It wasn’t so long ago that a 30x optical zoom was unheard of in a compact. Now it’s quite the norm for superzooms to have such far-reaching lenses, but the Canon PowerShot SX500 IS manages to squeeze its 24-720mm (equivalent) lens into a small body and at a cut price too. Is the SX500 IS promising too much, or is it a shrewd camera purchase?
Big lens, small body
Although the SX500 IS’s body isn’t teeny tiny, stick it next to any similar superzoom model and it’s far, far smaller.
The camera’s lens is tidily tucked away into the body and - although it protrudes only a small amount when switched off - it extends considerably from the body once at its full zoom.
And what does that 30x optical zoom look like? The 24mm wide-angle setting - as shown in the image above - can cram loads into a scene, while the 720mm equivalent is ideal for picking out far-and-away subjects. Just take a look at the image below, which is taken from the same standpoint as the one above, but at the fullest extent of the zoom. It might even take a couple of seconds to pick out the blocks of flats in the above shot and match them with the one below. Impressive, huh?
Point-and-shoot or take control
The PowerShot SX500 IS comes kitted out with a mode dial that offers the full set of manual controls. There are also scene modes, filters, 720p movie capture and, of course, a fully automatic option.
However there isn’t an electronic viewfinder included in the build, so composition is dependent on the 3-inch, 461k-dot rear LCD. Although the resolution’s fine the angle of view isn’t very good; viewed at moderate-to-steep angles such as when shooting above or below eye level and detail "blows out". Not ideal.
Performance is responsive though and, although it's not the fastest compact camera out there, the autofocus system remains proficient throughout the full zoom range. Even in dim light the camera was able to target subjects, occasionally using the blue AF-assist lamp to its benefit. Close-up focus, as represented by the "macro" flower symbol, is also really impressive when shooting at the wider-angle focal lengths. Pop the lens right up close and personal to a subject and it'll still find focus, even if it's just a couple of millimetres away.
There aren’t any design surprises for the price really. The whole package feels like a well-made, solid wedge of camera for its £249-279 asking price.
Impressive though the range is, it’s the quality of the glass that lacks. Close inspection of images shows purple and green "fringes" that protrude from contrastic subject edges - known as chromatic aberrations - which, while not a null-and-void disaster, are one of those major undesirables in photography. No prize for that issue then.
The maximum aperture is also limited to f/3.4 at the wide-angle end and drops progressively down to f/5.8 at the longest end of zoom. What this means is that the amount of light the lens is able to let in decreases, which means the camera - assuming it’s set to auto mode - will need to compensate by raising other settings in order to attain a sharp image. It’s nothing like the constant f/2.8 aperture of the (admittedly far pricier) Panasonic Lumix FZ200, for example.
However the SX500 IS has a big plus point: optical image stabilisation. That’s what the "IS" part of the name stands for. This means that during preview the lens elements move by microscopic amounts to counteract any handshake which not only provides a steadied preview - essential when at the 30x zoom setting - but also a sharper final image. It’s possible to turn IS off, but you’re unlikely to need to do so - unless you’re using a tripod.
Unfortunately image quality is let down by both the lens and image processing. Shots lack that biting sharpness that they ought to have, while the 16-megapixel CCD sensor also has its share of issues.
At the lowest ISO 100-200 settings shots are okay, but there’s still a presence of luminance noise and the processing reveals slightly “fuzzy” edges even at the base ISO 100 sensitivity.
ISO 400 shots exacerbate the issues outlined above, which when viewed at full size gives shots an almost painterly quality because of the over-sharpened artefacts present throughout.
ISO 800 is far softer and reveals considerable image noise, while the top sensitivity of ISO 1600 - which isn’t used in auto ISO or, therefore, the auto mode - is worse again, albeit with more-muted colours.
That probably sounds like a harsh report, but if you’re thinking of getting a big zoom for crisp and clear images then the SX500 IS’s lens, image processing and chromatic aberration issues leave it short of the mark.
We don't have any qualms with the exposure or colour reproduction though. All our test shots look bright, colourful and well balanced in different lighting conditions - and it's these points that see this Canon get by. Size the images down to a smaller scale and they’re more than good enough for web use or small prints.
It's not all bad, but for the critical eye the CCD sensor used here isn't all good either.
On paper the PowerShot SX500 IS sounds very promising. It’s well priced and has that significant 24-720mm equivalent lens with excellent image stabilisation technology too.
Design and operation meet the mark for sure, but the lens and image quality fall short, particularly for a camera such as this. If you want to zoom in on those far-away subjects to extract their utmost detail then the SX500 IS’s struggles with colour fringes, slight softness from image processing and image noise problems throughout much of the ISO range.
For the more casual snapper looking for a deal, the PowerShot SX500 IS does have its positives. But it’s worth paying out those extra notes to get hold of a more significant and, ultimately, better superzoom if that’s what you’re in the market for.
Canon’s budget superzoom idea is a good one, but the features are a little overstretched at this price point.