As the compact camera market continues to shrink, the outlay of new product seems to be surfing a common theme: zoom is increasing in a war waged with fixed-lens smartphone cameras. The Canon PowerShot SX700 HS - the update to the earlier SX280 HS model - and its jump from a 20x to 30x optical zoom epitomises this trend; the significant bump in spec warranting the jump in model number.
Despite packing more in the lens department, the SX700 avoids considerable waist-line expansion - it's only a little chunkier than its predecessor - and is competitive against the likes of the Panasonic Lumix TZ60 and Sony Cyber-shot HX60.
But is the more considerable zoom lens the right area to focus on? Indeed, does this update make for a less adept camera rather than a more advanced one than before, and does Canon's straightforward approach lack the polish of its nearest competitors? We've been shooting with the Canon SX700 in both sunny Portugal and the rainy UK to see whether it's the king of the travel zoom compacts.
The SX700 HS features a 25-750mm equivalent optical zoom lens, which means a 50 per cent greater reach than the earlier SX280 model. That doesn't come at the expense of a giant body size, as the 34.8mm thickness attests. Only when extending the lens fully does the camera take on a more considerable form on account of the protruding lens, but when switched off it's a pocketable purchase.
In terms of layout and design the SX700 treads a similar path to the SX280 HS, albeit with the inclusion of a protruding front grip to aid a comfortable hold. It sits neatly in the hand, so no complaints on that front.
To the back there's a mode dial positioned towards the edge of the body, while the d-pad offers a rotational control to thumb between settings. Both of these dials are plastic which makes them stick out against the more premium metal body design, not that it affects use. Using the mode dial to switch between shooting modes - whether you want point-and-shoot simplicity or manual controls to make the most of things - is fairly stiff to rotate, but this works to the benefit of not knocking it out of place by accident.
On the rear of the camera is a 3-inch 921k-dot LCD screen for preview and playback which, thanks to its ample resolution, is a step above its predecessor. It seemed bright to view when testing in the UK, but it did struggle with presenting a visible preview in the Portuguese sun.
Unlike the Panasonic Lumix TZ60 there's no viewfinder in Canon's 30x zoom offering, and even though we weren't huge fans of the Panasonic finder, that would have made all the difference in such a sun-lit situation. It's not unusable in such conditions, just difficult to define a precise exposure and accurate framing.
More can mean less
The key reason to bag the SX700 HS is its significant zoom lens. It means wide-angle group shots or far-and-away subjects can be snapped to fill the frame. The toggle around the shutter button on top of the camera glides the lens through its zoom range at a reasonable pace and everything feels sturdy with nothing rattling around.
Despite a move to a 30x zoom across all the major manufacturers, it's a specification not without its limitations. Increase that zoom to maximum and it can be tricky for autofocus to latch on to a subject due to a slowing down of performance. It still has its uses, just don't expect super-fast infallible capture.
Part of the reason for this is the amount of light able to enter the camera in such a situation. The maximum available aperture at 750mm is just f/6.9, which means considerably less light is able to enter the camera than at the wide-angle setting and, as a result, the camera needs to boost settings to achieve a live image preview. In dim conditions this will likely mean a slowed frame rate on the screen and an increased shutter speed increasing the likelihood of a blurry shot. Even if you don't know the nuts and bolts of this background stuff, you'll feel it in use and it can frustrate.
The often excellent image stabilisation also finds its ceiling at this new significant focal length. Holding shots steady at the 750mm equivalent can be a little tricky, although we did find stabilisation to do a sterling job even when shooting at maximum zoom with less-than-desirable shutter speeds.
In general the SX700 is a capable performer, but the SX-line hasn't drastically evolved over numerous iterations and essentially leaves us wanting some more in certain areas.
Autofocus, for example, works really well throughout the wide-mid zoom range, but lacks the versatility of some of the competition. There's the choice for a single area focus point to be placed in the centre only, or automated Face AiAF will detect faces and subjects anywhere throughout the scene. That's it though: just the two options. Other competitors have touchscreens for placing the focus point, or pinpoint modes for heightened focus accuracy.
So while the Canon is as much a success as its SX280 HS predecessor, the world has kept on turning and Canon hasn't really evolved its offering as much as the jump from "280" to "700" might suggest.
Instead it has focused more on the increment in focal length rather than boosting the core performance to outpace the competition. Take that as you will: it means it's good overall, but helps highlight how much of a success the older model already was and still is.
Stick to the wide-angle settings and there's a great macro mode for close-up shots. The SX700 can focus at 5cms from the lens at the 25mm wide-angle setting; extend the zoom and this distance decreases as is to be expected, but the autofocus area will turn yellow (along with an exclamation mark) if the subject is too close to the lens.
It was the SX280 HS that saw the dawn of the Digic 6 processor. It makes a return in the SX700 HS, only this time it's been paired with a 16.1-megapixel sensor, an increase in resolution by some 25 per cent compared to the last generation model.
We thought the SX280 hit the sweet spot of resolution and processing for a camera of this type. However, by upping the resolution the SX700 HS doesn't diminish overall quality in our view. Indeed plenty of the shots we snapped went a long way to make up for some of its other features not being best in class.
It's a shame there's still no raw file capture, and blue fringes (what's known as chromatic aberration) can be spotted around subject edges, particularly towards the edge of the frame. Aside from these blips, however, results are sharp, detailed and deliver the right thump of colour while maintaining a natural look.
It's not a leap forward compared to the SX280 HS, though, because that increase in resolution means less light is available per "pixel". And when available light dips and the settings need to be boosted what's know as ISO sensitivity rises. The higher the ISO the more the original signal is boosted - which introduces some image noise, shown as speckled dots and undesirable colours in the frame. Canon is the king of image quality, though, so the worst of this is smoothed out and none too visible. It does a good job of handling things.
As the maximum zoom isn't able to let stacks of light in, we often found the camera opted to shoot at ISO 1600. This is the maximum available in the Auto ISO selection, although ISO 3200 is available should it be manually selected. A more advanced model with a wider maximum aperture would perform better here as it would be possible to use a lower ISO sensitivity for greater clarity in the results.
Saying that, plenty of the ISO 1600 shots from the SX700 HS retained plenty of the clarity we sought. Only a little green colour noise was visible, creeping its way into mid-greys and shadow areas of certain images. Even then these shots are more than usable, so low-light isn't as big an issue for this Canon as it could have been.
But when the sun is beaming and the lowest ISO 100 setting can be used the SX700 really shines. We've zoomed in on field flowers and the results look as good as they could from a compact camera; the miniature creepy crawlies that we didn't see by eye are clearly visible when viewing the shot at 100 per cent scale too. The only misnomer being that sometimes highlights are blown out.
Overall the image quality is the Canon SX700's strongest sell. It more than gives the pricier Panasonic TZ60 model a run for its money. And, let's face it, it's image quality that truly counts when it comes to cameras.
With a launch price of £329 the Canon PowerShot SX700 HS might not be a budget buy, but it cleverly undercuts the main competition from Panasonic and Sony by enough to make us stand up and pay attention. It not-so-cleverly also sits behind them by offering fewer features and a more simplistic operation, despite generally strong performance.
If you must have a massive zoom in a pocketable format then there’s a lot going for the SX700 HS. Thing is, we can’t help but think its SX280 HS predecessor, with its less significant zoom lens, was a more sensible all-round prospect. The SX700’s “30x zoom” badge may appeal, but the maximum zoom has its limitations and Canon has negated to boost its general features.
What the Canon achieves once again is quality images. They’re not quite perfect in every way, but the SX-line has always been top of its class in this regard. The SX700 HS is no different and it’s this that will make it one of the top travel zooms… even if the older SX280 HS might be twice as tempting based on its lower price point.
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