You might think a long zoom and a high resolution can only be bought in a chunky body. Not true. With the PowerShot SX500 IS, Canon has taken the lead from its compact IXUS range to create a truly petite snapper, but with the added power of a superzoom.
A mighty 30x zoom, decent resolution and compact body could be yours for a couple of tenners short of £300, making this superzoom a tempting option.
There's no denying this is a very small camera. In my pretty average hands there's just room for a finger and a half on the grip, but that doesn't make it uncomfortable. Far from it. It's light and well balanced and you can still keep a good grip on it as the chunky end is scooped to fit your finger, and there's a textured patch on the back for your thumb.
Its specs are anything but small though. The sensor is a 16-megapixel chip and the zoom is an impressive 30x optical unit.
Because of this, it bears more than a passing resemblance to a shrunken dSLR, although without the interchangeable lenses. However, with the focal length kicking off at 24mm and carrying on through to 720mm (both 35mm equivalent measures), if you don't need a specialist lens like a fish eye or pancake, you have to question what an entry-level dSLR could do in terms of focus and zoom that the SX500 can't.
Maximum aperture at wide angle is f/3.4, and even at full telephoto it remains a pretty impressive f/5.8.
Naturally, when you're zoomed right in, you can only see a tiny portion of the scene in front of you, which can make it difficult to find your subject if you didn't keep it in the frame while zooming. Fortunately, there's a Framing Assist button on the side of the lens barrel to help out.
When held down, this zooms the lens back out to wide angle, with a rectangle overlaying the central portion of the frame to indicate what you would see at your current zoom level. Line up this rectangle with your subject and then let go of the button and it'll return to your original zoom position, this time focused on your subject.
Minimum focusing distance literally can't be bettered, as it stands at 0cm when the lens is pulled back to wide angle. That means you can press your subject up to the lens and it will still be focussed, although obviously if your subject covers the lens entirely, you will have an issue with light. At full telephoto, the minimum focusing distance is 1.4m.
That means it performed particularly well in my macro tests, fixing its sights on a very thin slice of the subject and keeping it razor sharp, while throwing everything that comes in front of and behind it into soft focus.
Focusing at such close distances helps show off how sharp the lens is at its centre. Zooming in on a shot of, say, a seeded dandelion reveals an impressive level of detail, where the individual strands of each seed head can be seen very clearly.
Stray away from the centre and things are less sharp. The trees at the back of the cemetery below are not so clear in the corners of the frame, where there's also some pretty obvious chromatic aberration. This is a fringing effect where sharp contrasts -- in this case, the leaves passing in front of the overcast sky -- are fringed with a third colour that's not visible to the naked eye.
Here, it's a magenta halo, which is caused by the lens splitting off that tone slightly when it focuses the incoming light on the sensor. Many post-production editing tools such as Aperture and Lightroom can minimise it, but it wouldn't be present in a perfect result.
Colour reproduction was excellent throughout my tests, with the SX500 IS producing results that were very faithful to the original scene under all lighting conditions.
However, as soon as the light started to fall, it was forced to increase its sensitivity, with slightly disappointing results. I performed my tests on 2 September when sunset was 19:44, but the afternoon was overcast, so by 17:18 the SX500 IS was shooting long zoom scenes at sensitivities of between ISO 160 and ISO 320. Neither of these is particularly high, but they did introduce noise into the results, which was noticeable when the image was zoomed to 100 per cent magnification.
At ISO 320, some results were starting to look dappled, to the extent that images lost some of their finer details, as can be seen in the shot below.
The SX500 IS performed best under studio lighting, as is often the case in the still-life test, which involves shooting the same collection of everyday objects under studio lights, ambient light and using the on-board flash.
It self-selected a sensitivity of ISO 200 under studio lights. There was a little noise in the result, but otherwise the results were very clear, with sharp contrasts and good colour reproduction. However, the chromatic aberration seen in other tests was evident here -- in particular, along the edge of the calculator and on the branding on the radio at the back of the scene.
When using the available ambient light in the studio, it increased its sensitivity setting to ISO 800, which caused some of the colours to become washed out -- particularly in those portions where they reflected the most ambient light.
It selected its highest possible sensitivity -- ISO 1,600 -- when the test was repeated using the on-board flash. The colours achieved here were rich and satisfying, and the shadows cast by the flash weren't excessive, which made for a fairly balanced result overall.
The SX500 IS shoots video at 1,280x720-pixel resolution, 25 frames per second, which still qualifies as HD but is a couple of steps down from the market leaders. Movies can be up to 4GB or 29 minutes 59 seconds in length (whichever is the lesser), unless you drop the resolution to 640x480 pixels at 30fps, in which case you can extend the running time to an hour.
Again, colours and focus were good, but even though the wind noise filter was active, a stiff breeze could be heard on the soundtrack. Impressively though, the zoom was close to silent when used while filming.
It compensated smoothly for stark changes in the level of illumination across the frame, but on a couple of occasions, when switching from a long focus (around 60ft) to something closer (around 12ft), it took a second to find the appropriate focal point.
If you need a long zoom in a compact body, then you won't get much lengthier or smaller than the Canon PowerShot SX500 IS. The 30x lens is truly impressive in so compact a device. With enough pixels to allow serious crops in post-production and still have sufficient resolution to print at fairly large sizes, it makes for an extremely versatile package.
However, some disappointing issues such as chromatic aberration and noise at fairly conservative sensitivities were evident in my test results -- and that does slightly dent the appeal of the SX500 IS.
It's very competitively priced at less than £300, which is a very good deal when you consider the headline specs and the lens. If you're not going to crop too tightly, the image noise may well be a non-issue, in which case, if you're looking for a powerful camera in a neat and tidy chassis, this should certainly be on your shortlist.