Canon PowerShot SX500 IS review: Small, light budget camera with big zoom

The SX500 IS is one of the first cameras to feature a much-needed new autofocus (AF) system for PowerShot models. Canon says algorithm improvements, lighter lens elements, a stronger lens motor, and reductions in processing and AF scan times all result in faster focusing and less shutter lag. Being faster doesn't necessarily mean it's fast, though.

In our lab tests, from off to first capture took on average 2.3 seconds, while shot-to-shot times averaged 2.5 seconds. Turning on the flash slowed that down to 4.4 seconds. Shutter lag -- the time from pressing the shutter release to capture without prefocusing -- took 0.3 second in bright lighting; in low light it was longer at 0.7 second. Zooming in extends that wait to about 1 second.

The camera does have two continuous shooting modes, one with autofocus and one without, where it sets exposure and focus with the first shot. The former is capable of up to 0.6 frame per second, while the latter can get up to 0.8fps. Basically, if you're good at anticipating action and can learn to live within these limitations, you can get shots of kids, pets, and sports. On the whole, though, I wouldn't recommend it for regularly capturing fast-moving subjects, especially indoors.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Design and features
Considering its 30x, f3.4-5.8, 24-720mm lens, the camera is remarkably compact. At least part of the reason for that is the lack of an electronic viewfinder (EVF). This is a deal breaker for some people, though with its large 3-inch LCD that gets bright enough to see in daylight it's a little easier to forgive.

The body might be compact, but there's still room for large, easy-to-press buttons. You get a one-touch movie record button in addition to display, menu, and exposure compensation buttons above and below the navigational scroll wheel. The wheel surrounds a Func./Set button and has top, bottom, left, and right pressure points for ISO sensitivity, focus (manual, normal, and macro), flash, and timer. The wheel is responsive with tactile stops to it, so you will not easily overshoot what you're trying to select. Its operation is overall easy to pick up, but even seasoned Canon users will want to examine the full manual included on the software disc bundled with the camera.

Key specs Canon PowerShot SX500 IS
Price (MSRP) $299.99
Dimensions (WHD) 4.1x2.7x3.2 inches
Weight (with battery and media) 12 ounces
Megapixels, image sensor size, type 16 megapixels, 1/2.3-inch CCD
LCD size, resolution/viewfinder 3-inch LCD, 460K dots/None
Lens (zoom, aperture, focal length) 30x, f3.4-5.8, 24-720mm (35mm equivalent)
File format (still/video) JPEG/H.264 AAC (.MOV)
Highest resolution size (still/video) 4,608x3,456 pixels/ 1,280x720 pixels at 25fps
Image stabilization type Optical and digital
Battery type, CIPA rated life Lithium ion rechargeable, 190 shots
Battery charged in camera No; external wall charger supplied
Storage media SD/SDHC/SDXC

The camera has excellent optical image stabilization and the ergonomics of the grip allow you to get a firm hold on it, with plenty of room between it and the lens barrel. Though the body is plastic, the camera still feels sturdy. There's no lens rattle, which is common on lower-end megazooms, and the weight of the lens keeps it from floating away entirely while you're trying to shoot. Also, Canon put a framing assist button on the lens barrel that pulls the lens back so you can find your subjects should they go out of frame. Release the button and it zooms back in to where you started.

Several cameras in this class use AA-size batteries for power; the SX500 IS does not. Instead you get a small rechargeable lithium ion battery, which saves on space and weight and gives you good, if not great, battery life. Although it's rated for 190 shots, keep in mind that using the zoom lens a lot, raising the screen brightness, continuously shooting, or recording movies, among other things, will eat into that battery life.

Speaking of things that use up your battery, the camera's flash does not pop up on its own, you have to lift it. That's probably not a big deal for many people, but if you're used to a camera that does everything for you, this might result in some missed shots. On the upside, the camera at least warns you to raise the flash when it's needed.

General shooting options Canon PowerShot SX500 IS
ISO sensitivity (full resolution) Auto, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600
White balance Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Fluorescent H, Flash, Custom
Recording modes Auto, Program, Shutter-speed priority, Aperture priority, Manual, Scene, Live View Control, Creative Filters, Discreet, Movie
Focus modes Face AF, Center AF, Macro, Normal, Infinity, Manual
Macro 0.4 inch to 1.6 feet (Wide)
Metering modes Multi, Center-weighted average, Spot
Color effects Vivid, Vivid Blue, Vivid Green, Vivid Red, Neutral, Sepia, Black & White, Positive Film, Lighter Skin Tone, Darker Skin Tone, Custom (adjustment of contrast, sharpness, saturation, red, green, blue and skin tone are available)
Burst mode shot limit (full resolution) Unlimited continuous

One of the SX500 IS' advantages is that it's made for more than fully automatic shooting. Among the many shooting options on the camera's mode dial are shutter-priority, aperture-priority, and manual. Available apertures at the wide end are f3.4, f4.0, f4.5, f5.0, f5.6, f6.3, f7.1, and f8.0; at telephoto you get f5.8, f6.3, f7.1, and f8.0. Shutter speeds go from 15 seconds down to 1/1,600 second. If that's too much control for you, you can switch to Program and control everything but shutter speed and aperture.

Of course, you'll also find Canon's reliable Smart Auto, which analyzes your subject and automatically selects an appropriate scene setting from 32 defined settings; some standard scene modes like Portrait, Landscape, and Fireworks; a Discreet mode that shuts off all noise and lights while shooting; and a Movie mode for capturing clips at resolutions up to 720p HD in MOV or iFrame formats.

Sarah Tew/CNET

For those who are addicted to the photo filters from a favorite smartphone app, Canon includes several of its high-quality Creative Filters: Fish-eye Effect, Miniature Effect, Toy Camera Effect, Monochrome, Super Vivid, and Poster Effect. Another mode, Live View Control, lets you easily experiment with exposure and color while seeing your results onscreen before you shoot (the same goes for the filters). While some may consider these gimmicks that can be done with separate software, they can be fun to play with if you're looking to do something different and can actually help you set up your shot appropriately for the effect you're after.

Conclusion
If you simply must have the longest zoom in the smallest, lightest body at the lowest price, the Canon PowerShot SX500 IS is worth considering. It's not a fast camera and it's not great indoors or in low light, so if those are must-haves, I wouldn't bother. For outdoor photos and video of stationary or slow-moving subjects -- close or distant -- it should satisfy.

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Where to Buy See all prices

Canon PowerShot SX500 IS

Part Number: CNETSX50IS
MSRP: $329.99 Low Price: $229.00 See all prices

Quick Specifications See All

  • Digital camera type Full body
  • Optical Zoom 30 x
  • Optical Sensor Type CCD
  • Sensor Resolution 16.0 Megapixel
  • Image Stabilizer optical
  • Optical Sensor Size 1/2.3"
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