Canon's IXUS 230HS may only boast 12.1 megapixels, but each and every one of them is put to good use.
The IXUS brand has long been a benchmark in pocket-sized photography, but some recent parts of the range have come close to rivalling Canon's PowerShot line for bulk and weight. The 230HS marks a return to form. This diminutive, colourful £230 snapper is about as 'compact' as a camera can get, and a great performer, too.
Canon has made great use of all the available space here, keeping this camera small by arranging its controls around three sides. On the top surface are the regular power, shutter and zoom controls. On the rear are movie recording, playback and a four-way rocker for changing common shooting conditions, such as flash, macro and exposure compensation. And on the right-hand side, on either side of the strap attachment, there's a slider for switching between auto and program modes, and a button for accessing the full menu.
In common with other point-and-shoot cameras, we conducted our tests using the full auto mode to emulate most people's experiences.
The menus themselves are simple enough, with the more advanced features missing when you're shooting in auto mode. Movie and stills shooting options are mixed within the same menu, though, which is a little disorganised -- wind noise reduction, for example, is wedged between flash settings and review time for no discernible reason.
Auto mode is particularly smart, detecting the context of your current framing to automatically select the most appropriate settings without any intervention from yourself. And so when we took a close-up picture of a teasel it automatically switched to macro mode for one of the best results in this test that we have ever seen.
Taken shortly after sunrise, the colours were rich, the subject was sharp and the background was thrown out of focus for a luscious creamy blur, really bringing the subject forward in the frame. The subject itself was exceptionally sharp, with each spike of the head perfectly picked out, and the smaller spines on their leading edges also clear to see.
The 'HS' in this camera's name stands for 'high sensitivity', with the internal DIGIC 4 processor tuned to extract the maximum possible detail in darker conditions. To test this we turned our attention to a pile of logs in an area of shade to see how well it would capture shadow areas on the ground.
By exposing clipped shadows and highlights in which detail has been lost, we can see that the IXUS 230HS lived up to its promise, with very few burned-out highlights (which we've indicated by adding red dots in the picture below) and equally well controlled shadows (we've indicated lost detail by adding blue dots). As you can see from this image, the only loss was in the extreme lower right corner.
Generally with clipped highlights and shadows you are looking for fine lines or small dots of loss, as you can often recover what has been lost to some extent in post-production using a tool like Adobe Lightroom or Apple Aperture. In this instance, applying recovery of just 2 per cent and adjusting the brightness by 19 per cent was suffient to pull back detail in both of these areas.
We were particularly impressed by the way in which it handled bright conditions that might otherwise lead to significant overexposure. We set about shooting this deliberately tricky scene in which the low sun was shining directly on the front of white lettering, while the side of the building on which it was mounted sat in shadow. Despite managing to fully expose the darker brickwork, no clipped highlights were discernable when viewed in full screen, and when zoomed to 100 per cent the evidence of clipping was nothing but slight flecking.
For the most part, chromatic aberration (improperly rendered colours) was very well controlled in regular shooting conditions. It was only when we pushed it to its extremes, by shooting fine detail with the sun behind it, that blooming caused a separation of the red light wavelength. Although the ideal situation would be perfect alignment of each wavelength, this isn't cause for particular concern, as more careful framing would alleviate the problem almost entirely.
As can be seen here, in an image where we had the sun to our back, the flagpole on this cathedral tower is perfectly reproduced with just very slight fringing evident at 100 per cent zoom. When printed or reproduced at Web resolutions, it is unlikely this would be noticed.
Detail is extremely well captured at both the wide angle and telephoto ends of the zoom. We shot this plaque, positioned around 10ft above ground, at 40mm -- the full extent of its zoom, equivalent to 224mm in a 35mm camera -- and after downloading we enlarged it on screen to full size. The level of detail couldn't be faulted, with the edges of each character crisply rendered, and those parts where the raised characters had been weathered precisely reproduced.
At its widest position, the 8x zoom is equivalent to a wide angle 28mm, giving the IXUS 230HS a very respectable range for so small and pocketable a device.
Noise control (affecting the variation in brightness caused by the camera's sensor or circuits) was excellent when shooting at low sensitivities. Our still life test, shot at a sensitivity setting of ISO 100 under studio lighting, was smooth and detailed throughout. Even though the IXUS 230HS increased sensitivity to ISO 800 when using only the available ambient light, and increased noise was visible, we have seen worse from some other cameras shooting at their lowest sensitivity. We would be perfectly happy blowing up an image taken at this sensitivity level and using it in a professional environment.
So, the IXUS 230HS put in a first-class technical performance when shooting stills, and it matched this on a practical level. The zoom was fast and easy to control, and the body well weighted and easily balanced in one hand. It was easy to get just the shots we wanted with one of the best-implemented auto mode selectors we have yet used, but we were disappointed to see that exposure compensation had been disabled in auto mode.
We acknowledge that by selecting auto we are asking the camera to do the hard work for us, but there will still be times when we want to override the settings without switching to program mode, perhaps to darken an overexposed sky, or to lighten some shadows. In auto mode, the exposure compensation button instead enables subject tracking to keep a selected subject in focus and properly exposed as you adjust your framing.
There's no dedicated movie mode, so switching from shooting stills to videos is as simple as changing which shutter button you use -- the movie shutter control is on the back of the case. Native movie resolution is 1,920x1,080 pixels at 24fps. Stepping down to 1,920x720 pixels ups the frame rate to 30fps.
When shooting movies we consider both the picture quality and the clarity of the soundtrack. On the latter point, the IXUS 230HS put in a mixed performance. Ambient noise such as footsteps and birdsong were very cleanly recorded, as we had hoped, but we found the wind noise reduction option underwhelming. We used it throughout our tests, except one shot, which we filmed twice -- once without and again with the reduction setting in place, but there was no discernible difference between the two.
Things were much more encouraging when we turned our attention to the quality of the captured video, though.
As with our stills, detail was excellent, and the 230HS's in-built stability controls did an excellent job of smoothing out jerky movement, such as rough footsteps and, in particular, camera shake on very long zooms.
The zoom mechanism itself was unfortunately a little noisier than we would have hoped. To the naked ear it is very quiet in general use, but that didn't stop it being picked up on the soundtrack through the body of the camera itself.
At 12.1 megapixels, the IXUS 230HS isn't a world-beater when it comes to resolution, but who cares with results like this? As Panasonic has done with the Lumix FZ150, Canon has neatly side-stepped the megapixel myth, concentrating instead on using the available resolution to best effect while still giving you enough spare pixels to crop down your pictures or print them as large as A2.
The lens barrel provides for an 8x zoom, with a bright maximum aperture of f/3 at the widest end and a respectable f/5.9 at full telephoto. Sensitivity sets out at ISO 100 and runs through to ISO 3,200 with +/-2EV compensation in 1/3 stop increments.
Aside from the regular full program settings with dedicated white balance options for different skin tones and scenery, there are 21 scene modes, including toy camera and fish eye options, plus various 'best shot' settings for picking the optimum result from a burst of consecutive frames.
There are two panorama assist modes covering left-to-right and right-to-left shooting, but the overall implementation here is poor in comparison to what we've seen from Sony and in some Nikon cameras -- the Coolpix S8200, for example. It doesn't stitch the pictures together, and also reduces the shooting frame on a back-mounted 3-inch screen, making it more difficult to see in detail how you're lining up each frame.
The Canon IXUS 230HS is a great little camera. It's small enough to carry in your jeans pocket, it looks the part and it takes consistantly sharp, well exposed and vibrant images. At £230 it isn't cheap -- ideally we'd like to see it under £200 -- but hold out a couple of months and it should reach that level. Snap one up when it does, and you won't be disappointed.