Canon PowerShot SX50 HS review

5 out of 5
£449

For

Raw shooting, decent optical image stabilisation system, vari-angle LCD, among the best superzoom image quality at lower ISO settings, close-up macro mode

Against

Chromatic aberrations, limited maximum aperture at longer focal lengths (and less bright than predecessor), auto-area focus can decide to focus on some strange areas, small viewfinder, shorter battery life than predecessor, stabilisation struggles at longest focal lengths

It's hard to ignore the Canon PowerShot's SX50 HS's 50x optical zoom. Never before has a superzoom laid a 24-1200mm equivalent lens on the features table - something that, in terms of maximum focal length, leaves all other superzooms in the shade. But does SX50 HS overreach by focusing on big numbers rather than big performance?

Design

Holy moly, that's one big lens. But the SX50 HS really isn't all that big in the hand. It might not be a compact compact, which is a given really, but it is a similar size to its nearest competitors.

The secret here is, in part, the lens's more limited maximum aperture than its SX40 predecessor. Not by loads, mind, but the f/3.4-6.5 maximum isn't the impressive f/2.8 that the Panasonic FZ200 offers throughout is full zoom range. Different cameras, different ideas, but one thing is clear - the Canon is all about that mega focal length, which is twice that of the aforementioned Panasonic.

READ: Panasonic Lumix FZ200 review

But there's a lot more to like besides the lens. The SX50's inclusion of a standard hotshoe - it's not covered up like the one on the SX40 - means it's easy to attach accessories, such as an optional Speedlite flashgun, while a deeper grip makes holding the camera feel more natural and steady than previous SX-series models.

The camera's 2.8-inch, 461k-dot resolution, vari-angle LCD screen is useful to reposition for waist-level or overhead shots and can be twisted into pretty much any position to the side of the camera or stowed screen-in for protection. We used it a whole lot in our testing and it coped well in bright sunlight too.

If the sun does get too much then there is a 0.2-inch electronic viewfinder also built in, although it's a small window on to the world and therefore not the most comfortable to the eye. Viewfinders tend to be short of the mark in any given superzoom camera, as is the case here, although the SX50's offering is no worse than the similar competition and it still has plenty of use when trying to steady up those longer focal length shots. So in many respects it's an essential.

Shooting modes also cover a broad range: Smart Auto heads up the point-and-shoot options, but the mode dial on top of the camera also comes equipped with the usual array of manual shooting modes.

These can be controlled using the rear d-pad which doubles up as a rotational dial. The lack of a second thumbwheel to the front of the camera is a bit of a shame, and we'd also like to see some function buttons added as the camera's layout is somewhat sparse. Unlikely to be purchase-breakers, but these more DSLR-like controls would help the SX50 HS feel more complete.

Performance

When we first saw the SX50 HS the huge zoom range got us a little worried. A 1200mm equivalent is massive, which introduces issues with hand-holding the frame steady. Canon's lens-based image stabilisation system has worked well in previous SX-models and while it continues to operate to a very high standard in the SX50, that 1200mm equivalent is still very tricky to use. The slightest of movements can see half the subject fly out of the frame, while any slight knee-jerk reactions will send the stabilisation system into overdrive - to the point where it can't help. The focal length is one of those "nice to have" things, but a brighter maximum aperture would have been preferable, as the f/6.5 maximum at the top of the zoom range limits the results that are possible yet further.

Used up to around 40x, however, and the whole experience is that much more manageable. It's not as though this Canon has quite bitten off more than it can chew, though, as we must admit the full 50x range impressed us more than we had anticipated, despite the various limitations.

There's also a 100x equivalent "ZoomPlus" that uses digital zoom, though we weren't fans of this crop-in 2400mm equivalent.

At the wider-angle settings this Canon can really show off in close-up macro mode. Any camera that has a 0cm minimum focus distance (yes, zero centimetres, that's no typo) at its widest-angle setting is going to be pretty impressive.

Popped into an Auto mode and the SX50 HS does a good job of focusing fast, though the auto-area focus system can get a little "overexcited" and focus on some strange areas of the image rather than the primary subject. The face detection system can find "imaginary faces", for example, so we found using the manual options and variety of user-defined focus options was preferable. The 1-area mode's focus area still can't quite be moved to the very edge of the frame, but the selectable area - which can be shifted between small and medium sizes - can be positioned across the majority of it.

There's a burst mode that can whirr off 10 shots in under a second, but the camera will fix focus and exposure when doing so. Outside of this specific mode the 2.2fps burst is limited to 0.9fps should autofocus be used. The tracking focus option, which highlights a subject and "follows" it to maintain focus, works ok but this kind of continuous focus isn't nearly as quick nor capable as the single autofocus mode. It's fairly standard compact camera stuff.

Image Quality

Why hello camera raw, we've been expecting you. That's right, the SX50 HS includes not only JPEG capture but bolsters its imaging roster with 12-bit raw file capture. That'll get more-demanding users champing at the bit.

The PowerShot SX50's ISO 80-6400 sensitivity gives a broad palette to work from in all manner of conditions, though we'll say it straight off the bat: the ISO 6400 sensitivity is one step too far.

High ISO settings are important for superzoom cameras for a number of reasons. The SX50's more limited maximum aperture at its longer focal lengths means less light can reach the sensor and therefore, in many situations, a higher ISO setting will need to be used when shooting handheld. That long focal length also introduces greater sensitivity from physical movement, and the general rule of thumb is that a shutter speed should be equal that of the equivalent focal length - i.e. 50mm at 1/50th sec, 1000mm at 1/1000th sec and so on - in order to maintain optimum sharpness. But at the 1200mm setting, shooting at 1/1200th of a second at the maximum f/6.5 aperture even in daylight is going to take some doing, and the camera's auto mode all but ignores matching up to such settings. Lower ISOs take preference, and for good reason.

The 12.1-megapixel 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensor looks to be the very same as the SX40's sensor on paper. Canon has put some work into image processing though and so, from an overall quality point of view, we think that the SX50 is a step up. It's up there with the best of them, though the small sensor does have its own limitations.

In our tests we found that ISO 80-800 were of practical use, each able to resolve a good amount of detail without levels of image noise compromising shots' overall quality. Quality does quickly decrease thereafter, however, with ISO 1600 the top sensitivity we'd opt for using.

ISO 3200 pushes the limits as image noise is a problem and sharpness lacks, while the ISO 6400 option suffers excessively from these issues - indeed it's this top ISO sensitivity will be of little use.

The SX50's massive zoom range also means the lens shows up some compromises too. There's presence of chromatic aberrations - those red, blue and purple "edges", also known as colour fringes - in many images, and edge softness is also prevalent. We're not surprised given how much this lens is trying to do though - anything that can offer up both 24mm and 1200mm equivalents is going to have to compromise somewhere.

Despite some critical comments here, the SX50's image quality is top-drawer stuff when taken in context. Think about it with realistic expectations because this isn't a DSLR, after all, and this latest superzoom is good enough to  knock its SX40 predecessor from the top spot.

That, of course, is assuming that the low ISO settings can be made use of, as high ISO sensitivity isn't this camera's strong point. It's this last point that, in our opinion, puts the shorter zoom of the Panasonic FZ200 one step ahead. Saying that, just flick your eyes over the bright, punchy and detailed images in the gallery and there's a lot of good to say for the Canon's images direct from camera.

Lights, camera, action

Just like its predecessor, Canon's not skimped on the movie mode either. The camera can capture 1080p clips at 24 frames per second for that cinematic frame rate, while 30fps is available for the lower 720p HD capture option.

The camera adjusts focus and exposure during recording and the lens can be used to its full extent during recording, though shooting at the longer focal lengths handheld will as good as guarantee wobbly footage. Exposure can also occasionally "jump" up a level, which shows in playback.

Fast movement introduces skew/wobble that's also an issue, but not uncommon in stills cameras' movie modes. The "silent" lens barrel also isn't quite silent to our ears, so it's a shame that there isn't a 3.5mm microphone jack included in the camera's design.

Verdict

The Canon PowerShot SX50 HS lands one big punch with its 24-1200mm lens. But it's not all 100 per cent rosy: the limited aperture at the longest focal length will force use of higher ISO settings and the lens is trying to do so very much that some softness and colour fringe issues can't be ignored. But considered in context and, for a superzoom, the SX50 HS's low ISO images and raw capture puts it right up there among the best. It's a high standard for a superzoom camera.

We love the vari-angle LCD screen and how well it performs in bright conditions, the fast autofocus is a step beyond its SX40 predecessor and the image stabilisation system is really impressive too - even if the longest of focal lengths stretch this last feature a little too far.

At £449 the SX50 HS is far from a budget camera, but it does dangle the 1200mm lens carrot and that's a feature no other compact camera on the market can offer. It's hard not to be impressed and even if the longest of focal ranges have their limitations, but it's how this camera feels as a whole that makes it such a cracker. It feels great in the hand and delivers plenty of bang for the budget.