This is a compact in the very loosest sense of the word. Indeed, it isn't that much smaller than an entry-level dSLR, so its 'compact' designation is down -- purely and simply -- to the fact that the lens can't be removed.
But what a lens it is. As the name suggests, the PowerShot SX50 HS has a massive 50x zoom, equivalent to 24-1,200mm on a regular 35mm camera. An interchangeable lens touching the furthest end of that range would cost several thousand pounds on a dSLR.
The Canon PowerShot SX50 HS is available now for around £450.
Specs and build
At the longest zoom, the aperture remains a respectable f/6.5, but at wide angle it's a slightly less notable f/3.4. It benefits from some pretty serious image stabilisation to keep things steady when you're fully zoomed in, but even with this active there's an awful lot of lens to catch the wind when you're shooting at 1200mm, and I found it difficult to hand-hold a steady frame in a stiff breeze.
The native resolution is a conservative 12 megapixels (4,000x3,000 pixels), but don't kid yourself that you ought to be looking for something closer to the 16 megapixels that's becoming increasingly common in compacts.
Higher resolutions are best used for cropping into details and recomposing your shot in post-production, rather than trying to capture sharper detail (which has more to do with the resolving power of the lens). With such a powerful lens in front of this sensor, the likelihood you'll want to crop your results when you get them back home is greatly reduced.
It moves through the full length of the zoom in just over a second and naturally the length of time it takes to fix the focus depends largely on the difference between your current and previous zoom level. If they're broadly similar it's almost instantaneous, but if you've just zoomed in a long way it can take a second or two, so plan ahead.
Obviously when you're zoomed right in you can only see a tiny central portion of the view in front of you, which is where the framing assist button comes into play. Like the one on the 30x zoom PowerShot SX500 IS, this remembers your current zoom level, but pulls right back so you can see the complete scene with a rectangle that represents the selected zoom position laid on top.
Line up the rectangle with what you want to shoot, release the button and it zooms back to your original position, with your selected area filling the frame.
Sensitivity runs from ISO 80 to ISO 6,400 with compensation of +/-3EV in 0.3 stop increments, while the fastest shutter speed is 1/2,000 seconds, and the longest extends to 15 seconds, which should be fine for shooting sunsets, twilight scenes and cityscapes with streaking headlights.
The physical design is very well thought out, with a fold-out 2.8-inch screen on the back and complete manual control over both shutter and aperture courtesy of dedicated positions on the mode selector and a thumbwheel beside the display. There's a neat level guide on the screen that shows you when you're holding it straight.
The screen is supplemented by an electronic viewfinder, which is sharp, smooth and has dioptre control to cater for different eyes.
I tested the PowerShot SX50 HS in generally good conditions with a light cloud cover. It was set to write JPEG files at their largest possible size, and I used a mixture of full auto, scene modes and aperture priority so the camera could always adjust its shutter speed to compensate. Sensitivity was set to automatic.
The SX50 had an extremely light touch when compressing the JPEG files and there was no evidence of undue digital degradation in the results.
There was some fine colour fringing on sharp contrasts, however, such as the areas where the darker walls of a castle met the sky. This effect -- known as chromatic aberration -- manifested itself as a purple halo tracing the line of the wall.
Fortunately it was sufficiently narrow that when the image was not zoomed in to 100 per cent it difficult to make out, although it did give the impression of a slightly harsh contrast, particularly when compared to the better-lit castle wall opposite that didn't exhibit the aberration, thanks to the less extreme contrast in the level of luminance.
Beyond this though, the lens was sharp and did an excellent job of rendering fine detail, while the sensor and DIGIC 5 processor made short work of balancing light and shadow.
In the image below, there is plenty of detail in the interior of the tower, which falls into shadow, despite the fact there's plenty of light elsewhere in this scene. At the same time, the subtlety of the distant clouds isn't lost to overexposure as it tries to lift the shadows.
The same is true of the churchyard below, where the main focal point is the well-lit church itself, and the detail in the trees appears at first to have been lost to the shadows. Lifting the shadows in post production, however, recovers a wealth of texture and detail that the SX50 has captured even in these muted conditions.
It retains sharp focus across the frame, so fine details are clearly picked out. Below, there's very little difference between the clarity of the engravings on the closest and furthest gravestones, and the image remains sharp right into the corners. It's not uncommon for the level of focus to fall off in the corners of an image as the lens has to bend the light, rather than allowing it to pass through in a straight line, so the SX50 is doing a great job here.
The SX50 has a slim selection of scene modes. There are just nine to choose from, with little in the way of variety. This is where you'll find a high-quality burst mode, two kinds of portrait shot, 'smart shutter', which uses face detect to take the picture when it spots a new face entering the frame, and two stitch-assist modes for shooting left-to-right or right-to-left panoramas. The only traditional 'scene' modes are snow, fireworks and handheld night scene.
Fortunately, these are backed up by a more satisfying range of effects, which cover off high dynamic range, simulated fish-eye (which doesn't actually show any more of the scene than you get when fully zoomed out) and monochrome, among others. The monochrome effect produces very satisfying results. Greys are quite creamy and there's a distinctive softness under overcast skies, which can add extra feeling to an image that would otherwise be dull when shot in colour.
It performed very well in the still life test under all lighting conditions. Under studio lights it kept the sensitivity down to ISO 200, and so the resulting image exhibited very little grain. Colours were accurately reproduced and fine detail was easy to make out in the finished image.
When we switched off the studio lights and relied instead on ambient light within the room, the SX50 was forced to increase its sensitivity to ISO 640, and thus introduced a higher degree of noise into the frame. It wasn't excessive, however, and although particularly fine details such as the writing on the bottle at the centre of the composition were less clear, it was nonetheless a good result.
Popping up the flash and switching to aperture priority mode (you can't force the flash in auto -- only set it to automatic -- and it preferred not to fire the flash automatically in this test) cut the sensitivity to ISO 320. In terms of detail and noise the result was very similar to that achieved under studio lighting, and colours were particularly vibrant. However, the flash cast very hard shadows behind the composition objects.
The SX50 HS records Full HD at 1,920x1,080 pixels, at 24fps. There's a dedicated movie mode that gives you greater control over the settings, or a quick record button that you can invoke in the regular stills shooting mode.
If you don't need to shoot Full HD, perhaps because you're filming for online use, you can instead record at 640x480 pixels at up to 120fps or 320x240 at up to 240fps for smooth slow motion when played back.
There is a built-in wind cut feature that reduces the effect of the passing breeze on the soundtrack, but it had a tough job of coping with the stiff wind that was blowing across my test location, as you can hear in the sample footage.
Zoom noise was inaudible, however, and although it was at times difficult to hold the camera still at the longest zoom (something that would easily be fixed by propping it on a wall or using a tripod) the image stabilisation did a good job of levelling things out after a couple of seconds.
Compensation for changing light levels was smooth and swift, for an impressive video performance overall.
The PowerShot SX50 performed well. Image fidelity was good, colours were realistic, and there was plenty of detail right across the frame.
The length of the zoom is naturally the main attraction, and represents a significant upgrade over its predecessor's 35x zoom, which in the PowerShot SX40 HS was equivalent to 24-840mm.
In extreme conditions, the movie wind cut feature didn't perform quite as well as I would have hoped, and there was some very fine colour fringing on sharp contrasts in stills, but neither of these should be any great cause for concern.
Its most serious competitor in the captive lens arena is the Panasonic Lumix FZ200. That may have only half the zoom, topping out at 600mm, but it boasts a constant maximum aperture of f/2.8 throughout the range. Ultimately, that's probably more appealing than the SX50's longer zoom, but if you're not interested in portraits -- particularly those you might want to shoot from a distance -- which will benefit from the wider aperture, then the SX50 is a highly desirable piece of kit indeed.