This is a superzoom in every sense of the word. You can tell that much before you even wake it up, on account of the chunky barrel protruding from its body.
It writes raw files as well as JPEGs, has a fairly generous set of manual controls and -- best of all -- costs less than you'd imagine. It's yours for £300, all in.
The SL1000 is fronted by a massive 50x optical zoom, courtesy of a lens equivalent to 24-1200mm in a conventional 35mm camera. Buying glass of that calibre for your dSLR would set you back thousands, so for the casual wildlife and sports photographer (and maybe the odd private eye) it's a significant draw in such a cheap and comparatively light body.
Although the ribbed rubber housing might suggest otherwise, the zoom is entirely electronically controlled using either the cuff around the shutter release or a rocker on the side of the barrel that's been positioned to sit right below your thumb.
You can't swap out the lens the way you can in a dSLR, of course, but then why would you with so great a range, unless you have very specific needs?
Unfortunately though, with so much glass to move around I found the battery to lack stamina in my tests, as despite charging it to the brim overnight before heading out it died after shooting 50 images (100 files, as it was writing JPEGs and raws side by side) and 2 minutes 32 seconds of video.
Maximum aperture stands at a very respectable f/2.9 at wide angle to allow for shallow depths of field, while at the longest end of the 50x zoom it narrows to a still decent f/6.5.
Build and features
The rear-mounted screen is hinged to facilitate more creative work. You can easily shoot from a low level by tilting it up, or over the heads of a concert crowd if you tilt down and look up.
If you prefer a more traditional stance, there's an electronic viewfinder just above it. Although you can't angle this if you find its position uncomfortable there is a dioptre control to move the small internal screen forwards and backwards to suit your eyesight and a sensor to one side that switches automatically between the LCD and eyepiece when it detects your eye getting close to the camera body.
Unfortunately this is a bit too sensitive for its own good, and I found that it had a tendency to switch to the eyepiece screen when I was using the rear LCD with the camera held a little too close to my body.
As well as a regular auto mode it has shutter and aperture priority options, although the aperture priority mode is rather half-hearted, allowing you to select from only three aperture positions at any zoom level. This will allow you to control the depth of field, but only on a rather coarse scale, so true creatives might be tempted to look elsewhere.
The sensor stretches to 16.2 megapixels, which translates to 4,608x3,456 pixels once the files have been written, leaving plenty of room for cropping in the highly unlikely event that the optical zoom doesn't deliver the framing you're after.
The SL1000 shoots both JPEG and raw files, so I set it to shoot the two side by side in my tests and performed my analysis with reference to both the in-camera JPEGs and to the raw files following their conversion to TIFFs using the bundled converter software with all settings on default.
Although in regular use you won't get any closer to your subject than 40cm at wide angle and 3.5m at full zoom, regular macro mode trims the wide angle measurement to just 7cm, with super macro chopping it further to an impressive 1cm. The results are good, with a sharp subject and a smooth fall-off in focus for the surrounding area, both in front and behind. However, very close examination of the results does reveal some dappling in fine detail.
Maximum sensitivity is ISO 3,200 if you want to retain the maximum possible image size, but if you're happy to cut it to eight or four megapixels you can hike it to ISO 6,400 and ISO 12,800 respectively. Be careful, though, as even at middling sensitivities of ISO 800 I found that the SL1000 introduced a fair amount of grain into the result.
In the image below there's noise in the flat surfaces such as the walls at the back of the church which in turn has impacted the clarity of the frame overall.
At closer quarters and with less extreme contrasts this effect was less pronounced, although even in the image below, where the focused stone face is crisp and clean, there's a fair amount of digital noise in the defocused background -- particularly in the floral carvings at the top of the pillar.
The results were much cleaner at less ambitious sensitivities, resulting in sharper, more detailed images. Shooting outdoors on an overcast day, I was able to keep the sensitivity setting down to ISO 100 while maintaining a good balance of tones in my shots and avoiding either detail lost to shadows or bleached out areas.
Examining the in-camera JPEGs and converted raw files side by side revealed that the SL1000 considerably pumps up the contrast in the JPEGs. This results in both a punchier, more satisfying result but, as an unfortunate side effect, a few slightly harsh edges where very bright and very dark colours meet, such as the blue and white painted areas of the boat below.
There's also some fudging of fine detail in particularly complex areas of the shot, such as the blades of marsh grass in the image below. Except where a distinctly different colour of grass is present among the general mass it's difficult to make out anything clearly in the darker parts of this image.
Close examination of some results also reveals colour fringing along the edges of sharp contrasts. This is caused by the lens not quite focusing each wavelength of incoming light at the same point on the sensor, and splitting off a particular part of the spectrum in the same way that a prism can do when positioned in direct sunlight. It's more pronounced at the edge of the image than it is at the centre, as you can see in the extracted portion below highlighting this effect on the individual boards of a fence.
This may impact your ability -- or desire -- to crop your results too tightly, so it's just as well that with a 50x zoom at your disposal it's not often going to be the case that you would want to. Otherwise, it's easy to keep what you need in focus, and colour reproduction is good across the spectrum.
Still life test
There was a very marked difference between the SL1000's performance under studio lighting, where it managed to keep its sensitivity down to ISO 100, and what it achieved using ambient light or the on-board flash, in each occasion hiking the setting to a middling ISO 500.
In those latter two instances the images were characterised by significant levels of grain, which affected the overall clarity of the image. Small text remained easily legible, but previously crisp edges looked as though they had been scuffed.
Furthermore, when using the flash, although it didn't cast strong shadows and so largely avoided affecting the overall balance of the shot, brighter objects such as the child's toy at the back of the scene, and the white caps of the paint pots, lost details to bleaching.
The optical zoom remains active when shooting videos, which will be a boon for anyone doing some casual sports recording, perhaps for later analysis. However, the noise of the motors is audible on the soundtrack, so if you're recording something that really matters you would do better to set your zoom position before you start and leave it there.
The soundtrack is well observed, with quieter elements such as lapping waves cleanly recorded, but when it gets caught by the wind the effect is fairly obvious.
As is now fair to expect of any capable camera, the SL1000 shoots movies at up to 1,920x1,080, 60 frames per second, with stereo sound. If that's a bit rich for your requirements, you can instead opt for 1,280x720 at 30fps, or step right down to 640x480 if you're shooting primarily for Web use.
Clearly the zoom is a massive draw here. It delivers almost unrivalled flexibility, and when paired with a decent tripod will let you get shots that simply aren't possible with most of its superzoom rivals.
It's not perfect, though. Colour is good, but some of my test shots weren't quite as clear as I would have liked and there was evidence of fringing along sharp contrasts towards the edges of some frames. I'd also like to have seen a more flexible aperture priority mode.
It is extremely cheap when you consider how much you'd pay for an interchangeable lens boasting the same focal length, however. In that respect, keep it in mind if a long zoom and a low price are your primary concerns.