Out & About with the Powershot SX260HS

Well today was my first day out with the Powershot SX260HS. May as well have a quick look at the evolution of this camera series. Canon’s big zooms prior to this range were the Powershot S1 to S3 and S5 series of cameras. Powershot S series are a bit confusing because there have been three S-ranges. Apart from the S1-S2-S3-S5 series superzooms from 2004 through to 2007, there has also been the high-end compact S series starting with the S10 in 1997 and continuing through to the S100 today, and another S-series of IXUS models starting with (confusingly) S100 in 2002.  I have owned a Powershot S1 which was my first digital camera back in 2005, and currently own a Powershot S5 which was gifted to me in 2008. After the S5 Canon faced the inevitability of running out of model numbers and the range was forked into two series: The SX1/SX10 continuing in the same “mini SLR-style” form factor as the S5, and the SX100 compact superzoom format. The former jumped from 12x zoom on the S5 to 20x zoom lens.
The SX100 was Canon’s first effort to produce a compact superzoom and the series is inspired by Panasonic’s TZ or “travel zoom” series. I remember when the first Panasonic model the TZ1 came out in 2006 and how groundbreaking it was to have a 10x zoom lens in such a compact package. Canon’s first effort to challenge this was the vertical-formfactor TX, a bit like a conventional camera turned on its side with the lens on the side, this let them get the 10x lens without too much of the TZ1’s wizardry but it failed on ergonomics and never really took off. So then I decided I would wait until Canon could produce something as good as the TZ series. The SX100 actually came out not that much later, in 2007, and has been followed by the SX110, SX120 and SX130, while another range, the SX200, 210, 220 / 230 and now  240 / 260 series started in 2009. The SX100 series cameras were bulkier, cheaper built and used AA batteries, compared to the SX200 series which are more compact, higher finish metal cameras using proprietary batteries. I have looked at the SX100 / SX200 series for a few years now and was considering buying an SX230 last year, until the earthquake disrupted things. The SX240 / SX260 is the cheapest Canon model that has full manual controls, which is a key purchasing point for me with my strong interest in creative photography particularly in low light conditions. Like the SX230 before it, the SX260 is a GPS equipped camera, the non GPS equivalents (slightly cheaper) being the SX220 and SX240 respectively. There are still only two or three GPS cameras in the Powershot range.
So out and let’s see how easy it is to use and how well it works. The first thing I really noticed was waiting for the GPS to get itself set up. Obviously it will have to get a fix from the nearest satellites, and that can take a few minutes to happen, meanwhile all you know is that the symbol on the display shows the GPS is not operating. Once the GPS had set itself up the first time it pretty well stayed on with all of the subsequent on/off cycles of the camera as I moved around the area where I was photographing, so there wasn’t any additional delay. Picture taking is very snappy and smooth, I was pleased at how quickly it responded to the press of the shutter. The Power button is nicely recessed and hard to push accidentally which is good. I remember one of my earlier cameras I used to push Power accidentally all the time, even when it was in the pouch. Well no more of that. Could be even a little hard to press at times. The LCD is very bright and clear and produces a nice sharp picture, you can even see the blur in it at review time when camera shake occurred at low shutter speeds. The four way controller works a bit differently from my previous camera; for example, when adjusting exposure compensation you would first press the button for this function, and then use the left and right buttons on the controller to decrease or increase compensation, now you press the +/- button to select the adjustment and turn the wheel to increase or decrease. This takes a little bit of getting used to. It makes multiple adjustments a lot easier when you are in, for example, manual mode. You press the +/- button to select either Shutter or Aperture adjustment and then turn the wheel to make the adjustment. This was a lot quicker and easier than repeatedly pressing the controller buttons.
Probably the best ease of use I found with the camera was in more difficult lighting conditions. Due to it being late in the day when I was taking my photos, a lot of what I was shooting was in the shadow. With cheaper auto-only digicams, you will be able to adjust for at most two stops of exposure in either direction with the exposure compensation setting. With full manual control that limitation doesn’t exist; you can set both of the aperture and shutter to anything you like and get a lot more stops “over” or “under” as you see fit. So I used this to great effect to get the picture looking much brighter to the point where you would hardly know there was any shadow. The great strength of the digicam is being able to see exactly what result the adjustments will produce instantly, and you are very reliant on the screen to help you gauge this, so having a screen that gives you a good picture is essential; the SX260 excels here. The second aspect of difficult lighting that I found worked very well was hand-holding the camera at relatively long zoom ranges and slow shutter speeds. Somehow I managed to get the shot shown below with the camera handheld at 1/8th of a second with the zoom at 10x or 45 mm. That is no mean feat for any camera, digital or not. Somehow the ergonomics, balance and weight of the camera come together really well with two hands in such conditions and it is relatively easy to hold the camera still without blurring the shot. Whilst this is not the sharpest picture I have ever taken it is actually very difficult to tell whether the issue is blur or poor lighting.

The old Christchurch railway station which is soon to be demolished.
Here is another low light shot taken at the same time which again has worked out surprisingly well. This photo at 1/6 second exposure and 53 mm zoom pushed the camera envelope even more. Again a very creditable performance for a handheld shot with no bracing.
Clarendon Towers in the central city, under demolition. Again a very good performance in quite low lighting.
So overall, I’m very pleased with the camera so far. The only pity is you can’t get it in the colour range that is available overseas, we can only get the black model.