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

This 30x zoom camera has more to offer than its lens, just not fast performance or great low-light photos.

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Joshua Goldman
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Joshua Goldman

Managing Editor / Advice

Josh Goldman helps people find the best laptop at the best price -- from simple Chromebooks to high-end gaming laptops. He's been writing about and reviewing consumer technology and software for more than two decades.

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7 min read

The most amazing thing about the PowerShot SX500 IS is that Canon managed to make a 30x 24-720mm lens, attach it to a body, and have it only be 4 inches deep and weigh 12 ounces -- with its battery.

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Canon PowerShot SX500 IS

The Good

The <b>Canon PowerShot SX500 IS</b> holds an ultrawide-angle 30x zoom lens in a very small, very light body. It offers more shooting options -- including semimanual and manual controls -- than most in its class, and has very good optical image stabilization.

The Bad

Despite autofocus improvements, the SX500 IS' shooting performance might still be too slow for action shots, especially indoors. It's not a great choice for handheld low-light shots.

The Bottom Line

It has its limitations, but the Canon PowerShot SX500 IS is a good choice for zoom addicts on a budget.

For people who like a lot of zoom in a very compact, lightweight camera, that's the SX500 IS. It also has semimanual and manual controls, which are a bit of a rarity in lower-end megazooms, but Canon includes them in all of its PowerShot SX-series models.

Unfortunately, in the SX500 IS Canon used a 16-megapixel CCD sensor and an old Digic 4 image processor instead of one of its better HS CMOS sensors and a newer, more powerful Digic 5 processor. Yes, that keeps the price down, but it results in a camera with a good zoom lens but slower performance, fewer shooting options, and the need to shoot with a lot of light or long exposures to get the best results.

So, yeah, it's not perfect, but for its street price of around $250, it's still not a bad way to lay hands on a lot of zoom power.

Picture quality
As is the case with many point-and-shoots, how satisfied you are with the SX500 IS' photo quality is going to depend on your needs and expectations. If you're expecting stellar digital SLR-quality images, you'll be disappointed. The same goes for great low-light photos. What the SX500 is good for is outdoor shots in good lighting for small prints (8x10 or smaller) or viewing onscreen at 50 percent or smaller.

Canon PowerShot SX500 IS sample pictures

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Noise and artifacts are visible even at ISO 100 when pixel peeping, so if the quality at full size is something that matters to you, this camera will probably disappoint. On the other hand, up to ISO 200 you get good enough detail that you can still do some enlarging and cropping.

Up at ISO 400 is where the noise starts to be more visible and can result in some noticeable yellow blotching. Going above that you'll start to see more color noise, artifacts, and loss of detail, which just results in subjects that appear soft and desaturated. The camera definitely favors dropping shutter speed over raising ISO when left in auto. That's good in general, but if you're not paying attention it could result in blurry photos.

Color performance is generally very good up to ISO 400. If the bulk of your shots will be taken outdoors in good lighting, you should be pretty pleased with the results. Exposure is generally very good, too, as is white balance. As with a lot of compact cameras, clipped highlights are common.

Joshua Goldman/CNET

The 720p video quality is good and better than I've seen from some entry-level "full HD" camcorders I've tested. But as with its photos, you'll see more noise the less light you have. Also, you may notice some vertical smear when shooting bright light sources, such as the purple streak on the left side of the screen grab above. This is common with consumer CCD sensors.

The lens does zoom while recording and when it's zooming in you will hear some slight motor sound picked up by the stereo mics on top in very quiet scenes. Overall, though, for capturing the occasional clip for Web sharing, it does a fine job.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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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Canon PowerShot SX500 IS

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 8Performance 6Image quality 7
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