.
For example, the centre-only focus area found in the manual shooting modes - either center or tracking -while responsive, leaves much to be desired. The face detection option does mean portraits and group shots are well catered for, irrelevant of where the subject is in the frame, yet models such as the Panasonic Lumix TZ30 offer full touch-focus control to the very edges of the frame.
Canon’s had plenty of time to get such features up to scratch, too, but the SX260 still lacks a touchscreen and touch-focus.
There also feels to be something of a mismatch: the inclusion of an auto-zoom playback option is useful to quickly double check that focus and sharpness is as it should be, but then there’s no way - at least while in the manual shooting modes - to easily correct for the focal point. An oddity indeed.
Flip into the auto mode, though, and the multi-area focus will identify a subject anywhere across the majority of the screen, so it’d ideal for point-and-shoot users. And that's a big portion of this market.
Autofocus speed is very good, though again it’s not as speedy as the likes of the TZ30. It’s such a subtle difference though that we'd not so much as call the Canon even remotely disappointing. But, again, an imaging company such as this has the power to be at the forefront in all these performance departments, and therefore ought to be.
That’s not to say we’re trying to sound pedantic or whingey, even if we do, as the SX260 HS is an impressive camera that will more than deliver to the majority of users. And it’s certainly a better performer than the recently-tested Fujifilm F770EXR at the longer focal lengths.
And let’s not forget there are plenty of other cool features: A 5cm-from-lens macro mode and a 10 frames per second (10fps) burst mode is available from among the abundance of scene modes. Add GPS, with a logger, to not only tag single images with location data but also track and map routes travelled and there's no doubt the Canon has some cool tech on offer.
The SX260 HS is small, well designed and, for point and shoot snappers, performs a treat too. But in such a hotly contested market place it could do with that little bit more oomph to really take it to the next level: we’d like to see a touchscreen with edge-to-edge focus control in the future.
But image quality is among the best you’ll find in such a camera. The decision to use a lower resolution 12.1-megapixel sensor pays in bucket loads: shots are sharp and the conservative ISO 100-3200 range is useable throughout. There’s some chromatic aberration in shots, but otherwise the punchy colours and decent exposures are tip top and are the camera's biggest attraction.
Overall there’s very little to dislike. If image quality is your number one priority then you’re unlikely to need to look further than this Powershot.