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Home / Photography / Performance Cameras

Canon PowerShot SX1 IS Review

By Mike Perlman, Monday 6 July 2009
Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
Will full 1080p video and RAW shooting catapult the SX1 IS past last year's SX10 IS? Read the full Canon PowerShot SX1 IS review to find out.

Review summary of the Canon PowerShot SX1 IS:
Scoreboard »      Features »      Side-by-side »      Gallery »
Canon PowerShot SX1 IS We can definitely say that Canon's upgrade to last year's PowerShot SX10 IS was a step in the right direction. However, the 10-megapixel Canon PowerShot SX1 IS left us with a few sour tastes in our mouths, particularly due to a few basic imaging flaws and the camera's inability to transcend a one-second shutter speed in Manual mode. We had to use a Scene mode to reach 15 seconds, and that means we couldn't shoot in RAW. Oh yeah, the PowerShot SX1 IS can shoot in RAW and it's a definite improvement over the camera's JPEG quality. The 1080p video looked great in bright light but choked when the lux descended. We found the PowerShot SX1 IS to be one of the most feature-rich compacts on the market. It's a prime set of training wheels for an avid beginner. We loved the intuitive interface and the design was rugged enough to last throughout our rigorous photo safari. However, if you're a shooter looking for image quality over a widescreen swivel LCD and 20x optical zoom, we recommend playing the field. For $600 there are a lot of great deals online. But for a huge leap in image quality, these cameras are only a few Benjamins away. Release: May 2009. Price: $600.
Pros: Great design and interface. 20x optical zoom, swivel LCD and OIS are big bonuses. Great HD video quality in bright light.
Cons: Inconsistent still image quality. Terrible HD video low light performance. No shutter speed past one second unless you use a Scene mode.
Very good
Full Canon PowerShot SX1 IS Review:
Design – Very Good

From a distance, Canon's latest Super Zoom appears to be identical to its replacement, the Canon PowerShot SX10 IS. However, when compared side-by side, there are three primary architectural differences brought on by the Canon PowerShot SX1 IS. For starters, the camera rocks a stealthy all-black color scheme, whereas the PowerShot SX10 IS was a two-tone grey and gunmetal combination. We prefer the badass all-black scheme of the PowerShot SX1 IS. Secondly, you'll notice a 2.8-inch widescreen LCD in the back of the PowerShot SX1 IS, filling in for the PowerShot SX10 IS's modest 2.5-inch display. Lastly, check out the HDMI terminal and aspect ratio button. The Canon PowerShot SX1 IS adds full 1080p high-definition to the menu this year, so a Mini HDMI port was in order.

Aside from those three minor structural alterations, the Canon PowerShot SX1 IS was in fact identical to the Canon PowerShot SX10 IS when it came to handling. The camera still felt slightly larger than the Nikon Coolpix P90, yet a tad more durable. We actually dropped the Canon PowerShot SX1 IS right after unboxing it and the camera emerged unscathed by the hardwood floor. Since both cameras were hatched from the same design mold, we got the large shutter button zoom toggle, electronic viewfinder and rear-mounted Control dial, three features that were welcomed on the PowerShot SX10 IS. One thing we were baffled by was the PowerShot SX1 IS's lack of lens threads for filters. Here we have this nice 20x optical zoom Canon lens, but no ability to toss a UV or amber filter on.

On top, the Canon PowerShot SX1 IS features a hot shoe for mounting Canon proprietary flashes, and the camera also has a flip-up flash for basic lighting fills. The PowerShot SX1 IS ships with a wavy lens hood to shield light, but we ended up shooting without it because the hood ducked into a few of our shots, even when mounted correctly. The same deal happened with the Canon PowerShot SX10 IS, so we'd recommend against its use. In addition to the HDMI terminal, the PowerShot SX1 IS offers Digital (USB), AV out and DC in ports that are covered by burly plastic shields. Be careful when accessing the battery hatch because the four AAs will shoot out and plunge right to the ground if you don't have your hand covering the open hatch. We can tell you that from experience. All in all, we liked the design of the PowerShot SX1 IS, and feel the same about the PowerShot SX1 IS.

Interface – Very Good

Parallel to the Canon PowerShot SX1 IS's external construction was the emulated interface, carried straight over from the PowerShot SX10 IS. The only difference this time around was the 2.8-inch swivel widescreen LCD in place of the 2.5-inch swivel display. The 230,000-pixel display remained the same, and we were disappointed with the quality of the LCD due to noise and lack of clarity. For capturing RAW images, the 2.5-inch screen would have better suited the 4:3 aspect ratio of the still images, but the screen's 16:9 aspect was built for shooting HD video, which says a lot about the direction compacts are headed these days. On the plus side, the swivel LCD enabled us to capture angles we didn't know were possible, so we have to give the PowerShot SX1 IS some props there. We liked the aspect ratio button, allowing us to shift between full-size RAW 4:3 shooting and full 1080p 16:9 video modes. However, if we weren't careful, this feature could sneak up on us and we would end up shooting widescreen JPEG images or 640x 480 standard-definition video, which happened a few times.

Using the Control dial a second time around was just as rewarding, however we noticed that it took a little more fine-tuning in order to be able to control the intensity of its behavior. We could spin the dial slowly and nothing would happen, but then we'd give it a good crank and it would jump six or seven options. This vexing situation was mostly prominent while we attempted to select a Scene mode. The good news is that the Canon PowerShot SX1 IS is equipped with Canon's x-axis/y-axis function menu, in addition to a fully-stocked Mode dial and comprehensive Administrative menu. All options were laid out intuitively, and the Manual Focus and ISO quick functions were nice additions to have on the Control dial. Exposure Compensation was a press of a button away, along with AF frame selector and Display options.

The Canon PowerShot SX1 IS's viewfinder was one of the better electronic displays we've seen in this class, and the picture was not too shabby. It was difficult to utilize the Manual Focus Assist function while using the viewfinder because the small screen and compromised resolution were a deadly combination, so there were certainly instances where we preferred the LCD to the viewfinder. Playback was chock full of our favorite features like Auto Rotate and offered full image data with histograms. There's no doubt that the Canon PowerShot SX1 IS offers one of the best interfaces in its class.

Features – Very Good

Like the Canon PowerShot SX10 IS, the Canon PowerShot SX1 IS was spewing features at us left and right. This is one of the most feature-rich fixed lens Super Zooms on the market. The big surprise this time around was the PowerShot SX1 IS's full 1080p HD video mode. Similar to the Canon Eos 500D (Rebel T1i), the PowerShot SX1 IS performed very well in optimally lit shooting environments, but choked in low light, as we'll see a little later on in the review. The sound quality was probably the most impressive facet of the 1080p video mode, and our only complaint was that we could hear the lens zooming in and out in our clips. Sound was natural and resisted clipping, and the PowerShot SX1 IS definitely offered one of the best HD video modes we've seen in this class to date. However, when the lighting dipped below a certain lux level that is not agreeable with the PowerShot SX1 IS, we were treated to almost complete darkness and an unruly swarm of noise. More anon in the Image Quality Section.

For the budding photographers out there who are looking for their first photographic moped to train on before the inevitable DSLR superbike, the Canon PowerShot SX1 IS was brimming like a cauldron filled with options and controls. With a full Manual mode, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Program AE, Auto, Custom mode and a cluster of Scene modes, we never hit any roadblocks along the way. However, we did pick up on a very peculiar and silly trait this time around, and that had to do with the PowerShot SX1 IS's one-second shutter speed cap in all shooting modes except the Long Shutter Scene mode. Yes, a one-second cap! What gives!? We're out at night with the PowerShot SX1 IS mounted on the tripod, we crank the aperture down to f/8.0 for increased depth, shoot the ISO down to 80 or 100 for maximum detail and then we go to flick the camera down to a 30-second or 60-second shutter and bam! It doesn't exist! The fact that a camera this advanced could not surpass one second in Manual mode blew us away. We had to shoot in Long Shutter mode, which did not allow us to capture in RAW. What a total bummer. The PowerShot SX1 IS offers a great manual focus system with Focus Assist, has Auto Exposure and Focus Bracketing, offers a slew of color filters and effects, but the thing can't travel past a one-second shutter speed unless its in a JPEG-only Scene mode. Sheesh.

White Balance options were plentiful and the Manual White Balance mode was highly effective. We could point at a scene and click the White Balance right into the proper color temperature in a matter of seconds. The Focus Assist function could even be used with the Auto Focus, creating a small, magnified preview window of the focused area of the image. We of course got our taste of the Color Accent and Color Swap Scene modes, along with more popular ones that were readily available on the Mode dial like Sports and Portrait. We could even use the Color Accent and Color Swap modes while recording HD video, which was a major plus. Aside from the mysterious one-second shutter speed cap, the Canon PowerShot SX1 IS was a veritable tool belt stocked with photographic artillery.

Hardware - Good

Canon decided to switch it up this year and toss a 10-megapixel 1/2.3-inch CMOS chip inside the PowerShot SX1 IS, while last year's PowerShot SX1 IS was given just a plain old 10-megapixel CCD. The other major stocking stuffer we got this year was the ability to shoot in RAW. Better yet, Photoshop CS4 has added the Canon PowerShot SX1 IS to its list of compatible RAW cameras, so files can simply be dragged and dropped right into the program. Canon did an admirable job honing the PowerShot SX1 IS as a set of training wheels to a real DSLR, for beginners can now get a taste of working with RAW files in post.

We're still unsure why Canon opted to stick with a 10-megapixel sensor when everything around it jumped on the bandwagon and boosted the jets up to 12-megapixels. Regardless, it's not the size of the pixel count, but how you use it, and the PowerShot SX1 IS was a slight improvement over the PowerShot SX10 IS, though only when it came to RAW shooting.

The 20x optical zoom was another welcome feature carried over from the PowerShot SX10 IS, and we're glad Canon kept the 35mm focal length chart on top of the lens barrel, which ranges from 28mm to 560mm. The 28mm wide-angle lens came to the rescue in tight spots, but it was next to impossible to tame a full telephoto magnification at 20x. The Optical Image Stabilization huffed and puffed, but in the end, a tripod was needed for extreme zooms, especially in shooting environments with lower light levels.

Canon also stuck with four AA batteries for power, which is convenient for on-the-fly juice, but can be pricey in the long run. Images are captured as JPEGs or RAW files to SD/SDHC cards, and we were given the option to record to both simultaneously. Fortunately, videos used H.264 .MOV compression, so we were able to play and edit our clips right from the get go.

Image Quality - Good

This is a tricky one. Canon move to a CMOS chip with RAW capability was a good one, though the PowerShot SX1 IS still behaved like a point-and-shoot at times. We saw a definite improvement in our RAW images, but JPEG images were nearly identical in quality to the Canon PowerShot SX10 IS. So, RAW was really the only way to shoot with the PowerShot SX1 IS. But even then, we discovered some unwanted noise and fringing. What's really interesting is that the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 exhibited far less fringing than the PowerShot SX1 IS, and both cameras were tested side-by-side. Contrasts were difficult for the PowerShot SX1 IS to handle, but we saw that with the PowerShot SX10 IS and EOS 500D. Low light shooting was not a problem, thanks to Long Shutter mode, but we're still irked about the PowerShot SX1 IS's inability to offer a shutter longer than one second in the manual modes. Therefore, our low light samples had to be JPEGs while the rest of the sample images were shot in RAW and converted into the highest quality JPEGs.

Video quality was excellent in daylight and shooting environments that offered plenty of luminance, however, low light sensitivity was ghastly. We experienced the same performance with the Canon Eos 500D, though the 500D provided a more detailed image, thanks to its larger sensor. The Canon PowerShot SX1 IS just couldn't suck up enough light when the lights went down, and most of our video clips were just indiscernible collages of dark noise when they should have been easily visible. For beginners, the Canon PowerShot SX1 IS will do the trick, but anyone looking for advanced imaging at an intermediate level or beyond will not dog this camera. We really had to work in order to squeeze as much quality out of the images and video clips as we could. Nearly all still images were captured at 80 ISO because the PowerShot SX1 IS dumped on the noise at higher levels. Well, without any further adieu, here we go.

  • Scene Test – Pacifico

  • Optimal Lighting Test – Primera Iglesia Bautista

  • Portrait Test – Avivit and Co.

  • The first batch of images seem like they have potential. Detail is excellent in most portions of the frame of the first image, but at full resolution we can detect some reddish fringing along the Brunch sign and edge of the roof. We also lose a little clarity in the leaves due to unexplained noise that appears to be attacking the plant. Colors look great and the PowerShot SX1 IS handles the contrast of the sky quite well, but if we look closely we can see a little color gradation in the clouds. This is a decent image, but nothing to jump for joy over. We'd like to say we had much better results with the second image, but that reddish fringing is present all along the borders of the church. We also lose detail along the bottom of the image. Even the portrait shot is noisy and fringing is lurking about as well. These are not bad images, but we've seen better.

  • Color Test – Flowers

  • Color Accent Test – Flowers

  • Color Swap Test – Flowers

  • Colors were spot on, as always from Canon. Hues were lively and punchy and resisted bleeding. We had fun with the Color Accent and Color Swap modes, despite their consumer nature.

  • Fringe Test – Silver Steed

  • Macro Test – Ye Fiery Dragon

  • Detail Test – Assessment Drugs

  • Even after the RAW processing we can see a glowing border engulfing the silver steed. What's the deal? To be honest, we saw the same issue crop up with the Canon Eos 500D. What is it with mid-level Canon compacts and fringing? The sky has also turned white, which was a product of the PowerShot SX1 IS's stunted dynamic range. It's quite a coincidence that the PowerShot SX10 IS, Eos 500D and PowerShot SX1 IS all produced similar results regarding fringing and contrast. Up close, we were able to snag a few decent Macro shots, though we had to boost the ISO in order to capture this particular one. The PowerShot SX1 IS just didn't like low light. Aside from the fringing along the white patches of the dragon, the detail is spot on. Speaking of detail, the last image was one of the most impressive displays of sharpness and clarity provided by the PowerShot SX1 IS, but we're still treated to traces of fringing here and there.

  • Motion Test – Endless Rain

  • Low Light Test – Random Bar

  • For a quick snap, the first image is fairly impressive. That was one of the things we liked about the Canon PowerShot SX1 IS—the ability to just aim and fire. Focus is lost throughout the image, but we can still discern individual drops and strings of rain, which was the intended objective. With a little more planning, we could have really gone to town, but we wanted to see how capable the PowerShot SX1 IS was when thrown into a sudden opportunity. The Long Shutter mode really came to the rescue in the final image. As stated earlier, the PowerShot SX1 IS had no problem shooting in low light with a slow shutter. We just wish we could shoot in RAW rather than JPEG.

    HD Video Samples

  • Scene Test – Bay Ridge

  • Bright Light Test – Flowers

  • Detail Test – Produce

  • The first video clip was highly impressive to watch, particularly because the Canon PowerShot SX1 IS rendered the scene almost flawlessly. We couldn't believe the level of detail and naturalistic color that came out of this compact. We experienced the same deal in the second clip, though exposure is a little high, which the PowerShot SX1 IS tended to do. That's a contrast issue, which we saw coming from a mile away. In more subdued lighting, the PowerShot SX1 IS provided great detail within the fruit, though we get a little dose of fringing along the white paper sign.

  • Color Test – Chips Galore

  • Low Light Test – Another Night at the Garage

  • Night Test – Street Scenery (or lack thereof)

  • We didn't have an issue with color, as evidenced in the first frame grab, but low light was another story. Noise is running rampant in the garage and it shouldn't be. We'd expect the same out of the Canon Eos 500D. Outside, things grow very dim. The odd thing is that we were able to see the image properly exposed in the LCD, but when we played back our clips, we were treated to video taken in a black hole. The last image is a frame grab displaying two motorcycles parked on the street and an apartment building in the background, if you can believe that.
    Name Score Price
    Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 84% $670
    Panasonic Lumix DMC-G10 82% $600
    Canon PowerShot G12 80% $500
    Olympus E-P2 80%
    Olympus E-PL1 80% $600

    Name Score Price
    Canon PowerShot S95 78% $400
    Canon PowerShot SX230 HS 76% $350
    Nikon Coolpix S9100 75% $330
    Canon PowerShot SD4500 IS 74% $325
    Nikon Coolpix S8100 74% $300

    Name Score Price
    Nikon D7000 89% $1200
    Nikon D700 89% $3000
    Pentax K-r 88% $800
    Canon EOS 5D Mark II 88% $2700
    Pentax K-7 87% $1300
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