If you're looking for the perfect mix of compact camera specs right now, 12.1 megapixels and a 20x zoom just about hits the spot. Lucky for you, as that's precisely what the Canon PowerShot SX260 HS is packing.
Thankfully, camera makers are turning their backs on ever-increasing pixel counts for headline-grabbing marketing hooks. Sanity is prevailing and we're seeing a returned focus on what really matters in a good camera -- features, ease of use and quality images. This is where the SX260 HS fits in.
You can pick one up online now for around £270.
Design and features
The good-looking SX260 HS is surprisingly large -- about the same as a first-generation iPod. At least Canon has made good use of all that extra space. The buttons are bigger than usual so it's a good choice for anyone with fat fingers.
There's a built-in GPS receiver that automatically geo-tags your images, stamping them with location metadata so that apps like Adobe Lightroom, Apple Aperture and iPhoto, as well as sharing sites like Flickr, can accurately plot them on a map.
This latter feature is quite a boon, although I found that some of my pictures, even when taken under clear skies and with good line-of-sight of the sky, weren't stamped. Only 10 of the 39 taken under overcast skies carried with them the necessary data, as the camera didn't get a fix on the satellites. It goes without saying that any shots you take indoors will also be missing these metrics.
The level of detail is impressive in both overcast and bright conditions. Solid edges are razor sharp and natural subjects such as flowers and foliage are captured with great subtlety.
Stark contrasts are handled with aplomb. Although there's an excusable degree of flare on the image below, where the sun is reflected directly by the hands of the clock to the right and the cherub on top of the tower, both the lit and shadowed sides of the white stone structure are accurately reproduced. There's no loss of detail in either portion, with the bricks that make up the fascia easily made out. The fine detail in the town crest is well preserved.
The sensitivity range on the SX260 HS spans ISO 100 to ISO 3,200 with exposure compensation of +/- 2EV in 1/3EV steps. The image above was exposed at ISO 160, and noise is very well controlled, with only faint grain visible across the frame. Even when forced to ramp up the setting under overcast conditions, there's very little detrimental effect on the result.
The image below was shot under overcast skies and at full zoom, forcing the camera to hike to ISO 500. Although there's a degree more noise in the background, where the sapling in front of the furthest large tree is mottled, the subject of the image (I set it to focus on the bench) remains clear, with only a slight hazing obvious on the front legs.
At closer quarters the macro mode, which puts you 5cm from your subject, has a beautiful shallow depth of field, which helps isolate the focused area and pull it forward from the background.
I performed all of my tests with the SX260 HS set to auto, allowing it to choose the most appropriate setting for each shot. Despite having a maximum aperture of f/3.5 at wide angle (f/6.8 at full telephoto), it never opened it further than f/4, even when it had self-selected the macro setting. This didn't matter as the results demonstrate an attractive, fast fall-off in the focus, while the subjects themselves are pin sharp and full of fine detail.
The maximum zoom is an impressive 20x optical, equivalent to 25-500mm in a 35mm camera, so the actual magnification outguns any regular kit lens supplied with an entry-level dSLR. It has both face detection and auto-focus tracking, so you can fix your point of interest and so long as you keep it within the frame by panning as it moves, the SX260 HS will keep it in focus.
The default shutter speed when set to auto is between 1 and 1/3,200 second, the longest of which isn't sufficient for night-time photography without the aid of the built-in flash. If you want to take arty long exposures, switch to Tv (Canon uses this to denote shutter priority), and you can increase it to a maximum of 15 seconds by using the scroll wheel beside the 3-inch rear display. This same wheel sets the aperture in aperture priority mode, while switching to manual lets you scroll through the shutter and aperture values in turn if you tap the exposure compensation button to switch between them.
What's less appealing is the mode selector dial, which is unnecessarily stiff and could be enough to put off those of you with less nimble fingers who would otherwise have found the oversized buttons a boon.
Colours were handled impressively throughout my tests. When given sufficient light, the results were really punchy. The grass on this garden, when shot under direct sunlight, was well saturated.
Far from being the result of the SX260 HS over-saturating by default, the colours were indicative of the shooting conditions. The more muted shot below, taken just to the left of the frame above and under more subdued skies, attests to this. Here, the tone of the grass is a less vivid green, and the muted tones in the loggia and vines are accurately reproduced.
Although very good on the whole, the SX260 HS wasn't perfect, and it could at times render considerable chromatic aberration within the shots. Chromatic aberration is an unwanted effect where the lens fails to accurately focus each wavelength of incoming light on the same spot on the sensor. It manifests as either a pink or turquoise fringe running along the edge of sharp contrasts.
The SX260 HS has again done a sterling job of rendering the foliage an attractive green in the scene below of a decommissioned railway station, and it's accurately reproduced the red bricks of the station house. But details in the upper corners of the frame are less well handled.
Here, chromatic aberration is very clear in the tree branches in both the upper-left and right corners. This is accompanied by a loss of detail in these areas, where the bark is less clear than the bricks at the centre of the frame.
The SX260 HS put in a great performance in the video test. Again, colours were bright and realistic. Apart from brief blurring as it searched for the appropriate focal point when the composition of the image changed rapidly, images were sharp throughout. You can see this blurring at the very start of the sample video below, where the camera has been focused on the house but needs to adjust to accommodate the closer laurel hedge.
The soundtrack was very cleanly recorded in most instances, yet despite having the wind noise reduction selected, it wasn't perfect. It still picked up a passing breeze.
There was a tendency for the volume to drop very slightly when zooming, to avoid recording the sound of the lens motors working. This was so slight that you wouldn't notice it unless you were listening out for it. However, whereas the Fujifilm FinePix HS30 EXR -- which I tested at the same time -- clearly recorded sound emanating from the furthest end of its 30x zoom, the PowerShot SX260 HS, with its 20x zoom, did not.
The Canon PowerShot SX260 HS is a great little camera. Where it really matters most -- image quality -- it does a good job, if not a perfect one. Fine detail could be better handled in the furthest corners of some shots, but over the majority of the frame, it's sharp and well rendered, with vibrant colours to boot.
Prices for this camera vary widely. I've seen it listed for as little as £264, and as much as £482, so shop around.