Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Super-zoom Love: Canon sx40hs

My first digital camera with manual controls was a Panasonic Lumix FZ20, and I loved it.  It had a 35mm-430mm F2.8 (35mm equivalent) lens with image stabilization and all that glass was "Leica" glass, YEAH!  Ok, so it probably wasn't the same as a Leica Vario Elmarit it was named after but it was sharp edge to edge, and it was fast, and it was a pretty awesome little camera. I used it a lot, and when I upgraded to a DSLR I missed many things about it, I really did. Which brings me to the point of this post.  This is my mini-review (with a subjective emphasis on why super-zooms are super-great) of my new Canon sx40hs.

So why do I want a super-zoom?  After all, I have a Canon 5DMkii, the dream of every photographer, and a Canon 60D the latest addition to the Canon Prosumer DSLR lineup.  I've also got an Android phone with a decent little camera in it.  What do I need a super-zoom camera for?  Here are the reasons that I wanted a superzoom:

1. The swiss army knife lens: all the focal lengths, small, light, and no lens changing.  This is the difference between getting the shot and not getting the shot in some cases. 
2. The huge depth of field: there are times when you don't want your band of focus to be a couple of millimeters thick.  How-to photos and videos benefit from having everything, or most everything in focus.  DSLR video is bokehlicious, but sometimes seeing stuff in context is better.  The bottom line on depth of field (focus) is that compact digital cameras and super-zooms in particular are different than DSLRs,  and their lens is just another and different tool for exploring the world.  Sometimes it is definitely not the right tool, other times it is the right tool.  This doesn't replace the DSLR it just augments it.
3. Video autofocus: right along with the depth of field above is the ability to auto-focus and zoom smoothly in video.  This helps you follow a story, or capture action, that can be a big challenge for a DSLR, especially without a full-blown shoulder rig. 
4. Mechanical shutter for high speed sync with flashes: the shutters in compact cameras are different than the curtain shutters used in DSLRs.  The DSLR curtain shutter has a limitation when synchronizing with strobes that the mechanical shutter doesn't.  My DSLR's sync up to about 1/200th of a second.  My new Canon sx40hs syncs up to 1250th of a second even when fired by radio remote.
5. Size matters: I have five kids and travelling light is a definite advantage in many circumstances.  The super-zoom is not small compared to pocket cameras, but it is very small compared to a DSLR kit with similar focal length lenses. 

So that's why I "needed" a super-zoom.   Now lets take a look at my new Canon sx40hs.  The sx40 is a really just an updated sx30.  Key features are a 35x optical zoom with a 35mm focal length equivalent of 24-840mm (just, wow), with image stabilization, of course.  It does that by having a tiny a 1/2.3 inch CMOS sensor.  The sensor in the sx40 is the new "backlit" sensor with the circuitry moved to the back of the sensor to make the sensor cleaner and more efficient. It has a tilty-flippy screen (thank you, digitalrev tv), a rather tiny EVF (electronic view finder), and a pretty decent set of controls.  This camera also has an outstanding video mode which, while lacking manual controls, does a great job auto-focusing, auto-exposing, and zooming in and out during video recording.  Canon's control systems are consistently good but not quite perfect, and this camera fits well into their general trend.  Let's look at some sample images to show what this camera is about.

Zoom Range
I wanted to show the zoom range inside.  Most example show you how your zoom range brings distant objects nearer, but zoom also has more compositional function of either giving context or isolating objects.  That is what I find most compelling about the zoom range of super zooms.



Why this matters, really:
The ability to compose images exactly the way you want without any focal length friction.  The chances are you have the focal length to do what you want to, with the flick of a zoom lever.

Wide angle for context:

Zoom to isolate and compose:

New Sensor and Image Stabilization
The sx40hs has the new CMOS sensor, and I think the high ISO performance is really quite good on this camera.  It is not a Canon DSLR, however, it does remind me quite a lot of the Lumix LX3 I used to own, and even a bit of the the Olympus EPL-1 I had for a while (that is in sensor performance, not senor size: Bokeh is much harder to get with the sx40 than the Olympus).

I am not presenting the super scientific review here so I combined my ISO and my Image Stabilization tests. All photos are hand-held. The 100% crops are listed below. The focal length on this about 300mm equivalent and is close to the minimum focus distance.  The image stabilization on this camera is about what I've seen in other image stabilization systems, and that is remarkable because of the increased focal length in this camera and the sx30.  And the image stabilization in video is really good as well--usable hand-held video at 840mm equivalent is real, and quite amazing.

ISO 100 at 1/5 second shutter

ISO 200 at 1/6 second shutter

ISO 400 at 1/20th second shutter

ISO 800 at 1/30th second shutter

ISO 1600 at 1/80th second shutter

ISO 3200 at 1/160th second shutter

White balance and color transitions:
I have not fully explored the white balance and the color controls in the sx40.  I'm used to working with RAW files where white balance is something I figure out afterwards.  The two images below show the difference between auto white balance and the custom white balance.

Compared to the 5D MKii
5D Mkii image using the AWB to compare to the sx40 image above (minimal RAW editing)

5D Mkii Portrait edited in ACR

These are the proofs from Missy Johnson's senior photo shoot.

sx40hs Portrait edited in ACR

The Canon sx40hs has everything necessary to renew my Super-zoom Love. A super-zoom is just another kind of camera, a different tool.  It is not a DSLR, and it isn't supposed to be.  The comparison photos are put in not to show how the sx40 can replace my 5D, but how it contrasts with my 5D, and why I really want to have both cameras, and want to shoot pictures with both cameras.

The contrasts are really the reasons I gave at the beginning for why I like super-zooms.  There are some weaknesses of the camera such as the data depth/tonal behaviors (especially in skin) and of course things like the lack of bokeh at most focal lengths is both a feature and a fault depending on what you are doing.  Like so many things, at the end of the day, you need to basically understand what you are going to do with this tool, and whether it fits your needs and your desires.

The bottom line is that these tools are really quite remarkable and I think that sometimes they get a bad rap as being merely cameras for "birding" enthusiasts.  They are certainly good for "birding" but the are for a lot more than that.  For proof I definitely commend much of the fine photographic work of Phil Douglis also in my "Resources" links at the side.

As far as I can tell the Canon sx40hs is the best camera in this category. And I definitely recommend it, and this category overall.  Give the super-zoom a try.  They are very fun little cameras, and really can do things that only "Supers" can.

Sample Images

Personal Video Samples


Pepo said...

Great review, I will buy one!! Thanks

Peter said...

If you're buying from Amazon try the link in the article or in the sidebar... then I get a commission. :) Glad you liked the review. I'll be posting something on the use of this camera with flashes, hopefully pretty soon.

10Stroy said...

I like my SX10is a lot, except for the virtually unusable manual focus. Yes, I am a birder, and really need the focus overrride abilty. I have not found an SX40 locally, and would like to know if they have improved this feature. By the way, loved the review.

Peter said...

10Stroy, I have never used an sx10. The manual focus isn't great, I'd much prefer a focus ring on the lens--the dial on the back just isn't very fast. What makes the sx10 manual focus unusable? I think I'd have to know that before I could compare it.


10Stroy said...

Peter, my SX10'S focus does not change smoothly as the focus wheel is turned. As the wheel is turned, the focus does not change for a period, then jumps to a different setting. This can be seen as well as the focus bar in the viewfinder jerkily moves. The other issue is that often in trying to move the wheel, a little forward pressure causes a switch to another function like ISO. Bad ergonomics. Oh for a focus wheel. I thought my camera was defective until I tried another and experienced the same problem. I'm eager to try the later model to see if this is improved. Sorry for the whining...

ogaldo said...

i do not have the SX40 at hand yet, but greatly enjoyed the review. not only a professional one, but a lover of photography to boot. thx a lot, my mind is set, now the wallet has got to follow ...

Amos Shvueli
Haifa, Israel

Peter said...

I'm loving it at the beach. Much smaller to carry than my SLR kit, but has even more zoom, and keeps more stuff in focus. Just right for some situations--especially when I'm carrying the 2 year old on my back.

10Stroy said...

Have my SX40hs now and like it a lot. For what its worth, I discovered a useful rapid focus tool for wildlife photos where the camera will not autofocus on the subject. I have the shortcut button set to AFL, and the focus will re-adjust and then lock each time I hit the shortcut button. This way I can accurately adjust focus on something in the same plane, and then move to the subject. Then all other adjustments that I want to be automatic will re-adjust keeping the desired focus when I press the shutter button.

Peter said...

10Stroy: Thanks for the tip. Good idea. Glad you're loving your sx40. I'm still loving mine too. Got to get some shots posted from a recent trip to the Oregon Coast. Very handy to use, and some shots that just aren't possible with other cameras.

ianp01cof said...

Hi Peter.
Great review thanks. Do you have a pov on the bundled wide angle macro lens and 2 x adaptor that are on offer for this camera. It already is very versatile so would these add value or simply weight to the bag :). I wd describe myself as enthusiastic amateur mainly interested in wildlife, birds, scenery etc


kfriend said...

Great review. I bought the sx40hs recently and i wanted to know if we can use a radio remote with the camera?

Peter said...

Sorry it took me so long to respond. I'm pretty sure that there is no native support for a remote shutter. I think there's someone who has hacked the USB port to be used for a remote shutter.

Here's a discussion:

Charlie has got the inside scoop on this. Looks too complicated for me. Too bad Canon hasn't supported this camera as a full system camera.

FiskeBlogg said...

Nice blog you got :) I'm a new owner of the SX40 and I'm impressed of the performance that the camera deliver.

Very glad to own this superzoom camera :)