There's nothing radical about the appearance of the Canon PowerShot SX160 IS. It's a competent, no-nonsense compact with a fairly large plastic body, although the bulk is offset by subtle curves and a comfortable bulge at the grip, which houses AA batteries, rather than a rechargable one.
The specs far exceed what you'd expect of a camera keenly priced at around £165 though, packing as it does 16 megapixels and a 16x optical zoom. But does it deliver where it counts most, with great-looking photos?
The lens offers a generous 16x optical zoom, equivalent to 28-448mm in a conventional 35mm camera. That's a great range, which is perfect for shooting landscapes when fully zoomed out and snapping wildlife when zoomed in. As explained below though, if your wildlife is moving too quickly, you might miss it.
Aperture runs from f/3.5 at wide angle to f/5.9 at the furthest end of the zoom. Both of these are par for the course in a simple point-and-shoot camera.
The sensor's native resolution is 16 megapixels, which delivers images measuring 4,608x3,456 pixels.
It's got plenty of features for the more ambitious photographer too, with the regular auto mode supplemented by shutter and aperture priority, program and manual modes. There's a live settings mode that lets you tweak brightness, vividness and colour temperature, with real-time updates.
There's also a small selection of scene modes and shooting options, the latter of which include a 'face self timer' feature that starts the shutter countdown when it spots a new face entering the frame. That allows you to pose your family, set the timer and amble into shot yourself rather than having to rush.
It's powered by AA batteries, two of which slip into one end without adversely affecting the balance. On the one hand, this is a blessing as you'll find last-minute replacements on any high street worldwide should you run out. On the other, conventionally powered cameras of this sort can sometimes demand more frequent battery swaps. That was true here.
In my tests, shooting 81 stills and 5 minutes 11 seconds of video was
sufficient to set the battery icon red and flashing close to empty.
That's despite having trimmed the rear screen brightness to its lowest
level and setting the 'screen off' timer to 1 minute to avoid excessive
Stills photography tests
Macro mode takes you up to 1cm from your subject in wide angle, and the results are good. Depth of field is kept nice and shallow and the de-focused bokeh effect at the back of the scene is an attractive, creamy blur, with round specular highlights.
At full telephoto, you can achieve equally impressive results, albeit from greater distances, effectively isolating your subject in the frame and, in bright conditions, focusing quickly enough that you can shoot more flighty subjects, such as the bug below.
The lens is very sharp at the centre and there's barely any fall-off as you move towards the edges and corners of the frame. That's impressive for any lens, because focusing incoming light around the edges bends it to an extreme degree to meet the sensor. Light entering at the centre, on the other hand, can pass straight through.
Likewise, there was very little evidence of colour fringing against sharp contrasts within the frame. Close examination of a few images does reveal some very slight inaccuracies in this respect -- known as chromatic aberration -- but you wouldn't spot them unless you were hunting for them. They certainly have no detrimental effect on the overall composition.
However, while the lens stands up to close scrutiny, image quality raises some concerns at middling sensitivities. While images are sharp and clean at ISO 100 to ISO 160, digital noise starts to creep in above ISO 200. Areas of flat, darker colour are speckled, but brighter, more detailed areas are far clearer.
Once the sensitivity starts to touch ISO 400, the digital noise starts to appear in the more detailed areas too. Zooming to 100 per cent on the face of the squirrel, below, reveals some grainy noise in the animal's fur, which is most clearly visible around the edge of the eyes, on the nose and in front of the ear.
It's important to note that when zoomed out you won't spot it, and it shouldn't spoil your output if you print it. But should you want to crop in quite close, it will have greater impact -- and this is where the camera falls slightly behind more expensive rivals.
Maximum sensitivity in regular use is just ISO 800. You can push it up to ISO 1,600 through the scene modes, but only if you're prepared to cut the size of your images to just 4 megapixels -- a quarter of the native resolution. At this level, there is considerable grain in the output.
In auto mode, the PowerShot SX160 IS had a tendency to opt for fairly slow shutter speeds in my tests, which could make it difficult to capture fast-moving subjects such as plants swaying in a breeze and wild animals. I performed some of my tests in a sparse woodland in the middle of a bright afternoon, and the SX160 frequently dropped its shutter speed as far as 1/20 second and requested that I pop up the flash.
Using the flash wouldn't be ideal in such a situation as it wouldn't have sufficient throw to evenly illuminate the whole scene -- and it could startle the wildlife.
When tasked with shooting a still-life composition of everyday objects, the SX160 performed best under studio lighting, as is common with the vast majority of cameras. It kept its sensitivity low -- to ISO 125 -- and set the shutter speed at 1/100 second. As a result, colours were accurate and contrasts were crisp, allowing for cleanly captured details and very clear fine text, which was easy to read.
It had to increase its sensitivity to ISO 800 under ambient lighting -- the most it can manage without cutting the resolution -- and the results were marked by a considerable degree of noise. While the very finest text was no longer legible, the rest of the label on the miniature spirit bottle at the centre of the composition was clear and well reproduced. There was, however, some green colouring visible in the shadows.
Popping up the flash naturally reduced the sensitivity to ISO 320, improving the detail capture in the process, but lengthened the exposure to a degree where a tripod was a necessity rather than just a convenience. Under ambient light it was 1/20 second, but when using the flash it reduced to 1/15 second. Colours were good in the photos -- if a little over-saturated -- but the flash cast hard shadows behind the closest objects.
For such a competitively priced camera, the SX160 IS's movie options look very good on paper. It doesn't quite manage to reach the top end where HD capture is concerned, but it takes 1,280x720-pixel films at 25 frames per second in its stride. You can also shoot in 640x480-pixel resolution at 30fps, which is ideal for sharing and online use.
However, when played back, even the best quality results aren't the kind of thing you'd want to enlarge to fill a big screen. There's pixel movement in static scenery and footage shot while panning across a scene can lack clarity.
You can faintly hear the lens moving if you zoom while filming, but the sound of wind is more of an issue. Even with the wind noise reduction setting activated, it remained evident in my test results and rather spoiled the film.
It's easy to criticise an entry-level camera like this when you judge it on the same basis as something three or more times the price, so it's important to bear in mind that the SX160 IS costs just £165. For a 16-megapixel camera with a 16x zoom and high-resolution video capture, that's an absolute bargain. The price goes a long way to excusing faults found in the images.
So yes, there's some grain, but it's not really an issue unless you crop in on your photos. The fairly low maximum sensitivity and preference for slightly longer exposures than is properly practical in dimly lit surroundings is more of an issue. Otherwise, the lens is sharp and there are plenty of manual options that will help you develop your photography skills once you step away from auto mode.
Batteries lack stamina, but you can cut the cost of running this camera -- and the damage you'd otherwise do to the planet -- by buying AA rechargeables. So if you're after a no-nonsense, easy-to-use point-and-shoot camera, then this is a fair option. But if image quality is paramount and you're not shopping on a tight budget, see if you can afford an extra £50 for the Canon IXUS 510 HS. It doesn't have such flexible manual controls, but it looks and feels great and produces impressive photos.