Canon PowerShot SX50 HS review: Long lens is fun, but use can be frustrating

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The Good The Canon PowerShot SX50 HS has an extraordinary zoom range with excellent image stabilization and fine photo quality for a megazoom; plenty of shooting modes, from full auto to full manual; raw image capture; and a hot shoe for adding an external flash.

The Bad Its lens and high-ISO picture quality make it less desirable for shooting indoors or in low light, especially without a tripod. A couple of things about the design of the controls might make shooting frustrating for some users. Outside of its long lens, its features and performance are slightly behind competing models.

The Bottom Line If you simply must have the longest zoom in the room, the Canon PowerShot SX50 HS satisfies.

7.5 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 8
  • Performance 7
  • Image quality 8

For the Canon PowerShot SX50 HS, the lens basically tells its whole story: a 50x zoom that goes from 24mm to 1,200mm.

That's an extraordinary range that is quite capable of pulling into frame something miles away and snapping a shot. Or capturing wildlife from afar. Or helping your neighbors find their car keys inside their house from inside your house. OK, that last one's a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the idea. And while you'll want to use a tripod for the sharpest results, Canon's optical image stabilization is excellent, allowing you to use the zoom with the camera held only in your hands.

Outside of the lens, though, its features and performance are just a little better than its predecessor, the SX40 HS, and slightly behind competing models. The extra zoom doesn't immediately make it a better camera, just one that gives you more focal-length choices. Plus, the lens' somewhat small maximum apertures and higher ISO photo quality don't make it a great choice for hand-held indoor or low-light pictures, especially of fast-moving kids and pets or sports.

Also, for those who like a lot of direct control over settings and like to change those settings frequently, the SX50's control design isn't the best; it's closer to a point-and-shoot than a digital SLR despite appearances.

Depending on how and for what you plan to use the camera, however, the above might seem like nitpicking and for many won't override the fact that the SX50 HS is a very good camera with an extremely long lens.

Picture quality
Photo quality from the SX50 HS is generally the same as it was from the SX40 HS, which is to say very-good-to-excellent for its class. Of course, a lot has to do with expectations. This is still a small-sensor camera, so you will not get digital-SLR-quality photos and noise and artifacts will probably stop you from using photos at 100 percent size even at its lowest ISO settings (macro photos being an exception). Overall, considering the reach of this camera's lens, most will be pretty pleased with its results up to ISO 400 at larger sizes onscreen and in prints.

Images do get softer and noisier at ISO 400 and more so at ISO 800, but are still usable at small sizes with minimal cropping or enlarging. Also, since Canon included raw image capture on this model, you can process the images yourself if you want and rescue some detail if you don't mind a little extra noise. (The SX50 HS is supported by Adobe Camera Raw.) Another bonus: there are one-third increments for ISO sensitivities, ISO 250, ISO 320, ISO 400, and so on, giving you a bit more control over things.

Colors desaturate some at ISO 1600 and 3200, subjects look very soft, and detail is greatly diminished; ISO 6400 is sort of pointless. Basically, the SX50 HS is best suited for outdoor use in full daylight, but if you plan to use this camera for shooting indoors or in low light, you'll want to be wary of using sensitivities above ISO 800.

Color accuracy is excellent, producing bright and vivid results, though, again, they desaturate at higher ISOs. Exposure is generally very good, but highlights tend to blow out. To help with that, Canon added a Dynamic Range Correction option that tones down highlights by about 200 or 400 percent. The penalty for using the feature is a slightly more limiting ISO range: ISO 160-1600 for 200 percent and ISO 320-1600 for 400 percent. But it works well and can definitely rescue some detail that would otherwise be blown out. (You can read more about the camera's photo quality and features in this slideshow.)

Video quality is generally very good, passable for use on a large HDTV, but best suited for small screen sizes and Web sharing. The 1080p video records at 24 frames per second, and though panning the camera will create judder and there is visible trailing on moving subjects, the video is watchable. (For the best video performance consider the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX200V or Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ200, especially the latter if you want to use an external mic and manual controls.) The low-light video is predictably grainy, but it's at least as good as this camera's high-ISO photo performance. The zoom lens does work while recording; it moves slowly, though, likely to prevent the movement from being picked up by the stereo mics on top. It can only really be heard in very quiet scenes.

Shooting performance
Editors' note: We recently updated our testing methodology to provide slightly more real-world performance information, so the results aren't necessarily comparable with previous testing. Until we're finished refining our procedures, we will not be posting comparative performance charts.

When Canon announced the SX50 HS, it promised faster autofocus performance than the SX40 HS had, and the SX50 HS delivers that. But that basically just brings it up to speed with most of the rest of the cameras in this category. Shutter lag -- how long it takes from pressing the shutter release to capture without prefocusing -- is very good at 0.3 second in bright lighting and 0.5 in dimmer conditions. From shot to shot, you're waiting an average of 1.6 seconds; with flash that time goes up to 2.4 seconds.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Its continuous shooting is pretty good, too, though it can't touch the capabilities of the Panasonic FZ200. Canon includes a full-resolution, 10-shot-burst scene mode that is capable of up to 13fps. This sets focus and exposure with the first shot, but that's common with these modes. There is also a continuous shooting setting that hits about 2.1fps (again, with focus and exposure set with the first shot) and a continuous with autofocus that is slower at 0.9fps, but at least it's an option.

Keep in mind, though, that while these times are overall very good, these are lab tests with the lens at its widest position; using the zoom lens does increase the AF time, especially at the 1,200mm mark.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Design and features
Despite the longer lens, Canon managed to actually make the camera slightly smaller and lighter than the SX40 HS. At the front of the large, comfortable grip is a shutter release with a lever for operating the extreme 50x zoom lens, followed back by a shooting-mode dial and power button. The motor moves the lens smoothly and fairly swiftly considering the distance it travels and it doesn't have the lens rattle found with some competing models. A Zoom Frame Assist button on the lens barrel helps you relocate a subject that has moved out of frame by pulling the lens back and sending it forward again when released. Joining it is an IS lock button that lets you focus the image stabilization on your subject.

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