Canon has thrown all it's got at the PowerShot SX40 HS: a long zoom, creative scene modes and only the second instance of its new Digic 5 image processor in its whole camera line-up. With versatile video features and a handy articulated screen, this £380 sharp shooter isn't cheap, but it's certainly feature-rich.
The first thing you notice about the PowerShot SX40 HS is the sheer size of the lens. With a 35x optical zoom it works out at 24-840mm on a regular dSLR. The equivalent detachable lens from Canon's own range would set you back £11,500.
You don't want to be shifting this backwards and forwards once you've found your perfect composition, so a handy overview button on the back of the body zooms out while it's depressed to preview the rest of the scene, returning the lens to its previous position when you release it.
Without any kind of image stabilisation, a 35x zoom would be almost impossible to use without the aid of a tripod. Fortunately the PowerShot SX40 HS has what Canon terms Intelligent IS -- a stabilisation feature that tailors itself to the shooting conditions. So if you're panning then it will only stabilise on the vertical axis, or if it senses that you're using a tripod then it switches it off altogether. There are seven stabilisation modes in total, of which two are devoted purely to movie shooting.
Stabilisation is fully optical, with gyros in the lens array shifting the glass to re-align the incoming light to compansate for changes in the frame contents.
Despite the amount of glass and the length of the barrel through which the light has to pass, the results achieved in our tests were remarkably consistent. At all zoom levels the PowerShot SX40 HS demonstrated excellent, sharp focus and good colours. It was also unnecessary to stray into the digital zoom to achieve the results we were after, eliminating the potential for degraded results caused by cropping and enhancing the central portion of our image.
The results were also bright at all levels, with a maximum aperture of f/2.7 at wide angle to induce soft backgrounds on portrait shots, and f/5.8 to maintain a good level of illumination at the full zoom; this reduced the need to increase sensitivity and potentially introduce noise into the results.
As is evident from the comparison shot above, which shows the full telephoto and wide-angle views together, there is a slight vignetting effect to the upper zoomed image, where the sides and corners of the image are slightly darker than the centre.
The macro mode is the best we have yet seen; you can literally rest your subject on the end of the lens and it will focus. At slightly less close quarters we found it extremely efficient at focusing on irregular subjects, such as the bubbles in this glass, despite them being strongly backlit.
In less extreme shooting conditions, the PowerShot SX40 HS performed well as a general point-and-shoot, while for more adventurous users it has a generous selection of creative filters; colour swapping and colour isolation enable you to change the look of your image in camera, rather than waiting for post-production.
There's a questionable fish-eye effect which, being digital, doesn't actually increase the field of view as a real fish eye lens would. More interestingly, there are super-vivid, poster and toy camera effects. Chief among them is a miniature effect, which simulates a tilt-shift lens to keep a narrow slice of the image in focus (how narrow is up to you), while blurring the parts that surround it. At the same time it knocks up the highlights and saturation to simulate artificial light. The result is a realistic approximation of the scene as though it were rendered in model form.
In addition to these creative effects, there's a separate scene modes menu where you'll find settings for various lighting conditions, face detection and burst shooting, which takes up to eight full-resolution images in a second. We tested this at the Freeze Festival in London's Battersea Power Station at the end of October 2011. Impressive results can be seen in the image below, where the PowerShot SX40 HS accurately recorded skiers performing tricks on an artificial slope, without resorting to movie mode. These images were shot at close to full zoom, in twilight, yet remain well illuminated.
The only disappointment here was the stitch assist mode, which is the PowerShot SX40 HS's only nod towards panorama photography. This helps you line-up the left and right edges of your frames to ease the process of sticking them together in an image editor. We can't deny that's a useful tool to have at your disposal, but when compared to the sweep panorama capture tools seen in many of its rivals it's underwhelming.
The PowerShot SX40 HS produced realistic colours throughout our tests, with very vibrant results in brightly lit situations and more subtle tones where the illumination was more muted. In this shot of a largely white building there is plenty of detail to be found; this is true both in the flat stonework, where subtle variations in tone pick out carved features, and in the ironwork windows, which from this distance are quite intricate.
It also managed to accurately align each of the various colour wavelengths that make up the visible light in all but one extreme example, where pushing the zoom to its fullest extent in twilight resulted in some minor fringing on what should have been a crisp edge (see the chimney shot below).
This was not visible in the wide-angle equivalent of the same subject. It was minor enough to discount as it would not be noticeable when the image is printed or used at regular web sizes.
The PowerShot SX40 HS employs a multi-part white balance sensor, which can vary its settings for different parts of the frame, rather than setting it as an average across the scene. Canon claims that this will reduce the appearance of unrealistic castes, such as those that might appear in tungsten-lit parts of a scene that has otherwise been balanced to best expose, say, a sunset.
Sensitivity runs from ISO 100 to ISO 3,200 with +/-2.0 EV compensation in 1/3 stop increments. At its fastest, the shutter fires at 1/3,200 second, with the factory default in auto mode taking this down to a fairly conservative 1 second. You can push this as far as 15 seconds if you want to capture trailing headlights or make best use of minimal light without firing the flash, but this is still too short for our liking. In a camera of this calibre, we'd like to see shutter speeds approaching 60 seconds for greatest flexibility.
Many of the PowerShot SX40 HS's effects are also available in video mode, so you can use them to shoot black and white or sepia footage for an aged effect. If you set it to use the miniature effect it plays with the frame rate too; this effectively increases the speed at which the results appear to move to maintain the illusion of shooting a world on a smaller scale.
As well as regular shooting modes there's a 240 frames per second setting for shooting action that plays back ten times slower, albeit at reduced resolution to accommodate the higher data throughput.
At its default setting the PowerShot SX40 HS shoots Full HD video at 1,920x1,080 pixels, 24fps, with 1,280x720, 30fps and smaller options for various other requirements. When using either of the HD resolutions it can capture a maximum of 4GB or 29 minutes 59 seconds -- whichever buffer it hits first. Reduce it to 640x480 or below and it'll keep shooting for up to an hour.
The results are first class, with good colour reproduction, sharp edges and a well recorded soundtrack.
How does it compare?
The PowerShot SX40 HS is a natural competitor for the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ48. They both have a 35x optical zoom and 12.1-megapixel sensor, and we have praised both for their accurate colours and sharp images.
When you compare their results side by side there is very little to choose between them. It comes down to features, handling and price. The Canon has a fold-out articulated screen, which is a boon for more creative photography and has a faster, albeit noisier, zoom, so you'll frame your pictures more quickly. It also has a better menu and a hot shoe for attaching a flash (this is hidden beneath a rubberised cap, which is tricky to remove and takes some effort to re-seat accurately). They both have an unappealing electronic viewfinder, rather than the optical equivalent, but the Canon's has a faster and smoother refresh as you pan across a scene.
The Lumix DMC-FZ48 is close to £110 cheaper from most online retailers though. This makes it difficult to recommend the PowerShot SX40 HS above its Panasonic rival right now. When retailers start to offer discounts as this model beds in, for our money it would be worth paying a little more to bag the PowerShot on account of its superior handling and more extensive built-in creative tools.
At the moment it scores a respectable four out of five stars, not because it's poor value for money, but because the Lumix DMC-FZ48's price is simply unbeatable just now.