Pros: 35x zoom, HD (1080p) movie mode, DIGIC 5 processor
Cons: soft images, expensive
When the weather starts turning cool, the sales pitches for the Holiday buying season begin. Cameras are very popular Christmas gifts and every winter major camera manufacturers (and most of the minor leaguers) participate in a series of trade shows to tout their new products. The Canon Powershot SX40 IS was introduced recently at one of these photography trade shows.
Consumers love technology, especially portable high-tech gadgets like cellular phones, MP3 players, GPS devices, radar detectors, tablet computers, and digital cameras. Active modern folks talk/text on their cell phones, listen to music (and watch videos) on their MP3 players, search the web/or network on their laptops or I-pads, and shoot pictures and/or video clips with their digital cameras - while they work, play, exercise, shop, and drive. The Canon PowerShot SX40 HS, which replaces the very popular SX30 IS is the new top dog in Canon's super-zoom P&S digicam marketing niche and it is aimed squarely at this hi-tech demographic. The SX40 HS (like the SX30 IS before it) seeks to be to be the ultimate bridge camera – an all-in-one photographic tool that can do almost anything, nearly anytime, virtually anyplace, for just about anyone.
I loved Canon’s “S” series digicams and I was a bit suspicious of the “SX” series that replaced them. But, I’ve come to regard the “SX” series as worthy successors to the benchmark “S” series. “SX” series digicams are smaller, lighter, and more feature rich than their predecessors. Canon’s Powershot SX40 HS may be the best overall camera choice for many consumers, since it nicely meets Goldilocks’ famous criteria list – it isn’t too big, it isn’t too small, it isn’t too heavy, and the 35x (24mm-840mm equivalent) super-stabilized zoom is just right. The SX40 HS (in auto mode) can be used by absolute beginners, but this camera also offers sufficient creative flexibility to be used effectively by more advanced photographers.
The SX40 HS is the most recent Canon digicam to feature the HS System, which combines a high-sensitivity back-illuminated 12 Megapixel CMOS sensor with Canon's new DIGIC 5 processor to capture low noise images in all lighting conditions. Canon claims the new DIGIC 5 processor and HS technology combination reduces noise by up to 75% at all ISO levels.
NUTS & BOLTS
The SX40 HS and the SX30 IS are much more alike than they are different. Like the SX30 IS, the SX40 IS features full manual exposure capabilities, a tilt-swivel LCD (and an electronic viewfinder), a Mini-HDMI output, and a hot shoe. How does the Canon PowerShot SX40 HS differ from it’s predecessor? The SX40 HS is one the first PowerShots to feature the new DIGIC 5 image processor. The DIGIC 5 boosts the performance of the HS (high sensitivity) System and also supports Full HD (1080p) video capture – the SX30 IS’s HD movie options topped out at 720p.
Other features include Canon’s Quick-bright mode which makes it easier to frame and compose images in bright outdoor light, Servo AF/AE (which constantly adjusts focus and exposure with moving subjects), and a new Zoom Framing Assist button to aid in tracking and capturing sometimes small subjects in the midst of vast environments at very shaky super-telephoto distances.
The SX40 HS features the same outdated 2.7 inch (6.8 cm) camcorder style flip-out and tilt/swivel PureColor II LCD that graced it’s predecessor. Nikon, Panasonic, Pentax, and other OEMs are now offering LCD viewfinders with double, triple, and even quadruple the resolution of the SX40 HS’s 230,000 pixel LCD. The SX40 HS’s TFT LCD screen is fairly bright, hue accurate, relatively fluid, automatically boosts gain in dim/low light, and covers approximately 100% of the image frame, but it is quite grainy at telephoto end of the zoom range due to the low resolution LCD. Here’s a piece of advice to the product development folks at Canon – you added the nifty new DIGIC 5 processor, but left the outdated LCD intact – the flip tilt feature is really nice, but not as nice as a sharper LCD screen would have been. The SX40 HS really needs a new higher resolution LCD, its outdated and the grainy LCD is this camera’s most glaring shortcoming. The SX40’s LCD, like all LCD monitors, is subject to fading and glare/reflections, but Canon’s Quick-bright mode makes it easier to frame and compose your images in bright outdoor light.
Unlike most current digicams, the SX40 IS also provides an EVF (electronic viewfinder). Resolution is a bit coarse (200k), but the viewfinder is reasonably bright and fluid. The EVF display provides the same information as the LCD, but the print is so small on the tiny EVF screen that those who lack eagle-like visual acuity (read older folks) will find it very difficult to read. There’s a diopter adjustment for those who wear glasses, but there's no button for switching back and forth between the LCD and EVF - instead the SX40 HS automatically defaults to the LCD when the monitor faces out and to the EVF when the monitor is turned inward to face the back of the camera.
The SX40 HS’s extraordinary focal length range (users can stand in one spot and zoom all the way from 24mm ultra wide-angle to 840mm super-telephoto) makes Canon’s newest Powershot almost ideal for an incredibly broad variety of photographic applications. Shooting group pictures in tight indoor venues, capturing expansive landscapes, nailing distant wildlife or in-your-face youth sports, and getting up-close macro shots of bugs and flowers are easy with this camera. When the SX40 HS is powered up, the zoom extends from the camera body and when the camera is powered down, the lens retracts back into the camera body and a built in iris-style lens cover closes to protect the front element. Eight benchmark focal length settings (in 35mm equivalents) are stamped very visibly on the top of the inner lens barrel. Zooming is smooth and relatively quiet and the Zoom Framing Assist function makes it easier re-acquire subjects at the extreme telephoto end of the zoom.
When light rays pass through a camera lens they separate into various color waves and dispersion becomes a problem because all colors don’t focus at exactly the same point. Dispersion causes axial chromatic aberration - the fuzzy colored edge blurring image degrading phenomenon popularly known as purple fringing. The SX40 HS’s f/2.7-f5.8/4.3mm-150.5mm (24mm – 840mm equivalent) zoom is constructed of 13 elements in 10 groups and includes one Hi-UD element, one UD element (to reduce chromatic aberration), and one double-sided aspherical element.
Canon’s technical folks did a remarkable job with this bad boy, The SX40 HS’s lens is amazingly compact and astonishingly light-weight, but there really ain’t no free lunch and as optical complexity increases lens faults and optical aberrations are magnified exponentially. Images show some visible corner softness and barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from the center of the frame) at the wide-angle end of the zoom range is noticeably above average. Pincushion distortion (straight lines bow in toward the center of the frame) is (as expected) above average at the telephoto end of the zoom. Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is also above average, but not as much above average as I expected. The SX40 HS’s zoom utilizes Canon’s USM and VCM motors to reduce zooming noise when recording video. There’s also an optional lens adapter available which allows the use of 67mm photo filters.
Image Stabilization (IS)
The SX40 HS's optical image stabilization system reduces blur by quickly and precisely shifting a lens element in the zoom to compensate for involuntary camera movement. Typically, IS systems allow users to shoot at shutter speeds up to three EV slower than would have been possible without Image stabilization. Keeping a lens with a focal length range from ultra-wide to super-telephoto steady (without a tripod) poses some impressive challenges. Canon has equiped the SX40 HS with what they claim is the most advanced and effective optical Image Stabilization system ever used in a P&S camera (it assesses camera shake about 8,000 times per second) providing up to 4.5 EV of compensation.
Four IS modes are supported - Continuous IS works full time and includes an automatic Dynamic IS function adapted from Canon camcorders – Continuous IS consumes substantially more power than the other three modes. Shoot Only IS kicks the IS system in just before the shutter fires. Panning IS is designed to factor out involuntary vertical camera movement during lateral panning. IS can also be switched off.
The 4.5-stop optical Image Stabilizer has also been enhanced with new Intelligent IS technology that detects the shooting situation and automatically applies the most appropriate image stabilisation settings from seven possible options. For example, Panning IS is enabled when following the action at a racetrack, ensuring the IS system stabilises in only one direction, while Macro IS with Hybrid IS technology is perfect for shooting clear close-ups. Powered IS uses Canon camcorder technology to make it easy to film distant subjects with the long zoom, and Tripod mode switches off the Image Stabilizer when the camera is on a stable surface or attached to a tripod.
Auto Focus (AF)
The SX40 HS features the same TTL Contrast Detection AF system as its predecessor - with three AF modes - single, continuous, and servo AF plus manual focus. In all exposure modes, the camera analyzes the scene in front of the lens and then calculates camera to subject distance to determine which AF point is closest to the primary subject (closest subject priority) and then locks focus on that AF point. The SX40 HS's default face detection AF mode is linked to the camera's exposure and WB systems. The SX40 HS automatically finds, locks focus on, and then optimizes exposure for up to nine faces. The SX40 HS’s autofocus is driven by the same ultrasonic motor (USM) and voice coil motor (VCM) technology as Canon's EF series DSLR lenses. AF is reasonably quick, but the SX40 HS often hunts for focus at the telephoto end of the zoom
The SX40 HS’s multi mode pop-up flash provides an acceptable selection of artificial lighting options, including auto, flash on (fill flash), flash off, and slow synchro, plus flash exposure compensation @ /- 2EV in 1/3 EV increments. According to Canon, the maximum flash range is about 19 feet. Unlike most P&S digicams, the SX40 HS also features a hot shoe for mounting Canon speedlights.
The Canon PowerShot SX40 HS supports SD, SDHC, MMC, MMC , HC MMC , and the SDXC format (for memory cards larger than 32GB) memory media.
The SX40 HS draws its juice from an NB-7L rechargeable Canon lithium-ion battery. Canon claims a fully charged NB-7L is good for 400 exposures (EVF) and 370 exposures (LCD), but based on my experiences with the camera those numbers seem a very optimistic.
White Balance (WB)
The SX40 HS features Canon’s new Multi-area White Balance system which makes images look more natural by detecting situations where there are two different light sources in the frame and then automatically applying area-specific white balance correction. For example, when shooting a subject with flash in a room illuminated by tungsten lighting, the camera will apply tungsten WB to the background and flash white balance to the subject, ensuring that both the subject and the background retain their natural colors. The SX40 HS provides users with a decent selection of White Balance options, including auto, daylight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent, fluorescent H, flash, and custom. The SX40 HS’s auto WB mode does a very good job in most lighting.
The SX40 HS provides an acceptable range of sensitivity options, including auto and user-set options for ISO 80 to 1600. ISO 80/ISO 100 images are virtually identical - both show bright oversaturated colors, slightly hard edged default contrast, and very low noise levels. ISO 200 images were also very good, but with a little less snap. At the ISO 400 setting, noise levels are noticeably higher and there's a perceptible loss of minor detail. ISO 800 images are very noisy. ISO 1600 images show flat colors, fuzzy detail, reduced contrast,and lots of noise.
CONTROLS, DESIGN, ENGINEERING, BUILD QUALITY, & ERGONOMICS
Canon is the most prolific producer of products marketed to meet the desires of imaging gadget lovers. Like portable audio fans and smart-phone lovers camera enthusiasts lust after the newest and most unique imaging devices.
The fourth generation Canon Powershot SX40 HS handles nicely and (due to its very good balance) feels solid and stable in your hands. The SX40 HS not only looks a lot like an entry-level DSLR it handles much like one too, so this is not a compact (4.83 in./122.9mm x 3.63 in./92.4mm x 4.24 in./107.7 mm) or light-weight (22oz/601gr) camera, in fact the SX40 HS is a rather chunky and not particularly stylish digicam.
The SX40 HS’s control layout will be familiar to anyone who has ever used a Canon digicam. All controls are logically placed and easily accessed - for right handed shooters, but some buttons are very small. The SX40 HS’s compass switch (4-way controller) provides direct access to the exposure compensation function, flash settings, and macro mode. Canon’s nifty “func” button offers direct access to WB, ISO, etc. The SX40 HS also provides a “one-touch” video capture button – simply frame your shot and push the red button – when you wish stop recording, simply push the red button again. Overall, the SX40 HS’s control array is a bit busy, but it isn’t counter-intuitive and most users will have no difficulty using the camera. Like essentially all P&S digicams the SX40 HS will function in auto (point and shoot) mode, but this camera was designed for photo enthusiasts – so there are lots of creative options and (for more advanced shooters) an impressive level of individual input.
The SX40 HS polycarbonate body is tough enough to go just about anywhere and like the original Ford Model “T” is available only in no-nonsense black. The SX30 IS weighs around 4 ounces less than Canon’s Rebel series entry-level DSLRs (with SD card, battery, and EF-S 18mm-55mm IS kit lens) which is impressive when you consider that the SX40 HS can do, pretty much, anything an entry-level DSLR can do - and it has a 35X zoom - most entry-level DSLRs come with a 3X kit zoom.
Menus and Modes
The SX40 HS features an expanded version of Canon's classic digicam menu system. The menu system, like all Canon P&S digicam menus, is logical and easy to navigate. The SX40 HS provides a comprehensive selection of shooting modes including:
Auto: The camera automatically selects all exposure parameters, except flash on/off - just point and shoot.
Program: Auto exposure with limited user input (sensitivity, white balance, exposure compensation, etc.).
Aperture priority: Users select the aperture and the camera selects an appropriate shutter speed.
Shutter priority: Users select shutter speed and the camera selects an appropriate aperture.
Manual: Users select all exposure parameters.
Custom 1 & Custom 2: Permits users to pre-program personal shooting preferences for quick access via the mode dial.
Portrait: Mode dial scene mode - all exposure settings (plus smooth skin, soft-effect, etc) optimized to automatically enhance portraits.
Landscape: Mode dial scene mode - all exposure settings optimized to automatically enhance landscape photos.
Sports: Mode dial scene mode - all exposure optimized to capture sports/action without blurring.
Scene: smart shutter, low-light (2.0 megapixels), super-vivid, poster effect, color accent, color swap, kids & pets, super vivid, power effect, color accent, color swap, fish-eye effect, miniature effect, beach, underwater, foliage, snow, fireworks, stitch assist, indoor, face/self-timer, low-light, super vivid, poster effect, beach, foliage, snow, fireworks and stitch assist.
Movie: The SX40 HS records HD video at a maximum resolution of 1920X1080p @ 24 fps.
In the Field/Handling & Operation
A young BMXer friend whom I’ve been photographing for several years recently called and told me that he had decided to turn pro. He is one of the most talented BMXers I have ever seen, so I wasn’t too surprised. My friend told me his first order of business was to secure a sponsor and for that he needed my help. I asked him what he wanted me to do and he said, “I want you to pick out a camera for me that will produce both excellent still pictures and HD action videos that are good enough to post on line”. In addition he wanted me to teach his girlfriend to shoot action so she could be his photographer. His girlfriend had taken a basic photography course in college and he said she was a decent photographer. We all got together at our neighborhood coffeehouse and discussed the specifics over cappucinos. Turns out my friend had exactly $400.00 to spend on his new camera and that his girlfriend was enthusiastic about learning how to shoot action pictures and videos after seeing my “Extreme Park Photos” album on facebook.
After a trip to our local bricks and mortar camera shop my friend decided that the new Canon Powershot SX40 HS fit the bill for him perfectly. He bought the camera on the spot, even though with Kentucky sales tax and a 16GB SDHC card the purchase exceeded his camera budget by almost $70.00. We immediately took the SX 40 HS to Louisville’s Extreme Park to check it out. The Extreme Park is the go to place for local photographers looking to capture stunning action shots and action filled video clips. Skateboarders, BMX bikers, and rollerbladers are drawn to the park 24-7 and many of them are very talented athletes. In addition to the SX 40 HS I had the new Pentax Q CLC (compact system camera) with the f1.9/8.5mm (47mm equivalent) prime lens which I was testing for another website. My friend’s girldfriend was actually more impressed with the tiny little Pentax Q than she was with the bulky Canon SX 40 HS. The SX 40 HS’s 35x zoom was remarkably adept at capturing my friend in death defying jumps and his trademark 360 degree flip. I put the SX 40 IS in Program mode, single AF, auto WB and Auto ISO to simplify the process for my student photographer. I’d have my friend start his run and I would take several pictures as he completed his standard (and heavily practiced) routine. I would then show his girlfriend everything I’d shot and explain to her how to anticipate the peak action moment and how to frame her boyfriend most dramatically. It took her about four runs to start getting a feel for how important precise timing was – after that it was a piece of cake. She just kept getting better and better. My friend and I took a break to review what we’d shot so far. On the LCD screen the SX 40 HS’s Auto White Balance setting rendered slightly oversaturated but hue correct color although default color interpolation seemed a bit warm, which is not surprising in a camera targeted toward the amateur/advanced amateur market niche. My friend’s girlfriend went off with the Pentax Q to try her hand at shooting some candid portraits of some of their skateboarder friends.
My friend loved the pictures from the SX 40 HS, but I think his girlfriend actually liked the diminutive Pentax Q better – she may end being a very good photographer, she’s got the passion and a very good eye. I showed both of them how the video capture function worked and my friend’s girlfriend and I got set up to capture my friend’s signature 360 degree flip. We timed the trick at about 7-8 seconds and then I shot it twice. After looking at the videos and explaining how to frame and compose the shot (you have to leave plenty of headroom and footroom when you shoot action) before the action unfolded and then we let his girlfriend try it. Her first attempt was pretty awful – she skewed the horizon, cut off her boyfriend’s head, and missed his landing completely. We compared my videos and her video and she expressed the desire to try it again. I helped her get in position and went through how important framing, timing, and following the action smoothly was again. Her second attempt was much better and her third video clip was actually fairly good. My friend decided he would post a couple of my pictures and a couple of hers and her best video clip on his facebook page later that evening. He handed me the SX 40 IS and told me, “ thanks for all your help – I know you’ll want to write this camera up, so you can have it for a week.”
I next took the SX 40 HS (and the Pentax Q) to Cave Hill Cemetery. Cave Hill Cemetery is Louisville's unofficial arboretum and a popular destination for local photographers because there is almost always something to shoot – the old burying ground is filled with thousands of weatherworn headstones, dozens of ornate mausoleums, a rustic groundskeeper’s cottage, and thousands of native and exotic trees and shrubs. Our fall color season is advancing, but not yet at its peak. I shot lots of colorful backlit trees in fall color, old tombstones surrounded by fallen leaves, and a fall harvest display with pumpkins and asters. There is a small lake at the center of the grounds with a resident population of ducks, geese, and swans. The waterfowl at Cave Hill are pretty tame (since most of the folks they see have bags of stale bread in hand) making them easy targets for a guy with a camera mounting a 35x zoom, but a couple of the more aggressive Canada Geese wouldn’t let me get close enough to fill the frame with the Pentax Q’s much shorter 8.5mm prime lens.
My third outing with the SX 40 HS was to Louisville’s Butchertown neighborhood to shoot carpenter gothic architectural details of the areas colorfully painted early twentieth century shotgun houses and the tiny yards filled with exuberant displays of fall flowers. From Butchertown I went directly to the Germantown neighborhood and shot the unique and colorful facades of businesses (Like Lynn’s Paradise Café and the Nitty Gritty re-sale shop) along the Barrett Avenue business corridor.
My final trip with the SX 40 HS was to nearby Iroquois Park. Iroquois Park is an almost 800 acre expanse of old growth forest surrounded by the suburbs of Louisville’s south end. The huge old glacial knob that comprises the heart of the park is the highest point in the city. Iroquois Park is one of the best places in the city to shoot fall color, since the area is filled to capacity with ancient hardwood trees. I found a couple of really impressive scenics and then hiked to the top of the hill (vehicular traffic is prohibited) to get a couple of shots of the panoramic view of the city to the north available from the top of Iroquois hill.
After I downloaded the images (and video clips) I’d shot with the SX 40 HS I called my friend and told him he could come over and pick up his camera. He asked my if I thought the SX 40 HS was going to be a good investment in his quest to turn pro and I told him that for the money I didn’t think he could have done any better.
The SX40 HS performs credibly, however photography has always been about compromises. When you design a camera with a 35X zoom the idea is create an optic that is not too long or too heavy – operational speed must be sacrificed (particularly at longer focal length settings) because a very long lens will obviously move and focus more slowly than a substantially shorter lens.
The DIGIC 4 driven SX30 IS wasn’t the quickest digicam in its class, but it was fast enough to function nicely as a general purpose digicam and quick enough to capture the decisive moment – in all but the most extreme shooting situations. The DIGIC 5 driven SX40 HS is noticeably faster than its predecessor, but it is still a very complex camera with a 35X zoom, so it isn’t as fast as a P&S digicam with a shorter zoom like the Canon S95. Basically, the SX40 HS is quick enough to capture youth soccer, little league baseball, or most extreme sports, but not fast enough to track and capture professional sports action. The SX40 HS powers up promptly and shutter lag shouldn’t present much of a problem. Shot-to-shot times are between 3 and 4 seconds.
The SX40 HS’s image files (like all Canon digicam image files) are optimized for bold bright hues and hard-edged but slightly flat contrast. Reds are a little warm, blues are a bit brighter than they are in real life, and greens/yellows are a bit too vibrant. Images generated by the SX40 HS are consistently a bit soft and there is no in-camera sharpening option. Image quality is a bit below average, but for 3x5 or 4x6 prints and enlargements up to 8x10 the SX40 HS will do a fine job.
The SX40 HS’s 1920x1080p @ 24fps HD movie mode produces properly exposed and color correct videos clips. The SX40 HS also captures video at 640 x 480 and 320 x 240 at 24 fps. Video capture is especially impressive, since you can use the 35X zoom while recording. Canon recommends a class 4 (or higher) memory card for video. The SX40 HS’s dedicated movie start/stop button allows photographers to become videographers and capture Full HD (1920x1080p) video at 24fps with stereo sound.
Buying a digital camera is not as simple as it was in the early days of the digital imaging revolution and that’s a good thing. Today’s digital camera marketplace provides an almost unending stream of new cameras and photographers (at every experience level) have more choices than they’ve ever had before. Canon’s new Powershot SX40 HS was designed to be the ultimate bridge camera - this digicam can capture images of just about anything - from expansive ultra-wide landscapes, to in your face macro images, to super telephoto shots. The SX40 HS is a winner for those users who can accept slightly soft images. Most photo enthusiasts will understand that no camera with a 35X zoom is going produce critically sharp images, even with the most advanced and effective digicam IS system in the industry.
The SX40 HS is an excellent general purpose digicam and it will dependably produce very good to excellent images for photo enthusiasts, casual shutterbugs, family photographers, festival goers, sports fans, wannabe paparazzi, and aspiring wildlife shooters.