The super-zoom is not the most exciting category of compact around at the moment, but the Canon PowerShot SX30 IS does an excellent job of shaking up the party. To give it its dues, it’s not just a super-zoom, it’s currently the super-zoom with the most super of zooms of them all. It’s a 24-840mm equivalent lens that runs from an aperture of F/2.7-5.8 and feels almost embarrassingly phallic to have at the full 35x magnified extension.
At its purest, it seems squarely aimed at the kind of person who’s probably not that interested in making the jump to DSLR but wants as much of a hot rod as the simple compact can offer. Like many of these bridge models it’s not small - that lens has to go somewhere. The PowerShot SX30 IS weighs a pretty hefty 601g - more than one or two DSLRs out there - and it’s nigh on the same chassis size as well. In fact, the only time you really notice that it’s smaller in the hand is when you accidentally hit the Zoom Frame Assist button with your right thumb. Other than that slight annoyance, which doubtless you’ll come to be careful of in time, it is a typically ergonomic and well laid out device.
Interestingly, the conventional D-pad on the rear also has a selector ring around it. Essentially, it’s superfluous but in practice there are some option screens that are easier to roll through than navigate with a series of left and right jabs. It also gives this compact the illusion of something more professional by imitating a jog wheel.
Other good additions are the ever-popular instant video record button conveniently near your thumb; the aforementioned Zoom Frame Assist, which will jump back 100mm or so down the lens to help you find what you’re supposed to be close in on, before extending once again when you release it, and a function button which can be assigned to any number of other jobs. The only issue is that none of those jobs include ISO, aperture or shutter speed selection - perhaps not such a big deal though given the market for this camera. On the other hand, there is a hot shoe for an external flash - complete with rather near protector - so obviously Canon is expecting for someone to be thinking down those lines.
The prize of the rear is probably the 2.7-inch, 230k-dot, vari-angle LCD which has five different brightness settings that you can access by surfing the menus or, rather more conveniently, by just holding down the Display button on the back. No matter how bright the sunshine you’re in, you’ll always get an excellent view of what you’re trying to shoot. Great feature. Were it ambient light-sensing, it would be even better.
Should you wish to get old school, as indeed many do, there’s also a relatively non-poxy, 200k-dot, electronic viewfinder which is quite surprising on compacts these days. It’s not huge on the visual field, but there’s no distortion when you look down it and it does display all the settings in real time in the same way as the LCD. There’s also a dioptre adjuster that was good enough to mean a -3.25 short-sighted eye didn’t need glasses to look down it. All the same, although the EVF is well put together, it’s not a wildly comfortable way of using this camera. If that’s your thing, shop elsewhere.
As for the insides, the PowerShot SX30 IS is fitted with a 14.1-megapixel CCD sensor, Canon’s DIGIC 4 processor and it’ll offer an ISO of up to 1600, and in practice that makes for plenty to play with. The zoom itself works really well in the daylight with the image stabilisation system easily enough to capture sharp shots even all the way out. Once indoors it gets a little trickier with the danger-shaky-hand sign showing up a little too often for our liking, but it’s probably the AF that impressed the most. It doesn’t always get a lock if there’s something tricky like smoke in the way and it’s a notch off being fast but it’s generally very good and rarely lets you down. Best of all, it even works in video mode, automatically doing its job as you pan around, and doing so in absolute ultra-sonic silence so as not to cause a stir through the stereo mic.
On top of the raw power available and the perfectly accomplished 720p movie shooting at 30fps, what makes this camera so much more fun than most like it - think the Panasonic Lumix FZ100 - is that Canon has also rammed in everything you’d expect to find on a lifestyle compact camera as well. There's a bag of scene modes including fish-eye, foliage, miniature effect, smile shot and a particular amusing one called Wink Timer - a self-timer mode where you can trigger the shutter once in position by winking at the camera. And, yes, it does work. We tried blinking to fool it but it wasn’t going to go down that easy.
Another two worth a mention are the Color Swap mode where you can pick out one colour and get the camera to see it as a different colour altogether - this worked with varying results - but the really nice one was Color Accent which allows you to pick out one or two colours in the frame and turn everything else to black and white. The only mode that’s a bit of a dud is the Stitch Panorama which was just too much of a pain to use, particularly in the era of Sweep Panorama as seen on Sony cameras. What’s great though is that you can use one or two of these art modes when shooting video too.
As for the results, the stills are as accomplished as you’d hope. The colours come out well, the majority of what you shoot is sharp even moving around at speed and, although it won’t rattle off many shots per second, what you get is good. Once you move into lower light conditions, it gets rather noisy at ISO 1600 and it might even be best to avoid 800 as well. Thankfully, the IS means you can get a lot done at low shutter speeds. There’s also an excellent and fairly user-friendly manual mode if you really want to get in deep.
In practice, the zoom is serious. If you want to know what 35x gives you then take a look at the difference in the size of the BT Tower and the London Eye as taken from Primrose Hill, London, at full magnification compared to the wide shot.
The video results, again, were excellent outdoors with the one above showing just how good that continuous AF generally is; right at the end it shows how it misses a trick once in a while too. The camera does pretty well with motion. You can’t make an awful lot of the cars speeding past but the action is consistent and not jumpy and, in fact, the flames on the grill in the second video (on YouTube here) are very decent although there does appear to be some noise creeping in when filmmaking indoors.
Probably the last thing of note about this camera is that it is generally easy to use. Once you’ve sorted your orientation, the quick menus are fantastic. They’re both comprehensive and well laid out offering the perfect amount of information at each bite with the eye. You can achieve all your shooting needs without having to go to heavily into the set up menus.
This is probably the best super-zoom we’ve had our hands on. There’s slight issues of noise indoors, the odd kink here and there that might have been a little smoother given an almost infinite amount of product development time but, ultimately, it is a winner. The PowerShot SX30 is a really good blend of power and fun and it’s just an all round entertaining camera to use.
It’s not cheap at £449 but, with everything Canon has packed inside it, you’d be hard pushed to say it’s not worth the money.
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